Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ignorance isn't Bliss -- It's dangerous

Yesterday I wrote about the recent Pew Forum survey of religious knowledge, a survey that revealed that Americans are rather ignorant when it comes to religion -- even our own religious tenets.  But while ignorance might be bliss it can also be dangerous, for it leads to persecution, repression, and even violence.  It has political consequences, as we're seeing in the ongoing attempt to smear the President, who though he is by confession of faith a Christian, is being painted as a Muslim.  Now there's nothing wrong with being a Muslim -- in my mind -- but in the minds of many Islam equals terrorism, and thus, if the President is a Muslim then he must be in secret league with terrorists. 

One of the points that comes out of the Pew Survey is the need to teach comparative religion, treating every religion fairly.  Unfortunately this effort at overcoming ignorance is hampered on two fronts -- those who want a doctrinal Christian view taught in the schools, and those who want to exclude all forms of religion from the schools.  And, of course, the schools, with enough other problems on their plate want to stay clear of any controversy, so they simply don't address religion.  They know that offering comparative religion or bible as literature classes will be a lose-lose situation.

It is in this context that John Esposito, one of the preeminent scholars of Islam (and a Roman Catholic), and Sheila Lalwani, a fellow at the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding at Georgetown University, which Esposito directs, respond to news that the Texas Board of Education, a Board that has offered up bizarre decisions on science textbooks and American history textbooks, have voted by a 7-6 margin to oppose textbooks that in their view portray Christianity unfavorably and "gloss over" unfavorable aspects of Islam.  The authors suggest that this decision can have a disastrous effect on Muslim-Christian relations and feed Islamophobia, in large part because the impact that the Texas school system has on text-book publishing across the nation.  What the Texas Board decides influences the textbooks used in districts across the country.  

Ignorance of religion is not bliss, it is dangerous.  Indeed, as the Esposito and Lalwani make clear -- Islam isn't the enemy, ignorance is!  It is this ignorance that is being used for political purposes to divide and conquer the nation.  The question is, then, what shall we do to dispel the clouds of ignorance that are hanging over the nation?  

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Is Ignorance Bliss? Thoughts on Pew Survey on Religious Knowledge

Americans are rather religious people.  By overwhelming numbers we say that we believe in God, but do we truly understand what we believe?  Or, do we believe in God because, well, because we do?   That is, unless forced to wrestle with the question of God's existence or presence, we simply assume it to be true.  I grew up believing in Santa Claus, but at a certain age, I let it go.  Is belief in God simply an unwillingness to face facts? 

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted a survey, asking via phone calls, a series of questions on religious knowledge, 15 of which can be found online.  The results are rather disheartening.  The average score on this quiz is 50%.  That is an F!   Atheists do best, scoring around 65%.  That's a D, but still better than most Christians, evangelical or mainline, who score closer to the average.  

From the executive summary we read:

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.

But does it matter if Christians know the names of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), or that Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, or that the majority of Pakistanis are Muslim?    Or, when it comes to faith, is ignorance bliss?  As long as I feel close to God, do I need anything more? 

My answer is, yes, it does matter.  Lack of understanding/knowledge can lead to major misunderstandings and misapplications of one's faith.  It leads to stereotyping of others, leading to fear and mistrust, and even, in some cases, to religious violence.  The question is:  what do we do about the problem?

Well, we could:
  • Teach comparative religions in our schools -- note I said comparative religions, with each religion being given equal footing in the conversation.  (A majority of persons answering the questions didn't know that the Bible can be taught as literature or that comparative religions can be taught in public school). 
  • Be more attentive to teaching the faith in our churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples -- a reminder that our educational component has fallen short in recent years).  
  • Take personal responsibility and read about our own faith and the faiths of others.    

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Transforming Acts: Spirit-Centered Faith (Bruce Epperly)

Having laid the context for his journey through Acts, Bruce Epperly takes up the first chapter of this seminal book of the New Testament.  This is a chapter in which a commission and a promise is given to the followers of Jesus.  The commission is to get busy with the work of God and the promise is a provision of God's Spirit.  Both, however, must wait for just a moment.  I invite you to reflect on Bruce's words and the message of Acts 1:1-26 and offer your thoughts. 


Transforming Acts: Spirit-Centered Faith
Acts 1:1-26
Bruce Epperly

Acts of the Apostles is an invitation to spirit-centered faith. When many people think of God’s Spirit, or the Holy Spirit, their minds go to tongues of fire, mystical experiences, and other-worldly encounters. They see the Spirit as a supernatural intrusion on normal causal relationships, only occasionally occurring in human life. In contrast, I believe that the primary locus of the Holy Spirit is everyday life – manifest in making decisions, going to work, serving the community, caring for family and friends, and working for justice. As the Apostle Paul notes in Romans 8, God’s Spirit moves through all creation, human and non-human, and speaks in our hearts in “sighs too deep for words.” The holistic spirituality of Acts seamlessly blends the mystical and the ordinary, and reminds us that God is revealed in every moment of life. All moments are potential theophanies, where God can illuminate the most ordinary moments of life. The Spirit bursts forth through the unconscious in dreams and hunches and through the trans-rational mind in mystical visions and inspired words. In fact, these phenomena are manifestations of one and the same movement.

As Chapter One begins, the first followers of Jesus bid him “good bye.” Somehow, Jesus needs to get off stage for the work of the church to begin and what better way than the Ascension. The Ascension is, however, not about cosmic geography – about Jesus ascending into heaven – but about the interplay of absence and presence in the spiritual life. Jesus must be absent in order to be fully present: an over-functioning God who makes all our decisions and eliminates risk also eliminates adventure, surprise, and novelty. In contrast to Rick Warren’s over-functioning God who decides all the important events of our lives, divine subtlety gives us room to respond and innovate as God’s partners in healing the earth. God does not compete with us, but wants us to be creative and adventurous. Jesus wants us to do greater things than he did. (John 14:12) Our lives are not planned by God, but influenced and inspired in ways that encourage adventure and creativity. (See Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living.)

Chapter One presents three questions that are still relevant in our spiritual lives today: the timetable of cosmic fulfillment, the focus of spirituality, and spiritual decision-making. Over two thousand years after the Ascension of Jesus, many Christians still await the Second

Coming – they hope to rise to the heavens while others are left behind to suffer global tribulation. Some even invent elaborate timetables, predicting the exact time of Jesus’ return. Thus far, all such prognostication has proven inaccurate and possibly devastating to the mission of Jesus. To such Christian fortunetellers, Jesus says “it is not for you to know.” God’s power is with you and it is alive and well on this planet, moving with vitality right now. You don’t need to die or experience an otherworldly rapture to experience God’s transforming presence.

For Acts, the focus of spirituality is this-worldly in orientation. The angel tells the disciples: “Don’t look to the heavens to find fulfillment.” Your work is here: this is the place of healing and salvation. Our witness and mission are in this world, not in a heavenly place. If we are faithful as God’s partners in healing the earth in this lifetime, we can trust God’s fidelity at the moment of deaths. In the spirit of John’s Gospel, eternal life is a present reality: we are just unaware of it. Our faithful responses to God awaken us to everlasting life in the midst of daily living.

Finally, Acts concludes with a curious decision-making process. After the eleven remaining disciples pray for guidance to discern the twelfth apostle, they cast lots in order to make a decision. At first glance, such activities seem to be leaving the decision to chance rather than rationality; but the process was undergirded by prayer. The apostles trust that God moves in synchronous events and that random acts such as throwing dice or turning to a Bible passage by “accident” can reveal divine wisdom. Surely this is at the heart of the ancient Chinese spiritual practice of divination through the use of the I Ching: while throwing the I Ching is no substitute for serious reflection, the process of opening to intuitive wisdom gives us another perspective on our decision-making. Holistic decision-making includes analysis and intellectual reflection and problem solving processes, but it also involves listening for divine inspiration, trusting intuition and hunches, openness to the divine, and prayerful contemplation. Jung noted the importance of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, as revealing a deeper wisdom moving through everyday life, and when we are open to God’s leading, “coincidences” happen with more regularity.

Acts, Chapter One, invites us to frame our lives in prayer. Earth is where the action is: our day to day actions, political involvement, and long-range planning gain power and insight when they are seen in light of God’s moment to moment and ambient inspiration.

Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry , written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.  His most recent book is From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church, written with Daryl Hollinger.

Monday, September 27, 2010

America’s Decline in Church Attendance -- Sightings

Perhaps it's fitting that the Monday after I returned from a brief but immensely helpful Pastor's Conference, where Diana Butler Bass helped us wrestle with the complexities of life in America and the implications of that complexity for the churches, that Martin Marty would proffer a column on the decline of church attendance.  Things aren't as bad in the US as in Europe, but there are plenty of red flags on the field, warning us that things aren't getting better.  My congregation is making some strides, but not quickly.  So, what are the implications?  I think one of the important points made here is that congregations and denominations have an important role in carrying into the future the beliefs, the  practices, the values, the ethics of faith -- and that being "spiritual" can't do that job.  There is a value in institutions, for they alone have the strength to continue bearing the load.  I invite you to read Marty's Sightings column and offer your thoughts. 


Sightings 9/26/2010

America’s Decline in Church Attendance
-- Martin E. Marty

Pope Benedict XVI has expressed grave concern over the decline of church participation in Western Europe. His trip to the UK last week provided opportunities for him to address it. Most commentators in religious and secular communications found almost nothing that he said or did which might help reverse the downward trends. The fact that large crowds appeared at several of his appearances did not impress them; throngs line up for popes as celebrities. I’ve asked after each of Pope John Paul’s travels, which often drew masses of young people: did his Pope-mobiled words and gestures, eloquent though they be, lead any young man to enter the seminary ranks with intention to become ordained? Did mass attendance swell a month or a year later? Maybe the answer is yes, but it’s hard to find evidence.

Observation of the North American scene and data gathered by many polling agencies provide a cause for separating this continent’s milder declines from the plot which defines Europe today. So sudden have been the marked trends showing disaffection that leaders have not internalized the evidence. Exceptions? Yes, for now, Latino/a Roman Catholics sign up enough to keep the Catholic rolls deceptively high, if only relatively. For now, some astute, market-oriented mega-churches keep prospering, though even among them opinion-pollers and people-counters see signs which prompt concern.

Those who do care and who set out to address the issue of decline begin in a state of alarm. I was recently on a panel with an official who knew all about weapons of mass destruction, from nukes to germ-warfare capsules. Someone asked, “Knowing all that, how do you sleep?” He answered, “I sleep like a baby—for fifteen minutes, and then I wake up crying.” But sleeping or crying does not help and will not help people who seek to address the issues signified in the trends.

Some graphs and paragraphs in Lovett H. Weems, Jr.’s Christian Century show that from 1994 to 2000, two of four studied mainline Protestant church bodies showed modest gains and two others saw only modest losses. But from 2001 to 2008 the “growing” United Methodist Church saw the greatest plunge (-17.86%), and its losses were almost matched in the other three. Disconcerting to church-growth experts was Weems’s note that in the earlier decade, greatest growth was among the largest local churches—but that in the more recent decade, the largest among them suffered most decline.

Some readers may wonder why in columns like this, which are to be about “public religion,” we talk about church and synagogue (etc.) attendance and participation--aren’t their institutions part of “private religion?” Emphatically no. They are the bearers of traditions, the living expositors of sacred texts, the tellers of stories, the troop-suppliers for voluntary activities, the shapers of values fought over in the political realms.

Why are they declining? Certainly not because a few atheists write best-sellers. I always look for the simplest causes, such as rejection of drab and conflicted congregations and denominations. Or changes in habits. I watch the ten thousands running past in Sunday marathons or heading to the kids’ soccer games and recall that their grandparents and parents kept the key weekend times and places open for sacred encounters. Oh, and “being spiritual” is not going to help keep the stories, the language of ethics, and the pool of volunteers thriving. Their disappearance has consequences.


Lovett H. Weems, Jr. “No Shows: The Decline in Worship Attendance.” The Christian Century, September 22, 2010.

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


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

God, Beauty, and Music

This morning we dedicated our organ for the service of God's praise and for the creation of beauty in the world.  This afternoon, we will share in the dedicatory concert of this same organ.  It is the opinion of many that the organ is an instrument whose time has come and gone, much like the lute and the lyre (though guitars are their successors). 

This new organ, about which I've opined before, is an instrument that is able to support every musical form from Bach to Gospel.  It has the sound of a German Bach organ and it can also make available the sound of the Hammond B3, which is so prominent in gospel and rock music.  But that's not the point I'd like to make -- that's the technical side.  What I want to lift up is the gift of music to the healing of the world.  Beauty is something that the church has to offer the world, and music and the arts both contribute to this beauty.

The questions then are -- What is beauty?  What role does beauty have in the mission of God and the mission of the church?  What role does beauty play in the kingdom of God?  These are not easy questions to answer.  Some will raise the question of how resources are used.  This is a proper question.  What kind of good could have been accomplished with the money spent for the organ -- or for that matter the sound system or video system in other churches.  What about buildings themselves?  And yet . . .

So, as you ponder the question of beauty and music as a gift of God, let me share a litany written by Sharlande Sledge, a Baptist Pastor and writer.  It is entitled:  "Music"

Hymngiver God,

A psalm of praise we write for you,
O God of New Life,
who creates music in us we cannot contain.

A psalm of delight we write for you,
O God of Welcoming Presence,
whose hospitality invites us to linger at the table.

A psalm of gratitude we write for you,
O God of Transforming Promise,
who shapes miracles from words of hope.

A psalm of rejoicing we write for you,
O God of Eternal Love,
who embraces us in the circle
of creation, redemption, and resurrection.

Composer of Wonder,
make us living psalms of praise.*

*Sharlande Sledge, Prayers and Litanies for the Christian Seasons, (Macon, GA:  Smyth & Helwys, 1999), p. 78.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

What Does It Mean to Believe?

When someone joins a Disciples Church, we usually ask them to make the Good Confession.  And the question goes something like this:  "Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the Living God?  And is he your Lord and Savior?"  The first question is asking for an affirmation of a fact.  Disciples are deeply rooted in the Enlightenment mentality.  Alexander Campbell liked to talk about the gospel "facts," and so to believe meant affirming those facts as being true.  This is also why he had problems with creeds -- they required, in his mind, assent to the "facts" as outlined in those creeds.  While he might affirm most of the elements, there were elements that might not be "facts."  I should add that he was also a fan of Francis Bacon's understanding of science, and thus didn't like speculations.  If stated clearly in Scripture, then it could be affirmed.  That is the old paradigm -- belief is affirmation of the facts about God.

But is that what "belief" is?  At the GMP's Pastor's Conference this week in San Diego, Diana pushed the definition.  In the new paradigm, which is more internally driven and more experiential, might we not return to an earlier understanding of belief, back to when the word now translated as belief/believe -- the Greek pist and the Latin Credo had the sense of faith/trust.  Thus, when we say the creed, we say:  "I trust"  or "I give my heart to God the Father, the Almighty, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth . . . "   Does this not have a very different meaning for the one who makes the statement of belief.  It's more internal than external. 

And the Diana an interesting point -- the English word "belief" derives from the German "belieben" -- "to belove."  If this is true, then when we ask folks when joining the church if they believe that Jesus is the Christ?   We should rephrase it:  Do you belove Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God?  And is he therefore Lord and Savior?    

In this new paradigm belief is not about assenting to facts, but rather is about the disposition of the heart.  If so, what are the implications for the church? 

Friday, September 24, 2010

Identity in the Post-Modern World

I posted a piece yesterday asking the question:  Are you spiritual or are you religious?  In reality, a majority of people want to keep these two together.  But, it is important to acknowledge that the world of today is very different from the church's "golden age" in the 1950s.  We look at the world in very different ways.  In the forthcoming issue of Sharing the Practice, the journal that I edit for the Academy of Parish Clergy, Loren Mead, founder of Alban Institute writes a piece on the changing world of ministry.  He uses the metaphor of the tides to describe the difference between the world in which he entered ministry, in which the Academy of Parish Clergy was born, and the world of today.  Then the tide was coming in, now it's going out.  That makes doing ministry much more difficult.

Yesterday, in her closing presentation, Diana Butler Bass shared with the gathered Disciples clergy a matrix to understand the old and the new -- she made it clear that old isn't "bad" and new isn't "good," they are what they are.  She shared with us the three areas of inquiry that sociologists use in formulating polls and surveys.  They want to know about identity -- to what do you belong -- belief, and practice.  I'll be commenting on the latter two at a different point, but I want to focus now on questions of identity.  

As Diana laid it out the question that lies at the base of this inquiry is "Who Am I?"  Descartes answered that question for the modern age with the words:  Cogito ergo sum -- "I think, therefore, I am."  Identity is defined in terms of rationality.  What makes us different from other species is our rationality.  You can see how this would affect and influence the way the church exists and organizes itself.  It leads quickly the next point -- belief, which is defined in very rational terms, and practices, which are defined as techniques -- How do we do what we're supposed to do?    That is the old paradigm that defined the world in which the American church had its golden age.  It focused on the external and the institutional -- what so many describe today as "religion."  And it worked very well.

But, the world has changed, and the identity questions have changed.  Science is asking different questions about identity, and those questions have made it clear that things are rather complex.  We may be rational beings, but we're more than rationality.  In fact, identity is defined in a context of a complex web of experiences and possibilities.  Identity is wrapped in economics, politics, the environment, religion, science, and more.  So, in this new age, when we talk about identity we must add prepositions -- what Diana referred to as "Prepositional Identity."    Thus we must tweak the question.

It is no longer "Who am I?" or "Who are We?"  Instead, the question is:  "Who am I in . . ."  Or, Who am I with . . ."  And as people of faith, we must ask the question of what we're doing or why we're doing something in this way:  "Who am I in God?"

And that's the question I want to pose.  Who are you in God? 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Are you Religious or Spiritual?

I have been spending the past couple of days in San Diego at the General Minister and President's National Pastor's Conference of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  My friend, Diana Butler Bass, has been the speaker.  On Wednesday morning she laid out the context for the way in which we do ministry in this day and age.  In the afternoon she dealt with perceptions of the church, or religion, and spirituality.  All the polls tell us that there is a growing number of people out there who are uncomfortable with traditional religion.  Many of them describe themselves as spiritual but not religious (apparently about 25% of the population -- and more so among those under 35 and living west of the Rockies!). 

So, as we who are in the "religious profession" must take stock of these trends.  We must ask ourselves about context and perception.  Although a majority (55% in a Newsweek/WP poll) said they were both spiritual and religious, suggesting that for many there are possibilities for renewal in what is loosely defined as "spiritual," the question then is:  What do these terms mean?  If you did word association, what words would you use for each?  Then ask yourself where you stand in the mix.  And finally, as you look at these words, do you see one side of the equation as positive and the other being negative?

And just to get the process going I want to share a YouTube video that Diana shared with us,  It's from a British comedy team called Mitchell and Webb.  It's called the Rude Vicar.  Hopefully, that's not how most of us clergy come off, but the perceptions of the church and religious leaders are rather negative -- and it's not just the media's fault! 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Should Jesus be worshippped?

Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?: The New Testament EvidenceI just finished reading James D.G. Dunn's book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence  (WJK, 2010).  A full review will be forthcoming, but before it get to it and since Dunn opens up the question, I'd like to throw it out there for discussion.   The point that Dunn wants to raise concerns whether or not the biblical evidence supports the idea that Jesus should be worshipped directly.  That is, does the New Testament provide evidence that Jesus was worshipped as an entity separate from the Father, or is Jesus the locus by whom and through worship of God is maintained.  The questions are important ones because they have theological ramifications -- such as, is Christianity a truly monotheist religion?  

As a teaser I want to provide a quote from Dunn so you can ponder the question more fully.

That Jesus was central to early Christian worship is not to be doubted.  He was the reason why their prayers could be offered with confidence and the principle subject of their hymns.  It was his name they invoked; they appealed to him in times of personal crisis.  And their praise of God naturally included praise of Christ.  He was himself the sacred space in whom they met as his bodily presence ('body of Christ') still on earth.  It was his day on which they met most regularly.  Their sacred meal was his supper, the key elements his body and blood.  He alone was the priest through whom they could now come to God.  His sacrificial death had dealt with their sins and opened the way to God.  Their entry into the divine presence was possible not only because of what he had accomplished (Good Friday and Easter), but through him.  (p. 57).
But does that mean that we are to worship Jesus separate from God the Father?  As you answer the question, what are the implications of that answer for the way we do worship?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Transforming Acts: Adventurous Theology for the Twenty-first Century (Bruce Epperly)

For Disciples, the Book of Acts, has been a central text.  Early Disciple leaders like Alexander Campbell looked to it for a model of church life and expansion.  Acts has also become a key text for the missional movement, and I have looked to it as a guide for our congregation's expansion of ministry in the community.  So, I was pleased when Bruce Epperly suggested writing a series of columns on this most important text.  With this post, we begin a journey through Acts!


Transforming Acts:
Adventurous Theology for the Twenty-first Century
Bruce G. Epperly

Annie Dillard advised people attending church to put on crash helmets and wear seats belt in the pews because what we invoke in church is life-changing and life-shaking. God, like Aslan the Christ-figure described in C.S. Lewis’Chronicles of Narnia, is not tame, but transforming, lively, and awesome. When God shows up in the confluence of divine call and human response, surprises abound. The fourteen billion year and one hundred billion galaxy adventure of our universe should fill us with awe and wonder, not only at the grandeur of the universe but the Creative Wisdom that brought forth – still brings forth - majestic galaxies and the intricacy of our own bodies, minds, and spirits.

Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on Acts of the Apostles as a primer for today’s adventurous Christians. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel proclaimed that one of the primary religious virtues is “radical amazement” and this sense of amazement is what we find throughout Acts of the Apostles. Some suggest that Acts of the Apostles is an idealized account of what the church can be when it is truly spirit-centered; others see Acts as a description of the honeymoon period of the church, when the church was unfettered, free, and open to divine surprises at every turn. Still, Acts of the Apostles is an important text for Christians today. It is an invitation to a holy adventure in which we expect great things from God and great things from ourselves. It is an open door to experiencing beauty, wonder, and miracle in our own lives. Our universe is far from domesticated and leaps of quantum energy enliven our own lives and the world around us. Today’s churches need to be surprised and set free to find God in the most expected places, including within the church itself.

The author of Psalm 8 captured the wonder of the universe long before the first moon landing or photographs from the Hubble telescope.

O Lord, Our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You set your glory above the heavens….
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars you have established;
What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
Mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
And crowned them with glory and honor.
In the immensity of the universe, in which our solar system is but a dot, God is working in our lives, giving us the gifts of creativity, artistry, technology, and spirituality. A great God, beyond imagination, is moving in our little world, is calling us to be partners in the creative process. Despite its cosmic insignificance, our little world is the portal to the divinity who makes holy all planets and galaxies.

I believe that Acts of the Apostles is a guidepost for adventurous living and a challenge to Christians to open their imaginations and hearts to God’s presence, moving in the cosmos, our congregations, our lives, and the planet. Acts presents us with a Spirit-filled world and invites us to embrace a Spirit-centered life of prayer, healing, hospitality, adventure, diversity, and justice-seeking.

I see Acts of the Apostles as a post-modern gospel, describing a church at the margins, making it up as it goes along, open to astonishment and new ways of seeing God’s presence in the world. The margins for these first people of the Way of Jesus were also the frontiers of faith. Just as the Spirit is unfettered, so too is the Way of Jesus that takes us into all the world and embraces creation in all its diversity of race, culture, religious practice, and life style. Our parents in the faith balanced fidelity to the God of Jesus Christ with an awareness of religious and cultural pluralism. They knew they had to break through their own parochial understandings of God to be faithful to God. They knew that they had to relativize – and challenge – the Laws of God given to Moses to follow in God’s new pathways of the Spirit. In the spirit of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, they did not reject God’s covenant with the Jewish people, but saw that evolving covenant as unfettered and all-embracing, welcoming and declaring “clean” all the nations of the earth. That is our calling, too – to embrace the past as we awaken to new dimensions of fidelity for our time.

So, be ready for a spiritual adventure! Strap on your safety belt as you open yourself to God’s vision for our time, reflected in the transforming words of Acts of the Apostles. God is still moving in our world; God is still speaking in our lives; God’s faithfulness is everlasting and God’s mercies are new every morning. We need not be afraid of pluralism, for God is our companion as we faithfully and creatively respond to wondrous diversity of human culture and spirituality. We can become the people of the Way – the everyday mystics, healers, and visionaries – as we venture forth into the frontiers of the twenty-first century.

Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His  Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.    His most recent book is From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church, written with Daryl Hollinger.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Until There Are Churches in Saudi Arabia --Sightings

The debate over the presence of mosques in the United States seems to go on without end, and much of the debate is based on misinformation (both intentional and non-intentional).  Martin Marty takes up some of this in an especially pertinently entitled piece.  I invite you to read and enter a civil and informed conversation, so the tantrums of the day can start to die down.


Sightings  9/20/2010

Until There Are Churches in Saudi Arabia

-- Martin E. Marty

The tantrum—let’s call it what it is—against government, taxes, Muslims, and moderates continues to rage, and will through November and perhaps long after. A child in a tantrum eventually stops stomping and rejoins the family, where speaking and hearing, agreeing and disagreeing, can resume. Sightings would like to move on to other topics about religion and public life, and may do so soon, out of boredom, fear, weariness, or, dare we hope, with hope for better, tantrumless times.

In the meantime in these mean times, out of thousands of choices from columns, blogs, and books, let me select two, one of the best, and one of the worst. In The New Republic Leon Wieseltier challenges readers with a question: Is Islam, as some defenders say, “a religion of peace?” He answers, “It is not. Like Christianity and like Judaism, Islam is a religion of peace and a religion of war,” depending on which era and which circumstances bring forth “the tendencies” within the religion. To relate terrorism to movements within Islam “is not Islamophobic. . . Quite the contrary: it is to side with Muslims who are struggling against the same poison as we are.”

As for the World Trade Center attacks, he pleads, don’t erect a cross as a memorial. “Christianity was not attacked on September 11. America was attacked. They are not the same thing.” American Christians who use the cross in their ads against Islam “do not deplore a religious war, they welcome one.”

Now read William McGurn in The Wall Street Journal. Ask yourself what does he and the tantrum-throwers to his far right, the Newt Gingriches and company want? Peace? Moderation? Can you find the beginning of the beginning of a way to peace in the McGurn column? Note that, for good measure, he links American liberalism to radical Islam. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, “perhaps” a “moderate Muslim,” Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, and others support “‘interfaith dialogue,’ and called for American Muslims and non-Muslims to ‘break bread’ together.” Not on your life, says columnist McGurn. Stooping lowest he asks, “What are the fruits” of the efforts at moderation and dialogue?

These efforts, he writes, produced as fruit the “obscure Florida Pastor” and other would-be Qur’an burners, those who tear out pages of the Qur’an in front of the White House, and—this one is half right—“angry marches between pro- and anti-Islamic Center crowds,” all to be blamed on one “typical experiment in liberal bridge building.” He implies that there should be no efforts at “interfaith dialogue,” “breaking bread together,” or differentiating moderates from extremists in all faith traditions. Whom to blame for the current rages? Muslims, of course; one Imam, of course; and “folks who cling to their liberalism and their antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”

McGurn does have the grace to scold “Republican politicos” who, thanks to “liberal hectoring,” exploit tensions, “saying no mosque near Ground Zero until we see a church in Saudi Arabia.” Which sets us up for Wieseltier’s best line: “I also hear that there should be no mosque in Park Place until there are churches and synagogues in Saudi Arabia. I get it. Until they are like us, we will be like them.”


William McGurn, “'Bridge Building' and the WTC Mosque,” The Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2010.

Leon Wieseltier, “Mosque Notes,” The New Republic, September 2, 2010.

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


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Julian of Norwich (Amy Frykholm) -- Review

JULIAN OF NORWICH: A Contemplative Biography. By Amy Frykholm. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010. xix + 147 pages.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were marked by political, cultural, religious, and social turmoil. The crusades continued in one form or another, with Spain being the center of the battle between Christian and Muslim forces. The Byzantine Empire was crumbling and the plague took a heavy toll on Europe. This was the era of the Avignon Papacy and the Great Schism, eras when politics played a central role in the life of the Western Church. This was also the era of John Wyclif and Jan Hus, proto-reformers who challenged the ecclesiastical foundations of the Church and set the stage for Luther and his contemporaries in the sixteenth century.

It was into this world, one in which superstition and fear made themselves felt, and where dissent was viewed with suspicion and the voice of an educated woman voice was rarely welcomed that Julian of Norwich appeared on the scene. Although there were few places where a woman, especially an inquisitive one, could safely explore intellectual and spiritual ideas, the convent and the anchorage provided that kind of safe space. Julian of Norwich has become a well-known figure in the modern age among those who desire to engage the mystical side of the Christian faith. Although not as well known as Catherine of Sienna or Teresa of Avila, Julian was one of the earliest women spiritual and theological writers in England.

According to Amy Frykholm, a journalist and member of the staff of the Christian Century, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love was the first book composed in English by a woman in an era when books written in English were still uncommon. It may help to realize that this was the era of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Indeed, according to Frykholm this book, also known as the Showings, “remains one of the greatest theological works in the English language” (p. ix).

Despite the importance of Julian’s book, we know little about her, including her true name, which could possibly be taken from the church where she served as an anchorite – St. Julian’s in Norwich. Although her life largely remains a mystery, except for the clues that emerge out of her own writings, Frykholm has done an excellent job of ferreting out from her own writings and from what we know about the historical context to offer us a rather compelling picture of Julian’s life. In part because Julian was a contemplative herself, Frykholm has chosen to write a contemplative biography.

What we do know about Julian is that she was born around 1342 in Norwich, which was then the second largest city in Britain. Second only to London, it was a major commercial and industrial region, known for its wool trade. But, this city also suffered a devastating blow from the plague during the fourteenth century that cut the population nearly in half. It is possible that she had been married, but there’s no record of this. Then in 1373, at the age of thirty, she began to receive visions, which she discerned were coming to her from God. But, concerned about the nature of these visions she sought guidance from an Augustinian friar who lived in a monastery nearby. This friar served as a spiritual guide and teacher, introducing her to the great theological writings of the church, including the works of Augustine and the Scriptures themselves. After a time she began, under the guidance of this teacher, to write down her visions. But, because it was dangerous for a woman to be known as a mystic and writer – outside the confines of ecclesiastically recognized entities, her spiritual director suggested that she become an anchorite.

Sometime around the age of fifty, she attached herself to the church of St. Julian in Norwich. Although we do not have direct information about the nature of her installation, we do know how such events transpired, and so Frykholm imaginatively describes what likely occurred in Julian’s case. There she lived until her death around 1416, spending her life in prayer and in writing down her visions. An anchorage was a solitary cell, in which a devout person would spend their lives, essentially cut off from the outside world. As Frykholm tells it, the typical anchorage was a single room, with possibly three windows, one of which would have opened up to the church, so that the anchorite could hear the mass. Another open would have opened up to the quarters of the servant, who cared for the needs of the anchorite, and finally there would have been a window opening up to a porch, where the anchorite received visitors, including visitors seeking her spiritual guidance. A box would be placed on the porch, where members of the community might leave alms for her support. Members of the community provided food for her, in exchange for her prayers. She would have been assigned a servant, who lived in quarters attached to the anchorage, and who tended to her physical needs. It appears that she was able to leave the anchorage to attend services, but beyond that her world was contained behind walls and dark curtains until the day of her death, after which her book of visions began to gain a readership.

One of the reasons why Julian may have become so popular in the modern age is that her vision of God is one of love and grace. The Jesus who appeared to her spoke in gentle tones and rarely if ever was the focus of the visions on topics such as hell, purgatory, or sin, which stood at the forefront of much of the religious teaching of the era. Frykholm writes of the theology that emerges from her visions:
She herself had received no visions of hell or of purgatory. “God is all love,” she offered. “He is all mercy and all grace. There is no wrath in God.” She often felt that she was speaking to the black curtain alone and that her words floated no farther than an inch from her mouth. They wanted her to tell them that she had seen this or that loved one saved from the jaws of hell by the flight of angels or that Mary had come to her and personally whispered the name of the one who would be saved. Julian did not see these kinds of visions, and she could only tell them honestly that she saw no wrath in God. She felt their disappointment, but she hoped that something of God’s love might echo for them, long into the future (pp. 97-98).
There was a significant dissonance between her visions and the belief systems of her contemporaries, which led some to fear that her visions would prove disruptive to a church that not only taught a theology of fear but used it to keep control of the people. Reflecting on the concerns of a critic, the fear was that opening oneself to love, might lead a person into the arms of the heretics (p. 111).

Whether one has read the works of Julian of Norwich, Frykholm provides an enjoyable and readable look at a significant figure in the life of the church. Since Julian left few traces of her own life, except her writings, Frykholm must fill in the gaps with accounts of life in the era in which Julian made her presence known. One can read this as an introduction to Julian’s life, and to the spiritual life of the middle ages. In either case, the book is a worthy gift to the modern Christian pursuing the contemplative life, or the person seeking to understand the mystical tradition that has been passed down from one generation to the next.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Putting Away Childish Things -- A Christian Century Review

Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern FaithMarcus Borg has many fans, and detractors, out there.  He has written many provocative and faith affirming books -- even if I don't agree with everything he writes, I have found him an intriguing dialog partner.  Well, I recently read and reviewed for the Christian Century his latest book, a novel entitled Putting Away Childish Things (Harper One, 2010). 

Since my review of the book is found at the Christian Century site, I'll need to send you to that site to read the entire review.  And when you get there you'll notice many changes to the site -- including the incorporation of the Theolog blog, for which I've been a regular contributor has been incorporated into the new Century site. 

To get you started reading, here is the opening of the review:

A review of Putting Away Childish Things,  Aug 26, 2010  Reviewed by Robert Cornwall
Being the Jesus scholar that he is, Marcus Borg certainly understands the power of a story. In Putting Away Childish Things he offers up a didactic novel that explores some of the thorniest theological issues facing the Christian community. Although it's not a page-turning thriller in the mode of The Da Vinci Code, it offers Borg an alternative way to offer up his theological vision. As a first novel it should be judged not for its literary grace or dramatic sense, but according to whether Borg is able to take us deeper into his vision of progressive Christianity.

The central character in this novel is Kate Riley, a fortyish, cigarette-smoking, Guin­­ness-drinking, red-shoe-wearing Epis­copalian biblical scholar who serves as an assistant professor of religious studies at a small liberal arts college in Wis­consin. Popular with many of her students, she's also controversial, especially since gaining notoriety for publishing a book exploring the two biblical infancy narratives.

To read the rest, and see my response to the book, click here. 

Seeking the Balm of Gilead -- A Sermon

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Last week we heard a word from the Gospel of Luke about a risk-taking and extravagantly-loving God, who will do everything and anything to restore humanity to fellowship with God and with one’s neighbor. It’s also a word about a God who likes to celebrate this fact with a party. It’s a pretty powerful and wonderful word. But there’s another word to be found in Scripture, and it also needs to be heard. That word is found in today’s lesson from Jeremiah.

1. The Cry of the Wounded Heart

Nine years ago, on the second Sunday after September 11th, I preached from this very text. Like today, it was the lectionary reading from the Old Testament, but it spoke directly to the shock that our nation was still experiencing. It offered a word of consolation to people, trying to make sense of the horrific events of the previous week. As I took to the pulpit that day and preached my sermon, I tried to wrestle with the grief and the anger people were feeling. I reflected on the angry calls for vengeance that I was reading and hearing. These feelings were understandable, but to my mind they were contrary to the gospel of Jesus. I tried to offer a different perspective, one that reflected the nature and character of the God we know and love in Jesus Christ, using this passage from Jeremiah as a lens through which we could look at our situation and make sense of it. What Jeremiah does for us is give voice to the despair that so many were feeling. But, giving voice to our despair isn’t enough. There has to be a voice of hope and consolation as well, and despite the heaviness of this passage there’s also a glimmer of hope and a promise of healing, even in the midst of a word of judgment on a wayward people.

As we have seen in recent weeks, the shadow of September 11th still hangs over our nation. The anger, the despair, and the fear engendered by the events of that day remain with us. But it’s not just 9-11 that casts a shadow over our lives. There are the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Katrina, confessions of moral failure on the part of religious and political leaders, the continuing legacy of racism in our land, a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a lingering economic downturn that has cost millions of people their jobs and even their life savings. And these are just the events that touch American lives. As we reflect on our situation in life, the cry of Jeremiah seems to express the feelings of the moment: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” (Jer. 8:18). This cry of the heart isn’t just found in Jeremiah. The Psalmist also cries out:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13:1-2a).

Then there’s that cry of dereliction from the Psalmist that’s found then on the lips of Jesus as he hung on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).

These aren’t joyous words, and yet they reflect the absence of hope that stands over our lives like a cloud that won’t go away. Sometimes we think we have to put on a smiley face before God and our neighbors, and pretend that nothing is happening to us. But these texts give us permission to cry out to God and ask why.

2. Hearing Words of Judgment

Now, when Jeremiah spoke these words the Babylonians were bearing down on Jerusalem. We don’t hear the full word of judgment that Jeremiah levels against the people in this passage, but it’s there in the broader context. Jeremiah essentially told the people of Judah that since they had broken things, they now owned what they’d broken. They’d gone against God’s word, and so now they were suffering the consequences. The sufferings of the day were the result of God’s judgment on the spiritual sickness that afflicted the nation.

The darkness that’s present in this passage of Scripture should make us uncomfortable. It’s good to remember that while the Scriptures bring us good news, the biblical writers were realistic about the world in which we live. Sometimes we need to be reminded that what we say and do can have a negative effect on our lives and the lives of others. While I don’t believe God sent those planes into the towers of Manhattan, or sent Katrina as a sign of judgment on New Orleans, or the earthquake that hit Haiti, or the floods in Pakistan, events such as these can be a wake-up call of sorts. They catch our attention and cause us stop and consider the presence of darkness in our lives. That may be why many churches saw an increase in attendance after 9-11. Even if this attendance increase was short-lived, it represented the human need to find a word of healing, balm of Gilead that would heal a sin-sick soul.

3. The Balm of Gilead

We come to church hoping to hear a positive word, a healing word. Although there are those who enjoy fire and brimstone, most of us will take a pass on words like that. There’s a reason why preachers like Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, and Joel Osteen are so popular, they preach a positive message. Unfortunately, their message is too often a partial gospel. Although it’s not my habit to criticize other preachers, at least not in my sermons, I find it enlightening to read that the primary cause of the break between Robert Schuller and his son, which led to the dismissal of the son as pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, was the father’s concern that his son talked too much about the Bible and about Jesus. Apparently, if the Bible and Jesus are the focus, then the message might not be as positive as some people want it to be.

Now, I’m more an optimist than I a pessimist, more Winnie the Pooh than Eeyore, but I’m not naive. I know about the dark side of life, and so if we’re to hear the whole gospel, we need to hear the dark side as well as the bright side of life. Although we might wish things to be different, there is truth in the words of Ecclesiastes: There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to rejoice and a time to grieve (Eccles. 3:1-8). That’s just the way life is. Still, even as Jeremiah brings a word of judgment on his people, he also cries out for healing.

"Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?" "O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!"
Jeremiah recognizes that we can’t go on forever living on the dark side of life. We can’t dwell in the darkness forever, even if the cloud doesn’t want to dissipate. And so, we must go looking for the balm of Gilead, which brings healing to “our sin-sick souls.” The question is – where can we find this balm of Gilead? Where does the physician for our souls reside?

The passage for the day doesn’t give us an immediate answer. We have to continue reading, past the point where the people go into exile. Then and only then do we hear a word of hope. In his letter to the exiles in Babylon, Jeremiah writes:

For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have made for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jer. 29:10-14).

There is, as they say, light at the end of the tunnel, so keep on searching for God. Keep looking for the balm of Gilead.

And as we seek a word of healing, we’re led to Jesus, who is the great physician and the healer of our lives. If we read the gospels, we know that healing stood at the center of his ministry. Wherever he went, he reached out and he touched people’s lives. He restored hope to those who lived without hope. He restored broken bodies and broken lives. We see this promise of healing in his own death and resurrection. Hanging on the cross as he did that day, Jesus tasted the bitterness, the pain, and the despair of humanity. He bore on his body the blows of human anger and hatred, and he offered forgiveness in return. When we hear the cry “Is there no balm in Gilead?” the answer that we hear is that it’s Jesus who brings God’s healing presence to us.

Whether we grieve the loss of one we hold dear or a person we don’t even know who dies as a victim of violence in Afghanistan, Darfur, Congo, Detroit, or even own neighborhoods, the good news is that God is present with us and that God has tasted our sorrow in Jesus. As we hear this message of hope we also discover that we’re to be the agents of that hope. And so in the words of that old spiritual we sing out:

"There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul."

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 19, 2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Managing Polarities in Congregations -- A Review

MANAGING POLARITIES IN CONGREGATIONS: Eight Keys for Thriving Faith Communities. By Roy M. Oswald and Barry Johnson. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2010. 251 pages.

It is a rare thing to run into a congregation that doesn’t want to thrive. Yes, there are faith communities that seem satisfied with the status quo, but that’s because the status quo is how they define what it means to be thriving. So, leaving aside those church folks satisfied with simply existing, most church leaders want to know how their congregations can grow in faith, in numbers, and in ministry. In our desire to reach this goal, many of us have run from one promising product to the next. We read about six easy steps to church growth and try each of them, hoping that something sticks. If we read that young people like contemporary music we may be inclined to toss the organ and hire a praise band. Perhaps the key to vitality isn’t flitting from one promised cure to another, but instead involves attending to and managing the polarities that are present in every community of faith? That is the premise of the new book by Roy Oswald, an ELCA pastor, church consultant, and author of several Alban published books, and Barry Johnson, President of Polarity Management Associates.

Oswald and Johnson use polarity maps, a concept that dates back to the mid 1970s to lay out principles by which congregations can discern a path to vitality. The idea here is that there are naturally occurring polarities, two seemingly opposite but interdependent pairs that must be managed properly. This is because they are “unavoidable, unsolvable and indestructible” (p. 209). They are, like a GPS, which when we make wrong turns, simply recalculate and offer an alternate route.

The polarity maps assume that there are two poles, around which energy flows in an “infinity loop.” To get a sense of how this works, think of breathing – we inhale and exhale, continually, as long as we live. The same is true for congregations, as long as they live, they will engage these polarities. They can choose to manage them poorly or well, and the manner in which they manage them will determine congregational vitality.

  • Tradition AND Innovation:  Another way of naming this pair is "stability AND change," that is, finding a balance between honoring the past and being relevant to the present situation.
  • Spiritual health AND Institutional Health:  This is a key issue in most congregations -- do we focus on the spiritual, the mission, or the institutional life?   Again, it's not an either or situation.
  • Management AND Leadership:  Management is about maintenance, leadership is about vision.  Vitality, requires both attending to the institutional life (management) and guiding the community into an embrace of its mission (leadership).
  • Strong Clergy Leadership AND Strong Lay Leadership:  Here the issue is shared leadership, instead of competition for power.  Thriving congregations need strong pastors, and yet they also need lay leaders who are willing to work together to achieve the mission of the church. 
  • Inreach AND Outreach:  This is again an area that easily lends itself to competition.  Do we focus on meeting the needs of the members or do we reach out to those beyond the congregation's walls -- both in terms of evangelism and social justice.  Is the church a chaplaincy or a mission station?  Or, do we need to make sure that both poles are managed well? 
  • Nurture AND Transformation:   We might call this -- loving people as they are AND helping them become who God would have them be.  It is a polarity of focusing on pastoral care and discipleship.
  • Making Disciples– Easy Process AND Challenging Process:  Here the focus is on the manner in which discipleship takes place.  The authors recommend two ways for persons to become members of the church, recognizing that the process of discipleship might need to come prior to membership for some, while for others the process might better take place as they are members already.  Either way, the goal is the same.
  • Call AND Duty.  How are we motivated to serve?  Is it a call or is it a duty?  On one hand the question is answered by attending to those things that emerge from our basic values, and at the other end attending to those things we feel a definite call to engage in.  On one hand there is the sense of making use of one's gifts, at the other side, recognizing that there are certain things to be done as a Christian. 
As one looks at the eight polarities, it is easy to see how easily it can be for churches to focus on one over the other, as if these are either/or premises. The authors write that “the more people value the upside of one pole, the more they will denigrate the opposite pole by pointing out why it is a bad idea and adding more items to the downside of the pole” (p. 37). The reality is that there are both upsides and downside to each pole. We make a mistake if we assume that one or the other pole is a problem to be solved, rather than a reality of life that must be managed. Thus, by emphasizing one over the other, which often is the tendency of church leaders, we’re more likely to fall prey to the downside of the pole we’re embracing, and this leads to decline. For instance, because institutional survival seems to always trump religious experience, there is the tendency to focus on those things that contribute to survival. Thus, there is the danger for churches that are struggling with survival to focus on inreach over outreach, but as the authors note, “congregations need to remind themselves continually of their primary mission.” Although the spiritual nurture of members is part of the mission of the church, surely the church is also called to evangelism and social justice. Vitality requires that this polarity be managed well.

In eight of the nine chapters the authors lay out the dynamics of the eight polarities, offering insight into both the upside and downside of each pole, show the ways in which the polarities can be managed poorly, offering a guide to early warnings, and also offering guidelines to managing the polarities well. Accompanying each of these chapters is a polarity map so that the reader can get a visual sense of how this works.

This book should prove invaluable to churches and church leaders who seek to move beyond the either/or thinking that so dominates on our communities of faith. By recognizing, as these authors do, that these polarities are naturally occurring and thus a gift from God, we need to receive them accordingly, and seek the proper balance that leads to thriving congregations. This is, therefore, a must read book for all clergy and lay church leaders.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Big Tent eBook!

I wasn't able to attend the recent Big Tent Christianity event in Raleigh, NC, however I did participate in their synchroblog event that preceeded it. These blog posts, including one of mine (page 14 on PDF), are found in this free e-book. If you want to know what people are thinking about when it comes to living under the Big Tent, this is a good place to start.

Just click on the link Big Tent eBook! to go to the pdf.

Set Free to Serve -- A Sermon

This sermon was preached on Thursday, September 16, 2010, at Northwestern Christian Church in Detroit, as part of a three day revival.  The CWCC choir joined me in sharing a message of freedom and service with this congregation pastored by my friend and colleague, the Rev. Eugene James.


Set Free to Serve
John 8:31-36
Two years ago I went to a pastor’s conference in Chicago, and before I left, someone, I think it was John Lacey, told me that I needed to connect with the Rev. Eugene James while I was there. With that in mind, I had my eye out for this pastor from Detroit, and on that very first day, as I took the elevator to my room, I found myself standing right next to a man named Eugene James. From that moment on, Eugene and I have built a strong friendship and a strong partnership in ministry. We’ve done a lot of talking and a lot of dreaming about joint ventures in mission, and while we’ve done more talking than doing, I know that good things are on the horizon. I am also pleased to affirm Eugene’s calling, along with that of Maggie Mills, to serve as co-regional ministers of the Michigan Region during this important time of transition, because I have great trust in their wisdom and spiritual discernment. So, having said all of this by way of introduction, I want to say how pleased I am to have received an invitation to bring my choir and share a message at this week’s revival.

The theme for the revival is simple and straightforward. If you’re a follower of Jesus, then you have been set free so that you might serve. Over the past several weeks I’ve been taking to heart this theme, and pondering what it is I should share this evening. What is it that God would have us hear from John’s gospel about the message of freedom that comes from Jesus? And what are the implications that can be drawn from this powerful statement:

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
Yes, if you know the truth, which means if you’re willing to follow the teachings of Jesus, then you will be set free. For as Jesus says to his critics: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” We come here tonight to hear a word about freedom and service, two words that don’t seem to fit very well together in our society, and yet in Christ, they belong together, even as a hand fits in a glove. But, we must ask two questions: From what am I being set free and where will this freedom to serve lead?

1. The Starting Point

The Disciples tradition, out of which both our congregations emerge, isn’t big on confession of sin. We’re a pretty optimistic people and so we don’t spend a lot of time focusing on sin, especially original sin. But, experience tells us that there’s a dark side to life. There is evil in the land, and we dare not ignore its presence. But, not only is evil present in the land, but all of us at one time or another get caught up in its web. Whether we like to admit it – and it seems as if the people Jesus was talking to didn’t want to admit it – we all have experienced bondage to sin and need to be set free so that we can experience the blessings of God’s presence in our lives. We need to be set free from this web so that we can truly love God and love our neighbors.

If we’re going to be set free, however, we’ll need to know what it is we need to be set free from. Paul pointed out that the Law is there to shine a light on those areas of our lives that are contrary to God’s vision for our lives. Although we can summarize the commandments of God in two very succinct statements – love God and love your neighbor – we need more details. That’s what the Ten Commandments and the other laws do for us – they help us understand how we can love God and love our neighbors.

Sin, to give a simple definition, involves our failure to love God with our entire being and our failure to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. If we’re to be set free from this bondage, this slavery to sin, then we first have to acknowledge that we have a problem – something that Jesus’ audience couldn’t acknowledge. But, as we know from the many Twelve Step programs, you have to acknowledge that you have a problem, before you can get help.

So, what is it that we should confess? What is it that we need to acknowledge before we can be set free by the grace and mercy of Jesus? Could it be a false idol, such as a nicer and fancier vehicle, a bigger house, or fame and fortune? Could it be the kind of self-doubt that keeps us from recognizing that we’re created in the image of God, and therefore makes it impossible to embrace our gifts and callings from God? Could it be anger, jealousy, or unfaithfulness? Could it be the stereotypes, prejudices, and suspicions that separate us from one another?

I must say that I’m deeply disturbed by the growing polarization in our society. I’m concerned about politicians, pundits, and so-called religious leaders who seek to gain power by dividing us from one another. Paul may have said that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, (Gal. 3:28), but even the church has failed to live out this promise. Therefore, if we’re to be set free then we must first recognize our condition so that God can begin to transform us into the people we’re meant to be. And then as God changes our hearts and minds, we can better reflect the glory that is God in and through our own lives. Then we can sing with complete honesty that old song: “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

2. Set Free for a Purpose

If we start with the premise that each of us needs to be set free from something, then the next question has to do with the nature and meaning of this freedom. We may all desire to experience freedom, but I doubt if we all define the word in the same way.

As I stand here tonight in this pulpit, I’m quite conscious of the fact that I’m a white pastor of a predominantly white congregation, who has brought an all-white choir, to share a message of freedom in a predominantly black church. I’m a historian by training, so I know the history of our nation. I know about the long struggle for freedom and civil rights that has marked the African American story in this nation. I know the story, but I’ve not experienced it. Therefore, if I’m going to address this theme with integrity, then I must make this confession. Although I can speak to the issues and I can sing the spirituals with gusto, I know that my experience and that of my ancestors is different from the African-American experience. But, even if I can’t completely understand the full meaning of freedom as it is understood in the African-American community, I take refuge in the knowledge that in Christ we are indeed one, and that in him we can experience true freedom.

By making our confession, we’re ready to hear the good news. God has provided us with a road to freedom, a road that leads out of the land of slavery into the land of promise. And the one who will be our guide along this journey is Jesus. Just as Moses guided the people of Israel out of Egypt and toward the promised land, Jesus shall do the same for us. And even though Moses died before he could cross the river, leaving the rest of the journey in the hands of Joshua, the Gospel story tells us that Joshua’s namesake, the one we call Jesus of Nazareth, not only leads us out of slavery but he also leads us across the river.

In the story of Good Friday, we hear the bad news that the Romans had cut short his journey. When they laid him in the tomb, Jesus’ followers thought that it was over, that they’d never get to cross to the other side. But the message of Easter tells us that God has turned aside the attempts of those who would keep the world in bondage. By raising Jesus from the dead, God provided a way for us to cross to the other side of the river so that we might experience true freedom.

The message seems clear; if we will embrace Jesus as our Lord and embrace his teachings, which call for us to love God with our entire being and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, then we will experience true freedom. But freedom isn’t an end in itself. With freedom comes responsibility, which is a message that many of us neglect to hear and embrace.

This is the point that Paul was making when he responded to those who claimed that “all things are lawful.” “All things may be lawful, Paul says, but not all things are beneficial. True freedom isn’t the opportunity to do whatever we want, whenever we want. True freedom means seeking to do that which builds up the entire body. As Paul told the Corinthians, seek that which builds up. “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor. 10:23-243). In difficult times, like this, it’s easy to put our own wants and desires first, and take advantage of our liberties at the expense of others, but the word that we hear from the scriptures is this: Take hold of your freedom, but do so in a way that is responsible, so that the body might be built up.

3. Gifted For Service

When we hear the word freedom in our cultural context, we often hear it in very individualistic ways. This is especially true right now, in this political season. Everybody is looking out for themselves. They want what they think they’re entitled to get, and if that means getting what they want at the expense of others, then so be it! Unfortunately, what is true in the political realm, is often true in the church. Too often we define the church in terms of our individual wants and desires. In the New Testament, however, the church is defined in terms of community. The church is a body, whose members may be different from each other, and yet in Christ and through the Holy Spirit of God, they are made one.

To get a sense of what we’re called to be and do, as people who have been set free by Jesus, we need to look at the fourth chapter of Ephesians. In Ephesians 4 we hear a word to the church about God’s gifts to the church, gifts that are intended to be used for the up building of the body of Christ, so that we might come “to the unity of the faith, to maturity, the measure of the full stature of Christ.” As we continue reading, we hear a reminder that we’re no longer children, who are tossed to and fro by doctrines, trickery, and deceit. Now there’s nothing wrong with being a child, if you’re a child, but if you’re an adult, then childish behavior and attitudes aren’t appropriate. So, if we’re to be truly free, then we must move toward maturity in our faith.

So that we can hear this message clearly, I’d like to read from the fourth chapter of Ephesians (verses 4:1-16).

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’

9(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended* into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
As you reflect these words of scripture, consider the words that begin the chapter:

Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God.
Although he’s writing this letter from prison, he knows that in Christ he is free, and that he has been set free to build up the body of Christ. In hearing this call to freedom, he encourages us to make use of our freedom by conducting ourselves “with all humility, gentleness, and patience.” We’re being called to affirm the oneness of the body of Christ in the way we live our lives.

Having been set free, God has given us gifts for service. In this letter five gifts are mentioned – Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers. Each of these gifts are expressions of leadership in the church, but there are other lists, such as the ones in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 that broaden the spectrum. Each of these gifts is given to us so that we might be equipped for service to the body of Christ. God gives this gifts so that we can bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ – the very gospel that has set us free so that we might serve.

As we move toward a time of decision, I want to pose these questions: Are you ready to be set free? Are you willing to embrace the call to walk according to the way of Jesus? And if you’re ready to be set free, are you ready to take on the responsibilities of a life worthy of this calling? And if you’re willing to take on these responsibilities, are you ready to serve according to the gifts that God has poured upon the church, so that it might be built up? Are you ready to be set free to serve?
Preached September 16, 2010
at Northwestern Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Detroit, MI