Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lightening it up for a change

Krister Stendahl was quite a man. He was at one time the Bishop of Stockholm. Earlier on in his life, he taught New Testament Studies at Harvard Divinity School. He was the school's dean from 1968-1979, quite a tumultuous yet exciting time in American politics and theology. The Divinity School's obituary wrote about him in this way:

"During his tenure as Dean, from 1968 to 1979, Stendahl presided over the continuing transformation of the School, whose student body, faculty, and curriculum grew and became much more diverse, especially in regard to women and African Americans and to studies in religion specifically linked to those groups. Throughout this time—one of the most tumultuous political eras of American history, on college campuses and elsewhere—Stendahl successfully guided HDS with an astute, sometimes blunt decisiveness that was tempered by his wry humor and his enormous gift for listening, which were part of a complete, and consistent, pastorly presence." (Harvard Divinity School, nd, para. 7)

There's an urban legend that Stendahl was preaching at an important gathering of the divinity's school's community. He stood in the pulpit and looked out at an earnest congregation. Students, staff, and faculty members were intently prepared to hear his resonant, scholarly voice. He took a breath, paused and then said "Lighten Up." Thereafter, he left the pulpit and returned to his chair and sat down without saying anything more. I'm not sure this story is true, but it could be. It's more likely that this statement from his Convocation Address in 1984 is more accurate. Stendahl said:

Perhaps sometimes we must perceive the twinkle in Jesus' eye as we listen to his words. We have to find the right nature of this word so that we do not overuse it in our desire for knowing and believing more and more. Jesus' speech is far less pompous and far more humorous than we think. In those days if any shepherd left the 99 in the wilderness and went after one, that shepherd would be fired if he was found out. And what farmer was ever so dumb as to spread the seed equally on his patch, regardless of paths and roads and all? So let us lighten it up. It may well be that he said much of his words with a smile. Joy is closer to God than seriousness. Why? Because when I am serious I tend to be self-centered, but when I am joyful I tend to forget myself. (Stendahl, 1984, para. 16)

I am persuaded by Stendahl's words this morning. I more often than not take myself too seriously on my blog. Consequently, I want to "lighten it up" this morning given that Opening Day baseball fans in Cincinnati are in a for a chilly ballgame. The Yankees will be lucky to get their game in at all. April Fools Day will probably bring snow to the Big Apple. Ha, Ha :(no kidding:).

Elsewhere, in Church News, there's more doom and gloom. Denominations are dying. Religious faithfulness may even lead to obesity. I know that's true! 'Just do a week long retreat at Order of the Holy Cross monastery in West Park, NY and see how much weight you put on. OMG, the food there is just way, way too delicious!

Anyway, in light of all of these "truths," I offer you these two cartoons:
"Field of Dreams" by Drew Litton

We all need the hope of Springtime Baseball don't we?

And ....:

Whoever you are, wherever you may be .... Lighten up at some point today, right now might be a good time to begin. Anybody got a good baseball or Episcopal Church joke?

Blessings and Laughs Along The Way.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Irrational - Life, Death, or Both?

Scott Atran wrote a fascinating "op-ed" in yesterday's Huffington Post. I understood him to say that war and violence are rarely if ever about political or militaristic goals. Rather, human beings fight and kill one another because we instinctively and anthropologically are motivated to stand up for, and die for "moral values." Atran wrote:

The prospect of crippling economic burdens and huge numbers of deaths doesn't necessarily sway people from their positions on whether going to war is the right or wrong choice. One possible explanation is that people are not weighing the pros and cons for advancing material interests at all, but rather using a moral logic of "sacred values" -- convictions that trump all other considerations -- that cannot be quantified. (S. Atran, "Why War is Never Really Rational", para. #7) He added:

Unlike other creatures, humans define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they kill and die not in order to preserve their own lives or those of the people they love, but for the sake of an idea -- the conception they have formed of themselves. Call it love of group or God, it matters little in the end. (Ibid, para. #16)

I'm really fascinated by Atrin's statements as I understand them through my theological understanding of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. I mean, I get it on the one hand. People of strong faith and ideologies have fought to the death for the causes they support. Young men enlist in the military because they "Love their Country."

Crusaders fought a series of military campaigns for more than a hundred years for reasons including their piety (and the papacy's desires to expands its control). Muslims defended their homelands from European expansionism as well as revenge for Christianity's oppressive acts in Spain and Northern Africa (William Caffero, Crusades -, nd). Islamic Jihadists are most likely fighting for similar moral and political reasons today. Infidels (Western Capitalists and non-fundamentalist Muslims) have polluted the orthodoxy of Islam and such transgressions must be punished. Fundamentalism is rarely, if ever, rational. However, such battles are indeed very emotional and often completely irrational.

On the other hand, Jesus' Death on the Cross is a non-violent response to a horribly violent act. Jesus, the omnipotent God in human flesh, could have destroyed his and his people's oppressors at any given moment during his last days in Jerusalem.
His disciples wanted to fight in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus healed an inured assailant's ear. Pilate ordered Jesus' execution. Jesus offered forgiveness. There's a tremendously important theological truth for Christians to consider and live into here. If Atran is correct, humanity's first and often irrational instinct is to defend what's morally most important and fight to the death if necessary. God's first instinct, as understood through Jesus the Christ, is to gracefully and irrationally suffer from humanity's violence. God incarnate sacrifices life for the sake of others, including the enemy.

How miraculously incomprehensible.

I believe that Jesus the Christ makes the decision he makes because he understands that love and life exist beyond the Cross and beyond the World. Most human beings and societies don't seem to understand that truth. Maybe it's because we simply aren't intellectually built that way. Maybe we are supposed to choose war over peace? That seems really bizarre to me and yet we do so time after time after time. God's eternal reign, at least from a Christian perspective, comes into being through Jesus' invitation to Love God and Love One another. It was a completely irrational way of being during the time of the Roman Empire. It seems completely irrational today as well. However, each of us, as individuals, communities, and nations may choose to participate in the in-breaking of such a reasonable and holy reign of new life - should we be willing to think and pray outside of the box on a daily basis.

Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’, and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’ So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours,whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (1 Corinthians 3: 18-22)

Here's hoping that we will chose to be inspired by God to be just a bit more foolish in holy and healthy actions throughout this week of Lent, and beyond.

Blessings Along The Way

Thursday, March 10, 2011

God's Grandeur - Ash Wednesday Reflection

I am new to Gerard Manly Hopkins. I am not new to worrying. My hope for this Lenten Season is that Hopkins' writing will help me not to fret so much about what lies ahead for me. My initial understanding of Hopkins' life is that he sacrificed some of the poetry of his life for his vocational piety. Seven years of writing lost because Hopkins felt that his poetry was "too individualistic and self-indulgent for a Jesuit priest." (Everett, 1988, para. #3) . A life of lost love and much melancholy due in some part to a confessor's condemnation and his romantic friend's death.

It is no wonder that Hopkins often worries and laments.

And yet, his poetry promises much hope for Lent:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
May Ash Wednesday's dirt and dust serve as holy soil for self reflection, and calm as Easter's lilies push their way through the hard dirt of our anxieties and fears.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Revelations - Past and Present

Last Week, Lawrence O'Donnell, offered a rather entertaining "Re-Write" about the relationship between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. In that op-ed, O'Donnell discussed that Huckabee, and other Evangelical Christians like him, are afraid of Mitt Romney, and other Mormons like him, because of their "heretical" religion. Here's a copy of O'Donnell's comments (pay close attention to the portion between :47 and 2:27.

I'm actually not as interested in the Romney/Huckabee controversy as I am in the notion O'Donnell implicitly asserts: that Joseph Smith invented his own religion. Aren't all religions based upon some person's individual personal experiences with the Divine? Smith, according to The Church of Latter Day Saints, was a prophet and martyr of God who personally encountered the personages of The Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Millions of members of The Church of Latter Day Saints have adopted Smith's visions and teachings as true. Millions of people of other faiths, or no faith, have not. History will show that a good number of people in New York, Missouri, Illinois, and elsewhere assuredly rejected Smith's visions and associated teachings. Mormonism's, support of freeing slaves, sense of divine privilege and adoption of plural marriage created a great deal of hostility. (Joseph Smith Papers, 2010).

There is no denying that Smith was controversial, as were Muhammad, Paul of Tarsus, and Moses before him, and David Koresh, more recently. Many Mormons died at the hands of the militia in Missouri. Smith, was of course, murdered in Carthage, IL. Koresh and most of his followers died during a heated battle between Davidians and officers of The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and the FBI.

Jesus of Nazareth was executed by Pontius Pilate, most likely with some help from the Jewish temple leaders, because the Roman prefect determined Jesus to be a threat to the emperor and the stability of Judea. Christians were murdered for decades because of their faith and ritualistic practices, especially during Diocletian's reign. Christianity became popular (I wonder how many people know this fact as well as how many Christians readily admit it) when Constantine had (oddly enough) a vision of The Cross prior to the
Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. Constantine became Christianity's first imperial patron and the rest, as they say, is history.

Here are my rhetorical questions: does one person's/community's vision always come associated with another person's/community's heresy? Do historical/moderators' such as O'Donnell and Josephus or political/imperial leaders such as Constantine and Abu Bakr get to decide who wins and loses in terms of the legitimacy of religious revelations?

I wonder about these things because I essentially believe that all religious traditions begin with someone's personal and mystical spiritual experience. Jesus' baptism was in many ways a uniquely divine experience for him. Other persons may or may not have witnessed it but it doesn't really matter in some ways. What matters is that Jesus' baptism was the impetus for his proclamation of the proximity of God's reign. Jesus vision of the Spirit of God descending upon him was the moment when he first decided that he should heal the sick and proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. Jesus' baptism led him to confront the imperial and religious leaders of his day. Jesus' baptism ultimately led to his crucifixion and resurrection; consequently, providing humanity a pathway for salvation. Christians have determined that Jesus the Christ's vision and associated actions were and are "true" while often fundamentally rejecting the legitimacy of other faiths' leaders' truths and doctrines.

I, like O'Donnell, am libertarian enough to believe in a sense of pluralistic religious noblesse oblige. I don't personally adopt many Mormon doctrines such as Baptism for the Dead because the ritual isn't as important to me as is the essence and transcendence of the sacrament itself. I don't happen to believe that Joseph Smith's visions necessarily occurred in the way that Evangelical Christians or Mormons have received them. I do find it problematic that Smith always seemed to come into trouble wherever he traveled but then, so did Jesus of Nazareth. Ultimately, I desire that I would become more open to God's revelations to me so that I, like the Lord I follow, would profoundly improve the lives of the people and creation around me. The upcoming Season of Lent will provide me and other Christians plenty of opportunities for such revelations.

Blessings Along The Way,

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Universalism - the arguments continue

Rob Bell has created quite a stir. His latest book, Love Wins seemingly suggests that "a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering." Thank God!

Many Evangelical Christians openly believe that their personal professions of faith in Jesus Christ's redemptive death and resurrection have more salvific credibility than the holy nature of people's lives of other faiths such as that of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Their argument seemingly is that Christianity possesses a singular pathway to everlasting life with The Divine. This position suggests that a Christian who has accepted Christ, regardless of his ethical manner of life is forever "saved" whereas a Buddhist or Muslim or Jew who has lived a blameless life is sentenced to eternal damnation. That's a theological claim that is illogical, prejudicial, and down-right mean-spirited from my point of view.

The 13th Century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote German words essentially saying: “Whoever possesses God in their being, has him in a divine manner, and he shines out to them in all things; for them all things taste of God and in all things it is God's image that they see.” Eckhart's Christology makes more sense to me.

Tomorrow is Transfiguration Sunday . In Matthew's narrative, The voice of God tells Peter, James, and John that Jesus is God's Son, "listen to him." Jesus consistently teaches his disciples to be righteous in the Gospel of Matthew. He guides them to "love their enemies and to do unto others as they would have others do unto them. Where does Christian exclusivity fall into line with Jesus' commandments? How does an eternal Christian Country Club resemble the Wedding Banquet in Matthew Chapter 22 where good and bad persons alike are invited to the table?

God's love is essentially illogical and radically boundary-less. Therefore, God's nature is especially known and realized through Jesus the Christ's perfect incarnation and resurrection. Human beings, regardless of denominational affiliation or cultural context, are capable of comprehending, accepting, and living into Christ's gift of eternal life.

From an Episcopal Church perspective - the departure point for Christ's redemption is understood in these statements from the Catechism :

Q. What is the New Covenant?
A. The New Covenant is the new relationship with God given by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to the apostles; and, through them, to all who believe in him.

Q. What did the Messiah promise in the New Covenant?
A. Christ promised to bring us into the kingdom of God and give life in all its fullness.

Q. What response did Christ require?

A. Christ commanded us to believe in him and to keep his commandments.

Q. What are the commandments taught by Christ?
A. Christ taught us the Summary of the Law and gave us the New Commandment.

Q. What is the Summary of the Law?
A. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

There are a couple of interesting points in these statements. First, there is no mention of hell or for that matter, "eternal life." Secondly, the requirement for persons who wish to abide in the relationship of the New Covenant with God through Jesus Christ are not called to offer a confession of faith; they are called to live transformed lives, lives emulating the One who came into the world to offer us Grace and Word to live into the fullness of life in God.

I'll be buying Rob Bell's book in a few days... I think he's onto something and sharing it in a very popular and controversial way, kinda like the way that Jesus did in his day.

Blessings Along The Way,

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Is the Eucharist "Amped" Enough

Almost every church I know is clamoring for a Facebook or a cool webpage. Heck our parish just updated ours. It's pretty good, not too busy - tells people about who we are and how we're trying to serve Christ. Yes, and...I'm pretty sure that alot of people know by now that having a cosmic website doesn't mean squat if your worship isn't very good or your people aren't very friendly. It's fine to have an excellent restaurant ad. Sure, people will come to eat at your place until they figure out that the pasta is mushy and the wine list is lame.

Here's another thing though. It's becoming even more clear that Church and faith in general are becoming less and less relevant to young adults. The Barna Group's 2010 research reports that
teenagers prioritize their education, career development, friendships, and opportunities to travel more so than their religious beliefs. "Faith is significant to them, but it takes a back seat to life accomplishments and is not necessarily perceived to affect their ability to achieve their dreams." (Barna Group, 2010, para. #5) They also report "in a period of history where image is reality, and life-changing decisions are made on the basis of such images, the Christian Church is in desperate need of a more positive and accessible image." (Ibid, para. #13).

Twitter, Google, I-Phone, and Facebook on the other hand are resources that absolutely work for the "TGiFs." (Natives to the virtual age that were born after 1990). They can connect with one another without ever leaving their room or even when they are sitting next to one another. The world is as close as their thumbs to their "Droid." So, will "Facebook Kill the Church?" If Beck is correct, millennials don't need organized religions anymore because
the digital world provides a sense of community that used to be the purview of churches and other communities of faith.

Millions of people have clicked on Justin Bieber's "Pray" video. Is that because they think that Bieber's hot and they like his voice? Is that because the song speaks to them in some way that Sunday Morning hymns don't? I dunno. Here's what I think though - I think that the sacraments still connect with people young and old alike in a way that YouTube videos don't; maybe not for everybody but at least for some people.

I think that Professor Matthew Wilson of Southern Methodist University is on to something when he says: "For the sacramental traditions, however, the digitizing of worship is simply not an option. The central element of any Catholic or Orthodox liturgy is the Eucharist, and the sacramental transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and subsequent feeding of the faithful cannot be done virtually.(Wilson, 2011, para. #13). The mystery of the Eucharist can't be virtually duplicated. The presence of Christ in the elements and in the people can't be zipped up, attached, and e-mailed to somebody who is not in church on a Sunday morning. I think that's a good thing because those sorts of personal and transformational moments are uniquely "tactile."Sharing the Eucharist is still an act of thanksgiving that requires people to be in communion with one another and with God. I think it means something else too. We've got to somehow communicate to people that the Eucharist is meaningful and just as important as their college or summer vacation plans. Spending time with people away from the computer and with The Divine is worthwhile.

Organizations like The Table Project and SoChurch are creating social networks and software to help churches connect with people. TGiFs should LOVE this stuff - it's kinda sexy and even appealing. The question nonetheless remains, how much energy are we willing to devote to making the Eucharist not only accessible but "amped" (energetic). There are risks that we need to take such as sharing our faith with our mouths as well as with our Facebook pages.

Last week, we had a bunch of new people who visited us. Some of them visited our webpage. Others were invited by their friends or neighbors. I don't know how all of them found their way to us. I do know, it's important to find out just as it is important to figure out why people do or don't come back a second or third time.

Oh one other thing, the Barna Group is preaching the Gospel when they say "To facilitate service as a long-term way of living and to provide people with the intrinsic joy of blessing others, churches have a window of opportunity to support such action with biblical perspective." That's a story that we can share with people who are members of any social network that we belong to .... and it's an invitation for them to join us at the table for a holy meal intended for everyone who desires to encounter Christ in meaningful ways.

Blessings Along The Way,