Thursday, April 29, 2010

the trouble with normal

The week has brought us more than the usual measure of abuse of the common good and the public trust by our most powerful institutions. Goldman Sachs, a symbol of economic power and prestige, is dragged before congress to justify its role in the economic debacle that was the fall of 2009, and more particularly the packaging and sale of derivatives. Pope Benedict, the personification of religious power in the western world, continues to struggle with the relationship between leadership and transparency, holiness and confession in the acknowledgement of significant priestly abuse of children in the care of the church. British Petroleum, representing the industrial production of energy, responds to and at the same time denies the unfolding effects of a major ecological catastrophe in gulf region of the U.S., an event that threatens vulnerable species and wetlands, and, as a result, a way of life for the citizenry in one of the poorest areas of our country.

The distrust of institutions is almost palpable: do we really expect the CEO of Goldman Sachs, or the Pope, or BP to have the common good and the public trust in mind as they go about their professional activities? Is avoidance of responsibility normative? Does anyone, at the highest level of authority, take responsibility for his or her institution? Or must we settle for a series of weak explanations: the investor in fact wants "exposure" in a risky market, the question of defrocking a priest is theologically problematic, there is no "significant difference" between 1000 barrels of oil spilled in a day and 5000 barrels. I am reminded of the wisdom of the singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn: "The trouble with normal is it always gets worse."

Can we expect a financial institution to be truthful with its clients? Can we hope that the followers of Jesus will care first for "the least of these"? Can we imagine a company that extracts resources from the earth to care for it? And, if we examine ourselves, are we complicit in these developments, to some extent, are we affluent citizens whose psychological well-being mirrors the the New York Stock Exchange, people of faith whose prophetic voices are silent, consumers who use and yes, at times waste the resources that place our ecosystems in peril. As we do harm to our world---in the economic, ecclesial, ecological spheres---we do harm to ourselves. As the theologian noted, "we drink from our own wells".

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

unChristian: how a generation is re-thinking church

I came across a copy of unChristian (David Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons: Baker) over a year ago; I read portions of it, and then loaned it to a friend whose daughter is somewhat disconnected from the church. The copy never came back, and that was ok. Later I was in a small group with United Methodist Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of New Jersey, and he strongly suggested that we read this book. I came across another copy, and for the first time I began a serious reading of it.

unChristian is an exploration of what a new generation (ages 16-29) thinks about Christianity. It comes from the evangelical right stream of North American Christianity, with the imprimatur of George Barna, who contributes a forward. It is a sober reporting of real data drawn from a group that the mainline church seems to be having difficulty retaining. There is, the authors report, "a growing tide of hostility and resentment toward Christianity" (24), an attitude that comes less from the media and more from personal experiences with Christians. We are known more for what we oppose than for what we are for. And the three most commonly held perceptions held by outsiders, about Christianity, are that we are 1) anti-homosexual 2) judgmental and 3) hypocritical.

Do these perceptions matter? Kinnamon and Lyons are clear that these perceptions are the result of relationships by outsiders to the faith with Christians. This should move us to self-examination, and, they insist, a "wake up call" (39). The authors dig deeply into six broad themes (hypocrisy, the focus on getting converts, antihomosexual, being sheltered, too political, judgmental), and provide nuanced spiritual reflection on both the diagnosis and a potential response. Hypocrisy, for example, is the shadow side of our lack of transparency and our need to live in grace.

I will invite you to find a copy of unChristian and scan the pages. The book concludes with a range of responses, mostly again from the broader evangelical world (John Stott, Charles Colson, Jim Wallis). I would also invite United Methodists to reflect on this data as we seek both to "re-think" church and to engage an increasingly missing generation. We may be placing obstacles in the way of an authentic encounter with the faith. Christianity (and United Methodism) in our time has an "image problem". The stripping away of negative perceptions (and realities) will lay the groundwork for a constructive engagement (Andy Crouch, in his wonderful book calls this Culture Making) with the world that is our parish. An important mission field----the 16 to 29 year olds who live in our midst---surrounds us. A first step is to evaluate what we are teaching and preaching, and why.

Friday, April 23, 2010

to change the world

To change the world
is to honor the dream and desire of God
for justice and righteousness
freedom and peace
holiness and compassion.

Of necessity
our intention takes the form of action
the word becomes flesh
and there is a new creation:
the old passes away.

The change
may by degrees seem infinitely small
or astonishingly grand and glorious:
who can know for sure?

And it may be that the change
has already come
only now our eyes are opened
and we are witnesses.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

christ caring for people through people (john 21)

John tells the story of Jesus, the events leading to his arrest, suffering, death, and resurrection with depth and detail, excitement and enthusiasm. The book ends with today’s passage. It is not anti-climax; it is an opening into the future, it insists that Easter is not a day; it is a way of life, not an ending but a beginning. The resurrection, recorded in John, spills over into a series of scenes----Thomas insisting that unless he see the wounds, he will not believe; Jesus giving the frightened gathering of disciples the gift of his peace, an unsuccessful night of fishing, followed by an unexpected encounter with a stranger at breakfast, a penetrating conversation about what is expected now that everything has changed.

I want to reflect on this passage in very simple ways, ways that capture the humanity of the disciples, the urgency of Jesus, the implications for us. I want to do this by focusing on a few key words and phrases. After Jesus had appeared to the disciples, they had gone back to the Sea of Galilee, sometimes called Tiberias. Peter said, I am going fishing.

Now this is not like our saying, “let’s go up to the mountains, a couple of hours west of here, and find a stream”. It is like saying, “I give up.” They are taking up their former occupation, having seemingly failed at being students of the master teacher, they are going back to doing what they had been doing before. They are saying “I give up.” Do you ever feel like giving up? This thing with Jesus had been astonishing, life-transforming, but…what next, what now?

They were going to go back to what they were doing before they met Jesus. That is the tragic shape of many Christian lives. We have a powerful experience, it has a beginning and an ending, it is intense, it burns brightly for a time, and then…the flame dies out.

And when something ends, we simply go back to what we had been doing before. We fall back into old habits. Peter says, I am going fishing. Peter says, “I give up.” Do you ever feel like giving up?

They go fishing, and they fish all night, and what do you think they catch? Nothing. Verse three reads, that night they caught nothing. You can feel the frustration building in the story, you can sense the disappointment, even the failure. They caught nothing.

Have you ever been there? Have you ever worked hard, really hard toward some goal, in some project, and in the end, there is nothing to show for it?

They caught nothing. The disciples were at the point of giving up. The disciples were frustrated. They must have sensed that they were failures.

Have you ever been in that boat with the disciples? It can be a low place in life, in the spiritual life. At that moment, if we have ears to hear, Jesus speaks. Here, he says, throw your nets on the other side, and you’ll catch some fish.

Sometimes we do get stuck in our routines. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Maybe we are working too hard. Maybe we are blaming other people. Maybe we are not listening to God. Maybe we think we can do it ourselves. Throw your nets on the other side, and you’ll catch some fish.

They listen to Jesus. They have a miraculous catch. They drag it all to shore. There are 153 large fish. The scholars have spilled a lot of ink over the centuries about the meaning of 153. I could give you four or five theories, but in the end who knows? John also tells us that, although there were so many, the net was not torn. The Greek word for torn is schism—there were no schisms, this was a word used throughout the gospel, signifying that none are lost, all are together.

Then they share a meal with Jesus. He takes the bread and the fish, and this all seems familiar to them. They recall a boy with loaves and fishes and a great crowd. Maybe it occurs to them that if the Lord could make it all work out that day, he could do it again. They remember farther back, when the prophet from Nazareth told them they could fish for men and women. That day they eat the meal with the risen Jesus.

Then Jesus asks the questions of Peter, three times, an echo of the questions after his arrest, the three denials, three times he asks, Simon, do you love me? Simon, do you love me? Simon, do you love me? If you love me, Jesus says, feed my sheep. Note that Jesus speaks to him not as Peter (the rock) but as Simon, his name before he met the Lord who had come to the lakeshore three years earlier. The three-fold q and a echoes his teaching at the Passover meal: I give you a new commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you. Jesus is calling his disciples into mission. Jesus is saying, as the Father has sent me, so I send you. Love one another, as I have loved you. Feed my sheep.

In the unfolding drama of the gospel this is of course no match for what happened a chapter or two earlier---betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, resurrection. Those were very public events and John goes into great detail---more than a third of the Gospel of John, the last eight chapters, focuses on the last few days of Jesus’ life.

And what is true in scripture is true for us. At times church is there for everyone to see, and it is glorious. But the church is sometimes hidden. We have moved from the very public scenes of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter to the hidden conversations that have to do with….

Clarity---who am I?
Conviction--what am I going to do?
Call-- who am I going to follow?

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

There will be times in the Christian life that are like Easter Sunday. Bells and brass and flowers and celebration, enthusiasm and power and glory. And there will be times in the Christian life when we wonder: was this all worth it? What did it all mean? And yes, there will be times when we fish all night and catch nothing. In these times, the one on one conversations make all the difference.

It is appropriate today that we acknowledge the profound gift of the Stephen Ministry. Stephen Ministers are Christians who sense a call to listen, support, stand alongside another person in need. Stephen Ministers are trained in Christian care giving; they are not therapists, and they are not pastors. Stephen Ministry relationships are confidential, and so they are never public, they are hidden, quiet, but nevertheless they are profound.

Bill Jeffries and I had the common experiences of helping to begin Stephen Ministries almost twenty years ago, he was serving at First Methodist in Gastonia and I was serving at Christ Methodist in Greensboro. He spoke at our first banquet, for our Stephen Ministers, during one of those years. The time flies!

I remember the very first group of Stephen Ministers who were trained at Christ Church. There were 18 men and women, and it was a risk for all of us----the investment of time, money, energy. Maybe no one would ask for help? Maybe the church would not embrace it? Maybe it would be misunderstood? Maybe it would be a waste of time?

We trained the Stephen Ministers, we matched them with persons going through challenging transitions----a marital separation, the loss of employment, a chronic illness. The Stephen Ministers came together for supervision. And I remember one of the comments that evening, from a woman named Ginny, who had done most everything in that congregation. She said, “this is what I always wanted to do in the church!”

Stephen Ministry has been defined as “Christ caring for people through people.” She had heard the call of Jesus: feed my sheep.

The Good Shepherd’s earthly ministry is coming to a conclusion and he is commissioning the disciples---and Peter is the representative---to continue all that he has done. A close reader of scripture will catch the significance of Peter as a minister; from the beginning, God has used imperfect men (and women) as leaders and servants in the church.

And so we gather this morning to listen for the voice of Jesus—this is conversation that becomes prayer; to eat the meal with Jesus—this is worship that becomes communion; to discover how we might follow Jesus---this is service that is finally our response to his question, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”

Ken Callahan has been a close friend over the years; he served on the staff of a large church in Dallas, then taught at Emory, and now helps congregations to be more effective in mission. He remembers being in one of those churches, a church with a glorious past, but a church that had been on something of a downward slide for some time. They made the decision to gather, some of the leaders, in the sanctuary, to pray. “In the center wall of the chancel of that sanctuary there was a remarkable stained glass window, with Christ, standing at the door, knocking. You can visualize the picture, the window, the biblical image. In the culture of an earlier time, Callahan realized, there was an understanding, an assumption:

Christ stands the door, knocking, hoping someone will hear his voice, come to the door, and open the door and invite Christ in to their lives.

It dawned on Callahan, as they were praying that morning, as the sunlight was streaming through the window in a remarkable way, that in our time, another biblical image was possible, was helpful:

Christ stands at the door, knocking, hoping someone will hear the knock, and come to the door, and open the door so Christ can invite them out into his life in mission.” (Twelve Keys to An Effective Church).

Jesus lives, and dies, and is raised from death so that we might live with him and be a part of his life, so that we might be Easter people, people of prayer, people who break bread with him, people who join in his mission in the world.

After the glory of Easter, in the quietness, the question persists, the question of the forgiven sinner, Peter, the question of you and me.

Jesus asks, Do you love me? And we respond…

Sources: Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come.

Friday, April 16, 2010

lesslie newbigin on ministry and leadership (john 21)

"The minister's leadership of the congregation in its mission to the world will be first and foremost in the area of his or her own discipleship, in that life of prayer and daily consecration which remains hidden from the world but which is the place where the essential battles are either won or lost. I find warrant for this way of seeing ministry in the final chapter of St. John's Gospel, where--in the person of Peter--we have given to us a picture of apostolic leadership in the Church. Peter is first presented to us as an evangelist. He is a fisherman, who, however, catches nothing until he submits the Master's instruction. When he does so, there is a mighty catch which be brings, with the net intact and as the fruit of his work, one undivided harvest, to the feet of Jesus. Then the image changes and Peter is a pastor to whom Jesus entrusts his flock. He can so entrust it because Peter loves him more than all. But then, finally, the image changes again. Peter is a disciple who must go the way the Master went, the way of the cross. He is not to look around to see who is following. He is to look one way only--to the Master who goes before him. Ministerial leadership is, first and finally, discipleship."

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, pages 240-241.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

re-thinking church (change the world)

I have been reflecting for some time about the need to re-think what is happening in and through the church. Some of this is blindingly obvious----the shift from a church culture to a more secular/entertainment driven context, the accelerating pace of life, the chief symbol of which is the computer or mobile device screen you are now reading, illiteracy in relation to both scripture and tradition, the mounting extremities of human need locally and globally, and the distrust of institutions, among them the organized church (witness the global outcry toward Pope Benedict regarding pedophilia). I could also add the latest statistics related to membership loss and a decline in giving in my own denomination (United Methodist), a trend that shows no sign of easing.

All of this makes for a much more complex environment in which to give leadership and to do ministry. Some of my assumptions about it all are intuitive and anecdotal, but the cumulative effect can be, when one has time to rest and think about it all, rather striking. This is not my grandparent's church, and it will not be my grandchildren's church either.

So, I have taken some time to enter into conversation with a few voices who seem to be paying attention to all of this, and most of them describe what is being defined (yes, rather loosely) as the missional church. I find the contrast between the missional church and the attractional church to be quite compelling. The intellectual roots of all of this, at least in modernity, seem to be in the writings of Leslie Newbigin, a missionary who returned from India in retirement to Great Britain and discovered it to be a mission field (and this was some years ago---1974, in fact; the perception would be stronger today). The attractional church was/is an attempt to meet the needs of the unchurched by programs designed to be a cultural match for them---divorce care, different music, etc. The attractional model has been very effective in megachurches, which have been the source of a stream of publications and resources (Willow Creek, Saddleback), and among baby boomers, a huge demographic in the U.S (those born between 1946 and 1964; I was born in 1957). The attractional model has had some unintended consequences---it does make the person who attends the service the client/customer, and thus tends toward a consumer model. Interestingly, both Bill Hybels (Willow Creek) and Rick Warren (Saddleback) have made strong moves away from the attractional model in some of their programming, sensing some dissatisfaction with it; see the Reveal study. This could be some mild form of mid-life crisis, and also the prompting of their spouses, but surely also the work of God! The most notable exponent of the missional church model at present in the United Methodist Church is Mike Slaughter of Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio (see his Change The World).

Most of the literature on the missional church arises from the reformed stream of historic Christianity. This could be due to Newbigin's influence (although Methodists should note the work by Geoffrey Wainwright on Newbigin's life and legacy) and the members of the Gospel and Our Culture Network. I am somewhat surprised that more work has not been done linking the historic strengths of the Wesleyan movement with the missional church (the world parish, the social gospel, prevenient grace, connectionalism). We have a much greater affinity with the missional church than the attractional; indeed, to use an overworked term, it is in our DNA going back to 18th century England. And for me the Wesleyan tradition is more compatible with the missional church than the Reformed, whose reason for being was related more to intellectual struggle than missionary encounter.

I would encourage United Methodist pastors and leaders to read Slaughter's Change The World, and alongside it Introducing The Missional Church by Roxburgh and Boren (Baker, 2009). To paraphrase Roxburgh and Boren, we will likely discover in the coming years that our constituents are tiring of the attractional pattern of doing church (for many of the reasons I note in the first paragraph above); at the same time, many young adults (16-35 year olds) hunger for missional church, or at least missional experience (evidence: Katrina, Haiti, Bono, Teach for America, the Obama campaign, etc.). To be missional is to enter into the strange world of the Bible---the call of Abraham, Isaiah's prophecy to rebuild the ruined cities, the inaugural sermon of Jesus in Capernaum, the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, not to mention the Book of Acts, a neglected resource among mainline churches in general) and the tradition. At our best, United Methodists have always been missional, and when we have been missional, we have changed the world. There will continue to be attractional churches who do their ministry with excellence, but for the most part they will attract mobile United Methodists seeking similar programs and practices (I am thinking of the United Methodist who moves from Charlotte to Indianapolis, or vice versa).

At the risk of seeming U.S.-centric, we do find ourselves, as United Methodist Christians living in the U.S. in a mission field. For this reason our structures, shaped for a church culture, no longer quite fit, and the expectations of clergy (note recent discussions of guaranteed appointments among elders, or the desire for a larger parish the next time around) can no longer be fulfilled. We can take what Roxburgh and Boren describe as the "developmental" approach---working hard at improving what we are already doing. Here we would keep all of our systems (from local church committees to annual conference staffs to general church agencies) in place, opting not for reform or change but for improvement and efficiency. To do so would not be the end of the world, but it misses the point.

The changes in the culture and the needs of the world, and, indeed, the dreams of God call for re-thinking and, in time, a missional reformation. This would be an exercise in appreciative inquiry, the rediscovery of our core strengths as the people called Methodist; it is finally why God called us into existence in the first place, and it seems the historical moment in which we find ourselves is either a lament or a call. This has implications for the way every local church engages in "risk-taking mission and service" (Robert Schnase) with its community (or, to use Roxburgh and Boren's preferred term, neighborhood), but it is also a challenge to our institutions. What would it mean for our hospitals, colleges and universities to take this mission seriously? I am aware that there are some institutions who have heard this call---I think of the Church Health Center, related to Methodist Hospital in Memphis, and Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama--both institutions located in the poorest region in the U.S., both thriving in the discovery of who they are and where their mission field is located. I name just these two as parables and signs of how transformation can happen, and not merely transformation of institutions, but lives. There are others, and their stories need to be told. I am also aware that there are local churches, and clergy and laity who "get" all of this, and they are located in every region and jurisdiction.

Finally, three voices who have profoundly influenced this thinking should be acknowledged. Ken Callahan's focus on mission growth in the Twelve Keys materials (and the recent revision is excellent); and Resident Aliens by Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, which clearly communicated the changing context, one we are still living into twenty years later.

The conversation will continue, because the trends are unavoidable, and those who care about all of this cannot continue to exist in a state of denial. The question becomes: Could we re-think the purpose of the church, and re-design the mission of the church, so that we might---yes, with the help of God and in the movement of the Holy Spirit---change the world?

Sunday, April 04, 2010

the easter contradiction

The law did not allow them to come to the place of his burial on the Sabbath, and so the women arrive as soon as practically possible, on the first day of the week, with spices to anoint the body. They expect the tomb to be closed, but it is open, and they expect to find the body, but he is not there. Understandably, Luke tells us, they are perplexed, confused; in the Message translation, they are “puzzled”.

Suddenly the women encounter two men (angels maybe) and they are terrified. Their impulse is to bow to the ground. Fear is a common thread that runs throughout the gospel accounts of the resurrection, the Greek word is phobos, from which we get our word probia.

We are told six times in the four gospels that the witnesses to the resurrection are filled with fear. This is in part disorientation in the face of the unexpected, but it is more. It is a sense of the holy, and the biblical translator Eugene Peterson has connected it with the first Proverb : the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord”.

Something profound is happening. In a time of radical change, everything shifts, we are appropriately fearful, and yet we are most open, in the transition, to insight. God has our attention (Matthew’s report of the resurrection describes it as an earthquake). God has our attention, it’s a wakeup call, and not simply because there is a sunrise service!

We are awakened from all that had come before and this has everything to do with Good Friday. We had been living, or sleepwalking through a Good Friday world, and there is an interruption, a reversal. Our response, in the language of scripture, is fear of the Lord.

Do not be afraid, He is not here, he is risen…

The stranger goes on: Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Don’t you remember when he taught you in Galilee?

Let us pause for a moment and note the presence of women in this gospel, at the resurrection, in the ministry of Jesus. Luke is careful with the details. Why? Because this is the word of God, this is promise and fulfillment. Luke gives us the names of the women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James. Earlier in his gospel, in chapter 8, verse 2, we learn that the twelve disciples are with Jesus, along with women who had been the recipients of his healing ministry; there they are also named: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many others. It is essential to note that women were in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples from the very beginning, they were present as Jesus taught the disciples, they were engaged in every important act of his ministry, they were present at his crucifixion, they followed his body as it was taken to the tomb, and they are with him on the first Easter.

A fascinating aside: In this time and place women were not deemed trustworthy to testify in court. More than one scholar has noted that it would be hard to imagine why a writer would have women discovering the empty tomb, unless it was based in historical reality.

Because they had been with him all along, the women remembered. It helps that Jesus, in the gospel of Luke, is a master teacher. This fall we reflected on two of his very best known teachings, two parables, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. In the first story a man is beaten, a Samaritan shows compassion and he is healed. In the second story, a child is lost, and in returning home he is embraced by the parent, the child is restored. These parables prepare us for an even more crucial story. A good man, a righteous man, is executed. He is dead and buried. But when they go to care for him he is not there; he has been raised from the dead.

At the heart of these teachings lies a contradiction, something happens that we do not quite expect. For the women, on the first Easter, it was a puzzle, and it remains so for many of us to this day.

Last Sunday we talked about the importance of the cross, and on Friday evening we draped that cross, a symbol of death. This morning we celebrate the assurance of life in the midst of death, indeed the victory of life over death. All of this, in the words of Parker Palmer, is a dynamic contradiction:

The cross represents the way in which the world contradicts God. We yearn for light and truth and goodness to appear among us, and when they come in human form the world grows fearful and kills the incarnation. But then the cross represents the way in which God contradicts the world: No matter how often the world says “no”, God is present with an eternal “yes” bringing light out of darkness, hope out of despair, life out of death.”

He is not here. He is risen.

We see the continuity of the cross through the entire life and ministry of Jesus. We see the arms of the cross reaching down to heal the wounded man walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. Are we providing the care, or are we being made well?

We feel the arms of the cross embracing the rebellious child. Are those our arms? Or are those arms enfolding us?

We hear the teacher’s voice saying to the criminal, “today you will be with me in paradise”, saying about the enemies, “Father, forgive them”.

What do these stories---the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Resurrection--- have in common? They enlarge our worlds, they expand our minds, they extend our reach into the lives of others. They reject our tendency to flatten the world and our experience of it: The man, walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, is beaten, wounded, left for dead. The religious people pass by on the other side. Death is a part of life. The son, far from home, squanders his birthright, defaces his identity. That child is lost, dead to us. A world is at war, continually it seems, one atrocity, one retaliation leading to another. The hungry cry out for bread, but didn’t someone say you would always have the poor with you?

Along comes a prophet who contradicts all of this, who dreams the dream of God: A Samaritan bandages a wounded man—how unlikely? A parent embraces a rebellious child—how undignified? A discredited rabbi hangs on a cross—how scandalous? Where is all of this going?

Embedded in these stories is a power, a power to heal, to reconcile, to roll away the stone, to bring life out of death. The master teacher kept hinting at all of this, but our hearts could not absorb it, our minds could not imagine it. Yes, he told us about all of this, now that we think about it! Now we remember!

And so they go to share this good news with others, because you cannot keep a good story to yourself! ….They go first to the authority figures, the apostles. Do you think the apostles, all men, will believe the witnesses, all women? No? You would be right. It could be male chauvinism, or insider arrogance, but it could also be that they do not believe because it has not yet been their experience.

Paul writing to some of the very first followers of Jesus, asked, “How can you say that there is no resurrection from the dead?”. If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain…we are not telling the truth about God or reality or ourselves.

I am aware that there are persons beyond the church and within it, for whom the resurrection is a problem. It is not within your belief or experience. Parker Palmer tells the story of "Loren Eiseley, a renowned naturalist [who] once spent time in a seaside town, and plagued by insomnia, he would spend the very early morning hours walking the beach. Each morning at sunrise he would observe townspeople combing the sand for starfish which had washed ashore during the night, to kill them for commercial purposes.

“For Loren Eiseley, this was a sign, if a small sign, of the way the world often says “no” to God’s gift of life. But one morning Eiseley got up unusually early, and discovered a solitary figure on the beach. This man, too, was gathering starfish, but each time he would pick one up he would throw it out as far as he could into the breaking surf, back into the nurturing ocean from which it came.

“As days went by, Eiseley found this man embarked on his mission of mercy each morning, seven days a week, no matter the weather. Eiseley named this man “the star thrower”, and he would later confess that this man and his predawn work contradicted everything Eiseley had been taught and believed about evolution and the survival of the fittest. Here on the beach, the strong reached down to save, not to crush, the weak. And this led Eiseley, who is not a believer, to wonder:

Is there a star thrower at work in the universe?

Is there a God who contradicts death?”

That is the Easter question. Is there a God who contradicts death?

Christians, by definition, are people who have experienced the resurrection. In some way or another, we have discovered that the tomb is empty. In some way or another, we have met the risen Lord. In some way or another, we have chosen life and not death. It is something of a puzzle, at times it is a wake-up call, or a leap of faith, and it can evoke some degree of fear---we are letting go of something, we have begun the process of healing, we have starting walking back home, toward our true purpose, we are living into the implications of all that this might mean:

Hope is stronger than memory.
Salvation is stronger than sin.
Forgiveness is stronger than bitterness.
Reconciliation is stronger than hatred.
Resurrection is stronger than crucifixion.
Light is stronger than darkness.

And so Christians, today, across the planet, celebrate, remember, bear witness to this experience, the resurrection of Jesus. It is a contradiction, and, like the apostles in the beginning, there are many within and outside the church who do not believe it.

And yet when Christians gather together, we are, in a mystical sense, the risen body of Christ. Paul writing later to the Corinthians, in words we have read at the graveside, expresses it: it is sown a mortal body, it is raised a spiritual body”.

Through baptism we die to self and we are raised into a new life. Through communion we eat the meal and become for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. Through service we participate in the great mission of mercy, reclaiming a starfish here and a starfish there.

Through study and worship, what we are doing right now, we tell these stories, the same stories, over and over again, stories about healing and reconciliation and eternity, about what it means to love our neighbor, what it means to be family, and finally, what it means to trust in the promises of God: when we stand at the grave of someone we have loved, can we hope to meet again on another shore and in a greater light?”

We are the Easter people.
We are the people of hope.
We are the star throwers.

And we believe, with all our hearts and with all our minds, that there is, at the heart of the universe, a God who contradicts death.

He is not here. He is risen.

Sources: Parker Palmer, The Promise of Paradox. Kennon Callahan, Easter Affirmation of Faith. Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower. Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. Thomas Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

he descended into hell (holy saturday)

O Lord,
you have searched me
and known me.
You know when I sit down
and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there.
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,"
even the darkness is not dark to you,
the night as as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

Psalm 139 (selected verses)