This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregation or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Change and Leadership in the Church - Part One: Apocalyptic.

            The Head of the Church is Jesus Christ.  He is our only leader, teacher, and king.  Recognizing this, the Presbyterian Book of Order does not name anyone else as a “leader”, and talks about leadership only in very limited ways.  First, it mentions leadership in terms of the practical organizing of music and worship.  Then our polity recognizes leadership as the work of gathered councils, not individuals.  Finally, and barely more than implicitly, leadership is mentioned as something related to pastors.  But it is not listed among a pastor’s main tasks.  The Book of Order also never mentions leadership among the responsibilities of any staff person.
            Jesus Christ is the only Leader of the church, and he is nothing if not a change agent.  His proclamation of the Kingdom of God is a direct assault on the status quo.  And his whole ministry is a demonstration of radical change, as he brings people from disease, disorder, and bondage, to healing, wholeness, and freedom.  He is crucified for his work in advocating and instituting change, from his embrace of women and others excluded from power, to his predictions of the demise of the ruling elite.     
            If Jesus were about “technical” change, he would have talked about tweaking the details of the institutional Judaism of his time.  He would have worked within the institutional boundaries, goals, and definitions of establishment religion.  This might have annoyed some entrenched interests, but it is doubtful that we would ever have heard of him.  And he would not have been enough of a threat to Rome for them to bother crucifying.      
            If Jesus were about “adaptive” change, he would be advocating ways to bring Judaism into a more efficient and effective alignment with the economic and political order of imperial Rome.  Adaptive change is usually about responding to a changing environment.  For a business this has to do with new technologies, changing attitudes, different political structures, evolving social mores and expectations, shifts in the market, different competition, and so on.
            In the church, we might speak about “adapting” to a “post-Christendom” context, where the church has to deal with having a significantly different place in society.  Now we have less money, lower prestige, and diminished status.  People today have more religious options, including the increasingly popular choice of having no religious affiliation at all.  Ecclesial life today is burdened by empty buildings, aging congregations, dwindling resources, and a society that often reacts to religion with indifference or hostility.  Adapting to this environment would mean downsizing, reallocating resources, streamlining structures and procedures, becoming more flexible, changing our messaging, learning new technologies, and so forth.          
            But Jesus isn’t about either of those kinds of change.  He proclaims the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God goes far beyond both technical and adaptive change.  It is even more comprehensive than a revolutionary change, which is at least a step beyond the kinds of change discussed so far.  Revolutionary change would have Jesus advocating the overthrow of Rome and the religious establishment.  He would want to replace that empire with new leaders. 
            The Kingdom of God requires an order of change that is beyond even a revolution.  It requires apocalyptic change.  Apocalypse is not about the destruction of creation, as some perversely imagine; it has to do with what is revealed at the heart and core of reality.  The Greek word for apocalypse means revelation. 
            Apocalyptic change is an awakening of human nature to the deepest truth of its own nature and destiny.  It turns everything upside down and demands a change of the entire system, beginning in the souls and bodies of people, and extending to include the nature and practice of leadership itself.  

So Jesus called them and said to them,
‘You know that among the Gentiles
those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them,
and their great ones are tyrants over them.  
But it is not so among you;
but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life a ransom for many’” (Mark 10:42-45).

            Apocalyptic change doesn’t just reject the current ruling empire; it rejects the whole idea and practice of some people ruling over others at all.  It rejects coercive power itself, and replaces it with a regime of non-violence and peace.  Apocalyptic change doesn’t just temper and channel our ego-centricity in more creative, efficient, and mutually beneficial directions; it rejects the whole idea and practice of letting our ego-driven personality be the sole lens through which we view the world, and replaces it with a multifaceted view of the soul that sees and responds directly to reality.  Apocalyptic change gets rid of domination altogether.
            This is way beyond mere adaptation to a changing environment.  The Lord does not adapt to the society of his day.  Rather, he calls his gathered community to grow continually into its identity as the people of God.  In this respect, the kind of change the church requires is more like metamorphosis.  The church of Jesus Christ is called to adapt only and always to the good news of the Kingdom of God.  This kind of adaptation is apocalyptic; it is a response to an expression of the true nature, purpose, and destiny of the church, as revealed to it by God.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

How Often Do We Want to Remember Jesus?

            The Lord Jesus, on the night before he was crucified, gave his disciples one, particular, specific way to remember him.  He took some of the bread left over from the Passover meal.  He blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  Then he took one of the cups of wine also left over from the meal.  He blessed it and shared it with them as well, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this in remembrance of me.”
            Jesus did a lot of things.  We who follow him try to remember them all.  We try to remember and keep all his teachings.  We want to remember Jesus all the time.  But there is only one thing that he did which he himself identified as the way to remember him.  And that is the sharing of bread and cup which we call by many names including the Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy, Holy Communion, and the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
            In this Sacrament, we find summed up the various ways in which Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” 
·      -- We are reminded of the bread and wine brought to Abraham by the priest-king Melchizedek, who prefigures Christ (Genesis 14:18; Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 5, 6, 7). 
·      -- We are reminded most obviously of Passover, and the lamb whose blood saved the people from death (Exodus 12). 
·      -- We are reminded of how God fed the people in the wilderness with the “bread” of manna (Exodus 16:4).
·      -- We are also reminded of how Jesus fulfills the Day of Atonement ritual in which sacrificial blood is used to purify the Temple and reestablish the relationship of the people with God, and a goat bears the people’s sin away (Leviticus 16). 
·      -- We are reminded of the way the Suffering Servant also bears the sin of others (Isaiah 53). 
·      -- We are reminded of the bread that was offered to God daily in the tabernacle and temple (Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 8:26, etc.). 
·      -- We are reminded of how Jesus fed the people, multiplying the loaves on the hillside (Mark 6:30-44//; John 6). 
·      -- We are reminded of all the meals Jesus celebrated with people, especially the way he was known after his resurrection by his disciples who saw him blessing and breaking bread (Luke 24:13-35).
            In other words, the whole story of God’s saving activity with people is reflected and expressed in this Sacrament.
            Therefore, the early church, wanting to remember him frequently and regularly, celebrated this simple meal at least every Lord’s Day when gathering for worship.  (Some Christians developed the discipline of celebrating the Sacrament as often as daily.)
            In the corruption of the Medieval Roman church, the people got out of the habit of celebrating the Sacrament regularly.  Its frequency was reduced to once-a-year as a bare minimum; and the people were excluded from receiving the cup.  It became a mysterious thing priests did and people watched.
            The Protestant Reformers reinstituted the Sacrament at the center of church life, and John Calvin in particular advocated celebrating it at least every Lord’s Day, as in the early church.  The Roman Catholic church reformed its own practice as well.  Unfortunately, in some branches of Protestantism the baggage from the corrupt Medieval church was too weighty, and they failed to institute weekly celebration of the Sacrament.  (Sometimes there was also a problem in some places of a lack of qualified ministers.)  By the turn of the 20th century, some Christian churches had degenerated to the point where they were remembering Jesus according to the way he wanted and instructed his followers to remember him only two or four times a year. 
            What?  What was their problem?  Were they somehow getting enough of Jesus?  Were they worried they might get too much of Jesus?  Did they just have better memories than most humans, and only needed to remember Jesus occasionally?  Did they only dole out Jesus in infrequent bits to artificially make the Sacrament seem more important and meaningful?  Hello?  When did Jesus say, “Remember me, but not too often”?   When did receiving the body and blood of the Lord become something people imagined could lose meaning for them if they did it too often?  The meaning comes from Jesus Christ, by his word and command.  If individual Christians, with their brief attention spans, were bored by this, that was certainly not the fault of the Sacrament instituted by the Lord; it was that of his wayward people.
            By far the worst reason for infrequently celebrating the Sacrament is religious bigotry.  It’s “too Catholic,” I have been told.  Which is ironic, since the Reformers argued that the Roman church was wrong to decrease the frequency of participation.  Anyway, does this mean we’re not supposed to follow Jesus’ explicit instructions just because some other Christians do?  Seriously?   
            In the second half of the 20th century some of these churches, including the Presbyterians, finally began to change, not without resistance, until now it is the norm to celebrate the Sacrament monthly.  (Even though there is no New Testament warrant for doing much of anything according to a monthly calendar.)  That was always (I hope) a stop-gap, provisional, temporary, transitional measure intended to lead eventually to the weekly celebration practiced in the early church and advocated by the Reformers.  Well, okay, it’s been 50 years already.  Maybe it’s time for phase two?
            The question is, how often do we want to remember Jesus?  And if we want to remember Jesus often, as we should if we claim to be his disciples, how would we do this except by the way he told us to remember him?           

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Grinch: The Next Year.

All the Whos down in Whoville loved Christmas a lot.
And the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville was not
the least one of the lovers of Christmastime cheer.
Ever since his conversion, one notable year,
when he dressed up as Santa and stolen their toys,
slinking ‘round in the darkness and making no noise,
he had robbed them of presents and tinsel and bows,
he had taken their trees and their hung mistletoes,
and he carted it up to the top of Mt. Crumpit
intending for all of the world just to dump it….
But you know the story, its on every year,
between Frosty and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

And so now the old Grinch was the toast of the season,
and none of the Whos had a doubt of the reason,
for when he returned from the hill with their treasures,
they gave him forgiveness in infinite measure!
“This I like,” thought the Grinch, letting happiness show,
as he basked in good cheer and the warm fam’ly glow.
“I must keep this thing going forever, but how?
Why with more of the same!  I’ll outdo myself now:
If they think they’ve seen presents before, well just wait:
That last Christmas was good, but the next will be great!
But how can I afford it?” the Grinch grimly thought,
for the things that he’s stolen last time must be bought.
and he couldn’t invade the small who houses twice;
yeah, it worked okay last time, but twice wasn’t nice.
So he bought and he borrowed with all of his might
so the Whos waking up from next Christmas Eve night
might rejoice in the presents that he would be bring-
ing and welcome and love him and greet him with sing-
ing!  They’d make him feel wanted, accepted, respect-
ed, delivering all of the gifts they expected.  And
earning their favor again he’d retire
to his cave to relax with his dog by the fire.

So he rose Christmas morn while the darkness was ending
to load up his sleigh with the fruit of his spending.
And dressing up Max like a reindeer for show,
they  made tracks on the snow-covered path down below.
And arriving with trumpets and fanfare and ringing,
they entered the circle of Who-people singing.
And joyfully grinning from that ear to this,
the old Grinch started doling out presents and gifts.
He expected their cheers and their great adulation,
their hugs and their gratitude and jubilation.
and eagerly looking ahead to the feast
when again they would ask him to carve the roast beast.

Yes, but wait.  They did not crowd around him so madly.
Instead they stood back and looked up at him sadly.
They smiled, but they clearly were sorry to see
that he thought he could purchase what they gave for free.
The great lengths he would go to inspire them to love
him as clearly a sign he thought they were above him.
Yet, strangely, they were.  Because he just must fail
to see love and affection that weren’t for sale.
“It’s not that we’re ungrateful,” one said without lying.
“It’s just that our Christmas is not about buying.
You don’t have to purchase our love with a toy,
but at Christmas it’s given to us in the Boy
born in Bethlehem, so long ago; and now here,
in our hearts, where God enters to banish our fear.”
But the Grunch was just crestfallen, cold in the snow.
So the Who Pastor took him aside so he’d know
that they’d love him the same if he hadn’t brought stuff,
and he told them their faith that God’s love was enough.
And it wasn’t the packages, bright lights and bows,
and it wasn’t the price-tags on gifts that he chose,
and it wasn’t the stuff he had bought from a store,
but Christmas to them was a little bit more.
“It was you, only you, that we wanted, you see?
Just the gift of yourself with us, smiling and free!
So you don’t have to work and you don’t have to save,
and you don’t have to worry ‘bout how to behave;
and you don’t have to buy things on credit or pay,
we prefer that you didn’t, or gave it away
to the ones who are needy and homeless and poor.
To the lonely, the sick, and the hopeless unsure.

And he told them the story of Mary and Joe
who had traveled to Bethlehem so long ago.
How they struggled to town as best as they were able
and had to give birth to their child in a stable.
How shepherds were notified deep in the night
by a legion of angels surrounded by light.
And astrologers journeyed from nations afar,
being guided by such a mysterious star,
to pay homage to Him who was laid in a manger
so no more would we have to act like we’re strangers.
That baby grew up in the Wisdom of love,
and he taught with authority from God above.
and he healed all the sick ones and strengthened the lame
who would jump and, rejoicing, his great Name proclaim.
In the end they arrested and brought him to die….
But he rose on the third day to rule from on high!

And now in a world that seems colder than space,
where injustice and sadness appear to replace
the good grace of creation’s sweet God-given blessing.
Instead of protecting, the strong are oppressing.
Greed, fear, and shame rule in our hearts, which is why
now our pipelines of poison are breaking the sky.
If your child can be shot in the street or in class
it’s no wonder we wonder how long this can last.

The Grinch had it right, did he not?  Look around.
Don’t we act like the love that we need isn’t found
like the air that we breathe that God gives us for free,
but is some precious thing that we covet and we
need to hoard and protect and sell at a high cost,
or buy at a premium?  Fearing the loss,
we give in and we buy it.  Now see how he thought
he was justified feeling the Whos could be bought?

But they couldn’t, you see, and so neither can we.
For we’re already purchased, we already free
to give love to each other in infinite measure,
we, each of us, has in our heart a great treasure.
We just have to find it and open the door.
And this is the truth of what Christmas is for:
For the child who was born on that night long ago
is now born in our hearts by the Spirit, and so
we are full of rejoicing, thanksgiving, and love,
for the Presence of God has come down from above
to reveal to us hope, peace, joy, grace, and salvation,
and give us good news to proclaim to all nations.
For God has done for us more than we are able,
so let us adore him the Babe in the stable.