Thursday, January 29, 2015

God Is Continually Creating

If we assume that evolutionary theory, which itself is continually being updated, tells us how the universe came into existence and developed over time, where does God fit? In this second except from a larger conversation about Creation and Christianity hosted by Henry Neufeld, the Publisher/Owner of Energion Publications, I add my thoughts on the idea that God is engaged in continual creation. Rather than taking Genesis 1 as one off event, might we see it as an invitation to consider how God continues to be engaged in the act of creation?

My involvement in the conversation stems from my involvement in the Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday (now at ten years) and the publication in 2013 of my book Worshiping with Charles Darwin (Energion, 2013). 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Why Celebrate Evolution Sunday?

Can one believe in evolution and be a Christian?  Indeed, can churches set aside a Sunday each year with the express purpose of highlighting the compatibility of a rich and deep faith in God with an acceptance of the validity of the theory of evolution?  Here is my answer as shared in a conversation set up by the publisher of my book Worshiping with Charles Darwin, (Energion, 2013).  

Evolution Sunday (Evolution Weekend) is an outreach effort sponsored by the Clergy Letter Project, 2015 marks the tenth anniversary of this effort, which I've been part of from the very beginning.  

This is the first of four excerpts, which I invite you to consider what it means to worship God in the company of Charles Darwin.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

True Authority -- Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4B

Mark 1:21-28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[a] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.


                Fred Craddock titled one of his books on preaching As One Without AuthorityIt is a book that explores inductive preaching, a form of preaching that invites the hearer to enter into the story – both biblical and contemporary.  The point of inductive preaching is not to offer a thesis, offer proofs, and then ask for a decision. Whatever authority that the preacher has is more indirect than direct.  Inductive preaching has become popular in recent years in part because preachers have discovered that we no longer can expect our “audience” to simply accept what we have to say.  We are ones without authority.

Of course, preachers have always faced the problem of authority. That is why we like to quote others from Barth to Craddock.  The scholastic method of doing theology that dominated the medieval western Catholic Church assumed this to be true. You lay out your proposition, then array the authorities pro and con, and formulate a conclusion based on those authorities. 

The same was true of the rabbis of Jesus’ day.  The rabbis would quote the experts so as to bolster their argument.  Jesus, it would seem, did not follow this pattern.  He didn’t quote Barth and Calvin, Wesley and Pope Francis.  He simply taught the people from the scriptures, and the people were astounded by what they heard.  He upset the apple cart, overturning, it would seem, their understandings of the things of God. 

In this particular story Jesus goes down to Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, and since it’s the Sabbath he goes in with his disciples to share in the synagogue service.  It would appear that Jesus didn’t just sit down and listen to the local preacher. Instead, he seems to have gone right up to the pulpit and began teaching.  How often did he do such a thing?  Surely the synagogue leaders weren’t happy about this interloper coming in and pushing the normal preacher aside.  I know, I’m reading some of this into the story, but Mark is so sparse with details it begs for some creative interaction. 

So, what do we make of this event?  We don’t know what Jesus said.  Mark doesn’t record his message.  It probably doesn’t matter, because that’s not the point.  Instead, it would seem that the point here is that Jesus got up to talk and the people were amazed by what he said.  

In our churches it’s unlikely that a stranger would be allowed to simply walk into the church, enter the pulpit, and begin teaching.  It’s quite likely that the police would be called.  There are protocols and rules to be followed.  There is the issue of credentials.  I am an ordained minister, with the requisite theological degrees and training in homiletics.  In my tradition we affirm the priesthood of believers and historically have given less credence to credentials, but credentials are still important.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be discerning about who enters the pulpit.  There is a lot of bad theology out there.  I’m not saying it is necessarily “heretical,” I’m just saying it has dangerous consequences. So, churches are right to be careful about who gets to teach and preach.  We might not be comfortable with Jesus getting up and preaching – especially if we didn’t have a sense of who he was (or is) beforehand. Sure, if I know Jesus is coming to visit, I’d be glad to let him take the pulpit.  I’m all for pulpit guests – but uninvited ones, I’m not so sure about them!  But when he did start preaching, people recognized that he “taught with authority.”

There is another surprising element in this story.  As Jesus is teaching a man interrupts him. While the synagogue goers are dumbfounded by Jesus’ teaching, this man, whom Mark tells us has an “unclean Spirit,” seems to know exactly who Jesus is.  He cries out at Jesus – I know who you are, you’re the holy one of God.  The clean folks don’t know who Jesus is, but the unclean man does. Why is this? In fact, why does a man who shouldn’t even be in the synagogue recognize Jesus for who he is? The man himself, being unclean, shouldn’t be in a sacred space.  William Placher provides us some context for the man.  He writes that “like the children or mentally people we often try to keep out of church, he promptly disrupts by yelling his head off.”  Isn’t that the way it often is – the ones who disrupt get it and we don’t.  Placher goes to say that “Evil spirits never have any problem knowing who Jesus is; ‘the demons believe—and shudder” (Jas. 2:19)” (Mark (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible),pp. 37-38). The spirit within the man knows Jesus’ purpose—to overcome the evil that convulses human experience. Perhaps the spirit believes by naming Jesus for who he is, the spirit have control.

Jesus answers by telling the spirit to be silent.  It’s not that Jesus was upset that his sermon was being interrupted. We all have to deal with that once in a while.  We just pause and wait for things to calm down.  But Jesus takes immediate action. He tells the spirit to be silent. Remember that in Mark Jesus is seeking to keep his identity quiet. It’s a need to know basis. This synagogue crowd didn’t need to know, quite yet. Timing is everything.  At this the spirit releases the man and the people are once again amazed.  They wonder – who is he?  What is this new teaching? Despite Jesus’ best efforts to keep things silent, word goes out across the land. It will amaze some and frighten others.

This takes us back to the question of authority.  We live in an age that questions most forms of authority. Many are jaded and others simply skeptical. Governments come and go and seem to focus more on keeping power than touching lives. People have lost faith in the institutional church. Too many scandals have rocked it. Survival mode has taken hold. We wonder what the future holds. We who are clergy can get nervous about job security and pensions.  Yes, we (and our families) are just like everybody else.  We get nervous when new voices start to speak – whether it is Jesus or the unclean spirit. We want to build fortresses.  We want to draw lines. But Jesus comes and tears down the walls and erases the lines. So, where do we stand?  Are we ready to follow this teacher on a journey that in Mark leads to a cross?  And are we willing to take this journey, knowing that none of us has any true authority?  Any authority that is present comes from the one who leads us. And the word will spread!  

Monday, January 26, 2015

RHYTHMS OF WORSHIP (Stevens and Waschevski) -- Review

RHYTHMS OF WORSHIP: The Planning and Purpose of LiturgyBy John G. Stevens and Michael Waschevski.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xiii + 76 pages.

Christian worship comes in many different forms and styles. It can be rich and luxurious or austere. It can be joyful or somber. It takes on different guises in different eras. The Liturgical Renewal Movement, which burst forth from Vatican II and the ecumenical conversations of the Consultation on Church Union in the 1960s led to significant changes in both Roman Catholic and Protestant worship. On top of that the Charismatic Movement brought into the mainstream the exuberant worship of Pentecostalism. Added to that was more attentiveness to ethnic varieties. Then there is the whole discussion about music – whether we should go with praise bands or stick with the organ (as if every church had an organ a generation ago).  The result is that today there has been much cross-pollination and more diversity than ever. So, what should vital worship look and sound like? 

Those of us who are charged with planning and leading worship have a vested interest in these questions.  We must balance theological concerns with cultural ones. There are innumerable pressures on worship leaders – often between those who advocate keeping to traditional forms, which often date back to the 1950s, or embrace new forms, which date from the 1970s and 1980s.  Some churches have abandoned Christian symbols and music and focus their attention on the unchurched, while others seek to reclaim ancient forms.  As we engage in this process, we always must be aware of our own biases.   

One of the challenges churches face is education about worship.  We often don’t have accessible guides that will help us have a conversation that broaden perspectives on the topic. Many books and texts are heavily academic in tone and not accessible. What we need is a brief and thoughtful guide that is accessible and can be used to stimulate conversation about worship elements and patterns. Rhythms of Worship is just such a resource.  Brief and readable -- with discussion questions -- the authors, both Presbyterian pastors who have been actively engaged in liturgical and musical questions within the Presbyterian Church, take the readers on a tour of the basic elements present in Christian worship, starting with order, along with introduction to the liturgical seasons, and the use of music and arts.  Yes, in just a few pages, we cover all the major bases of Christian worship.

The authors understand that there is much about worship that lies beyond our control. After all, the Spirit is involved!  However, there are many things that we do control, and they require careful planning and execution. You might chalk that up to the Presbyterian mantra to do things "decently and in order," but they are correct. There is no place for sloppy, ill-planned worship. It is not appropriate to blame the Spirit for our inattention to planning and proper execution.  Vital worship is rooted in excellence, and excellence requires thought and diligence. It is important that elements fit together. Music and readings should be selected and arranged to help facilitate encounters with God.  Careful planning allows us to be more in tune with the Spirit. 

The book is laid out along fourteen brief chapters, which focus on liturgical order, liturgical elements, the role of music and arts, as well as discussions of the movement through the liturgical/church year. In the course of the conversation they show how Word and Sacrament fit together. There is a beginning and there is an ending. Attention to the lectionary and the liturgical year help worshipers engage the person of Jesus Christ.  In the conversation about music, they remind us that style and instrumentation are not the primary issues (though worship wars are fought over them). In fact, quoting from Tom Long, they note that vital congregations will be marked by their use of excellent and eclectic forms of music. Excellence is stressed -- musicians and leaders should practice and know the music. Since we have such a wonderful array of music available to us, they suggest we take advantage of it. That can be overwhelming, but also exciting (I am counted among those who enjoy an eclectic variety!). 

The book closes by asking and addressing what might be the most essential question: "Is Worship important?" Does it matter in the larger scheme of things? It's not the elements themselves that are of utmost importance, but the act of worship itself. By affirming the centrality of worship, we heed a "correction of the view that the church is just a voluntary organization for the improvement of society" (68). Whatever work or service we do, worship grounds us in the work of God. They write: "To be the church is to be formed by the church's tradition of a life of faith through things we do individually and together, such as immersing ourselves in the message and thought world of the Scriptures and participating in the sacramental life of the church" (p. 68).

I can see this little book being used in a variety of settings. Since it includes discussion questions, it could simply be used in adult education. It would be of use to worship committees and other leadership groups. While at times I found myself disagreeing with the authors, more often than not my points of disagreement weren’t philosophical or theological but in emphasis.  Coming from a different denominational tradition, my sense of order at times differs, and thus I resisted the “should.”  At the same time, I appreciate the authors speaking to the complaint that the church is full of gray-hairs.  It is true that many of our congregations have a great number of older people in them, but maybe there’s something positive about this fact that can be celebrated.

It is apparent that we need to have serious conversations about worship, and whether it has relevance for our lives. While fellowship and service and education are important elements of the Christian life, does not what we do as church center in our worship of God?  Since increasing numbers of people in our society have little or no contact with the church, many have not learned simply by participating what Christian worship looks like. They need to have opportunity to ask questions and explore what it is we’re doing.  In all of these things, this little book should prove helpful. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Post-Christian Book Tour -- Christian Piatt in Metro-Detroit

It Begins Today, so join us if you can:  

Metro-Detroit Event – January 25-26, 2015
Author and thought leader among the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Piatt will be visiting Metro-Detroit on the weekend of January 25-26. Hosted by Central Woodward and First Presbyterian Church of Troy, there will be several opportunities to hear and engage with Christian on the question of the future of Christianity in what has come to be known as a “post-Christian age.”
CHRISTIAN PIATT is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. Piatt has been featured on NPR's Morning EditionThe Washington PostHuffington Post, and Sojourners. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of the Banned Questions book series, including Banned Questions About the Bible andBanned Questions About Jesus.

Meet with Christian Piatt at these events:
  • ·        Preaching
            January 25, 2015 – 10:30 AM
            Central Woodward Christian Church
3955 W. Big Beaver Road, Troy, MI

  • ·        Presentation and Book Signing
January 25, 2015 – 3:00 PM
First Presbyterian Church
4328 Livernois, Troy, MI

  • ·        Pub Theology Conversation
January 26, 2015 – 7 PM
Joe Kool’s Restaurant
1835 E. Big Beaver Road, Troy, MI

“Christian Piatt is one of the smartest and most provocative young voices we have.”
Jim Wallis, President and Founder, Sojourners