Category Archives: Brief Statement of Faith

Yearning To Live God’s Love

This is part of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here

  • In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
  • To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
  • To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: here and here
  • To hear the voices of peoples long silenced: here
  • To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: here
  • In gratitude to God: here
  • Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: see below
  • Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives

As we break this section down I will skip the “empowered by the Spirit… live holy and joyful lives” parts.  Not because they aren’t important, but because I hope that I covered them last time in the “in gratitude to God” reflection (we could always say more but I’m trying for a series of reflections and not a whole book!). So without further ado:

We Strive

I’m a big Yoda fan.  I even have an authenticated life-size Yoda statue (which is a lot easier than the same for Chewbacca).  I am as quick as any to quip, “Do or do not, there is no try.”  But… do I really think that is true? Certainly there places in scripture (and our faith communities) where we draw lines in the sand and make it clear you either do this and you are one of us, or you do not – and you are not.  But to say do or do not is to presume that the task is do-able, and that we are absolutely clear what the task is.  And so I ask: is the way of Jesus something we can do?  Is it helpful to say we will either or not do what Jesus asks of us?  Or do we, rather, try.  We try to serve Christ in all we do… or maybe to say that in a slightly stronger way.  We strive.  We yearn.  Our bodies lean in to the way of Christ.  We crave to live as Christ would have us.  And yet we know we will not perfectly do it.  We will not achieve it.  We will not be “the way of Jesus” we will be the best approximation of that way that we can muster.  In this word, strive, we combine accountability and affirmation, confession and pardon, aspiration and settledness, prophetic calling and gracious inclusion, the way we do not and the way we do.

We strive.  Not “I try” but “we strive.”  It’s stronger than me alone or simply a tacit veneer of hope that something like Jesus will happen in me.  We strive acknowledges the claim Christ’s way has on all that we are, while granting us grace to fall short.  When we “do not” it does not mean that Christ is not still at work in us and through us.  It means that while we set out to live a life that is beyond our ability Christ delights in our efforts no matter how short we come of whatever goal we aspired to live.  As Thomas Mertonsaid, “the desire to please God is in fact pleasing to God.” (loose quote, full quote footnoted below).

Serve Christ

I want to say one and only one thing.  I am convinced that scripture is clear (or as clear as it ever is), if you wish to serve God (through the way of Christ) than to do that we must serve each other.  We love God by loving our neighbors.  We serve Christ by living in service to the whole community of God’s creation

Daily Tasks

What a powerful two words: daily tasks.  We don’t serve God by going to church, by worshiping, by being in Sunday school or a mid-week Bible Study, by going on a mission trip, or…. whatever.  We serve Christ in our daily tasks.  All that stuff we just named that sounds like the programmatic life of the Church – that’s all just practice.  It’s like a homework assignment of writing out spelling words.  But we do not write out spelling words for the sake of busy work.  We do it to make them a part of who we are so that when we go to use those words we can do so naturally, instinctively, and without thought.  They become a part of us for their use in our daily tasks.  We mistake Church as an end (a goal) in itself far too often.  It is simply meant to be a community of formation for the REAL TASK.  Living in service to Christ in our daily tasks.  How are you serving Christ at school?  At work? At play? At home? On the road to these places? At the waiting room for a Dr.’s appointment?

Let us rephrase that question in light of our whole reflection: how are you striving to love the people you encounter each day?

This is what we commit our lives to look like: God’s love being poured out in chance and intentional encounters every day of our life.  All the other things we do in God’s name? They live in service to that goal and not the other way around.  The goal is to live the love of God and the way of Christ towards our neighbors in our daily tasks, and whatever it takes to keep us directed toward that goal… is church (intentional community of faith).  And anything else?  Is probably either a distraction or directly counter to who we believe ourselves to be called to be.

Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives.

Thanks be to God.


This prayer is a great gift, these words sit – among others – above my desk as a constant reminder:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” -Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

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Diagnosis: take a year long break from Church

This is part of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here

  • In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
  • To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
  • To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: here and here
  • To hear the voices of peoples long silenced: here
  • To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: here
  • In gratitude to God: see below
  • Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: forthcoming
  • Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

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In gratitude to God

You have heard it, somewhere and some when. If you are like me – you have said it. “I have to go to church meeting.” I’ve slipped and said it, but usually I try to catch myself and say instead, “I get to go to a church meeting.” I get to worship. I get to go to bible study. I get to witness resurrection in the midst of mourning the death of a loved one. I get to…

I’m amazed at how often we feel like faith or church or mission is a burden we carry. (Sometimes with good reason but often because we are approaching it from the wrong mindset.) And I don’t disagree. Having to wrestle with faithful ways of living in my life is more challenging that just… not caring. That’s not what I’m talking about here though, I’m talking about those times church has begun to feel like one more obligation in a week that is already over-flowing.

What does it mean to take seriously the notion that we “work with others… in gratitude to God?”

Our life together in faith is not meant to be an onerous burden. Strangely enough I have always found church fun. From choir and hand bells to Sunday school and confirmation – church feeds me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of a community. And yes there are days it doesn’t feel that way, but mostly it does. However the moment it ceases to be that for a protracted amount of time… that needs to be addressed. I remember talking to Cynthia Rigby, professor at Austin Seminary, and she mentioned a time when she recommended a church member stop reading the bible for a whole year. She did this because that person had turned reading the bible into an obligation that was killing their spirit. They weren’t feeding abundant life with their reading – they were crushing it under the weight of “I ought to do this.” So she told this person to knock it off, to stop reading it, and I say: great advice.

We are called to serve – to work – together in gratitude. With joy. If we have lost the sense of awe and gratitude to be trusted with this work than an essential ingredient of ministry and calling is missing, and we have to stop and take pause.

Listen to the Psalmist in Psalm 8:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.”

The Psalmist is awed, humbled, and empowered. I am nothing. And yet God has entrusted me with everything. I have been granted the privilege of responsibility. This is to work in gratitude to God.

So… how do we get that?

Maybe you are in touch with that now – maybe you are living this phrase. In that case, let your let shine!

Maybe you are close, maybe its there but you don’t quite realize it. Would it help to just recall the ways you have been blessed by companionship in community, and the way you have been a blessing to others.

Maybe you are holding yourself back because you fear it, but if you just let loose a little you will realize how much joy you are experiencing from ministry together.

Maybe you are there – and you don’t even know it. Name it; claim it.

There is another response – a deeply faithful response. Maybe you need to knock it all off for a bit. Taking Cindy Rigby’s story a step further I have recommended that before. That someone just take a year off of church… or from leadership or from programs or missions or… whatever it is they are doing that has lost that sense of awe, privilege, and gratitude – and has instead become an onerous obligation. And you know what? It’s biblically faithful. (or at least I think so.) Right before the Exodus commandment to keep one day in seven reserved for Sabbath it talks about letting your field lie fallow one year out of seven (Exodus 23:11). Sometimes we are dried up and we need to stop and just abide and rest. We need to let the dust settle, scatter the structure to the wind, forget about seed and harvest and just wait… and see what comes up again next year. Maybe you need to take a year off of church.

There are many ways to gain that sense of gratitude in service. None are right or wrong except in so far as they are right for you, for this time. But what I am getting at – what I think our Statement of Faith calls us to attend to – is that our work together is meant to be work that feels like privilege, a joy, and a reason for gratitude to God for the opportunity – I get to do this. And if we aren’t there – it’s time to take stock and figure out how to, because this is all about abundant life: for you – for your neighbor – for all God’s creation.

Thanks be to God.

Addendum (the next day):
A congregation member sent this clip to me in response to yesterday’s blog post (which get emailed to the congregation as devotionals of sorts). Spot on: “we GET to play baseball today.”

Even more spot on with the idea of taking time away: I occassionally lament that Michael Jordan left basketball for that whole misadventure with baseball. What would his stats be, how many more championships we would have won if he hadn’t done that? But when your spirit needs you to “take off” and go on a misadventure that is the the RIGHT adventure for you, than that is what you have to do. Who knows, maybe those last three championships don’t happen without him taking his break.

Working Together for Peace?

This is part of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith.  Today’s installment:

“To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace”

Doesn’t that sound so nice?  It’s almost like the combination of a group project in school with the wishes of the stereotypical Miss USA, “I wish for world peace.”

But when the rubber meets the road we struggle to play well with each other, and peace isn’t any easier.  What is peace?  What gets us toward peace?  And what do we do when two or more groups are at odds with each other cannot agree on who gets peace and at whose expense?

These are timely questions as right now the 221st General Assembly is happening in Detroit as the Presbyterian Church (USA) discerns matters of policy and polity.  The elected commissioners are quite literally trying to work together for justice, freedom, and peace.  But there are some very challenging questions before them: particularly the matters of the definition of marriage and justice for same gender peoples who have been denied the right to marry, and in the matter of potential divestment of three companies deemed to be have no interest in being in dialogue with us about their continued profit from the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands by the state of Israel.

On both these subjects we have strong disagreements about what is justice and what is peace.  We struggle with freedom in the midst of unity, and how to work together with such strongly held and opposing views.

And then I went today to my preachers bible study where we read about Hagar having a covenant from God (Genesis 21) to be God’s people also: none of us has unique status in the eyes of God, or maybe it’s that we aren’t uniquely chosen by virtue of the fact that we all are uniquely chosen.  So how do we check our privilege at the door?  A question made harder by the fact that most of us get defensive at the suggestion that we even have privilege.  And how do we help our neighbors check their privilege at the door… particularly when that is an offensive enterprise.

Then Jesus walked in for the Gospel text in Matthew and announced that he comes not to bring peace but a sword… to set us against each other… and that to gain our life we must lose it. (Matthew 10)

How do we work together for justice, freedom, and peace?

I don’t know… but I have some ideas.

We have to let go of our life.  We have to let go of our self-interest both as individuals and as corporate entities.  We have to let go of the idea that we should secure our safety and well-being at the expense of others.

We have to be humble.  We need (I think I heard this somewhere) to love our neighbors just as much as we love ourselves… and vice-versa.  And… we have to have the humility to imagine that we are at least as wrong in some of our ideas as the people we disagree with.  No-one is really setting out to be mean.  No-one is seeking the badwill of all other people.  Our disagreements are heated exactly because we each think we are seeking what is good and right.  For a moment… let’s imagine that about half of what we think is wrong, and about half of what “the other” is saying is right.

We have to be willing to be offensive.  This is hard because I don’t think that means offending people for the sake of it.  We ought not to SEEK to be offensive, but we cannot be afraid of it either.  Seeking peace as a ‘not rocking the boat’ is not in fact peace, it is asking those who are not currently protected by the dominant narrative to be quiet so we can pretend that all is well.

We have to trust each other.  We have to trust each other enough to stick in relationship long enough to get past the offense, the defensiveness, and the monologue-slinging to actually listen, hear, and relate to each other… for it is only if we can stay in conversation this long that we begin to actually do the work together towards peace part.

We have to admit that we won’t succeed.  We are seeing through a glass dimly.  We all are.  We will not achieve peace, or perfect justice, or grant pure freedom to all people.  We just won’t.  These are guiding lights – like the North Star.  We pursue them, not in the idea that we are capable of reaching them, but in the hope that we move ever towards them… and that in our fractious discernment and yearning for goodness the Spirit of the Lord is actually present.

“In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage… to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.”

Thanks be to God.

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This is part of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here

  • In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
  • To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
  • To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: here and here
  • To hear the voices of peoples long silenced: here
  • To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: see below
  • In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive: forthcoming
  • To serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: forthcoming
  • Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Hearing Stories: Silenced Voices and Add the Words

“to hear the voices of peoples long silenced”

This blog post is part of a continuing series on the Holy Spirit section of the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (USA), but also connects with a larger justice issue in my home state of Idaho (and throughout all our communities around the world).  I am grateful for Ty Carson’s willingness to add a “silenced voice” to this post.  Ty’s full story is heart breaking; Ty’s courage is inspiring.

“to hear the voices of peoples long silenced”

This line tugs at my heart.  Power pervades our lives.  The power of government, power of privilege, power of personality, power of physical presence, power of role and status… so many power dynamics.  All of these power dynamics silence people who lack that power, sometimes very intentionally, sometimes without thought, and sometimes entirely unintended.  And yet the silence is still forced, the hurt is real, injustice is still done.  We ignore power dynamics to our detriment, but even more so the detriment of those silenced and cast aside.  When we ignore those voices we become complicit in the hurt… we join the ranks of perpetrators.

Just as we unmask idols; we must hear the silenced, we must unmute their voices and open our ears and hearts to their pain.

Hearing the voices of people’s long silence has long been our calling – prophets speak on behalf of “the widows and orphans,” and God pays particular attention to how we treat “the least of these.” And yet the Church can struggle with its own power problems… and cause much hurt.  Think of all those the Church, intentionally and unintentionally silence out of fear or control or to for our comfort’s sake.  We silence prophets as well as Israel ever did.  We must listen to the voices we have cast aside.  We must set aside our defensive responses to truly hear those voices, and not just listen to them.  And we must strengthen them and lift up the voices that society casts aside.  We do not simply hear them for changes in our hearts – but we hear them and lift them up for the transformation of our communal heart.  We are in the business of building up people… all people.  This is the heart of “good news” in Jesus Christ, and the love of God which casts out all fear.

And there are so many silenced voices

  • People who don’t think like us, people with different truths.  Conversation across faith beliefs, and political ideology grows harder every year as we choose to listen to only those who will reinforce our own truth.
  • Minority populations in faith, culture, race, and origin who have had to learn the hard way that “freedom” is quite a bit more free to those who fit the look, feel, and expectations of our normal.
  • Outsiders to our institutions who we may profess to invite in but who we do not welcome enough to change who we are so they have a place at the table.
  • Recent events in Santa Barbara remind us that women’s voices as equal to men is still not a reality.  Women are still treated as objects on our streets, and machismo definitions of what it means to be male and the entitlements therein continue to silence and degrade gender relations.

This list could go on at great length, but in the midst of these silenced voices I am immediately drawn to a particular population that has quite visibly been silenced.  I have become involved with advocacy on behalf of Idaho’s LGBTQ population who desires to have their rights protected as equal under our constitution.  The Add the Words campaign has sought for 8 years to get the four words (sexual orientation and gender identity) added to Idaho’s Human Rights Act.  For 8 years the legislature has been unwilling to even have a hearing on the idea.  Voices silenced.  So silenced that this year the protestors advocating for these changes did so by covering their mouths in mute testimony to our silenced friends.  This change isn’t about granting our LGBTQ friends and neighbors special rights – but the same rights that the majority of us take for granted.  This is a protecting people with the basic right to freedom and safety from abuse.  This is about ensuring that they can be who they are in their gender identity and/or sexual preference without fear of being kicked out of housing or losing their job – in other words that they can be free in a nation that claims to hold freedom among the highest of virtues.  This is about helping to create a tomorrow in which no more youth seeking to be who they are in their own hearts feel so silenced by an unloving and unaccepting and unsafe society that they take their own life.

This isn’t an issue.  These are peoples… long silenced.  So let me introduce you for a moment to one such voice, Ty Carson.  I met Ty through the Add the Words movement.  Ty spoke a moving testimony at our Service of Healing and Hope through the Interfaith Equality Coalition and when I saw that I was to write today on, “hearing the voices of people’s long silenced” it met up perfectly with Ty’s continued work.  So without further ado.  Meet my friend Ty.

My name is Ty Carson. I am a parent of 3 beautiful children. I was born in Silverton, Idaho. Growing up in the Boise Schools I experienced bullying, physical violence and fear daily, while teachers and administrators stood silent. These classroom and playground experiences instilled a fear and shame inside me that still haunts me today. As an adult I have been verbally attacked in bathrooms, locker rooms, and local restaurants, just because I entered the room. I believe that adding these four words (sexual orientation and gender identity to the Idaho Human Rights Act) will be the beginning to changing the para-dime that ignoring discrimination is okay in schools and businesses. Being silent in our families, in our schools, in our communities and in our government is toxic and it hurts. Until the Governor and the Idaho State Legislature say that it is wrong, the message they are sending is that it is ok to discriminate in our state.

81% of Idahoans believe it is wrong to discriminate against gay and transgender people in Idaho. 81!  And yet still our government is silent and will do nothing – still our voices are silenced. To these wonderful friends and very important allies that make up that 81% I invite you to come see a new documentary film of the Add the Words struggle; see the film and be inspired by a chance to really see and “hear” the gay and transgender community!

Filmmakers Cammie Pavesic and Michael D Gough have teamed up with Sean Small, MDG films and Quicksand Productions to produce their second film together, Add The Words. This documentary has 2 intentions; 1. To tell the story of this epic 8 year long battle of adding the words sexual orientation and gender identity to Idaho’s Human Rights Act; and 2. To tell individual stories of those directly affected by Idaho lawmakers not including the four words. Idaho ranks at the top for suicides in the 50 states and many of these can be linked to “Gay bullying”.

I believe that this film has the ability to touch everyone who takes time to go see it. So EVERYONE grab a friend, inspire a neighbor, invite someone who makes you nervous and go see a film about WHO we did this for and WHY we did it!!!

Silence in the face of injustice hurts.  End the hurt, end the silence, listen – and hear – your neighbor’s story.

“hear the voices of peoples long silenced”

 

For more information about these events you can go to these places or “inquire within”:

Add the Words Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/addthewords

Add the Words Website: http://www.addthewords.org/

Add the Words Documentary News Story and Video: http://www.boiseweekly.com/CityDesk/archives/2014/05/30/watch-a-trailer-for-documentary-on-idahos-add-the-words-movement

Add the Words Screening at Egyptian Theater, buy tickets here: http://sa1.seatadvisor.com/sabo/servlets/TicketRequest?eventId=896285&presenter=EGYPTIAN&venue=&event=

Interfaith Equality Coalition (faith communities dedicated to support equality for LGBTQ neighbors) Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/interfaithequalitycoalitionidaho

Unmasking, if not Smashing, Idols in the Church

Today I am glad to have two guest bloggers, John Wilkinson and MaryAnn McKibben Dana.  I have known MaryAnn since we were seminary classmates and John by name when he was in Chicago Presbytery before that, and then through mutual acquaintance (okay my dad) over the last several years.  John and MaryAnn are candidates for Moderator and Vice-Moderator of the PC(USA).

Selecting our next Moderator and Vice-Moderator will be at the top of the agenda of the General Assembly when it meets in Detroit in June.  All our candidates are capable leaders and voices for our church but I personally hope John and MaryAnn’s candidacy is advanced. I cannot sum them up in any tight phrase but their voices will be good leadership and vision for our church at this time: passion and patience, conviction and wonderful deep listening skills, pervade all their work.I am grateful they took time from their busy pre-Assembly writing and speaking, not to mention pastoring and parenting their particular worlds, to write this follow up to my last post in my series on the Holy Spirit section of the Brief Statement of Faith.

Stay tuned following their post for more ways to connect with their work.  And without any more of my babbling, John and MaryAnn:


“to unmask idolatries in church and culture…”

Did you know that the original language in the Brief Statement of Faith was different than the final version? It’s true! According to theology professor George Stroup, the committee suggested this language to the church for use in its new confession:

“to smash idols in church and culture”

The church balked at the word “smash.” We Presbyterians are a polite and peaceable folk, it would seem—even when it comes to idolatry! However, the active word takes seriously the destructive potential of idols in our lives. Idols are those things that we construct or place our ultimate trust in, thinking they will bring us wholeness or security. But as Christians, we know that our only hope, joy, and comfort are in Jesus Christ, our Lord. (And Jesus does not promise us security, but abundant life, which is sometimes risky for the sake of the gospel.)

Still, the verb “unmask” is an intriguing compromise. We all wear masks from time to time, hiding our true selves from one another and from God. Perhaps part of this invitation is not only for us to remove masks in others – church AND culture – but to remove our own, so that we all appear as honestly and openly before God who already sees us as we are and as we are becoming.

Unmasking is both a pastoral and prophetic calling. It requires care, mindfulness, and tenderness. It also requires clarity, fierceness, and tenacity. Some masks go easily. Some don’t.

Andrew asked us to consider: what are some of the idols in the church? The fact is, anything can be an idol if we put our ultimate trust in it.

Consider this list:

  • appealing to young families
  • organ music
  • praise bands
  • the latest ministry fad
  • the denomination itself
  • stability—not wanting things to change
  • change for novelty’s sake or to appear “relevant”
  • growth in dollars, members and programs

Nothing on the preceding list is harmful in itself. In fact, God can and does work through them all. But all of them can become idols if we think they will save us.

We recently ran across this phrase: The foolish one says, “Not allowed,” The wise one asks, “Why am I uncomfortable?” Yes, sometimes in the midst of change, we’re uncomfortable because something essential to us is being threatened. But other times—probably more times than we’d care to admit—our discomfort is a signal that our idols are being threatened.

In the midst of these questions, we go back to the opening phrase of the Brief Statement of Faith: “In life and in death we belong to God.” What a comfort! The core idolatry is in believing that we don’t belong to God. Or, that we belong to something or someone else. Or, that we belong to ourselves. That unfolds in a million different ways, and is both cultural and social as well as intensely personal. And it’s the church’s job to help unmask those idolatries.

Find more vision from John and MaryAnn about the PC(USA), the calling of the Church, and the challenges and possibilities for those who follow in the way of Jesus Christ in these places:

John’s website

MaryAnn’s website

Our Facebook page

Brief Statement of Faith: Unmasking the Factory of Idols

Part of a series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here

  • In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
  • To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
  • To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: see below
  • To hear the voices of peoples long silence: forthcoming
  • To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: forthcoming
  • In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive: forthcoming
  • To serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: forthcoming
  • Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

“To unmask idolatries in Church and culture”

This is one of my favorite lines in the creed.  Well, maybe second after hearing the voices of those long silenced… but we’ll get there in the next installment.  It’s part of why I love this section.  It’s power-packed.

Idols

John Calvin is known for many things (it’s up for debate if they add up to him being famous or infamous).  One such thought that sticks with me is the idea that humanity is a factory of idols.  And just because everyone should be subjected to some Calvin here is a larger piece of that quote (skip it if long posts make you break out in hives):

Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols…. Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God…. To these evils a new wickedness joins itself, that man tries to express in his work the sort of God he has inwardly conceived. Therefore the mind begets an idol; the hand gives it birth…. Daily experience teaches that flesh is always uneasy until it has obtained some figment like itself in which it may fondly find solace as in an image of God. (Institutes of Christian Religion 1.11.8)

I’m also reminded of anthropology courses in college reading the work of the late Joseph Campbell (one of the world’s leading authorities on myth… you absolutely MUST watch his interviews with Bill Moyer one day) and particularly his work on the masks of God.  In a nutshell we cannot approach the infinite mystery that is God and so we created masks of God… stories, icons, etc.  Campbell warns we must not, however, mistake the mask for God.  This is the trouble.  We stop short after a while and stop seeking the God beyond the mask we created and we settle for the mask alone.  This is when an icon becomes an idol.  That which is meant to point beyond itself to the larger holiness of God becomes not a launching platform, but a stopping place.  We sit and worship that which was never meant to be the object of worship but only subject or tool or way to worship a larger reality beyond it.  We become limited by a particular reality of God to the larger holiness and wonder of God.

Take Moses for example.  There is a lot going on here that could be unpacked in a whole book but let’s just focus in on one aspect of the conflicted way Moses becomes a mask of God for the Israelites: the golden calf.  We all know that the Aaron and the Israelites melt down their gold to make a calf to worship as their god.  But do you recall why?  What is it that they lack that drives them to create a god of gold?

“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (full story in Exodus 32)

The people miss Moses.  They aren’t feeling a need to make gods to replace God.  They are feeling a need to replace Moses, their mask of God (Moses even wears a veil to protect them from the reflected glory of God).  In his prolonged absence they need to replace the mask (Moses) that had already become their god in the place of God, the God of Abraham and Isaac.

I could speak a long time on idols.  Let us have that suffice.  I think what we need to hold on to is this (which is by no mean all there is to say):

  • Idols are human, and thus limited, creations.
  • Idols become objects of devotion or devoted-ness.
  • Idol devotion is the worship of a particular reality to the exclusion of the larger work and being of God.
  • Idols often start out as good things, may even still be good things.  The problem isn’t the idol – it’s how we choose to relate to it.

 

Church and Culture

I love that the Brief Statement names idols of Church.  We can so easily fixate on the problem that is culture.  But first and foremost the idol factory is the Church itself.  After all it’s the Church that is a type of vehicle for the worship of God.  It stands to reason then that the Church is the most in danger of relating in unhealthy devotion to a limited representation of God. We are in the God-people business, but how easily does that become being in the Church-people business?

Culture isn’t left out, nor should it be.  The Church always lives in context.  And the Church is, I think, never more than a subculture within the larger potting soil of the culture in which we live and have our being.  Culture too presents objects of devotion.  They are perhaps more slippery because they do not claim to be gods, and yet they crave your full attention and allegiance, and billions of dollars are spent in evangelism.  Just start watching TV commercials but imagine you are watching an advertisement for community of faith.  What god are they selling you?  What way of life are they trying to convince you that you yearn for?

This hardly scratches the surface but we create idols of parenting styles, of sports, academics, success, and achievement.  Anything that seeks your whole attention as a goal in and of itself to the exclusion of a larger reality is, in some way, seeking to become and idol and object of devoted-ness. The world is a factory of idols – good, bad, and indifferent – the question is how we choose to relate to them

 

Unmasking

I’ve said enough.  Whatever work here that was mine is done.  Connect the dots now.  What are the idols we need to unmask among us?  And what’s more – how can we unmask God from the idols of our well-intended creation?  What are we devoted to, to the exclusion of a wider reality, a larger circle of love, and deeper sense of connection to all life?

This is our task, to know that we will seek out idols.  We will create them.  We will find ways to make the infinite finite and we will worship short of the full mystery and wonder of God.  But, with the Spirits help, we can also seek out idols to unmask them, to undo them, and to release the infinite creativity of the divine from the trappings and cages and limited understandings we possess.

What unmasking is the Spirit calling upon you to do in your life: your community, your church (and our Church), and the wider world in which we live and have our being?

Brief Statement of Faith: Witness and Lordship

“To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior”

Part of a series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here

  • In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
  • To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: see below
  • To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: forthcoming
  • To hear the voices of peoples long silence: forthcoming
  • To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: forthcoming
  • In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive: forthcoming
  • To serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: forthcoming
  • Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

“To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior”

Witness

It is a powerful word, and a powerful reminder.  In the courtroom of life we are not the lawyer, the defendant, the accuser, or the judge.  We are a witness.  We are called upon to speak of what we experienced firsthand.  Not to evaluate it, analyze it, interpret it for others and certainly not to command it to others.  We speak of what we experienced firsthand.

We are witness.  We are those who have experienced the Lordship of Christ in our lives in some way.  And we called to share that experience with all peoples.  We are God’s living word in the world of how Jesus makes a difference in our lives.  How is Jesus making a difference in your life?  What is the word, what is the action, what is the experience, you are called to share with all peoples?

Among all peoples

We are to be among the people.  Not over them, not projecting to them, not making them come to us.  We are meant to that living word of experiencing Christ where people are, among them, among all of them.  Not speaking at them, or about them, or about how they need to be.  We are to be doing no more or not less than being among them as a living word of our personal experience (firsthand accounts only) of Christ.

Christ as Lord and Savior

I remember a great question from the late Dallas Willard in his book (a collection of essays and speeches really) The Great Omission.  He essentially asks us, “would you consider Jesus to be an authority in your field of expertise?”  Physicist, doctor, teacher, security, accounting… whatever – would you think of Jesus as an authority of how to be, and do, your job?

An intriguing question that makes me wonder – do we really think of Jesus as Lord? (I think we have the Savior part more than covered.)  Do we really imagine that Jesus gives us insight into our whole lives?  Does following Jesus alter how we understand wisdom, not just at church, but in all that we do?  When we say, Lord – what happens if we mean the presence of Jesus, as the one we are following, is ubiquitous – all over the place!  There isn’t anywhere that our status as Jesus-follower doesn’t make his way our way of being.  So in all the places we go in our lives, and with all the people we find ourselves among – everything is done as a witness to Christ – Jesus’ way, God’s love, the grace and mercy we experience firsthand.

“To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior” = to imagine that our firsthand God-experience of Jesus Christ is not a robe that can put on, or taken off, but it is the heart, bones, and flesh of our whole existence.

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  Colossians 3:17

Brief Statement of Faith: Broken and Fearful

This is the second in a series on the “Holy Spirit Section” of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith.  If you missed the first entry you can find it here.

“In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing,”

I will try not to say too much… and probably fail.  I broke down our section of the Brief Statement of Faith into more manageable thought-bites, but some of these selections stayed longer than others.  This is a long one and I wish to break it down further:

“In a broken and fear world…”

Confessions in the Reformed Tradition are conditional statements.  They speak as the community of the church, as we experience it now, articulated to a world, as we perceive it now, the truth of the gospel, as we hear it now.  So while it must articulate what we believe, it is of equal importance to name the conditions of the world to which we speak.  The Brief Statement of faith here names that our work is broken.  It claims that our world is fearful.

There is a powerful testimony here.  There is nothing to be gain by avoiding the elephants in the room.  We do not avoid being open about hard realities.  Like Max in Where the Wild Things Are we must confront the wildness within and around us.  We name it and look it straight in the eye in hope that doing so we can learn much about ourselves, and much about God.  We speak God’s word to it, in sure and certain hope that such a word will prove transforming.

I resonant with the words the church chose here: broken and fearful.  The angels and messengers of God again and again repeat the refrain: Do not be afraid.  We are afraid of failing, we are afraid of not being good enough, we are afraid to be known, to be alone, sometimes we are even afraid to succeed.  We fear the unknown, and we fear being lost in a crowd.  There is much that we fear and this fear leads us to a kind of despair that Soren Kierkegaard likens, “a sickness unto death.”  Scripture then reminds us again and again to allow the power of God as love to cast out such fear.

So it is that God comes to those who are broken.  …broken shards of pottery… broken identities… broken lives… it is to those who are broken in body, spirit, and emotion that God comes to speak peace and good news.  It is through such brokenness that God displays the only kind of power to which God aspires.  If you read through scripture again and again you will find God’s vitality being lived out through broken people.  Conniving Jacob, stuttering and hiding Moses, bloody David, Peter of little faith, Paul in his affliction, and Thomas in his questioning.  The only figure that God ever led God’s people through that wasn’t broken was Jesus… and you know what? In order to fulfill himself he had to become broken.  God comes to, and speaks through, our brokenness.

“…the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing.”

Praying is a strangely daunting task. I am amazed how often in a group of passionate and faithful people there will be no-one willing to lead us in prayer.  Why?  Perhaps we think too much of prayer.  Perhaps we think too little.  Prayer isn’t a magic spell and there is no way to say the words wrong.  Beautiful prayers don’t get better hearing and results.  Flat and fumbling prayers are not without meaning.  Prayer is simply the process of speaking our thoughts, hurts, hopes, and cares to God.  We may speak them in emotive silence, with water color paints, with mindless chores, and with poetic words.  We may just say them in short clipped bits of rote prayers recalled from childhood.  The form doesn’t matter, and God is quite clear that it isn’t meant to be a public performance.

I think prayer is really about the same task as confessions – speaking ourselves into a new reality.  Just as a writer has to write as a creative discipline, practicing getting thoughts out on a page, I think that prayer is rehearsing the Kingdom of God.  Not for God’s benefit, and not as petition for some action on the part of God.  I think prayer is a thought experiment in reminding ourselves for what we aspire: mutual care, thanksgiving, good news for those in distress, the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams with regards to God’s creative enterprise.  Prayer is a litany whereby we remind ourselves of the work we are meant to be about in the world, but also a cathartic expression of dashed hopes.  Prayer is a speaking of the promises God has made to us and us to God where we essential rehearse the covenant in which we live together.  And this is important work, and so in a world of broken people with much fear – fear even to speak our hopes and name our fears – it is daring work that the Spirit encourages us to pray, and to make our life a prayer – without ceasing.

Speaking Ourselves into a New Reality

Many people, wise and experienced, will tell you that we actually act ourselves into new ways of thinking more successfully than we can think ourselves into new ways of acting.  This is to say we can’t theorize ourselves into being better people and no amount of “the Think System” (sorry Music Man) actually makes you grow and improve.

I like the thought – I agree with the thought – and yet…. words are important.  Thoughts are powerful.  And our imagination shapes the way we see the world.  It was many many moons ago that I first remember saying, “rhetoric shapes reality.”  The way we speak and think about the world can alter what is real for us.  Perception is more powerful than fact.  And we need to acknowledge this as true, without abandoning the wisdom that we need to act our way into new ways of thinking, and hold these two ideas together as if they aren’t some tidy Either/Or but more a symbiotic process of reflection and practice that together transforms who we are and HOW WE ARE in the world.

I share this here because it gets right to the heart about why I said a fond farewell to weekly reciting of the Apostle’s Creed.  I am a Presbyterian and we are a creedal/confessional people.  We love our statements and affirmations of faith.  We love to acknowledge that contextual people of God speak a gospel word to the world that is time sensitive and context bound and yet somehow simultaneously shared with the larger covenant people across space and time.  And a time in worship of speaking together our faith lies at the heart of the Reformed Worship Tradition of which we are a part.  We speak our faith as reminders to ourselves of what our foundation of faith is, as a proclamation of that faith to the larger community in which we are called to speak truth to power, and as commitment to this way of Christ as we have, are, and will experience it through the guidance of the Spirit and in our corporate witness as the Body of Christ.

The Apostle’s Creed is the most traditional of statements to use in worship.  It was formed as liturgy (baptismal), it is known (nearly universal to the Western Church), and it reads just about the right length (after all worship has to be 59 minutes and 59 seconds or less).

But most of us realize in study of the document is that it misses a lot.  It skips most of Jesus’ ministry for instance jumping from his birth to his death with a single comma representing everything in between.  And it covers our life of faith with only the ambiguous words of “communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting,”  It is clearly Trinitarian and its structure and formula has been very formative of many (most) of our faith statements since its adoption over a thousand years ago.  I don’t suggest getting rid of it.  I like it because its familiar and its solid and it has guided many generations of believer faithfully.

But it is only one voice in a chorus.  That is what made me start to move around – to use the wealth of our Book of Confessions in our place of Affirmation during our worship service… until I settled in a new home.  It’s not the most comfortable of homes.  It’s not a nice solid foundation like the Apostle’s Creed.  It’s challenging and prophetic and it spends as much time holding us accountable as affirming us… that is to say, it’s a lot like Jesus.  What I have come to use almost every week and what our community proclaims together is a portion of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Brief Statement of Faith:

In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.  In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

If the words we speak shape our reality, could there be better words?  Jesus proclaimed of himself that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And again three chapters later to John the Baptists query if he was in fact the one to come, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke 4 and 7)

This is the reality to which we are called.  Not an affirmation of the Lordship or Messiahship or Divinity of Christ (not that these are a problem, but they are a jumping off place, not a destination).  For what we are called to, what we affirm and commit to, is joining the work of the one whom we name Lord, Messiah, and Christ. So we speak these words, these words that are probably rarely true of the way we lead our lives.  And yet, we speak them as a calling of accountability and in the hopes of living more into making them a reality: we endeavor to live this life, the life of the one who was, and is, life itself.  And somewhere in the speaking and the hearing and the endeavoring and the imagining… it will become so.  And it will be very good in-deed.

So I hope you will join me in journeying over the next couple of weeks (I’m out of town for 4 days next week so I won’t get to it as quickly as I’d like) in going through these creedal lines one at a time. We will spend time wrestling with its calls on our life, and absorbing its proclamation into the marrow of our bones that the Spirit might “make it so” in our life together.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

 

Blogposts to come in this trajectory:

In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing,

To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior

To unmask idolatries in Church and culture

To hear the voices of peoples long silence

To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.

In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive

To serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives

Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

 

A Letter that Shall Never Close

My annual MLK day tradition is to read the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It was an open letter written on scraps of newspaper in response to 8 clergy from Birmingham who denounced Martin Luther King Jr’s non-violent protests there.  It is a power-packed letter of prophetic voice and simply put: a great read. Not a comfortable read – a great read.  Honestly it could be a weekly devotional for me – every week.  I highly recommend that you read it in its entirety.  You can read it here: http://abacus.bates.edu/admin/offices/dos/mlk/letter.html

However, I realize that time is what it is for all of us so for those less inclined here are just a few of the great lines I wrestle with in own reticence to be an advocate for the victims of injustice.  There is no mistaking why I have my congregation recite part of the Brief State of Faith every week rather than the Apostle’s Creed.  Its because I love this section, and I struggle to live it and I need to keep that struggle ever before me:

In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all   peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.  In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

So without further ado some selections that afflict me in gospel ways:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns… so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this ‘hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

…I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham, ham and all over the nation, because the goal of America k freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation-and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.