Thursday, October 28, 2010

rob bell on eucharistic paradox

I had never read any of Rob Bell's writings, nor seen his videos. A number of clergy friends and younger (and by that I mean 30 and 40 something) members of our church are Rob Bell fans (it's an accurate description), and his presence at the Duke Convocation was the likely reason for the unprecedented attendance, even with Andy Crouch and N.T. Wright also on the schedule. Rob Bell was the draw.

Bell is the pastor of a large church in Grand Rapids, Michigan (Mars Hill, the name taken from Acts 17) and his topic was "Eucharistic Paradox". I assume that Bell shaped this lecture/presentation around the audience, one that in this context (Duke) is both evangelical and catholic. He began by quoting an hilarious interview with Bob Dylan, pointing to the absurdity of Dylan's answers, and holding this material in tension with the singer-songwriter's profound body of material. This led into a reflection on our need to consider the heaviness and the lightness of the gospel. He held in juxtaposition the command of Jesus to "take up the cross and follow" with the promise that "his yoke is easy and his burden is light". A pastor/preacher in our time takes the gospel very seriously but understands that the outcomes are beyond our control. He interspersed reflection on criticism in the church ("sheep have teeth"), the need to take a sabbath, and the importance of family ("your children do not care how large your church is", he insisted, "they don't care!").

Bell communicated three helpful truths for clergy: first, there will always be critics; two, we will fail a great deal of the time (a point also made by Andy Crouch); and three, the need to find a balance of engagement and withdrawal, following the example of Jesus. He also voiced the simple but profound truth that as life flows out of us (the bread broken and the blood poured), we also need to receive and be restored.

I was impressed and blessed by Bell, and hope to spend time with his books and short films in the near future.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

andy crouch on culture making

Andy Crouch gave a presentation (which included lecture, music and visual art) at the Convocation and Pastors' School at Duke last week. His time on the schedule was between N.T. Wright and Rob Bell; if Crouch was not as known to many as Wright or Bell, he quickly connected with the full house gathered in Page Auditorium with an opening rendition of "Over My Head (I Hear Music In The Air)". Crouch is the author of Culture Making, a superb analysis of how Christians live in relation to culture, but I had not known that he is a superb musician. He defined culture as "everything human beings have made of the world".

Crouch presented five big ideas:

1. Culture makers bear God's image in a good world. We have, to our detriment, omitted the first two and the last two chapters of the Bible, beginning with the fall (Genesis 3) and ending with Revelation 20 (the lake of fire). Our default response to culture, therefore, is to condemn it. We relate to culture by chasing it, trying to be relevant. We compartmentalize culture, primarily by the consumption of it.

2. Form matters. Form tells us things about the world, and the patterns shape us more than we realize. Crouch noted as prime examples interstate highways and fractured political districts.

3. We live in a world of broken images, which Crouch named as idolatry and injustice. His deeper conviction, in fact, is that injustice=idolatry. Crouch was especially compelling here in reflecting on the harm that slave owners do to the dispossessed of the world, and then moving to a corresponding conviction that those who want to do good can also play God in dehumanizing ways.

4. Culture makers are called to restore the broken images of the world. Crouch interpreted the painting "The Banjo Lesson" by Henry Tanner, and asked those present to reflect on it. Tanner takes a broken cultural form (the black minstrel) and infuses it with dignity (a grandfather passing on an practice to the next generation).

5. The last big idea was the image at the cross. Suffering and failure, Crouch insisted, are a part of culture making, and much of what we create will be rejected. "Failure", he noted, "is normative". He then led the gathering in a moving chorus of "To Mock Your Reign" (one of my favorite passion hymns), and we closed with "This is My Father's World".

There were many connections between Crouch's content and the lectures of Rob Bell and N.T. Wright. Yet Crouch communicated with a depth that was at times missing in the other sessions, and I am convinced this was due to the mix of media (music, visual art) that he employed; we not only grasped the meaning in a cerebral way (which is Wright's forte), we experienced it. To sing "To Mock Your Reign" is to know deep within that suffering is normative, indeed, that it is at the heart of the gospel; and to enter into the words of "This is My Father's World" is to engage in the essential work of culture making, and, in the process, to recover the image of God within each person.

Next: Rob Bell on Eucharistic Paradox.

Friday, October 15, 2010

at home in this world (a sermon preached at the upper room chapel in nashville)

Jeremiah 29. 1, 4-7

Jeremiah was a prophet of the sixth century, before Christ. He lived to see the destruction of the temple of God, in Jerusalem, in 587, and his book, the longest among the prophets, took its final form in 560. Jeremiah spoke to a concrete historical situation---one theologian of the last century said that a Christian should have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other—and this is the work of a prophet: to hear the voice of God and the cries of the people, to read the signs of the times and to speak the word of the Lord.

Jeremiah’s book is filled with rich imagery. There is destruction, evil, idolatry. There is also denial: everyone shouting “peace, peace, when there is no peace”. The afflicted in body and spirit find no relief: “they have treated the wounds of my people carelessly”, Jeremiah insists. He is an unlikely prophet, he wants to speak the pleasing word, the word that people want to hear, but…God has formed him, from his mother’s womb, for a different purpose; he confesses, there is “a burning in my bones and a fire in my heart”.

Jeremiah would love to tell everyone that it really is fine, it is going to be ok, but he opens his mouth and cries out, to anyone who will listen, “these people are dying, is there no balm in Gilead, is there no physician here?”. He goes to see the potter, working with clay, work that is beautiful and functional, the primary art form of the people, and he can only see God, breaking the people into pieces, like a potter’s vessel”.

The destruction of the temple was obvious, but the people probably preferred denial, and so do we, at times, if we are honest. Jeremiah says, simply, look around, open your eyes. And then he weeps, just as Jesus, who was often confused with Jeremiah, wept over Jerusalem.

After the Babylonians had flattened the temple, they carried the Jews with them into exile, taking especially the royalty and those with artistic and commercial skills that they needed. They ended up in Babylon, located on the Euphrates River, one of the wonders of the ancient world, about 50 miles south of present day Baghdad.

Israel was in a crisis. Do you remember the moving words of Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. And our tormentors said to us, “Sing us one of those songs of Zion!”. But how can we sing the Lord’s Song in a strange land?”

It is one of the most profound laments in the Bible. We remember that a Bibl placed on the altar of a church in New Orleans ravaged by Katrina was opened to this text: “We sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion….How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Lament. In the Bible, the counterpoint to lament is hope, and so the people await a word of hope from Jeremiah.

Well, Jeremiah sends this word to the exiles, living in Babylon: “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters, and watch as they have sons and daughters. Seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The NRSV translates the word as welfare, but the Hebrew word is “shalom”. The NIV translates it as “peace and prosperity”, the King James says simply “peace”, the Message “well-being”. Shalom is a rich, Hebrew word that encompasses all of this.

Seek the shalom of the city, for in its well-being you will find your well being. Build houses, marry, give your children in married. “I know you want to come home”, the Lord was saying to them, “but stay where you are, put down roots, take out a long-term mortgage. Bloom where you are planted”.

Years ago there was a popular spiritual that had the refrain, This world is not my home, I’m only passing thru, my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. It was a song that expressed both despair and hope. Despair about this world, hope for a better world. Israel despaired of the world of Babylon, they hoped for the better world of the temple, where they would dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

But Jeremiah, the prophet, is of no help. He tells them exactly what they do not want to hear. They want to sing “Babylon is not my home, I’m only passing through”. Jeremiah says to them, seek the well-being of the city for in its well-being you will find your well-being. Your peace depends upon their peace. Your prosperity depends upon their prosperity. Your salvation depends on their salvation.

I remember hearing Ernest Campbell, former minister of the Riverside Church in New York City, preach. Campbell recalled a huge convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the city, and the coverage of their gathering by the New York Times. At the end of the three days a reporter interviewed a spokesman for the witnesses, and the reporter commented, “I have been here three days and I have listened to it all and I have “not heard a word about race, not a word about poverty, not a word about the city in which we live”. And the spokesperson replied, “when the house is condemned, you don’t worry about fixing the door, or replacing a broken window”

If the world is condemned, if a people are condemned, we are only passing through. And yet this is not Jeremiah’s word for Judah, or God’s calling to us, for we too, are commanded, in some way, to seek the well being of the city. How do we do this?

I am reminded this morning of the leaderreturned to the words of Reuben Job, and I am reminded of his leadership in this place.

Methodist life was marked by a deep and authentic personal piety that led to a broad and uncompromising social involvement. Methodists were known for their prayers and for their commitment to the poor and disenfranchised. This commitment resulted in persistent efforts to build houses of prayer and worship as well as consistent efforts to visit the prisons, build schools and hospitals, and work for laws which moved toward a just and peaceful social order…Because they took their relationship to Jesus Christ with utmost seriousness, their life of prayer and witness was readily identified and often very contagious as many wanted what Methodists appeared to have. Among these Methodist gifts were a certain knowledge about their own salvation, an at-homeness in this world and confidence in the next, a living companionship with a living Christ, and access to the power of God that could and did transform the most broken and hopeless persons into productive, joyful and faithful. Such was the power of God in the way the Methodists lived…”

To reclaim our identity, three thousand years old in the mind of the prophet, two hundred years old in the practices of our Wesleyan tradition, is to seek the well-being of the city.

God has planted us in this place. God has commanded us seek the shalom of the city, to pray for the city. Being the church in this place has challenges, but also opportunities. We know that cities are mobile. The ministry we offer to some people may bear fruit in the gifts they take to other cities. The ministry we offer to leaders in our churches may bear fruit in the decisions that make in their spheres of influence. The witness we have, a witness for peace, a peace that the world can neither give nor take away, can make life in the city more sane and less stressful, more humane and less brutal. Even if the city is filled with pagans and unbelievers, the Lord said through Jeremiah to the people, love the city, pray for the city. You will find wholeness and shalom and salvation in the process.

I grew up largely with an understanding of salvation that was very individualistic, very personal. This was good, in that I came to believe that God knew me and cared about me. It was not so good in that it did seem to be largely about me. I grew up with the understanding that salvation was something that happened to souls, when your soul was saved it drifted in the air somewhere, above the clouds, toward heaven. This was good, in that it filled me hope, a hope I still claim. It was not so good in that it kept me from paying attention to the earth, which is my home, which has to be more than a place I am merely passing through.

This world is our home, we are not only passing through. God loves this world, God loves this city. And so we dig in, we make the most of where we are, we learn to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. We pray for our city, and seek its shalom. We are in it for the long haul. Someone has said, “even if I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant an apple tree today”.

And so let us imagine that the altar call is to go forth from this place into the city, committing ourselves to its well-being. Somehow, our salvation is connected to the salvation of this city.

Sources: Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home. Reuben Job, A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

eugene peterson on the jesus way

Over the past 48 hours I have had the extraordinary experience of hearing live lectures by Eugene Peterson (in Charlotte) and Andy Crouch and Rob Bell (in Durham). I also caught a portion of a lecture by N. T. Wright, but missed the greater portion of it. The following is a brief reflection on Peterson.

Eugene Peterson was scheduled to speak at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. He was introduced to an absolutely filled Fellowship Hall by my good friend Tom Currie, who is the Dean of the Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. Peterson sat in an oversized chair; he is 78 years old, and remarked that, of late, standing for an hour had become more difficult. Peterson then proceeded to reflect on "The Jesus Way", the title of the third in a series of five books on spiritual (or, as he prefers, "lived" theology). The lecture was a carefully crafted meditation on the nature of Jesus, particularly his humanity, and on the idea that God has become human and has a name, and is thus personal, in contrast to the abstract gods of Israel's neighbors. He described the Jesus Way as an alternative to the consumer culture, a culture that is dehumanizing and does violence to us and to others. Said more positively, the Jesus Way is conversational and ordinary, a path not taken by most persons in his own day and in ours, a way that includes no shortcuts, that is truly, in the words of an early book, "a long obedience in the same direction".

The material was taken from the book of the same title, with an ending drawn from the last book in the series, Practicing Resurrection, which is a reflection on Ephesians. The question and answer period was much more engaging than I had expected; the questions, mercifully, were not statements but genuine inquiries, and his answers were revealing. What about other ways that have nothing to do with Jesus? Jesus is the unique revelation that we have received; we do not have to defend or explain other is mystery...we can say we do not know! Who was his favorite poet? David, but later T.S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. What were the essential disciplines? Scripture, Prayer and worshiping in a congregation. What did worshiping in a congregation mean? Worshiping with people we did not like and learning to love our enemies! What was non-spiritual theology? God-talk divorced from life. Which of his books was his favorite? This was like asking which child was his favorite...but when he had written "Five Smooth Stones", he felt that he had said what he wanted to say, and the later books were a reworking of that one. He also commented that Practicing Resurrection is a polemic against romanticizing the church.

"I would rather be like God than God be like me", Peterson noted, early in the lecture. "In becoming human," he continued, "could God have made it any easier?" And yet we try to construct non-human, non-personal, non-relational forms of faith, and along the way we re-imagine God, which is idolatry. The alternative, and the way that leads to life, is the Jesus Way.

Next: Andy Crouch on Culture Making

Sunday, October 03, 2010

a conscientious objector to the culture wars

I recently wrote a note to my Facebook Friends: "if you love Rush Limbaugh or hate Sarah Palin we are still friends, but I do not engage." This seemed to please many of my friends, but it did not go down well with a few of my friends on the far left and right of the color wheel. I think I know the reason why: they need each other.

I want to begin by acknowledging that politics is a notable profession, and those who serve in politics or run for political office have my respect. I have campaigned for friends who have been called to pursue a variety of roles, from judge and county commissioner to city council and school board. I have campaigned for those I have respected at higher levels, including congress. And, dare I say it, I have helped in the efforts of friends who felt called to the office of Bishop. Some of these are now among our episcopal leaders.

Politics is the sphere of life where resources are allocated, decisions are made, and policy is determined. My objection is not to politics; it is to the culture wars that have shaped our politics, and not to the good.

By using the term culture wars, I begin by noting the skewed sense of rhetoric that has infected our public discourse (and here I would urge the reader to find a copy of Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By). For the culture warrior, all of life is a battle, even a violent activity where there are winners and losers, the victorious and the defeated. But not only are the losers to be defeated: they must be humiliated and shamed. And all of this can take place under the illusion that God is on the side of the victorious. I question whether this is in fact the case.

Two recent experiences reminded me of how pervasive the culture wars are. I read an excellent piece by Leighton Ford about the New York City mosque, and the call of Jesus to reconciliation. First circulated among a group of friends, it was later posted at Faith and Leadership. Two very good friends had the same immediate reaction: what did Franklin Graham think about it? Their first impulse----and these are very reflective people---was to situate Leighton in the culture wars, in contrast to his brother in law.

I also came, at some point, to a sense of frustration about the endless media obsession with a thirty member congregation in Florida whose pastor was threatening to burn a copy of the Koran. It is, I confess, an appalling story. Two years ago I participated in a news conference in the Islamic Center in Charlotte, speaking against the desecration of a copy of the Koran in our own community. Once we were beyond the action and reaction of the more recent event, however, the matter took on a life of its own. It was no longer about a small community in Florida. The usual subjects had taken their sides, each entrenched in their own convictions.

The culture wars (and here I would include the religion section of Huffington Post and Glenn Beck among the most visible examples) do not lead to our well being; they simply enlist us in a fight that ignores the nuances on either side that contain a kernel of truth. The culture wars give an ultimacy to that which is actually transient: our ultimate concern is not the culture, but actually the Christ who engages the culture in a variety of complex ways. The culture wars do not also acknowledge how we, as Christians have shaped these cultures, for good and for ill (see the work of Andy Crouch). And lastly, the culture wars are a testament to our rejection of the gospel itself: God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself....and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation (see 2 Corinthians 5).

I find it odd that liberal Christians would share more in common with liberals who do not share their faith than conservative Christians who do, and I find it equally troubling that conservative Christians would share more in common with conservatives of no faith than their brothers and sisters in Christ who are liberal. I do not quite know what to do with this reality in which we find ourselves, but I sense that it conveys a truth, that we have become conformed to a culture at war with itself.

So when I claim a conscientious objector status to the culture wars, I am not responding in a bland "why can't we all just get along" manner. I want to make a stronger statement: the culture wars are actually destructive to our common life, in all of its political and ecclesial dimensions. I can only seek to walk in the way of peace, and trust in a reconciliation that is the gift of God.

So, if you love Rush Limbaugh or hate Sarah Palin we are still friends, but I do not engage.