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, June 24, 2012
Often we are not aware that we are so blind in heart. Meanwhile we do wrong, and then do worse in excusing it. We take others to task for small mistakes, and overlook greater ones in ourselves. We are quick enough to feel and brood over the things we suffer from others, but we think nothing of how much others suffer from us.
If a man would weigh his own deeds fully and rightly, he would find little cause to pass severe judgment on others.
You will never be devout of heart unless you are thus silent about the affairs of others and pay particular attention to yourself. If you attend wholly to God and yourself, you will be little disturbed by what you see about you.
Saturday, June 23, 2012
|Mother Mosque of America, Cedar Rapids, IA|
For example, last year a group of research organizations issued a report entitled, "The American Mosque 2011," which indicates that American Islam is growing rapidly, is largely moderate theologically, and has become much more broadly accepted by the general public. The number of mosques in the United States increased by some 74% between 2000 and 2011 while the number of worshippers also increased from roughly 2 million to 2.6 million, and increase of 30%. The report estimates that there could now be as many as about 7 million American Muslims. This survey also found that some 56% of mosque leaders practice a moderate faith that combines traditional approaches to Islam with a desire to adapt their faith to contemporary circumstances. Only 11% hold to a very conservative and literalist faith. Finally, where in 2000 some 54% of mosque leaders felt that American society was hostile to Islam in 2011 that number had dropped to 25%. The report also shows that mosque leaders are overwhelmingly committed to active participation in American society and involvement in the political process.
Christianity is the faith of choice of the great majority of Americans and will remain so for decades to come, but it will be less and less so as those decades pass. One way or another, we will have to decide how we want to relate to our neighbors of other faiths. As usual "not deciding" is itself a decision. Will they be our friends or our enemies? Will we see in them our neighbor in the way that Christ saw the Samaritans as neighbor? Decisions, decisions.
Friday, June 22, 2012
Thursday, June 21, 2012
I only mention this because Viola's posting raises the important and fascinating question of the two natures of Christ, his humanity and divinity. She accuses me of "rending" them apart. This is an issue that has been debated intensely in Christian circles since the earliest days of the Jesus Movement. Fairly early on, we settled on the formula "fully God, fully human" to express that affirmation. But what does that mean? Specifically, does it mean that the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth was all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful in a divine sense, which seems to deny his humanity? Humans are by definition limited, creaturely beings. Does it mean that God somehow became limited, which seems to be a fundamental denial of divine nature? God by definition is Beyond human or even cosmic limitations. How do we put these two natures together in one physical body?
The truth is that faithful Christians frequently tend to lean one way or the other in their view of Christ. Those on the "high Christology" side emphasize his divinity while struggling to contain that divinity in his humanity. Those on the "low Christology" side are big on Christ's humanity while struggling to fit his divine nature into his humanity. Viola holds to a high Christology, while I hold to a low one. Were I so inclined, I suppose, I could accuse her of rending apart Jesus' two natures, too. To do so would be to miss the point that the person of Jesus, human and divine, is important to both of us—profoundly meaningful and worthy of our life's commitment.
I accept the two natures of Christ formula, which for me means that God the Beyond was incredibly present in Jesus of Nazareth, but not in a way that was immediately obvious to those around him. The gospels, particularly Mark, portray Jesus as a man who could grow tired, didn't know everything, could lose his cool, and shared some of the prejudices of his age. The gospels clearly associate Jesus with God to such an extent that the early church soon enough worked out the two natures doctrine to explain that association, but it is worth noting that the struggle was not with Jesus' human nature. That was always the easy part. It was with figuring out how one man could also be God incarnate.
For myself, it makes most sense to see Jesus as being a real-time, actual human being with the full set of human qualities. In fact, the point of the incarnation is that God humbled God's self, stooped down to our level, and became one of us. "One of us" is not all-knowing and all-powerful. "One of us" feels pain, grief, and struggles with human limitations. If God the Beyond did not shed such divine attributes, the incarnation was not a risk and not truly a sacrifice. Jesus was God With Us in his intense compassion and courage, a spiritual and moral Presence that I associate with the Holy Spirit. The gospels seem to me to make that same association in their descriptions of Jesus' baptism.
It is helpful to remember the fact that those who knew Jesus the best in his own time did not come up with any clear formulation of his two natures. Indeed, apparently, they seem to have thought of him primarily (again, esp. according to the oldest gospel, Mark) as the Messiah, which didn't at first mean he was divine. Then, the dominant wing of the early church came to think of Jesus as a "super" Messiah, which belief eventually evolved into the two natures doctrine. We should not forget that important segments of the early church saw Jesus either as "just" a man or as God who only appeared to be a man. Both of these views were eventually deemed heretical.
So, I am in Viola's debt. She has brought Rom Phra Khun increased attention, which can't be all bad. She has taken my own thoughts on the person of Jesus very seriously, which also can't be all bad. And she has afforded me the opportunity to slow down and think again about Jesus and our shared faith in him as Lord and Saviour, which is all to the good.
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
It's a false choice that is both unfaithful and unworkable. People of true faith will truly work at their faith. Faith virtually demands action. Faith for followers of Christ means trusting God in Christ and seeking to live as God in Christ creates us to live. Heart and mind are wrapped up in the quest faith sets us on. Faith teaches us to slow down and "be still," which is a form of works that is not-doing rather than doing. Faith also impels us to service, which is godly doing, another form of works.
We don't "get faith" before we "do works". The two come together as a package deal.
And, most precisely, it is also not quite correct to claim that we are saved by faith when we consider that faith is a gift rather than an achievement. We're not saved either by faith or works, but by the grace of God in the guise of the Spirit. Amen.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Monday, June 18, 2012
Most often, the term "job killer" was used by Republicans and business against governmental measures to regulate business. And, "in 91.6% of the stories alleging that a government policy was or would be a 'job killer,' the media failed to cite any evidence for this claim or to quote an authoritative source with any evidence for these claims." Some "job killing" news articles posted by these news agencies spread rapidly across the Internet. The authors concluded that these four news agencies were actually promoting a Republican and business political agenda in their use of the term "job killer" without verifying or documenting the truth of their political allegations.
Nine times out of ten the charge that a bill, law, or policy "kills jobs' there is no substantiation to back up the claim—no data, no facts, and no authoritative sources are cited. It is enough for political pranksters to shout, "job killer" in the crowded room of American politics to send the media, at least, stampeding for the doors. Perhaps we should focus less on the supposed dangers of undocumented workers to our economy and give more attention on the very real danger of undocumented political rhetoric to our politics.
Sunday, June 17, 2012
So, why believe there is a God if we cannot know with any reasonable degree of certainty that there is one? That is the question.
There are reasons to believe. Some find them compelling. Some don't. One of the least valued and most overlooked is the sheer fact that in American society most of us have been raised to believe that there is a God. Even today, many long decades after Darwin, the vast majority of Americans believe there is a God. The vast majority of Americans, even those who are not Christians, value the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He is, as more than one scholar has pointed out, an American icon. For those not inclined to engage in doubtful reflection, the very fact that they were raised to believe in God is a compelling reason for doing so.
There is another consideration. Our socially-based belief in God is not "merely" heedless and superficial. While that belief says nothing about whether or not an objective reality called God does exist, it suggests a good deal of social reflection and, perhaps, even some wisdom. Our socially bred belief in God, for example, is rooted in the immigrant experience of several peoples and groups fleeing religious persecution. Belief was important enough to them for them to remove themselves to North America rather than give up that belief. Our belief in God is also rooted in the revivalist movements of colonial times, which eventually bred liberal social justice movements as well as conservative evangelistic movements.
The point is that our American social commitment to theism cuts both ways. Yes, it does suggest a superficiality and a herd mentality. It also embodies, however, the experiences, deep thoughts, and even wisdom of our society as well. For tens of millions of Americans, those experiences, thoughts, and that wisdom is compelling. They believe, whether deeply or superficially, that there is a God.
Saturday, June 16, 2012
|Dore, "Jesus Walking on Water"|
The three stories can be seen in different ways, and they can be read separately to communicate several different meanings. Taken together, however, they contrast the way in which empires and rulers exercise power with Jesus' use of power. The first story portrays Herod as lustful, vindictive, power-hungry, capricious, unjust, and violent. He took John's head on a whim. By way of contrast, Jesus fed 5000 hungry people, and "everybody ate and was satisfied" (Wright, The Kingdom New Testament, 29). Then, Jesus walked across a stormy sea, symbolic of chaos, invited Peter to overcome the chaos as well, and saved him when he failed. In the process, he told the people in the boat to not be afraid. They worshipped him as they would God.
Herod was the agent of chaos. Jesus was the master of that same chaos. Herod behaved unjustly while Jesus showed compassion. Each exercised power, but they did so to different ends. The contrast between the power of empire and of God is stark, and early Christians listening to readings of Matthew's gospel surely heard a contrast between the power of Rome and that of Jesus looming in the shadows of these stories. God, they heard, was greater than Rome. Jesus used power to different ends than Rome. Amen.
Friday, June 15, 2012
The decline in SBC membership becomes more and more significant the longer it continues. It suggests that the national decline in organized religion is spreading to the South, the most religious region of the nation. It also suggests that institutional religious decline is a growing reality across the nation. From the perspective of mainline churches, it points to a third important reality. Church decline is not a function of theological position, liberal or conservative, and specifically it is not related to a declared commitment to evangelism. In the case of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the point is that those churches that are leaving the denomination because of its supposed lack of commitment to evangelism and an evangelical theology are not themselves going anywhere significant. Withdrawal into evangelical ghetto denominations offers no assurance whatsoever that they will discover new growth. Indeed, the likelihood is the opposite.
The SBC apparently is also following in the footsteps of the mainline church in another way. The mainline has been declining for fifty years, that's two generations. Everyone knows it is declining. A vast literature of decline has emerged. A ton of research has gone into studying the phenomenon. There are a large variety of programs and approaches designed to reverse the decline. And yet it continues. While not a few mainline churches are growing, they are the minority. Most are not. Something much larger is going on, and I don't think we really understand it for all of our books, studies, journals, seminars, and programs. We certainly have not learned how to contend with it. If any denomination in the United States today has the size, resources, ideology, and commitment to transcend decline, it is the SBC. And the SBC is headed in the same direction as the rest of us. Something is going on.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
Taken at face value, the parable of the weeds promotes a set of values that are problematic at best and downright dangerous at their worst.
It helps, at least somewhat, to remember Jesus' description of the judgment day when the sheep (the righteous) will be divided from the goats (the unrighteous) in Matthew:25-31-46. There, Jesus makes it clear that the sheep were those who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, accepted strangers, clothed the naked, ministered to the sick, and visited prisoners. Again, taken at face value, God doesn't divide us according to our beliefs or anything else other than our care for people in need. That helps take some of the sting out of the dualism. Mercy, compassion, and care are the measures of salvation and righteousness. An atheist-lesbian-black-female-leftist Arab has as much of a shot at the Kingdom as does a believing-straight-white-male-conservative Christian. That helps.
Jesus' attitudes towards marginal people in general also makes a difference. He had a heart for the poor and marginalized, and he believed that they were the ones who would inherit the kingdom. His standards of measure were again mercy, compassion, and justice.
In sum, there are three things we can do with the parable of the weeds and its explanation. First, we can acknowledge the parable's down side. It can be used to promote injustice, violence, hatred, and prejudice. The parable is divisive and invites misuse. Second, in order to avoid the down side of the parable, we do well to put it in the context of Jesus' "larger body of work" including both his teachings and his ministry with the marginalized. Third, acknowledging the dangers in these passages, they do remind us of the fundamental issue that all of the Bible addresses: human brokenness. The God of the Bible is persistently committed to creating clean hearts in us and filling us with a new and right spirit (Psalm 51:10). While the human Jesus reflected the dualistic heritage of his time and culture, the Spirit that filled him turned his teachings and his ministry in a different direction. It is that Path we seek to follow today. Amen.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Demons are real—not as separate spiritual beings, but as inner realities that touch us deeply and hurtfully, they are real. They infest our inner landscape with anxieties, self-doubt, mistrust, insecurity, resentment, and the worst of them enjoy causing pain in others. They are the source of racism, sexism, and the deep-seated fear of anyone who is different. These deep dwelling inner demons teach us to be hardhearted. They encourage us to walk on by. They are real, and even the very best of us experience them.
Demons infect our relationships with the seeds of destruction. They are insidious in undermining our better natures and good qualities. They can turn our political systems dysfunctional, and at their worst they drive nations to war—masking horrible irrationality with a veneer of false sanity. It is our demons that turn crowds into mobs. Demons may not have a reality outside of our hearts and minds, but they are real nonetheless, and the very best single word to describe them is "insidious". They are subtle, so much a part of us that they feel natural to us. When Jesus taught that we are all to capable at seeing the splinter in another's eye while missing the plank in our own (Matthew 7:1-5), he was pointing to the demons that reside in us. Author Frank Herbert in his classic novel, Dune (1965), assigns to a quasi-religious sect of powerful women, the "Bene Gesserit, the following Litany Against Fear: "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." He, too, was pointing to the demons within us, assigning them the name fear.
The thing is our demons cause us to act in ways that are as much hurtful to ourselves as anyone else. A true goal of all religions is to quiet these demons to such an extent that they cease to be. In coming to center, learning to truly relax, and discovering the quiet peace that rests in the heart of our hearts, we put our demons to rest. We can't beat them by fighting them. We can only discover peace by letting be and letting go or, which is another way of saying, "Letting go and letting God." Only then do our demons lose their reality.
Monday, June 11, 2012
Sunday, June 10, 2012
Relativism as such has nothing to do with indifference to or a nonchalant attitude about beliefs. Relativism doesn't say that beliefs don't matter. It says, rather, that beliefs have a context and the believer should be keenly, carefully aware of that context. How and what we believe depends in part on the context in which we hold our beliefs. Culture shapes how we believe. History shapes how we believe. Our personal experiences powerfully impact how we believe. Our inherent (perhaps partly biological) tendency to be liberal or conservative in our thinking shapes how we believe. Interestingly enough, philosophy has a particularly strong impact on our beliefs. In an American Protestant context, the early church's experience with Greek philosophy continues to powerfully shape our understanding of God.
The choice we have to make about our contexts is the degree to which we ignore or acknowledge their influence over the ways we believe. Many American Christians choose to ignore that influence and reject the idea that human beliefs are relative. They seek to absolutize their beliefs. Fewer, but still a significant number of believers, embrace the fact that faith is dependent on many factors and is not absolute. Each choice is dangerous. The "true believers" are seriously in danger of confusing what they believe about God with God. The "relativists" are seriously in danger of losing sight of the importance of sharing their faith with others. The relativists are apt to put their candle under a bushel. The absolutists are liable to put their candle at the feet of something that is not God.
The middle way (via media) is to hold one's faith firmly, share it where appropriate, and understand that others can choose other faithful paths, which are spiritually viable but not our own. What we believe matters. Realizing that we are fallible in what we believe and that all human belief systems are relative also matters. Otherwise, we tend to confuse our beliefs with the One we believe in.
Saturday, June 9, 2012
In sum, religious faith is not going away any time soon, but the context in which we speak about faith is changing. In the U.S., that change seems to be relatively slow when it comes to belief in God as such. Participation in religious organizations, however, is declining and at a much higher rate than the decline in belief in God. As I noted in a recent posting (here), even in relatively conservative Lewis County, NY, almost 60% of the population is "unclaimed" by any church. The context churches face today is that faith in God's existence is no longer a given, such as it once was. Trust in churches as places of importance is also no longer a given. The importance of "going to church" on Sunday morning is similarly no longer a given. The challenge we face in the church today, in any event, is not to get people to believe in God. It is to get people to believe in churches.
Friday, June 8, 2012
Evidently, mainline seminaries are pushing the use of the lectionary, and many liturgical resources websites tailor their contents to the lectionary. It has become almost ubiquitous in the mainline denominations. That means that in a pastoral career of 30 years, a preacher will "work through" the lectionary 10 times, basically going over plowed ground again and again. There are two things that I personally really, really don't like about the lectionary: first, as I've already suggested, it leaves out much of the Bible including many important passages; secondly, it focuses the preacher's attention on the text in the context of the lectionary rather than the context of the congregation. Preaching should always be in, to, and for the congregation hearing the sermon. There are times when a church needs to hear a particular message, and sometimes the lectionary passages for that particular week might prove useful to that end. Other weeks, the preacher has to ignore the needs of the church, or mangle scripture to make it fit those needs, or ignore the passage. All of these are bad choices. They are lazy choices. The lectionary, if used slavishly as evidently many do, can create a barrier between the preacher and parish.
It can also relieve the pastor of the necessity of wrestling with the meaning of the Bible for the church. The Monday morning question is not what parts of scripture are relevant but rather what are the lectionary readings for this week? Now, it is true that one rationale for the lectionary is that it keeps preachers from just going back to their favorite passages and narrow parts of the Bible week after week. It "forces" preachers to preach from many parts of the Bible. That is a problem, but this particular solution is no better than the disease itself. In fact, it is a palliative approach. It also limits the preacher to what parts of the Bible are used for preaching, and because it always includes passages from the gospels, the rest of the New Testament, and the Old Testament, preachers can focus on what type of material they like to preach from—the popular choices are the gospels or the letters of Paul.
At the end of the day, however, the key point is not whether or not to use the lectionary. The point is, rather, that preachers preach a message relevant to the current life and needs of the congregation based on relevant passages. It is not "wrong" to use the lectionary frequently or even regularly so long as the option to ignore it for a week or a year is always on the table—and so long as the preacher is ready to use non-lectionary passages that are equally as valuable and pertinent as those contained in the lectionary. Used circumspectly, the lectionary can be an aide to worship rather than a crutch or like blinders. That's the point.
Thursday, June 7, 2012
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
|1st wireless remote (from the Detroit Free Press)|
It is easy to see how the wireless remote, which is now used for all sorts of things, can be a metaphor for the benefits and evils of technological society. It singlehandedly created generations of couch potatoes, thus contributing to the obesity epidemic sweeping the globe. On the other hand, the TV remote is a key element in the TV revolution that to a degree has put the world at our fingertips.
The deeper lesson is equally easy to see. We have an uncanny ability to turn the good things we invent and discover to unhappy purposes. TV remotes are two-edged swords, and so is just about everything else that we consider good.
And the theological point is just about as obvious. The central fact of our lives is that God's creation of us remains unfinished. We are a "work in progress" and as such have a long way to go before we see the Kingdom. The story line of the Bible is the way in which God (wearing the mask of the Spirit) wrestles with us, works on us, and seeks to herd us toward the future, a task that is far, far worse than trying to herd cats.
Actually, the TV remote is a good sermon illustration, one well worth using for that purpose. Amen.
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
|"Ike's Creek, Bloomington, Minnesota|
The restoration of little Ike's Creek is a small victory, but not unimportant for that. It reclaims one tiny corner of the planet for nature, offers a bit of nature to city dwellers, and it reflects the fact that in many places in North America restoration of natural habitats, especially forests, has been going on for decades. So, it is a small victory but a victory nonetheless.
Monday, June 4, 2012
Sunday, June 3, 2012
The ARDA data base shows that between 2000 and 2010, the largest church in the county, the Catholic Church, lost 45.4% of its total adherents, and the second largest church, the United Methodist Church, lost 31.1% of its members. Only the Mennonite Church USA recorded substantial growth, growing by 110.3% with the addition of two churches. For the record, the two Presbyterian churches in Lewis County lost 37.6% of their members, more than a third. The general decline in church membership was not, however, limited to the mainline churches. Among the evangelical denominations, the Wesleyan Church lost 77.7% of its members in the ten years from 2000 to 2010 while the Assemblies of God church lost 61.2%.
Of all of these figures, the one that is most striking is the fact that nearly 60% of Lewis County is not "churched". The county has a reputation for being one of New York's more conservative counties with many of its people worshipping on a Sunday morning. The county may lean to the conservative, but involved in organized religion most of the county is not. It is figures like these that should cause mainline folks to begin to think more seriously about evangelism. IF the faith we profess is what we claim it to be—a better way to live one's life—then it is worthy of being shared, which is all evangelism is at its best. Faith-sharing. We can "do evangelism" in ways that are not obnoxious and really are a sharing of good news rather than an attempt to impose a religious ideology. Given the data, it would seem that there is plenty of opportunity for that kind of faith-sharing in Lewis County.
Saturday, June 2, 2012
The Word, The Text and the Critic
Friday, June 1, 2012
|"Sermon on the Mount" by Laura James (laurajamesart.com)|
Looking at the two sayings themselves, it seems clear that they are ironical and even humorous, maybe not quite as humorous as modern day biblicists trying to prove that salt can lose its taste or the philosophical debate about whether salt can lose its taste and remain salt—but still humorous. Jesus' point was that tasteless salt is useless, and so is a covered lamp. The two images of tasteless salt and a covered lamp are memorable for the ironic way they so aptly make their point, which is why they were remembered.
The point is, of course, that the disciples were called by Jesus for a purpose, and if they failed that purpose they were of no more use than tasteless salt or a lamp placed under a basket. And when they fail to live up to their calling, they like the tasteless salt will be thrown away. Instead, they were to "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16).
There are many reasons why churches decline, some of them having little to do with the quality of the life of the church itself. Populations migrate, and churches are closed in one locality while new ones are founded in others. But, where you find a declining church in the midst of a large population, there is something else going on. That church in that locality has usually lost is savor and stashed its light under a basket. This is the case even when the church does good things and maintains an active institutional life. As long as such churches fail to ask what they can do to restore their savor and light, they will decline. That is a hard lesson the last fifty years have taught the mainline churches. The good news is that in many places new expressions of the mainline church are emerging—not as large, structured, and financed as the old mainline, but with a vibrancy also unlike those churches. In some instances and in some places, we are learning how to put the taste back into salt and discovering that the lamp is a lot more useful if we take it out from under the basket. To pick up on Jesus' third image, we're beginning to learn how to be the city on the hill again—the one that can't be hid. Decline thus is both threat and opportunity.