Category Archives: Church-ology

Scattered By Love

The following sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho to a group of pastor colleagues in the midst of a three day gathering that focused the crossroad of different people coming together from their particular heritage and learning to live together.

Genesis 11:1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.  2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  6And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.  7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”  8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

 

It is certainly not true that God does not want us to work together.

And it seems unlikely that the God who says, ‘Go forth and multiply,’ employs being scattered and different as a punishment.

But both of these ideas can easily flow out from this text.  And yet…

The people do not say: let us become God.  The people do not say they wish to lay siege to heaven.  What the people do say is: let us build this thing… otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

The scattering was already happening.  The differentiation in the sons of Noah enumerated in the previous chapter tell us it was already a reality.  The languages that result from the text are, perhaps, less a thing that was done to cause a new reality… than a sign that emerged to put word to what had already come to be.  The people were moving out from the Garden in ever more diverse and differentiated ways.  And then we got scared.

I’m sure you have seen the comments that arise with alarming regularity that racism had ceased to be a problem until Barack Obama was elected president.  He caused the revival of racism.  Even now we see the same things playing out in Hillary’s nomination and candidacy and the we shudder at the prospect that a woman would become the most powerful man in the world.

For a moment in time through the lenses of these stories we see the possibility that the American dream could be real.  Anyone can become anything.  And suddenly, the equality we give lip service to became real.  More real than is comfortable for those who have had the power and the control.  And so we say no. We will not be scattered.  No we will not let our control and power in the world slip out of our grasp.

We double down on building an unchanging monument to keep ourselves from becoming scattered…  and just as we learned yesterday in the history of the Basque peoples, which is not their unique history but a way that we learn of ourselves and all our stories, that when a person or persons wishes to control and make an edifice to their own name for their own security they find enemies to name in order to convince the masses to join them in their quest.

Our sin is not that we come together to achieve great things: our sin is that we so often we come together to build monuments to our fear.

Brent A. Strawn, a professor of Old Testament at Candler School of theology posits that an iconic text the Tower of Babel perhaps exists as a way to set up the story of Abram. Abram who is invited by God to go.  To go on a journey of discovery that will leave him forever changed – even to the fabric of his name.  And in a world in which we are building monuments to sameness and control… there can be no Abram.

Our diversity is a gift that emerges from our calling… a calling to steward creation, a calling to explore the world, to be scattered in it, and to celebrate rather than fear that story.  And in the celebration of life that results we are called – as one our colleagues quoted yesterday – to be guests not hosts.  Or as the Basque people say: ‘we do not own our homes, but our homes own us.’

We are guests in the world, granted stewardship of that which does not belong to us, and yet it is gifted to us by the One to whom heaven and earth belongs.  This means in every moment we are called to live in the tension of being BOTH guest and host.  Those who are gathered and those who are scattered in the world.  Whose gift of the steadfast love of the Lord is meant to empower us to overcome our fear and concerns of ultimate security that we might feed our curiosity and seek to discover the world around us… and within us.

Yesterday Amy turned to me at dinner after a comment I made and asked, “Are you a people pleaser?”  I responded that I’m a middle child.  I was born to try to make peace in the world and do so not wanting to be a burden to anyone… so my peace is dysfunctional.   My first instinct is pleasing people, covering over that which is upsetting, and creating an absence of conflict.  Making a peace that is really nothing more than absence of conflict propped up by really good blinders.  You see, I want to build towers.  I am good at building towers to keep us from becoming scattered.

But another thing that strikes me about the Tower of Babel story is that in a world where we do not have to explain ourselves, we forget ourselves.

The people had a type of unity of mind… but it wasn’t so much unity as a likeness of mind, and they prized this likeness of mind and so would do anything to protect it, at all costs.  And security and safety at all costs is too high a cost.  Our life becomes our idol.  And we know the consequences of that way of being.  It makes helicopter parents, and elders who are tortured by the medical community to squeeze out one more moment in time.  It legitimizes terrorism against the other…  and it ultimately makes it seem sane and ration to talk about a world in which we hold all creation hostage to our ability to kill ourselves many times over seems… and call that peace.

When life is easy to relate to everyone around ourselves because we are all alike we begin to forget ourselves.  We no longer question our own assumptions.  We make ourselves into God… not out of radical disobedience. But because no other alternative can present itself.  And that comfortable place – this is my first instinct to create – becomes worth holding on to.. entrenching in… and even building a wall to protect.

This is not the unity to which we are called.

This is not creation making a grand tapestry that celebrates life, or setting a table that always has room for another guest.  Its about pinning us down to a moment of time, ceasing to grow and learn and explore… it isn’t a celebration of life… its about becoming the undead.

So yes, I’m a people pleaser.  And people pleasers build great towers.  So I could, I imagine, fill football stadiums of worshipers who will join me in that tower building.  And yet….

And yet I too feel called to a journey like Abram – another great people pleaser.  Abram never met a person he didn’t try please.  But I was called to a journey of self-discovery and of dislocation to discover the other.  I continue to spend my life getting to know who I am so I can both honor and overcome it.  And I am called – we are called – to spend (that is risk and give away) our lives getting to know each other that we can honor each other as well. We do the hard work, that we don’t have time for, of building bridges and relationships across a diversity of differentiated peoples.  To be both guests and hosts to each other.

How then do we tred on this earth as those called to be both guests, and hosts?

I read a great article recently on marriage.  The main premise was this: Marriage is the fight we agree to have the rest of our life.  Between two people, the author says, there will always be different views and opinions.  And marriages that work don’t seek to force the other to become obedient to your answers and world view.  Two becoming one?  Does mean like-mindedness either.

But rather, marriages that work are between two people who agree to fight about the same things over and over again because they cannot imagine someone else they’d rather spend the rest of their life fighting with.  Its not our likeness of mind that creates our unity… it is commitment to the beauty and blessedness we see in the others’ self-differentiation that makes us fight for a shared life together.

The gift, not punishment, of our languages that give name to our identity and unique flavor of life, is the gift of constant translation.  No word – beyond the divine logos – can capture God.  No image captures the breadth and depth of life.  But in the constant dynamic play of words and the dance of matching them to their meaning we are drawn together by the task of knowing one another.  And here we find that we do not do great things from our shared ideas and like-minded approaches to the world… but in the sharing of our differentiation from each other we find a unity of purpose in knowing and being known by the world that owns us.

We are all guests.  We are all hosts.  We are called to curate a life of translation in the tension of those dual roles and to risk losing ourselves to each other, for each other.  Nothing we build matters other than the human connections in which the love of God abides.

Thanks be to God.

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Does Member Language Make Sense for the Church?

While I was at the National NEXT Church conference I ran across several conversations about the language of membership in a church not making sense.  The idea of membership – the argument goes – is antiquated and institutional.

The conversation is familiar, it is one I picked up about 8 years ago and it led into my Doctor of Ministry with a focus on discipleship and how member language may subvert the church’s calling to make, and send out, disciples.  I want to try to distill some of those thoughts:

My initial frustration was that member language makes the church feel any social group – rotary, the YMCA, a soccer club, a country club.  We pay a service, we get a card: we are a member.  Furthermore I have “membership” cards to everything from my favorite yogurt place to Pet Smart.  I constantly am reminded of this when I stop at gas station I use frequently that has a membership card (I don’t have one) and before you pump you have to hit a button either for “loyalty card” or “continue without loyalty.”  I always feel judged when I hit the latter.  Is church just a place seeking your loyalty and your dues in order to be included?  Furthermore if you work towards what you measure and we measure members, not disciples, than isn’t the church working toward the wrong telos?

The church is not a social club.  A word from a great sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber:

“To some this may a sign that the “church is dying” …society will still have the Fortune 500 for profits, and non profits for service and day care centers for children and the ELKS Club for socializing and Starbucks for overpriced coffee and many other things we may not ever be. But we should never judge ourselves as the church according to these things because you know what the culture around us will NEVER do? Preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and proclaim forgiveness of sins. You know why? That’s OUR job.

 You can catch the whole sermon here.

Add in to this critique of looking and acting like a social club that generations of people today are skeptical of institutions or wish to create new ones.  In today’s culture anything that feels rigid and formal and promotes the church as a place where you have to fit yourself into us in order to be an “insider” just feels wrong.  I can understand, in this light, the desire to do away with the member word.  I was one of those people.

But I’ve tipped my hand when I said was.

Two things emerge from a cascade of thoughts:

Peter Block’s research on belonging (I highly recommend his book Community: The Structure of Belonging).  His work on community is not about the church but I find it the most captivating argument about what a church needs to be in order to really BE church.  In the foundation presentation of his thesis he presents a two-fold understanding of belonging.  The need to foster a sense of belonging to the community that causes a sense of place (I belong here) and a sense of responsibility (I own the mission and seek the welfare of these people).  We make a difference in our community, and make communities of difference, when we belong to them.

Member: send it away or claim it in a healthy way I do think we are all in for the work of creating this kind of belonging (both these kinds of belonging).

Secondly.  Its Jesus.  Pesky, makes my life difficult, Jesus.  Jesus certainly reached out to the masses, healed insiders and outsiders, and frankly more outsiders.  Jesus preached on the street to any who overheard his gospel.  But Jesus also called disciples.  From out of the crowds of undifferentiated masses Jesus calls individuals. Jesus called those disciples to committed relationships (just take a gander at the Luke 9).  Jesus required “dropping nets” and leaving behind and committing to a community of transformation.  I recall often the words of A.B. Bruce author of The Training of the Twelve.  He says that the apostles in the Acts are capable of audacious faith because first they spent significant formative time committed to be in the presence of Jesus and community of discipleship around him.

I may not love the member word.  But the word isn’t as misplaced as I once thought.  I came to an articulation of membership like this: Discipleship is our lifelong journey of wrestling with God, and God’s people, in how I am called to live my faith.  Membership is the particular community I choose for this time and place to help me do the ongoing work of discipleship.

Maybe what our bigger problem is when we think the membership word draws a line.  Us | Them.

Jesus doesn’t practice this kind of community.  Instead he seems adept at ever larger concentric circles of community.

(Jesus-Father-Advocate)

(The Twelve Disciples)

(“many disciples” (John 6:66 indicates a ring beyond the 12))

(The crowds // onlookers, over-hearers… admirers)

You get the point.. ultimately this is an unbounded set. Emphasis on unbounded!

So maybe our member word isn’t the problem.  The problem is that we make too little, and not enough of it, in the practice of the community of those who follow in the way of Jesus. The community that is, somehow, the Body of Christ.

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

When a church dies…

Yesterday we closed a Presbytery worship service declaring a building vacated and dissolving that worshiping community as a congregation. It was a moment to recognize that death happens.

The week before that I preached at that same church on Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection and Peter’s rebuking him that he can’t die (Matthew 16).

We have a tendency to confuse form and function. In that moment I believe Peter was obsessed with the form of Christ. He didn’t have a failure of faith. He has a failure of imagination. He could not imagine Christ outside of the way he had experienced him to that point. He was obsessed with the form, rather than the function of God… of Jesus. So resurrection held no hope for him. He didn’t want resurrection – he wanted not to have to go through any changes.

We get that way about Church. (God too…) We get where we obsess about the forms we know and are comfortable with and cannot see past them. But God is on the move. And the form of the Church is too… the Church will form and re-form as need arises to fulfill its function. When a form has played its part… it will die. But that doesn’t mean the Church dies. The Church is not a form. And the Church will find a new way to be manifest even as we mourn the loss of the way we knew, the way we were comfortable with, the way we wish it could still be.

The challenge I find with regards to death is that we are called to give it neither too much, nor too little, credit. When we obsess on death we miss the point, and those who wish we would talk more and longer about “a dying church” are perhaps a bit too obsessed with form. The Church isn’t dying… the Church is finding a new form. Its purposes will still be lived out, its function is as much in demand as it always has been and always will be. It just isn’t necessarily being met the same way we are used to imagining. Like Peter… we need to give that up a bit and challenge our imaginations to see a new way. We need to be Church making real the same hope, love, and justice in very new ways through unfamiliar forms.  We need to trust that resurrection is real, and – wait for it – good.  We need to be willing to be re-formed.

We proclaimed yesterday at the end of the service that this site was no longer a worshiping congregation of our church. But as I walked out the words that resounded in my head were, “but of his kingdom there shall be no end.”  The Church – even THAT church – will go on.  Its a form that died, not its function, not its purpose, not even its being.  That is simply waiting for resurrection and the new form it will take as God coaxes life from the formlessness and void, and calls it good.

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!”

————————————————————————————

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.

Home: A Sermon on the sordid families of Abraham

From today’s sermon on Genesis 29’s story of Jacob’s brides (you got that right, more than one and double it again if we are talking mothers of his children) but really its a sermon on the repetitive story of Genesis:

Robert Frost defines home as the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in.

The family systems sickness that is passed through the generations starting with Adam and Eve (I was told later I created a new notion of original sin) and working through the generations of Abraham’s children is the belief that we are in a competition to earn God’s love. We keep defining “home” smaller and smaller so we have to let fewer people in to the circle of God’s love out of fear that there isn’t enough or that we will be out earned by the other.

The Kingdom of God, Heaven, Chosen Land, Chosen people, New Jerusalem… etc, etc are all just different words for home. And God’s home is to the ends of the earth and there is room and love enough for all. We all have a home in God’s heart. The question isn’t how do we earn it, or be worthy of it. The questions we have to answer is how do accept that we really are loved by God without need to earn it, and how are we making that same love palpable for all we meet?

You are loved; we are loved; we all are loved. Open your heart to call the world home, and let everyone in.

Preaching Good News as the Great Perhaps

I have read a LOT of articles about the actions of the recent Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly.  I have read a lot, I have seen even more posted.  I hit my limit last night; I’m not clicking on them anymore.  (So yes, if I were you I would not be reading this right now.)  I made that call last night and thought to myself, “back to preaching the Good News!”

…And then I stopped short.  Because that wasn’t at all fair.

What I love about my church is that we are willing to speak out loud what we believe.  We are willing to imagine that the gospel does in fact meddle with our lives and views, be they social, political, or theological.  And we are willing to be wrong.

I love that and I have to recognize that for a great many people preaching the Good News is EXACTLY what the General Assembly was, is, and will be doing.  We are preaching liberation from injustice, and seeking to offer blessings and forgiveness and dialogue towards a worldview more God-open to the many ways God is at work.  Many would view this work as evangelism: preaching the good news of the Gospel which embraces those who have been marginalized and oppressed.

But…

Many others hear that news as bad.  Many hear it as a departure from the established patterns.  Many hear it as an affront to their faith, their politics, their attempts to love their neighbors – our neighbors.

And you know what?  That has always been true of Good News.  It sounds so easy.  Oh – preach good news.  Okay, I got that.  But it’s hardly so easy.  The Pharisees were an incredibly faithful group of people.  They helped sustain Jewish faith for centuries of tough times.  They had good news.  But they differed with Jesus about what that is, or how we live that Good News.  The conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities in his faith (for he was a Jew too) isn’t because one of them was unfaithful and the other was faithful, the conflict was about two radically faithful people with a different understanding of what is good, or how to live that good.

And the issues compound.  Paul preaches to Philemon that he cannot own a Christian slave and so he must free Onesimus.  Is that Good News?  I bet it was to Onesimus… not so much to Philemon.  And Paul isn’t very gentle with him; in fact he is rhetorically manipulative.

8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love… 14b in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced… 21Confident of your obedience… 22One thing more—prepare a guest room for me.

I love that last part… oh yah, and I’m coming to check on you too.  Paul gets what Paul wants.  But this dilemma doesn’t just involve Paul or Jesus, the cases abound.  Look at the Biblical mandate for Jubilee.  Jubilee is radically good news to the dispossessed who will get their lands back, but not so much the people who have accumulated those lands and slaves and worth… by the work of my hands and intellect and good management I obtained these lands and now I just have to give them back???  Is Jubilee good news to most of us in Presbyterian Church which, while not exclusively so, tends to be privileged and wealthy?

There is a struggle with this word good.  Part of why I am always hesitant to use it for God (read that here).  Good news rocks the boat.  Good news unsettles established tradition.  Good News breaks the rod of the oppressor, the yoke we carry, but also the structure and institutions we are invested and empowered by.  This is hardly Good News for all people.

Did the General Assembly do Good News work this week?  Will time tell us that we were out in front on justice, or off the path?  I do not know.  I have my passionate thoughts on the subject but that wasn’t was this line of thought is about.  What this is about is recognizing that our call to preach Good News is rarely comfortable, and if it feels comfortable to you (or me) – we are probably doing it wrong.  It wasn’t comfortable to Jesus.  It wasn’t comfortable to God.  It wasn’t comfortable to Paul.  It wasn’t ever meant to be comfortable… it was meant to liberate us from the structures that comfort some at the expense of others.  Maybe we acted rightly.  Maybe we acted errantly.  What I am grateful for is a church that is willing to be wrong.  I am grateful for a church that will to go on record for justice at the risk of its own life.  I am grateful for willingness to stand in the tradition of prophets, apostles, and reformers.  And I am grateful for the humility to understand that we will yet need reform.

Yesterday I learned a phrase for the first time, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” (attributed with some dispute to the last will of writer François Rabelais.)  I think there is something very reformed about this.  I think as we preach good news we are always (as those who see through a glass dimly) at best those who are seeking something of a great perhaps.  Those willing to dare that we might just be approximating God’s will and God’s good news for the world.  But are also doing so through human understanding, with limited language, social baggage, and our interpretational lenses seeing and hearing what we want to see and hear.  We dare to act, because otherwise what good are we?  We act with humility, because we know we have erred and will err again. We seek a great perhaps endeavoring to be Good News.

So… preach the Good News?  I’m trying.  You are trying.  We are trying together – thanks be to God.

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!”

We need more Presbyterian footprints and fewer monuments

Good thoughts – what does it mean to have a Presbyterian presence in a particular neighborhood and is that synonymous with a church building? It also gets us (not explicitly but still gets us) to the question where we are challenged to be concerned with the presence of the community of God rather than concern about “Presbyterian” at all.

Edward says...

The Holy Spirit has this way of…well…surprising me.  Last Sunday Andrew referenced a favorite quote from William Faulkner about the difference between a footprint and a monument.

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What’s NEXT: Almost Parting Thoughts

The NEXT 2014 conference was centered on three words: Lead / Create / Discern. However, the three words I moved through in that time were:  Awe / Inadequacy / Humbled.

Awe

There are so many great ideas, leaders, conversations that I was awed by the creativity. I could not help but imagine God looking down on creation again, and again, and again and thinking, “It is good.”  In a conversation that could have been about all that was wrong, it was instead about all that goodness, the opportunities.  The combined generative creativity was awe inspiring.  There was not denial here about the death in the life of what it has and does mean to be church.  But that wasn’t the word that was made flesh.  It was not not-true that the church is dying, but it also was not true. Is not true.

Inadequacy

I can’t help it.  I feel so very ordinary, uncreative, and yes – inadequate – next to all these innovative leaders and passionate followers. Don’t rush in to console me please. I know I have gifts too – I’m not completely unqualified for the calling to which I have been called.  I will be challenged by this, and I will find a way to grab hold of something – or something will grab hold of me – in a way authentic to who I am and who my community is, God knows what God is doing. But I guess what I mean to say is…

Humbled

I feel humbled when I’m surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, a chorus of dedicated and loving people. I look around and think: the church is in very good hands and to anyone who thinks this tomb is empty… or that it is even a tomb. I say ‘stand back’ because some abundant life is going to trample all over that doom and gloom. I am humbled like the Psalmist who utters, “who am I that you are mindful of me.” And even while we are talking about the church that is next… what struck me was how much this church is right now. Springing up. Something new. Seeking the welfare of the city.  Exile? It never looked so good.

And then this happened… in a service of prayer little slips of paper full of all our fears were read out loud.  And I realized I’m no more afraid, no more attentive to my own inadequacy, no more paralyzed by the sense of what might happen if I fail big in a place that doesn’t seem like it can handle one more failure than everyone else in this room.  We are humbled by each other, united by fears, and led to hope.  That was the final word.  Hope.  I found this most strongly in our weakest moment when I felt united by our fears, and convicted by the sense that all of that fear wasn’t holding the Spirit of God back from leading us. Not. One. Bit. I’m ready for what’s next, are you?