Monday, May 31, 2010

there's a wall in washington

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Maya Lin -

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

ellen charry on spiritual formation by the triune God

"That we know Father, Son and Holy Spirit as creator, redeemer and sanctifier suggests that God knows and understands that we need more help than simply to be created and set going. To this end, God's own being is structured around our needs. That the Son and Spirit are indeed God and sent into the world to repair us, brings us face to face with our need for precisely the work that God does. We need to be confronted by our sins in the cross of Christ, offered the hope of forgiveness in his resurrection, sealed with the power of the Holy Spirit for new life in Christ, and gifted with talents and skills for the love of neighbor and the upbuilding of the entire body of Christ...that Christians understand these three [Father, Son, Holy Spirit] to be co-eternal and of equal status indicates that the divine triplicity anticipates the full force of human need from eternity. Creation, redemption and sanctification together are God's plan for us, and the triune God is the one perfectly constituted to actuate that plan. For the three divine Persons hold creation, redemption and sanctification together eternally."

Ellen Charry, "Spiritual Formation by the Doctrine of the Trinity", Theology Today, October, 1997.

Friday, May 21, 2010

the language of the spirit

Unless you receive the kingdom of God like a child…”

Praise is the language of the spirit,
an expression of joy, gratitude, wonder.
Children, with their almost innate sense of things,
speak it freely and spontaneously;
adults engage in the difficult labor
of learning this new vocabulary,
struggling to remember
a language they have,
for the most part, forgotten.
Praise, for most adults, is a foreign language.

It is he that has made us, and not we ourselves…”

We master the language of the spirit
as we abandon pride,
aware that we are creatures,
the Lord having formed us,
filling us with the breath of life.
Gradually we let go of the attachments
and find ourselves
in the geography of the spirit,
“lost in wonder, love and praise”.

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.”

We enter fully into Pentecost
as we receive the gift of the indwelling spirit.
We are filled with the breath of God,
the new wine of liberation,
and in the process we discover
that we are learning a new language,
the language of the spirit,
the language of praise.
To speak the language of Pentecost
implies a conversion of the imagination:
What God has cleansed
is no longer profane,
in Christ there is no east or west,
through baptism there is
neither Jew nor Greek,
slave nor free,
male nor female.
The dispersed exiles are gathering in,
the communion of the saints
welcomed at the gospel feast
where every soul is Jesus’ guest,
the spirit poured out on all flesh,
just as the prophet had promised.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

what is good for the world

The country's worst coal mining disaster in four decades, in Upper Big Branch, West Virginia occurred on April 5, killing twenty nine miners. The company, Massey Energy, had been cited for 1342 safety violations in the previous five years. Fifteen days, later, on April 20, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico. Over the past 26 days, the government's estimate is that 130,000 barrels of oil have leaked into the waters, although some estimates are much higher (NPR, for example, has the leakage at ten times this figure). The CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, insisted as late as May 14 that the oil spill in the gulf was "relatively tiny" compared to a "very big ocean", and the corporation has blamed its other co-conspirators, Transocean and Halliburton, for the environmental degradation and loss of life.

The strongest and clearest prophetic voice of our time may very well be that of the agrarian Wendell Berry. He writes, "We have lived by the assumption that what is good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us." (The Art of The Common Place) Berry's wisdom is in contrast to an economic system that reaps rewards when consumption is unchecked, while also depending on a governmental safety net when there is failure: who funds the cleanup in the gulf, or the costs of black lung disease? But neither is Berry in sympathy with the positions of President Obama, who spoke in his campaign about "clean coal", and, more recently, about the merits of off-shore drilling.

We may be approaching the time when a conversion of our assumptions is a moral necessity. Two catastrophic environmental events in the span of fifteen days should get our attention. Appalachia has never been at the center of the media's attention, and the history of mining disasters is a recurring series of tragic events, far from the elite centers of education and influence. The Gulf may be a different story, although the political will of deep south politicians has always aligned more with the sentiments of "drill, baby, drill" than a long time interest in the well-being of the land, the wetlands and the waters that sustain life, undergird economies and protect from wind currents.

What is good for the world is ultimately the basis of what must be good for us, and not vice versa. We can assign blame with two highly profitable corporations plagued with consistent safety violations, and this is appropriate. We must also ask if governing officials, who should be motivated not by cost benefit analysis but the common good, will find the will to privilege the sacredness of human life, in this generation and those to come, over other concerns, no matter how powerful. And, Berry would insist, we must take some personal and local responsibility for the coal that supplies our energy and the gasoline that fuels our automobiles. "We must change our lives", the prophet cries out to us, in this ecological wilderness that is twenty-first century North America. We must change the way we vote and the products we purchase, but mostly, we must change the way we imagine the present and the future.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

the book of acts

We will be focusing this summer on the Book of Acts. Written by Luke, and a continuation of the third gospel, the Acts of the Apostles is a reporting of the story of the earliest followers of Jesus. As Eugene Peterson writes, “it is Luke’s task to prevent us from becoming mere spectators of Jesus, fans of the Message.” Alone among the gospel writers, Luke carries the story of Jesus forward into the lives of those who became servants and witnesses; over time, the gospel is taken “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1. 8), and we become a part of the story, through the movement of the Holy Spirit, the gift of faith and shared experiences of baptism and communion.

The sermons in the Sunday worship of
Providence United Methodist Church over the summer months will be taken from the Book of Acts, and this will actually commence the next two weeks, with the Ascension of Jesus (Acts 1. 1-8) and the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2. 1-21). Along the way we will discover the surprising freshness of all that God is up to in our lives; we will wrestle with the public character of the gospel, and the relationship of Christianity with Judaism; we will think about controversial issues (what is core about the faith, and what is negotiable?); we will examine a dream that literally changed Peter’s life, and an experience that converted a hostile outsider to an inspired leader (Paul). We will reflect on the global mission of Christianity, and at the same time we will focus on the change that occurs in the heart of a singular person who embraces the good news of Jesus. The music in our summer worship will focus on the Holy Spirit, the Church and its mission, and will include Taize chants.

In addition, we will offer Bible Studies each week during the summer,at various times from morning until evening. One will be held at 11:00 am on Mondays and will be followed by a catered meal (with childcare provided). Our goal is to make a spiritual practice----immersing ourselves in a foundational book of the bible, one that is most relevant to our lives as disciples---accessible to as many as possible. We will also provide a guide for study that will help those who cannot be present due to travel schedules. And lastly, we will be engaged in this study with several other local churches in our area about sharing this study in other settings, and at other times of the week. In this way we will share our faith with men and women from diverse ethnic traditions….and this was precisely the amazing outcome of the Book of Acts itself!

In preparing for this summer I have been working with three commentaries. The first is (Bishop) Will Willimon's Interpretation volume. He told me once that it was a "Resident Alien's" reading of Acts; it is accessible and, I think, superb. The second is Jaroslav Pelikan's edition in the Brazos series. Pelikan was a master teacher of history at Yale, and an authority on the history of Christianity in particular. By the end of his life he had converted from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy, and his reflections are often framed by Nicene Christianity and the creed in particular. Historians do not often write biblical commentaries----a reality he acknowledges---but it is appropriate that a church historian writes a commentary on Acts, the earliest church history, and Pelikan's is wonderful. The third work I have consulted is very different, a collaborative venture between Anthony (Tony) Robinson and Robert Wall. Robinson is a wonderful mentor to pastors, having served for some time at Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle, and Wall wrote the Acts commentary for the New Interpreter's Bible. In these three works one senses how the reader shapes the reflection: Willimon senses how odd, confusing and eruptive the movement of the spirit is; Pelikan carefully unearths the development of Christian doctrine and practice; and Robinson and Wall discover stories and practices that speak alike to Pentecostals and Mainline Christians, Evangelicals and Catholics.

I invite you to read through the Book of Acts with us this summer. And since today is Ascension of the Lord (Acts 1. 1-11), I conclude with a comment of Willimon's in a Christian Century article (5. 19. 82):

"In the ordinary dreariness of our lives, it's a comfort to know that the one who became so much like us has gone up to take charge with the One who made us. God has gone up....To those first disciples who feared he was leaving, he gave assurance that he was going not away but up."

Monday, May 03, 2010

a confirmation sermon (unchristian)

The new commandment (John 13. 31-36) is placed within two critical moments in the life of Jesus: his betrayal by Judas, and his sense that Peter will deny him in his hour of greatest need. The context is important: betrayal and abandonment from those within the inner circle, friends who had listened to his teachings and witnessing his healings. In this moment, John tells us, Jesus is glorified.

What does this mean? That precisely in these circumstances loves matters most, for this very reason the word is made flesh, the light shines in the darkness. Love is not a sentimental feeling or a throwaway term; it is an act of the will, and reflects the very heart of a God who demonstrates his love for us, the apostle Paul writes, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. The context is further situated amidst crucial symbolic acts: Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and he shares the Passover meal with them. And so we have a sign of community, an example of servant leadership, a reminder of tradition. And then a teachable moment: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

What is new about all of this? There was, in the Jewish tradition, the Shema, the core teaching, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.” Observant Jews (including Jesus) said these words every day. So love was not invented when the New Testament was written; there was a two thousand year history of a people who loved God and their neighbor. What then is new commandment? It is not that they have never heard these words before. It is that, in the person of Jesus, they are experiencing them for the first time.

Jesus is about to leave them, and so there is this sense of urgency, as if a truth, a way of life is being passed along. We have this experience on Confirmation Sunday, and at this time of year we also go to high school graduations, college graduations, it is a season of transition, wisdom is passed from generation to generation.

This year Teresa Dunn has led a gifted group of members of our church in creating an experience of learning for twenty two of our youth. Earlier in the spring Bill, Tara and I met individually with each of them. It is a gift to spend a part of your day, or your week, with a young person. I would ask questions like, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”, “What was the most important thing you learned about God?”, “Do you ever pray, and what is that like?”

It is intriguing to wonder: what is going on inside those minds, those hearts, where will they end up in life? I think back over 27 years of ministry, the small rural church that had two in the confirmation class, a boy and a girl, when they took their membership vows, one of the moms said, she looked at them side by side and it seemed like they were about to get married. I think of some of the young people who have passed through those confirmation classes: one I saw last night, at Merlefest, playing in a band with the comedian Steve Martin; that was not his original ambition, he was a college soccer player, but, as the commercial says, “most of us go pro in something other than sports”. He seems to have figured out what he wants to do with his life. I could ask you, the adults here this morning, what do you want to do, who do you want to be, when you grow up? As the poet Mary Oliver puts it,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Or, as Bill George, of the Harvard Business School faculty, poses the question, have you “discovered your true north”? There is the possibility, within these growing boys and girls, that they will hear the voice, maybe not an audible voice, but God’s call, and they will figure that out. And there is that possibility, wherever we are along the trail, that we will see the burning bush or hear the calling voice and be interrupted. It happened for Abraham and Moses well past the middle of life, it happened for Paul even as he was entrenched in what he had been taught and believed. It could happen to you and me.

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” “What is the most important thing you learned about God?” This is where the conversation gets more interesting. Sometimes the young person will glance at me, look around my office and it’s like an outfielder who has lost the ball in the sun, it’s floating somewhere in the sky. But sometimes the responses are amazing, as if they have been waiting for someone to ask that question.

What do young people believe? Over the past few months I have been working my way, off and on, through an excellent book entitled unchristian. unchristian is an exploration of what a new generation (ages 16-29) thinks about Christianity. It comes from the evangelical stream of North American Christianity, and George Barna, a very well-known pollster contributes the forward. It is a sober reporting of data drawn from a group that the church seems to be having difficulty retaining. There is, the authors report, "a growing tide of hostility and resentment toward Christianity", an attitude that comes less from the media and more from personal experience.

[For more about unchristian, click here.]

Christians are known more for what we are against than for what we are for. And the three most commonly held perceptions held by outsiders, age 16-29, about Christianity, are that 1) we are anti-homosexual 2) we are judgmental and 3) we are hypocritical. Interestly, attitudes toward Christianity are not all that different among those inside the church!

Do these perceptions matter? The authors are clear that these perceptions are the result of relationships by outsiders to the faith with Christians. This should move us to self-examination, to a "wake up call". The simple thesis of unChristian is that we have placed obstacles in front of people that are keeping them from seeing what the faith is really all about. And that leads us back to the gospel. Our task, our missionary task, is to reintroduce pre-Christians to what they are missing, ex-Christians to what they have cast aside, almost Christians to what they might experience if they moved a little closer to Jesus and came to know him.

If we are going to be Christians in the future we are all going to be missionaries. Many people have bumped into a church along the way, but at times they have been bruised; and many people have had their fair share of crisis along the way---loss of job, or end of a marriage, or addiction---and this has led them to withdraw from community. So a Christian is a missionary. In a former generation, cultural conformity would keep all of this going, but even as the Barna research suggests, things have changed radically over the last few years. In 1996, 86% of those outside the church had a favorable impression of it. In 2008, that number had gone down to 50%.

This is relevant to me, today, because this is the world these young people are going to grow up in. They will live for most of the 21st century, many of them, and some of them will live into the 22nd century. That is amazing. And if they are going to be Christians in the next next 50-75 years, they are going to be missionaries, they are going to be very unusual people. I love the phrase of Flannery O Connor, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you odd.”

It is not going to be our grandparent’s church or world, and we are not talking about matters of style---what kind of curriculum we use, what style of worship we seek out—we are talking about the core substance. What does Christianity have going for it, and why would someone be a Christian?

It turns out we have one thing going for us, and that is the new commandment embedded in the old, old story of Jesus and his love. Jesus not only talks about love, he embodies that love, he washes their feet, he shares a meal with them. He loves them. He loves them even when they are not deserving of his love, and, of course, that is precisely the point, that is grace. The most important thing the world could learn about God, when all of the stereotypes and negative impressions are peeled away, is that in Jesus Christ God has come to love them. I give you a new commandment, love one another, just as I have loved you. And then Jesus added the hard part of the teaching: the people will know you have been my students if you love each other. He was talking to the very community that had known its fair share of hypocrisy and judgmentalism, betrayal and denial. They were a work in progress.

We’re all a work in progress. When I am sitting down with a confirmand, I will say, “you understand this as a twelve year old, as a thirteen year old and you will understand it in a different way when you are twenty or forty or sixty or eighty. Don’t get me wrong: if you are twelve or thirteen, and you are in middle school, life can be tough. Some of the most brutal people in the world are middle school students. I am stretching the truth only to a slight degree! Some of the adults here this morning are probably still carrying around baggage from the sixth, seventh, eighth grade: “I was not in the right group”, “I was always the last one to get chosen”, “I’m not smart enough”, “Someone is talking about me”.

So we are always students, disciples of Jesus, confirmation is not graduation from the church. And the spiritual crisis many adults face is that they are connecting adult, real world experiences with an understanding of God that never developed beyond 12 or 13 years old. The understanding is not that we come to the perfect mental idea, as if we have figured out the equation. It is more like an act of the will, and that is the heart of prayer: thy kingdom come, thy will be done. We’re not here to be perfect, and we aren’t going to find any perfect Christians. It is about progress, not perfection. We don’t love people because they deserve it; very few people do. We love because people need it, they’ve been battered by life and maybe bruised by the church and what do they do: many of them end up blaming God. Actually that is kind of like an equation: battered, bruised, blame.
The gospel is not a formula, an equation; actually the gospel is an interruption of all of that. Jesus talks to these young, fragile students, disciples, and he says, when you grow up, what means the most to me, and what will matter most to you, even in the most difficult of circumstances, is that you love one another.

The gospel is always a wake-up call, penetrating to the core of who we are----heart, soul, might---and our response is not so much to master information as to experience transformation, and that is an act of will, which finally is what it means to say Jesus is Lord. As we go about our one wild and precious life in ways that uncover the gifts that our uniquely ours, we glorify God. As we focus not on what we are against, and but on what we are for, we glorify God. As we love one another, we glorify God. And by these actions, everyone will know that we are students, disciples, followers of Jesus.

Sources: unchristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. With gratitude to United Methodist Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of New Jersey, whose comment prompted me to read unchristian, and in appreciation of the youth ministry of Providence United Methodist Church.