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

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk


Monday, June 30, 2014

On the Boundaries of the Spirit

We are not only living in the postmodern age, but we are also entering the post-religion age as well, which is to say that spirituality and religion are still generally identified with each other.  Christianity and Islam still provide the standard models for what it means to be spiritual.  But, as we dip our toe into a new era where spirituality is expressed in different, less classically religious ways, we are finding that the boundaries between what is spiritual and what is not are shifting.  The Spirit is encountering us in unexpected places and non-traditional ways.

A sports news posting entitled, "Strike a pose: Gophers embrace yoga" provides a striking case in point.  It reports that University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football head coach Jerry Kill and Gopher strength coach Eric Klein have introduced a regular course of yoga exercises into the football team's training program.  The rationale is that yoga restores the players physically and mentally, helping them to recuperate from the stresses of playing big time, Big Ten football.  It also helps them became more flexible, which will reduce injuries.  Gopher yoga instructor, Christine Ojala, explains that she is teaching the players to, "access the breath in a more informed and intelligent way." She observes that, "Yoga is one of the best methods for restoring the mind, body and spirit to their essential, balanced and strong states of being."

In Protestant Christian circles, prayer is generally understood to be talking to God. It is, to quote the website All About Prayer, "our direct line with heaven. Prayer is a communication process that allows us to talk to God!...To many people, prayer seems complicated, but it is simply talking to God." Asian spirituality, an increasingly important post-religious spiritual tool, is more about listening than it is about talking.  It often invites practitioners to learn to be still, to allow healing to take place.  In Western prayer we speak to God; in Asian meditation technologies the Spirit talks back.  Even when said before football games, prayer is mostly about religion and church.  For most westerners, yoga and other forms of meditation are spiritual practices that do not carry those same associations.  In them, the Spirit crosses the traditional boundaries, makes new connections, and finds new ways to entice us forward toward the full bloom of the Kingdom.  Amen.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Pastoral Visitation

By all accounts, most American Protestant pastors do little home visitation any more even in smaller congregations.  What was once widely seen as one of the basic tasks of pastoral ministry has largely fallen by the wayside.  It is a shame that this is the case, and it is likely one cause of why so many pastorates end sooner rather than later and badly rather than well.  Home visitation of parishioners by their pastor, if done in a friendly and caring manner, contributes to the over all health of a pastor's relationship with her congregation in several ways.

Regular visitation is in and of itself a statement by the pastor that he cares.  The word gets out quickly that she devotes time each week reaching out to members of the church.  It is not just those who receive visits that appreciate the gesture of care embodied in regular calling.  Pastors will use different standards to determine who requires regular visitation (e.g. everyone over the age of 80 as  one criterion) and different churches will have their own unique set of considerations.  The important thing is that pastoral calling visibly, regularly takes place.

Visitation provides a foundation for pastoral care in times of crisis and need.  The time spent socializing with parishioners in their homes, which often enough involves real sharing of each other's lives and concerns, helps a pastor to know how to minister to her parishioners more effectively when they have a real need for pastoral help.

Visitation also sets a tone for the whole congregation.  It communicates the importance of fellowship and mutual care in a church.  It is better to practice the mutual love we expect of the people of God than preach it.

In general, regular visitation provides a pastor with insights into the relationships of people within the church—who are friendly with each other, who are not.  When a pastor visits the people on a regular basis, he plain and simply knows them better.  Visitation has a positive influence on preaching, worship, and administration.  It helps a pastor better navigate the politics of a congregation.

For pastors themselves calling on parishioners sets a tone that becomes a habit.  The pastor has to work at relationships and always remember that the health of the church-pastor relationship (and thus of the church itself) depends on that work.  Visitation also encourages a pastor to find other ways to care for those relationships including having lunch at the local diner with some and inviting others to dinner in the pastor's home.

In the course of a pastorate, there will be times (for months sometimes) when a pastor genuinely has little time for calling; but the fact that it has been done and will again get done is not lost on her parishioners.  Their appreciation of a pastor who goes out of his way to minster to them in this way remains—as long as the visits are friendly, kindly, and obviously caring.  And I should add that most of the time visitation is one of the more enjoyable aspects of pastoral ministry.  In how many jobs, are people paid "just" to sit and chat with friends?


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Beyond the Newtonian Jesus

Christian orthodoxy across all denominations and traditions affirms the dual nature of Christ as both human and divine, man and God.  In the Age of Science, the European branches of the faith have largely treated the Doctrine of the Incarnation as if it is a fact on the order of scientific factuality.  Gravity attracts, Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, and Jesus was human and is divine.  These three "facts," however, exist in three different realms of their own.  Gravity is an observable physical phenomenon.  It requires research to explain it, but explain it or not it is.  The discovery of the Americas is a historical fact, which itself is not observable.  It does not even exist because it lies in the past, which by definition no longer exists in the present.  It is over and done.  We require research to know that it even took place.

The doctrine of the incarnation takes us into a third realm.  All spiritual experiences do.  In and of itself the dual nature of Jesus of Nazareth was not observable, even after his resurrection.  It took the early church centuries of controversy and debate to develop the doctrine.  It cannot be established by observation or by research.  It is a matter of faith that is both experiential and philosophical.  It is philosophical in the sense that it had to be thought through using the powers of reflection and reason.  It is experiential in the sense that on reflection the earliest church saw in their experience of Jesus an experience with God and succeeding generations of Christians have affirmed that we too see in our experience with Christ an experience with God.  None of this fits the profile of a physical phenomenon or historical event.  Jesus did not have a special God organ.  According to the biblical accounts, he was observably human.  And while the doctrine of the incarnation and its development is historical as a doctrine, the purported divinity of Christ is not itself a historical fact.  All that historians can establish is that there was and is a belief in Christ's divinity, not the divinity itself.  Historians are not equipped to deal with spiritual events any more than carpenters are equipped to drill teeth.

For those of us living on the postmodern bridge between the Newtonian world (a.k.a. "modernity") and whatever is coming next, it is excruciatingly difficult to separate divinity from factuality.  For us, God is not a physical phenomenon.  There is no science that deals with God or has the tools to establish the factuality of God in any way that makes scientific sense.  I am personally convinced that one day future science (or whatever comes after science) will discover God, but I don't have a clue what that even means.  Future science will rely on technologies and ways of thinking that have yet to be developed.  In the meantime, we must rely on spiritual sensitivities and the insights we draw from them to discern the Beyondness and the Presence of God.  And we have to unlearn our worshipful respect for facts.  We have to move beyond the doctrine that only what is factual is real.  We have to stop thinking that science is the last stop in our cognitive evolution.

We have to live in faith.

This does not mean we stop thinking critically but precisely the opposite.  It means that when we sense the divine in a sunset and find peace in meditation we accept that we are participating in a different realm of reality—one where Christ is human and divine for those of us who put our faith in him and where the logic of science is flawed, open to criticism.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Price of Justice

As has been widely reported both in the U.S. and overseas, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), meeting in Detroit, has just approved two motions that take a large step toward finally resolving the decades long brawl over homosexuality.  First, it voted to change the wording of the Book of Order, our constitution, to read that, “marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”  The vote was 429 (71%) in favor and 175 opposed, a surprisingly large margin given the tumultuous history of the issue—and apparently an artifact of the continuing departure of the losers.  This decision must now be ratified by the presbyteries, and there is a widespread sense that the requisite majority will do so.  The General Assembly also voted to allow pastors residing in states where same-sex marriage is legal to conduct such marriages at their discretion and with the permission of the session (governing board) of the congregation they serve.

The reaction from the right has been as predictable as it is swift (see here and here for examples).  Inevitably, PC(USA) is going to lose still more congregations as those who oppose simple justice for the LGBT community hasten into their ghetto for an illusive safety from the swelling currents of our age.  They or their heirs only postpone the inevitable as the whole issue will follow them into that ghetto where over time some will have a change of heart and begin again to challenge the ghetto's values and interpretations of scripture.

For liberal evangelicals the best and most faithful interpretation of scripture is always the one that affirms the principle that God acts, "with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth" and "takes delight" in these things (Jeremiah 9:23-25).  Three generations ago, the Spirit of God inflamed us with a desire for racial justice; two generations ago it was gender justice; and in this generation it is sexual justice.   The rapidity with which the nation is embracing equality for the LGBT community is heartening and even suggests that there is a certain momentum that has been gained in the struggle for justice and equality for all.  It would be na├»ve, of course, to think that this is the last battle that is going to have to be fought in the churches or in the nation, but it is good to see that justice does tend to prevail even if it has its price. The turmoil, the heated debates and anger, and the loss of more and more conservative evangelical churches and members are a part of that price.  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A New Book Review at Rom Phra Khun Reviews

I have just posted a review of Joel Baden's The Historical David at Rom Phra Khun Reviews.  It has to be one of the least flattering reviews I've done.  You may want to check it out.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Preaching and Local Theology


In a posting back in September 2012 entitled, "All Theology is Local," I suggested that our geographical and social locales play a role in how we understand God.  Different cultures also play a powerful role in our perception of the divine, as does the language we speak.  As a rule, preachers and local churches, however, devote little thought to the particular nature of their local theology and its spirituality.  The truth is, most preachers most of the time call on a mixture of personal experience, the Bible, personal theology, and pop culture to shape their preaching.  Some will draw on literature or the arts from time to time.  And preachers will more-or-less naturally draw on local images and stories for their sermons, especially if they have been in the same locale for a longer period of time.

There is less evidence of preachers consciously reflecting with the church they serve on the ways in which they experience God in their setting including their natural environment and local culture.  In Lewis County, New York, for example, many people continue to reside here because of its proximity to the northern wilderness.  Many hunt and/or fish.  Others are hikers or ride horses or engage in other outdoors activities.  Many live in the forest as a conscious choice, and in all of this there is often enough a spiritual component to their decision to live in or near the wilderness.  It is quite possible to speak of a "north country spirituality," which spirituality should inform the content of preaching in north country churches and from time to time be addressed directly.

In many locales, there would be a combination of local theologies and spiritualities, such as a farm country spirituality that combines with a Great Plains theology or a hillbilly theology.  An urban theology could well also encompass black theology or hispanic spirituality perhaps in tandem with a North Atlantic costal theology.  The larger point here is that we always experience God through our culture, local history, and natural environment and that fact should be incorporated into local preaching in a conscious way.  Amen.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Chaos & Creation: the Bible

In a guest opinion piece entitled, "Recent Gallup Poll On American's View of Bible Reveals Utter Chaos Regarding Nature and Authority of Scripture," John MacArthur reflects on the relationship of modern American culture to the Bible based on the findings of a recent Gallup poll (here).  As one can guess from the title of the piece, he finds little good in that relationship.  One can sense the anguish and alarm he feels concerning the way postmodern society treats scripture, at the debasing relativism to which the Bible is subjected.  The reader also senses MacArthur's alienation from our increasingly non-dualistic culture, which seems to him to have lost its spiritual center. Postmodern Americans including the majority of American Christians, that is, think that the Bible is open to interpretations from different perspectives.  In MacArthur's understanding, these Christians have replaced the authority of the scriptures with "the authority of self."

Early in the piece, he writes, "Clearly, the prevailing belief in our culture is that while the Bible may be the inspired Word of God, it doesn't mean what it says."  From a liberal/progressive perspective, this is a useful observation that helps clarify our view of the scriptures as being both authoritative and open to interpretation—or, again, both inspired and fallible.  At the heart of it all, lies the basic question of how we experience the divine, which leads us to our understanding of the incarnation as not so much as a doctrine as a matter of God's Presence in our lives.  We are touched by that Presence in different ways including through scripture, emotion, in nature, in relationships, in the fellowship of the church, and paradigmatically in the person of Christ to name a few.  In all cases including Christ and the Bible, God speaks to us within the framework of our humanity.  God is present with us incarnationally.

That is to say, God participates with us in our humanity and in the guise of the Spirit finds multiple ways to touch our lives and bend the arc of our habitually hostile fallibility in the direction of the Kingdom.  God, as best as we can make any sense of this, inspires us from within the human experience.  That is the whole point of our trust in God in Christ: Jesus was clearly human and shared the limitations of physical existence that all of us share.  The Bible, which speaks of God out of many generations of experience with the divine, as clearly exhibits the limitations of any human document.  Both in spite of and because of his humanity, Christ grabbed our attention.  So it is with the Bible.

Returning to the idea that, "...prevailing belief in our culture is that while the Bible may be the inspired Word of God, it doesn't mean what it says," the point that must be made is that the authors of the Bible did mean what they wrote.  They wrote, however, in a very different context than the one we live in today.  We are constrained to understand as best we can that context so that we can have some sense of the original intent of the authors.  The process of discovering that intent, however, requires a specialist training and even then is a tricky, murky exercise at best.  Thus, we do best to also read the Bible seeking to hear contemporary meanings as well trusting that God does communicate with us in that search.

The real difference in all of this, of course, is that "modern" or "Newtonian" Christians believe in absolutes and "postmodern" Christians don't.  Moderns believe that words written in one language two thousand years ago retain their meaning today.  Postmoderns believe that words and their meanings are constantly shifting even today and all the more so when dealing with ancient writings like the Bible.  Moderns are convinced that Christ had to be perfect and the Bible infallible in order for God to speak meaningfully to us, and postmoderns are convinced that God can't possibly speak to us through perfection and infallibility because such things are outside the realm of the human experience.

Apparently, humanity is created in such a way that we need both those who lunge forward in the direction of new ways of thinking and doing and following the path God sets for us in Christ and those who hang back wanting to be sure that we're still on the path.  I guess I understand why the hangers back worry so much about the plungers ahead.  A lot is at stake.  But, that is exactly why we who rush in where angels won't feel we must rush on ahead.  The future is waiting!  And somewhere in it is the Kingdom.

Monday, June 9, 2014

PC(USA) in 20 Years - A Scenario

As reported in my  recent post, "Reconfiguring the Mainline?," there is a recent trend in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in which its traditional congregations are continuing to decline in numbers but it is adding an impressive number of affiliated new worshipping communities (NWCs).  Working from the numbers given there, we can assume that the PC(USA) might well continue to lose traditional congregations at a rate of 50-100 a year over the next twenty years, leaving it with perhaps some like 8,000 old-style churches by the year 2034.  Given historical trends, it might even be optimistic to guesstimate the denomination still having 8,000 churches in twenty years.

At the same time, we might suppose that the denomination continues to add NWCs at a rate of about 25 to 50 or so a year.  In order to maintain that rate, many more will have to be actually formed because we can safely assume that individual NWCs will come and go at a fairly fast rate, many of them lasting less than five years and not so many lasting a decade or more.  By 2034 according to this scenario there would be as many as 2,000 NWCs affiliated with the denomination.  That also may be too optimistic, but no one can really say with any certainty one way or the other.  In any event, it is possible that PC(USA) still will have 10,000 or so "congregations" in twenty years but in a new configuration that includes a good number of non-traditional NWCs.

One other thing to consider is that some of the NWCs may "evolve" toward a more traditional congregational structure if they survive their first few years—become, that is, hybrids of different sorts, partly unconventional and partly conventional.  It is also entirely possible that some existing churches will reinvent themselves in innovative ways that will make them hybrids as well.  So, by 2034, there could be three broad categories of Presbyterian churches, old-style, new-style, and hybrid.  the whole denomination could thus conceivably take on the dual aspects of being an innovative, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants movement and a more stable institutional organization.

If something like this happens, how will it work?  Will presbyteries embrace the NWCs or will they ignore them?  Will the denomination have to redefine the office of teaching elder (clergy) to include individuals who have unconventional theological training but function has pastors in NWCs?  Who will get to vote in presbyteries and in General Assembly?  Will it matter?  How will theological education be structured and provided?  These are only a few of the institutional questions that will have to be faced if the NWC movement really does begin to take hold.

More generally, will the NWCs have become the wave of the future by 2034, or will they remain merely an auxiliary curiosity?  Or will they already be a distant memory, a might-have-been that never came to fruition?  My own sense is that the future of PC(USA) lies in its ability to transition from predominantly old-style congregations to encompassing a wide variety of innovative worshipping communities stimulating the denomination with new ideas, approaches, and styles.  The old-style churches will provide stability.  The new-style ones will give it life.  The hybrids will combine the best (and worst?) of the two in interesting and hopeful ways.  And the Spirit will continue to move.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

We Have Found Life on Mars?

The science journal, Nature, website reports in an article entitled, "Microbial stowaways to Mars identified," that the Mars rover Curiosity carried with it "Dozens of microbial species," which may contaminate samples that it collects.  This is not certain because scientists are not yet sure that the microbes can survive on Mars let alone the ride there through space.  The thing is that, according to investigators, they apparently did survive attempts to sterilize them before the rover left Earth.  The article states, "Planetary scientists worry that hitchhiking microbes could, in principle, contaminate Mars soil, or possibly taint rock samples collected as part of future missions — hence providing false signs of life on the red planet."

One has the feeling of, "Here we go again."  Virtually every time explorers or colonists here on Earth land on a new island or continent, they take with them other species that came along for the ride.  This includes infectious diseases that can wipe out indigenous populations.  So, perhaps we are at it again, assuming that the hostile environments we are crossing and discovering allow our microbial stowaways to survive the trip.  And wouldn't it be at least ironic if there wasn't any life on Mars until we put it there?  One reason we invest so much effort and resources to go to Mars is to discover new, alien life, but just maybe what we will discover is us.  At least, as the article points out, we will eventually discover whether or not life on Earth is hardy enough to survive interplanetary travel, and that in and of itself will be worth learning.

And if those microbes do survive the trip and are able to live on Mars, what we may be witnessing is the beginning of what could be the greatest engineering project in human history, the terraforming of Mars.  Eventually, we are going to leave Earth and learn to live in space, which means taking life on Earth with us to the stars.  This sounds like science fiction, but maybe the very beginnings of our migration into the universe are already happening.  Or not.  But the possibility is intriguing.


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Reconfiguring the Mainline?

According to a Christian Post news posting entitled, "PCUSA Decline in Churches, Members Continued in 2013," Presbyterian Church (USA) denominational statistics continue to look grim. The generations long decline of mainline Presbyterianism seems to be continuing unabated.  A second look, however, hints that things may not be quite as dire as the numbers suggest and that something very interesting could be happening.  The article notes that the denomination lost some 224 churches of which148 left PC(USA) and the remaining 76 were dissolved.  It also notes, however, that some 200 "new worshipping communities" (NWCs) have been formed in the last two years under the denomination's 1001 Worshipping Communities initiative.  These communities and those participating in them were not counted in the official statistics for 2013.

If we do a little guesstimating of our own, it seems at least possible, maybe likely, that a transformation of sorts is taking place.  Setting aside the churches that left for other pastures, the actual loss of congregations to decline was only 76, which loss seems to be more than offset by the rate of growth of NWCs certainly in numbers of members as well as congregations.  What may be happening is that PC(USA) is trading in small, dying organized (old-fashioned) churches for innovative, experimental (new-fangled) communities that are more about creativity than Book of Order propriety.  Maybe.  Or maybe not.  The 1001 initiative could be a flash in the pan, a trendy fad of the moment.  It may, on the other hand, mark a new direction for at least part of the the Presbyterian Church, transforming it from an institution back into a movement. The bottom line is that whether or not something of a reconfiguration of PC(USA) churches is taking place this is the sort of thing that needs to happen—must happen.  And it looks like there is the potential for it actually happening.