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


Sunday, December 30, 2012

God is breathing gently, 
God never hurries, 
Is never anxious or pressing, 
God just waits,
Breathing gently upon us
With great tenderness
Until we look to God -
And, knowingly,
Nod.

Edwina Gateley
 Source: I Hear a Seed Growing

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Race We Must Not Lose

In a world where climate change has become a fact of life and pollution remains a horrendous global challenge, we have to wonder whether or not the human race can survive its own success as a species—"success" here measured by our ability to proliferate across the face of the Earth (and, quite possibly, beyond the Earth).  Sometimes, it feels like we are losing the battle for survival by fouling our planetary nest to the point that it will no longer be able to sustain human life.

There are counter trends, however, it seems very possible (likely?) that science, which is the tool we use today to destroy our environment,  may also provide us with ways out of our predicament.  One example is the article entitled, "Unique Bacteria Fights Man-Made Chemical Mess," written by Ayesha Monga Kravetz of the National Science Foundation. The article describes the development of strains of bacteria that are able to degrade a potent industrial pollutant, polychlorinated biphenyls, more commonly known as PCBs.  Although banned for use in the U.S. in 1979, PCBs tend to linger long in the environment, and while there are natural bacteria that do degrade PCBs they do so only very slowly.  Researchers have now developed new strains that work much more quickly and effectively on the PCBs, which offers the very real possibility that commercially developed bacteria will eventually be available to clean up PCBs and make our environment just that much less toxic.

Similar research is being conducted to address other forms of pollution, which offers us the hope that "all is not lost."  Life on Earth in general—and the human race in particular—can be seen as a grand experiment, testing whether or not "life as we know it" can continue to inhabit this planet.  God's gift to us is the possibility of failure (a.k.a. freedom).  Let's not make use that gift.

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Peek at the Future

In an article entitled, "Who's filling America's church pews," correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald, writes of denominational changes taking place in New England, "Now emerging in the land of Cotton Mather and Robert Frost are religious cultures marked by immigrant experiences and creative worship, with emphasis on good works and personal holiness."  The article begins with the obvious and usual comments on the decline of the oldline churches in New England, noting for example that the last mainline seminary in New England will soon be closing to be followed, shortly, by the opening of a Southern Baptist Seminary.  MacDonald feels that developments in New England, the least religious region in America, may provide insights into the shape of things to come.

It is worth noting the key marks of the new religious cultures as quoted above: immigrant backgrounds, creative worship, an emphasis on good works, and personal holiness.  According to the article, a good deal of the growth of the newer churches is among immigrants, an avenue not open to most mainline churches, although there are exceptions.  The PC(USA) Presbytery of Boston is, for example, seeing some growth in its congregations fueled by Presbyterian immigrants from West Africa. There is no reason, on the other hand, why Presbyterian and other mainline churches can't engage in a search for more creative worship, hands on good works, and a more personal spirituality.  In fact, mainline churches are frequently quite adept at the good works piece of the pie.

Where mainline churches face issues in adapting themselves to the 21st century is in creative worship and personal faith development.  Creative worship is tricky in and of itself and frequently resisted by pastors as well as their parishioners.  Creative worship involves mastering skills and technologies unfamiliar to many pastors, and it can be seriously hit-and-miss.  And one of the most serious obstacles facing mainline creative worship is that the kind of technology-driven, drums & guitars creative worship many Americans seem to want is already being done by evangelical churches—being done better than your average declining mainline church can hope to do it.  And the folks who are in our pews don't want that kind of worship, anyway.  A Presbyterian pastor in Michigan once shared with me the "journey" he and his congregation had travelled in worship.  They explored a variety of alternative forms of worship and made a full-faith effort to develop a creative, experimental, and "exciting" worship life for the church.  He said their journey had eventually led them to the conclusion that they did best when they did traditional mainline worship as well as they could.

The one door that I see wide open for the congregation I serve as pastor and other mainline churches, then, is the quest for a deeper personal spirituality.  Not everyone in a church is interested in such a thing, but I suspect that the percentage is higher than most would guess and higher than it was in the glory years of the 1950s.  Prayer and meditation.  Engagement with scripture.  Reading spiritual literature.  Dialogue with others of faith.  Sermons & worship that focus on seeking God and discovering the Spirit.  Such an agenda can lead churches to new vitality, whether or not it leads them back to the era of statistical growth and past the demographic imbalance of the present.  There are, of course, obstacles not the least of which is the fact that we tend to identify personal spirituality with evangelicalism and, thus, shy away as if a deeper personal faith is somehow chained to theologies and attitudes that we find objectionable.  It isn't.  We just need to learn that we can remain true to our mainline heritage and also engage in a life of growth in personal faith.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Earth or earth?

I wish I could remember where I first read it, but I do recall reading many years ago an article dedicated to the proposition that we should always capitalize the word "Earth" unless we are specifically referring to dirt rather than the planet we live on.  Without the capitcal "E", the word suggests that the only place with dirt, the only planet in the universe is this one.  It obscures the reality that we live on what is just the tiniest of specks in a magnificent universe.  It is as if the Copernican Revolution never happened.  The failure to capitalize the "E" when referring to the Earth also forces us to make the word an exception to the rule that specific heavenly bodies are capitalized, especially the planets of our solar system.  We live on the Earth.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Romans 14: Non-Dualistic Dualism

Dualistic thinking is black-and-white thinking, no grays.  Right is right and always so.  Wrong is wrong and in every case.  There is no middle ground, and those who try to occupy a middle ground are in danger of treason or, at best, are fooling themselves.  Dualism, when adhered to strictly and consistently is an ideology, one shared by "true believers" of whatever persuasion.

The Bible is markedly dualistic.  Psalm 1 sets the tone not only for the Psalms but also for the Bible more generally.  It describes the ways of the wicked and the righteous.  The Apostle Paul was a dualist, notably in his distinction between salvation by grace as opposed to works (see Romans 11:5-6).  Rigid dualists can take frequent comfort from the Bible because they find much in it to justify their dualism.

Some of us, however, are non-dualists, or at least try to be (just ignore for a minute the logical contradiction of distinguishing non-dualists from dualists in a dualistic fashion!).  Can we take any comfort from the scriptures if we believe there is usually a middle ground, things are almost never absolute, and dualism makes neat and tidy things that are inherently messy?  Romans 14 is one place where things are no not quite so cut-and-dried and non-dualists can find biblical reflections that make sense from their perspective.  In this chapter, Paul wrestles with divisions within the Roman church, especially over the question of eating or not eating certain foods and giving importance or not to certain days.  Paul is a dualist, and so he divides the Roman Christians into those who are "strong in faith," that is those who eat anything and don't distinguish days and those who are "weak in faith" and do make such distinctions.  He counsels mutual forbearance and cautions against judgment.  He admonishes particularly the strong in faith not to engage in actions that will cause the weak to stumble.

In verse 14, he writes, "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean."  So, he goes on to say to the strong in faith, don't act without love by eating what the weak in faith find unclean.  The unclean food won't hurt the strong, but if the strong eat it injury is done to the weak.  The problem Paul seeks to address here is a common one, namely two well-intentioned individuals see the same thing differently.  For one, a religious image of some sort points to profound spiritual truths.  For another, the same image is nothing more than a piece of art.  For still another, it is a symbol of human folly.  In the case in Romans, the problem is food.  In our churches today it is a whole range of contentious issues, many arising out of our view of the Bible itself (literal versus non-literal).

It is worth noting that Paul considers those who have no qualms about eating impure foods as being the ones who are strong in their faith. That, one would think, would be the more "liberal" position.  Go ahead!  Eat what you want (as long as you don't cause a scandal for those with weaker faith).  You know it won't hurt you and so it won't.  Context and situation matter.  There is not an absolute right or wrong here other than the rule of love.  Act with love!  Even "flaming liberal's" will acknowledge the non-negotiable nature of the injunction to act lovingly, while also acknowledging that it is not always easy to distinguish what is most loving in a given situation.

But the larger point remains.  In Romans 14, Paul treats an important question of theological and ethical conflict in the church in a way that mixes non-dualism in with his fundamental dualism.  He acknowledges that things are not always black-and-white and that the right thing to do depends on the situation the faithful Christian finds herself in.  And the strong in faith should stand ready to compromise their beliefs for the sake of other, less strong followers of Christ.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

Gentle God

God is breathing gently, 
God never hurries, 
Is never anxious or pressing, 
God just waits,
Breathing gently upon us
With great tenderness
Until we look to God -
And, knowingly,
Nod.

Edwina Gateley
 Source: I Hear a Seed Growing

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Again We Ask, "So What is the Problem?"

source: skepticink.com
In the United States today there are over 250 million cars.  We register them.  We tax them.  We require a license to drive one.  We put tags on them so that law-enforcement can readily identify them.  They are numbered so that each vehicle can always be accounted for.  We set safety standards for the use of our cars including such things as seat belts, turn signals, and special seats for children.  We have created large bureaucracies to manage all of this.  And no one questions the value, necessity, or right of government to regulate the manufacture and use of motor vehicles in the United States.  Nor does all of this reduce the availability of cars.  The reason we regulate the manufacture and use of motor vehicles is because they are dangerous and, uncontrolled, could become a public nuisance..  In 2011, roughly 32,000 people died in auto accidents.

In the United States today there are well-over 200 million firearms in private hands.  There is a huge lobby devoted to obstructing any regulation of these firearms, and it has been impressively successful to that end.  We are warned that any regulation of firearms puts us on the "slippery slope," which will bring to an end private gun ownership in America.  In 2007, over 30,000 people in the U.S. died at the hands of guns, including a significant number of suicides.

Guns are as dangerous as cars, but, when it comes to cars, there is no "slippery slope."  There is no paranoia over regulation.  Why is the regulation of cars to the benefit of society as a whole acceptable but the regulation of firearms, which are just as dangerous, not?  What's the problem?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Notice the Wonder

To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.

Abraham Joshua Heschel
Source: Quest for God

Thursday, December 20, 2012

So, What's the Problem?

Throughout the late-1940s and 1950s, the top marginal tax rate was typically above 90%; today it is 35%. Additionally, the top capital gains tax rate was 25% in the 1950s and 1960s, 35% in the 1970s; today it is 15%. The real GDP growth rate averaged 4.2% and real per capita GDP increased annually by 2.4% in the 1950s. In the 2000s, the average real GDP growth rate was 1.7% and real per capita GDP increased annually by less than 1%. This analysis finds no conclusive evidence, however, to substantiate a clear relationship between the 65-year reduction in the top statutory tax rates and economic growth. Analysis of such data conducted for this report suggests the reduction in the top tax rates has had little association with saving, investment, or productivity growth. It is reasonable to assume that a tax rate change limited to a small group of taxpayers at the top of the income distribution would have a negligible effect on economic growth.  (Summary page)

However, the top tax rate reductions appear to be correlated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution. As measured by IRS data, the share of income accruing to the top 0.1% of U.S. families increased from 4.2% in 1945 to 12.3% by 2007 before falling to 9.2% due to the 2007-2009 recession. At the same time, the average tax rate paid by the top 0.1% fell from over 50% in 1945 to about 25% in 2009. The statistical analysis in this report suggests that tax policy could be related to how the economic pie is sliced—lower top tax rates may be associated with greater income disparities. (p. 17)

Thomas L. Hungerford
"Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945"
Congressional Research Service Report, December 12, 2012

It seems simple enough even for those of us who aren't great at math or trained in economics.  Higher tax rates on the wealthy do not negatively impact economic growth.  They do, however, contribute to greater income disparities. They are unfair.  These conclusions are based on data.  The data is not red and it is not blue.  It just is.  We have a pressing need to better help the people who struggle at the margins of society.  We face a desperate need to invest in ways to reduce greenhouse gases and clean up pollution. Our national infrastructure is crumbling and increasingly unsafe.   We thus need increased revenue, and we can get some of it from raising tax rates on people who clearly can afford it without any negative repercussions for the nation.  So, what's the problem?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Simulation Argument: Weird

Prof. Nick Bostrom
source: www.nickbostrom.com
This one is more than a little difficult to wrap one's head around, and I suspect that most folks will reject it out of hand as being weird and, therefore, dumb.  An Oxford professor, Nick Bostrom, has worked out the idea that our whole universe may be nothing more than a computer simulation being run by an advanced "post-human" race.  That race might itself be a simulation of a still older race, which itself is yet another simulation...well, you get the picture.  Arguably, down there "someplace" is the "Prime Designer," a race that has or once had a real physical existence.  Bostrom has dedicated a website, The Simulation Argument, to the idea, if you are interested in following up on it.  The homepage is basically a long list of links, which begins with his initial paper on the subject, "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?" (2003).  John Tierney's New York Times post, "Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch" is a good summary of the main points of the simulation argument.

The argument is taken seriously enough that physicists have been investigating it and some argue (see here) that they have evidence that we do in fact live within a computer simulation (we're talkin' a mammoth sized computer here!), and there is now a team of researchers who claim they have ways to test the simulation argument (see here).

A couple of points in all of this rise to the surface: first, even if we are living in a computer simulation, our world is still real to us.  Second, the whole argument raises important theological issues and possibilities.  For example, heaven and hell could be programmed into our reality by the simulator, whoever that might be.  Indeed, the simulator becomes a prime candidate for God, the One who Created All That Is (to us).  This would certainly explain why we live in a universe that is perfectly fitted to our human existence, which we do.

One argument goes that we may know whether or not we are living in a simulation sometime around the year 2050 when we ourselves develop computers large enough to create whole-universe simulations.  It could be that our creator will then terminate our simulation because there is not enough computing power in the megacomputer we "live" in to support a simulation within a simulation.  At that point, we will presumably wink out of existence.  The Mayans were right!  They just got the date wrong!

I'm not even sure what to do with this.  Evidently, some very smart people take the simulation seriously.  But, should we take them seriously?  Weird.

Worth A Look

For some thoughts on the relationship of faith, God, & the Sandy Hook tragedy, you might want to look at Stephen Prothero, "Six things I don't want to hear after the Sandy Hook massacre."  The six things he doesn't want to hear are:
  • "It was God's will."
  • "Jesus called the children home.”
  • “After death, there is the resurrection.”
  • “This was God’s judgment.”
  • “This happened because America is too secular.”
  • “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
He concludes, "If you believe in a God who is all powerful and all good, then covering up for the Almighty at a time like this is in my view deeply unfaithful. Today is a day to shake your fist at heaven and demand answers, and then to shake it harder when no answers are forthcoming. To do anything else is in my view to diminish the idea of God, and to cheapen faith in the process." The whole posting is worth a read.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It Feels Different

Maybe this time is different. It feels different.  It felt different in worship this past Sunday morning.  The intensity of the congregation was palpable during the time that we focused on Sandy Hook Elementary.  Comments after worship showed that we had all been thinking about Sandy Hook and share, if dimly and at a distance, in the grief being felt there.  The media coverage, at least on CNN and MSNBC, feels different, too.  The reporters clearly have been swept up in the pain of the moment.  With the President taking the lead, political leaders have vowed to go to the mats for gun control legislation, and while most of them are Democrats there have been some Republican voices as well.  The NRA has gone silent, as it does at these times, but a New York Times posting (here) reminds us that silence is its common tactic.  It waits and then frustrates any gun legislation later.  This time, however, the NRA silence seems to be...well, a deeper silence.  And, there is the larger subject of our "national culture of violence," which is again being taken up.  There's a realization that mental health needs to be looked at again.

In all of this, the thing that makes Sandy Hook different is the tone.  This one hurt because of the ages of the children and the bravery of the teachers.  It is bad enough when something like this happens to 16 year-olds in a high school, but six year-olds and kids who were only seven?  This hurts even more.  I suspect that Sandy Hook also hurts still more because of the locale—a quiet, safe suburb, one of the last places we associate with violence like this.  Yes, the ongoing humanitarian crises in places like Syria take far, far more innocent lives, and, yes, children and innocent by-standers die virtually every day in our nation at the hands of shooters.  Sandy Hook, somehow, brings all of that into a new focus esp. because of the ages of the twenty children and also because of where it happened.

For a time, if even for a few days, a week, or a little longer, we are a gentler nation.  It is striking how petty the politics in Washington suddenly seems, how strident.  And, for the moment, the tug of wills over the so-called "fiscal cliff" has become, at least, a little more civil, less shrill in tone.  The question is, of course, will it last?  The answer is probably a mixed one.  Will the NRA suddenly "come to Jesus"?  Probably not.  Will the political rhetoric heat up again?  Sure.  Will the government find to reduce these mass killings?  Not likely.  Will things go back to "the way they were"?  That is harder to say.  Superficially, one wonders if anything much will change.  But, more deeply, Sandy Hook may well be one more moment on the way to a less violent society.

All of the crime data indicates that we are becoming a less violent nation and that, at least in terms of state-sponsored violence, a less violent world.  After Sandy Hook, it could well be that we will become a nation still less tolerant of violence, if only a little less.  It could be that we will see gun violence still a little more for what it is, a national public health issue and not a constitutional one.  I have long believed that violence begets violence, but perhaps in this case it doesn't.  Perhaps in this case violence begets non-violence, which is a step in the direction of peace.  Only time will tell, but one senses that these beautiful kids and their brave teachers have not died in vain.

But, what a sad price for peace.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Prayer as Mystery

Prayer is not doing, but being. It is not words but the beyond-words experience of coming into the presence of something much greater than oneself. It is an invitation to recognize holiness, and to utter simple words--"Holy, Holy, Holy"--in response. Attentiveness is all; I sometimes think of prayer as a certain quality of attention that comes upon me when I'm busy doing something else. 

Kathleen Norris
Source: Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sandy Hook Elementary: What to Say?

This morning, I will take my usual place as pastor at the front of the sanctuary.  The sermon I planned to preach is written and even posted (here) at our congregational website.  Friday is my day off, and I usually turn on the news at some point in the morning to watch the news; and day before yesterday I heard the first brief break-ins about a school shooting, no details.  Through the day, like many of you my readers, I checked back in as the details unfolded, and it became clear to me that the planned sermon will not do, ignoring this tragedy will not do.  But, what is there to say?  Platitudes, Jesus-loves-you-this-I-know will not do.  Teachers sit in our pews.  Parents and grandparents sit in our pews.  Their children grace our worship with their presence.  Platitudes will not do.  The scripture lesson I planned to use will not do.

To be honest, I don't even want to bother with Christmas this morning.

Well, but maybe that's not true.  The point I've been working on this Advent is that Christmas is really about resurrection and creation, and I can make a pretty strong argument for that point from the opening stories in the Gospel of Luke, which have been my texts.  In the very first story of Luke's "birth narratives," God blesses barren, aged Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, with a child, John the Baptist ( Luke 1:5-25).  Picking up on an Old Testament theme, Luke begins with a dead, lifeless womb and a conception in that womb in what amounts to a resurrection.  Life comes from death.  In my first sermon this Advent (here), I drew on a survey of recent events in the local and regional press to make the point that barrenness is not merely a biblical category.  It is a reality that touches us, sometimes deeply and painfully.

The tragic events in Connecticut illustrates the point in a way that leaves us all profoundly sad and feeling just a little helpless.  If something like this can happen in Newtown...  Well, it is only about a four-and-a-half hour drive to Newtown from Lowville.

So, I plan to start by reading the names of all of those who died Friday morning and share the text of the President's remarks (here) with the congregation.  I will continue with Psalm 147:1-11, esp. verse 3, which reads, "He heals the broken-hearted and bandages their wounds." (NRSV)  The President concluded his brief remarks by alluding to this verse.  And then what?

As pastor and preacher I must deny the idea that God caused this thing to happen, which idea I have already heard alluded to by at least one observer.  The question, then, is where was God when these events unfolded?  Some will ask, why wasn't God there?  As best as I can answer that question, God was there.  God was in the cowering teacher, frightened to death, whose first thought was for her students.  God was in the officers who entered that school building not knowing what danger they might face, but going in anyway.  God was in the sad, shaken voice of Governor Malloy when he had to tell the remaining parents whose children had not been returned to them that their children would not be going home with them—not ever again.  God was in the tears of our President and in the tears of so many others—in our tears. God is in the outpouring of sympathy for the victims including the family of the shooter. God is in our sadness prompting us to learn a better way than this.

The point of the Cross, as we Christians have come to understand it, is that God is not above our suffering but painfully shares in it.  So, we come back to the fundamental nature of God as best we understand it.  God is Beyond, and no miniscule event on Planet Earth touches the Creator & Lord of the universe.  God is also Present and suffers the suffering of all who are involved in this horrendous event.

So, I guess I will read this posting to the congregation.

Jesus said,

 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28).

Amen.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Living in Faith

Spinning Wheel Illusion
Source: www.ankeshkothari.com
Can we trust our senses?  This is not just a philosopher's question, although it is one they have long debated.  "Idealism," philosophically speaking, is that point of view that contends that, "reality, or reality as we can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial." (Quoted from the Wikipedia article, "Idealism").  "Realism," of which there are many particular kinds, is the philosophical school that believes that our senses either directly or indirectly gave us access to the real world.  An idealist is not sure that what we see, hear, or touch is really real.  A realist is sure.  So far as our daily lives go, we are all realists.  We go about our business assuming that our senses are reliable, a point of view called "common sense realism."  In more contemporary speak, our brains are hardwired to process information, which the brain does selectively because it cannot possibly handle all of the data bits of the world around us.  Vast amounts of visual data bombard our eyes, but our eyes are constructed to filter out most of it, leaving only what is important for us to see.  We are evidently especially good at picking up data bits that are in motion because, back when we were developing our evolutionary equipment for survival, things that moved might be dangerous or might be edible.  Still, we go through life not seeing most of what is around us and necessarily so.

So, do we live in a world of our own imagining or in a real world?  Ultimately, we can't prove our answer.  Most of us would surely answer that we live "in the real world."  Of course, the illustration accompanying this post is not moving, but if we look at the circles for a moment they appear to move even though we know they aren't moving.  The proof of the pudding, so to speak, is that we survive on a daily basis.  Out senses are sufficiently reliable to provide us with the wherewithal  to get through the day in a routine, "normal" fashion.

There is, however, a theological point to be made here, namely that in fact our daily survival depends on the trust we put in our senses.  There is no way we can prove "all of this" is real.  We live in faith, and living in faith is the fundamental condition of our lives.  Our senses, that is, create a world for us assembled out of bits of information, which we believe (trust) approximates the real world.  Faith is our natural state.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Walking the Line

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Paul, Romans 12:1-2 (NRSV)

I'd like to focus on Paul's injunction, above, to "not be conformed to this world."  On the face of it, that seems like good advice for those of us who seek to live the Christian life—depending on how we understand what Paul meant.  The central tradition in translating this verse beginning with the King James Bible (KJV) right down to the Good News Bible (TEV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) has been to take Paul's words to mean that we are to be non-conformists when it comes to the "ways of the world."  That can be taken in at least a couple of ways.

On the one hand, we can take it to mean that we are to be discerning in what values and behaviors we take from society and culture.  The Message (MSG) seems to take us in that direction.  It translates Romans 12:2 to read, "Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking." The Laughing Bird Paraphrase (LBP) puts it this way: "Do not model your life on the usual aspirations of the world around you."  This is a "soft" rendering of Paul's words, which instructs us to pick and choose from culture and society, rejecting those things that aren't suitable to the Christian life.  We live in the world, but we discern what is best to take from it.

On the other hand, Paul's advice can be taken as an invitation to divorce ourselves from culture and society in a more radical way.  The American Standard Version (ASV) has Paul writing, "And be not fashioned according to this world."  The New International Version (NIV) states, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world."  As the illustration with this posting also suggests, here the advice seems to be to withdraw from the world.

The choices offered are to either reject some elements of culture and society or to reject culture and society.  In fact, of course, we cannot reject everything.  Even those who reject the world, eat what we eat, dress as we dress, and make some kind of living in a capitalist economy.  The question then is the degree to which we conform and non-conform.  What do we reject?  What do we accept?  There are those who cite verses like Romans 12:2 to justify their feelings that homosexuality is a sin even though society is rapidly becoming accepting of it.  They will not conform to the values of the world.  The danger, then, is that we can justify just about anything citing this verse.

One way to walk the fine line of conformity versus non-conformity is to return to the model of Christ while avoiding absolutes and seeking to remain humble in our attitudes, interpretations, and opinions.  There is a reason why the Bible persistently enjoins humility as a core value of our faith.  We all have to walk the line between conformity and non-conformity, understanding that other entirely faithful individuals walk the line differently than we do.  And while the principle of following the model of Christ is easy to state, it is not easy to practice.  The best way to walk the line, then, is with humility.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bridging the Gulf

William James defined spirituality as "an attempt to be in harmony with an unseen order of things.” If we are reading this newsletter, it is probably safe to say that we have all had a glimpse of something—call it the mystery, God, the true nature of being, or what-have-you. We might have had this experience as we looked out at the world: seeing the moonlight through oak leaves or listening to the surge of waves at the ocean. Or we might have experienced this unseen order through some kind of inner experience of wonder and transcendence. No matter how fleeting such experiences might be, we often have a powerful intuition about them: that what is behind or what pervades our experiences of the mystery does not come and go. It is unconditional and at the same time it is always accessible. It is we ourselves who somehow seem to turn away. We seem to lose it, to forget, to become distracted by other things, to get caught up in our preoccupations and we sense that our anxiety, suffering and confusion comes from that disconnection. The path [whether Christian or Buddhist], then, is our way of trying to bridge that gulf.


Katie Morrow, "Stumbling Along the Path"
The Buddhist Christian Vedanta Network Newsletter (November 2010)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

There Never Was A Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus - the critter that never was
According to an NPR posting entitled, "Forget Extinct: The Brontosaurus Never Even Existed," there never was such a thing as a brontosaurus. The belief that there was turns out to be the product of a "Bones War" between two over-zealous, fame-hungry nineteenth-century paleontologists. The thing is scientists have known since 1903, one hundred and nine (almost ten!) years ago, that there never was a creature that we have called by the name, "brontosaurus".  Weird.  Up until this morning, I believed in the brontosaurus and would have answered, "Yes, of course," had I been asked if I did.

Now, one could head off in a couple of directions from the fact that the brontosaurus was invented by bad science rather than discovered by good science.  We could explore the boundaries between belief and fact, which are not nearly as sharply drawn as we might think.  Or, it would be fun to rag a bit on science, which is a whole lot more fallible and human than some of its devotees like to pretend.  But, why ruin a perfectly good story?  If you have the time, I'd suggest you follow the above link to the story about how and why there never was such a thing as a brontosaurus.  And, if that isn't enough, check out this posting, entitled, "The Great Brontosaurus Hoax." It points out that scientists continued to use the name brontosaurus until 1974, which may help explain why we the public didn't know it was a name without a thing to be named.  The picture accompanying this posting is from yet another source, "Brontosauruses Never Existed," which has still more facts on the matter.

All of this makes one wonder what else there might be that we know is true that isn't true.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Seeking That Which is Worthy

Christ and the Buddha
Carlos di Sequeira 
Writing on the Huffington Post religion page, author Susan J. Stabile offers her take on the subject, "A Christian Faith Enriched by Buddhism."  Stabile started out a Catholic, drifted away, discovered Buddhism, and eventually came back to Catholicism by way of Buddhism. She writes that, "But for Buddhism, I could not be Catholic today."  Buddhism's emphasis on "experiential knowledge" helped her to discover that for her the heart of the Christian faith is in its practice.  One doesn't believe just because authority says, "Believe," but instead the person of faith discovers through practice how to live the life of faith.  Through Buddhism, Stabile discovered the importance of time apart devoted to prayer, the value of ritual for the life of faith, and the significance of developing a personal relationship with God. It has also taught her that not all Catholics are the same and need not be the same.

In many places in the world today, religions live in fear of each other.  In many churches in our nation today, the faithful are taught to hold in disregard those who are not the same as they are.  We are fearful of boundaries.  While I suppose it is not always the case, it can be true that when we go to the boundaries of faith we discover a new depth of understanding of faith itself.  We see beyond the husk of what is imposed or expected or taken as "normal" to see that the true depth of our faith is not found in a pope or a book but in the way we are able to open ourselves to faith itself in whatever form faith takes for us.  The search, of course, is always for That which is worthy of our faith.  Living at the boundaries of the Christian faith or even beyond those boundaries can be a way to test what matters, to discover what is central, and to learn the art of living and let live—that is, in faith.  Amen.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"Lincoln": Highly Recommended

Yesterday, we spent part of my day off in the nearby "metropolis" of Watertown, NY, taking in the movie, "Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg and featuring Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln.  It is a moving, powerful film, especially considering that it is ostensibly about the sordid business of politics in Washington.  I don't want to do a review here, and if you're interested you can find plenty of them at Rotten Tomatoes.  I do have a couple of thoughts, however.

First, part of the power of the film is in the story it tells about the past, and part of the power in the film is the obvious relevance that story has for us.  Good history is always as much as about the present as it is the past, and this is good history (good history opens the past up for us in a way that is true to the times it describes).  "Lincoln" is, thus, is a meaningful story that speaks to our experience.  It is a parable.  The messy, sordid politics of 1865 is, if in a different way, the messy, ideologically-driven politics of our day.  Spielberg particularly zooms in on the role of Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones), one of the most ideological congressmen of his day, and in a dramatic moment shows Stevens caught up in the throes of having to compromise his principles for the sake of realizing them.  The movie makes far more dramatically and effectively the point that I sought to make about compromising principles in a posting a couple of days ago (here).

A second thought (inevitably theological): understanding the work of the Spirit in our personal lives and in the course of the history of our human race is, at best, befuddling.  It rests on faith and intuition.  Still, one can't help but sense the subterranean, persistent work of the Spirit in the life of Abraham Lincoln and the politics of his day as he pushed for the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment  ("Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.").  This amendment is the embodiment of justice, and it lies at the very bedrock of our social contract as a nation.  One could almost see in the tug of the Spirit pulling on certain political characters portrayed on the screen so aptly.

We passed the Thirteenth Amendment, but the Spirit worked in Lincoln and others to make it possible.  Amen.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Life & Peace

Preoccupation with gratifying your own selfish impulses is a downward spiral into living death. But a mind open to the Spirit is an open door to the fullness of life and peace.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Compromising Our Principles

In a democracy, government runs on compromise (or, seeking a "meeting of the minds" if one just can't accept the word "compromise" as a word).  One cannot govern if one cannot compromise—in a democracy.  There is a word for government not based on compromise: dictatorship.  The real political struggle in our nation today is not between conservatives and liberals.  It is between those who are willing to compromise and those who are not.  When a politician or a political party is not willing to affirm the fundamental significance of compromise, we need to vote that politicians out of office asap.  She or he is dangerous to our fundamental democratic values, which is majority rule built on respect for and protection of minority concerns.

A certain class of American politicians insist that they cannot and will not compromise their principles even for the greater good.  They will, for example, insist that raising taxes under any circumstances violates their principles, and they will not consider even the most modest increase.  In the political environment we the electorate handed them with the November 2012 election, the tax raisers are in ascendence, and if we are to move forward as a nation the tax deniers (some, at least) are going to have to learn the art of compromising their principles.

Compromise, in this sense, means understanding that even our most deeply held principles are still human ones, not ultimate and sometimes downright wrong-headed.  Compromise means accepting the fact that the contradictory principles of others, held with the same conviction we hold ours,  are worth hearing, considering, and sometimes bowing to as we seek to keep the "ship of state" sailing in a good direction.  Principles that cannot be compromised have become ideological and, theologically speaking, idolatrous.  Those who insist that their principles are absolute should be immediately disqualified from holding political office in a democracy.  A willingness to compromise one's principles, when pushed to the necessity of having to do so for the sake of the common good, is an indication that one's principles are truly principled.  It is those who place their principles above the common good that are most likely to behave in unprincipled ways.  In a democracy, government runs on compromise.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Seeking a Place Beyond Fear

"Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ..." (G. Flinck)
But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: (Luke 2:10 NRSV)

Continuing this series on a progressive take on the birth of Jesus,  Luke tells us that God's messenger responded to the fear of the shepherds with a standard Old Testament response, "Don't be afraid."  Usually in the Old Testament, however, angels are sent to leaders and prophets, not to a bunch of shepherds (see a description of OT angelic visitations here).  So, there are similarities between this story of angels and the Old Testament stories, and there is a difference.

This not being afraid message is important.  In the year of our Lord 2012, it has a macro meaning and a micro one.  The macro meaning has to do with the social gospel.  As followers of Christ, we are called to be channels for hope, healing, and justice for those who are marginalized by society in one way or another.  The ministry of Jesus of Nazareth impels us in that direction.  On the micro level, following Christ is also about living fear-lessly, which is not an invitation to acting in foolhardy ways.  If anything, it is an invitation to stop living foolishly—to stop living livers that are reactive, defensive, self-protective, and self-serving.  The contrast here is between lighthearted and hard hearted.  Faith lifts burdens from our heart, the kind of burdens that chain us to self-destructive behaviors of all kinds.  Of course, it also adds burdens us in other ways as we learn empathy, but these burdens don't weigh us down with the ugliness of a hard heart.  Again, I'm not claiming that this is the first-century meaning of the story, although I have to believe that first-century audiences saw that the appearance of angels to the shepherds valued common people in ways that the societies and political institutions of the Roman Empire did not.

According to Luke, the divine plan is for liberation of the poor.  The Kingdom will be for them.  That is the macro level.  On our personal level, that divine agenda has real implications for our own personal lives.  It calls us away from fear and hardness to trust and love.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Charting the Future

We can chart our future clearly and wisely only when we know the path which has led to the present.

Adlai Stevenson
Speech, Richmond, Virginia (20 September 1952).
Source: Wikiquote

Monday, December 3, 2012

Then an Angel Showed Up

"Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ..." (G. Flinck)
Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:9 NRSV)

In the last posting in this series, we began with the obvious observation that the story of the shepherds and the angels began in Luke 2:8 in the every day world of poor working class folks for whom life as short and hard.  The Incarnation is not a palace and power thing.  It is a real world thing, and the real world is the world of the 99%, especially the bottom rungs of the 99%.

The focus of the Gospel of Luke never leaves the lower classes of folks.  The good news of Jesus, the Messiah, was not intended for the wealthy and educated.  So much is clear in this story and throughout the gospel.

What is also clear is that being the focus of God's attention was a terrifying thing.  This is a theme repeated time and again in the Old Testament.  Epiphanies are scary.  God was seen to have immense, holy power, which was beyond the control especially of a bunch of poor shepherds.  So, fear of God was one factor here.  Another one was the more general fear of the unknown.  Again, when one is poor the unknown is usually dangerous because it can lead to a loss of resources, which are already few and tenuous.  So, as the story goes, the initial reception of the gospel proclamation was not one of joy but of fear.  And while the description of the fear of the shepherds may have functioned in ancient times to recall similar Old Testament stories and place this story in that larger context, it also reflects a 21st century reality as well.

The truth is that more people than not greet the possibility of a deeper spiritual life of faith with a rejection that often amounts to fear.  One of the central points of faith is the giving up of control, popularly expressed as, "Let go and let God."  That is easy to say and scary to contemplate.  From the time that we begin to develop our own personality, one of the things we seek to do is gain control over our surrounding environment and "growing up" is about becoming less and less dependent on others and more able to control our own lives.  As social creatures, we are constantly negotiating our dependence and independence. The idea, then, that spirituality is about letting go is not a happy one for those who are afraid to let go, afraid of the unknown such an idea leads to, and afraid of losing what independence and self-identity they have.  I don't argue that this was the first century meaning of the shepherd's fear in the story.  The thought of being confronted by the holy power of God was in and of itself sufficient cause to be terrified.  In the 21st century, however, their fear reminds us that faith involves a "fear factor" especially in our consumer-oriented economy where getting is valued and giving up things—well, not so much.  In faith, we get only by giving up.  Humanly speaking, that is counter-intuitive, and usually greeted with uneasiness, a lack of comprehension, and often enough outright rejection.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What to Think?

"The Truth" by Michael D’Antuono
Source: /www.boston.com
The illustration accompanying this posting is of a painting entitled, "The Truth," by Michael D’Antuono.  It is part of an exhibition called, “Artists on the Stump: The Road to the White House 2012,” which is being shown at Bunker Hill Community College, Boston, until December 15th.  It has sparked a good deal of controversy including hate mail and death threats.

According to a news posting at boston.com (here), "D’Antuono said he personally does not associate Obama with Christ; rather, this work is a commentary on the conservative media, who he thinks 'crucified' Obama with their attacks. Additionally, the conservative press promoted the idea that liberals thought Obama was their 'savior,' D’Antuono said."  OK.  But, I don't think very many viewers of the painting are going to get that message.  As a communication process, it is a failure (in my ever humble opinion, of course).

What some people will see is that this painting makes a mockery of the crucifixion and of the person of Christ.  It suggests how cheap and mundane the Christ Event has become in contemporary secular culture.  What others will see is that it also mocks President Obama, suggesting that he sees himself as a Christ-figure.  The artist's protestations not withstanding, the painting is offensive to Christians and, frankly, to supporters of the president.  It does, however, accomplish one thing, which is to picture how ugly and unaesthetic much of our public political discourse has become in recent years.  The painting itself is heavy-handed, about as subtle as a sledge-hammer, and it looks photo-shopped.

That being said, D'Antuono has a constitutional right to paint and display this work, and BHCC has the same constitutional right to exhibit it.  The hate mail and death threats are doubly misplaced.  First, all they accomplish is to contribute to the poisonous atmosphere of public discourse; and, second, they give this "work of art" more significance than it deserves.



Saturday, December 1, 2012

Stay Home (It's Better For You)

Still Not Good for Us
A recent posting at Health Day entitled, "Despite More 'Healthy' Options, Little Change in Fast-Food Calorie Counts," reports on a recent study of so-called healthy foods available at eight of America's leading fast food chains.  It probably should come as no surprise that they aren't that healthy.  Even salads come with hidden calories, and the article reports that the researchers advise the health-conscious to eat at home or, if they must for some reason eat at a fast food place, eat the smallest portions possible.  That is not to say that it is easy to eat healthfully anyplace anymore, including at home.  But the point is that at home we can control what goes into our foods, which we can't at a fast food joint.

Politically speaking, we the public can do what Congress seems unable to do, which is to get a handle on soaring health costs and the huge chunk of governmental spending devoted to health.  All we need to do is eat more wisely and in less quantities than we do today.  That and some regular exercise would do wonders for us and for health care costs in America.  Consume less.  Eat mostly what is healthy (but allow for a little indulgence now & again).  Exercise.  Sounds easy, but a lot of us know it isn't.  Still, if we could do these things, we would make a huge difference to the state of the nation's health. Amen.

Friday, November 30, 2012

In That Region (Again)

"Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ..." (G. Flinck)
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8 NRSV)

In the last posting in this series on reading the Christmas stories from a progressive Christian perspective, I introduced the idea of levels of biblical interpretation, based on Kugel's book, How to Read the Bible (Free Press, 2007).  To his three levels, I added a fourth, which is a combination of discovering the original intent of biblical texts but not being too wedded to that intent.

Take for example, the fact that this story of the shepherds and angels starts with the shepherds.  It then introduces the heavenly agent in the story, the angels.  The beginning point, however, is earthly rather than heavenly.  Is there a hint here, or can we make a hint out of this story's beginning point?

Christian theology, very broadly speaking, can take one of two orientations, earthly or heavenly.  An earthly orientation begins with the human condition and works from that condition to God. Volume I of an earthly systematic theology is "Creation," and the author of such a theology doesn't consider the Creator until later on.  A heavenly-oriented theology starts off with God and the concept of the Trinity and only later looks at the place of humanity in the divine scheme of things.

So, to ask again, is the fact that the story of the shepherds & angels starts with the shepherds rather than the angels a hint? Does it suggest that the earthly approach is preferable?  Could be—if we want it to be.  When we consider that the Gospel of Luke begins with earthy stories about conceptions, pregnancies, and births and that the whole of the gospel focuses on earthly issues and events—well, maybe the proper starting point for our theological reflections is the human condition.  In fact, the Incarnation doesn't make much sense unless we begin with the earthly situation that requires heavenly intervention.  In theology, the starting point is no small matter.  Where one begins in Volume I shapes everything else.

But that's not my main point here.  My main point is that we can gain insights from this story that have little to do with the original intent of the author of the Gospel of Luke—in so far as we can even guess at that original intent.  In Kugel's schema, level one is the original intent of the biblical author (or storyteller); level two is ancient reinterpretations of the texts; and, level three is modern scholarly reconstructions of original intent.  In level four, we keep in mind the scholarly reconstructions, remembering that often the scholars are guessing, but still read the text for contemporary meanings.  In our day and age, the fact that the story of the shepherds & angels starts with the shepherds opens up a concern with the social sciences and the physical sciences including esp. biology.  It points us to the human conditions that God addresses in Christ, including poverty, injustice, ignorance, immorality, and oppression—the conditions under which commoners lived in the first century.  This has little to do with the original intent of the author.  It is a modern reading, which seeks to be faithful to the story now and here.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In That Region

"Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ..." (G. Flinck)
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8 NRSV)

James L. Kugel in his book, How to Read the Bible (Free Press, 2007) describes three levels of biblical interpretation: (1) the original intent of the biblical contents; (2) the reinterpretation of that intent in ancient times, which came to be accepted as the "real meaning" of the Bible; and (3) modern scholarly attempts to get past #2 back to #1.

There is a fourth level, which in some ways is a return to level two in light of the contributions of level three.  In level four, we are most concerned to re-read scripture in light of the world we live in now while not ignoring the general findings of the scholars who reside in level three.  Level four readers often reject level two readings as being irrelevant and unpersuasive and seek to replace level two's "old-time religion" with interpretations more fitting to the early 21st century.

Reading at level four, then, our beginning point in the story of the shepherds encounter with God in their fields one night seems obvious.  The story opens with a group of working stiffs, probably relatively poor, who are working the night shift watching sheep.  Apparently, they actually lived in the fields, which may or may not suggest some kind of permanent residence.  The obvious point is that the first public announcement of the coming of the messiah is made to rural working class commoners who were actually at work at the time.  The point isn't subtle.  The very first proclamation of the Good News was not published in the Jerusalem Gazette nor did it make the 6:00 news.  It was announced away from the public eye and to an unassuming group of poorer folks.

As obvious as this initial point is, it warrants our attention because it sets the stage not just for the rest of the story but also for the whole Gospel of Luke.  The Incarnation took place in the real world.  It took place in the midst of the working poor who were literally the 99% in their day.  Impossibly long hours.  Smelly sheep.  Dangerous working conditions.  Lives that were short, hard, and sometimes brutal.  Jews living in Roman occupied territory where oppression touched every life.  This is where our story of the shepherds and angels opens and where the first proclamation of the good news of Christ took place—in the real world.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What to Do With the Christmas Stories?

"Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ..." (G. Flinck)
For those of us of a more progressive persuasion, the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke can be a bit of a problem.  The general consensus among mainline scholars is that the stories didn't actually happen.  They are "just" stories that serve to introduce their respective gospels.  These scholars don't explain where the stories came from or why the early church perpetuated them as fact when at least some of them had to know they weren't.  The origins of the stories, that is, is unknown and perplexing.  And Sunday morning, in worship, is no place to deal with these sorts of issues.

So, what do do with the Christmas stories on Sunday morning?  It is really, really hard to avoid them, obviously.  But here's the thing, they are actually richly textured and deeply meaningful stories in and of themselves.  There is good reason why they have become the most beloved parts of scripture in popular thinking. That being the case, on Sunday mornings in Advent the preacher's task is to "unpack" the meaning of the stories as introductions to the whole of each gospel.  Individual preachers may or may not want to mention scholarly qualms over the historical truth of the events described, but the preacher's task is to dig into the meat of the stories themselves.  Such a tactic leaves the preacher open to the criticism of the religious skeptics" "You are just pulling the wool over your parishioners' eyes—as usual—and playing footloose with the concept of truth."  It also leaves the preacher open to the criticism of the literalists: "YOU DON'T REALLY BELIEVE IN JESUS AT ALL!"

Still, walking somewhere between the secular skeptics and the religious fundamentalists is the best path to take in cases like this.  It isn't, maybe, the most comfortable one, but the skeptics would have us throw the baby out with the bath water while fundamentalists refuse to bathe the baby.  In the history of Christian theology, seeking the middle way (via media) has a long, honorable tradition, and the best way to honor that tradition today is to walk a middle path between the skeptics and the fundamentalists, especially at Christmastime.

How does this actually work?  How do we walk the middle ground and present tell the Christmas story as truthfully and meaningfully as we can?  In a series of postings to follow, I'm going to work at answering just that question.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Let's Get A Divorce

One of Rom Phra Khun's regular readers dropped me an email recently alerting me to an editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune entitled, "A red-state, blue-state divorce plan."  It's all tongue-in-cheek good fun  (well, maybe not all in good fun, but mostly).  It is also, admittedly, one-sided, but there seems to be a lot of that going around these days, and maybe the message within the message is that we really do need to find a way to get along better than we are now.  You might want to "check it out."

Monday, November 26, 2012

Kingdom & Christ

Jesus teaching about the Kingdom
There are those among the Jesus scholars who claim that, "Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom; the early church proclaimed Jesus."  The early church, that is, transformed Jesus' teachings in such a way as to change the very content of those teachings.  In doing so, they laid the historical groundwork for modern-day Christianity, which is almost all about Jesus and not very much at all about the Kingdom.  The Kingdom Jesus preached was a future time of justice when Jewish society would be stood on its head.  The wealthy would be left standing on the outside while the poor, lame, ill, and amoral majority would in inherit the Kingdom.

What we've done, so the case goes, is to change Jesus' prophetic message of social justice into a salvation religion with Jesus as the saviour and social justice a secondary concern, if that.

Maybe so, and if so the very last verse of the book of the Acts, verse 28:31, might provide a hint as to how the change from a Kingdom-oriented socio-religious movement to a Christ-centered salvation religion took place.  As Acts closes, Paul has reached Rome and initiated his work there while technically under house arrest awaiting trail before Caesar. Acts 28:30 (The Message) states that, "For two years Paul lived in a place he rented for himself, and there he welcomed all who came to see him." Then, verse 31 wraps things up with this summary: "He preached about the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ, speaking with all boldness and freedom."  Now, it doesn't matter whether or not this verse accurately sums up Paul's teachings in Rome.  The point is that by the time Acts was written, some time latter in the first century, some followers of Jesus were both preaching the Kingdom and teaching about Jesus.  For them, the two most likely were seen to be inseparable.  They believed Jesus' teachings about the Kingdom, which they had heard from him; and it was only natural for them to develop a dual focus: the Kingdom and the messiah who taught about it.

It makes a good deal of sense, spiritually and theologically, that at least one large branch of the early church would achieve this dual focus of Kingdom and Christ and pass it down to posterity so that it became the dominant branch.  The trick has always been to maintain the two in balance.  If we lean toward the Kingdom, we end up with a social salvation movement that is in danger of losing its spiritual moorings in the one living example we have of the Kingdom, Jesus and the sense that God is With Us in the quest for the Kingdom.  If we lean toward Jesus, the tendency of Christianity generally, we lose the powerful message of the Kingdom of God and replace it with a "safe" message about getting into heaven by believing in Jesus.  Jesus was both prophet and saviour, and it seems that we do best when we maintain the Kingdom and the Christ in balance.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Coping With Loss

The people in the desert
Sometimes, it feels like all we ever talk about in the mainline ecumenical churches is decline, esp. in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The literature on the subject is massive and continues to grow even as our churches continue to shrink.  No one can explain precisely why the decline continues—or why it has been so massive in Europe and so much more restrained and relatively slow here in the U.S.  This is not to say that there is not life in our churches.  There is.  One feels it in the singing and in creative worship services and in the many ways churches serve their communities.  And there are churches filled not only with life but also with younger families, young people, and children running around the way they used to run around in all of our churches.  Some churches are like that, but they are far fewer now than they were sixty years ago—and there are increasingly fewer of them with each passing decade.

A recent Presbyterian leadership conference, reported (here), took for its title, "Leading With Vision Through Loss," which combines the reality of our current situation (loss) with a proposed "way out" (vision).  The question is a vision of what?  The point was made in the course of the conference that many churches and their leaders have a vision of return, that is they want to go back across the Red Sea to the 1950s.  They don't really see any other way out and generally resist "transformational change," whatever that might mean.  The thing that stands out here is that decline is an experience in loss, which is attended with grief and a desire to not lose a dying loved "one," in this case the church the way it was back when.  One of the speakers at the conference summarized the point by saying, "We want to grow, but we don't want to change."  The point was also made that this resistance to change is not so much a rejection of new things as it is a resistance to giving up old things, that is change would be OK if we didn't have to give up what we have now.  Perhaps, then, we would be better served by focusing on what we need to lose instead of why we don't want to change.

In all of this, one senses an opportunity for every church—an opportunity to cut loose and discover a new way of being the church in the time and place given us.  Even those churches that are going great guns now are sooner or later going to lose the pastor or the lay leaders who are keeping it going.  The rising tide of secularity is a threat to every church (least so in the South, most so here in the Northeast) that one day has to be faced.  My personal sense is that the Spirit's message embedded in all of this is that fellowships of committed Christians only need to discover the courage to cut loose, walk away from the 1950s, and find renewed life in less doing and more praying, fewer activities and more fellowship, less do and more talk (that is dialogue with each other).  The vast majority of churches aren't going to do this, but there are movements afoot (e.g. Fresh Expressions in Britain, the Emerging Church here) that suggest the wave of the future.   God has already shoved us across the Red Sea, but the great majority of us are now camped on that far bank wanting to go back rather than forward—forward is desert, back is the wealth of Egypt.  Forward is hard, back is impossible.  Beyond the desert, however, is promise.

What will the next 50 years hold?  Whatever the future is, the church in 2062 surely will not look at all like the church of 1962.  We're going to have to cope with a lot of loss, but across the desert is promise.  Some will make it.  Amen.



Friday, November 23, 2012

A Less Hungry World

On the surface, we seem to stumble from global crisis to catastrophe, and—as I've observed here before—it does feel like the world is descending into chaos.  The news media largely communicates this doomsday impression, partly because plenty of "bad stuff" does happen every day and week and partly because bad news sells.  In truth, however, things are not all doom and gloom and, in some ways, definitely getting better.  The world is less violent than it used to be esp. in terms of international conflicts.  It turns out that the world is also better fed than we realize.  While we see images of extreme poverty and hunger in the media, a Christian Science Monitor news posting entitled, "Confounding expectations, global hunger is down," reports that, "Despite sustained drought across some of the world’s bread baskets, despite the widespread impact of global warming and a destabilizing rise in global food prices – and despite continuing population growth – hunger has decreased over the past two decades."  It has decreased by about 6.5% from 19% of the world's population in the 1990s to 12.5% today.  There are a number of reasons for this decline, including more innovative ways of carrying out international development by focusing on women as food producers and initiating many smaller projects that are conceived, led, and carried out by local people.  The article points out, however, that while there is hope that the decline in hunger will continue, there are still hundreds of millions of people who are hungry and not all of the trend lines are rosy.  Still, we are living in a perceptibly less hungry world than we were twenty years ago, and that is a very good thing.  Amen.

Another Blog

Although my "day job" (or, "calling" if you like) is to be a pastor, I still dabble in the study of Thai church history, which used to be my calling & day job. The focus of my dabbling is my personal website, herbswanson.com. For over a year now, I've been working at revising and upgrading the website, which has involved getting rid of some things and adding others. Today, I've adapted the blog that I used for Bible commentary (for awhile) to link with the website. This new blog, "A Resources Blog," will contain notes and comments on resources that I come across, especially online.  It is largely intended for researchers and others who have an interest in the history of Thai Christianity, but if you like you can wander over and take a look at either the website or the blog—or both.  Enjoy.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

You are a special and much loved people, hand picked by God. To mark you out as God’s people, you have a uniform to wear. It consists of generosity, humility, tolerance and a passionate concern for others, all of which must be worn without any pretentiousness. The thing you do have to wear it with is love. Without love, you won’t even be able to keep the rest of it on - it would all look totally out of place.

Christ has called you to be a cohesive body, permeated and held together by his peace. I’ll give you some instructions here for life in the body, but if you let the peace of Christ shape the way you live, you’ll find it comes naturally. Hang in there with each other. No doubt there will be times when you will rub each other up the wrong way, but be forgiving. The Lord had no hesitation forgiving you, so follow his lead and forgive each other. Cultivate a mindset of gratitude. Provide rich soil in your hearts into which the word of Christ can sink deep strong roots. Don’t keep good advice to yourself. Share what you have learned and guide one another in the ways of wisdom. Then you’ll all have plenty to be grateful about. Let your gratitude overflow in the songs you sing together - whatever the style, offer them as spirited gifts to God. At all times, whatever you are up to, see to it that the things you say and do are all things that Christ would be proud to be associated with. Let everything you do for Christ be a way of communicating your thanks to God, for it is God who has given you life.

Colossians 3: 12-17 (Laughing Bird Paraphrase)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hearing Other Voices

The reelection of President Obama and the general electoral success of the Democratic Party has, as most of us know, sent shock waves through American conservatism, which apparently was convinced that its big wins in 2010 were the beginning of a trend rather than just one more oscillation in current American voting patterns.  Lots of things are happening on the Right, some hopeful, some troubling.  One of the hopeful things is that some conservative evangelical Christians are thinking more critically about the way they relate to the rest of us.  In what almost amounts to a confession of sin, for example, Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, is calling on evangelicals (here) to approach those who are not evangelical more moderately and with more humility.  Evangelicals, he argues, should stop looking on their neighbors of other persuasions through the lens of hot button issues such as abortion and homosexuality.  He is particularly disturbed at the rising tide of gay marriage and suggests that evangelicals have contributed to the decline in "traditional" marriage by their intransigent behaviors.

Even a decade ago American evangelicalism was riding the crest of a wave of popularity and enthusiasm, but recent trends have not treated the movement well.  Its juggernaut denominations are no longer growing as they once did.  The megachurch phenomenon has proven to be a two-edged sword with even its most ardent supporters now reflecting on its limitations.  And it has become increasingly clear that the collective decision to become a de facto wing of the Republican Party has harmed evangelicalism more than helped it.

So, we are hearing other evangelical voices.  These voices are more conciliatory, less dogmatic.  One wonders if the time is coming when at least some evangelicals and ecumenicals will find common ground for increased dialogue and even cooperation.  The evangelical-ecumenical split affects us all in our local communities.  Could there be some healing take place?  Will those of us on the left bank even be willing to engage in such a thing?  Is all of this just a momentary blip caused by the shock of a lost election, the effects of which will soon go away?  Perhaps little will come of this new opening, but perhaps the Spirit can quietly make more of it than we otherwise will.  That's a prayer.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Coming to Christ Gently

"Christianity," as an identifiable separate religion, doesn't actually have a birthday in spite of the fact that we usually celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the church.  In fact, the Spirit-filled followers of Jesus remained an identifiable sect of Judaism for many decades.  Most of the them were Jewish, and one powerful wing of the "Way," as it was called, believed that only Jews could be his followers.  Over time, however, the rest of Judaism found the Way less and less acceptable while more and more of Jesus' followers weren't Jewish; and eventually the Way became a separate religion, Christianity.  This took time.  It is not correct, for example, to call the Apostle Paul a Christian.  Christianity as an identifiable religion didn't exist yet, and it is clear from the New Testament that Paul considered himself to be a practicing Jew who believed that Jesus was the messiah (Christ).  The point here is that the church evolved from being a Jewish religious group with peculiar (but still Jewish) beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth into an identifiably separate religion with Jewish roots.  It took time for us to go through this process of separation.

Conversely, the 19th century western Protestant missionary movement preached a message that called on people of other faiths and cultures to convert to Christianity and become, virtually, a part of the western church.  Converts were expected to reject their previous religion and join churches that were like western churches.  They sang western hymns translated into the local language.  They sat on pews.  Nothing in the church was borrowed from their former faith.  Unlike the early church, which only gradually separated itself from Judaism, convert churches formed by the Protestant missionary movement were expected to make a swift and clean break with their past, and they were ex that there had been anything good in that past.  In many nations, the consequence was that most people refused to make such a break even if they were otherwise attracted to faith in Jesus.  Leaving their former religion so abruptly created tensions with neighbors and other family members, and it meant giving up much in life that was comforting and familiar.

In the past, Protestant missionaries simply insisted that a hard break had to be made, many still do.  But, in various parts of the world there is a movement of sorts to create churches that do not make a hard and fast break with their original faith and its culture.  Although not stated as such, the goal is to replicate more nearly the experience of the early church by making a gradual separation from one's previous faith and to dispense with hard and fast boundaries between religions that have to be crossed in a single leap.  The Hindu religious movement,Yeshu Satsang, is one such attempt to come to Christ more gently, less abruptly, and with less conflict.  In a posting entitled, "Following Jesus Yet Still Hindu or Sikh? Mission Leaders Weigh In on New Communities," reporter Michelle A. Vu describes how Yeshu Satsang communities have emerged as a way for Hindu and Sikh followers of Jesus to remain fully Hindu or Sikh as they explore and develop their faith in Christ.  They worship in ways that make sense within their own culture.  They've adapted the sacraments to fit that culture.  They sing songs that are Hindu and Sikh, and the members of Yeshu Satsang "churches" will sometimes insist that they are not Christians (i.e. members of a foreign religion) but remain Hindu or Sikh.  It's just that they follow Jesus.

That's worth thinking about—being a follower of Jesus but not a Christian.  That's what Paul was.  Peter and the other disciples all died before there was a Christian religion.  They followed Jesus while remaining devout, practicing Jews.  One of the things that seems to be happening in our increasingly secular society is that small groups of followers of Jesus are reinventing the church in ways that make more sense in the 21st century than do traditional churches.  Maybe something we should be aiming for is to be more Christ-like and less Christian.  Worth a thought.