Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: A Year to Reflect Upon

2009 was a historic year in some ways.  It had several bright spots, some tragedies, and a degree of sadness.  That's probably par for the course.  It's hard to sit down and quickly knock off a list of events that were important.  Each of our lives are different, and so while there have been important national events or world events, there have also been personal ones.

As I think back over the past year, I have to believe that the inauguration of Barack Obama stands at the top of the list.  Oh, I know he hasn't fulfilled all his promises nor has he become FDR reincarnated.  He's not the savior either -- to quote an old song from the 70's, "He's just a man."  But, his inauguration changed the future of this country.  That he is a person of color, with a name that sounds "Muslim," changes the game.  Never again will we assume that one must be white to be elected President.  Hillary Clinton may not have won the nomination in 2008, but here close finish suggests that before too long another glass ceiling will be broken.  

Over the course of the year we saw a couple of icons die -- Ted Kennedy in politics (what would the Health Care Reform Bill look like if he was there to lead the fight?)  Then there was the death of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett with in days of each other.

We observed the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin (on the same day we observed Abraham Lincoln's 200th) and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species.  

Economy wise, 2009 wasn't a great year, but there were/are glimmers of hope.  We're not where we were a year ago, when the economy was in free fall, banks were failing left and right, the American Auto Industry was about to go under, and the Dow was heading south.  A year later, unemployment is still high, but seems to have stabilized for the moment.  The Dow is up considerably.  Banks have stabilized, and there is hope for the US auto industry -- especially at Ford.  It's not perfect, and we're not out of the woods, but there is at least hope that 2010 will be better than 2009. 

While the product at this point hasn't passed all the hurdles, and it's not quite the product that many of us hoped to see, real steps have been made toward a historic passage of significant health care reform.  It may only be the starting point, but it gets us off the ground.

Closer to home, I see good things happening in my congregation.  We called a minister of music who has been a strong partner in ministry.  Ask any pastor about the importance of having someone whom you can trust and work with closely in this position, and they will tell you it makes a major difference.  We bought an organ that will be delivered shortly.  We're growing, slowly, but again the shoots are there.  We laid out core values to guide us.  2009 was sort of a season of reflection, consolidation, stabilization, and experimentation.  My expectation is that in 2010, we will build upon what we laid out in 2009.

Oh, and I read some good books!

2009 had its bright spots, but I'm looking forward to 2010 -- the last year of the first decade of the 21st Century.  Yes, I'm a contrarian -- I believe a decade and a century starts with a 1.  But, I won't be too obstinate if you want to see things differently.

As I close I invite you, my reader, to offer your thoughts.  What stands out in your mind in the year 2009?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Re-envisioning Jesus

We are concluding our Christmas celebrations -- they go on at least another week -- but the main conversation is over, and we're looking into a new year.  But, if we step back a moment and think about our celebration of Jesus' birth, a question emerges -- what did this child look like?  What features might the baby Jesus have?  And what did the parents look like?  If you look at the creche scenes and the cards, the Holy Family probably looks fairly European  -- maybe even Scandinavian. 

In a book that I reviewed yesterday, Curtiss DeYoung's Coming Together in the 21st Century, a different vision is offered.  DeYoung, who is White, suggests that Jesus, as a 1st century Palestinian Jew, would have been Afro-Asiatic in ethnicity.  We tend to envision the Jewish people as White Europeans, but is that an appropriate sensibility?  So, what if the typical 1st Jew looked a lot different from the typical picture of Jesus, who has blue eyes and light brown hair.  What if, the historical Jesus was dark in complexion and in hair color?  As we think about the question, note that although the gospels don't speak of his visage, Matthew suggests that the family fled to Egypt to hide from Herod.  DeYoung suggests that this would mean that the family could blend into an African population.

So, how did Jesus become European? 

Why was the image of the historic Jesus of Nazareth, born in Palestine to a people at the crossroads of Asia and Africa, transformed into a geographically distant one?  The earliest representations of Jesus do not even include human characteristics.  They were symbols, such as a fish or a lamb.  The first images of Jesus in human form were of a young "good shepherd," often with a Roman look.  These first appeared in the third century in the Roman catacombs.  Eventually adult representations of Jesus began to appear.  The earlier ones pictured Jesus with "an Oriental cast" and a "brown complexion."  (p. 54-55).

The reason that these images became more European are pretty self-explanatory -- they fit the new setting.  The problem is that they soon became set in stone, and even in new contexts the European Jesus came to dominate.  There are consequences to this, which I'll lift up in a later post.  But I'd like to start the conversation with this:  How should we envision Jesus?


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible's Message in an Age of Diversity -- Review

COMING TOGETHER IN THE 21st CENTURY: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity.  By Curtiss Paul DeYoung.  Foreword by Cain Hope Felder.  Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2009.  xiv + 232 pp.

    You know the old adage: “11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.”  Diversity is something Christians talk a lot about, and yet we seem to find it difficult to cross the ethnic, social, gender, racial, color, economic boundaries.  Often we seem oblivious to the obstacles we place before people seeking to come into the community of faith.  One question might be why this is the case, and another concerns what might be done.  Curtiss Paul DeYoung,  a White male from the United States of America teaching at an evangelical university in Minnesota, seeks to engage these questions by offering the church a biblical theology of diversity. 

    Coming Together in the 21st Century first appeared in 1995, but much has occurred in the past fifteen years, and thus a newly revised edition has been released.  Since I’ve not read the original, I’m not always sure what is new and what remains of the original – though there are chapters, such as the roundtable featuring Brenda Salter McNeil, Richard Twiss, Jean Zaru, and Allan Aubrey Boesek, that has been added to this edition. 

    What is important to note is that this is a biblical theology of diversity that emerges from an evangelical setting.  This is seen in part with assumptions of Pauline authorship of Ephesians and the Pastorals.  That said, this is anything but a traditional reading of scripture.  And while not standing at the center of the conversation, DeYoung does broach the issue of inclusion of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered.  The very fact that he, as an evangelical, is willing to raise the issue is a good sign that the conversation about diversity is broadening, and difficult questions that we’ve tried to evade are now on the table.  The same is true of the brief, but important, conversation about disability.

    It would be safe to say that DeYoung’s biblical theology has been influenced by his mentor at Howard University Divinity School, Cain Hope Felder.  Although being White, he has tried to look at Scripture from an Afro-centric perspective.  When it comes to Jesus, he challenges our portraits of Jesus the man, portraits that reflect the dominance of Northern Europe, but do not reflect the realities of first century Palestine.  DeYoung asks us to trade our Scandinavian Jesus for one that is Afro-Asian.  He wants us to recognize that Jesus’ ancestors would have included Africans as well as Asians – with not a drop of European blood present. 

    Why is this important?  He writes that “People of color need to visually see that Jesus was not white.  Although the messages of the colonizer, the slaveholder, and the white supremacist were lies, the image of a white Jesus is deeply embedded in the psyche (p. 62). 

He goes on to note the relevancy of an Afro-Asiatic image of Jesus for people living in the non-Euro-American context.  By seeing him in a different form, Jesus becomes less of a stranger and also less of an oppressor.  Therefore, Jesus becomes the one representing the God of all the nations.  This offers a greater opportunity for reconciliation to occur across racial and cultural lines. 

    In the course of the book, at times by inviting other contributors into the conversation, DeYoung allows us to re-envision our faith, and see how it can take on new forms.  Thus, we hear from Native American, Asian, Palestinian, and African voices.  We hear from men and from women.   He notes that there was cultural validity to envisioning Jesus in European guise.  The problem is that this visage became the definitive one. 
    Frank Yamada and Leticia A. Guardiola-Sáenez, both biblical scholars, offer a chapter entitled culture and identity, that is quite helpful in our attempts to navigate both our own context and the biblical one.  There is at least one commonality between first and twenty-first centuries – the peoples of both centuries must deal with culture and identity.  These may be different, but the reality that they exist is not different.  In order to develop a biblical theology of diversity, we have to address the realities of our own culture and identity. 

    The book not only deals with ethnic/cultural issues.  There is a chapter written by Mimi Haddad that deals with gender issues in the church.  This chapter looks at Paul through the lens of Galatians 3:28, a passage that has been helpful to many evangelicals who have sought to get beyond culturally defined roles. 

    This is the key to the book really.  There is a strong affirmation of the biblical text and its authority for individual Christians and for the church.  What the author and contributors hope to do is distinguish between the good news that continues to speak to our world and the cultural contexts that reflect a different era. 

    In the end, the hope is for reconciliation, for breaking down the walls that we put up.  Noting that Scripture isn’t always clear – indeed often provides conflicting voices – if we can begin to unpack the text, to understand the cultural contexts, we might be able to move forward.  As I read the book, the most important point for me, was the reminder that Jesus’ cultural/ethnic identity may be different from the one handed on to me.  It was a call to re-imagine Jesus, both in ways that reflect the likely historic identity and the one that transcends through the ages all boundaries. 

    As he concludes the book, DeYoung writes:

    We live in a world where the need for reconciliation has never been greater.  To sustain efforts at reconciliation, the cadre of artisans must multiply beyond a few “called” individuals.  The urgency of the task is great!  The Bible’s message, in this age of diversity, is an invitation to come together at God’s table of fellowship and to go forth into the entire world as God’s artisans of reconciliation.  (P. 181).
    To aid in the use of the book for engaging congregations in the work of reconciliation, Robin Bell has provided a fairly extensive “Group Reflection – Action Guide.”  Bell is a longtime partner with DeYoung in ministries of reconciliation and currently teaches at Northwestern College of St. Paul, MN.

    This is a most worthwhile book for personal reading and for congregational study.  It will, especially the chapters on Jesus’ ethnic identity, prove challenging and transforming of one’s identity and perspective.  I would say that, while the author is definitely speaking to an evangelical community struggling with its understanding of the biblical message, those of us on the more progressive side will find our own preconceptions challenged.  Thus, it is a must read.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Pastor Bob's Top Ten Books of 2009

Since I do a lot of book reviewing on this blog, I decided to put together my own Top 10 Book List for the year, as well as declare a Book of the Year.  Now, this list is comprised only of books that were published in 2009 and that I have read.  I know there are other deserving books that I didn’t read -- in fact I've got a couple on the shelf waiting to be read.  And among the books that I've read, I have to say that most were great reads.  But, I've decided to limit myself to ten books that most impacted me this year.  All of these books have been reviewed on my blog and/or in another venue – either online or in print.  

After the book of the year is named, the remaining ten are listed in no particular order.  All ten books are quite worthy of your attention.

Book of the Year:

Bruce and Katherine Epperly, Tending to the Holy, Alban, 2009 (Reviewed in Blog and Sharing the Practice)

Nine more Excellent Books:

Diana Butler Bass, People’s History of Christianity, Harper One 2009 (Reviewed in Christian Century)

Michael Kinnamon and Jan Linn, Disciples, Chalice Press, 2009.  (Blog and Sharing the Practice)

Kimberly Bracken Long, The Worshiping Body, WJK, 2009 (Blog and Sharing the Practice)

Robert Wright, The Evolution of God, Little Brown, 2009 (Blog)

William Stacey Johnson, John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century, WJK, 2009 (Blog and Sharing the Practice)

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul, Harper One, 2009.  (Blog)

Nora Gallagher, The Sacred Meal, Thomas Nelson, 2009 (Blog)

Harvey Cox, Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009.  (Blog and Progressive Christian)       
Fred Craddock, My Call to Preach, Chalice, 2009 (Reviewed in Congregations)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Fillibusters and Cloture -- The Basic Facts

In the interest of having a helpful conversation about the political system, it's important to have an understanding of Senate Rules.  Under current rules, it takes 60 votes for cloture -- or a vote to end debate.  That number was set, according to a Senate web site, in 1975 -- after fillibusters were used in the 1960s and 1970s to prevent passage of civil rights legislation.  Before 1975, the number of votes required to end debate was a 2/3rds majority -- or 66 votes.  Under that system, you can see that a small minority had a lot of power, which meant that you had to do a lot of wheeling and dealing to get legislation passed.  And, that number was set in 1917, and it was first put to the test in 1918 in order to end debate over the Treaty of Versailles.  Before 1917, debate was unlimited.  Now, in the last decade or so, we have seen even this 60 vote limit as a political tactic.

With this information about Senate rules, I have two questions to ask my readers.  The first is this -- do you believe it is appropriate for a state such as Wyoming with fewer residents than the city of Detroit to have the same representation in the Senate as the state of California?  The question concerns the closing of debate.  Do you feel that the current Senate rules serve us well?  Would you rather the Senate do its work in the same way as the House, votes being brought to the floor with a simple majority of Senate votes?   As you answer the second question, remember that the current situation in the Senate could at some point switch.    

Moving Forward on Health Care -- A First, Imperfect Step

Much has been made of the somewhat "unseemly" way that health care reform was passed.  The reality is that due to the Senate's arcane rules -- which both parties have used to their advantage when in the minority -- require a fillibuster proof majority to get work done.  During the Bush years, before 2006, Democrats used the threat of a fillibuster to prevent certain Court nominees from coming to a vote.  Now that the tables have turned, the GOP is vexing their power, threatening fillibusters.  This ultimately puts power in the hands of the few -- actually 2 or 3 Senators.  A Ben Nelson can demand certain goodies, because his vote is needed to clear the way for a vote.  If there was no fillibuster, this bill would look very different, would have a public option and might be cleaner.  But the rules don't currently allow for that. It's not a Constitutional Issue, it's a Senate Rules thing.  The Republicans wanted to drag this out, knowing that the longer you drag something out, the more likely you can galvanize opposition -- usually by offering misinformation.  As I write this, I want to make it clear that the Democrats are not pure in this.  The minority was given tremendous power.  And in the Senate this is compounded by the fact that every state, no matter how large or small has the same representation.  Thus, Wyoming has the same power as California and New York.

So, as I've argued before, and E.J. Dionne makes even clearer in a Washington Post column, liberals could have done what folks like Howard Dean demanded and vote down the bill.  But, in doing this they weren't going to get a better bill.  The dynamics simply won't allow it.  Now, maybe a better bill can finally be negotiated between House and Senate, but even there, Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman (along with the Republican caucus) can hold up things in the Senate. 

What we need to consider here is that this is only the beginning, an imperfect foundation upon which something better can be built.  It's just the first step in a series of steps.  In an earlier post I seem to have dismissed those who choose minor parties -- I didn't mean to insult folks who make that choice.  But I think political realism means that we recognize that given our current system, minor parties will not emerge to challenge the two major parties.  This is true even though neither party commands a minority of voters.  But, those unaffiliated with either party are not of one mind, and thus won't coalesce into one party. 

Maybe a better solution is to reform the Senate and abolish the fillibuster rule -- but we who are members of the reigning party need to remember that if we're in the minority, the same power will go to us.  On the other hand, as Californians are learning, requiring a supermajority on everything paralyzes the political process.   There are no perfect choices, just ones that are less imperfect.

So, let us make the most of what has transpired, and continue working for better, more affordable health care for all Americans. 

The Family Business -- A sermon

Luke 2:41-52

    Oh, how they do grow up!  They start out as cute little babies, but before you know it, they’re twelve, and that original cuteness has begun to wear off.  12-year-old kids are liable to speak their minds – even to their parents.  So, would it surprise you to learn that Jesus is no different? 

   When last we gathered on Thursday Evening, we found Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by proud parents and some rather dirty shepherds.  We filled the night with carols, such as O Come all Ye Faithful, the First Noel, and Silent Night.  We sang songs of joy and thanksgiving to the one lying in that manger, all wrapped up in swaddling clothes.  Yes, along with the angels and the shepherds, we sang: 
    “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, for his bed a cattle stall;
    Oxen lowing, little knowing, Christ the babe is Lord of all.” 

These much beloved songs project an image of a gentle glowing baby, and we all seem to like babies.  Little children like them, as do the oldest among us.  But, like I said, babies do grow up, taking on their own identity, and breaking free of their parent’s grasp.  In most societies this begins to happen around age twelve, and while we have a long period of preparation called adolescence, ancient societies lacked this intermediate period of life.  You went from childhood to adulthood almost over night.
1.  The Maturation of the Messiah

    We don’t know very much about Jesus’ process of maturation.  The gospels are rather silent about his growing up years, with Matthew being the only other canonical gospel that even offers a birth narrative, and he is silent on the years between birth and baptism.  This doesn’t mean that we lack stories about this period of Jesus’ life.  It’s just that these other stories seem rather odd.  They’re more akin to watching Superboy grow up in Smallville, learning to manage his super powers.  These apocryphal gospels depict Jesus as a miracle worker, who uses his super powers mostly to benefit himself.  So, if you cross him, be careful, because this Jesus hasn’t yet learned to rein in his powers, and you just might end up dead!

    What we have before us in this morning’s text is the lone canonical picture of Jesus’ growing up years, and it’s just one snapshot.  The picture comes from a trip south to the annual Passover celebration.  Jesus is twelve and the family had traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem in a caravan.  On the way home, about a day into the trip,  the parents discovered that Jesus was missing.  That sounds sort of odd to us – we would probably report parents like these to Child Protective Services, but this is a different time and place. 

    Upon returning to Jerusalem, the frantic parents finally stumble upon the young Jesus after a three-day search.  He’s just sitting there in the Temple courts, talking theology with the teachers of the day.  Everyone is amazed at his level of understanding.  This is a precocious child!  He might not be turning his clay pigeons into real ones, but he confounds the wise with his own wisdom.  It might be worth noting that Jesus ends his teaching ministry in the same Temple precincts – but his message isn’t as well received. 

    When the parents confront Jesus, he’s rather surprised that they were worried.  As he saw it, they should have expected him to be about his father’s business!   If you read between the lines, it would appear that his tone isn’t all that pleasant.  It almost seems as if he is talking back to his parents.  Maybe he thinks they’ve embarrassed him in front of his new friends –  You know how it is to be age 12.

     But, however the conversation may have gone, in the end, he returns home with his parents, and Luke says that he grew in wisdom and stature, and in both divine and human favor.  And the next time we see Jesus, he’s an adult, who has come to John to be baptized.  But, as Luke tells the story, Jesus doesn’t need to be forgiven his sins – he just needs to be commissioned to take up his life work.      

2.  The Family Business

    In the ancient world you didn’t normally choose a career for yourself.  If you were a male, you followed in your father’s footsteps.  Joseph is said to have been a carpenter or some kind of builder or even a laborer, and so it would have been expected that Jesus would take up the same trade.

    I’m glad things have changed -- Although my father enjoyed history and even preached a little when I was really young, selling specialty advertising isn’t my cup of tea!  And I don’t think Brett is planning to follow in my footsteps either – at least not the preaching part. 

    When Jesus told his parents that he was in the Temple doing his father’s business, he wasn’t talking about doing carpentry or stone work, he meant, talking theology.  In a sense he was redefining his family boundaries.  While he would return home with his parents – Luke says that he was obedient to them – in the course of time he discovers both a different vocation and a different sense of family.  For him, family would be defined by faith and not lineage.  Instead of Joseph being his father, God would be his father, and therefore, his calling would be take up the Father’s business.   

So, what does this have to do with us?  Does it not redefine our own sense of family values?  We’ve just finished celebrating a holiday that tends to be defined by family connections, and yet even as Jesus discovered a new sense of family, the same is true of us.  And like him, we have been called to join in this family business.
3.  Growing in Wisdom and Stature       

    As we contemplate what it means to take up the family business, I hear another word in the text calling out to us.  It’s a call to consider what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. 

    In the verse that precedes this morning’s text, in a passage that bridges the infancy narrative and this story of Jesus’ youth, we hear that the child, living in Nazareth, grew strong and was “filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Lk 2:40).   Then, in the closing verse of today’s text, we hear that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Lk 2:52).  These two verses provide a set of parentheses for the story about the Temple encounter.  They both speak of Jesus growing in wisdom and in favor.   

     The way of discipleship involves growing in wisdom and in the favor of God.   As we prepare to enter a new year, one that is full of new possibilities and opportunities, we hear in this text an invitation to prepare ourselves for taking up the family business – that is the business of the kingdom of God. 

    In thinking about what this means, I turned to a new book by Philip Clayton, in which the author writes that “in recent years Christian churches have been losing the battle of significance.” 1 Part of the reason for this is that we simply don’t know our story very well, which means we have trouble living our lives from this story.  Many Christians find it difficult to say why their faith makes a difference in their lives.  This makes the call to bear witness to the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ difficult, because we’re not certain of our place in God’s vision of the world. 

    Clayton suggests that we need a robust theology, one that is reasonable, inclusive, engaging, and rooted in the biblical story.  In order to gain this confidence, we must grow in the wisdom that comes from our encounters with Scripture, tradition, and in the faith experiences that emerge from our encounters with God and with each other.  In this, we discover a vision of the kingdom of God, one that invites us to work with God “for the salvation of this planet and all its inhabitants” (Clayton, p. 153).   Jesus had that sense of vision, and it was one that he developed as he grew in wisdom and in stature.  

    The church year, which begins in Advent and continues to and beyond Christmas, serves to remind us of the full-orbed nature of the Christian story.  It begins with a promise that bears fruit in the birth of Jesus, and continues on as we encounter God in our daily lives, wrestle with the questions of faith, engage in matters of life and death, and then hear the call to join with the community of faith in the work of God.  This may be circular, but as we tell and retell the story, it becomes part of us, and we discover in this story our connection to the family of God.  And as we find our place in God’s family, we also discover our calling to take up the family business.

1. Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society, (Fortress Press, 2010), p. 152.

Preached By:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
1st Sunday after Christmas
December 27, 2009

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Up in the Air -- A Movie Review

Like many people yesterday, we went to the movies ( I know that lots of us went to the movies because the lot was full).  Our choice of Christmas movies was the Jason Reitman directed and heavily award nominated Up in the Air.  Reitman is the director of the much loved Juno.  He co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced the movie with his father, the famed Ivan Reitman -- drector of Ghostbusters and Animal House, among others. 

The movie stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a man whose job it is to fire people on behalf of bosses unable or willing to do so. In the course of this job, the unmarried, uncommitted, Bingham, who is known for his side job speaking about unloading your life's backpack -- so you can travel light, spends most of his life in hotels, airports, and airplanes.   Considering the nature of the movie, it should not surprise you that he makes a stop or two in Detroit, which got some chuckles from our theater!  Living in metro-Detroit we know the patterns of lay offs quite well!

The movie takes a twist when a new, young, employee played by Anna Kendrick, suggests that the company could save lots of money if it pulled its crew of professional "firers" home and use technology to spread the word.  The comic nature of the film is seen, as Bingham takes her on the road with him and tries to show her the ropes, in part to prove to her that technology can't replace the personal in a job like this.  I'll let you watch the movie to see how this works.

There is a second theme in this movie -- that of personal relationships.  Knowing that he could be grounded, the man without home or family, begins to wrestle with what such a new life would look like -- and even contemplates a longterm relationship with a fellow "traveler."  Again, you'll have to watch to get a sense of how that plays out.

There is a lot of comic genius in this movie -- we were left in stitches several times -- and yet there is also a deep sense of sadness in the movie.  It is a reminder that life's road is not easily traveled alone.  We can steel ourselves against the nature of our relationships, but we must continue ever on the go lest we return to the empty apartment and discover that we have no one there for us.

This is an excellent movie, well deserving the accolades.  Clooney is wonderful, as is Kendrick.  Other co-stars include Vera Farmiga as the co-traveler looking for a companion to escape the transitory nature of the journey -- but without the commitment -- and Jason Batman as the company CEO.  Great movie -- go see it -- and I won't spoil the fun.  But don't expect to see the tension of the movie resolved!  Oh, and just a word of warning -- this is an R-rated movie, so there is a lot of "adult" language and one brief scene of partial nudity. 
Here is the trailer -- check it out.

The Sacred Meal -- A Review

THE SACRED MEAL.  The Ancient Practices Series.  By Nora Gallagher.  Foreword by Phyllis Tickle.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

    The Eucharist or Lord’s Supper is central to the Christian faith, and to some traditions it’s more central than in others.  For Protestants it is one of two primary sacraments or means of grace.  It is also an ancient Christian practice, by which we as Christians get in touch with the holy.  While we might not think of it as a spiritual practice – in the same way as prayer or fasting, Nora Gallagher offers us a way of looking at this activity in just that way.  Like the other spiritual practices, it serves “to gradually move us out of one place and into another” (p. 15).

    Nora Gallagher is not an academically trained theologian nor is she a member of the clergy.  She is, however, an Episcopal layperson, Eucharistic minister, a licensed Episcopal preacher, and a writer.  She is best known for writing spiritually defined memoirs such as Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith.   In this brief book, Nora brings to bear both her experience as a practitioner of the Christian faith and her vocation as a writer of memoirs.  This is very much a lived theology of the Eucharist, one that emerges from her experiences as a member of Santa Barbara’s Trinity Episcopal Church.  In many ways this book is a perfect expression of the sort of theological exploration that Philip Clayton describes in his new book Transforming Christian Theology (Fortress, 2010).

    As I write this review, I must acknowledge that I know Nora, and several of the experiences that she narrates – I was either in attendance at or something very similar.  Thus, as she narrated her own story, in a very real way I found myself in the story.  I know the people, the churches, the events.  This may skew the way I read the book, but my sense is that Nora writes in a such a way that you need not know or have met Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer or the Rev. Mark Asman to be pulled into the story.   One needn’t have participated in an interfaith Sukkot celebration led by Arthur or an interfaith breaking of the Ramadan fast at a local Presbyterian church.  That I may have been in attendance, doesn’t change the fact that Nora writes in such a way that we are drawn into a life-changing spiritual practice, one that leads from an internal encounter with the one lifted up in the Eucharist, to a life of service to the world.

    To give one specific example of this connection between worship and service, Nora describes a soup kitchen that was launched by members of the Trinity Episcopal Church to serve the homeless community.  That soup kitchen would be the precursor to a much larger community-based outreach to the homeless, but it began in a church, in a small group or base community as they call it at Trinity, that encompassed the sharing in the Lord’s Supper.  Because of the theology inherent in the Episcopal tradition, the elements used had been previously consecrated, but Nora links the Table of the Lord to the table set out for the homeless in a church’s parish hall.  That is an important link that needs to be lifted up.

    As one reads the book, one encounters a personal story – Nora’s – and a tradition’s story.  She describes in some detail the theology inherent in the Eucharist – speaking of the way in which the service of Communion involves a time of waiting, a time of receiving, and a point after wards.  In the first stage, we examine ourselves, what we’ve been doing, confessing our sins if need be, reading ourselves to receive the bread and cup.  From there we move to a point of reception, and this comes to us as a gift, as a matter of grace.  By receiving the elements of communion, we must open our hands to receive them, and that makes us vulnerable.  She writes of this step:

    It’s dangerous, opening your hands.  You don‘t know what will end up in them.  This may have been the smartest thing Jesus ever did.  He must have thought, How can make them step into the unknown?  How can I get them to let in some surprise?  I know, I’ll figure out a way for them to put their hands out in front of them, empty (p. 45).

By doing this, by stretching out our empty hands, we acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers nor the power to accomplish the things of God.

    After we receive the bread and the cup, a point at which Nora suggests that we are being invited into heaven with all its glories, we return home to the realities of life.  As she seeks to understand the point afterward, she tells the story of an interfaith celebration of Sukkot, that was led by a mutual friend, Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer.  The point that she wants to make is that the Sukkot shelters are temporary, serving to remind the Jewish people that theirs is a nomadic past.  Rituals, such as Sukkot, Communion, and Ramadan, help us in a very real and bodily way reconnect with an ancient event.

    The practice of communion reminds Christians of a meal and many meals shared by followers of a man who wanted them to see a new kingdom.  The practices are “after words,” after the events are long in the past, and whatever words attached to them may no longer be accurately recalled.  The practice remains to keep us in tune with what the original event pointed toward and so that we can add to its meaning and history (pp. 55-56).
By returning to this event through this practice, the events and words of long ago seep into our cells.  The point of regular practice is that our bodies and minds and spirits are continually trained for encountering the God revealed in this practice.  That allows us to be transformed by our encounters with the holy.
    In the course of these chapters we are brought into a better understanding of the sacrament that is so central to our faith.  She makes it personal and reminds us that it is something, that if we are able and willing to receive from it, a life-changing practice.  It is not simply a ritual, it is something that prepares us to go out into the world, knowing that the Christ who is present in the bread and cup as body and blood (not in a literal sense, but in a spiritual and mystical sense) is also present everywhere in the cosmos.  It makes Jesus present, so that he might reveal to us the true nature of God.  And as God is present everywhere in the world through Christ, we who are the body of Christ become the “ongoing incarnation.”
    The Communion may be an ancient practice, but it has very present implications, and Nora does a wonderful job taking us into those implications, so that we might be transformed for service in the world.  This is a book that can be appreciated and enjoyed by the newest of believers and the ones who have traveled the road the longest.  I think it can be especially useful to the one who finds the Eucharist to be simply a ritual, something done simply because we’re supposed to do it on occasion.  
As one who comes from a tradition that practices weekly communion, I am reminded here of the breadth of meaning found in the sacrament.  Those who don’t see the point of frequent participation in the Sacrament might discover a reason to rethink that idea.  If practice makes perfect, then we all have a lot of practice to put in!

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Progressive Christmas -- a guest re-posting

The following essay was written by Bruce Epperly and originally posted at Transforming Theology.  It is reposted with permission..  I find it to be a helpful reflection on the meaning of Christmas.


Soon we will celebrate the twelve days of Christmas…a time of wonder, miracle, and amazement…a time of incarnational presence….God truly among us, in us, and surrounding us…not coming down from above, but emerging within a world God that has always been God-filled….

Often we Progressives expect too little of God and, accordingly, too little of ourselves as God’s living embodied presence in the world. Years ago, I struggled with the Westminster/John Knox press’s title of one of my books – God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus. I struggled with the word “miracle,” worried that the use of the word would suggest that I believed in supernatural interventions by an otherwise absent God. Today, I believe the word “miracle” needs to be reclaimed by progressive Christians in terms of the energetic, lively, quantum leaps that transform our lives and the world. Surely, God is part of this process: if we have volition and vision, so does God. If we are more “present” in some places than others, so is God. The incarnation reminds us that although God’s revelation is universal (John 1:1-5, 9), God’s revelation is also variable. In the wondrous divine and human call and response, God whispered a word to Mary and Joseph and they said “yes” not without doubt or fear, but with courageous affirmation. Could they have been uniquely prepared to encounter the holy through dreams and messengers? Could a “space” have been opened by their faith that enabled God to act more dynamically and energetically in their lives and in the life of their child Jesus than in other places? And, could this child have emerged as unique, a focal point of Divinity arising from the ever-fecund matrix of divine revelation and inspiration?

In our desire to be “naturalistic,” we may forget that the “natural” may be much more lively than we can imagine….that the whole universe and the living God conspire to create each occasion of experience and that there is inspiration and energy beyond our current beliefs available to us. The miracle is the divine presence itself – focused on a little Child and also the Christ in us – as well as the Holy Adventure of 100 billion galaxies.

At Christmas, let us both expect and accept miracles of wonder and joy, as we travel on God’s Holy Adventure.

Bruce Epperly is Director of Continuing Education and Professor of Practical Theology at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of sixteen books, including “Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living.” (Upper Room, 2008).

A Christmas Reflection

Last night, as we gathered at the church to celebrate the birth of our Lord, my thoughts traveled back to my growing up years.  For me, although the presents and the dinner were always present and enjoyable, Christmas was always about that gathering for worship.

I grew up in the Episcopal Church -- spending a good part of my childhood and early teen years at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.  Over the years I served Christmas Eve as an acolyte, a lay reader, and as a choir member.  When I was very young, we went to the Christmas morning service, been by the time I was in 6th grade or so, we went to the Midnight Mass (the service started at 11 and culminated in the Eucharist around Midnight).  After worship, we would go home, have some hot chocolate, and open one present each.  Then, we'd go to bed, wake up early the next morning, and then be sleepy about 6 p.m.

Even years later, long after I had moved away from Klamath Falls and had left the Episcopal Church, that service was always special.  There are a variety of reasons for this -- the music, the liturgy, the focus on the birth of Christ (yes, I know he wasn't born on December 25th).  It was also about seeing old friends (in later years, who had returned to town).

As an adult, especially since we're separated from family, it is Christmas Eve that truly makes Christmas meaningful.

Therefore, with that as the focus of attention, I offer a Christmas prayer of Blessing:


On this Christmas Morn:
May the message of the Angel stir our hearts.
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. (Lk 2:10-12, KJV).
May the good tidings that God has been revealed to us in a babe born in Bethlehem,
open our hearts to the presence of God in one another.
May we remember in our hearts our neighbor, living both near and far.
Wishing them peace and good will.
May our hope be that the lamb and the lion lie down in peace.
May we lift up those whose spirits ache this day, that they might be mended.
Yes, may the Christ, revealed in Bethlehem's manger,
reside in our hearts and minds this day, and always.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Shepherds on Watch -- A Christmas Eve Sermon

Luke 2:1-20

    When it comes to casting a Christmas pageant, shepherds rank low on the list of desirable parts.  The most coveted roles, of course, are Mary and Joseph.  After that, I expect that the three wise men get top billing.  Being one of the magi is nice, because you get to wear fancy robes and bring gifts to the baby Jesus.  While angels don’t rank with the wise men, at least they have more star power than shepherds. 

    As for the shepherds, they get to wear bathrobes with blankets over their heads – You need to think Linus here.  No crowns and no wings, just blankets and bathrobes.   No gifts and no grand songs to sing.  While the angels hang out in the heavens, broadcasting the good news, they hang out in the hills with the sheep and the dogs.  There’s nothing too exciting about these roles, except that Luke seems to think that they’re important. 

    You might notice that Luke’s birth story doesn’t include wise men, kings, or magi – whatever name you want to give them.  That’s Matthew’s version, and he has a different agenda.  Maybe he knew that Christmas pageants would someday need some staring roles, and so he added them into the mix.  But Luke doesn’t seem impressed with star power, and so instead of the three kings, he has shepherds watching the sheep by night. 

    Despite the fact that David was known to be the shepherd king and the 23rd Psalm calls God our shepherd, shepherds lived on the margins of society.  They were dirty, smelly, rough kinds of people.  This may explain why no one really wants to play a shepherd in the Christmas play, although you would think that maybe Pigpen would have made been especially equipped for the role!  It’s too bad that Lucy gives him the role of the inn keeper. Of course, Linus already had a blanket to throw over his head! 

    As we hear this story, I would invite us to step back in time, so that we can share in the shepherd’s night time vigil.  As we’re watching the sheep, making sure that none of them wanders off or gets poached by a wolf, the silence of the night is interrupted by a heavenly song and a great light.  What you hear in this song is the good news that in the city of David, the Savior, Christ the Lord has been born.  Consider for a moment that the news comes first, not to the palace of the king, but to a group of shepherds sitting on the margins of society.  It’s just one more reminder that the ways of God often turn our expectations on their head.    

    As we come tonight, let us remember that not only did good news come to the shepherds, but the news they received tells us that the Creator of all things chose to be revealed to us in a babe, born in a stable’s feeding trough.  In telling the story this way, Luke continues the story he began with Mary’s song about God’s preferential option for the poor, and God’s willingness to bring down the high and the mighty.  This is the news that the shepherds have been called upon to proclaim to the world.

    The angel’s song rings out: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” And it rings out on the lips of the shepherds as well.  And the message is this:

    God’s love made visible!  Incomprehensible!
    Christ is invincible!  His love shall reign!
    From love so bountiful, blessings uncountable make death surmountable!
    His Love Shall reign! 
 (Iola Brubeck, “God’s Love Made Visible!”Chalice Hymnal 171). 

     As we return to our homes this evening and celebrate Christmas over the next day or so – gathering as we shall around trees to open presents, and dinner tables, may we remember who it is we have come to honor.  May we remember that the King of Glory has been revealed to us in a babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, surrounded by lowly shepherds. 

  Remember as well that this is only the beginning of the story. Jesus doesn’t stay in the manger –  lest his cuteness lull us to sleep and cause us to forget the purpose of his coming.  That purpose is to reveal to us God’s work of transformation in the world, a task God has invited us to share in. 

  Therefore, as we come tonight to the Table and share in  the Lord’s meal, may we bear in our hearts this news:  Although the journey begins in a stable it will lead to a cross, and from the cross to the resurrection, for as the words of Iola Brubeck makes clear – “His love shall reign.”   So, as we celebrate this great day, may we join together at the table and “open hearts and pray.  His love shall reign!”  May this be the message the shepherds bring to our hearts this Christmas Eve.     

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2009

A Voice of Hope From Below

Although I can't find the link, this essay was published on Christmas Eve, 2006, in the Lompoc Record.  I believe it speaks nicely for the day ahead.


Harry Truman said “the buck stops here,” while George W. Bush declared that he was “the Decider.”   Such states exude strength and power, and it seems that the stronger and more powerful the leader is, the more apt we are to listen (and obey) to their pronouncements.   As history has shown, the demagogue will try to manipulate our emotions and prejudices in order to control us, and the charismatic figure will seek to gain our acquiescence through a cult of personality. 

Since today is Christmas Eve, it’s appropriate to consider a different view of power.  Tonight many Christian communities will celebrate the story of a baby born to a young mother in a stable (Luke 2:1-20).  The backdrop is an insignificant town in a backwater part of a powerful empire.  When read against the stories of the greats of the ancient world such as Caesar, Alexander, and Augustus, it’s surprising that we would pay attention to this telling of Jesus’ birth.  As Luke tells it, God chooses to speak to and through the lowly and the forgotten, not to or through kings and potentates. 

            In a passage that precedes the birth story, a pregnant teen age girl named Mary sings a song of praise to God; in this song, known as the Magnificat, Mary declares that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” and God has filled the “hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:46-55).   It would seem that God has a “preferential option for the poor.”   

            It so happens that this year Christmas Eve falls on the same day as the fourth Sunday of Advent [this was 2006], and so many churches, including my own will consider both passages.  As one hails God’s decision to bring down the powerful, the other tells of a history-changing birth in a stable. 

            Both stories offer a word of hope to those who find themselves on the margins of society, those who are voiceless and powerless.  Hope is found in the God who listens to the cries of the poor.  Mary’s song promises empowerment and freedom, and such a song can prove unnerving to those who hold the reigns of power.  Katherine Pershey, a young pastor from my own Disciples of Christ denomination, offers a compelling reflection on the empowering message found in this song.  She writes:      
This great hymn of praise has empowered the oppressed and unnerved oppressors for millennia.  Mary, who knows our Creator so intimately she carries the Son of God, sings of a God who reaches down and touches the pain of his people. This God lifts up the victims of economic poverty and political violence and draws them into his gentle arms, the way a mother hen gathers her chicks beneath her wings. And this God sends the proud packing. The powerful and corrupt kings who are fluent in the ways of violence and domination are deposed. The rich, who have hoarded the stuff of Creation for their own purposes, are sent away with nothing to show for their greed (“any day a beautiful change,” December 8, 2005). 

            How often do we think of such things at Christmas time?   Yet it’s the core message of the season.  Consider for a moment the message the angels bring to a group of lowly shepherds, who are watching their flocks by night.  The angels sing of “peace on earth, and good will to all.”   That’s the rest of the story, which begins in a teen-age girl’s song to the God who is committed to leveling the playing field of human society.  Who would have thought that the world would be turned upside down by a baby born to a peasant girl?     

The message of Mary and the angels assumes that God will act on our behalf, but realization of this vision requires our participation, whether or not we choose to be followers of Jesus.  We participate in this work of God by putting aside our trust in violence and our obsession with dominating others.  It happens when we stop hoarding God’s gifts and learn to share them with others.   Christmas is a time of joy, but its message is and should be unsettling, especially to those, like Herod, who live at the top of society.  

Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (at that time).

It Is Finished -- Well Almost

The Senate gathered this morning, passed the bill, which was a foregone conclusion, and headed home for the holidays.  Now, the tricky maneuvers of merging bills must take place.  I expect that the President will invite the interested parties to a discussion and then it will get passed, he'll sign it, and then they will try to sell it.  That process likely will begin with the State of the Union Address. 

Over the next months the rhetoric will get pretty hot and heavy.  The Republicans will, as they are already doing, going overboard with casting aspersions.  Democrats will remain a fractious lot, but then the Democrats are the only semblance of a big tent -- which is why the debate over health care has been an intramural one.

The vote has been cast and we've moved closer to universal coverage than we've ever been at.  I want to remind the conservatives in the room that John McCain, in the debates agreed with President Obama that access to affordable health care is a right not a privilege.  Where the disagreed was on how to get there.  McCain wanted to use tax credits (I think it was about 5000).  The President hoped to get a government offered program.  The reality is that the recently passed bill is sort of inbetween -- that is the government will provide subsidies for those who need help, but there won't be a government option.

I'm going to leave you with a link to Timothy Egan's NYTimes essay called "Profiles in Cowardice."  I think he gets it right.

Now, I'll pivot from politics to Christmas for the rest of the day!!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Eve and other Stories -- Trans-Siberian Orchestra

As we countdown the days until Christmas, here's a bit of music to get you stirred up!

Recognizing Reform | The New Republic

As the Senate gets ready to vote on a health care reform bill, it has become clear that after a century of trying, we will be moving toward reform of the system. But make no mistake, this is only the beginning-- an important first step -- but only the beginning. We will have to modify it over time, so that it works to provide care to most if not all Americans. There is a lot of uncertainty and fear among the populace, which is why the popularity of reform has plummeted. There is fear among Seniors that they might lose some benefits, while younger folks don't see why they need coverage. The fact is, however, that unless everyone gets coverage -- of some sort -- in order to spread the risk, the costs of insurance will continue to sky rocket. People with employer provided coverage are concerned that they may get less coverage in the future -- that is if high end plans get taxed. But this might level the playing field for those who can't get group coverage -- usually self-employed and small business folk. I'm in the individual market, so I know how this works. There will, in time, be a needed prohibition against excluding people with pre-existing conditions and a new pool of exchanges. There will also be large government subsidies in order to make this affordable. Oh, and note that the American Medical Association has given its seal of approval -- just so you know if you're concerned that the government will get between you and your doctor, they don't think that's going to happen.

How this will work over time, remains to be seen, but as Jonathan Cohn points out in a New Republic article, this may not look pretty, but it is definitely better than nothing. Like him, I would prefer something approaching a single payer system, but that won't happen in the near future. See his essay for more information and a helpful chart.

Recognizing Reform | The New Republic

I'd like to say something about the political divide on this issue. I'm not sure why there isn't any GOP support. Sen. Olympia Snowe voted out of committee a plan that's pretty similar to the one under consideration. By my estimation, she's probably to the left of Ben Nelson, and on this issue would likely be in a similar place as Joe Lieberman. So why is she, along with Susan Collins, staying firm with the GOP? My best guess is that it's political. I would assume that they have been threatened with having a right wing primary opponent run against them. Sen. Snowe says, we should go slower, but why? She hasn't said why we need to go slower. Going slower only gives time for opponents to nit-pick the legislation to death. The reason why this plan has had such trouble is that seeds of fear have been planted. That fear will have to be overcome -- and it won't be easy. But, its possible!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Searching for God -- Sightings

Martin Marty closes out his offerings for 2009 with a reflection on the recent hubbub over the Pew Forum Report on the nation's recent religious proclivities.  That we've been a nation of seekers and switchers isn't really new.  But the trends have quickened, and the switches haven't just been in in-family (Catholic to Episcopal), but crossing family boundaries.  Marty comments on the statements made by Stephen Prothero in the Wall Street Journal.  Prothero sees danger here -- and raises questions as to whether we're just jumping from one religious idea to the next?  Take a look, and offer your thoughts.

By the way, Prothero is author of the excellent Religious Literacy (HarperOne).

Sightings 12/21/2009

Searching For God
Martin Marty

Last week Sightings looked at bearish signs on the front where religion is practiced (a bit less) in post-Christendom.  This week instead of a bear we’ll note the chameleon-like character of religious commitment, or semi-commitment in the same part of the world.  Our source, the survey of the week, came from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a reliable surveyor.  It was much noted and commented upon; we’ll pick up on one of the best of these comments, in the December 11th Wall Street Journal, from Boston University professor Stephen Prothero, who can also be called reliable as well as perceptive.

The Pew summary picked up by Prothero reveals that the U. S. is a “nation of religious drifters.”  In response I could exercise the historian’s yawn and ask, “So what else is new?”  Haven’t we always been such?  Immigrants brought their old faiths along and then often picked and chose among the options other immigrants brought, adaptations of these, or new inventions in the spaces between existing faiths.  Revivals, awakenings, ethnic shifts, mobility, and religious marketplaces have always invited such drifting.  But the Pew people can show that there are reasons to stifle the “nothing new” yawns and say that if there is not a quantitative difference from the past, there is such a big quantitative shift that it amounts to a change in the quality of commitments.

In the Lutheran and Episcopal parishes and their kin we know best, we hear members and clergy say, half-jocularly, that half their members seem to have been brought up Roman Catholic but they changed, just as we know several Lutherans and Episcopalians who turned Catholic.  Still, such moves are ecumenically “all in the family.”  Pew folks find more and more people being equally drawn to Buddhisms, Hinduisms, New Ageisms, and a bazaar-tent full of other options.  Kate Shellnut in the December 11th Chicago Tribune tells how many, many young and youngish post-Christian people abandon Christian practice and hang out almost cultishly brunching at pancake houses, hoping in their “communing” to fill the void that is left as they drift.

Add to these other, similar evidences elsewhere, and you find not only the trails of serious spiritual journeys to new communities but highly individualistic ventures.  As G.K. Chesterton noted, when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in everything.

Prothero checks in:  “As a scholar of religion, I am supposed to simply observe all this without rendering any judgment, but I can’t help feeling that something precious is being lost here, perhaps something as fundamental as a sense of the sacred.”  He agrees with philosopher George Santayana that “American life is a powerful solvent” capable of “neutralizing new ideas into banal clichés.”  Prothero worries that “this solvent is now melting down the sharp edges of the world’s religions, bending them toward purposes other than their own. . . The store managers in our spiritual market place seem a bit too eager to sell us whatever they imagine we want.”

Prothero notes that at their best, the denominations that had long sustained memberships offered different visions of the good life.  “Absent a chain of memory that ties us to these religions’ ancient truths, these visions are lost, and we are left to our own devices, searching for God with as much confusion, as we search, in love, for the next new thing.”

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at

P. S.  Last week we mentioned membership decline in three denominations, including the newish Presbyterian Church in America.  Don K. Clements, a Stated Clerk in Virginia, called a nuance to our attention.  The decline in the PCA resulted mainly from the paring of several thousand names from a bloated membership list at Coral Ridge, the mega- place in Florida.  Apart from that, PCA held its own and even grew a bit.  We thank Clements for this information.

In this month’s edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Kristen Tobey considers the significance of blood as an element in the nonviolent civil disobedience actions of the Plowshares movement, an activist collective of the Catholic Left dedicated to nuclear disarmament through symbolic action.  Through a careful reading of Plowshares’ rituals of protest Tobey notes that their use of blood, while intended to convey a sense of renewal and the affirmation of life through blood sacrifice, also invokes violence, contributing to a more ambivalent performance that resonates with specific tensions residing at the heart of Plowshares’ mission and identity.  With invited responses from Scott Appleby (University of Notre Dame), Sharon Erickson Nepstad (University of New Mexico), and Jon Pahl (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia).
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Before & After by Carrie Newcomer -- Music Review

BEFORE & AFTER.   By Carrie Newcomer.  Burlington, MA: Rounder Records, 2010.

    I had the privilege and pleasure of reviewing Carrie Newcomer’s earlier album, The Geography of Light (Rounder Records, 2008).  That privilege has been given to me once again as a copy of her latest album, Before & After recently arrived in the mailbox.  As I noted in that earlier review, I find the task of reviewing an album to be very different from reviewing a book.  When it comes to vocal music, the words are important, but the song isn’t just about the words. There is melody and there is harmony, the quality of the voice and the way the songs are played.  Some songs are fast and hard driving, other forms of music kind of lull you in with a soft but beckoning call.  

    Carrie Newcomer’s style is soft and inviting, gracious and gentle, a bit of folk and maybe a bit of country-rock (on the lighter side).  The accompaniment of the songs, all written by Newcomer, is largely acoustic (she accompanies herself on an acoustic guitar).   Her voice is deep and melodic -- there is something of a Karla Bonhoff (of whom I’m a fan), or maybe Mary Chapin Carpenter, who provides a vocal track on the title song. 

    When it comes to the message of the songs, you can discern the presence of her deep but progressive faith.  She is by faith profession a Quaker, heavily influenced by Parker Palmer.  There is a touch of the mystical here, with one song being influenced by the Tao Te Ching.   There is a recognition that we are living in changing times, but it is also a time of opportunity. 

    Living as we do in challenging times, when it is easier to shout out in anger at our neighbors, Carrie offers us a different vision in these words from the song “A Simple Change of Heart”:

    Courage doesn't always shout
    But whispers and reminds
    When we get up one more morning
    And try one more time
    We tried yelling at each other
    It hasn't worked so well
    Throwing gas on fire
    Never helped as far as I can tell
    Throwing stones cut deep
    A little kindness goes deeper still

    Even more powerfully, in her song: “Do No Harm,” which is inspired by a short story written by Scott Russell Sanders entitled “Savages.”   The song speaks of an Isaiah Roth, a Quaker preacher who as a child had witnessed the massacre by white traders of a group of Native American people, destroying the “Eden,” created by his father – and yet he would one day become a preacher who proclaimed the idea that the greatest law is love – a very Quaker idea.  The chorus picks up that Quaker message very strongly.

    Do no harm, shed no blood, the only law here is love
    We can call the kingdom down here on earth
    Beat your swords into plows, don’t be afraid I’ll show how
    Lift your eyes to the skies, all is holy here

    Of course, some of the songs are just plain fun, like the last song on the album – “A Crash of Rhinoceroses.” This song includes some rather intricate and interesting combinations of animal names.  Consider the chorus:

      It's a crash of rhinoceroses a pomp of Pekinese
    It’s a gaggle of geese and a swarm of bees
    A parliament of owl and a gam of whale
    A pandemonium of parrot and a watch of nightingale
    A huddle of walrus, company of moles
    Exultation of lark and a murder of crow
    A simple flock sheep and a herd of deer
    Its a bask of crocodiles and a sleuth of bear

    I’ve only encountered these two albums, but I’ve come to greatly enjoy Carrie’s music.  I recognize that music is something for which each of us has our own tastes and sensibilities.  Mine are rather eclectic – I like Coltrane, Brubeck, Bach, Mozart, Ronstadt, Krall, Copland, and Neil Young.  So, all I can say, is that I truly enjoy this music, and believe that you might enjoy it as well. For people of faith, there is the added bonus of faith inspired music that doesn’t overwhelm or over preach.  It simply invites and encourages. 

So, be watching for the CD, when officially released in February 2010.  For links to the songs click here.