Monday, June 27, 2016

A short history of church fights

When John Calvin took over as the primary Reformer, pastor, teacher and architect of government in Geneva in the mid 1500's the first things he did were write a catechism and a confession of faith. Then he tackled church order - how the worship service would run. He ran into some serious headwinds there. Calvin was doing away with the Roman Catholic institution of mass. He did not like it at all. None of it. So, he came up with a different order. It was centered on the Eucharist and included Scripture, prayer and psalm singing and a sermon, of course. Calvin believed Christians were free to choose their own order of worship. God, he said, did not make any one order determinative in Scripture. Calvin believed strongly that the Eucharist displayed the gospel so well that it should be done every week. Not everyone agreed.  Others thought weekly reminded them too much of the mass. Some argued a couple times a year was plenty. Calvin was not budging. He tried to have the Eucharist celebrated in a different Reformed Church each week. It didn't happen. Eventually, the conflict over the Eucharist led to Calvin's removal from Geneva. It wasn't the theology of the Eucharist that was in question. None of the main Reformers believed the same about the meaning of the Eucharist. But, Geneva was Calvin's city. It was how often the Eucharist was to be celebrated that was argued, often bitterly.

Not a whole lot has changed. Christians still do not share a common understanding of the Lord's Supper. In some churches it is every week and others a few times a year. Some churches do not allow Christians from other traditions to take communion in their church. In some churches wine is served and in others grape juice. The frequency of the Lord's Supper is still hotly debated. Not over theology but often it's over a point of convenience or its is too hard to overcome the inertia of the way it has always been done.  One of Calvin's biographers wrote that Calvin failed to make the Eucharist a weekly celebration not because of theology or ethics but his plan fell apart over politics. He couldn't find a way to persuade people to see it his way. He alienated people and that led to his departure from Geneva. His was a pastoral failure.

Calvin was a great theologian and systematizer. His Institutes of Christian Religion remain one of the few basic books of theology that all theologians after him refer to. He was a hard worker who studied hours a day to the detriment of his health. He wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible. He lived at a time when a person could be run out of town or worse, burned at the stake, for an unpopular theological position. Much of his life was spent on the run. He was a man who would have preferred to stay in a quiet room and study and write all day long for the rest of his life. What happened instead was that he found himself at the center of a great theological and political time of upheaval. He believed God had put him there or else how would he have ever wound up there. So he bore it as best he could. Not always well or happily. Obediently, he served God as best he could see how. From our distance it's easy to see how he failed and the mistakes he made. How can we judge? Most pastors still see more damage to their ministries from a decision to push a change like the hours of the worship service, or whether to sing choruses or hymns, or whether to sit in pews or chairs than any error of theology made in a sermon. And they still can initiate a good fight over the frequency of communion, as well.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Unfinished stories

We have started a new thing in church this month as our pastor preaches through Colossians. One person gives his or her "Unfinished Story". It's sort of a reflection on what God is doing in our lives now. It's also a statement that our stories are not finished but God is still at work on us and in us. It's an acknowledgment that salvation is a process instead of a single moment. We are not working on our salvation but God is working on us. The person who shared today had been in full time Christian ministry for years. Then due to a number of failures and misfires he found himself without much faith left. He gave away his church stuff and for the next several years wandered in the wilderness. He tried church a few times but it wasn't working. It's only been recently that he has found some faith again but it is different this time. He talked about living a performance oriented Christianity. That struck a chord with me. Ever since I can remember church has been a lot about performance. Living in front of people and worrying about what they were thinking. Today's evangelical church is all about performances. A big show. It is for the glory of God and his kingdom but how honest is it and how honest can the performers be? The person who shared today was honest and he felt like he could be. That was a good thing. I have found transparency there, too.

Scott Cairns in a Short Trip to the Edge tells a story about Father Iakovos, a monk on Mount Athos in Greece. Once a man interrupted him in mid conversation and asked if Jesus was his personal savior. Nope, he said, I like to share him. Salvation has more to do with all of us than just me.

And not just the church, the body of Christ, but all of creation. The body of Christ is not depicted very well in the media these days. Unfortunately, many of us have been behaving badly and it is those words and deeds that are picked up and broadcast for all to see. There is a lot of stupid stuff going on. But, as Cairns says, we need the body of Christ. Faith must be connected to the community. A solitary faith will never be healthy.

But, to get back to the unfinished story. Salvation is more than a future project (going to heaven when I die). It is a present, moment by moment condition. It is a way of being in the kingdom here and now and not just some day in the future. Cairns says that is what Jesus meant when he said the kingdom of God is within you. Jesus looked around and said some of you will not taste death til they see the kingdom of God come with power. This kingdom life is for now; we can witness it, taste it, savor it's abundance now.

Cairns refers to a deathbed confession of Abba Benjamin of Scetis. Paraphrasing a part of Thessalonians, he said, If you observe the following, you can be saved, Be joyful at all times, pray without ceasing, and give thanks for all things. Those are words from within the kingdom now.

Cairns goes on to say he wants to replace this perennially hamstrung, broken self with a more promising image. He would like to undergo some lasting repairing of heart and mind, body and soul. Unfinished stories are not finished alone.

The water cooler

(Overheard around a water cooler in heaven)

Hey, did you hear all the whooping and hollering last night?
No, I must have slept through it. What was it about?
Bunch of angels rejoicing.
How come?
Someone said Donald J Trump was born again.
No, really?
Yup. Someone heard someone say they knew someone who said someone led him to Christ.
Jesus, what did he do? You know what he told other rich people.
Ha, I wonder how Donald's famous hair do made it through the needle's eye!
It's not him it's a camel.
I know. But it would be easier for a camel!
Maybe he promised to give away half of all he has.
Who knows what that would be. He won't release his tax records.
He certainly has a lot of ground to make up. Amends to make and stuff like that.
Don't they all.
I guess I will believe it when I see him up here with us.
Don't bet against it. You know what Jesus says, with God all things are possible.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Love curriculum from 1 John 4:7-17

Beloved (who are loved by God and each other)
Love is from God (rock of reality)
Love, know God, born of God. No love, no God.
God is Love (basic)
Jesus is the definition of God's Love.
Thus, God's Love is self sacrificing. (Jesus died for us to have life)
God's Love is first. God loved us before we knew what love was or is.
We share God's Love as we love others.
We know God (access God, encounter God, walk with God, talk with God) as we love.
God's Love is reality. Life is meaningless without God's Love. (Good question: Does God exist apart from love?)
God does not love in the abstract but in real time. Ditto for us.
God's Love is made perfect as we love each other.

(thoughts while reading 1 John 4 and D. Moody Smith)

Where was God?

Where is God? What is God doing? What was God doing when I (we) needed him? God wasn't there in the way we expected him to show up. That's what usually happens. There is a randomness to life. A child is drowned by an alligator at Disney of all places. An unattended toddler dies in an overheated car baked in the Florida summer sun. Flash flooding in West Virginia sweeps away a four year old out of the reach of his father. Orlando - why there, that club, that night, those people. We know someone who was there and survived. Why, him, he wonders. Doctors helping others killed by an errant bomb in an Iraqi war zone. So much seeming randomness. When cancer takes the life of an older person we can bear it. But, our faith shakes when it is an eight year old.

The Psalmist asked, where is God? Christians ask, too. After all, we believe in a loving God who is mighty powerful. We believe in a God who created this world we live in. And who has a plan, a purpose which is not always clear to us but we know it to be good. So what happens when the goodness of the plan does not seem good to us.

We hardly know what to think and thinking won't solve all our dilemmas. Neither will talking and it's a mistake to think we know what to say to help someone who is facing down a tragedy of their own. Best to be quiet and be present.

Many others have thought helpfully about the question of where was God? Some have been theologians and many have been writers sharing how they dealt with a personal tragedy (and some have been both). It's surprising what we can learn from times like these. Christians begin by believing in God as our creator. What God created was/is good. There was no other godlike figure who created the bad stuff. God knows it is there. So, God created us and a world where bad stuff can happen. We are created beings which is better than non being. But, our creation comes with a set of understandings, i.e., we are finite, limited, contingent, and we don't get to have all our questions answered. We are also free to live in a good world. Our freedom has to do with how we live here.

Christians believe in sin and although there are many ideas about sin among Christians, we all agree it messes things up.

Christians believe Jesus is a gift of God's grace to help us out of our messes. So, Christians believe life is a gift (we did not have to be in the first place), and Jesus is a gift. We are on the receiving end of life and grace. Not everyone sees that. It's kind of like the Narnia tales by C.S. Lewis: there is a reality on the other side of the wardrobe. That is the reality we live in as Christians. It starts and continues, and ends with receiving.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Empire falls

Sitting in our small storefront church I could see the people making their way to the popular restaurant at the end of our block. There were many more people celebrating Father's day with brunch than church. Too few were gathered to worship and reflect on Colossians 1:15-20 on this Sunday one week after the Orlando tragedy. In one horrific week Orlando had seen the murder of popular singer, an alligator attack at a family entertainment center, and then the massacre at a gay nightclub. It was a sad week in the Florida city known for family fun. What could be said? The President made his now too common somber remarks and told us we must do better to restrict gun violence. One of the presumptive presidential candidates sounded almost gleeful tweeting an I told you so message. Churches, spiritual families, struggled to respond. What makes America great? Our pastor had been in New York City during the week.  A great city, she reminded us of all the sights she took in on a trip with her daughters and her mom. The play, Hamilton, and the Today show and the Statue of Liberty and the fly over of Yankee Stadium - greatness symbolized at the center of all that is important. But, there was nothing to say in response to our week of sorrow. Late night comics were muted and important authors and actors reached for meaningful words. The great corporations advertised on the billboards of Times Square went on making money. Wall Street sold stocks for our retirement accounts and charted moment by moment how they were doing. One presidential candidate has made this election about making America great again. What does that mean? More powerful? Richer? More dominant worldwide? More weapons to make us safe? The answer, our pastor suggested, was not found in the symbols of Empire in the Empire City. It was found in some of responses to suffering and tragedy. Like the life saving labors of first responders and medical personnel working selflessly to help others. Like the countless services of candlelight making a difference in the dark. Like the gifts of money and things offered from hearts touched by some else's tragedy. Like the prayers in gatherings like ours for mercy and grace, for hope. Like the words of Colossians 1 we read that morning... From beginning to end he is there, towering far above everything, everyone....all the dislocated pieces of the universe-people and things, animals and atoms-get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death... (The Message). It's a counter culture song of self giving love. How do we sing it?

Monday, June 13, 2016


There was the smell of death in the air again as we learned about the horrific mass shooting at a night club in Orlando. I received a text message alert on my phone as church was about to start. The numbers of the dead quickly spiraled upwards from a few to fifty. We prayed for the victims and their loved ones. This is becoming too common. Trump tweeted, see I was right about terrorism. And Obama should step down. We learned the shooters name and his Muslim connections. He was American grown born in NYC. He had a history of violence against women, Jews and gays. His Imam condemned his actions. Obama gave a somber speech. The Tony awards began with some heartfelt words against hatred of others. Facebook lit up with calls to prayer and other calls to stand fast against those who would use this latest killing spree to take away our right to bear AR-15's. Later that night I watched episode 5 of Night Manager based on a John LeCarre book. It is about illegal weapon selling. Nations compete for the most up to date and most destructive weapons. There is a brisk trade of the latest weapons between countries both legal and illegal. Do we think this will stop any time soon? Do we think that this latest action will make it any harder for some one with intent to kill to get his hands on a mass killing weapon? The Orlando shooter had been investigated twice by the FBI and still he bought his weapons last week. Roger Cohen in the New York Times wrote today that mass shootings with terrorist connections like this latest one could propel the West to elect right wing governments that promise to clamp down borders and evict "the enemies".

So, there we are - this small band of Christ followers - praying for grace and peace and hope. And taking communion, a meal centered on the death of One who brought Life. I thought of a poem I had read that morning by Scott Cairns.

"Every altar in our churches bears a holy fragment-a bit of bone most often-
as testament to the uncommon and genuine
honor in which we hold the body-
shattered bits of it, even when the habitant has,
for all appearances, gone hence. Each mute relic
serves as a token of death and of life's appalling
ubiquity-even there . It helps to bear in mind
the curious and irreparable harm the
inflicted upon the nether realm when graved
He filled it with Himself, and in so
doing, burst
its meager hold and burst its hold on
of which has made memory of death lately
less grim. Gehenna is empty, and tenders
these days and empty threat. Remember that."

Faith blocks

Getting to church on Sunday we found Jenga blocks in the center of each table. Not unusual since there is often something interactive we are asked to do. But, Jenga blocks. I was stumped. Jenga is the game where you build a tower with small, longish blocks and then remove them one by one until the tower collapses. Good party game but not one I would have expected at church. One of our first speakers, a young man who was new to the church, shared his faith story. Or his lack of faith story. Growing up pretty conservative in a large Southern evangelical church before attending a small, Christian college, he realized after school that his Jenga tower of faith was collapsing. One by one his belief blocks were being removed. He said your faith can survive the loss of one or two or a few blocks - but if it continues your faith will fall in a scattered mess of blocks. It is not an easy thing to rebuild your tower. But, necessary and it can be done. He is doing it.

Blogger, writer, church planter, Kathy Escobar, says she doesn't like the term "losing one's faith".  She doesn't believe faith is ever lost. What seems like a lost faith is better understood as shedding some of our beliefs. As we grow up in a church our Jenga tower of beliefs is being built for us. Then when we are responsible for our own tower we look at it and think it has to go. It no longer works. School, culture, friends, life intrudes and removes blocks. Then, after many weeks of sleeping in or doing brunch on Sundays and little time for prayer, we discover our faith is gone. But, it is really only the trappings of faith. You may no longer have a "system of  beliefs" but you still have a core, a smaller tower of basic beliefs. Kathy Escobar says you don't have to have many  beliefs to have faith. God is love. Jesus heals. In Christ we have hope. We are all created in the image of God. Those are good places to start. A lot of our beliefs are just stuff and really don't matter.  Don't confuse God with politics or sociology or science. Sunday in Church our pastor asked us: what is the core of your faith and we built Jenga towers.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Two movies

I love the Coen brothers movies. So, I was waiting to grab their latest one when it came out on DVD this week. Hail, Caesar is many things and as with all Coen brothers films you can get more out of it with each viewing. First of all, it is a throwback to the old Hollywood epics and the fantasy of how and why movies were made back then, i.e., entertainment for the common man. There is a religious sub text running throughout like other Coen brothers movies. The most hilarious scene in the movie is when Mr Mannix, head of production, invites several local clergy to read the script of their new Bible epic, Hail, Caesar and tell him if there is anything offensive to their church members in it. It's like a joke: what happens when a Rabbi, a Priest, a Pastor get together.... and it is funny. The movie within the movie is a Ben Hur type Biblical epic. George Clooney (all the Coen's favorite actors make appearances) plays the Roman Centurian who has an encounter with Christ and comes to faith except he forgets a word when he gives his testimony before the cross. Pretty important word, too (faith). Faith is played with throughout the film. Mr Mannix is a decent man of faith who goes to confession (too much his priest tells him) and mainly confesses trivial sins while his job is to cover up major scandals  caused by the stars of his Hollywood productions. Well played, sharp, smart script and plenty to think about and discuss in this Coen brothers offering.

History of Violence is a much different and more disturbing movie. It is violent with many brutal killings but the violence is not gratuitous, as they say. It has a purpose; it shows the reality and consequences of violence. In these days where violent crimes, terrorism and war crimes are on screens before our eyes daily, we can get numb to the reality of it. Violence becomes a game we play on our screens. We buy guns because we believe the gun lobbies who tell us all we need is a gun to be safe. The more people who are armed the safer we are. This film makes you think about that - a lot. It depicts the blunt trauma of violence and it's effects on us and our society.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Learning to see

I preached at our church on Sunday. When our pastor asked me to take that Sunday she also said I could preach on whatever I wanted. We usually follow the church lectionary readings. I skipped that reading and went for Mark 8: 22-26. I had been thinking about that for a while probably on and off since I retired from my job as a pastor. I had done that for a long time, too. It was not an easy transition. "Retirement is not in the language of a Christian" wrote James Houston in A Vision for an Aging Church. I think he meant retirement in the sense of the time of life when you devote yourself to leisure activities. Retirement means a transition from paid work to finding other ways to live out God's call in your life. It is captured in the old fashioned term, vocation. R. Paul Stevens says, vocation gives the whole of our lives meaning in the sweet summons of God (Aging Matters, p35). After retirement is the time to discover your late life calling. It's there. Elizabeth O'Connor says, we ask to know the will of God without guessing that his will is written into our very beings. It's there in your calling, your way of life. The calling does not change but the expression of it will. It is discovering what to do with your life now. Karl Barth said, "In every moment we meet the call of God anew, and so in every moment it is as if we are just starting out."

Mark 8: 22-26 speaks to me about this. I call it learning to see. Our lives are a long process of learning to see. Eugene Peterson called it a long obedience in the same direction. The gospels are always playing with the idea of blindness. Jesus heals the physically blind and the spiritually blind. Sometimes the ones who can see are the most blind. I am still learning what my blind spots are.

I don't know why Jesus used a mix of spit and mud to heal this blind man in Mark 8 and I don't know why it only worked halfway the first time. I think I know why Jesus took his hand and led him out of the village though. Our villages blind us. The ways we were raised, what we were taught, how others showed us what to see. Blind spots can cause us to see things in the Scripture that are not really there. They can cause us to see what we are looking for or to find what supports our thinking.

I mentioned on Sunday that growing up in my village during the civil rights movement I never saw a connection between the marches led by Dr. King and our Sunday services. I never saw any women in the role of a public spiritual leader, as a pastor or deacon. I never saw a gay person in church or heard that issue addressed. I heard God's love was unconditional but I experienced a love that came with lots of conditions.

Part of my calling (our calling) is learning to see more clearly. Segundo Galilea says, "All spirituality springs from this fundamental fact of a God who loved us first....If Christian spirituality is, before all else, an initiative by and a gift from God who loved us and seeks us, spirituality is then our recognition and response, with all that entails. This path of spirituality is a process, concrete but never finished, by which we identify ourselves with God's plan for creation....the Kingdom of God and it's justice, spirituality is identification with the will of God for bringing this Kingdom to us and others." (quoted in R. Paul Stevens, Aging Matters, p66.)

That is a vision for retirement.

Family reunion

Family gathered around my Mom in Western New York Memorial Day weekend. Not everyone could be there but a pretty good number were on hand. I was reunited with siblings and members of my tribe I had not talked to in a long time. I was a bit startled to realize that this significant chunk of humanity was all together because of two people - my Mom and Dad. Life surprises. Lives surprise I should say. These lives lived over the years as mine had. I had not kept up very well other than snatches of information about so and so every so often. There were graduations and grad schools, marriages that brought outsiders into the family unit, and many birthdays. We were older, no doubt. There had been sicknesses, and deaths; divorces and remarriages; children who seemed to be doing well and others who were struggling with all the things people struggle with today. There were grandparents raising grandkids, single parents raising children on their own and gay parents raising their children in traditional ways. There were married, and unmarried and formerly married and never married. There were plenty of stories if you had time to listen. A variety of stories but that was no different from most family gatherings. There were persons who had and were making great sacrifices in family, or marriage or career choices. Not that they would say so but I thought so as I listened. I thought in these days of Trump, who models a life so totally wrapped up in himself, that it was good to find so many people wrapped up in others. I don't know why I was surprised to find this; I had not gone looking for it. But, I was glad to be back with my family celebrating my Mom's 90th birthday. After all she had done for us.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Bathroom battles

The words of Jesus between his teaching on marriage and divorce and the blessing of children in Matthew 19 are often ignored. Eunuchs are not much under discussion today. However, they just might provide a window to see where Jesus might come down on the bathroom battles of our day. Eunuchs were common in Jesus own day. They are mentioned in the Old Testament and in Isaiah 56 they are singled out for a special welcome in the Kingdom of God. Philip baptized a eunuch into the church of Jesus Christ, a story told in Acts 8. And so in Matthew 19 Jesus' positive words regarding eunuchs are not surprising. What is surprising is that Jesus makes a place for them in the Kingdom and even uses them as an example of discipleship if marriage proves too tough for some disciples.

Eunuchs were the in between sex of their day. Not matching either gender perfectly they had no means of reproduction. They were non sexed (although seen as sexy by some; Nero married a eunuch), effeminate and viewed as unmanly. They were often mocked, ridiculed and avoided. Not welcome in the church, Jesus' words and Luke's recording of Philip's acts seem directed at their lack of acceptance by the church. It is not a stretch to say the situation was similar to our relationships with transgendered and homosexual persons today. The bathroom battles championed by many evangelical Christians make it clear that there is no place for them - not in church or even bathrooms. Most of the discussion involves safety for the rest of us. "They" must accommodate and not inconvenience us. They must use the bathroom of their biological gender. But, what if they are dressed like the other gender? Or what if they are intersex and so are of ambiguous gender (see Sex Difference in Christian Theology by Megan DeFranza). These are human beings and there is no place for them. Literally, not even a pot to pee in.

The battles over bathrooms are not really about bathrooms but about fear of the "other". Those who are different, who have been called freaks and labeled by Christians as "examples of the fall" deserve a place in the church and in bathrooms. Isaiah thought so, so did Philip and Jesus, too. It's time we considered eunuchs.