Monday, October 31, 2011

Flat Churches? Tony Jones talks to Steve Knight

This morning I had a lengthy Skype conversation with Steve Knight, a friend and a consultant working with Hope Partnership a newly forming Disciples of Christ church planting/transformation entity.  Our conversation is a followup to a conversation that Steve had with Tony Jones, author of The Church is Flat,  which is Tony's Princeton Ph.D. dissertation in Practical Theology.  They talked about that book, Tony's work with the Emergent Church movement, and his analysis of the movement.  I want to show that video as a prelude to my conversation with Steve covering similar areas, but from a related by different perspective.

Let me set this conversation up.  Tony writes about the Emergent Movement within the Christian community from within the movement.  He's a founder of the movement and served as executive director of Emergent Village for several years.  He is part of one of the leading Emergent churches, Solomon's Porch, which is pastored by/led by Doug Pagitt.   I find Tony to be iconoclastic, perhaps a proverbial bull in the china closet, instigator of conversation.  With regard to Mainline Protestantism, he's cynical about its future and whether it can change.  He's concerned that many emergent minded folks will look to the Mainline for a home, but that this will co-opt them and lessen their entrepreneurial spirit.

I would like to share the YouTube video and invite your thoughts.  Then stay tuned for my conversation.  I'm more hopeful than Tony, but then I pastor a long established Disciples congregation.  I should note that Tony's audio is a bit soft, so you may have to turn up the volume.  But enjoy!

It's a Global World Out There

Maybe you're like me.  You check the stock market each day.  Perhaps you watch a couple of stocks.  You notice that they go up and down.   September was a really bad month for stocks, but October was one of the best in years, maybe the best in more than 20 years.  In fact, last I had heard we were in the black for the year -- stock market wise.  We'd gained some and lost a lot and now we're at least back where we started.

There is an interesting dynamic going on that we might want to take into account.  Tom Friedman has been making much ado about the world being flat, that we're in this global economy, so that what happens in one place affects another place.  It's one of the reasons why even the President of the United States can't influence all the economic or even political variables.  

If you've been watching the stock market you will have noticed that one of those variables has been the debt crisis in Europe.  The stock market ebbs and flows depending on news concerning the state of the conversation with Greece and other Eurozone countries.  Greece is a rather small country.  At a little over 11 million people, it is smaller than Illinois, which has nearly 13 million people.  We know that Illinois has had some economic problems of late, but the nation's economy isn't held hostage by it, nor is the world's economy really affected by the budgetary problems of Illinois.  I realize that state debt and national debt are different, but the point I want to make is that right now our economic situation in the United States is being influenced by events in Greece. 

You may have also heard that China's economy is slowing down a bit.  That means that they may have less need for certain imports.  It also may mean that China could pull back investments elsewhere.  That could slow the global economy -- and thus America's economy.

So, what should we hear and see in these news stories?  

It seems to me that whether we like it or not, we're all in this thing together.  What happens in Illinois or Michigan can affect what happens in Mississippi and elsewhere.  A drought (global warming anyone?) in the South could lead to skyrocketing peanut prices, making what has been a relatively in-expensive staple for many a family a luxury item.    

Are we ready to enter a global world?   We may not have a choice.  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Saints Living Generously -- A sermon

1 Corinthians 16:1-4
Although many churches are observing All Saints Day today, we’re going to observe it next Sunday with a special litany of remembrance of “all the saints, who from their labors rest.”   Even though we’re launching our annual stewardship campaign instead, it’s not too early to start remembering the people who have influenced our lives and have shown themselves worthy of being imitated.  These people could  be parents or teachers, preachers or friends, long time church members or the other saints of history, whose stories continue to inspire.  As the hymn “For All the Saints” declares, this is a “blest communion, company divine!”  And together, we form the one body in Christ and the communion of saints.  

Although there are saints who have rested from their labors, there are also living saints. In fact, according to Paul, we all could be among the hagious or saints of God.  So, do you feel like you’re one of God’s saints?  And what does it mean to be a living saint? Does it mean that you and I must live perfect lives?  I hope not!  But perhaps this quote from Albert Schweitzer is worth pondering: “A man does not have to be an angel to be a saint.”  

So, saints of God are you ready to talk about stewardship?  And as our theme material suggests, we’re to be   “Saints Alive! Living Generously.”   Of course this theme only works if we’re ready to accept the calling to be living saints who live generous lives.  
Generosity, as I’ve learned through life, is a spiritual discipline that requires consistency of practice.  I like what Katie Hays, a Disciple pastor and a wonderful preacher who I met last spring, has to say about stewardship.  She says that “stewardship is about the long-term, lifetime habit of deliberate generosity.”   The principle of tithing, whether or not you give 10%, is the basis of such a practice, and I know that many of you practice this spiritual discipline.  You don’t wait for emergency appeals.  You just give in season and out of season, knowing that generosity is part of being a follower of Jesus.  You don’t use your giving as leverage in the community, but you understand that it reflects your commitment to the common good of the community of faith and beyond. 

As you ponder this definition of stewardship, did you notice the tree that seems to be growing out of the back window of the sanctuary?  Felicia and Debbie “planted” it.  And did you notice the different colors of leaves?  This seems appropriate to this autumn season, doesn’t it?   

Now, these three different colors represent three kinds of givers.  They represent those who gave in the past, those who are giving in the present, and those who will give in the future – perhaps in the coming year and beyond.  These leaves are all connected to each other by branches, a trunk, and roots, which represents the church, while the different leaves represent the saints of old, the saints of today, and the saints of tomorrow, who give generously through this church.  Do you see the connection between the relationship of the leaves to the trees and our relationship to God through the community of faith?  Even as a leaf can’t live apart from the tree, is it possible for us to live spiritually apart from the community of faith?  

While I’m not an expert on tree science, I do know that even as the leaves draw life from the tree itself, the leaves are the means by which the tree breathes, drawing in energy and expelling energy.  In our relationship to the church are we not in the same position?  And is not our giving part of this relationship so that through each of us the presence of God flows in and out to the world? 

As we read the passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, did you hear his request that the church take up a collection for the saints in Jerusalem who were suffering from poverty?  Did you also hear him mention the example of the Galatian church?  They’d been setting aside funds on first day of the week – the day of worship – so that when Paul arrived they would be ready.  They did this deliberately and consistently, and if you read some of Paul’s other letters you’ll find similar instructions in them.  

When you hear this request, do you hear echoes of one of Amy Gopp’s Week of Compassion requests?    If you’re on her email list, you probably get one these requests every week, which is a reminder that there are needs throughout the year – an earthquake in Turkey and a famine in Africa, a tornado in Missouri and a flood in Iowa.  Amy issues the request, asking the saints of God to give generously so as to touch the lives of others, perhaps people we’ll never meet.      

Why should they do this?  In writing to the Roman church Paul says that the Gentile churches, which had received spiritual blessings from the Jerusalem church, owe their brothers and sisters in Judea a portion of their material blessings as a sign of gratitude  (Rom. 15:27).  As you read the letters of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles you see and hear a call to be one body, to gather across time and space as saints of God, and consider the needs of others.   These gifts are signs of our connectedness with each other.

So, as you listened to this passage did you hear an appeal to our competitive spirits?  Are you surprised that Paul might create a bit of competition between the churches?  What do you think about this appeal?  You’ll find even more of this in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where he tells them that they need to have their offering ready to go because he’d been bragging on them to the Macedonian churches, which has stirred in the Macedonians a zeal to give.  So Paul tells them – don’t embarrass me or yourselves by not having the check ready!!   (2 Cor. 8:1-5). 

Returning to that definition of stewardship as being a long-term, lifelong, and deliberate act of generosity, and thinking about the leaves on that stewardship tree, where do you see yourself?   Are you a past giver, a current giver, or future giver?  Or are you all three?  

When you leave church this morning, the stewardship group will be passing out packets that will help you discern your giving levels and your commitment to financially underwrite the ministry of the church.  As you take these packets home and read through the information in it, you’ll have an opportunity to prayerfully consider what you would commit yourself to giving through the church. 

While you do this remember too that some of the people that these leaves represent are the saints who no longer live amongst us, but whose gifts continue to sustain this church’s ministry as it moves into the future.  Consider the legacy of those whose past gifts to purchase land and to build buildings, whose gifts to the endowments and capital funds, help sustain this ministry now and into the future. Remember that the interest and dividends from these funds help provide an important foundation for our annual budget.  They don’t replace our giving, but they do amplify the effects of our giving.       

Besides the endowment funds and capital funds that support our general fund and outreach giving, there is the Edgar Dewitt Jones Scholarship fund that supports Disciples seminarians in their studies.  I met someone at the General Assembly who had been a recipient of this scholarship and she expressed her deep appreciation for it, because it helped sustain her studies at a crucial point in time.  And another recipient of this scholarship, Beau Underwood, who graduated from the University of Chicago Divinity School, where Alex is now studying, now serves on the staff of National City Christian Church and on the staff of Faith in Public Life, where he works to organize congregations to make a difference in our society.  These two ministries and countless others are a legacy of these gifts that continue to express the generosity of those saints, who are resting from their labors.      

Generous giving in the past, the present, and the future, helps sustain the ministry and mission of this church.  We are blessed by many saints who have taken to heart this call to be lifelong, deliberate, and generous givers to the body of Christ and the communion of saints.  So aren’t you glad you’re one of the living saints living generous lives? 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 29, 2011 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Breath of Life -- A Review

BREATH OF LIFE:  God as Spirit in Judaism.  By Rabbi Rachel Timoner.  Brewster, MA, 2011.  Xxv + 145 pages. 

            It’s true that the Spirit is present in the Hebrew Bible, sometimes seemingly incognito, but many Christians have this sense that the Spirit really wasn’t very active until Pentecost.  I’ve found myself, in some of my own writings on the Holy Spirit, making that claim.  But, perhaps there is more to the story than many Christians have realized.  Having a Jewish guide to this topic would be helpful, and help has arrived.  I will confess that I’ve never really read anything specifically Jewish on this topic until I took up Rabbi Rachel Timoner’s new book from Paraclete Press -- Breath of Life.  And what a breath of fresh air this book is. 

I’ve read a lot of books on the Holy Spirit, including another recent contribution on the Holy Spirit published by Paraclete Press, Amos Yong’s excellent Who Is the Holy Spirit? (2011).   While many of these books are helpful and contribute to my understanding of the nature and function of the Holy Spirit, rarely do I see something really new and refreshing.  Breath of Life offered me something new and even revolutionary.   Timoner writes as a Jew, knowing that much of her audience for this book likely will be Christians (Paraclete Press is, after all, a Christian publishing company).  I wasn’t sure what to expect, though I wasn’t expecting to learn anything all that new and revolutionary, and yet I found it that truly opened my eyes to new ways of looking at the Spirit, recognizing that the Spirit didn’t just come and go, but the Spirit was and is present and active in all of life’s experiences. 

The starting point of this discussion of the Spirit involves definitions.  Timoner notes that most Christians think of the Spirit in terms of the Trinity, a theological construct that is foreign to Judaism.  In fact, she states that for many Jews the phrase “God as Spirit” sounds too Christian.  But, as she notes, Jews recognize that God has many names and thus words like Shekinah have their place in the conversation. Therefore, spirit can be a name, a metaphor, a possession, or a “human experience of God.”  We the readers, especially Christian readers, will need to keep these concerns in mind as we read the book. 

When we come to the Hebrew Bible many of us know that the predominant Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach, a word that like the Greek pneuma, can be translated in a number of ways including breath and wind as well as spirit. We encounter this word in the very first lines of Genesis, where the spirit/wind/breath of God is hovering over chaos and thus participating in the creation of the earth.  The word appears 378 times in the Hebrew Bible, making it an important concept.  But it is helpful to be reminded that this isn’t the only word for spirit.  The other leading word, neshamah, is according to Timoner a much more personal force than ruach.  It belongs, she says, to the “essence of God and the essence of humanity.”  Another way of translating it is soul, and thus “our souls and our breaths [neshimah] are intertwined and interdependent, coming from God, dwelling in us for a short time, and returning to God each night and upon our death” (p. xix).   

            Timoner tells the story of the Spirit in Judaism in three parts.  The first part works with the concept of creation and the breath of life.  Here we look at ideas such as the Spirit’s role in shaping the cosmos, the Spirit in us, and the Spirit as a way to God.  This is the foundation.  From there, in part two, she looks at revelation, which she subtitles “Sinai’s Inspiration.”  Here we explore God’s covenant making at Sinai and the differences between the extraordinary and the ordinary spirit – we might think of this as a conversation about spiritual giftedness – and finding purpose through the Spirit.  Finally, in part three she looks at the concept of redemption, a reminder that the Christian idea of redemption is rooted in Judaism.  In this she speaks of our aspiration to wholeness, looking at God’s redemptive Spirit, prophecy, and the actions of the Spirit in our present world.  This is followed by a postscript that expresses Judaism’s hope that all will return to God.  
            Regarding creation, while the story itself is not to be taken in a literal fashion, the story brings in the idea of the Spirit of God (ruach elohim) engaged in creating the universe as an artisan, blowing the world into existence as if a glass-blower.  From the creation of the universe we turn to the Spirit who indwells us, and we’re reminded that in Genesis 2, God forms the human person (adam) from the dust (adamah) and blowing life into this human (nishmat chayim) so that the person might be a living being (nefesh chayah).  Thus, humans are composed of two ingredients earth and life breath.  It is this second element that makes adam different from the earth, making humans embodied spirits dependent on God’s spirit for our lives.   This sense of the Spirit’s engagement with our existence, leads to the conclusion that our connection, our way to God is through the Spirit that we essentially share with God. 
            From Creation she turns to revelation, and the Spirit (ruach) provides the basis of understanding so that a covenant can be created.  The three truths of Sinai are that God is not a physical being, God speaks to humans as a people, and revelation is for the purpose of creating a covenant.  Having made a covenant with the people the Spirit is present as extraordinary and ordinary ways.  With regard to the first, Timoner notes that in the Tanakh, a few individuals are described as possessing an extraordinary spirit, which involves “talents and abilities that enable them to lead or play a pivotal role in the development of the people and the nation’s relationship to God” (p. 49).  Examples of such persons include Joshua, who receives the spirit that he might lead the people after Moses’ death and Saul, who receives the Spirit so that he might lead Israel as king.  Then there is Bezalel, who is endowed by God with a ruach enabling him to craft the metalwork of the Temple.  There is the spirit of courage that enables Gideon and Samson to rescue their people.  But, what about other persons?  There is a hope expressed that all might receive the ruach, whether that is expressed by Moses after Eldad and Medad receive the spirit of prophecy or Joel’s expectation of a day when the Spirit might fall on all.  Peter, of course, uses Joel to interpret Pentecost, which is why there is this sense in Christianity that the Spirit isn’t present with all Israel before that time.  While this hope of revelation being present to all is expressed in several places, there is also the sense that ruach is amongst the people, enabling them to understand and experience divine presence.  It is simply available to all in a smaller measure than with those called to extraordinary duty.   That sense leads us to the conclusion that we are to find our purpose in the Spirit, for we all have a portion of ruach  The question then is – are hiding our gifts?  The story of Joseph serves as an example of the value of letting our gifts shine through, showing the holy purpose of God. 
            In the third part we come to the question of redemption, which is rooted in the human aspiration for wholeness.  The Spirit is present in the going out of the people, from Abraham to the people of Israel who move out of slavery and into the promised land.  This wholeness is experienced and expressed in our holiness, which involves our obligations to the poor, for the Holy God listens to the oppressed, the stranger, and the marginalized amongst us.  This aspiration for wholeness is expressed in the prophetic spirit, which gives voice to those suffering in silence.  God’s ruach inspires the prophets to speak truth to power and point the people to the messianic age when the spirit rests on all the people.   We see these expressions of the redemptive work of the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible, but what about today?  Timoner suggests that the Spirit is that power that motivates us to change and advocate for change.  The presence of the Spirit reminds us too that we are persons of value and that our actions matter. 
            Timoner’s book is an invitation to read the story of Israel as a story of the Spirit.  The story moves from creation to covenant to redemption, and ultimately a return to the creator, knowing that there is the hope that “no matter how profound our alienation, no matter how far God may have turned away, we will turn back toward one another.  We will return.  One of the benefits of this book is that it interprets this story in light of the ongoing development of Jewish thought during the many centuries since the destruction of the Temple and the refashioning of Judaism.  We who are Christians are reminded that we have an inheritance that is shared and that we will benefit from hearing the story in a different voice. 
            I found the book to be not only a good read, but a book that provided immense blessings and insight.  I would highly recommend it to anyone desiring to experience the fullness of the Spirit.  In the end, perhaps, having heard this voice we can join together in the act of tikkun olam, the healing of the world. 

      This book was provided for review by Paraclete Press

Friday, October 28, 2011

Zombie Sightings -- Sightings

With Halloween around the corner, zombie movies on the screen, and Occupy Movement folks dressed as zombies, I suppose it would be a good time for us to post a piece on zombies that calls for some theological reflection.  Although I've not done much thinking about zombies, Jessica DeCou, a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has and so in this posting she takes us into the world of the Undead and asks some important questions about community and relationship.  Have a read and offer your thoughts on the Zombie Pandemic.  

Sightings  10/27/2011

Zombie Sightings
-- Jessica DeCou

You may have seen them around—more and more lately—and they will soon swarm the streets in a three day Zombie Apocalypse scheduled to begin October 29 in more than 400 cities. Zombies are everywhere. Books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and The Zombie Survival Guide have become perennial entries on the New York TimesBest Sellers list. And, last Sunday, the second season of The Walking Dead premiered to record-breaking numbers, becoming the highest rated drama telecast in the history of basic cable. The contagion has spread so rapidly that even the Centers for Disease Control is getting in on the action. Recognizing that “if you prepare for the zombie apocalypse, you'll be prepared for all hazards,” says one CDC spokesman, the organization outlined a zombie preparedness plan and confirmed its readiness to provide “lab testing and analysis, patient management and care, tracking of contacts, and infection control (including isolation and quarantine)” in the event of a zombie pandemic. On May 16, 2010, the day the CDC posted this page, an unprecedented volume of traffic crashed the website. So what can we learn as scholars, theologians, clergy, or citizens in a society with zombies on the brain?

Research from Oxford University suggests that, in spite of the presence of zombie figures in folklore around the world, this recent surge in popularity is mostly concentrated in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Zombies are a first world problem. They are typically a result of first world hubris—bio-weapons, nuclear radiation, corporate greed, big pharma, etc. Accordingly, scholars have offered various hypotheses as to what this particular species of undead represents—e.g., anxieties about consumerism, conformism, race, and sexuality. A range of theological interpretations are possible as well: perhaps in terms of “the courage to be” or an authentic/inauthentic “being towards death.”

Certainly this trend is important for a religion with its very own reanimated founder and accompanying doctrine of bodily resurrection. According to K. Paffenroth, religious studies professor and author of the award winning volume Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth, the zombie movie is “an examination of human nature at the deepest and most humanizing of levels.” Indeed, zombie tales serve as a kind of thought experiment through which we contemplate questions of enormous existential and ethical significance: What specific attributes define a being as “human”? How are we to define and value “life”? What are our moral duties toward our fellow-humans? Toward non-humans? Where do we draw the line between what we can do and what we definitely should not do in terms of scientific and technological progress? Has such progress weakened our ability to survive without advanced technologies? In fact, a google search will turn up dozens of sermons, from across the religious spectrum, that use zombies to explore similar questions.

But the popularity of zombies reveals something more. Though The Walking Dead and other accounts convey a deep sense of meaninglessness and divine absence that often lead characters to question or abandon their faith, they also possess an extraordinary ability to capture our imagination and, counter-intuitively, to stimulate our sense of play. Consider the degree of creative participation found among enthusiasts. What rouses fans to enact zombie outbreaks, or inspires a Harvard psychiatry professor to pen a fictional epidemiology of zombism (a.k.a. Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Syndrome), or motivates lawyers and journalists to spend their spare time writing on the legal/social/political implications of the undead, or moves professors to devote college courses to them and newlyweds to incorporate them into their wedding photos? 

The questions that zombies pose about the nature of the human being and the meaning of life and death somehow elicit these very human attributes of playfulness, creativity, and sociability. According to the fictional account by Harvard professor Steven C. Schlozman, the U.N. and World Interfaith Council respond to the urgent necessities of a zombie pandemic by defining the human in terms of the capacity for social connectedness and “emotional recognition of others as sentient beings.” Karl Barth understood humanity in similar terms of mutual recognition, mutual communication, mutual assistance, and encountering the other with gladness. The zombie, on the other hand, does not recognize, connect, or communicate. Incapable of fellowship, he experiences no gladness and has no capacity for play. But in the revolt against the inhumanity of the undead, genuine humanity is revealed in those who find gladness in cooperative communities of fellow-survivors. 

Similarly, back here in the pre-apocalyptic world, this latest outbreak of zombie fever has inspired creativity and brought people together in ways more playful but no less powerful than the real (or, more accurately, fictional) thing—a worthy accomplishment in a disconnected world. And so… Viva Zombies!


“What Lies Ahead,” The Walking Dead episode 2.1 first broadcast 16 October 2011 by AMC.  Written by Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman.  Directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton.

W. Marsh, “CDC ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ disaster campaign crashes website,” Reuters, 19 May 2011.

Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse,” Public Health Matters, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 May 2011. 

M. Graham, T. Shelton, M. Zook, and M. Stephens, “Mapping Zombies,” Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, 1 July 2011.

K. Paffenroth, Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth  (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006).

S. Schlozman, The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse  (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2011).

Jessica DeCou is a PhD candidate in theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is currently a Junior Fellow at the Martin Marty Center, a Louisville Institute Dissertation Fellow, and a contributor to the forthcoming volume, The Undead and Theology, edited by K. Paffenroth and J. Morehead (Wipf & Stock).

The Religion & Culture Web Forum presents The Future of Muslim Family Law in Western Democracies by John Witte, Jr. "How should Muslims and other religious minorities with distinctive family norms and cultural practices be accommodated in a society dedicated to religious liberty and self-determination, and to religious equality and non-discrimination?" In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum, John Witte, Jr., a distinguished scholar of legal history and religious liberty, analyzes arguments for the establishment of Shari'a courts within Western democracies. Drawing on the historical experiences of Jewish and Christian communities in the West, Witte also discusses the ways in which state accommodation must be met by accommodation on the part of religious groups.

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

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh -- A Lectionary Meditation

Joshua 3:7-17

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

Matthew 23:1-12

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh 

In Luke’s Magnificat Mary celebrates God’s prerogative of humbling the proud and lifting up the humble. Such a sentiment is, of course, not uncommon in the biblical story.  God is often at work leveling the playing field, attending to the needs of the poor and marginalized, while bringing the rich, the proud, and the powerful to account.  We may wonder how this actually happens in real life.  The high and mighty continue to get higher and mightier (Bernie Madoff being the exception to the rule), while the poor and the middle class continue to struggle.   News came out this week that suggests that over the past thirty-plus years the income of the top 1% of earners increased by 275% while the rest of us stumble along with growth rates around 10% to 20% (all in 2011 dollars).  We may be wondering what God is doing, but the message remains clear – God is on the side of the poor and the marginalized.  So, be careful.  Don’t get too haughty and proud.  Your day may come. 

            There is something of that message here in these passages, though it’s more subtle.  Here there is a sense that God is the one who lifts up and honors, especially when it comes to bearing witness to the works of God.  Here the focus is on the quality of one’s witness to the things of God, and God’s attestation of that witness.  The three texts before us do not explicitly address any economic imbalances, but they do suggest that one would be wise to let God do the exalting, lest there be a humbling in the future.

            Over the past few months we have been moving through the biblical story from Abraham to Jacob to Joseph and on to Moses.  We have seen the people of God become enslaved in Egypt and then delivered through the Red (Reed) Sea, across the desert, to the edge of the Promised Land.  In the most recent set of readings, we heard the story of Moses’ death.  Although Moses could look into the Promised Land from the top of a mountain, he couldn’t cross over the Jordan (Deuteronomy 34).  In this reading from Joshua 3, the next step in this long journey will commence.  The realities of slavery are to be left behind as the people enter the Promised Land, and they will do this with a new leader going out in front of them.  The call of Joshua comes from Yahweh, who says to Moses deputy:  “I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (3:7).  It may have been assumed that Joshua would succeed Moses, but at least in this story, Joshua must receive God’s affirmation before assuming that mantle.  It was his choice, of course.  He could have gone ahead without God’s affirmation, but would he have succeeded?  

How does God affirm Joshua’s calling?  It is with acts of power – the parting of the River Jordan and the driving out of the Promised Land the current Canaanite inhabitants.  Yahweh instructs Joshua to command the priests to carry the Ark of the Covenant to the edge of the river, and then step into the river.  As they move toward the center of the river, the waters coming from the north will be stopped allowing the people walk across on dry land.  As with the previous crossing out of Egypt, this took faith, and by faith I mean trust, that God will be true to God’s word.  Joshua must trust God will act.  If God doesn’t act, Joshua’s leadership will be undermined.  The Jordan might not be the deepest river in the world, but that’s not the point.  The point is that the people need this sign to give them courage to enter the Land, to know that God was with them in the venture.  Joshua heeded the call, considered the choice, and allowed God to exalt him in the sight of Israel, so that he might lead Israel as had Moses. 

As we ponder this story, and celebrate God’s engagement with the people, we must consider the dark side of the story.  In these verses we see the seeds of genocide being planted.  Not only will God exalt Joshua to leadership, but according to this story, God will wipe out the current residents.  It is a reminder that we must take these stories into our lives with great care.  We must ask the question – what does this say about God?   In this portion of the story, however, the people take the risk, act in faith, and follow Joshua’s leadership, and cross the river into the Promised Land.  The journey out of slavery has come to an end.  Now it’s time to build a new life as God’s people. 

            From the story of God’s call of Joshua to leadership of the people of Israel, we turn to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul continues his reflections on his ministry among the Thessalonians.  What looks to be defensiveness, may simply be a reminder of the connections that that exist between him and them.  He speaks of it in parental terms, noting that they had encouraged and pleaded with them to live lives worthy of their calling to be people of God.  He also reminds them that they had done everything they could to keep from being a burden to them, all so that their message, their witness, might have greater credibility among them.  They do this because God is in the witness.  The key here is that the Thessalonians had received their word as God’s word.  The church in this community had recognized God speaking through the words of Paul.  The lifting up and honoring Paul here is more subtle, but the people discern this authorization of the message.  With this authorization in mind, Paul invites the church to be imitators of the churches of Judea who have remained true to their calling despite persecution.  They have suffered, and offer an example as to how to endure the suffering.  When we hear this word about the two sets of churches, I think it wise to recognize that whether Jew or Gentile, there will be resistance to the message.  We must be careful when we hear a text like this to not allow it to color our vision of Judaism, so they become the enemy.  But in this context, it would appear that there is resistance to the Gentiles receiving the word of salvation.  But the message has gone out despite the opposition, and therefore the Thessalonian church is now Paul’s joy and crown. 

            In the Gospel lesson from Matthew 23, Jesus critiques the Scribes and Pharisees – one group of religious leaders with whom Jesus has issues.  Jesus doesn’t discount their teachings.  Do what they say, Jesus admonishes.  Just don’t do as they do.  They put heavy burdens on the shoulders of the people, but don’t do anything to lift them.  This is a regular criticism on the part of Jesus.  We know now that some of this critique of the Pharisees may have eventuated from a later turf war.  But the message that we might take from this concerns not the attitudes of the Pharisees, but our own.  How do we act, especially those of us who are clergy, when it comes to “putting on the Ritz?”  When I see the word about seeking the best seats, I think of those clergy parking spots that many churches have set aside – so the pastor can park closest to the door.  What’s that about?  And as for the titles – do we relish them?  Are they important to our self-esteem?  Do we glory in being called Father, Teacher, Doctor, Reverend, Pastor, Professor, etc?  If we do, then the word is clear -- be careful, for we have but one teacher – the Messiah.  As for the rest of us – the greatest will be the servant.  Those who seek to exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  

Joshua, Paul, Jesus, all receive their exaltation not from themselves, but from God.  God is the one, after all, who humbles the proud and lifts up the humble!         

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why Christianity Needs Celtic Spirituality? -- Bruce Epperly

Today Bruce Epperly begins a new series of postings that are based on his recently published book on Celtic spirituality.  In this first posting he suggests that we would benefit greatly from attending to Celtic spirituality and theology.  Because much of our western Christianity has been influenced by St. Augustine of Hippo, he asks the question -- what if Pelegius, one of Augustine's arch-nemeses, had either been declared the orthodox one or Pelegius had at the very least been acknowledged as offering his own unique take on the faith?  Well, stay tuned for Bruce's ponderings.


Why Christianity Needs Celtic Spirituality?
Bruce G. Epperly

Christian faith is multi-faceted and complex.  Although the life and teachings of Jesus are at the heart of Christianity, over the past two thousand years Christians have articulated scores of “orthodox” understandings of God’s purposes and the focus of Jesus’ mission, many of which claim to accurately – or most accurately - represent the ancient faith handed down by the apostles.  Until the last twenty years, Celtic spirituality and theological reflection has been at the periphery of Christian thought.  Tainted by false accusations against Celtic theologian Pelagius, Celtic spirituality has been dismissed as works righteousness and nature-centered in contrast to the more “orthodox” dualisms of sin and grace and God and nature.  Affirmations of human goodness and agency –as well as reverence for embodiment and the non-human world, were considered contrary to the one true faith, articulated by those who believed themselves to be faithful interpreters of the tradition of Paul, Augustine, Calvin, and Luther. 

The guardians of “orthodoxy” believed that the heart of early Christianity could be described in terms of the doctrines of original sin, human depravity, coercive grace, divine transcendence, and eternal damnation.  Any human agency was considered prideful rebellion against irresistible, yet limited grace.  Left to our own devices, we are by nature self-centered and narcissistic, and loved in spite of who we are.  Accordingly the Celts and their spiritual children were dismissed as heretical nature worshippers and grace deniers.  The worst thing you could call a theological position – the best way to dismiss anything that affirmed human beauty and goodness – was to call it Pelagian!

Today, Pelagius has been rediscovered as the yin to Augustine’s yang!  Knowing the contingencies of history and Augustine’s circuitous path to declaring Pelagius a heretic, many are asking the “what if” questions of theological history:  “What if Augustine and not Pelagius had been chosen as the bearer of orthodoxy?  What if Western Christianity had affirmed both the Augustian and Pelagian streams of theology as significant interpretations of the faith?  What if goodness, beauty, and creativity had been deemed as important as depravity, sin, and pride in understanding the human condition?”  While we can’t answer these questions fully, I believe that a holistic faith needs the insights of the Celtic vision of human life and spiritual formation. 

In the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the gifts of Celtic spirituality for the transformation of Christianity and the healing of the world.  Many of these insights are found in my recent book, The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  I am also grateful to John Philip Newell for sharing his vision of Celtic Christianity to a new generation of Christians and seekers.  Newell’s latest book A New Harmony is a gem.

Today, Christianity needs the Celtic vision to respond creatively to the seekers both within and beyond the church and to inspire Christians to become God’s partners in healing the earth.   I believe Celtic spirituality, along with process theology, provides a lively foundation for an emerging, missional Christianity.  In what follows, I will present a number of key Celtic affirmations to be discussed in greater detail in the weeks ahead.  The Celtic vision affirms:

  1.            The omnipresence of God.  As Isaiah discovered, the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.  God is, as Paul noted in his quote from Greek philosophy, the reality in whom we live and move and have our being.  Everyone is touched by God in a healing and transforming way.  We reflect divinity in our cells and our souls.
  2.          The beauty of the earth.  As the Psalmist proclaims, let everything that breathes praise God.  The earth is God’s sanctuary, the universe God’s revelation.  We find insight in the books of scripture and nature, both of which reveal God’s love for creation and humankind.
  3.      The wonder of embodiment.  Awesomely and wonderfully made (Psalm 139), our bodies are the temple of God.  The body is inspired and the spirit embodied.  God is incarnate in Jesus Christ and in the birth of every child. 
  4.      The essential goodness of humankind.   Created in God’s image, we are God’s beloved children, finite, yet capable of saying “yes” to God’s graceful call. 
  5.          The interplay of God’s grace and human action.  The world is a theater of call and response in which God constantly asks “who will I send?” thus inviting us to be partners and creators alongside the Creator.  Our healthy creativity and freedom enhances God’s work in the world.
  6.            The value of non-human life as revelatory of God and worthy of value.  God loves sparrows and lilies.  Divine wisdom moves through the playful behemoth and the glimmering firefly.  The whole earth is filled with God’s glory, non-human and human alike. 
  7.           God’s power as loving, graceful, and universal.  Jesus Christ reveals God’s providence as loving and healing.  God’s aim is toward abundant life.  Grace is offered to all, not just a chosen remnant. 
  8.             Providence as embracing all creation, not merely the arbitrarily chosen.  God seeks wholeness for all creation.  All are chosen and given the opportunity to become God’s companions in healing the earth.
  9.          The universality of divine revelation and truth.  The true light enlightens all (John 1).  Wherever truth and healing are present, God is its source, even beyond the precincts of the Christian tradition.  Christians can learn from other faiths even as we share our good news. 
  10.          God’s care in life and death.  God is the circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.  God’s love is never ending; nothing can separate us from God’s love.  Death does not end God’s care for God’s children, but opens us to new possibilities of divine companionship. 
  11.     Relationships as essential to spiritual transformation.  Jesus’ hospitality awakened people to transformation and healing.  We find wholeness through the love of spiritual friends (anam cara), friends of the soul who awaken us to the divinity moving in our lives.

Green and alive, Celtic spirituality invites us to celebrate this good earth and claim our role as God’s companions, blessed by grace and called to action to heal the earth.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guideto the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living,  Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Finding Our Religious Voices

I have been involved in interfaith work for much of the past 15 years.  I am currently in a leadership position with a local interfaith group, and have done so for other groups.  I believe that conversation and work among people of different religious traditions builds relationships and overcomes fear and anxiety about the other.  At our base we are all human beings with similar desires and needs.  I think we all want to live in peace and have at least some sense of prosperity in our lives.  At the religious level there are elements that overlap and are held in common.  In my house and in my office are posters that were developed by the student group at the University Religious Center at UCSB.  These posters offer a concept and then quotations from different religious traditions.  In doing this the students wanted share that we do have much in common.

I believe that we do have much in common, but we also have differences.  Sometimes we want interfaith relationships to be based on sameness, and therefore we're uncomfortable with our differences.  I am a Christian.  I'm a follower of Jesus.  I believe in the Trinity.  My Muslim friends honor Jesus but reject the Trinity, and their understanding of Jesus is different from mine.  My Jewish friends honor a set of books they call Tanakh.  Christians have traditionally called these books the Old Testament.  Whether we call it Old Testament or First Testament or even Hebrew Bible, these books form a section of the Christian Bible.  The New Testament, those books that were written by Christians have no foundation outside the earlier texts, and so a Christian Bible has both parts to it.

The Abrahamic religions do overlap at many points.  The overlaps with Eastern Religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are fewer.  The way we view the world is different.  Many Buddhists don't believe in a God, and while some Hindus are polytheists, others I'm assuming are not.  But we can find points of contact, that allow us to have conversation and work together for the common good.

Christianity and Islam are not at heart ethnically based religions.  Islam has an Arab beginning, but it spans the globe and it has inculturated itself differently in different parts of the world.  Islam is not, as many think, monolithic.   The same is true of Christianity.  It was born in Palestine among Jews and expanded across the Roman Empire, taking on Greek elements as it did so, and it expanded east into Asia, taking on elements from those cultures.  Both of these faiths are conversionary.  They seek out converts, which is why they have crossed cultural/ethnic lines.

In reading Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith, I found myself agreeing with his assessment of the pluralistic view of religion.  Volf believes that the key to living together as different traditions is to maintain a politically pluralistic environment, but he's not so sure that the pluralistic program of religion works.  That's because it tends to force faith traditions into boxes that are too confining.  So what is the solution?  Volf suggests that we find our own voice and speak from it.  As a Christian, Volf says that he speaks from two primary convictions:

That God loves all people, including the transgressors, and that religious identity is circumscribed by permeable boundaries.  Everything else that is said about every topic should be said informed by these two convictions.  When that happens, the voice that speaks will be properly Christian but might contain nonetheless the echoes of many other voices, and many other voices will resonate with it.  Of course, sometimes the voice will find no resonances, only contestation.  That's the stuff good arguments are made of, in personal encounters as well as in the public sphere.    (p. 133).
I invite you to share your sense of how we might engage one another with respect and grace and love, while understanding that we're not all the same in our religious professions.

Update:  I have just discovered a recently published document entitled "Christian Witness in a Mult-Religious World:  Recommendations for conduct."  This document is the work of the World Council of Churches, Pontifical Council for Interrelgious Dialogue, and the World Evangelical Alliance.  I'll be commenting later, but check the link.

Monday, October 24, 2011

American Baptists -- Sightings

The connection between religion and politics continues to be in the news.  Whether it's Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam, or some other group, the connections are there.  People of faith speak out one issues of public importance.  There are those who would argue that the church should be the locus of political engagement, by that I mean, Christians should confine their public work of the kingdom to the church.  I'm not of that persuasion, but there is a fine line that must be observed.  In A Public Faith Miroslav Volf helpfully points out the twin dangers of an idling faith and a coercive faith.  Being aware of these dangers is helpful.
All of this leads me to Martin Marty's reflections on the role of the Baptists in public life.  Once Baptists were the chief opponents of church-state entanglements, but in recent years, especially in the South, those lines have gotten crossed, and with increased frequency.  But when it comes to Baptists, the matter of definition is rather complex.  They are not a monolithic lot!!  Take a read, and offer your thoughts.  What makes a Baptist and how does that definition relate to public life?

Sightings  10/24/2011

American Baptists
-- Martin E. Marty

Baptists and Mormons are running ahead of Catholics in media coverage on the current “public religion” front. Many of the members of all three faith groups chafe when they hear their movements denominated “denominations.” Catholics chide scholars and reporters: “We are not a denomination. We are a church,” or as comic Lenny Bruce claimed to hear them saying, “We are the church.” Mormons are busy urging that they dare not be named and shelved as a cult. And the Baptists, who took form seeking to reform the church in models of simplicity, are so complex that many who observe them despair of finding a model term for them.
The role of Catholics in American public life has been prominent and debated since 1787 and long before. Nervous Non-Catholics saw them aiming to take over American power in the name of the Pope. Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints, from day one in the 1830s wanted to be the pure American religion, but were always seen as aggressive outsiders and most recently have been classified as a “cult” by religious leaders who see them aiming to take over and run America politically and culturally. As for Baptists? They have been professing an individualistic approach to American political purity, but their religious rivals and many in the public realm see many of them, ironically, making  forays into realms of cultural, political, and philosophical power.
Does the public at large “know” or “catch on” to Baptists in politics? Baptists have, after all, produced recent leaders including, first of all, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In the second row among prominent political Baptists was the late and admired (at least by me and by people of my persuasions) Senator Mark Hatfield, whose recent death inspired reflection and prompts me now to raise some questions about Baptists. Notre Dame’s Mark Noll, who knows as much as anyone about this subject, wrote in the July-August issue of Books & Culture magazine, “So You’re a Baptist—What Might that Mean?” Answer: almost anything and everything, most of which is congruent with basic (Protestant) Christian church positions as professed in many other (and mainly conservative) Protestant bodies. He points to the Southern Baptist Convention’s 16 million members in the United States, plus more in 75 other separate Baptist denominations, based in thousands of local churches, many of them gathered into and/or separated into many thousands of congregations. Large African American Baptist groups enrich the mix and render even more complex all attempts to generalize.
Two recent books which Noll reviews help him sort out themes, but he cannot avoid gasping a bit at internal varieties. The books and review pay attention to niceties of Baptist teaching about, yes, baptism plus “soul liberty” and more. Whoever reads the books and the review cannot miss the accent on Baptist suspicion of “earthly authority,” such as that in the civil order and in blunt practical politics. Here is where irony comes in: the public sees many kinds of Baptists, including those in the Southern Baptist Convention, fearing anyone’s use of the Christian cross and message (about a kingdom “not of this world”) now seeking privilege for many kinds of Christian endeavor.
Celebrators of “separation of church and state” who were not Baptist but were friendly to Baptists for their independent and non-dependent-on-the-state stances busy themselves now making sense of modern Baptist flip-flops, or reassuring themselves with the reminder that there are many different kinds of Baptists’ stances—and Baptists.


Mark Noll, “So You’re a Baptist: What Might that Mean?,” Books & Culture: A Christian Review, July/August 2011.

David W. Bebbington, Baptists through the Centuries: A History of a Global People  (Baylor University Press, 2010).

Robert E. Johnson, A A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches (Introduction to Religion)  (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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

The Religion & Culture Web Forum presents The Future of Muslim Family Law in Western Democracies by John Witte, Jr. "How should Muslims and other religious minorities with distinctive family norms and cultural practices be accommodated in a society dedicated to religious liberty and self-determination, and to religious equality and non-discrimination?" In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum, John Witte, Jr., a distinguished scholar of legal history and religious liberty, analyzes arguments for the establishment of Shari'a courts within Western democracies. Drawing on the historical experiences of Jewish and Christian communities in the West, Witte also discusses the ways in which state accommodation must be met by accommodation on the part of religious groups.

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