Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Message to My Congregation As We Confront the Current Financial Situation

Over the last few months many of us have watched as reports about the economy have turned increasingly gloomy. Some of us have not only had reports via the media, but we have been personally touched by employment insecurity, diminished income or assets, or an inability to obtain credit for either ourselves or people we know.

Certainly we as a church have grappled with the fallout of this situation with respect to the 2009 budget. As you have heard, we did not receive the level of commitments that we had initially hoped for. As I write this in mid-December the Finance Team is engaged in developing strategies for increased income and limiting spending for the coming year and Church Council will take decisions on January 6.

At the same time, as the financial situation grows precarious, we need to come to grips with the more fundamental reality of the Gospel. We have lived in a very affluent time. We have lived out the myth that we could have whatever we wanted if we just worked hard enough. We lived in the assumption that there would always be more and more and we could without significant risk borrow against tomorrow to fulfill our desires of today. These engines fueled what has turned out to be an optimistic bubble.

As people begin to lose the distractions and opportunities of affluence, the Church remains a place to reorient priorities and lifestyles into conformity with the deeper human and divine realities of love and generosity.

As people begin to fear more deeply what their economic future may bring, the Church remains a community in which security is in God’s love poured out through one another in giving and receiving.

As people begin to experience increased need, the Church remains a place where the sort of miracle of provision we read about in the Bible happens in real life as the Holy Spirit energizes and empowers us to take the next step on the journey together.

These are challenging times. These are the times when the church is tested. May we with God’s help continue to faithfully proclaim God’s Word to reclaim God’s people.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Talking Politics in Church

Over the course of the presidential campaign, I’ve had the opportunity to think about talking about politics in the church.

I think we make a mistake if we simply say that politics does not belong in church. In some ways it does and in some ways it does not.

Politics is the way people organize themselves to take action as a group. Usually when we use the word “politics” we are talking about civil government. The problem, of course, is that many are tempted to illegitimately use their personal power to influence or coerce a group. At the same time, other human weaknesses like fear, anxiety, impatience, gullibility, greed, and so on can also interfere with a group’s capacity to make the best decisions they can.

I think the first question is, “Should the Christian faith influence how Christians speak and act in the politics of civil society?” I think the answer is certainly, “Yes.”

The next question is, “As a church, should we help one another think, speak, and act more faithfully as Christians in the politics of civil society?” Again, I think the answer is certainly, “Yes.”

A third question is, “Will there be a specific set of policies that will be clearly “Christian policies?” Here the answer is almost certainly, “No.” This means that Christians are likely to disagree about who the better candidate is, what the better policy alternative is, and so forth.

I think the question that is being raised within our congregations concerns our ability to cope with disagreement. And THAT is a fundamental element of what we are trying to do in our congregations.

Rather than rule a discussion about social justice or politics off limits, I suggest that we find better ways of helping people talk together about what Jesus and the Bible have to say about questions of social justice. How these teachings apply to real life situations in the 21st century is probably not always going to be clear. There are always going to be trade offs.

I would say that we must discuss social justice and politics in church. At the same time, we must avoid partisan cheerleading, which is typically unthinking and divisive. Learning to distinguish between the two is important. In my view, the church needs to model how to have conversations about subjects on which people disagree. That is hard work and we will sometimes get it wrong. But then comes the next fundamental dimension of our ministry: learning about forgiveness and reconciliation.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What is the Authority of Scripture?

The problem with nearly all discussions of the authority of Scripture lies in the fact that participants fail to recognize that Scripture is simply not the sort of thing that CAN be an authority. An authority must be able to render judgments. Whatever else it may be, Scripture is a linguistic artifact, and hence it is incapable of rendering any judgment.

The yearning to establish Scripture as an objective, impersonal authority betrays the enlightenment-based suspicion of personal authority. No text can function as an impersonal authority, because any text depends for its life on an interpreter. Our interpretation of any text is a dialogue with that text, which is inseparable from our experience, our reason, and our tradition. At the same time, our interpretations of our experience, reason, and tradition are also tested by our interpretation of Scripture. There is no fixed point of reference when it comes to interpretation.

I suggest that each Christian must come to answer this question: What community of faith do I accept as an authority to help me interpret Scripture? There is no doubt that different Christians accept the authority of different communities of faith in which they participate.

This state of affairs does not make me anxious.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Worry and Trust

St. Paul writes to the church in Philippi:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:4-6)

In these days of financial turmoil, many of us are finding it difficult not to worry. Our gentleness may be fraying and our confidence in the nearness of the Lord may be waning. Yet these difficult times are exactly the times that demonstrate where our confidence is. Do we trust in God’s abundant provision and the strength of our communities of trust and cooperation? Or do we trust in wealth?

We may well experience difficult times. But our call as the Church is to experience them together trusting in God’s call upon our lives to live out God’s alternative realities of generosity, love, forgiveness, and compassion.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Praying for Victory

This weekend a pastor gave the invocation at a McCain rally (before Senator McCain arrived) in which he prayed that God's reputation would be guarded by a McCain victory. The problem for God, according to this pastor, is that many non-Christians around the world are praying to their deities that Senator Obama will win. If Obama wins, they will think that their deities are bigger. Check it out at http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2008/10/11/speaker-at-mccain-rally-says-non-christians-want-an-obama-win/.

I suggest this pastor review the prophet Micah, who said, "[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" [Micah 6:8]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Is Jesus important because of his ideas?

A reader of my list of Jesus' five ideas responded in part,
If the teachings of Jesus were all that he left, he would have long ago been absorbed into the folds of history and little known, I firmly believe. So, the question you are dealing with seems to me a diversion from the Gospel and not all that helpful.
As I have tried to point out in my elaborations on these ideas, it was precisely Jesus' incarnation of this life and the legacy of a community of disciples who have -- at their best -- articulated these teachings into real life. Far from being a diversion from the Gospel, they are a description of the the good news of how the Kingdom of God is to be made real here and now.

It is certainly true that Jesus' student followers have not consistently brought to life the Kingdom of God in the world. The powers and principalities on which the kingdom of this world is based are seductive. Without a clarifying proclamation of the alternative foundations on which the Church is to be founded we will be more easily seduced.

My contention is that these five teachings distinctively mark how Christ is embodied in the Church. Jesus' teachings are important because they are critical for understanding who he was, what his life meant, and how his student followers are to continue to live God's presence in the world.

Making Christ a Reality

This brings us back to the fifth big idea of the Jesus Movement: The Kingdom of God is at hand. Trust in God.

The truth of the proclamation that the Kingdom of God is at hand comes about as Jesus' followers trust God. By giving way to the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the community which they form around the open table of the bread and the cup, the Kingdom of God becomes real around them.

Christianity is not about an abstract transaction that takes place between an individual and God. It is about making the power of God a full-blooded reality here and now.

As Jesus' student followers faithfully gather together, they become the reality of Christ, alive in this world.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

More Strict than Legalism

To say that Jesus was not legalistic can be mistakenly understood to say that Jesus was more lax than the legalists. This is not true.

In two particular cases, we can readily see that Jesus' stress on purity of heart takes one into much more difficult terrain. In the case of adultery, Jesus says that even if one looks lustfully at another person's spouse, he or she is guilty of adultery. Similarly, Jesus teaches that if one says to his brother or sister, "You fool!", he or she is liable to judgment.

Jesus' warnings against legalism do not let us be careless. Instead they ought to center Jesus' followers on the cultivation of the spiritual disciplines and practices that help us to grow to maturity in love and grace.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

4. Emphasis on purity of heart as opposed to legalism.

Jesus is reported in the Gospels as violating the commandment of keeping the sabbath holy and to be careless of the cleanliness codes. With respect to each of these legal rubrics, Jesus pointed to what he took to be a more fundamental reality about the purity of one's heart.

Jesus recognized that a rote obedience to particular legal formalities could betray not an exemplary righteousness, but a prideful desire toward self-righteousness that isolated one from dependence on God. Not only might such an attitude divert one's attention from God as one's savior, but has the danger of leading one into a community-destroying judgmentalism or the arrogance of a competition to be the "most holy."

Jesus said of the cleanliness codes that what makes a difference is what is inside one, not what goes into someone from the outside. He said of the sabbath laws that it was more important to do good and heal on the sabbath than to restrict oneself arbitrarily from activities that would help one's neighbor. Jesus points beyond the laws and codes mark the boundaries of community life by regulating behavior to the point of having rules at all. That is, Jesus wants his followers to understand that rules are to help us live well together, not to be instruments of competition, judgment, or arbitrary restriction.

The rules are not sacred in and of themselves, they are means to a community of witnesses to God's enduring and gracious love. When Jesus claims that the sabbath was created for the good of persons, not persons for the good of the sabbath, he was making just this point.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Status and Hierarchy

3. Redefinition of social status and hierarchy. “The first shall be last.”

The Gospels consistently portray Jesus as redefining status. He clearly teaches, for example, that those who serve have a higher status than those who are served. In Jesus' day (and in our own!) those who serve are social inferiors. If you doubt this is true in 21st Century US culture, think about who is addressed by Mr. or Ms. and who is called by their first name.

There is, of course, a kind of paradox in this, because ultimately I believe that the more fundamental message is that status and hierarchy in themselves, undermine the principle of mutual respect that is required for the beloved community to emerge. But because those of high social status have a more difficult time honestly and vulnerably engaging those of lower status, the teaching is directed to counter the presumption of those who are of a higher status.

Social status confers power and privilege that is easily abused by those who have it. The privileged and powerful often have difficulty listening attentively to those without power and privilege. The dangerous assumption that one's position is the result of one's virtues can foster a kind of arrogance that dismisses the claims made by those without.

Similarly, those of low status, without social power or privilege, are vulnerable to the danger of assuming that lack is attributable to their own personal failing or destiny.

Both of these dangers are addressed by Jesus' overturning of status and hierarchy. His teaching and the practice of the early Christian movement takes the view that personal worth is based on one's being a child of God. All voices and lives in the beloved community are to be recognized in our life together.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Number Two

2. Kinship, national, ethnic, and other worldly ties have only relative importance.

It is probably difficult to exaggerate the importance of kinship ties in the ancient world. In Jesus' world one was nobody without one's relationship to one's family. We of the 21st century, especially in America with our hyper-individualism, probably think that we do not need the warning against unthinking kinship allegiance that Jesus and the early Christian movement demanded.

However, there is certainly a belief in some Christian quarters that loyalty to family and to nation has a sacred status. Think of how easily the phrase "God and country" flows from our lips.

Jesus understood that our worldly loyalties could easily divert us from our calling to the new beloved community that is coming into being as we become student followers of him.

There is a kind of selfishness, of course, that might divert one from appropriate duty toward one's family or, indeed, one's country. Sometimes calls to family or national loyalty are reminders that one may well have legitimate obligations beyond oneself. But when these calls would divert one from following Jesus, they must be left behind.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Judging the Judgers

Jesus did not mean to jettison the notion of rules and laws altogether. There is no doubt that clear rules and standards of acceptable behavior are important for people to live together. People need to be able to appeal to a standard apart from their own will and desire. So far, so good.

The danger is that rather than becoming standards by which persons can be corrected, misunderstandings rectified and reconciliation and restoration achieved, judgment based on the particular application of some rules and not others can serve as an instrument of those with social power against those without it.

Rules and standards are, at their best, norms that work to equalize social power, not magnify it. One of the great dangers is that one can garner social power through allying in a self-righteousness that fails to notice one's own selective awareness of who is violating the rules.

Jesus was clear, "Judge not, that you not be judged." We are invited to help one another live together, and be open to how others are correcting us as well.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

1. Human community is to be constituted and maintained by forgiveness and reconciliation instead of violence and threat of violence. Only the judgers are judged.

The explicit teaching of Jesus and the sign of the crucifixion and resurrection demonstrates that a new fundamental principal is affirmed.

After the crucifixion, Jesus does not retaliate against the disciples who failed him or even those who put him to death. Jesus' prayer is, "Forgive them." Instead, he comes to usher in by the Holy Spirit a forgiven and reconciled community. That community, shedding its fear, goes so far as to invite even those who condemned Jesus.

The practice of reciprocal revenge stops with Jesus. The crucifixion and resurrection does not evoke God's wrath, but God's invitation into a new way of life.

Jesus' teaching, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, makes plain that we are not to return evil for evil, but return good for evil. Jesus calls on his followers to love even rivals and enemies. These are remarkable commandments.

While it is true, that much of human society appears to function on peaceable agreement, this is in some way an illusion based on relatively calm circumstances. It is also a consequence of persons in communities wishing to avoid shame and judgment. While it may be that people behave well without explicit, violent coercion, the threat of punishment stands at the back of civil society.

The new community, into which Jesus invites us, is the beloved community in which the goal of reconciliation replaces the pursuit of retaliation.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Number Five

Before commenting on the first through the fourth themes, let's spend a preliminary moment on the fifth. The fifth theme, "The Kingdom of God is at hand. Trust in God," is both the goal and the context in which the other four are to be understood and practiced.

Jesus calls us to trust in God because God is active in the world and the establishment of God's reign of abundance, justice, compassion, and mercy is about to unfold. Once we trust in God, we can live without fear that the realities of the present age: scarcity, violence, revenge, injustice, and death have real power.

Jesus' ministry of provision, exorcism, healing, and forgiveness are signs demonstrating that the realities of the present age are being undone by the gracious activity of God.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Jesus' Ideas?

In setting out these five themes as foundational or critical to the Jesus Movement, I do not mean to suggest that that they emerged without roots earlier in the Jewish tradition. Nor do I have any interest in denying that they may well have significant points of contact with other spiritual and wisdom traditions.

Rather, I highlight themes that hang together as collectively distinctive, and which emerge not only from the teaching of Jesus and the apostles that we find in the Bible, but more basically from the from the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the response of those whom the Holy Spirit empowered to begin the new life together that would instantiate the Kingdom of God in the world.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Jesus' Top Five Ideas

One of our church members recently asked me what I thought the top five ideas of Jesus were.

I'm not exactly sure that this is the most helpful way to get at the gospel, but I have been giving some thought to what the most important themes of the Jesus Movement are. So far, I would identify these five most important thematic areas:

1. Human community is to be constituted and maintained by forgiveness and reconciliation instead of violence and threat of violence. Only the judgers are judged.
2. Kinship, national, ethnic, and other worldly ties have only relative importance.
3. Redefinition of social status and hierarchy. “The first shall be last.”
4. Emphasis on purity of heart as opposed to legalism.
5. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Trust in God.

I will be fleshing out these themes in the coming days and weeks.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Conversation

Let 1 Corinthians 13 be a guide for our participation in any conversation. What does St. Paul say about love?

It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

So often we are more concerned in vindicating our own position instead of cooperatively seeking the truth.

A conversation conducted in this sort of love will be a conversation that will offer wisdom to all its participants. Humility and openness will deliver the truth more readily than arrogance and competition.

This openness requires a kind of fearlessness with respect to the fact that our errors will be exposed. The paradox that many of us face is that we want to be right, but we do not want our errors exposed to be corrected by others.

Let us understand that our journey toward the truth will include correction by others. Discovering truth is a cooperative project, and even our claims that turn out to be false will be of value in the ongoing conversation. Let us give up the idea that any word of ours has any hope of being the last word.

St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Phillipians: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.

If we allow ourselves to be emptied of our fears, insecurities, and our pride, we will cooperate in creating a conversation guided by the Holy Spirit.