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

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Name of Jesus.


            I am a little frustrated and tired of attending ecclesiastical events where Jesus is barely mentioned, if at all.  It is a residual symptom of Christendom that we in the church can all just assume that Jesus Christ is what we are about, without actually having to mention his name.  If we are disciples of Jesus, and if this is the core of our identity, especially in his church, then it seems to me that we ought to be referencing his life, work, teachings, death, resurrection, and Spirit all the time.
            Now, I am certainly not in favor of dragging Jesus’ name into every event in some token or obligatory way, as trivial window-dressing.  Fundamentalists are quite proficient at attaching Jesus’ name to every atrocity and obscenity they advocate and perpetrate, no matter how utterly contrary to Jesus' life and teachings.  
            But disciples should frequently and regularly refer to, and be challenged by, the one they claim to follow.  No?
            Recently I attended a semi-mandatory “boundary training” event offered by our presbytery.  It was generally very good.  But well into the second half I began to get grumpy because I had heard zero references to Jesus.  And when, in the Q & A, someone asked about Jesus, reminding us that he was if anything an inveterate boundary breaker, the presenter merely quipped that Jesus “didn’t have a very long career.”  The implication being that following Jesus may be fine for some, but maybe not for mature professionals working towards a happy retirement.  Not for churches that wanted to be around in five years.  As if, when the question is one of congregational and ministerial longevity, following Jesus is not a very good idea.
            Seriously?  This kind of off-hand, patronizing quip makes me understand why some of our sisters and brothers are considering leaving the denomination altogether.
            It is depressing how often this happens.  Our denomination and the leadership of our presbytery are pushing a church renewal program called “New Beginnings.”  My assumption is that any effort to renew the church would necessarily involve at its heart a consideration of what the Lord Jesus had to say and what he did.  Yet here again, one searches the web-site and Powerpoint presentations in vain for any but the most perfunctory mention of Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.  It’s all marketing, demographics, context, and the newly adopted term, “sustainability”… which is little more than a contemporary translation of what older Bibles called “mammon.”  Apparently, “New Beginnings” is a quick and dirty way to assess and enhance a church’s sustainability without the inconvenience of having to crack open a Bible or waste valuable time in prayer.
            To be fair, some of the stories of congregations that used this process indicate real spiritual renewal and revitalized mission.  But this appears to be because they brought to the program a concern for actual discipleship that is largely absent in the program itself.  Much of "New Beginnings" would work in principle for almost any retail business trying to relate to its context and set goals.
            My point is that sometimes the church is so thoroughly corrupted and bought out by Modern, imperialist America that it substitutes without much thought its practices and values for those of Jesus Christ.  So when we consider boundaries, we look to the therapeutic professionals.  When we consider evangelism we look to marketing professionals.  When it comes to polity, we find out what the latest trend is in the corporate world.  When deciding how the church should respond to political issues, we choose: Democrat or Republican.  And when we have to grapple with economic questions we are far more concerned for working within capitalism than we are with listening to what Jesus and Scripture say with rigorous intensity and consistency.
            I suspect that we are slow to mention Jesus Christ because, a) we don’t want to sound like fundamentalists who use his name as a wedge and a weapon, and b) we would prefer to keep his demands at arms length.  He explicitly threatens everything we hold dear.  And it would never occur to ask whether we are holding the wrong things dear.
            But Jesus Christ is the hope and future of the world, and if we who claim to be his disciples can’t bring ourselves to refer and defer to him even when we are gathered together with each other – let alone when we are engaging with the world into which he sends us – then we have neither hope nor future.
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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why Bless Animals?


            The practice of blessing animals, while it might be new and unusual for Presbyterians, actually has a long history in Christianity.  It goes back at least to Francis of Assisi, which is why many churches choose early October to bless animals.  Francis’ day is October 4.
            Blessing animals recognizes the larger community of creation and our place in it as humans.  Animals and humans were created on the same Sixth Day of creation in Genesis 1.  The “dominion” God gives humans over the animals is something that has to be exercised after the example of the Lord Jesus.  That is, dominion means faithful stewardship and loving care.  It does not and cannot mean a careless and violent domination, for we do not see that kind of thing in Jesus.
            Animals (as well as birds and fish, creatures of the Fifth Day) appear in Scripture in many places.  Often they appear subtly but significantly.  At his baptism, the Presence of God appears as a dove, and immediately thereafter, in the wilderness, he was accompanied by angels and wild beasts (Mark1:13).  In Jesus’ life, a donkey traditionally conveys him and his mother to Bethlehem before he is born, and then to Egypt when his life is threatened.  Of course, a donkey is also enlisted to bear the Savior into the holy city of Jerusalem, according to prophecy.  Jesus himself is often referred to as a “Lamb,” bringing to mind the sacrificial lamb of Passover, and the two goats of the Day of Atonement.
            Jesus used animals and birds as images and signs of God’s Kingdom in several places, indicating that we may see God’s saving Presence at work in God’s creatures.  In this he is building on the tradition we find in Psalms 104 and 148, the two great creation Psalms.  All of creation was made to praise God!  Finally, animals are specifically blessed by God in Psalm 36:6, where they are counted with humans among those whom God “saves.”  (The same Greek word is used in the New Testament to talk about salvation.)   
            We bless animals now to demonstrate our communion with and responsibility to care for God’s creation.  This is a particularly important practice in our own time, when creation is so jeopardized by our rapacious economy.  Human carelessness and greed are not only kicking the atmosphere out of balance by massive injections of carbon, not to mention countless other pollutants, but we have also sparked a wave of extinctions that may eliminate from the earth half the life forms God made and placed here.
            In blessing animals we set ourselves with Jesus and his creation, and against the objectification, abuse, and commodification of animals (and everything else) that our economy, a systematic super-amplification of  human avarice, demands.  It is therefore a revolutionary act in favor of God’s life in the face of a culture of death.   
            In blessing animals we willingly accept our role in caring for, preserving, protecting, and loving God’s creation, this beautiful vineyard God has placed in our stewardship.
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Friday, September 19, 2014

18 Characteristics of the Future Church.


Here is what I am seeing.  Most of these are already happening in small or large ways.  Almost all of them are welcome advances beyond our current situation.

1.                      The “one-size-fits-all” approach is over.  Every church will shape its mission to fit its own context.  There will still be thriving  “traditional” congregations, but fewer of them; at the same time we will see an expanding diversity of churches, worshiping communities, missional outposts, and gatherings of disciples, with different structures, criteria for ministry, purposes, and leadership.

2.                      The diversity in ministry-styles will broaden far beyond the old, conventional model – at least one full-time, in-residence pastor per congregation – and include more part-time, non-professional, non-residential, and unpaid leadership.  There will be more shared and collaborative leadership as well, and more leaders serving multiple gatherings.  Different oversight models will evolve, eg. one trained professional overseeing multiple gatherings served by theology students, lay preachers, part-time pastors, etc.

3.                      The traditional “roll of active members” will become decreasingly relevant; gatherings will have fluid forms of participation and involvement.  Some may adopt covenants of shared spiritual practices as criteria for identifying members.  This will necessitate a change in (among other things) the way churches support themselves financially, moving from pledging to a variety of fund-raising strategies.  These may include fees for services, dues arrangements, rental income, and production of goods for sale.  Many denominations/networks will have to change the way they collect assessments to support the hierarchy/bureaucracy.

4.                      The old denominations will remain… but continue to shrink (eventually hitting something like “terminal velocity,” I suppose).  Within and outside of these denominations, disciples and gatherings will form new networks for mission and support, across denominational lines.  New semi/post-denominational alliances will form.  Connectionalism will become more voluntary and temporary.  Regional denominational bodies will grow weaker and have to compete with less formal networks.

5.                      Coercive strategies for forcing compliance and loyalty (by, say, claiming control over property or pastors) on the part of regional or national denominational bodies will collapse.  Voluntary arrangements based on mutual benefits will emerge.

6.                      The church will become more democratic and less controlled by specialists like clergy or even elected representative elders.  At the same time, churches will have to take more care to establish meaningful criteria for membership and participation.

7.                      The “neighborhood church” will decline as the primary local ecclesiastical model; there will be more gatherings that draw from a wide area based on missional emphases, worship styles, and particular programs an opportunities.

8.                      Suburbia will recede as the center of church life, and be regarded more accurately as the moral and spiritual wasteland it is.  The church will seek to evangelize suburbia by recognizing it as basically an “un-churched” zone requiring: a) witnessing to the diversity of Christ’s body, and b) strategies to redistribute wealth out of suburbia to places of need.

9.                      The church will get poorer.  This is because the 99% will continue to get poorer, until something dramatic is done to address the inequalities of wealth in our country and the world.  Sucking up to the 1% is always an option, but it is usually toxic to the church’s identity.

10.                  Fewer gatherings will own property, choosing to rent, lease, meet in free spaces, like homes or public places.  Disciples will realize that resources sunk into buildings are robbed from mission.  Those that do own property will see it as a source of income while meeting missional needs in their community.

11.                  Seminaries will shift from being graduate schools to serving the needs of the church.  Field education will expand in importance and prominence.  More students will be commuters and part-timers.  Regional councils will place less emphasis on academic degrees from accredited institutions, and more on actual expertise and skill in ministry.  Hence, ministry experience will become an important criterion for seminary teachers.

12.                  Those doing ministry at every level will find support in various ad hoc groups and networks.  These will cross denominational lines; some may even be interfaith.  Such connections will also be used for credentialing and discipline.

13.                  Worship will explode into a nearly infinite variety of expressions, from drumming circles to family dinners.  It will generally be more sensory, somatic, emotional, and less cerebral.  The use of organs will decline dramatically.

14.                  Doctrine will become “open source” and focus on spiritual practices.  Disciples and gatherings will be informed by theologies from across the spectrum, not just those historically associated with a particular sect, or even historical Christianity.  Some will remain consistent.  But most churches will weave together strands of theology, ecclesiology, and spirituality from the entire Christian tradition, and beyond.  And it will all be about effective practices of liberation and reconciliation, both inwardly in terms of the individual soul, and outwardly in terms of social justice and peace.  

15.                  We will decreasingly use the term “Christian” and seek words to describe ourselves that have less baggage from Christendom.  We will be “followers,” “disciples,” “friends,” etc., of Jesus, Yeshua, Christ, the Word, Wisdom, the Messiah, the Way, etc.

16.                  We will pay exponentially more attention to the Holy Spirit than was ever the case before.

17.                  Scripture will remain central in importance.  At the same time it will be interpreted less literally and historically, and more mythically, symbolically, figuratively, spiritually, and metaphorically.  We will be more concerned to discern the living truth in Scripture, and less interested in facts or historicity.

18.                  It will be highly unusual to see a national flag in a place where followers of Jesus Christ gather for worship.  Disciples will realize that there is no good theological reason for such a thing, and plenty of very bad reasons.