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

Monday, October 31, 2011

Renewing the Church (xii)

This is the twelfth posting in a series of postings reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 2007; originally published in 1995). The introductory posting, setting the stage for the series, is (here).

In the midst of his discussion of the importance of community to the practice of religion, Thich Nhat Hanh states, "If you want to renew your church, bring the energy of the Holy Spirit into it." (page 67)  By "Holy Spirit," he means a kind of holy energy that comes from God and that is similar to mindfulness, which like the Spirit connects us to deeper realities.  It was the Holy Spirit that allowed Jesus to heal, and it is the Holy Spirit that gives us the ability to heal and be transformed (page 15).  This is not the Pentecostal version of the Spirit, which seems to fill people with holy passions that have nothing to do with mindfully unlearning prejudice and dispensing with reliance on doctrines and beliefs.  That Spirit leads to satisfaction, this one to rest and compassion.

What would a mindful, Spirit-energized church look like?  It would be a church in which a significant number of its members engage regularly in spiritual practices.  It would be a thoughtful community of folks who have gentle control of their emotions.  It would be a compassionate, forgiving fellowship.  It would be a church open to and accepting of diversity, and it would put less store in doctrines and ideologies than has been the norm in the Christian tradition.  It would be composed of more true-doers and fewer true-believers.  Sadly, in our highly charged early 21st-century ideological culture it would be a church labelled "liberal" by others and self-identify itself as "progressive"—or, more likely, reject ideological labels while fitting what everyone else sees as a progressive profile.  Such a church would have several groups of individuals engaged in shared spiritual practices including "the care of souls" of others engaged in Jesus' ministries of healing and service.  It would be a peaceful, grace-filled, and just plain kind community.  Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Charlie Brown finally kicked the football

Dear readers, I just can't let this one pass.  In the midst of a tragic, dismal season that has seen the Minnesota Golden Gophers suffer three consecutive trashing at the hands of Michigan, Purdue, and Nebraska, suddenly yesterday the Gophers squeezed out a gutsy, entirely deserved victory over Iowa—in spite of the fact that an Iowa running back had a career day.  To beat Iowa anytime is sweet, but to hand them their head on a platter beyond all expectation, well you would have thought the Gophers had just won the Rose Bowl.  The win couldn't have come at a better time as it restores some confidence in new head coach Jerry Kill and his staff.  So, for a day, for a week, Gopher fans savor the sweet taste of victory, but we won't get used to it.  This coming Saturday the Gophers visit Michigan State.  A victory there would be more than a miracle.  By the way, this morning's headline is taken from a posting on the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Chip Scoggins entitled, "One game, one afternoon, fills stadium with renewed faith."

The Dream of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the answer to the child's dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean. The dream explains why we need to be forgiven, and why we must forgive. In the presence of God, nothing stands between God and us--we are forgiven. But we cannot feel God's presence if anything is allowed to stand between ourselves and others.

Dag Hammarskjold
Journal, 1956

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Leaning on the Historical Jesus (xi)

This is the eleventh posting in a series of postings reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 2007; originally published in 1995). The introductory posting, setting the stage for the series, is (here).

In posting number nine (here), we saw that Thich Nhat Hanh looks at Jesus in two ways, as the Son of God and the Son of Man, and I observed that he seems to prefer the "living Christ," the Son of God, over the historical person of Jesus, the Son of Man.  The "seems" is important because from a Christian theological perspective his understanding of Jesus is not  quite that simple or clear.  For one thing, as he goes along Thich Nhat Hanh comes back to the life and teachings of the historical Christ, observing that, "Jesus lived exactly as He taught."  He is thus a model for our own religious practice, which is based as much on his historical life as on his teachings and means that his life and teachings are more important that faith in him (page 36).  Whatever it is that makes Christ the "living Christ," thus is rooted in the actual life that Jesus of Nazareth lived and not in his eternal, timeless, and spaceless divine nature as the One through whom creation took place (John 1).

For another thing, Thich Nhat Hanh conflates the three persons of the Trinity in a way that most traditional or orthodox theologians will find unacceptable.  Jesus is the Son of God because he was "animated by the energy of the Holy Spirit."Jesus was also the Son of God because he had God the Father in him; he could not otherwise have been the Son.  Thich Nhat Hanh claims that all of this shows the "nature of nonduality in God."  (page 36) I take this to mean that in his view functionally God is not Three but rather One, which brushes aside the orthodox Christian insistence that each of the three persons of the Trinity is in fact distinct from the other two.  Historically, we have said that each person of the Trinity is not the other but all three are one in God.  Thich Nhat Hanh pretty much ignores the "is not" aspect of the Trinity—as do many Christians, in practice.

What seems to be happening here is that Thich Nhat Hanh tends (strongly) to understand God as being Present in reality while leaving aside our Christian perception that God is as much Beyond as Present.  Thus, the "living Christ" lives in us, and God the Father and God the Holy Spirit also live in us as they live in the "living Christ."  The God who, again, stands Beyond time and space and created all that is doesn't really come into the picture at all.  Let me pursue that thought in the next posting in this series.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A New Review at Rom Phra Khun Reviews - Hecht, "Doubt: A History"

This is just to let you all know that there is a new review over at Rom Phra Khun Reviews.  It is of Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History (2003). Most of the review chews on the meaning of doubt. You might want to take a look (here).

Taking God Out of Politics - For God's Sake

Let me take a little break today from my self-appointed task of turning out a posting a day and point readers in the direction of a posting by Jonathan Malesic entitled, Why Politicians Should Keep Their Faith Hidden."  His point, in a nutshell is that, "...American Christianity is being poisoned by the transformation of Christian identity to a market-tested political brand identity." It's worth a look.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Taking the Incarnation Seriously (x)

This is the tenth posting in a series of postings reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 2007; originally published in 1995). The introductory posting, setting the stage for the series, is (here).  Readers will want to read the previous (ninth) posting (here) before tackling this one.  It follows on nine.

In the interest of "full disclosure," I probably should say that my personal theology leans to the human Jesus rather than the divine Christ.  Given my training in history and the fact that I worked as a professional historian for many years (albeit in a church setting), it is hardly surprising that I find Jesus of Nazareth a fascinating and challenging historical figure.  Still, there was something go on in Jesus that doesn't go on in the rest of us.  That "something" lies deep within "the Christ event," and we should approach it with some trepidation and a realization that it defies human categories and easy dogmatic descriptions.  Indeed, it seems that the rush to embrace Jesus, the Son of God and sing high praises to Him, is always in danger of turning doctrines about the divine Jesus into idols that twist the actual person of Jesus, the Christ, into human renderings of what we think he should be.

The Asian theologian, Kosuke Koyama, has written a book entitled, No Handle on the Cross, in which he makes the point that we can't own the cross with our human ideas and doctrines about it.  It is not something we can "handle," manage, or control.  That goes for Jesus in general, and having to wrestle with the fact that he was just as human as the rest of us and bound by our human limitations should make us wary of over doing his divinity.  We should have to always be straining to glimpse the "living Christ."  He should remain slightly elusive, never quite in focus so that we can't envelope Him and thus turn Him into something of our own making.  The historical person of Jesus, thus, grounds us in the way God moves among us, which is itself elusively and obliquely—and patiently.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Two Buddhas, Two Christs (ix)

This is the ninth posting in a series of postings reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 2007; originally published in 1995). The introductory posting, setting the stage for the series, is (here).

In Thich Nhat Hanh's view, there are two ways to understand the Buddha and Christ.  Each of them was, first, an historical person.  And each of them, second, is also today a living person: the living Buddha and the living Christ.  In the case of Jesus, he is both the Son of Man and the Son of God.  Thich Nhat Hanh shows little interest in the historical versions of the Buddha and Christ and focuses, instead, on the living ones.  He describes the living Buddha as being "the Buddha within ourselves who transcends space and time."  He is linked to ultimate reality, "transcends all ideas and notions and is available to us at any time."    In Jesus, we are able to "penetrate the reality of God," who is made known to us through Christ.  Jesus was "animated by the energy of the Holy Spirit." (pages 35-36)

It is interesting and, perhaps, instructive to watch a friend of the Christian faith seem to do the same thing we Christians do, which is to give lip service to the doctrines of the incarnation of God in Christ and the two natures of Christ, divine and human, and then to prefer one over the other.  And Thich Nhat Hanh even seems to prefer the one the vast majority of Christians prefer, namely the divine nature of God.  For much of our faith's history, Christians have put their trust in the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, to such an extent that Jesus' humanity seems to be not much more than a formality.

Historically, however, it took decades stretching out into centuries to work out the divine nature of Christ.  The earliest church knew that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, historical person with the limitations of human nature.  They knew that the great majority of people who met him had no sense of his being in any way divine and that as Jews it was not possible that they would.  The very earliest Christians, the ones who knew Jesus personally, themselves did not see him as "fully man, fully God," and in fact it took time and thought for them to see that God was in Jesus in a way unlike the rest of humanity.  It was only in the long centuries after that faithful Christians increasingly emphasized the majesty of Christ at the expense of his humanity.  Like Thich Nhat Hanh, they preferred the living Christ to the historical Jesus.

Since the rise of science and modern historiography, the emphasis on the divine Christ at the expense of the historical Jesus has become problematic.  Let me pursue that thought in the next posting and here simply note that Thich Nhat Hanh seems to do what all Christians do, which is to prefer one Jesus or the other, the human one or the divine one.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Bell of Mindfulness (viii)

This is the eighth posting in a series of postings reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 2007; originally published in 1995). The introductory posting, setting the stage for the series, is (here).

Mindfulness, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, allows us to see deeply in the reality of things.  It awakens us so that even the most apparently mundane activities, such as eating, take on worlds of new meaning.  If we eat mindfully, thus, food becomes real in a new way.  Eating mindfully recalls communion, or the Holy Eucharist, for him; when Christians take the sacrament mindfully, they become alive in the moment.  He writes, "Holy Communion is a strong bell of mindfulness." (page 30)  The image of the bell calls to mind Thich Nhat Hanh's practice at his retreat center in southern France, Plum Village, where bells are rung frequently to call the residents to mindfulness.  in Plum Village, they don't say that they "ring" a bell but rather that the bell is "invited" to ring.

These observations are themselves a "strong bell of mindfulness" to those of us who take sacrament regularly.  It can help us begin communion with an intention to be more present, quieter, and more intentional in the presence of the Table.  It encourages us to look beyond the mechanics of how well the pastor "does" the sacrament, or whether or not the organist hits the right notes.  It encourages us to put aside the weekday stuff that can get in the way of our worship.  It calls us to a renewed experience of communion.  Most especially, Thich Nhat Hanh's take on the Lord' Supper reminds us that we don't come to communion to get something from the sacrament but, rather, put aside having, getting, and wanting.  We are at the Table to remember Christ deeply and rededicate ourselves to following his Way as best we can.  It's not what we get from the sacrament that matters but, rather, what we bring to it in Christian mindfulness.  Amen.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Parallels to Mindfulness (vii)

This is the seventh posting in a series of postings reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 2007; originally published in 1995). The introductory posting, setting the stage for the series, is (here).

Throughout Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh urges the practice of mindfulness, which is achieved through insight meditation.  He defines mindfulness as being,"the energy to be here and to witness deeply everything that happens to the present moment, aware of what is going on within and without." (page 214)  For those who have not engaged successfully in meditation of one sort or another, it is difficult to grasp what this means.  When discussing mindfulness with Lewis County folks, however, it appears that they have experiences of times of deep quiet and relaxation in nature that parallel mindfulness.  They "practice mindfulness" by consciously seeking out those spots, seasons, and times of the day that induce a state of calm.  It might be on a dock at sunset or sitting silently in a canoe in a quiet back bay.

Many years ago, a hunter from central Pennsylvania told me about one time hunting when he was sitting on a stump at the edge of a clearing. A magnificent buck suddenly, silently emerged from the forest, and the hunter watched as the buck worked its way across the clearing and then just as silently vanished into woods again.  He was so taken with the beauty of the buck and forest around him that he forgot to shoot.  It was a mindful moment when the hunter was so caught up by the moment that he forgot to shoot.  When we are mindful,  according to Thich Nhat Hanh, we embrace others, relieve suffering in ourselves and others, and touch ultimate reality.  We forget to shoot.  He compares the experience of mindfulness to the Holy Spirit, which is to say that when we sit on a dock or in a canoe in the cool of the evening, feeling the quiet breeze, surrounded by the stillness of the northern woods punctuated perhaps by the erie call of a loon and discover in the moment a quiet deep in ourselves—in that moment the Spirit of God caresses our spirit and we are mindful.  Amen.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Touching God

In a brief exchange with a Catholic priest in Florence, Italy, Thich Nhat Hanh asked the priest about his understanding of the Holy Spiri.  The priest answered that he saw the Holy Spirit as being "the energy sent by God."  Thich Nhat Hanh writes,

The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, penetrated Him deeply, and He revealed the manifestation of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus healed whatever He touched.  With the Holy Spirit in Him, His power as a healer transformed many people.  All schools of Christianity agree on this.  I told the priest that I felt that all of us also have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us, the capacity of healing, transforming, and loving.  When we touch that seed, we are able to touch God the Father and God the Son. (pages 13-14)   Amen.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Dialogue (vi)

This is the sixth posting in a series of postings reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 2007; originally published in 1995). The introductory posting, setting the stage for the series, is (here)

Dialogue is a word unfamiliar to most people.  We have a vague sense of it meaning something like discussions with someone else, which in fact is one of the meanings given by the dictionary websites.  Folks in interfaith circles, like Thich Nhat Hanh, use it in a very different sense to mean a willingness to listen and share across the boundaries that separate us, particularly religious boundaries.  Thich Nhat Hanh focuses on an inner state of peacefulness required for meaningful dialogue and seems to suggest that successful dialogue begins with one's self (Living Buddha, Living Christ, pages 6-10).  He also suggests that the best way to enter into dialogue is by knowing one's own tradition well—and one's own mind.  Dialogue, in any event, is not merely talking with someone of another faith.  It is a deeper sharing that sometimes doesn't even require words, which is grounded in a willingness to listen to others, see the weaknesses and strengths of one's own religion, and a willingness to be changed in an encounter with someone of another faith.  Dr. Parichart Suwanbubbha, a professor of religious studies in Thailand, writes (here) that, "Partners in dialogue, however, must have a broad mind, one that gives others the opportunity to speak and is willing to listen to the expression of beliefs that differ from their own. Dialogue partners, at the same time, must have their own place to stand and be truly representatives of the faith they hold."

The ultimate purpose of dialogue is peace.  It seeks peace by sharing across boundaries in order to increase understanding of others and of one's own self.   In dialogue, one listens first and deeply and then speaks peacefully and with integrity.  The spirit of dialogue weaves its way through the pages of Living Buddha, Living Christ.  

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Logo for the Next General Assembly

Logo for the 220th General Assembly
The 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) will meet in Pittsburgh, beginning June 30th 2011.  The logo on the left is the official one for the assembly.  According to the news release unveiling the logo, "The logo is a simple, circular image designed to be functional and traditional. It will be the main image associated with the assembly and can be used in a variety of applications, from the Web to email signatures to advertising banners to book bags and flashlights. It is designed to be easily recognizable and attractive, and to reflect Pittsburgh, the host city for the assembly, in a way that lifts up the Presbyterian presence and influence in the city." There are also two more elaborate logos announced in the same news release (here).

Past assemblies have also had their own logos.  If you're intrested, you can view the 2010 logo (here).

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jesus R Us (v)

This is the fifth posting in a series of postings reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 2007; originally published in 1995). The introductory posting, setting the stage for the series, is (here).

A few pages into Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, "On the altar in my hermitage in France are images of Buddha and Jesus, and every time I light incense, I touch both of them as my spiritual ancestors.  I can do this because of contact with these real Christians." (p. 6)  He observes that we learn things about our own faith when we have a relationship with a person who is serious in the practice of their own religion.  He states, "When those who represent a spiritual tradition embody the essence of their tradition, just the way they walk, sit, and smile speaks volumes about the tradition." (p. 7)

Some years ago, a parishioner told me the story of a church that he once attended.  He swore it was a true story.  The church, he said, decided that it was time to replace the carpeting in its sanctuary. and the members proceeded to divide  themselves into the reds and the browns (or whatever the colors were).  According to his story, several families from the losing faction left their church because they couldn't abide the color of the new carpeting.  One shudders to think of the angry telephone calls, resentments and grudges cultivated, and sleepless nights devoted to an apparently trivial issue.  More to the point, it is sad to think of how that fight reflected on Christ.  Thich Nhat Hanh makes an important point, which is that in our daily lives those of us who consider themselves followers of Christ embody him for others.  Those around us meet him in us.  In one sense, we are the living Christ.  The upside is when we introduce the living Jesus to a practicing Buddhist neighbor in such a way that our neighbor can see in Jesus a "spiritual ancestor."  The downside is what happens to the living Christ when we fight about carpets.  It's almost like we put him back on the cross again.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Boundaries East & West (iv)

This is the fourth posting in a series of postings reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 2007; originally published in 1995). The introductory posting, setting the stage for the series, is (here).  As we've seen in the previous two postings, Thich Nhat Hanh opens Living Buddha, Living Christ with a provocative challenge to our socially-inherited ways of thinking about our beliefs, secular as well as religious.  He wants us to discard the notion that our set of beliefs are truer han those of people who believe differently than we do.

Some years ago Thongchai Winichakul, a Thai scholar, published a fascinating book entitled, Siam Mapped: The History of the Geo-body of a Nation (University of Hawaii, 1997).  One of its key points is that people in Southeast Asia used to think about national boundaries in ways very different from the West.  Boundaries were porous and ill-defined.  There was a national center, which was more-or-less under the authority of the central government, and there were the peripheries that were less fully under the control of the central rulers.  Cities and territories on the periphery frequently gave loyalty to two different kings or princes.  It was the Western colonial powers who in the 19th century introduced distinct, razor sharp boundaries and the notion that every territory had to have one allegiance, clearly defined by its boundaries.

Thich Nhat Hanh is asking us to think about our religious and ideological boundaries the way Southeast Asians used to think about political boundaries.  He wants us to see the boundaries of our beliefs (and unbeliefs) as porous and ill-defined.  There is a center, which for him, is the practices of our faith, and then there are neighboring faiths, from which we can learn a good deal.  Christians, thus, remain Christians because they centrally seek to practice the precepts of Jesus, to walk his Way.  But, Christians can learn from Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, skeptics, and "non-believers" if only we will hold our boundaries with less rigidity and seriousness.  All of this separates believing in Christ from following Christ.  For the sake of our inner peace and world peace, Thich Nhat Hanh wants us to follow Christ utterly and fully, but he calls on us to be less assertive and rigid in our beliefs about Christ.  He wants us to be "true practitioners" rather than "true believers"—again, for the sake of inner and international harmony, true peace.

In sum, Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to put our faith, that is our trust, in Christ and his Way while taking our beliefs about Jesus less seriously—to the end that we don't treat each other violently or disdainfully.

Tongchai makes the point that the Western colonial powers introduced razor thin, clearly mapped boundaries into Southeast Asia as a matter of power and control.  Britain, thus, needed to know precisely what the boundaries of Burma were so that British colonial authorities could exercise their power over the people and territory falling within those boundaries.  Ideological and religious boundaries, when sharply drawn, are also about power and control.  They are about who is 'in" and who is "out," who exercises authority, power, and control—and who doesn't.  In the church, in particular, the insistence that we believe certain things about Christ is not really about following or even trusting in Jesus at all.  It is about maintaining institutional control and exercising ecclesiastical authority.  Thich Nhat Hanh is correct.  We would do better to give ourselves utterly to following Christ, trusting that his Way is best for us, and not put so much store in what we believe about him.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Le Panatalon Rouge

In 1912, on the eve of World War I, the French Minister of War, Adolphe Messimy, attempted to modernize the French army's uniforms, which since before 1830 had been a combination of bright reds and blues set off by flashy red trousers. The British and the German armies had already switched to uniforms of browns and grays more fitting to the necessities of modern warfare with its rifles that could shoot accurately over many hundreds of yards. The French military, however, bitterly resisted Messimy's attempted reform. It felt that the army's prestige and honor were at stake. One witness at the parliamentary hearings on the matter, a former Minister of War himself, exclaimed, "Eliminate the red trousers? Never! Le pantalon rouge c'est la France!" Some years later Messimy observed, "That blind and imbecile attachment to the most visible of all colors was to have cruel consequences." (See Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, 55.)

One hundred years later, it is easy to smile at this "quaint" story taken from an era when war and honor were still synonymous terms, but one cannot help but observe how frequently churches and their leaders adhere to the outmoded ways of thinking and behaving, crying out with fervor, "Le pantalon rouge c'est la France!" "True believers" of all stripes, indeed, are particularly prone to a "blind and imbecile" attachment to the past because they assign eternal consequences to every word they utter and belief they cherish.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Letting Go of Views (iii)

This is the third posting in a series of postings reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 2007; originally published in 1995). The introductory posting, setting the stage for the series, is (here).

Following up on the second posting regarding Thich Nhat Hanh's openness to other faiths, we turn to his fundamental premise regarding the relationship of one religion to another: "People kill and are killed because they cling too tightly to their own beliefs and ideologies.  When we believe that ours is the only faith that contains the truth, violence and suffering will surely be the result."  He insists that we must put aside the idea that our religion possesses "changeless, absolute truth" and calls on us to cultivate an attitude of nonattachment to our beliefs and an openness to those of other religions.  He concludes, "To me, this is the most essential practice of peace." (p. 2)

Thich Nhat Hanh is asking Western and Muslim people of faith to cultivate a more East Asian attitude toward religion, which takes beliefs less seriously and the practice of religion more seriously.  He wants us to think of religion as many Buddhists do in places like Thailand, where the common wisdom of Thai society endlessly repeated on the streets is that, "All religions teach the same thing, namely to make people better."

And he's not just calling on people of faith in the West and the Arab world to think about truth and religion in new ways.  He is challenging one of the fundamental characteristics of our societies, which is to take what we think about things with utter seriousness.  He is challenging political ideologues and activist atheists to change their attitudes about the truths they think they know and their opponents supposedly don't know.  He is telling us all that we need to chill, to back off, and to learn to hold our religious, political, and even anti-religious beliefs more gracefully and peacefully.  He may be too gracious to come out and say it in so many words, but he must see in our beliefs and ideologies a major source of global violence and unrest.  If he doesn't, he should, because they are.  For us to see the dangers of being "true believers," however, requires that we think outside of our inherited social box and to see those dangers in our own beliefs.  The point I want to emphasize here is that this is not just about religion.  It is about the way we think and value what we believe generally in Western and Muslim societies.  More in the next posting.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Making Fruit Salad (ii)

This is the second posting in a series of postings reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 2007; originally published in 1995). The introductory posting, which sets the stage for the series is (here).

Thich Nhat Hanh is a peaceful guy, but he starts off in the first section of the first chapter of Living Buddha, Living Christ (pp. 1-2) rather provocatively.  He tells about an inter-faith conference he once attended where one of the participants stated to the conference that, "We are going to hear about the beauties of several traditions but that does not mean that we are going to make a fruit salad."  Thich Nhat Hanh rejoined in his address by saying that fruit salad can be delicious, and he told how he had once shared the Eucharist with Fr. Daniel Berrigan.  He then writes, "Some of the Buddhists present were shocked to hear I had participated in the Eucharist, and many Christians seemed truly horrified."  But, he observed that for him there is no reason to taste just one fruit; he writes, "We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions."

For most of Christian history for most Christians these observations aren't just startling or disturbing, they are an invitation to practice heresy.  Where East Asian religions tend to have porous boundaries and worry less about heretical beliefs and practices, the religions born in West Asia, including Christianity, tend to worry much more about maintaining proper, even rigid boundaries.  Our spiritual inheritance, then, is one where labels and correct thinking and practice according to officially proscribed standards matter.  We have no intention of making a fruit salad from the various religions!

There's an upside and a downside to our constantly measuring our beliefs and practices by established theological and ecclesiastical standards.  We draw strength from knowing who we are.  We retain connections to the roots of our faith tradition.  We are encouraged to return to the earliest days of our faith to preserve the work of the Spirit and the person of Christ.  That's good.  What is not so good is that we often become so fixated with the boundaries that we actually looe sight of Christ and lose touch with the Spirit.  We obsess with whether we're in the right or not and we subject others to microscopic inspection as to the rightness of their beliefs and practices.  We can and do crush the very things we cherish by gripping them too tightly.  Spending some time with our neighbors of other faiths can show us that we need not grip our own faith quite so tightly and that loosening our grip can actually strengthen our faith in Christ, the Prince of Peace.  Amen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Living Buddha, Living Christ (i)

My wife, Runee, and I have now lived in Lowville, NY, for some 15 months, and I've served First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, as pastor for just over a year.  One of the things that attracted me to the church is its tradition of serious study and reflection that goes back for several pastorates.  This fall (2011), there are two study groups that meet on Mondays (1:00 and 7:00 pm) involving some 20 participants, most but not all of whom are members of the church.  We are currently reading the book, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 2007; originally published in 1995), by the well-known Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.  The discussions have been lively, wide-ranging, and challenging; their purpose is to use Thich Nhat Hanh's reflections as a mirror that will help us to see our Christian faith more clearly and deeply .

I thought it would be interesting to engage in some parallel reflections on Living Buddha, Living Christ here.  So, interspersed with other things, I'm going to start out on a series of such reflections.  They are not intended to summarize or even comment on the discussions taking place in our study groups.  Rather, they are personal explorations of the ways in which we can learn more about our own faith from our neighbors of other faiths and religions.  They are also autobiographical, reflecting my own personal experience of living in an intensely Buddhist nation, Thailand, for 25 years.  My neighbors in the village of Ban Dok Daeng (near Chiang Mai), where we lived for 11 years,  are Buddhists.  We attended numerous community events at the local temple.  I got to know the abbot fairly well, and we had some good discussions on matters of religion as well as life in our community.  Runee and I took part in a remarkable reconciliation of the two faiths in the village, Christianity and Buddhism, which for over a century had lived in uneasy tension with each other.  The result has been that the small church in Ban Dok Daeng has grown in strength, numbers, and spirit while also living in peace with its Buddhist neighbors.

Buddhism, personally, never had even the slightest appeal as an alternative to the Christian faith, but what I do find helpful are insights gleaned from Buddhist writings and from my neighbors in Ban Dok Daeng, which have helped me better understand my faith as a Christian.  There's a lot of good "stuff" in the various forms of Buddhism that can add texture and depth to our own journey toward Christian faith.  I'd like to share some of what I've learned from my Buddhist neighbors here.  Peace on the journey!  Herb

Friday, October 14, 2011

25 Christian Classics

The publishing firm Renovaré has recently published a book entitled, 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, the list for which was developed by an ecumenical panel assembled by the publisher.  The list contains both familiar works by such writers as St. Augustine and John Calvin as well as several works that few lay people have ever heard of including the Mediaeval classic, "The Cloud of Unknowing."  The purpose of this selection of 25 books is not to provide yet another list of the top whatever number of whatever things.  It isn't presenting a list of the top 25 Christian books of all time or the most popular Christian books in the history of the church.  Rather, it introduces its readers to 25 writings, of various types, that over the centuries have proven important in helping readers deepen their spiritual lives.  Reading these books, that is, will have an impact on the quality of one's Christian life.

If it be true that to an extent "we are what we read," then it is important that we spend some time each day or at least each week reading books and other devotional materials that keep us oriented toward spiritual things.  Doing so gives us a bit of space for quiet reflection in the midst of our lives and reminds us that there are things more important than the daily grind, even when we're doing good things with that grind.   Amen.

Here's the list:

1. On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius
2. Confessions by St. Augustine
3. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
4. The Rule of St. Benedict by St. Benedict
5. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
6. The Cloud of Unknowing by Anonymous
7. Revelations of Divine Love (Showings) by Julian of Norwich
8. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis
9. The Philokalia
10. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
11. The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila
12. Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross
13. Pensées by Blaise Pascal
14. The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
15. The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
16. A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law
17. The Way of a Pilgrim by Unknown Author
18. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
19. Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton
20. The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
21. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
22. A Testament of Devotion by Thomas R. Kelly
23. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
24. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
25. The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J. M. Nouwen

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Blame Game Reflections

There may not be a major collegiate football program in more dire straights than the one at the University of Minnesota.  Last week the Golden Gophers lost to a mediocre team, Purdue, 45-17.  They were behind at the end of the first quarter 28-0.  The week before they lost to the nationally ranked Michigan Wolverines, 58 to zip.  As horrible as these blow out losses are, the worst of it this season is probably the Gopher's loss to New Mexico State, perennially one of the worst football programs in the nation.

So, what do the good fans of Minnesota do?  According to a recent posting at The Daily Gopher website entitled, "Minnesota Gopher Football: Everybody just cool out," the blame game is on and some, maybe many fans, are laying that blame on the new coach, Jerry Kill.   There's a website, apparently, dedicated to the firing of a coach who has been onboard for only six games.  The posting argues that fans need to cool down, show some patience, and let Kill and his staff work through an admittedly difficult situation.

What makes all of this worthy of our attention is the way the posting begins.  It observes that our society today is a "society of blame" and a society of quick fixes.  When something goes wrong, we become reactive, looking for someone or something to blame—more often someone than some thing.  Once we assign blame, we want that individual gone or that cause fixed right now.  In other words, this is not just about football, the fans of one football team, or the state of the nation although. We're not the only people that play the blame game, and it isn't a recent invention.  Finger pointing reflects something central, deeply embedded in who we are as human beings, and it draws on the uglier side of human nature that we can't deny exists.  Blame kills.  It is a form of violence.

A couple of points: first, the pages of our newspapers and the webpages of our news websites are filled with grist for theological reflection.  Second, the church has been called into being to be a community of those who don't play the blame game, live in frustration and anger, or take things out on others.  We're called to practice the peace we preach.  Not easy, admittedly, but it why we exist.  Now, it is true that bad situations have their causes, and it is important always to discover those causes.  It is equally true, however, that blame game politics seldom gets to the bottom of matters, and by putting everything on a scapegoat usually serves to perpetuate the deeper causes—like why some schools, some programs produce winning teams year after year (think Ohio State) while others struggle for one now and again (think Minnesota).  God is creating us to be better than all of this, and our job is to get beyond blame to the task of moving on with that divine program of ongoing creation.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Mixed News from Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar)

Recent Internal Refugees in Burma
A recent Al Jazeera article entitled, "Winds of change in Myanmar" reports that the political and economic situation in Burma seems to be improving.  That nation has long suffered under a brutally repressive military regime that has now been replaced with a civilian government, which seems genuinely committed to reform.  The political repression has eased up, and the economy is growing after decades of stagnation and poverty.  This is good news because while it never received the press attention of other repressive states such as North Korea Burma has been one of the quiet tragedies of the planet.

Sadly, however, other recent reports indicate that the new Burmese government is pursuing its war on Burma's ethnic groups with, if anything, renewed vigor.  The AP, for example, reports in an article entitled, "AP Enterprise: In Myanmar, living in fear of army," that the Burmese army has taken the offensive against rebel groups with which it has had long-standing cease fire agreements.  As it has in the past, the army evidently continues to pursue its military aims at the expense of civilian populations and has forced still more ethnic refugees over the border into Thailand.

In Thailand, we frequently heard stories of the atrocities practiced by the Burmese government and army.  Some of the worst forms of violence people experience living under a repressive government are not physical so much as psychological and spiritual.  Life is grim, drab, and unjust in a myriad of small ways.  People must be cautious about what they say, guarded in who they trust.  It is good that things are changing for the ethnic Burmese who dominate the nation.  We can only pray that the government will soon extend its more open approach to the people in the hills who have been in rebellion for some six decades.  There can't be true peace and reconciliation in Burma until they receive justice.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ya Gotta Have Faith

Atomic model of a silver-aluminum (Ag-Al) quasicrystal (from Wikipedia article)
Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman has been awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry for his discovery back in the 1980s of "quasicrystals," a new kind of crystal with a structure previously thought impossible.  To win a Nobel Prize in anything is a remarkable feat, but how Shechtman did it is just as remarkable.  He was working in the United States when he first observed this strange new crystalline structure, and when he reported his findings he ran into a brick wall of utter rejection.  In fact, he was asked to resign his position in the U.S. as a result.  Among those who most vehemently rejected Shechtman's discovery was Dr. Linus Pauling, a world class scientist.

Yet, Shechtman knew what he had seen in his electron microscope and persevered in his studies and in his faith in his findings.  He has now been more than vindicated with numerous honors and prizes culminating in the Nobel Prize.

In an article in the Israeli newspaper, Al Haaretz, entitled, "Clear as crystal," reporter Asaf Shtull-Trauring quotes Shechtman concerning his tribulations in getting the scientific world to accept his discovery. Shechtman said, "In the forefront of science there is not much difference between religion and science. People harbor beliefs. That's what happens when people believe something religiously. The argument with Linus Pauling was almost theological."  More recently, Shechtman himself has written (here), "When I lecture to young students, I always tell them that if they want to be successful scientists who make a contribution, they have to be experts in their fields. But a good scientist also needs faith. I believed in something, and it was hard to break my spirit, despite all the hardships and criticism."

Science is not the cool, rational, objective endeavor the critics of religion would have us believe.  It shares traits, both good and not so good, with theology as an academic field and with religion as the pursuit and living out of ultimate truths.  A "good scientist" has to bring faith to his or her research and rely on that faith in the pursuit of scientific truth.  That's the good.  The not so good is that scientists tend to be like other true believers.  Once they know 'the Truth," they can be stubborn, willful, arrogant, and ignorant in defending their "truth".  Militant anti-theism campaigns against religion because religion is supposedly a public menace.  The rhetoric, the anger, and the narrow-minded my-way-or-the-highway attitudes that underlie that campaign suggest that if the day ever comes when militant anti-theism dominates our society, it will prove as dictatorial and oppressive as it thinks religion is.

That is not to say that science and religion are precisely the same.  To science's credit, Shechtman has now won over the scientific community because he was right (and because he persevered in being right in the face of strident opposition).   In the world of religion, he would have had to start his own denomination.  Determining the truth of doctrines is a different ball game, and it takes much longer to resolve things even when they can even be resolved.  Still the main point remains.  The actual practice of science shows clear parallels with the actual practice of religion.  Both are flawed, human practices—a fact the partisans of each practice tend to forget.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Working for Peace

To work for peace, you must have a peaceful heart.

Thich Nhat Hanh, 
Living Buddha, Living Christ,
page 74

Playing Footloose with the Truth

Back in May, I posted a report (here) on the relative lack of accuracy of political pundits when it comes to analyzing the implications of political events.  According to research done by a group of students at Hamilton College, only six of 26 pundits they rated got things right more than 50% of the time.  In other words, when it comes to the punditry we are better off flipping a coin than we are putting any store in their "insights" into the meaning of events.

Now comes a report entitled, "Pundits fare poorly on the Truth-O-Meter," on the website PolitiFact.com, which analyzes the truthfulness of America's best known political commentators. PolitiFact.com compared its ongoing analysis of the truthfulness of general news reports with those of the pundits, and it found that the pundits presented false information 49% of the time.  It breaks down this way: "moderately false" information 14% of the time; "false" information 25% of the time; and "pants on fire" (utterly) false 10% of the time.  In other words, when a TV political commentator tells us something, there is nearly a 50% chance that they are giving us factually incorrect information.

We can't trust their facts.  We can't trust their opinions.  The problem is, of course, that people believe what these pundits tell them, particularly when what they hear fits their preconceived notions.   People are basing their political opinions on untruths and half-truths, and that hurts us all.  Another problem is that the punditry are just one more group that we can't trust—a vocal, influential group.  In a time when trust is at a premium anyway, the pundits just add to the problem.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

FPC Back Then

FPC, Lowville, 1943
A few weeks ago, I was scouting around looking for information on Utica Presbytery, the presbytery that First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, belongs to, and came across a 1943 centennial history of the presbytery that contains historical sketches and photographs of the churches in the presbytery.  Although the FPC building, a.k.a. "The Stone Church," is widely photographed, I suspect that this is one that most of those connected with the church haven't seen before.  And, the historical sketch is interesting as well.  So, here they are.

Founded 1803

In 1803 sixteen pioneers organized the Congregational Church of Lowville at Stow's Square, a mile north of the present village, meeting in homes and the school house. This church was connected with the Black River Association and functioned regularly. A church was built and dedicated in 1819, and in the same year the relationship with the Black River Association was dissolved, and the church, assenting to the Presbyterian form of faith, united with the St. Lawrence Presbytery
on February 23, 1820. Thus Stow's Square Church became the First Presbyterian Society of Lowville.

In the meantime, in the village of Lowville, a church was organized in 1807, and was known as the First Congregational Society of Lowville. The pastor of the Stow's Square Church also served this church. This condition continued until July 11, 1822, when twelve persons, members of either the Stow's Square Church or the Congregational Society of Lowville, constituted themselves into a branch of the Presbyterian Church. Out of this organization grew what is now the First Presbyterian Church of Lowville. The early reports of the church were made to the Presbytery of St. Lawrence under the name of the Second Church of Lowville, and it was not until 1870 that the church reported to Utica Presbytery.

The clerk of the Stow's Square Church recorded in 1850 that there had been no meetings of that church for a year, and that its members were all supporting the church in Lowville. The fact is that the Lowville Church had absorbed the Stow's Square Church, and called itself the First Presbyterian Church. A monument now marks the spot on which stood the original Stow's Square Church.

In 1826 the Presbyterian Society of Lowville purchased the building of the Congregational Society and used it for services until it burned in December of the same year. A new church was built and dedicated on January 15, 1829, and this church burned almost exactly one year later. Undaunted, the church which now numbered 82 members, built a new stone church, which was completed and dedicated in 1830. This is the building which still stands at the head of the park in Lowville and is still in use. Extensive alterations were made on this building in 1906 and again in 1937, and today it stands as a monument to heroic souls of a day gone by, and is loved and cherished by all its members.

The manse was purchased in 1848, and the Session House, now known as the Chapel, was built in 1853. Twenty-three ministers have served the church since its founding in 1822. The present pastor. Rev. O. Theodore Anderson, was installed in 1929, and serves a congregation of 406 persons.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

End of a Twenty Year Drought

Last night, the Minnesota Lynx won its first WNBA basketball title, beating the Atlanta Dream 73-67 to sweep the best of five championship series.  In each game, the Lynx went into the locker room at half-time losing the game.  It took fourth quarter surges in games 1 and 2 for the Lynx to win those games.  In game 3, the Lynx had to hold on in the face of a late surge by the Dream, which they did admirably.  It was a great game with all of the drama one would expect of a finals bout.

Now, here's the thing.  This is the first championship title won by a professional Minnesota sports team since the Minnesota Twins last won the World Series in 1991.  Moreover, the Lynx last night achieved something that the football Vikings, basketball Timberwolves, and hockey Wild (or the old North Stars) have yet to achieve, a championship season start to finish.  Well done, Lynx!

So, guys, who is next?  And how much longer do the long-suffering fans of Minnesota have to wait?

BC/AD versus CE/BCE

In the U.S., we divide ourselves into two great camps: those who wish each other "Merry Christmas," and those who prefer "Happy Holidays." In Britain, they've found another way to divide the sheep from the goats. The BBC has announced that from now on it will use C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) in place of B.C. and A.D.  According to a recent article in the Washington Post (here), the decision has proven unpopular in several circles.  A number of Christian groups, of course, are mad because they see in the decision a denial of Britain's Christian heritage.  But others scoff at the BBC because it will still count its years from (or before) the birth of Christ; changing the name pastes over that fact.  And then there are those who have little use for political correctness of any kind and see the decision as just more of "that sort of thing."  The BBC justified the change as one that replaces Christian-oriented terms with neutral ones that are more appropriate to Britain's pluralistic society.

Scholars have used the C.E./B.C.E. convention for years mostly because it replaces a religious-leaning convention with one that doesn't show bias toward one religion.  The idea is, in part at least, that using B.C. and A.D. suggests that Christianity is the benchmark by which all else is measured.  At the end of the day, this is another one of those things that one can make a case for both arguments.  Indeed, Daniel Wallace, writing on the bible.org website (here) presents a cogent case from an evangelical Christian point of view for C.E. over A.D.

In the church, we will continue to use the traditional abbreviations because they express what is true for us: Jesus is the axial moment in our history.  But it really shouldn't be a matter worth getting all bothered about otherwise.  Using the newer abbreviations acknowledges the fact that we do live in a pluralistic society.  It also replaces an obscure Latin abbreviation, Anno Domini, with an English one.  But, truth be told, the BBC's critics are right when they note that changing the terms doesn't change the fact that we still count our years based on the birth of Christ—in our calendar, at least.  Now, in Thailand, the year is 2554 B.E. (Buddhist Era), and Christians in Thailand count the years from the Buddha just as readily as do Buddhists.  On a daily basis no one stops to think why it is 2554 instead of 2011.  Just like here, in Europe, and even in Britain, we use 2011 day in and day out and rarely stop and say, "Oh, yes, it is 2,011 years since Christ."

Maybe some people take this abbreviation stuff too seriously.  Ya think.

New Review at Rom Phra Khun Reviews

There's a new book review at Rom Phra Khun Reviews. It is a review of David Dungan,s, A History of the Synoptic Problem. The "Synoptic problem" deals with the questions raised by the close similarities between the "Synoptic Gospels," Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Sounds dull, I know, but in fact the issues discussed (some time with passion) by Dungan are important.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Seeing the Way, Taking the Path

When Jesus said, "I am the way, He meant that to have a true relationship with God, you must practice His way.  In the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christians always spoke of their faith as "the Way."  To me, "I am the way" is a better statement than "I know the way."  The way is not an asphalt road.  But we must distinguish between the "I" spoken by Jesus and the "I" that people usual think of.  The "I" in His statement is life itself, which is the way.  If you do not really look at His life, you cannot see the way.  If you only satisfy yourself with praising a name, even the name of Jesus, it is not practicing the life of Jesus.  We must practice living deeply, loving, and act with charity if we wish to truly honor Jesus.  The way is Jesus Himself and not just some idea of Him.  A true teaching is not static.  It is not mere words but the reality of life."

Thich Nhat Hanh
Living Buddha, Living Christ
pages 55-56

Thursday, October 6, 2011

"Abandoning Self" to Ideology & Power

There is a simple rule of thumb when it comes to spiritual matters.  When an individual publicly proclaims her own spiritual righteousness, we can be sure she is not righteous.  When an individual publicly proclaims her spiritual right-ness in the context of a national political campaign for the presidency in order to cement her political base with one wing of the American Christian movement, we can be sure that she is using her religion for personal gain.  In a recent address to students at Liberty University, Lynchburg, Virginia, presidential contender Michelle Bachmann said, ""Even though I hadn't been a drinker, even though I never did drugs ... even though I hadn't been chasing around, it didn't matter. I was a sinner." She went on to say, "I radically abandoned myself to Jesus Christ."  She went on to place a series of hard core right-wing ideological positions in the context of her radical abandonment of herself to Christ including opposition to abortion, opposition to "Obamacare," and unquestioning support of Israel.  The evidently unstated assumption and assertion was that in abandoning herself to Christ she has become God's warrior or champion in the American political arena.  Her religion, that is, validates her candidacy and, by extension, God does as well.

In the realm of the Spirit, if ya got it, ya don't flaunt it.  That is basic, fundamental to spirituality across the major religions including most especially Christianity.  We are painfully aware of Jesus' struggle against self-proclaimed righteousness in his own day.  Religious establishment types in his day would stand in the temple in Jerusalem and loudly proclaim their righteousness in self-serving prayers (Matthew 6:5).  Jesus criticized them for it.  One cannot judge Bachmann's personal faith when she's not on the stump, but when she uses that faith as a political tool then the public use of it becomes fair game for analysis, and in that context it is clear that publicly she has not abandoned herself to Christ but to a religious ideology and the quest for power.  In her public expression of her ideology, we hear little spirituality.  She is, instead, bombastic, aggressive, and impressively self-righteous.  The fact that she is trailing badly in the polls only seems to bring out these traits in her all the more clearly.  Michelle Bachmann's public behavior is that of a person who is hungry for power and using religion as an avenue to gain power.

In the long history of the Christian faith, those who have radically given themselves to Christ display marks of a deep humility that is aware of how impossible it is for any person to radically abandon themselves to God.  On their knees in  prayer and meditation, they seek to give self over to God.  Let me be clear.  Any politician on the national public stage in our super-heated ideological age who claims to have given herself (or himself) to Christ is simply not to be trusted.  The words do not reflect the reality especially when they are used to "gin up the base."

A Day Made of Glass

Even though it is advertising, I suppose, the following video is worth watching.  It describes the amazing changes that are coming in the use of glass to transmit information.  It's just a five minute watch.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Our Greatest Gift from God

On the spiritual journey, there is usually someone in our family, business or community whom we cannot endure, someone who has a genius for bringing out the worst in us. No matter what we do, we cannot seem to improve the relationship. They have not done anything to cause it. God simply uses them to reflect back to us what our problem is. Thus the person who gives us the most trouble may be our greatest gift from God.

Thomas Keating
Source: Invitation to Love

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Great Ends of the Church (xxiii)

FPC, Lowville, NY
For twenty-two posts, we've been working through the Mars Hill Church's eight criteria for what it means to be a local church. As we saw way back in the the first posting (here), Mars Hill applies these criteria to its branch congregations, which it now considers to be churches in their own right rather than "merely" branches of the main congregation. Mars Hill is one of the largest and most influential megachurches in America, and we can assume that its understanding of the church reflects that of many others. From all that I've written during this long series of postings, it should be clear that I personally find these eight criteria helpful but not entirely adequate. My concerns have been mostly matters of emphasis, something more than quibbles but by no means outright rejection.

So, in bringing this series to a close, I thought it might be helpful to take a peek at the official Presbyterian understanding of the church. The following paragraph is taken from our denominational constitution, the Book of Order. Under the heading of "The Great Ends of the Church," it says,
"The great ends of the church are the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world." (Book of Order 2009/2011)
The church has five tasks: evangelism, fellowship, worship, teaching, and service—all directed to the end that we might show our neighbors what it means to live in faith, what the world might be like if we all did.  That is a pretty good list and a worthy reason for churches to be.  They might even give reason for another series of postings on what it means to be the church—eventually.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Outreach in Love (xxii)

FPC, Lowvilee, NY
This is the twenty-second posting in this series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches. The series began (here), and the previous posting (xxi) is (here). We take one more look at the eighth and final criterion, which reads, "The church is an evangelistic community where the gospel of Jesus is constantly made visible by its preaching, its witness of the members, and its Spirit-empowered life of love."

In the last posting, I rounded off on the evangelism that one finds on mission fields and among evangelical churches.  We have to modify such criticism by remembering that in the last 40-50 years the American evangelical movement has been remarkably successful by every measure of statistical success and has pumped huge amounts of religious energy into American society.  It is far from all good, but it is also far from all bad.  The indications are, as I've noted in several postings over the course of things, that contemporary evangelicalism is diversifying, changing, and losing steam.  At the end of the day, revivalistic church growth strategies can only take churches so far, as evangelical churches are now beginning to learn.

Mainline churches, so-called, generally don't talk much about evangelism and do even less about it.  Fewer and fewer churches have evangelism committees where the great majority do have mission or outreach committees.  That's how mainline churches "do" evangelism—through social action, community outreach, and service to those beyond the church.  For sure, this emphasis on service does not lead to church growth, if by church growth we mean statistical growth and winning converts.  On the other hand, it is a mark of mainline commitment to Christ that has important consequences for society.  When, for example, a flood of Vietnamese refugees arrived on our shores after the Vietnam War, it was primarily the churches that welcomed the refugees and helped them get started in American society.  In doing so, they consciously sought to fulfill Christ's injunction to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.  One thing that receives less attention than it deserves is the fact that mainline church members are often deeply involved in various helping and service agencies, and many of them see their vocations as opportunity to serve in the name of Christ.

So, the bottom line is that if we mainline folks were better at evangelism and the evangelical folks were better at social service (and they already do a fair amount), we'd probably both be better off as would our society.  Amen.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Learning Trust

This morning's sermon at First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, is the fourth and final one in a series on faith as trust.  Working from Psalm 46, the series is based on a simple formula, "a + b = c," where "a" stands for "God is our refuge," "b" for "always ready to help," and "c" is "therefore, we don't have to be afraid." (Psalm 46:1-2)  It's a formula that is found throughout the Bible, and it leads to the conclusion that faith in the Judeo-Christian tradition is trust in God—not more, not less.  The point of this morning's sermon is that the formula only works if we put our trust in God.  If we don't, then God isn't our refuge.  We'll get no help, and we have every reason to be afraid when the bad stuff of life happens.

So easy to preach.  Incredibly harder to live.  Most of us circle around it and around it and around it, and we never quite get there—even at the best of times.  Or, actually, at the worst of times, because it is in the hard times that we discover trust or don't.  Faith is not all that hard until the hard times hit.  One of the things I emphasize in my preaching and in this blog is that our faith in God keeps morphing into trust in other lesser things.  Some of us get caught up in our systems of beliefs and ideologies (two words for the same thing)—whether right, center, or left-leaning.  For others its the proper liturgy, ecclesiology, or form of church government.  Simple trust in God without the human add ons is incredibly difficult for some reason.

There's nothing new in these thoughts, but we have to keep thinking them.  We have to keep trying to relax our anxieties, gently tame our desires and hungers, put aside all of the spiritual crutches we manufacture, and just go with the flow, which is to say with the Spirit.  The saints and mystics tell us that when we let go of all the baggage (our yokes), the load is truly lighter.  But, we keep carrying the load—the vast majority of us.  We just can't let it be as simple as "a + b = c."  But, if the Psalms and the whole of the Bible are any witness, it is that simple.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Evangelism (xxi)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the twenty-first posting in this series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches. The series began (here). We have finally arrived at the eighth and final criterion, which reads, "The church is an evangelistic community where the gospel of Jesus is constantly made visible by its preaching, its witness of the members, and its Spirit-empowered life of love."

In the previous posting, on the seventh criterion, Fellowship, I stole some of the thunder of this last criterion. The point there, you will recall, was that the earliest church grew for a number of reasons including the person of Christ and the quality of its loving fellowship. Evangelism, as such, wasn't a key factor. Paul's commitment to full-time itinerant evangelism was very much the exception rather than the rule.

When I taught early church history to seminarians in Thailand (for about four years or so), I emphasized the fact that it was the quality of church life rather than aggressive evangelism that motivated many to join the earliest churches. In Thailand, generations of missionaries had ingrained in Christian converts the importance of evangelism, emphasizing that it was the most important ministry of the church. So successful had they been in this emphasis, that the churches had virtually become one dimensional churches. Even funerals and weddings were conducted with an eye to evangelizing participants who weren't Christians.  The result was that other vital ministries of the church has never been properly developed, including Christian education and pastoral care.

The lesson from the mission field is that the unmodified, bald statement that, "The church is an evangelistic community" is dangerous to the church.  Churches carry out evangelism as one of their outreach ministries.  Some members and leaders feel themselves called to be evangelists.  But the church has other ministries, other callings, all of which have their vital importance to the life of the church.  Short-term, an evangelistic emphasis may result in rapid statistical growth, but long term it is all but certain to cripple the full life of the church in question.