We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.
Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk
Saturday, June 29, 2013
The buffet is a perfect example of how so many of us abuse eating—that is, of gluttony, which is defined as "habitual eating to excess." And the problem is not only how much we eat but also what we eat and where we go to eat. And the problem is that our young couple are prime candidates for a host of future health problems, and their pending ill health will further stress our medical care system. Are they victims of a culture of obesity? Or are they the perps? Probably something of both—inhabitants of a perpetual eating culture. And the problem is that gluttony is a sin, which is an old-fashioned way of saying that it is deep down inside a spiritual issue as much as anything else. And the larger problem still is that it isn't just food that we over consume. We are virtually changing the world we live on by continuing to consume beyond the means of the planet to sustain our consumption.
Solutions? Public education seems to be making some inroads, but in the face of the magnitude of the problem it is hard to see it being solved by education alone. Laws restricting eating just don't seem likely to offer a way forward. Food isn't like cigarettes, and one just doesn't see the public standing for regulating the consumption of food to any meaningful degree. Medical science seems to offer the best hope, but when will it finally discover "the pill" that will cure obesity?
So, the biggest question of all is whether we will consume our way right up to the edge of planet-wide disaster but find ways to paddle ourselves back from the precipice—or not? Stay tuned.
Friday, June 28, 2013
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
To a degree, one can understand the desire to be left alone to worship without any expectations or add ons. Mainline churches in particular have a habit of consuming large amounts of their members' time in the busy-ness of their institutional life without giving much (if anything) back in terms of spiritual growth and loving fellowship. When members get together outside of worship, they don't talk about God and things like that. They plan this and that event, carry out the plans, and then try to find some time for life away from church. What little evangelism is carried out is done with an eye to getting more members so the church can "make budget." It is little wonder, then, that generally only a relatively small percentage of any church is really engaged in the work of that church.
In theory, church participation is not about getting. It is about giving. Still, the work of every church should be the nurture of its fellowship for worship, personal spirituality, and for service, which means making joy, mutual support, and spiritual growth available to every member of the congregation. Where there is greater joy, there also is greater service. People become less reluctant to serve, which means there are more to share in service, and service itself becomes a part of the larger fellowship and growth of the church. In a peculiar way, church is more enjoyable. People laugh more—and share in their tears more as well.
One thing else needs to be said, however. Those who truly want to "just go to church" should stay away from congregations that have a joyful, spiritually reflexive dynamic going on. The members of such churches will naturally expect a higher level of commitment from each other.
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
That being said, it is important to recognize as a spiritual reality that we are frequently, sometimes habitually the sources of our own stress. We create the stress we then feel as a supposedly objective reality. We breed our own anxiety. Spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, & devotional reading can help us discern the stress and anxiety we create, and they offer the possibility of decompressing without adding the stress and anxiety of knowing we create a good deal of stress and anxiety for ourselves and then feeling guilty or anxious about our anxiety. Spiritual practices offer a gentle way out. They offer a modicum of peace.
Monday, June 24, 2013
Saturday, June 22, 2013
It is also there that we sometimes discover our angels, the ones through whom the Spirit speaks to us. These angels are individuals we don't like and make us uncomfortable or angry or unhappy or troubled in some way. In learning to deal with these angels, the Spirit is shaping us, teaching us deeper spiritual lessons about patience, kindly tolerance, or compassion. Short-breath angels are important to the spiritual journey from chaos to peace, which we are all on personally and collectively. Amen.
Friday, June 21, 2013
Religion in all of its forms is ultimately a comment on moments like these, and all of our theologies, rituals, conclaves, and prayers are but reminders of them. Sometimes the reminders are vivid and themselves become holy moments. Most of the time, they but dimly remind us of those Spirit moments. At their worst, they obscure and even deny the reality of the moment. But at their best, each of the elements of our own personal religion, whatever it may be, affirm what Buechner affirms: such moments happen and provide us with a glimpse of something deeply hidden. They are revelations. Amen.
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Let us grant that her interpretation of the passage does seem to be a bit of a stretch, a reading back into ancient times of contemporary early 21st century values and attitudes that doesn't do justice to the intent of the story. That being said, Shori's exegetical lapse hardly seems to merit the intensity of criticism it has received. She doesn't take the side of Satan, as some of her critics claim. Later in the sermon, she praises Paul for treating his jailer with "compassion rather than annoyance" (see Acts 16:25-34) and wonders, "what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her." What seems to have been lost in the midst of all of the criticism is the larger point Shori made in her sermon, which is, "We live in a time when we need to see the glory of God in every other human being, and also in the rest of creation." She called on the congregation to see and celebrate the shining glory of God in those who are different from them. She concluded her sermon by saying, "God among us in human form is the most glorious act we know. We are meant to be transformed into the same kind of glory. Let’s pray that God’s glory may shine in us and in all creatures!"
Shori must have known that her take on Paul would be provocative. Did she deliberate provoke controversy? Perhaps.
In any event, her sermon is important for at least two reasons. The first is her celebration of diversity as a glorious element of God's creation. The tone of the whole sermon is very upbeat and faithful to the larger biblical theme of the goodness of Creation and the glory of its Creator, which glory is planted in every human being. The second reason the sermon is important is the way Shori treats Paul and the Bible. She reads the text critically. She sees flaws in the stories it contains. It is a human product, which by God's grace still reflects the Presence of God in our midst. The Bible is not perfect and should not be treated as such, lest it become an idol itself. Still, it too reflects the glory that God has imparted to humanity and does so in a way that is authoritative for the vast majority of Christians, including Shori herself.
In all of this, a self-critical approach to faith is important. At their very best our answers are feeble human attempts to grasp That which can't be grasped, using words that can never encompass the Subject of our faith. We have an enormous capacity for distorting the glory in us, and no one is without that capacity. It is crucial that we be critical of ourselves with an honest humility. Amen.
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Hold that thought.
I John ends in 5:21 with a charge, which is the other bookend of our faith: "Little children, keep yourselves from idols." (NRSV) An idol is anything that we put in place of God, be it a stone idol, a set of doctrines, or a search for success. The author of I John warned his readers, that is, to beware of anything within themselves that would prevent them from "abiding in God" (I John 2:28). Beware of our deeply planted human inclination to turn anything holy into something we own and have control over—and to turn those things what we desire into our vision of holiness. The greatest danger to our abiding in The Light, that is, is our own tendency to want to own, control it, and have it be what we want it to be.
We are called upon to fill in the blank between 1:5 and 5:21, that is to discover what it means to abide in The Light, which has a good deal to do with loving one another (4:7). Indeed, Love along with Light is another metaphor for God. So: God is The Light. God is Love. Abide in The Light. Love one another. And don't turn any of this into a process that we think we own and control. At the end of the day, faith in God, who is Light and Love, is not something we have so much as something that has us. And that's tough, because we don't like to be had. We just plain don't, which is why 5:21 may be the most important single verse in the whole Book of I John.
Monday, June 17, 2013
Saturday, June 15, 2013
Ideological (and theological) dualism is the division of people into two categories, those who are good and those who are evil—or, those with whom we agree and those we don't, or those who look like us and those who don't, or...the the variations on ideological dualism are multitudinous. Until recently, dualistic thinking in categories of black and white was fundamental to Western culture. It is still massively influential although going out of favor esp. among younger people.
In dualistic thinking at its worst, there is no middle ground between good and evil. One is either on God's side of the devil's. This form of dualistic thinking promotes a host of ugly -isms beginning with racism. It lurks behind a good deal of the oppression that one class of people visits on another. It encourages dualistic thinkers to treat others as categories. It is brick and mortar for the walls we build between people.
Taking our cue from the above verse from I John, however, it would seem that we can't ultimately escape at least one dualism that is central to the whole Christian enterprise—the dual poles of life and death on the continuum of love (which runs from total love to the total absence of love). We live between life and death. Some live closer to death and some closer to life. We are called away from death and to live in love, which is to be truly alive.
It is true that I John 3:14 conveys the sense of a pair of absolute opposites, life and death. The thing is we don't actually experience full spiritual life or complete spiritual death. As humans, we live on a continuum between the two. As Christians, we live on the path that leads away from death and toward life. We are (or, at least, seek to be) those who are walking away from death and coming over into life. The single measure of our journey is love. The more we love, the closer we get to life. And the measure of love is Christ, who sacrificed himself for others (I John 3:16). Thus, life is giving oneself for others. Death is living for self alone.
Ultimately, none of this is about the religious label we wear, the dogma we subscribe to, the color of our skin, or any other of the things ideological dualistic thinking often takes with such oppressive seriousness. It is about living in Christ, as best we can, and trusting to God's grace in all else. Amen.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
"Intolerance may be difficult to define, but some evangelicals say they have become victims of intolerance because of their reverence for the Bible. The conservative media culture is filled with stories about evangelicals being labeled as “extremists” for their belief that homosexuality is a sin. Their sense of persecution goes beyond their stance on homosexuality. There are stories circulating of evangelical students being suspended for opposing homosexuality, a teacher fired for giving a Bible to a curious student, and the rise of anti-Christian bigotry."Evangelicals who complain that they are "victims of intolerance because of their reverence for the Bible" are wrong. The problem a growing majority of Americans have with evangelical beliefs is not with their reverence for the Bible. They do not have as corner on that market. The issue at hand is they way they use the Bible to define others—and, secondarily, their inconsistent use of the Bible to define others.
Most Evangelicals, but not all by any means, claim that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin. They condemn it and frequently stand at the forefront of those political and social forces dedicated to withholding basic civil rights from homosexuals. Their concern is for the sanctity of marriage and the purity of society. Let us ignore for a moment the fact that homosexuality is a private "sin," one that does not do harm to others. Indeed, it is social repression that has driven homosexuals into what evangelicals consider to be promiscuous behavior. But set that consideration aside. Let us take the evangelical definition of homosexuality as a sin at face value. Let us take their desire to protect American society from this sin at face value—for the moment.
One cannot help but wonder then at a fundamental inconsistency in their application of biblical principles. In the case of homosexuality, they claim the Bible teaches it is a sin and thus must be repressed as much as possible for the sake of homosexuals as much as the rest of us. OK. Why then are these same evangelicals, as a rule, willing to make allowances in their application of the biblical principle, "Thou shalt not kill," that they are not willing to make for homosexuality? The biblical teaching is clear and absolute. We humans are forbidden from killing other humans. Yet, in the United States, we have a whole class of individuals who are trained in the art of killing, the military, and evangelicals are more often than not ardent supporters of this very class. The Bible doesn't teach any exceptions to the biblical law that we are not allowed to kill. Yet, patriotic evangelicals set that very principle aside for the sake of national defense. In the case of abortion, most evangelicals passionately advocate this same divine prohibition of murder, yet in the case of the military they make an exception to a fundamental biblical teaching.
So, what is different about homosexuality? Is not the sin of murder far, far more serious than the supposed sin of homosexuality? Murder is a brutal, violent act with clear personal and social consequences. Homosexuality is not. So, why make an exception for murder? Why apply biblical teaching in a limited way when it comes to murder but not in the case of homosexuality?
Here's the thing. Evangelicals would quickly find themselves no longer "persecuted," if they would stop using the Bible as a weapon against others. The larger society is not behaving intolerantly of evangelicals. We are protecting ourselves and others from the way many evangelicals invasively interpret the Bible so as to deprive those who are not evangelicals of their basic human rights and freedoms.
Friday, June 7, 2013
Frank Page, SBC Executive Committee president, is reported in the article as saying, "When I first heard the report of our ACP, I said, 'God forgive us and God help us.' We are thankful for every person won to Christ and every person enrolled in Bible study and discipleship and involved in missions. We are thankful for the millions who are a part of worship in our Southern Baptist churches. However, my heart breaks when we realize the overall decline in our numbers."
If the Presbyterian Church (USA) experience is any measure, continued decline gives birth to an unhappy brood of offspring—denial, fault-finding, anger, resignation, and then quiet acceptance of what seems to be the inescapable reality of decline. Massive institutional inertia makes it very difficult for denominations to do anything truly effective to address decline. But eventually some people in some places begin to think outside the box.
And that is when things get interesting—and hopeful.
Thursday, June 6, 2013
In his posting, Dr. Rainer writes, "I cannot get away from the conviction. At times it seems as though I am consumed by it. And I don’t even know fully where it will lead. My burden to see struggling churches become turnaround churches grows daily. There are an estimated 100,000 churches in North America that would be deemed terminal by most pundits. There are another 100,000 to 200,000 that are very sick and could soon be on the deathwatch." He also states, "According to our estimates, only 15 percent of the Millennial generation, born 1980 to 2000, are Christians. We are losing our nation for Christ. In the meantime, hundreds of churches close each month. Many more are on the precipice of death."
It is, of course, not unusual in our day and age for national church leaders, especially those involved in church-based research, to write in this vein. It is remarkable, however, when that church leader is a Southern Baptist. For decades, the SBC was the engine that drove Protestant church growth in America, but beginning in 2006-2007 SBC membership has persistently declined year by year (see here). It is still not as precipitous as that of the Presbyterian Church (USA), but it is decline, it persists, and it is forcing SBC leaders to discover the importance of church renewal.
In his posting, Rainer proposes a personal five point plan for moving forward. Number five states, "As much as possible, I will encourage good leaders to move into church revitalization. I fully understand why many leaders are not moving in that direction. There are many obstacles to overcome. Sometimes it’s just easier to start from scratch." One assumes that this point reflects the attitudes of many leaders in the SBC, which almost surely remains focused on their historical commitment to evangelism and statistical growth. One of the challenges the SBC is going to face is getting its church leaders to focus effectively on local decline, emphasis on "effectively". PC(USA) is still struggling, after six decades of decline, to get its local folks to focus on decline in ways that make a difference.
What I also suspect is that eventually Dr. Rainer is going to find is that local church decline is not a statistical issue. It is a spiritual one. It is not about evangelism as a project for converting the world to Christ. It is about the inability of local church folks to share their faith with others in a way that spreads the good news about Christ and about their own church. It is not about training local church leaders so much as it is inspiring local church followers with a more vital personal faith.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
From Bebbington's commentary, it is evident that the revival itself found at least part of its identity in this opposition by non-religious and other religious elements. What it was against was important. It was against the hard-edges of frontier society, anti-religious thinking, and two other forms of the faith. One form didn't allow for active revivalism. The other form didn't value religious experience as being key to one's salvation.
It is not a new thought, but perhaps we don't think often enough about how important our theological "enemies" are to us in the formation of our own identity. This is certainly true for those of us who embrace the label of "progressive Christianity." Conservative evangelicals, especially of the literalist persuasion, as well as the so-called new atheists are both important to our own identity. It is important to us that we are not like them in certain specific ways. We are not biblical or scientific literalists. We reject their rigid dualisms.
In this context, Jesus' injunction to "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44) makes a whole lot of sense. We take our identity from our theological enemies. In what they are, we butt up against the boundaries of our own self-understanding. We need them to be "them," and we need them to be "not-us." It is worth considering that "when the Kingdom comes" they will be in it too. The difference between then and now is that then we will be able to pray humble, sincere prayers for "them" and actually love them for what they are—understanding that what they are is important to us. Amen.
Saturday, June 1, 2013
In spite of the doubts of the U.S. based scholar voiced in the video, Thailand is very much becoming a more secular society. Organized religion is playing less of a role in peoples' lives. It is not that people are somehow becoming more anti-religious, a phenomenon we see here in the U.S. They simply are not all that interested in religion, esp. in a nation where one religion so thoroughly dominates the religious landscape as Buddhism does in Thailand. There was already less religious competition and fewer viable choices.
This clip is worth a watch. It runs for about 8 minutes. Enjoy.
It is a fair question to ask our evangelical sisters and brothers in those departing congregations how they intend to witness to Christ's love in an increasingly secular, religiously skeptical world when they can't even find ways to lovingly witness to people of faith who largely share their core values whatever the differences driven by the hot button issues. As evangelicals across America continue to separate themselves from the rest of American society, they only serve to build the walls between themselves and the rest of society higher and thicker. How will they ever meaningfully and effectively share God's love from behind those walls?
On the other hand, as I wrote a couple of posts back (here), it is an equally good question to ask of progressive and moderate Presbyterians, "When will we ever learn to share our faith in ways that bring people to Christ and to church?" Many of the dying Presbyterian and other mainline congregations have impressive records of public service done in Christ's name. From all of that service, however, few individuals outside of the church if any discovered faith in Christ.
So, there's the irony for you. A recent Gallup Poll (here) indicates that most Americans agree that religion is losing its influence in society and, interestingly, many of them think we would be better off if it didn't lose its influence. But those who have a heart for evangelism cut themselves off from those they would evangelize. Those who can best share faith effectively in our secular age aren't interested in doing so. Indeed, they often reject the idea of faith-sharing (witnessing, evangelizing) as being "like them," that is the like "those narrow-minded" evangelicals. We love our walls.