We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk


Saturday, December 31, 2011

Spiritual Warfare Revisited

The idea of "spiritual warfare" is problematic in progressive Christian circles because it smacks of right-wing theological exclusivism, which holds that true believers in Christ are at war with Satan and his minions, his minions being everybody who isn't a" true believer."  There is, however, a very different view of spiritual warfare, one that has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with the struggle of people who are trapped in dysfunctional behaviors—sometimes because of severe abuse as children.  Soldiers coming home from war sometimes find that they have brought the battlefield home with them and are still fighting a spiritual as well as psychological war.  Addictions of all kinds result in spiritual warfare as well.

Grant Schnarr, a student of this kind of spiritual warfare, states (here) that, "Spiritual warfare is about conquering your own demons, gaining control over your destructive tendencies, like fear, anger, impulsive behavior, addiction. It's the old fashion war against human evil, fought by individuals for centuries." Mylow Young, a recovered drug addict, describes (here) how he felt literally trapped by Satan in his addiction and that it was only through God's love in Christ that he was able to escape. He writes, "“It is spiritual warfare. The devil keeps trying to keep you down by talking trash. He tells you that you don't measure up. But, we all must get to the point when we realize that God sees Christ in us and knows what the finished product looks like."

Spiritual warfare is a sad, sad concept but an immensely important one because it reminds us all that for many of us life is a daily struggle against inner demons that are as real as the hills, trees, and lakes of the North Country.  Physical and mental abuse is an awful, ugly thing, but what is especially insidious about it is that it plants evil deep within those who are abused.  The beatings, the intimidation, the rapes, and the pain remain a powerful presence long, long afterwards.  The horrors of war can plant the same kinds of demons in those who experience it as can other traumatic events, such as a natural disaster or even the tragic loss of a loved one.  Spiritual warfare thus is a daily reality for millions of Americans.  The important thing is that it is a war with two sides battling it out in the soul.  God, wearing the "mask" of the Spirit, has not abandoned "spiritual warriors" to fight alone and, as is true generally, the Spirit works works works to bring healing and wholeness to those at risk.  Amen.

Friday, December 30, 2011

FPC Log: Unintended Consequences (vi)

The windmills of Lewis County, NY
This is the sixth posting in an ongoing if intermittent series on First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, and the decline of mainline churches, which began (here).

In 1992, the state of Michigan imposed term limits on the members of its legislature in order to reform the state's politics.  It sounds like a good and reasonable move, but the unintended consequence was a loss of legislative skill and wisdom that was lodged in senators and representatives who had served for many terms.  Sometimes trying to make things better, makes them worse.

In an excellent article entitled, "The Travail of the Presbytery," Joseph D. Small, formerly of the Office of Theology and Worship, Presbyterian Church (USA), argues that the same thing has happened to ordained leadership in the PC(USA). Many decades ago, it was decided that the denomination (in one of its former incarnations) should limit the term of service of "ruling elders" to two three-year terms. Previously, elders had served without an term limit, which meant frequently for life. According to Small there were two reasons for the change: first, to make it easier for women to become elders; and, second, to rid churches of "bull elders" who stood in the way of change.  The unintended consequence of this reform was the loss of an experienced, usually deeply committed ruling eldership that stood nearly equal with the "teaching elders," the pastors.  As a direct consequence, the clergy gained considerable power in the denomination at every level.  Small observes,
In many congregations, one three-year term became the norm, and the understanding of the eldership was transformed from a called ministry to merely taking one’s turn on the board. Short-term, inexperienced elders also increased the influence of pastors by diminishing the ministry of called, knowledgeable elders. This imbalance, evident in sessions, became especially pronounced in presbyteries where well-informed pastors were accompanied by revolving elders who knew less and less about matters before the assembly.
Sometimes doing the right thing doesn't work out the way it "should".

So, then, is one potential avenue for renewal of declining churches to return authority to the office of ruling elders?  As fewer and fewer churches are able to afford full-time pastoral care, that would seem to be one key to at least conserving the remaining strength of churches in decline.  The goal, however, is not to return power to a once powerful ecclesiastical "office," so much as to return full authority to the session by reducing the power of pastors.  Our local churches are chock full of leadership skills, but because we have developed a pastor-centered system of governance, they remain under-trained and under-utilized leaders.  Until this changes, churches will be chained to the ever-changing fortunes or misfortunes of the skills and personalities of their ever-changing pastoral leadership.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mark's Sources (xi)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the eleventh in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

The previous posting in this series, "Beyond Historical Recovery - Mark 1:16-20 (x)," points to some of the problems Mark poses the historian. First and foremost among those problems is the question of sources. What sources did the author have and how reliable were they historically? There's no way of knowing for sure, but we can make some informed guesses about Mark's sources. They would have been of several kinds. First and most certain would be the church's oral traditions. Mark was only a generation or a little more from Jesus, which means that those oral traditions were still fresh and almost certainly still informed by the memories of older members who had first-hand, or near first-hand knowledge of the events of Jesus' life. Second, and almost as certain, were the written records already extant. Historians feel relatively sure that there were compilations of Jesus' teachings already in existence by the time Mark was written. It's likely he had access to some of them. Third, it may be that Mark actually interviewed original members of the Jesus Circle, though this is less certain. If Mark was written in Rome, as most scholars believe, there's no reason why some of them might not have moved to Rome. Or, perhaps, Mark was well-traveled enough to have met early disciples elsewhere. Four, besides these three more specific sources of information, the author's own personal Christian experience would have been an important source of what he (or she?) included in the gospel. Five, and by extension, the author's Christian community would have influenced the writing of the gospel through its shared general perceptions about Jesus. It would be incredibly helpful if we knew which of these sources the author actually had and in what combination.



2011 comment:  In his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006), Richard Bauckham presents a strong case against the whole idea of "oral traditions" being a historical source for the Gospels. He is convinced that they are built mostly out of the living memories of participants in the events recorded in the Gospel or others who heard the stories about these events directly from participants. Bauckham particularly revives and gives support to the ancient tradition that Mark contains the memories of the Apostle Peter. According to him, the Gospel writers followed the conventions of ancient historians by relying primarily on living memory (oral history) and did not put much store in written accounts of events. Thus, he would put living memory first, written accounts a distant second, and drop oral tradition entirely.  The man seems to know what he is talking about, and his arguments are worthy consideration—if perhaps pushed too far at some points.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Another New Posting at Rom Phra Khun Reviews

The eighth installment of my reflections on a recent theological position paper posted by the Fellowship of Presbyterians has just been posted at Rom Phra Khun Reviews.

Beyond Historical Recovery - Mark 1:16-20 (x)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the seventh in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

At this point we should give some attention to the way Mark handles chronology and transitions. In 1:14 Jesus returns to Galilee. Then, in 1:16 he's suddenly walking along the shore of Lake Galilee. How long afterwards? A day? a week? ten years later? There's absolutely no way of knowing. My sense is that the author either wasn't much interested in establishing a correct chronology and time frame or his sources didn't provide him sufficient information to do so. It's likely that both of these factors are at work. Strict chronology is essential to the historian and of little consequence to the gospel writer. These abrupt transitions, which abound in Mark, simply move the story along. We don't know the actual sequence of events that lay behind Mark's gospel. The author arranges them, as we'll see, thematically not chronologically. This means that we don't know, from Mark's gospel anyway, how long Jesus' ministry actually was. There is a general consensus among mainline New Testament scholars that it's not possible to reconstruct from the Gospels a chronology of events in Jesus' life between his baptism and his final journey to Jerusalem. This is a frustrating situation for the historian, one that closes some doors to the treatment of Jesus' life historically. Indeed, in the strictest sense, it seems that a biography of Jesus isn't possible. The best we can do is to dig out historical data, such as there is, without hope that a coherent biography of Jesus will result.



A 2011 observation:  This posting somewhat overstates the problem of chronology.  There does seem to be a rough chronology in Mark, which for example documents an ever-increasing tension between Jesus and the religio-political establishment.  Still, it remains true that this rough chronology cannot be transformed into a precise timeline.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Hobbit: Coming Next December to a Theatre Near You

Fans of Peter Jackson's outstanding movie trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings," are waiting with baited breath for the release of the first of his new two-movie series, "The Hobbit," which is scheduled for release in December 2012.  It is based, of course, on J. R. R. Tolkien's prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, which was first published in 1937.  There's been a lot of drama surrounding the production of the film and many delays, but now it is only a matter of time until we will be treated to another visit to the parallel universe of Middle Earth.

I bring this up now because the trailer for "The Hobbit," below, has only recently been released.  Enjoy.


Immediate Response - Mark 1:16-20 (ix)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the ninth in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

Picture it. A bunch of Galilean fishermen are working at their trade. Jesus walks up, tells them to follow him, and off they go. This happens twice. The dialogue in Mark is bare bones and the description of details minimal at best. The passage seems to contain a paradigm for discipleship. Discipleship brings an end to daily, conventional life. It is a demanding call. Being a disciple takes priority over everything else. It changes one's relationship to society, including family. The emphasis is clearly on the immediate response of the four disciples. In 1:20 James and John literally "down tools" and walk off immediately and without further ado, leaving their father and all else. Why did the disciples leave immediately when Jesus came? And, why would a gospel writer tell the story in this way? There could be a number of reasons:

One, the author wanted to emphasize Jesus' supra-human powers and attraction. Jesus, thus, could walk up to complete strangers and compel their immediate discipleship. Or, two, these four men already knew Jesus and had indicated their willingness to be his disciples. Jesus was just picking them up. Three, or, they had already heard Jesus preach and were receptive to him. Perhaps they'd even talked about joining up with him. Or, four, there wasn't a real event like this. The story, rather, defines a model for discipleship for Mark's own time and readership. Five, this is a composite of the experience of the earliest church's sense of what it meant for the disciples and for they themselves to follow Jesus. It distills the larger experience of the earliest church. Six, this is a political statement establishing the primacy of these four men among the leaders of the earliest church. Seven, this story affirms the central significance of membership in the Jesus Circle (and, by extension, the earliest church). Jewish society was a familial, patriarchal society, but here the first disciples reject family and father for joining with Jesus and his new community.



And, now, in 2011, I don't see why there couldn't have been a number of reasons for including this story of the sudden entry of Peter, Andrew, James, and John into Jesus' band of disciples.  And, there are still other possible reasons for the inclusion of the story esp. at the beginning of Mark.  One possible reason is that the author's oral sources themselves emphasized the importance of this event, which marked the earliest beginning of the "Jesus movement" of later years.  Another reason could be that in Mark the stories of Jesus' baptism immediately followed by the calling of the first disciples function as "birth narratives," which is to say they introduce the person of Jesus to the reader.  Unlike Matthew and Luke whose birth narratives start with the birth of an infant, Mark's birth narrative starts with the birth of a movement.  That is, the Gospel of Mark is not about just Jesus but, rather, about Jesus and his disciples.  In any event, there could be and probably were several reasons for including this passage as written and where it is located, not just one.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Another New Posting at Rom Phra Khun Reviews

The seventh installment of my reflections on a recent theological position paper posted by the Fellowship of Presbyterians has just been posted at Rom Phra Khun Reviews.

FPC Log: Acting Like a New Church Plant (v)

The windmills of Lewis County, NY
This is the fifth posting in an ongoing if intermittent series on First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, and the decline of mainline churches, which began (here).

A December 20th news posting on the PC(USA) website entitled, "Church throws party for neighborhood," describes ways in which a Presbyterian new church plant in Los Angeles is seeking to engage the largely "de-churched" community around it.  The basic attitude of the plant is not that it is coming into the neighborhood to save it but rather to discover where the Holy Spirit is already present in the community. The posting quotes the new plant's pastor, Nick Warnes, as saying, “Other churches came in as heroes, trying to save the pagans. We recognized the kingdom of heaven was already here; we wanted to join in with what God was doing, becoming agents of reconciliation by coming alongside the other.”  In the process, this new church plant has been discovering the real needs of their neighbors and engaging in activities that open themselves to the community, including throwing a beer party at a local bar.

New church plants seem to have a distinct advantage over long-established churches in that they don't carry the baggage of all of the activities and ways of doing things that chain most congregations to their past.  They can organize themselves appropriate to their situation and engage in activities crafted to that situation.  Most of us are still doing things "crafted" for the world of the 1950s if not the 1920s.  Perhaps one of the things older Presbyterian churches have to do is to wipe the slate clean  (as best they can) and reinvent themselves as new church plants.  As it is now, it happens all too frequently that old Presbyterian churches find themselves located in "evolving" neighborhoods where the local community no longer is the community of old—and these churches either have to move, merge, or they die because they largely fail to evolve with their neighborhood.

What would happen if we placed a new church plant team in churches on the verge of death and task that team with starting to build a new church in the area even as the old church dies?  (See the last posting in this series, "FPC Log: Hospice for Churches (iv)."  Old churches don't generally ask after the movement of the Spirit around them.  They more often than not concern themselves with trying to balance their budget while maintaining a deteriorating facility and also maintaining some form of pastoral care as well as a minimal set of activities.  It might just take a new church plant team to focus on the living Spirit rather than the dying institution.  But, perhaps in some cases it is possible for declining churches to take their eyes off of building & budget and fix them instead on the Spirit.  An intriguing thought.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

When Beauty Overwhelms

Whenever beauty overwhelms us, whenever wonder silences our chattering hopes and worries, we are close to worship.

Richard Cabot
Source: What Men Live By

Friday, December 23, 2011

Another New Posting at Rom Phra Khun Reviews

The fifth installment of my reflections on a recent theological position paper posted by the Fellowship of Presbyterians has just been posted at Rom Phra Khun Reviews.

Figuring Out Jesus - Mark (viii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the eighth in a series looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).  Where the other postings in this series thus far were originally written in 1998, this one is a fresh offering.

Richard Bauckham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006), is a fascinating read—if you're "into" New Testament studies and especially the whole question of the historical Jesus (i.e. what can we know historically and factually about the actual historical person of Jesus?)  Baukham argues that the four Gospels are all based on eyewitness accounts derived from people who know Jesus personally.  In terms of the Gospel of Mark, he agrees with the tradition of the ancient church that Mark is based on the memories especially of Peter.  More largely, Baukham believes that the four Gospels including Mark are credible and reliable examples of ancient historiography, which valued eyewitness accounts of events above all other sources of evidence.

At the end of the book and almost in passing, Baukham observes that eyewitness accounts of events offer an "insider knowledge" of historical events and an "engaged interpretation" of those events.  He writes, "Witnesses of truly significant events speak out of their own ongoing attempts to understand." (p. 505)  In other words, in the Gospel of Mark we have a record of (a window into) the attempt of those who knew him to figure out who Jesus really was.  One reason the author wrote this gospel was to make sense for himself of what those close to Jesus witnessed.  This rings true.  Historians engage in research and writing for the sake of discovering truths about the past, and they frequently begin with something important to themselves that they want to understand more deeply in historical perspective.  The Gospel of Mark thus is not only a record of events written down for the sake of preserving memory of those events for future generations.  It is that.  And it is also the work of someone personally seeking to better understand Jesus.  We have clear hints of this possibility in the way the author of Mark has framed the whole Gospel as a progressive unveiling of who Jesus was.  Jesus boggled people's minds, and the first generation of Christians struggled to make sense of him.  They went to the Old Testament for help in doing so, and some of them wrote gospels as further attempts to get some kind of hold on Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark is not a theological treatise written to delineate certain doctrines.  It is one record of the search for the meaning of Jesus, one based on events and on the attempts of the eyewitnesses to make sense of those events.  We have the same freedom and responsibility today to make sense of the person of Christ, and the function of the Gospel of Mark both gives us fodder for reflection and an example of how our ancient brothers and sisters in the faith did their reflection.  Cool.

FPC Log: Recommended Reading

The Rev. Joseph D. Small, formerly the PC(USA)'s Director of Theology, Worship, & Education, published an article in 2010 entitled, "The Travail of the Presbytery." The article describes developments in the leadership structures of our local churches and denomination since the 1950s, developments that have generally weakened the church both locally and nationally. It particularly describes changes in the office of Ruling Elder that have reduced the influence and usefulness of this ordered ministry of the church. Rom Phra Khun readers who want to understand the current state of local Presbyterian churches would do well to spend some time with Small's excellent analysis (here).

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Back to Galilee - Mark 1:14-15 (vii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the seventh in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

As mentioned in the fourth posting in this series, Jesus didn't begin his public ministry until John was imprisoned. And it's interesting to note that Jesus wasn't even in Galilee when that event took place. He had to return there. Assuming this sequence of events is correct, we have no way of knowing Jesus' reasons for rejecting a Judean ministry or a desert ministry in favor of a Galilean town & country ministry. A number of things are possible. Jesus, being Galilean, may have felt more comfortable at home in his own setting. We can assume that Galileans had their own foods, their own speech-ways, and a host of other mores familiar to Jesus. He may, on the other hand, have wanted to dissociate his own style and message from that of John, which would have been harder to do if he'd stayed in Judea. Funding may have been an issue. Jesus may have had sources of financial support in Galilee that he didn't have in Judea. We'll see that Marks' Jesus tried to remain semi-covert in some ways, and that may have been easier to do in Galilee than in Judea. All of this is purely speculative, of course, and all that we know for sure is that, if Mark is correct, Jesus consciously decided to initiate his own ministry in Galilee. It's also interesting to note that there was an interval of some time between Jesus' baptism and his ministry. The text implies that he stayed on with John, which again reinforces our sense that Jesus was John's disciple.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

How Did Mark Know? - Mark 1:9-13 (vi)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the sixth in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

History depends entirely on reliable information. The more the historian has the better her history will be. Does the same rule apply to gospel writers? More specifically, how did the author of Mark obtain the data reported in this passage? What source did he use to learn that Jesus saw a vision and heard a heavenly voice? How did he know that the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert or that Jesus was tempted there by Satan? Jesus could have been the only source for this information. Even so, we still don't know how the information reached the gospel writer. How was the data "massaged" in the process of transmission, if in fact it originated with Jesus? I think we can be confident that the author himself believed these events took place as he reports them, but we shouldn't suppose that means they were historical events in a modern sense. Indeed, the contents of visions and experiences with Satan aren't historical by definition. They aren't things that a historian can verify. The most the historian can say is that Person X believed she saw a vision and Person Y felt himself under attack by Satan. So, the question is whether or not Jesus believed he had a vision and was tempted by Satan. And how did Mark come to possess this information?

Mark isn't a fabrication. It isn't the product of an over-exercised religious imagination. Whatever it is, it isn't myth in any recognizable sense. The author firmly believed he was writing the truth about the past. It was, for him, an "empirical" past, though one determined by gospel rather than historiography. This means there was some connection with Jesus and the disciples as the ultimate source for much of what he wrote. If that's the case, then we're dealing here with a first century Jewish mystic who saw visions, wrestled with the devil, and believed that he had a special relationship with God--if we can trust Mark's sources. I think we can, at least at this point. It's highly likely that the early church thought Jesus saw dovish visions and the rest of it because Jesus shared this information with others and that information, in one form or another, reached the author of Mark.

Another New Posting at Rom Phra Khun Reviews

The third installment of my reflections on a recent theological position paper posted by the Fellowship of Presbyterians has just been posted at Rom Phra Khun Reviews.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

John's Baptism - Mark 1:9-13 (v)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the fifth in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

Mark 1:9 (TEV) says that Jesus went to the Jordan "not long" after John started baptizing. Mark 1:14 states that after John was imprisoned "Jesus went to Galilee and preached the Good News from God." Mark, we're going to find, has at best an obscure chronology. His sources, apparently, didn't tell the author much about Jesus' comings and goings. It could also be that he wasn't much interested in a precise chronology. But, Mark does imply that Jesus was with John for most of John's ministry, from close to the beginning until John was jailed. This is more circumstantial evidence suggesting a close relationship between Jesus and John, again leaving us with the possibility that Jesus was originally John's disciple.

Jesus' baptism was clearly a significant spiritual event for him. Mark states that Jesus had a profound experience with the Holy Spirit, one accompanied by visions. It seems, in fact, to be an entirely human pentecostal experience. If we set aside for a moment the later Christian belief in Jesus' full divinity, what we have is Jesus accepting John's call to confess his sins, repent of them, and be baptized. Jesus may have been in a state of some tension and agitation, for it's frequently in such a state that people have profound spiritual experiences. Note, also, that Jesus seems to have experienced God's forgiveness. What else could God's words, "I am pleased with you" mean in this context? Mark's Jesus was, thus, subordinate to God the Father and apparently felt himself in need of divine forgiveness.

We should also take note of Jesus' relationship to the Spirit. In 1:12, Mark states that the Spirit "made" Jesus go into the desert (TEV). Other translations (RSV, JB) use the word "drove" instead of "made". Language like this simply doesn't fit the later Christian dogma about Jesus being fully God-fully human and a co-equal Person of the Trinity. Jesus is clearly subordinate to the power of the Spirit.

2011 Notes:

[1] The point here is not that later Christian reflections on the divinity of Christ are "wrong."  The church has continued right down to the present to reflect on and discover new understandings of its initial experience with Jesus.  The point is, rather, that the Gospel of Mark stands very early in that process of discovery.  It is based on the memories of people who knew Jesus and knew that he was "just" a person like the rest of us but also knew that he "something more" than the rest of us.  The humanity of Jesus thus stands out most clearly while the struggle to understand that something more was still in its early stages.

[2] I'm not quite so sure today that Jesus felt himself in need of forgiveness, but it is clear that Jesus felt the need to submit himself to John's baptism and that in his submission he had a profound spiritual experience.  For some that may be startling to think of Jesus as having such experiences, but if he was fully human, as we say he was, then he would have shared in the good things of being human, including having profound spiritual experiences.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Another New Posting at Rom Phra Khun Reviews

The Fellowship of Presbyterians has just issued a document entitled, "Draft of the Theology of the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the New Reformed Body," in preparation for the "Orlando Covenanting Convention," which will meet in Orlando next month.  It is an interesting and important document, and I have posted at Rom Phra Khun Reviews the second installment (here) of a series of postings reflecting on the Draft.

Dealing with "Stuff"

One of the hardest things in life is to embrace and accept difficult situations as being sources for grace and growth.  It's all well and good for Buddhist teachers to tell us that there is no such thing, really, as "self," so we shouldn't let apparently trying circumstances get to us—since there really isn't an "us" or a "me" to be gotten to.  It's all well and good for Christian teachers to enjoin us to be kind, loving, patient, and so on, but there are times and situations that push us to the limit.  Difficult personalities are difficult.  Insensitivity hurts.  People do things to us or to others that we care about, and it also hurts.

Without going all mushy pious, it is really and truly true that it is exactly at these points of pain, tension, and conflict that our faith either means something and shapes the way we deal with the garbage of life or it doesn't.  Easy times don't teach us wisdom.  Smooth sailing doesn't afford us opportunities to improve our spiritual nautical skills.  Our failures and lapses in dealing with hard "stuff" teach us important life lessons, and when we occasionally see an apparently intractable problem melt away because we (or someone we know) exercised spiritual patience and wisdom—when such things happen we gain a humble sense of satisfaction that reinforces our spiritual journey.

Some problems have to be dealt with head on, some indirectly.  Some there's not a blame thing we can do about them and just have to learn to live with them.  Some times prayer helps.  Some times, honestly, it doesn't.  The whole thing about the life of faith is learning from life's difficult situations the necessity of navigating the rough waters in faith.  There's no magic in it and faith doesn't make the pain just go away, but at the end of the day a life lived in faith gets us through the garbage with less damage (to others as well as ourselves) and more gain (for others as well as ourselves) than not.  Ya pray, ya think, and ya try to discern where the Spirit leads.  It's a messy process at best, but it is also the hand we've been dealt in life—all of us.  And it is not without its rewards provided we navigate the whitewater in faith and with the skills living if faith teaches us.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

New Posting at Rom Phra Khun Reviews

The Fellowship of Presbyterians has just issued a document entitled, , "Draft of the Theology of the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the New Reformed Body," in preparation for the "Orlando Covenanting Convention," which will meet in Orlando next month.  It is an interesting and important document, and I have just posted at Rom Phra Khun Reviews the first installment (here) of a series of postings reflecting on the Draft.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

John the Baptist - Mark 1:4-8 (iv)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the fourth in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

In Mark 1:2-3, the author of Mark put the Jesus Story on its largest stage, Israel and Israel's prophetic tradition. This next passage, Mark 1:4-8, sets the more immediate stage, the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist. Passages from the Gospels and the Book of the Acts suggest that Jesus may have been connected with John before his baptism and may even have been a disciple of John's. Jesus held John in the highest respect and only began his public ministry after John was imprisoned. Jesus associated himself with John's message of repentance and forgiveness.

Jesus didn't come onto the Jewish stage out of nowhere. He was linked to a contemporary prophetic tradition. It's probable that John had a deep influence on Jesus. If Luke 1:36 is correct, Jesus and John were relatives. Jesus could well have had a long association with John, who was only a few months older. Something, in any event, happened between John and Jesus that brought Jesus to the Jordan River for baptism. I think that John had some kind of direct spiritual impact on Jesus. It may well have been formative. Perhaps it was John who first awakened Jesus' deep religious concerns and faith. Or, again, perhaps John first helped Jesus articulate such concerns, wherever they may have originated. This all isn't quite pure speculation, because all four of the Gospels and Acts point to a special relationship between Jesus and John. It does help us, furthermore, to appreciate more fully the human side of Jesus. He, like the rest of us, was influenced by his culture, society, and particular individuals he knew.  Mark's attempts to put Jesus in his religious context also increases the historical credibility of his gospel portrait of Jesus. If Mark had claimed that Jesus came out of the sky and was without human antecedents, his gospel would have been diminished in value for the historian. This way, we have a sense that there was an actual person who was born into a real world of complex historical associations. We know distressingly little about those associations, but Mark at least informs us that they existed and that they're associated with Israel's prophetic tradition and with John.

Friday, December 16, 2011

FPC Log: Hospice for Churches (iv)

The windmills of Lewis County, NY
This is the fourth posting in an ongoing series on First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, and the decline of mainline churches, which began (here).

A few days ago, I attended a Utica Presbytery committee meeting over lunch, and during our table talk one of the clergy present mentioned a new concept she'd recently heard about, "hospice care for churches."  Our initial reaction was that it is a depressing concept, yet another witness to the apparently accelerating decline of mainline churches.

Our initial reaction was not "wrong," but on further reflection it wasn't exactly "right" either.  In a posting entitled, "Maybe It's Time for a Hospice Program for Some Churches," Ircel Harrison observes that churches live through a cycle of birth, growth, maturity, decline, and death (often diagramed with a bell curve) and to date we have neglected ministering to churches that are in the last stages of decline.   The purpose of hospice for churches, he urges, would be to "help churches that have declined to die with dignity."  It would help churches "to accept the situation and close their doors with grace."  On reflection, such a ministry could be important for the remnant membership of once vital congregations, a remnant that will be going through a real and probably prolonged period of grief.

Harrison goes on, however, to suggest a second possible element of a hospice ministry with dying churches, which is to help the church discern possibilities of giving birth to new ministries or even new faith communities that would live beyond the church itself.  He suggests that, "... churches in decline need to become pregnant. Like Sarah of old, they need to conceive and give birth."  The dying church might birth a ministry involving its members and others, it might give its building and remaining assets to a worthy local cause, or it might even discover ways to become a new kind of church postmortem.  In other words, the hospice caregiver also functions as a midwife thus giving life to something new and true dignity to a dying church's death.

This is resurrection thinking—thinking about death, that is, from a Christian perspective.  It looks at decline as a birth process as much as a death process.  Intriguing, to say the least.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

God's Associate - Mark 1:2-3 (iii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the third in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

It's frequently very difficult to know where a historical event begins. For the author of Mark, the Jesus Story began with Old Testament prophecy. Jesus' story was thus rooted in the larger story of Israel and linked specifically to Israel's prophetic tradition. This is hardly a startling observation, but we should remember that the Christian church has historically ignored its Jewish roots and all but denied that its Lord and Saviour was a Jew. Mark doesn't ignore these facts. The Gospel opens, rather, with a vivid desert image involving Hebrew messengers, Hebrew paths in the wilderness, and Hebrew corvee laborers straightening those paths for the convenience and safety of their King.

What's the author's purpose in opening this way? The quotation, in part, reminds Mark's readers of Jesus' prophetic connections, and it also suggests that God's direction and purposes are involved. The author affirms that this is a divine event. Citing Isaiah's prophecy also associates Jesus with God in a special way. John is the messenger and the one shouting. He wasn't the one, however, who traveled on the straightened path. God, the divine King, was the one for whom all that work was done. But what about Jesus? Mark clearly implies that John was the messenger shouting orders to prepare Jesus' path. Doesn't that associate Jesus with God?

We're going to find that Mark isn't very clear about just who Jesus was. The author seems to be inviting his readers on a search for Jesus, and he himself presents a mixed picture. His answer is only a suggestive, tentative one. What we may have here is a broad hint that somehow Jesus was associated with God and walked on the path intended for God. In the author's interpretation, then, Jesus is no ordinary man. If I'm correct then the rest of the Gospel is but commentary on 1:2, telling the reader what the author knows about this man with divine associations who was sent by God and foretold by the prophets.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Good News isn't History - Mark 1:1 (ii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the second in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

Mark starts out according to the Today's English Version (TEV) by stating, "This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God." (1:1) This sentence plunges the historian into all sorts of problems, most of which revolve around the words "Good News." Mark isn't a history about Jesus Christ. We don't have any of the footnotes, bibliographies, or other scholarly conventions that go with history. At the same time, this isn't a primary document. It doesn't purport to be an eyewitness account of the events it records. Mark is the first-century equivalent of a published secondary source. The author is obviously writing about the past but not the way historians write about it. How, then, does this "good news" (gospel) treat the past? How did the author accumulate his material and how did he decide which parts of that material to include in the gospel? The author cared about the veracity of the story. So, how did he decide what was the truth about Jesus? What standards for the inclusion of material did he adhere to? How does a gospel approach to the past differ from the historian's? How do their understandings of the truth of the past differ? We're going to have to infer some of the answers to these questions, admitting from the beginning that final answers aren't possible.

There's more we'd like to know. We'd like to know just what primary sources the author did have available. Did these include eyewitness accounts? We can assume there were written documents and accounts (see Luke 1:1-2). Just what form did Mark's written sources take? How many sources were there? How many different traditions about Jesus did they represent? There's no way to answer these further questions conclusively, but as we go along we'll find that it's important to keep asking them. In any event, if we're to learn anything of historical value from Mark it's vitally important that we reach some conclusion, however tentative, about how the author conceived of the past and used oral and documentary sources to recreate it.

2011 postscript: I am currently reading a fascinating book entitled, , by , which argues that Mark is based on eyewitness accounts, primarily those of the Apostle Peter and that it includes a number of ancient literary conventions common to works of history and biography.  It is, in other words, a form of ancient historiography.  If [author] is correct, some of the statements in this posting and some that follow need to be modified.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Gospel of Mark (i)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
At some point after I was first able to get on the Internet when my family & I were living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I began what might be called a proto-blog called "HeRD," which stands for Herb's Research Diary.  About twenty times a month, I sent out an email entry to HeRD most of which had to do with my work as a church research historian in Thailand.  In the course of things, as explained below, I spent some time studying the Gospel of Mark and shared my findings with the folks who received HeRD (the list of recipients grew to about 60 at one point).  Basically, I set out to reflect on the contents of Mark from the point of view of a church historian.  I think these Mark posting are worth reviving, and I intend to share them here off-and-on.  Those who really can't wait (?) to see them all can find them on my personal website starting (here).

The original introductory posting begins:

"Over the last two years, I've given a fair amount of time to preparing a course on of early church history at the McGilvary Faculty of Theology. I took on this particular task for several reasons. First, early church history is important in and of itself. Every church historian should study it. Second, that history provides insights into the development of all church history. Understanding the beginnings of any history is vitally important to understanding the whole of that history, and the early church is church history's 'Mother of All Beginnings.' Third, the early church provides us with important comparative insights.

"In the natural course of things, I've had to spend some time with the Gospels since they're key primary documents for the study of the early church. I've focused on the Gospel of Mark because most of the "experts" generally take it to be the earliest of the Gospels. Beginning this month, I'd like to share with you some of the things I've learned from studying Mark as a historical document. I confess that I'm undertaking these notes on Mark's Gospel with 'fear & trembling.'  The study of the life of Jesus and the disciples is in a great deal of ferment these days, and an amateur treads these grounds at his own risk. At the same time, there are a number of HeRD recipients who are far more qualified in New Testament studies than I ever hope to be. The opportunities for 'going astray' are legion.

"On the other hand, if we pursue the limited and focused task of 'mining' Mark for information about the earliest beginnings of the church we can avoid at least a few of the pitfalls ahead of us. Many of the scholars tend to try to look behind the Gospels to find the 'real Jesus'. They seem to view the Gospels themselves as an obstacle to that quest. They obscure the data the scholars seek. Granted that, I think it's still useful to view the Gospels as significant secondary sources that provide us with their own insights into earliest church history. Those of us who aren't trained New Testament historians can still learn a few things from them for ourselves. So, let's just say that HeRD is taking a holiday in the Holy Land. It should be fun. We might learn something about our own historical situations as well. That's my hope."

And that remains my hope today.  By the way, these notes on Mark were written originally in 1998.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reflections on a Firestorm

The banned couple
There is this tiny Free Will Baptist church in rural Kentucky that recently banned an interracial couple from it worship services by a vote of 9 to 6 (yes, 9 to 6) according to an Associated Press report in the Toledo Blade (see here).  You would have thought that racism was reborn in the South from the response in the media, which has given extensive coverage to what otherwise would be an event of no consequence whatsoever beyond the confines of this little church itself.  According to an article in the Los Angeles Times (here), the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in Pike County, Kentucky, has since voted unanimously to overturn the ban, and the church's parent denomination, the National Association of Free Will Baptists, has issued a statement (here) affirming the right of interracial couples to marry and denying that the denomination is racist.

In one sense, it's good this happened.  It has afforded American society and American churches another opportunity to affirm our still imperfect commitment to racial equality and justice.  In another sense, it exposes the fact that even today our churches are still mostly racially exclusive by the apparent choice of all concerned. More largely, we are still a segregated society, and it is not always easy for mixed-race couples and families to live comfortably in our nation.  And in another sense, people of faith can only regret the fact that we in the churches have received "bad press" yet again because of the unloving actions of a few badly misguided "believers".  It's not that we are all so perfect otherwise, but it was Christian folk of both races who provided the motive power for the civil rights movement.  It was the biblical story of the Exodus that inspired the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.  It is even to the credit of the members of the Gulnare church that they so quickly came to their Christian senses and righted the wrong done by an ignorant few in the church.

So, we can be sorry and glad that this incident happened.  It demonstrates in one swell foop how far we've come and how far we have to go both as a society and in our faith(s).

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Foretaste of the Kingdom

There is growing evidenced that the world is growing less violent in spite of its increasingly crowded conditions.  That, at least, is the thesis of Steven Pinker's newly published book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (Viking, 2011).   Some reviewers are persuaded (here, for example) and others are less convinced (here), but all agree that Pinker has marshaled quite an impressive array of data to make his case, whether or not it is conclusive.

Recent news postings from both sides of the planet suggest that Pinker has a point.  From Burma comes word (here) that the new Burmese government has begun talks with ten ethnic groups, which are in armed conflict with Burma and have been for many decades.  The government has signed a truce with one group, the Shan, and is hopeful of reaching agreements with several others.  As I've posted previously (here), the ethnic conflicts in Burma have been not only protracted but a source of incalculable suffering and hardship for millions of people.  The eventual resolution of these conflicts would be an important step forward toward peace on earth and goodwill among peoples.  In the meantime, news postings from Peru (see here) mark a step forward in the ending of armed conflict between the Peruvian government and the "Shining Path" rebel movement. One of the two remaining factions of that movement has admitted defeat, declared a unilateral ceasefire, and is seeking to negotiate a complete end to its participation in armed conflict.

It would an answer to the millions of prayers for world peace that have been offered down through the generations if both of these conflicted nations could take significant steps towards ending organized armed conflict in their borders—as seems to be happening.  It would be a foretaste of that time when the nations "will hammer their swords into plows and their spears into pruning knives" and "will never again go to war, never prepare for battle again." (Isaiah 2:4)  As Christian people, it is our constant prayer that God's Kingdom come, God's will be done on Earth as God intended it to be since the instant of creation.  Amen.

Friday, December 9, 2011

In Defense of the President for Another Reason

In the last couple of days, the word "appeasement" has found its way back into our vocabulary.  Several Republican candidates for the presidency have charged that President Obama's foreign policy amounts to appeasement of terrorists and other enemies of our nation.  The word, of course, conjures up the image of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain failing to stand up to fascism prior to World War II. The charge, then, is that the President of the United States is selling out his nation by caving in to America's foreign enemies.  The President's defenders have jumped all over the inappropriateness of the charge, rightly pointing out not only that it is in and of itself ludicrous but also that it tends to undermine national security by projecting a lack of national support for our foreign policy among key national leaders.  The President himself offered a brief but effective comeback, stating (here), ""Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaida leaders who have been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement. Or whoever is left out there, ask them about that."

The President's Republican detractors also decry the his supposed failure to be tough on Iran without being able to offer any constructive alternatives themselves.  Their one suggestion is that the President should declare his unwillingness to negotiate with the Iranian government, which on the face of it makes no sense at all.  IF the goal of our foreign policy is to promote our own national security in the framework of a more peaceful world, it seems only logical that we should be willing to talk to anybody, anytime if such talks could meet these ends.  And in the world's eyes, we will always look stronger if we are willing to talk.  The President has kept enough American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and sent enough drones to assassinate enough terrorist leaders to render charges of weakness and appeasement silly.

But, from what might be a Christian perspective, it is the President's termination of our post-9/11 guns blazing cowboy foreign policy that deserves true recognition, most notably in the case of Libya.  Projecting the right balance of power and restraint, President Obama dealt with a people's revolution, a tyrant, and a potentially explosive international situation in pretty much the right way.  Violence is always to be regretted, and the ethical question of its use is always a subject for theological debate.  In that debate, there is a case to be made for the near term use of limited amounts of violence as a means for promoting a less violent world for the long term.  President Obama's foreign policy reflects that approach, and he certainly deserves credit for effectively creating conditions that are more likely to make the world less violent and our nation thereby more secure.  Whether or not he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize when he won it, he surely does now.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Bible & the Poor

The Web is rife with websites listing biblical pasages on this subject and that. Too often, they are directed at things like proving God is against homosexuality, women must be submissive, or the Bible is the literal words of God. A useful listing of biblical passages from an entirely different angle is found on a webpage entitled, "The Bible and the Poor." You might want to check it out.

God-like Science

In yesterday's post (here), I offered some reflection on John Horgan's 2003 piece, "Buddhist Retreat: Why I gave up on finding my religion," which criticizes Buddhism as being "functionally theistic" and thus wanting.  I accused Horgan of fuzzy thinking, my central complaint being that while he trusts in science to provide him with the measure of religion his posting is an exercise in ideological rhetoric that doesn't reflect a scientific approach or attitude.

One sees the marks of an unscientific ideologue most especially in his concluding paragraph where he writes,
"All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'ĂȘtre of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science's disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can."
To be brief, Horgan's first sentence passes over entirely the scientific challenge to understand why religion is an all but universal human trait that may be built into us genetically.  The sentence asserts as fact a hypothesis, namely that religion is caused by a narcissistic wish, which when we think about it would require substantial, ground-breaking research to corroborate.  Horgan also ignores the fact that many religions have been premised more on the fear that the universe is not our friend and instead is filled with dangerous spiritual presences.  Moving on, it is not science that makes the claim that we are "incidental, accidental," but anti-theists some of whom happen to be scientists.  Science is a learning tool whose subject is the mundane world of the senses.  It eliminates beforehand metaphysical considerations.  It doesn't tell us anything about gods or God nor can it.  Thus, it can demonstrate that evolution proceeds by certain fixed natural processes, and it certainly doesn't have to posit divine intervention in the evolutionary system to explain it.  Scientists cannot explain why there is an evolutionary process, and the fact is they don't know yet how it came into existence on Earth.  And the larger question of why the universe exists is beyond the purview of science.  We may in fact be a "sheer happenstance," but it is not science as we know it today that will establish that truth because however far back it goes in explaining the origins of natural processes there will still be the ultimate question of the origin of the origins of the origins.

And we must ask Mr. Horgan, where is the body of scientific data and evidence that demonstrates we are incidental and accidental?  Science does not yet understand how life arose on this planet or how the evolutionary process originated let alone why.  Scientists don't even understand why we can ride bicycles without falling off (more than we do!).  And even when scientists finally figure out the hows of all of these questions, they still won't have dealt with ultimate questions of why.

Science is hardly radical when it comes to ultimate questions, and it is only uncomfortable because fearful, narrow-minded theists fail to see its utility for theological reflection.  Science offers us important insights into the nature of created reality, fodder for reflecting on ultimate realities.  It also offers a self-critical, self-correcting control on all forms of ideology including ones that try to turn science itself into the ultimate measure of truth.  It's just a tool, folks—a good one but not at all god-like.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Another Case of the Fuzzies

In a fascinating article written written in 2003 and entitled, "Buddhist Retreat: Why I gave up on finding my religion," author John Horgan demonstrates  again a mark common to anti-theist pundits: fuzziness about their subject.  As is often the case, Horgan judges religious beliefs and practices by the measure of science, which is fair enough for those who put their faith in science as a measure of ultimate things.   Many of us wouldn't, but then we all have to discover and put our trust in some way of making sense of the universe and our personal lives.  If science works for you, go for it.

The problem one finds with those who choose science over against religion as their measure of ultimate things is that they frequently don't really approach religion scientifically.  Science is a tool for discovering truths built on facts derived from data obtained by diligent, systematic research built on hypotheses held only lightly until they are proven.  In the real world of science, it frequently takes a long time to prove a hypothesis and the process can involve sometimes acrimonious debate and a difficult sorting out of contending theories.

Horgan's approach to Buddhism is hardly scientific even though he wants it to measure up to science.  He was attracted to Buddhism because it  seemed to eschew theism, and he even joined a meditation class and began to read books about Buddhism.  But he found it wanting.  One problem for Horgan was that Buddhism turned out to be "functionally theistic" because of its belief in reincarnation, which he takes to be a theistic-like doctrine implying a "cosmic judge" that functions like Santa Claus in tallying up "our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with rebirth as a cockroach or as a saintly lama."  Horgan should have done more reading.  Reincarnation is generally understood to be a fact of reality, a closed self-driven, and self-perpetuating natural system in which you reap what you sow.  Like biological evolution, it works on basic principles that always apply and do not require any divine intervention (such as a Santa-like judge) to function.  By injecting Santa God into the picture, Horgan has returned to a basic premise of anti-theism, namely that believing in God is dumb, a silly and insidious superstition. He also manages to misapply that premise in this case.

More troubling, however, is the way Horgan treats Buddhism as if it is a single thing.  Rather than studying the way Buddhists in various times, places, and contexts have practiced and thought about their versions of Buddhism, he lumps all and sundry Buddhisms together and then measures them by the things he doesn't like about religion.  Buddhists themselves disagree about reincarnation, and there are reformist Buddhists who insist that reincarnation is not representative of "true Buddhism."  Horgan himself notes that Western Buddhists "usually downplay these supernatural elements," but he evidently doesn't find their views compelling.  For him, apparently, reincarnation is an essential doctrine of Buddhism.

The point is a simple one: Horgan creates his own version of Buddhism, finds it wanting, and (with a sarcastic sneer) dismisses it as unworthy.  His approach to Buddhism is not based on a careful scientific approach.  It is ideological (which is where the sneer comes in).  He thus discards the whole notion of non-self by asserting that some of those who see themselves and others as "unreal" may treat human suffering and death as "laughably trivial."  Perhaps.  But on what data does he base this conclusion?  Are there studies that demonstrate actual Buddhists are inhumane because of their belief in non-self?  Did Horgan even understand the concept, which is a seriously tricky one?  His only actual data showing that the concept of non-self leads to unwanted consequences is the bad behavior of one monk and his undocumented assertion that Zen Buddhism's "lore" celebrates the masochistic behavior of certain celebrated ancient monks.  It is a surprisingly tiny data set on which to build sweeping conclusions and still begs the question of why Horgan chose to construct the concept of non-self in these ways.

It's not that religion is all good and can't be challenged.  Indeed, it is the deeply religious who frequently challenge religious beliefs and practices because religions so often fail to live up to their own highest ideals.  It would just be much more helpful if those who want to measure religion by science would actually rely on scientific thinking, which really is a helpful way to construct reality, rather than grinding their own ideological axes.  Stay tuned.  There's a bit more to say.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Insights

We thrive on insights.

Buddhadassa Bhikkhu
Handbook for Mankind

Monday, December 5, 2011

Putting Christ in Christmas

A lot of noise has been made about "putting Christ back into Christmas."  Truth be told, Christ never has had much to do with our modern celebrations of Christmas, which began in the earlier nineteenth century after the celebration of Christmas had fallen out of favor after the American Revolution because it was considered "British" (see the Wikipedia article on Christmas).  Christmas today is a secular, social holiday.

So, it's not a matter of putting Christ back into Christmas so much as reclaiming the biblical birth narratives from the sentimentalism of our social and secular Christmas.  As mentioned in yesterday's posting (here), the story of the birth of Christ told in the Gospel of Matthew actually teaches at least two things about Christ: that he was the messiah and thus worthy of our worship and that he was from the beginning in conflict with power.  The birth stories in Matthew set the stage for the story told in the rest of the gospel.  The same is true of Luke.  Again, we have clear evidence in the birth stories of Jesus' special origins and the fact that he is worthy of praise and worship.  "Angels from the realms of glory" (Luke 2:13-14) are witness to that spiritual truth.  But where Matthew emphasizes Jesus' conflict with power, Luke impresses us with Jesus' humble beginnings.  His mother was a peasant woman.  He was born in a stable "wrapped in swaddling clothes."  His birth was gloriously announced to a bunch of shepherds.  Luke, that is, uses the birth stories to highlight a central Christian truth that God isn't just champion of the poor and dispossessed but actually became God With Us as one of them.  The Old Testament term is anawim, which in its Old Testament context means the poor.

God's special love for the anawim is one of the key themes of both the Old and New Testaments.  It is not a sentimental love but one lived out in the hard world of poverty and oppression—the world Jesus lived in.  It is best exhibited not in our lovely manger scenes but in the Arab Spring, in the struggle of Thailand's red shirts, and in the 99% movement emerging in the United States.  In our churches, then, one way we can put Christ into Christmas is by engaging in a faithful reading of the original stories, seeing in them God's struggle with power and God's special love for the anawim, the poor so clearly demonstrated in the opening chapters of Luke's Gospel.  Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Christmas Ambivalence

Christmas as we celebrate it today has relatively little to do with the actual person of Christ described in the gospels.  Or, better, it is an example of how we mangle Godly things.  That's not to say that Christmas is a "bad" thing, although there are aspects of it that are regrettable.  It just doesn't have much to do with Jesus, that's all.

For many families, it really is a happy time of reunion, and the exchange of gifts can be almost magical for little kids.  It is a time when we light up our neighborhoods and when we hear some beautiful Christian music played even over shopping mall PA systems.  Millions go to church on Christmas eve, and once in awhile they step from a quiet dignified candle lighting ceremony into a crisp, clean winter evening.  There's a lot of good in celebrating the social, secular Christmas with its real undertone of faith for many people.  It is the family holiday par excellence.

Of course, there are lamentable aspects of Christmas as well, including its crass materialism and the loneliness of many who don't or can't "be home for the holidays."  And family get-togethers can be tense and difficult for some, painful reminders of past hurts still unhealed.  And then there's Santa Claus, the winsome false god of the secular Christmas.

Like anything else, in sum, Christmas as we celebrate it has its upside and its downside.  Little of it has much to do with the Prince of Peace who died on the cross for humanity.  This is especially true of our sentimental celebration of the baby Jesus, who like Santa Claus is a winsome false rendering of Christ.  If we look at the story of Jesus' birth in Matthew 1-2, for example, what we find is an introduction to the profound conflict Jesus will have with the religious-political establishment, a clear foreshadowing of the cross.  The story of the visit of the magi thus makes two points: Christ is king and worthy of worship and from the beginning the powers that be were intent on killing him, which they eventually did.

It is a pastor's duty at Christmas to remind the church that it is not the "baby Jesus" whom we worship.  It is the man filled in some way we don't understand by God—the man who died on the cross and then lived again.  Christmas at its very best does for us what the Gospel of Matthew also does: it sets our eyes on the good news of our resurrection faith.  Amen.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Whole Bible in One Paragraph

In his introductory remarks to Genesis 1:1-2:4 in his 1982 commentary on the Book of Genesis, Walter Brueggemann writes,

“The main theme of the text is this: God and God’s creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way. This is the presupposition for everything that follows in the Bible. It is the deepest premise from which good news is possible. God and his creation are bound together by the powerful, gracious movement of God towards that creation. The binding which is established by God is inscrutable. It will not be explained or analyzed. It can only be affirmed and confessed. This text announces the deepest mystery: God wills and will have a faithful relation with earth. The text invites the listening community to celebrate that reality. The binding is irreversible. God has decided it. The connection cannot be nullified.” (Genesis, p. 22-23)

The  Bible relates the story of God's mysterious relationship with creation.  It is a story filled with powerfully good news because the heart of that relationship is God's grace for creation.  If we bring these insights into the 21st century, what we find again is that God's creation is evolutionary.  God is even now graciously creating us through God's faithful presence in the Spirit.  Amen.

Friday, December 2, 2011

FPC Log: Key Marks of Effective Membership (iii)

The windmills of Lewis County, NY
This is the third posting in an ongoing series on First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, and the decline of mainline churches, which began (here).

A recent op-ed piece posted on the Christian Science Monitor's website entitled, "GOP candidates and Obama: Standards for presidential leadership," listed 5 qualities that voters should look for in a presidential candidate,.  Those qualities are presidential candidates who: (1) understand the issues of government; (2)  love the daily toil and mechanics of governing; (3) have mastered the organization; (4) turn liabilities into assets; and (5) are persistent. On reflection, it could be argued that these qualities are also important for selecting a new pastor.  And taking that thought one step further, it could also be argued that they are also important for a mainline congregation that seeks to address its decline.

That is to say that in order for a church to address its own decline a significant number of its members should, first, understand the spiritual, theological, biblical, and social issues facing the congregation in its local setting.  Those members should cultivate a love for "the daily toil and mechanics" of church renewal so that they will not be easily distracted or become impatient with the hard spiritual work of renewal.  Those members should also have a good grasp of the basic operating principles of a church seeking new life, principles that are likely to be very different from its current operating principles.  It is most essential for a significant number of members of a church in decline to see its decline as an opportunity offered to it by the Holy Spirit, an institutional liability that can work to its spiritual benefit.  And a church membership seeking renewal will have to do so persistently.  Starting new churches is a breeze compared to discovering new life for an old one.

All of this presupposes that a congregation seeking renewal will cultivate in itself the qualities of leadership it once expected of its pastor.  Leadership thus will be seen as a shared function where at one point or another virtually every member will "step up to the plate" of leadership. Every member will develop a good sense of where the church is headed, how it will stay headed that way, and their personal role in moving forward.  Each member will learn to be excited by the possibilities for new life only a declining church can offer, and they will not become discouraged or faint-hearted when the path of renewal proves to be littered with obstacles, as surely it will.

The great bulk of the literature on church renewal is still focused on pastoral leadership.  It is past time that we turn our attention to the followership-leadership mix of the congregations themselves.  Amen.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Obligation to Love

Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Source: Strength to Love

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

OWS, TPM, & Us

The Public Religion Research Institute has recently released a PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey  (here) measuring public support of the Tea Party Movement compared to Occupy Wall Street as well as the public's views on the current state of the American economy.  On the one hand,  the report reveals a deep, expected divide between Democrats and Republicans concerning the OWS and TPM movements.  Republicans, in particular, display significant support for the Tea Party and antipathy towards Occupy Wall Street.  On the other hand, a solid majority of Americans are not interested in either movement but do have a real concern for the gap between rich and poor and the state of the economy.  This majority, that is, cares about the poor and the economy but is not looking for radical solutions to either problem and support common sense ones instead.  They favor raising taxes on the wealthy 1% and making large corporations contribute more.  It thus seems only a matter of time until the public wakes up and starts electing moderates from both parties to Congress, sending them to Washington to make common sense compromises aimed at both reducing poverty and the debt.  We have to stop sending ideological wackos to Washington.  That's a prayer.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

FPC Log (2) & Isaiah (xi): Resurrection Church

The windmills of Lewis County, NY
This is the eleventh in a series of postings looking at the meaning of Isaiah 6 for today; it began (here) and the second posting in an ongoing series on First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, which began (here).

Isaiah's image of a stump is seriously relevant here on the edge of the Adirondacks, a vast semi-wilderness that has seen periods of extensive, destructive logging in days past.  Areas heavily logged in the 19th century have since grown back to such an extent that they are once again virtually virgin forest, which regenerated themselves from the seas of stumps left behind by the loggers.  Re-growth, renewal, and resurrection are thus natural subjects for a declining mainline church in Lewis County, NY.

It's not like todays congregation at FPC, Lowville, is a stump even metaphorically.  Like many (most?) churches in the early-middle stages of its decline, it still exhibits a good deal of healthy life.  It can still meet challenges.  Worship has its moments of meaning, and the members continue to show care for each other.  But, the image of the stump and shoots of new growth is still relevant because it holds the promise of something different that an inevitable decline.  There is another church tucked away in the body of the 1950s institutional church, a church that seeks to be reborn as a 21st century church—a resurrection church, if you will.  Whether or not it ever emerges into full view remains to be seen, and if it does it will bear some of the marks of its past as it should.

The marks of this 21st century church, if it should emerge, will be a livelier worship life built not on the whims and wishes of its pastor but by the work of the congregation itself.  It will inspire a deeper understanding of the Christian life and how that life actually works out in practice.  It will be more biblically literate and take pleasure in exploring the rich historical Christian literature that inspires deeper reflection.  It will continue to be a church that values openness, acceptance, and diversity, qualities it exhibits today.  I suspect that the resurrection church, should we ever see it, will be smaller than now but able to win deeper involvement from more people than it does now because of the quality of its life.  More than anything else, this resurrection church will seek to understand the ways in which the Spirit moves in its life and care deeply for living in the Spirit as best it can.

Will it eventually start growing in numbers?  I don't know.  That's not the issue.  The issue is discovering where the shoots are growing and nurturing those shoots, leaving to the Spirit how they grow and trusting that they will grow spiritually.

Monday, November 28, 2011

It Is All About the Stump (x)

This is the tenth in a series of postings looking at the meaning of Isaiah 6 for today; it began (here).

Isaiah 6 closes with a curious analogy.  After the Hebrews have been subjected to a brutal process of being repeatedly cut down, only a stump will remain, and "The holy seed is its stump."  According to this ancient Hebrew religious text, God's plan was to destroy God's people for their rebellion and immorality, but out of all of that destruction God was going to bring forth new life out of the apparently dead stump.

Read from an early 21st century perspective, this ancient text reflects two important spiritual realities built into us and our world by God.  The first is the reality of karma, that is "what goes around comes around."  According to the ancient Hebrew myth of the Garden, humanity chose death, and it has been paying the price for that choice ever since.  The myth reflects reality.  The things we do have consequences for us and for those around us.  Individually and collectively we are able to build a more or a less peaceful world by our own peace-making or trouble-making actions.  Beat a child and both parent and child pay the price.  Hug a child in pain and both the hugger and the hugged reap the benefit.  Yes, the innocent suffer, but it is because other human beings make them suffer and suffer themselves (in one way or another) as a consequence.  It sounds unjust until one considers that the system ultimately self-selects for justice and peace.  Evil choices lead to evil consequences for the chooser.  The Arab Spring is only the latest massive human movement clawing its way through the reality of karma toward something better.

According to the ancient Hebrew texts of the Old Testament, the nation and its leaders in their rebellion against God chose injustice and oppression, and they reaped the consequences.  Sow death and you get it.  This law permeates and defines human reality no more or less than does gravity.  Like gravity, it hurts and limits us—and we can't live without it.

Also built into us is the second reality: resurrection.  It is a common human experience: we fall and fail, and when the dust settles and we pick up our life again we discover that the "death" of the failure has opened doors to something better than before.  It is in resurrection that we experience the grace of God.  It is in the rhythms of dying to new life that we feel the work of the Spirit.

And, again, we don't have a clue why things are this way.  Anyone who tells you they know God's plan is fooling themselves.  What I do believe personally is that God has built a future into us, which in biblical terms we call the Kingdom of God.  We are evolving spiritually as much as we are biologically, but to what ultimate end is not clear at all.  What is clear is that a Hebrew prophet living 2,800 years ago dimly perceived what we dimly perceive: we reap what we sow, and God the Holy Spirit is constantly at work bringing a new, unexpected thing out of the sowing and reaping—something that transcends and reshapes the fundamental truth of karma.  Go figure.