Saturday, December 31, 2011

Seeking the Common Good in the New Year

I appreciate the opportunity afforded me by theTroy Patch to engage my Troy neighbors in a conversation about issues and concerns that are important to me and that intersect with my faith. 
My first two posts have focused on Christmas, but with the turning of the page from 2011 to 2012, it’s time to look forward into the future, and to ponder what that future looks like.  My plan is to use this space to speak to matters of public interest that is informed by my Christian faith, as well as by my engagement with the broader religious world. 
I pastor a local Christian congregation, but I’m also a leader of the Troy-area Interfaith Group.  While I don’t claim to speak for all Christians or for people of faith in general, I do speak from a perspective that is informed by this faith, which is informed by study, experience, and by a long-standing commitment to being engaged in the public square.  Not everyone will agree with my perspective or my interpretation of things, but hopefully what I write can lead to fruitful conversation on matters of great importance to the community.   
As I look into the future, I do so with a sense of hopefulness but also a sense of uneasiness.  That may be true in part because we are entering an election year that will be marked by the deep polarization that exists at this moment.
Democracy is always messy, and there has never been a golden age when everyone got along or respected the leaders of the community or the nation, however, it’s unsettling to not only see Congress be held in such low esteem, but even local governments be looked at with suspicion.  There is growing impatience with our leaders, which leads to rather wide swings in voting patterns.  First one party has a large majority and seeks to enact its will (perhaps knowing that it only has a small window of opportunity), and before you know it the other party is back in control, and before you know it the pendulum will swing again. 
Politics isn’t the only concern going forward into the New Year. There’s something else afoot that concerns me, and that is the growing focus in our society on the self (and at most one’s own family or group). There is an increasing lack of concern for the common good of the community. There is a growing individualism that in my mind does not bode well for our community or for the nation. This is perhaps symbolized best in the growing popularity of the writings of Ayn Rand, a person who embraced the principle of selfishness.  As a person of faith, I should note that she was a rather outspoken atheist who held Jesus in great disdain.  As I look at the direction the nation is going, I can’t help but contrast Rand’s concern for the self and Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.     
My own faith is informed by Jesus’ proclamation of the two great commandments – to love God with one’s entire being and to love one’s neighbor as one love’s oneself – a perspective that is rooted deeply in the Jewish faith.  Therefore, I cannot embrace a philosophy of selfishness.  I recognize the importance of individual achievement and creativity, but I also affirm the principle that love of neighbor is communal. To love my neighbor fully, means that I take the needs and concerns of the other seriously. And ultimately I believe that this has political implications.  
Think about a question like immigration. If I am to love my neighbor, and my neighbor happens to be a person living in this country without documentation – that is, illegally – what are my responsibilities to that person?  This is especially true if we’re talking about a young person who came to this country years ago by parents looking for a better life, and who grew up knowing no other world but this one.  What are my responsibilities to this person?  Should I support the Dream Act, educational support, a path to citizenship, or should I demand that this person be deported to a country she or he has never known?  This is just one of many issues that face our nation. 
There are other issues of importance, such as the value of education, of civil rights, and of respect for the other.  The recent discussion about the mayor’s use of an anti-gay slur has raised the question of how our speech impacts the other.  Yes, we may have freedom of speech, but as St. Paul said “everything is permitted, but everything isn’t beneficial.  Everything is permitted, but everything doesn’t build others up” (1 Corinthians 10:23 Common English Bible). Yes, there are many issues out there that require our attention, and for good or bad, our professions of faith influence the way we view these issues. 
So, as we enter a new year, I want to leave you with these words from a wise man named Parker Palmer who writes:
If American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the internal communist/socialist/fascist takeover that keeps some Americans awake at night.  It will happen because we – you and I – became so fearful of each other or our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community, on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form.  (Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy,  Jossey Bass, 2011, p. 9).   
My hope and my dream for 2012 is that we won’t fall victim to fear, but instead we will commit ourselves to the common good of all!      

Originally posted at Troy Patch

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Call to Representative Ministry

Eighth in a series on developing a theology of ministry

            If we are, as baptized Christians, all priests of God, with Jesus being our high priest, then the pastoral ministry might best be defined as representative ministry.  The pastor could be seen as the bearer of a call to ministry that all Christians participate in.  Standing in the pulpit or at the table, the pastor is not only a representative of God (as one who inspired by the Spirit speaks for God) but also as the representative of the people, sharing a message in word and sacrament that emerges from within the community itself.[1]

            By thinking of pastoral ministry as representative ministry, we start with the premise that all ministry is important.  No Christian is by virtue of their office holier than any other.  There may be a difference in roles and even charism, but not in importance to the health of the body.  The calling of the pastoral leadership is not to do ministry for God’s people but to equip and encourage the congregation in its ministries (Eph. 4:11-13).  In this it is helpful to note the difference in meaning that emerges when we compare the King James Version and the New Revised Standard when it comes to this passage.  Note that in the King James verses 11 and 12 read:
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
It appears here that these persons are given to the church to perfect the saints, do the work of the ministry and edify the body.  But compare this with a modern rendering:
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, . . .
In this latter translation it seems that the purpose of the gifts of leadership to the church is to equip the saints for ministry not do the ministry for them.

As the writer of Ephesians continues we discover that the goal of pastoral ministry is to help God’s people reach maturity in Spirit, and that maturity leads to acts of service – the good works prepared for us by God. 

            When we look at ministry in this broader context our ordination to ministry comes at baptism, or as Kathleen Cahalan suggests, it is at the point at which we affirm our call to discipleship.  Depending on your theology of baptism, these could be one and the same, but the point that Cahalan makes is that discipleship involves our responding to the call to follow Jesus, and that means “learning a way of life that embodies particular dispositions, attitudes, and practices that place the disciple in relationship to, and as a participant in, God’s mission to serve and transform the world.”[2]   This description of ministry fits well with a missional calling – discipleship is an invitation to join with God in the missional work of serving and transforming the world. 

If we understand ordination to be an act of grace by which God uses the church to set persons apart for service to the world in Jesus Christ, whether through baptism or through the response to the call to discipleship, it is something that all Christians share in, then may we also affirm the principle that God might deem it wise for the church to set aside certain persons for specific forms of ministry, especially ministries of teaching and leadership?  If so, then is it appropriate for the church to provide for public recognition of this calling, designating and empowering certain persons to take representative leadership in and through the ministries of preaching, teaching, ministering the sacraments, administration, and pastoral care.  

If God would call certain people to this kind of ministry, then surely there is some way of confirming this call.  We hear people say all the time that God has called them to do this or that, but where is the confirmation?  Does not the church have the responsibility to affirm this call and publicly confer on a person the authority to live into this office.[3]  This seems to be the assumption of the author of 1 Timothy 4:14.    
            In ordaining a candidate for pastoral ministry the church promises to hold the ordinand accountable to their calling.  Although there are no double standards in Christian ministry, the church should expect that the ones upon whom they confer this title of pastor will hold themselves to the highest standards of behavior, that they will commit themselves to understanding this faith so that they may teach and equip others (making it imperative that those called to ordained ministry pursue some form of education/training, if possible a traditional M.Div. program).  Having had hands laid upon them, ordained pastors (my preferred title) stand as representatives of the church they serve.  By extending the hands of ordination on candidates, the church declares to the broader church and the community at large, that this woman or man has been found to have the requisite gifts and calling to serve the church at large as pastors and teachers.

            Although many clergy claim that they’ve felt God's leading, and God's call on their lives, without the discerning affirmation of the church that sense of calling may be little more than a delusion. Is not the church charged with discerning both gifts and calling?  

[1]Donald Messer, Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry, (Abingdon Press, 1989),  p. 64.
[2] Kathleen A. Cahalan,  Introducing the Practice of Ministry, (Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 2010),  p. 4; Kindle location 205.   
[3]Keith Watkins, The Great Thanksgiving, (Chalice Press, 1995), p. 218.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Time to Rejoice -- Lectionary Reflection

Time to Rejoice!!

              Christmas is over, or so it would seem.  The stores have had their after-Christmas sales, the unwanted gifts have been returned, and we’re getting set to take down the tree and its accoutrements.  Indeed, it’s time to replace the Christmas “stuff” with the Valentine’s Day “stuff” on our store shelves.  That is one way of telling the story, but if we want to tell it liturgically, then Christmas is still with us, and will remain with us until the day of Epiphany (January 6).   We may have grown weary of the Christmas music by the time that Christmas Day arrived – that’s because the radio stations and the stores start playing it earlier and earlier each year – but there is still time to sing the carols that declare our praise to God that Emmanuel is with us.  Now, some of us try to limit the church’s exposure to carols, so that we’re not ready to move on by Christmas Eve, but the pressure is strong to do otherwise.  Advent hymns simply don’t have the same cachet as the Christmas carols, which are ringing out in every corner of the land (except perhaps in church).    

As we near New Year’s Day, which this year falls on a Sunday, we still have the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the incarnation – that God would visit the creation in the form of a child born in a manger.  Even if some have had their fill of the music of the season, the songs of Christmas continue to invite us to join with the angelic choirs in singing Glory to God in the Highest.  But with every message of joy and thanksgiving comes that dark cloud that reminds us that not all is well in the land.  Christmas is a time of joy, but we dare not give room to naiveté.   Remember the story that Matthew tells about the slaughter of the innocents.    As we’ll note in a moment, even as Simeon offers a song of joy, he warns Mary about the dangers ahead.  

                In spite of the glitz that attends the season, the Christmas message itself is rather earthy.  It is a reminder that God takes the material world seriously, for in the words of the Gospel of John, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish, but will have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16 CEB).   Although this well-worn text from John is not the focus of our attention this First Sunday after Christmas, it is representative of the message present in these lectionary text that stand before us.  The word is this: God is present, bringing into our midst redemption and salvation.   That message, of course, is deeper and broader than is often presented.  Salvation is more than simply rescuing the perishing from this present world, a message that has more in common with Gnosticism than with the message of Jesus or the prophets, who are concerned not just with the heavenly, but also with the earthly (consider the Lord’s Prayer). 

                The continuing Christmas message is centered in this reading from the Gospel of Luke, where Mary and Joseph take their child to the Temple in Jerusalem, to offer sacrifices and dedicate him to God, as the Law commands.   We will assume that they ultimately did this, but Luke’s storyline gets interrupted by two witnesses to the importance of this birth.  Two elderly persons, both devout and faithful, have been waiting for the revealing of God’s messiah their entire lives.  They waited patiently for the revealing of the one who would redeem/restore Israel, and their waiting proved providential, for on this day of days, they encounter a young family in the Temple precincts, and on that day their hopes and dreams are fulfilled.

According to Luke, Simeon had received a revelation through the Holy Spirit, informing him that he would not die before he saw the revelation of God’s Messiah.  With this calling driving his life, he spots Jesus and takes him in his arms and offers praise to God, in what is traditionally known as the Nunc Dimmitis.   Using the old 1662 Book of Common Prayer version we hear this prophet sing out:
 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
 Simeon offers a word of thanksgiving that God has prepared a savior for Israel, but also a light to the Gentiles.  It is a word of reminder that the while Jesus emerges from Judaism, according to Luke the ultimate vision goes far beyond the boundaries of Israel.  It is a reminder too that God’s people includes Israel, but is not limited to Israel.  Such joy is to be shared, except that Simeon also sees a dark side of this revelation.  This child, who is an expression of God’s glory, will also generate opposition, and be the cause of much dissension in Israel, even as he reveals the inner thoughts of those around him.  Thus, Mary will experience a piercing of her innermost being.  There is, it would seem, always a mixture of joy and sadness in life – even the life of the one whom Simeon hails as God’s messiah. 

                Simeon’s is not the only voice to be heard, for Anna, a prophet of the tribe of Asher, who adds her voice to this offering of praise and thanksgiving.  Luke says that she told everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of the Jews, that the awaited one had arrived.  With this witness in mind, the family returns to Nazareth, their home, where according to Luke Jesus grows up, becoming strong and wise, and experiencing God’s favor.  We hear nothing about miraculous powers – no clay birds flying – just a word about a child who grows, matures, and reveals God’s presence in the world. 

                Paul doesn’t share any details as to the nature of Jesus’ birth or how he happened to grow up in Nazareth, for Paul shows no real interest in such details, but he too finds joy and purpose in Jesus’ arrival in the world.  He speaks of the “fulfillment of time”; that is, at just the right time, when God sent the son, “born of a woman, born under the Law.”  In my reading of this, I hear a word about the scandal of particularity.  This is not an abstraction; it is a story of one who has a human birth that takes place in a particular context – a Jewish one.  There are those who might want to make something of the reference to Jesus being of a woman, as if this is a statement about a virgin birth/conception, but that would, in my mind, be reading too much into this passage.  What we do hear is that in being born under the Law Jesus redeems those under the Law, perhaps by fulfilling the Law.  As a result, Jesus, being culmination of the Abrahamic and Mosaic callings, becomes the bridge across which those outside the Law (Gentiles) might enter into God’s family – by adoption, of course.  Paul contrasts the former estate of his readers – they (Gentiles) had been born slaves, but now they children of God – sons and daughters, into whom the Spirit of God’s Son now resides, enabling them to cry out “Abba Father!”   This usage is important, because it’s almost a doubling down – the use of the Aramaic for father and the Greek.  Whatever one’s former background, one now is a son and daughter, an heir of God.  It is good to remember the laws of inheritance.   This word is given in the context of a challenge to the right of these Gentiles to claim God’s inheritance.  Paul is responding to Jewish Christians who are demanding that these new believers first receive circumcision before being granted full citizenship in God’s family.  Paul treasures his Jewish inheritance, but he doesn’t believe that circumcision is a necessary step for Gentiles.  Jesus has done what is necessary to end their slavery, and bring them not just to freedom, but into the family. 

Now, generally the patrimony (inheritance) went to the oldest son, who then got to decide whether to keep it all or share it.  According to Paul, the Son has chosen to share the bounty with the rest of his brothers and sisters, all of whom come into the family by way of adoption.  This is key, I think.  We’re not just free men and women – manumitted from our slavery – but we are now more than this – we are members of the family.   There is oneness.  There is no second-class citizenship.  To be in Christ, is to be a joint heir of the promises of God.  And this is cause for celebration!  Perhaps it would be appropriate to sing:  “Joy to the World, the Lord has come!” 

The word of the prophet Isaiah (the third prophet of that tradition) rings out into the ears of a post-exilic people.  They’ve returned home from Babylon.  They are free, but as they look around they see a scene that has dampened their enthusiasm.  Jerusalem is in ruins, as is the Temple.  But the prophet calls on the people to rejoice in the Lord, even in a difficult situation, surrounded by ruins, with memories of what once was (we who live in metro-Detroit know something of this feeling – yes, even a newcomer like me has caught on to this reality).  Rejoice, the prophet calls out because God clothed him in victory, wrapped him in a robe of righteousness, so that he is dressed as a bridegroom wearing a priestly crown and a bride adorned with jewelry.  Where some see signs of despair, the prophet sees God at work.  Yes, even as the earth offers up growth, so God grows the righteousness of this people, so that praise of God might be offered before the nations.   Salvation is at hand.  Soon the world will look at you and see your righteousness and your glory.  You will have a new name, one that the Lord determines, and you will be a splendid garland in the hand of the Lord, and a royal turban in God’s palm.  The world may see only ruin, but given time, God will bring this land back to life.  So rejoice, because God is at work.  We could take this in a very passive way, and sit back and wait for God to finish the job, but even as the prophet speaks of God’s work, there is in the biblical story a reminder that God’s people are the means by which this work is accomplished.  We are partners in this work of God, this work of redemption, for we are, as Paul reminds us, joint heirs with the Son. 

A new year beckons.  It is a promise of new beginnings and new opportunities.  There will be difficult times ahead, but there will also be times of great joy.  This is because we live in the shadow of Christmas – the revealing of God’s presence in the world.  Therefore, let us sing together:  “Joy to the Lord, the Lord has come.”  


Everything Is Everywhere -- A Review

EVERYTHING IS EVERYWHERE.   By Carrie Newcomer with Amaan Ali Khan, Amjad Ali Khan, and Ayaan Ali Khan.   Available Light Records, 2011.
                I must preface this by saying, once again, that I’m not a music critic.  I know what I like, and what I don’t like.  For me the tune/melody is the key.  Whatever message or meaning the lyrics might carry is secondary.  If I like the tune, I’ll pay attention to the lyrics (assuming that there are lyrics).   Part of the reason why this might be true is that I’m not especially drawn to poetry, and song lyrics are essentially poetry.  All of this being true, I can say that I truly enjoy the music of Carrie Newcomer.

This is the third album of Carrie Newcomers that has been provided to me, and as with the previous two I have found it inviting and enjoyable to listen to.  As I noted in my first review of an album by her, her voice and style remind me of Karla Bonhoff, a singer/songwriter that I’ve enjoyed since my college years. 

Pulled in by the music I am able to attend to the words that speak of God’s presence in the world and call for the listener to be attentive to that presence.  It’s not an overpowering message, such that one often finds in Christian music.  In fact, this particular album, Everything is Everywhere, has a broad, interfaith appeal.   Newcomer is Quaker, and thus her own theology is expressive of her embrace of the Quaker concept of the inner light of God.  She’s also attentive to the Quaker embrace of the call to peace and peacemaking.   

                What sets this album apart from the two albums that I’ve previously reviewed is her collaboration on the album with a well-known and highly regarded Indian family of sarod players – Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Khan, and Ayaan Ali Khan.  The sarod is a string instrument that is used in Indian Classical music, and thus this album produces a rather distinctive sound.  But, once one is acclimated to this unique sound, at least to western ears, one will be able to enjoy this bridge between Newcomer’s folk music style and the Indian classical music of the Khan family, thus bridging East and West.  The two styles ultimately complement each other.   

                Perhaps what one can take from this collaboration is the possibilities inherent in sharing together our musical traditions to build bridges across ethnic and religious lines.  Newcomer’s music is deeply spiritual, but at least in this album it takes broad forms.  It invites one to enjoy the world we live in, as is expressed in the song “I Believe.”   In this song one won’t find doctrinal definitions, but rather that there is holiness out there – in ginger tea and in those who choose to teach in public school. 

I believe in a good strong cup of ginger tea,
And all these shoots and roots will become a tree,
All I know is I can’t help but see 
All of this as so very holy,
I Believe.

                I can give my own recommendation and perception as to the value of the album -- I like it a lot -- but the best way to decide whether or not to try it is to go to the source and take a listenIf you choose to buy a copy of the album, you may want to know that the profits go to the Interfaith Hunger Initiative, “ an all-volunteer not-for-profit organization bringing together two dozen faith communities in the Indianapolis area who work together to end child and family hunger. IHI work to create a system of access to food through pantries in central Indiana and schools in foreign countries, feeding and supporting thousands of children and families.

Good music for a good cause!  

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What Kind of “Heaven is for Real?” By Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly offers us another Christmas gift -- a response to the highly popular "testimony" of a three-year old about his near-death experience.  Bruce offers a reasoned and critical, but sympathetic read.  Check it out.  What do you think of the book and Bruce's reading of it?


What Kind of “Heaven is for Real?” 
A Response to the Best-selling Narrative of a 
“Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back”
Bruce G. Epperly

It has been said that philosophies err more in what they deny than in what they affirm.  I believe the same holds true for theology.  So, I was positively disposed toward Todd Burpo’s story of his three year old son’s near death experience.  After all, many liberal Christians deny the reality of survival after death and find it an irrelevant appendage to the authentic this-worldly social message of Jesus.  In contrast, many conservative Christians are too certain about the nature of heaven and how to get there, and deny the veracity and value of any path but their own. Moreover, there has been a proliferation of interest as well as research on the afterlife and good theological reflection must take into account both scientific and anecdotal evidence.

 As Todd Burpo’s story goes: at a critical juncture in an emergency surgical procedure young Colton Burpo had a mystical experience.  Lifted above his body, he could see his parents on the phone and praying in a hospital waiting room. He observed the physicians and nurses trying to save his life.  And, more dramatically he went to heaven where he claims to have met Jesus, caught a glimpse of God and the Holy Spirit and had encounters with his great-grandfather and his sister, who died before his birth as a result of a miscarriage.  According to his parents, he had no knowledge of either his great-grandfather or his sister, with whom he communicated extensively in his “three minutes in heaven.”

Now, I happen to believe that near death experiences occur and may provide a glimpse of our destiny.  I believe that the world is multi-dimensional and that through spiritual practices, synchronicity, mystical moments, and prayer and meditation we can experience realities typically unavailable through the media our five senses.  I have no reason to doubt young Colton’s experience and the child-like way in which he describes it.  Having affirmed the experience (although I remain humble about designating its source), I believe that our interpretations of such mystical experiences are always finite, relative, and conditioned by our belief systems.  For example,  while the majority of near death experiences are described as comforting and suggest some form of universal salvation or evolution following death, the handful of published accounts from fundamentalist or evangelical Christians point to the clear superiority of Christianity, the vision of an omnipotent God, and the eschatological dualism of heaven and hell.  This applies to Burpo’s account of his son’s experience: it could be taken straight from the sermons and church school resources of most conservative Christian congregations in contrast to the universalistic accounts of near death experiences given by many seekers, new agers, and more liberal Christians and persons of other faiths.

I came to Heaven is for Real with an open mind and was rewarded with a pleasant Christmas night read after the family had retired to bed.  There was nothing unusual or surprising in the theology espoused or the descriptions Colton’s experiences.  After reading the text, I came to the conclusion that the child experienced something holy.  I also believe unconsciously he filtered his interpretation of that experience through the lens of his Wesleyan religious culture.  Heaven
was - for this little boy, raised on a diet of bible stories and an ethos that framed salvation in solely in terms of a personal relationship with Jesus - a place where “the angels sang to me” and a child could “sit on Jesus’ lap.”   No doubt his heaven was also a place where the question regarding a recently-deceased man, “Did the man have Jesus in his heart?” pointed to a deeper issue: “He had to have Jesus in his heart.  He had to know Jesus or he can’t get to heaven.”

Burpo is rightly amazed that this young child encountered his great-grandfather and sister who died in utero, and most likely he should be, although it is possible Colton heard things about them in passing conversations and unguarded moments and then projected them onto the landscape of his mystical experience.  He might also have received this “knowledge” unconsciously through the feeling tones of his family system. 

Burpo is equally amazed at his son’s “orthodoxy” – everything Colton reports could have come straight out of a conservative Christian baptismal “catechism.”  Here, I think his amazement is unwarranted. As the child of a Baptist pastor myself (young Colton’s father Todd is also a preacher), the faith of our parents is the air we breathe.   We “know” doctrine and have images of heaven and hell, and hear calls to conversation before we can intellectualize them.  You might say that it is bred to the bone theologically for us. Accordingly, my belief is that although Colton had a near death experience or mystical experience of another dimension of reality and may have encountered “deceased” relatives, his description of that experience was colored by the faith of his parents and their church.  This does not discount his experience, but sees it as providing one of many possible interpretations of the afterlife.

This begs several questions that I’m not fully prepared to respond to at this moment, but that can be foundational for any dialogue about the afterlife as revealed through mystical or near death experiences:
·         If our visions of the afterlife reflect our current religious ethos and belief system, does this imply that our near death experiences are always filtered through our cultural and religious belief systems? 

·         Are there many possible legitimate afterlife experiences reflecting the beliefs we hold in this lifetime? 

·         Could it be that God accommodates our post-mortem experiences to reflect our personal identify and beliefs?  Accordingly, some persons (like little Colton) may have actual post-mortem experiences of a personal Jesus and others may have experiences of a more impersonal force; some may experience complete acceptance while others may discover life after death as a combination of grace and judgment.  This might be as much God’s doing as our own, preparing us for the journey ahead by responding to us in the symbols and beliefs we’ve lived by before granting us larger visions of God’s love and glory.

I am appreciative of Todd Burpo’s book, and the faith of a three year old.  As Plato notes, children may be closer to the divine than the adults, trailing clouds of glory into this lifetime from their prenatal adventures.  While I don’t share Todd’s or Colton’s experience or belief systems about the afterlife, I think that Heaven is for Real opens the door for discussions of the possibility of the afterlife and what we might expect in our postmortem adventures.  As such, I commend it as evocative text for personal and group reflection.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious LivingPhilippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church to be released in January. But, above all, he seeks to share good news in ways that transform lives and heal the planet.  He may be reached at

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Theological Foundations of Ministry

Seventh in a series of essays on creating a theology of ministry.  

             When we think about developing a theology of ministry, we must first affirm what theology is.   What is it that we’re doing when we say we’re creating a theology of ministry?  In simple terms, theology is thoughts about God.  Therefore, to create a theology of ministry is to think about ministry in relationship to God.  And as we do so, we must not think of ministry in isolation from other aspects of the theological conversation.

Thus, we start the question:  Who is God?  Is God a distant overlord or one who remains close at hand?  Is God wrathful or loving or perhaps we can try to receive a more complex view of God and then consider ministry in that light.  Of course theology as a discipline is much broader than simply reflecting on the nature of God.  There are such categories as Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and more.  These categories have bearing on our theological reflections on ministry as well.

Kathleen Cahalan, a Roman Catholic writer, identifies six practices that define the ministry of those called to lead disciples:  teaching, preaching, worship leadership/prayer, pastoral care, Social/justice ministry, and administration.  These six practices define the realm in which those called to vocational ministry exist.  They may share these roles/practices with others, but these are the areas that those we often call clergy work in.  She then speaks of these practices being defined theologically in relationship toChristology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology. 

As to why it is Christological, it is because our ministry flows from that of Jesus, who is teacher, preacher, leader of prayer, healer and reconciler, prophet, and organizer of community.  (Introducing the Practice of Ministry, p. 59).   It is pneumatological because according to Paul, ministry is organized according to charisms.  “This means that the Spirit constitutes the church through gifts of discipleship and vocation, including ministry . . . When we discern gifts for ministry, we are looking for these people and gifts related to these practices. “  It is ecclesial, “not because ministers are ‘head of the church; but because their gifts of leadership are recognized, called forth and ‘ordained by the community. “  (p. 59).  I should note that for practical reasons Cahalan distinguishes between discipleship and ministry.   Ministry emerges out of discipleship, and among disciples some are ordained for leadership. 

Cahalan’s orientation is Roman Catholic, so that colors her perspective to a degree, but the point is important – there are theological foundations that enable us to see ministry as more than function.  The way in which ministry exists will evolve over time as Christians engage culture and era, but there is still a touchstone upon which we discern a pathway in the present moment.  What we are learning, or I hope we are learning, is that a call to leadership (ordination) does not make someone a special kind of Christian, but simply designates a form of ministry that reflects the nature and purpose of God (and I hesitate to use the word purpose lest I be seen as reflecting a more deterministic view of faith).   

Monday, December 26, 2011

Why Jesus Matters -- A Review

WHY JESUS MATTERS .  By George W. Stroup.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.  Viii  +152 pages.  

                A future President of the United States offered up Jesus as his favorite philosopher.  It’s an interesting answer since Jesus really wasn’t a philosopher, but more importantly no one asked the follow up question – what is it about Jesus that has formed your world view?   Many people say they admire Jesus or follow Jesus, but how many of us truly attend to his words?    We say that Jesus matters to us, but in what ways?  It’s obvious that many amongst us affirm Jesus as savior, but assume that what has to say about life is rather extraneous to the way we live our lives. 

George W. Stroup, a Presbyterian theologian teaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, believes that Jesus does matter, but he also believes that if we affirm this premise we need to understand what that means for us.  It needs to be an informed statement, one that is informed by Scripture, tradition, and our own experience of life.  And, if we can assume that Jesus matters for Christians, we must, as Stroup shows us, recognize that Christians are not of one mind on this issue.  For some Jesus is the one who died to save them from their sins (and maybe born of a virgin and resurrected bodily on the third day, with the expectation that he will return in judgment – someday).  For others, Jesus is a prophet, a preeminent teacher, whose teachings and death offer us insight into the things of God as well as offering us a way of living life.   For some he is human and for others he is divine, and for still others he is in some way both fully human and fully divine.   The early church spent several centuries trying to sort this question out.   He may be liberator or he may be black, and for some his gender is problematic – especially if he is seen to be in some way divine.  

Jesus may matter, but the way in which this is true is a rather complex issue, and it has been from the beginning.  Indeed, Jesus himself posed the question:  “Who do the people say that I am?”  The answers were rather diverse.  Then he turned the question to his disciples and Peter took up the question and offered an answer that seemed to suffice for Jesus, but does it suffice for those who seek to understand him today? 

George Stroup believes that Christians should wrestle with this question, and therefore he writes this book for the lay person/general reader.   He does so thoughtfully and judiciously.  He points out pitfalls and suggests pathways.  He hints at his own preferences but writes in such a way that he doesn’t shut down the conversation.    He’s left of center, but seeks to offer a moderating voice, pointing out the risks involved in embracing extreme positions.  Thus, this isn’t a radical book, but it does invite the reader to push the envelope and consider carefully the choices that are available.   

Why Jesus Matters is a revision of an earlier book entitled Jesus Christ for Today (Westminster Press, 2012).  In explaining why he revised this earlier book, Stroup notes that much has changed since the book was written in the early 1980s, necessitating a reexamination of the question, for what mattered in 1982 is very different from what matters in a post 9-11/Iraq War era.   Much of the new material is found in chapters five and six, which deal with the way theologians have envisioned Jesus since the Friedrich Schleiermacher’s reformulations in the early 19th century, and continuing up to day with the advent of such approaches as Feminism and Liberation Theology.   This new material also highlights the growth of Christianity outside the Euro-American West, suggesting ways in which this has transformed the discussion, especially as the discussion is being done in a much more pluralistic context.

Before Stroup gets to these more recent conversations about Jesus, he takes the reader through a series of chapters that begin with an exploration the basic questions of Christology, such as whether Jesus the center, is God, is savior, and the role of Jesus in the church.  From there we move on to the biblical stories, especially gospels.  From there we explore further the idea of Jesus as savior, prophet, and Lord – these key titles that define Jesus’ identity.  In chapter four Stroup introduces the reader to the variety of voices present in the early church, those who took that biblical message and further defined it – especially as the message about Jesus became codified in the creeds.  He ends this chapter by asking the question – why do some find these ancient understandings unhelpful and perhaps irrelevant today?  Answers include the way we use language, the focus of the creeds on the birth, death, and resurrection, but not the life and teachings of Jesus.  The creeds may affirm his humanity, but they don’t focus on the reality of that humanity.  Indeed, there is the concern that the ancient church overemphasized the confession of deity over humanity.  Pointing to Calvin’s response to the question of why the creed jumps from birth to death, Calvin’s catechism states that “nothing is said here about what belongs properly to the substance of our redemption.”  If this is true, Stroup suggests, it’s no wonder that his life is ignored.  There may be contextual reason for this emphasis, but is this sufficient for today?    

The answer is – no, the ancient formulations do not address many of the questions raised today.  It’s not that most theologians have thrown out all that came before, but they are seeking to answer different questions while seeking to avoid many of the pitfalls encountered earlier.  The point is making the faith understandable today.   Stroup suggests that at least five basic types of answers have developed over the past two centuries, beginning at least with Friedrich Schleiermacher.  These include Jesus as one with “perfect God-consciousness” (Schleiermacher); as mediator of the salvation experience (Albrecht Ritschl); as liberator (Jon Sobrino); eschatological hope (Pannenberg and Moltmann), and embodiment of wisdom (Rosemary Radford Ruether).  He also explores the possibilities offered by Narrative Theology, a position that appears to be close to his own.  

The task of understanding who Jesus is and why he matters is not only the work of theologians, but it is part of the Christian experience in an increasingly globalized and pluralistic context.  The church is no longer defined by the European/Western worldview.  The language, context, questions, have all changed as the church has exploded in Africa, South America, and Asia.  In the course of this expansion, Christianity has faced the prospect of not only being a religious minority, but also itself and Jesus in conversation with other religious traditions.  These conversations are helping mold new answers to the question – who is Jesus Christ for us today?  Helpful in this conversation, interestingly enough is historical criticism, which reminds us that there is a rather large chasm separating the modern Christian and the world of the Bible.   We all bring presuppositions to the conversation, including our own existential realities.   

Our approach to the question of Jesus’ identity, in all its complexity, is summarized well in the closing paragraph of the book:
Finally, there is good reason – in the witness of Scripture – to believe that neither Christians nor anyone else will ever understand the full glory of Christ until all things – all of creation – finally stand before him and sing doxology (p. 148). 
The question asked by the book is an important one.  We cannot simply parrot the answers of previous generations, assuming that what they said reflects who Jesus was or said.  We can’t assume that there is a foundational culture (Greek?) that defines reality for us.  But, we need to keep in contact with the touchstone of the original story – understanding that we cannot fully bridge the gap between then and now. 

                George Stroup has done a masterful job of laying out a thoughtful reflection on why Jesus matters.  He writes with grace and understanding.  He seeks to be fair to the various positions, while maintaining a moderately liberal perspective on the topic.   He seeks to walk between the Scylla and Charybdis of the two ancient heresies of Docetism and Ebionism, noting that both are present in the current conversation.   This is an especially helpful book for a lay audience, which makes it unfortunate that there isn’t a study guide or at least discussion questions, as this would make for an excellent study book.  Nonetheless, even without a guide, this would be of great value to a church that is struggling to understand how Jesus fits into their faith.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Awaiting the Blessed Hope -- A Christmas Sermon

Titus 2:11-14

The other day I was asked why we’re reading from Titus 2 on Christmas Eve.   My conversation partner wanted to know what this passage has to do with Christmas.  I have to admit that on the surface it doesn’t seem to fit very well.  It doesn’t say anything about the birth of Jesus, and as far as I know it hasn’t inspired any Christmas carols, but sometimes what we see on the surface is deceiving.  When we look more closely at this passage,  we hear the announcement of “the glorious appearing of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.”   And as the letter writer declares, this is the blessed hope for which we have been waiting.  With Christ comes the grace of God that inspires and empowers us to live into the message of Christmas. 

I imagine that most of us have come here tonight expecting to be drawn into the presence of the God who Scripture says appeared to the world in the babe born in Bethlehem.  Most of us come with hearts full of joy, though some come with a mixture of emotions, hoping  to celebrate this blessed event that ushered into existence a new age of divine blessing.  It’s an expectation that inspires our singing of carols and that calls for us to faithfully observe the wonder of this child’s birth as we listen to the angels declare through song that one has come into our midst, who according to Titus 2, bringing “salvation to all people,” and educating  “us so that we live sensible, ethical, and godly lives” (Titus 2:12 CEB)  

When we read Titus 2 in light of the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth and the powerful words of Isaiah as he declares that a great light shines in the darkness of our world, bringing joy to the nation, perhaps we may understand how this event changes the way we look at life and live our lives in the presence of the God who brings to the world justice and peace and grace. 

As we consider the words of this letter, my thoughts turn to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  While I enjoy Charlie Brown and the Grinch, this story that tells of the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge remains my favorite extra-biblical Christmas story.  Nothing seems to catch the spirit of this season better than this tale set in 19th-century industrializing Britain, at a time when income inequality had reached epic heights.  Dickens used this story to open the eyes of a nation to  the plight of the poor,  the oppressed, and 
the marginalized, and invite them to respond in a way that truly reflected the Christmas story.         

If you’re like me and a fan of this story, you probably have a favorite version of the story.  Personally, I like most of them, from Mr. Magoo to Patrick Stewart, but my favorite portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge remains Alister Sim.  This 1951 version of the story may be in black and white, and the effects may be a bit primitive, but Sim captures  the essence of a man who is cold toward humanity and who is  consumed by greed and self-centeredness.  He also captures the pure joy that comes from discovering that he has a second chance to make things right.  Through his facial expressions and the giddiness he displays as a laughs and dances and even by standing on his head in a chair, which scares the living daylights out of his housekeeper, he shows us how to respond to what I would consider to be divine grace.  But it’s not just fleeting joy, for Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed man. 

    Yes Ebenezer Scrooge goes from being a person for whom Christmas is nothing more than a “humbug,” to someone who seeks to embody the fulness of Christmas – not the Christmas of the mall, but the Christmas that is ultimately rooted in the blessed hope of God.  In the beginning, he can’t be bothered by Christmas, especially if he’s being asked to contribute to the welfare of the poor.  But, he’s also annoyed by the joy of his nephew who invites him to share in Christmas and by the desire of his lowly clerk, Bob Cratchitt, that he have Christmas Day off so he can celebrate with his family, a family that includes Tiny Tim, a boy whose joy and wisdom know no bounds, and yet whose future is dark.   

Grace appears to Scrooge in the form of a warning from the ghost of his long dead business partner, Jacob Marley, who like Scrooge, had hardened himself toward humanity, and who now bore the chains he forged in life.  Marley tells Scrooge that he’ll be visited by three Christmas ghosts, and warns him to pay attention to these revelations, so that his fate might be different.  The lessons are hard, because  Scrooge is forced to relive old and difficult memories, while coming face to face with both the joys and the difficulties of his neighbors in the present, before seeing the future consequences of his actions.  

The story of Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t pure gospel, but can we not see in it a call to embrace the transformative nature of God’s grace that comes to us in story of the babe born in Bethlehem.  The question that is utmost in Scrooge’s mind, is whether these shadows of the future can be changed?   And the answer is, as Dickens tells it, yes, the future remains open. We can turn over a new leaf and live godly lives that express the grace and love of God to the world.  
As Dickens puts it  in the closing paragraph of the story:
And it was said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
Indeed, may God bless us, everyone, as we embrace the full message of Christmas, the message that in Christ, we experience the blessed hope of God’s healing presence in our world, and therefore we can live sensible, ethical, and godly lives that express God’s love to the world.  Merry Christmas!   

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
December 24, 2011
Christmas Eve

Saturday, December 24, 2011

God With Us -- A Christmas Meditation

This weekend, I will be joining millions of Christians in celebrating the holy days of Christmas (I should note that Orthodox Christians will be doing this on Jan. 6).
Although many of us will mix into the Christmas celebration the sharing of presents and family meals, at least for me and many others, Christmas is rooted in what we might call the sacred message of Christmas. Santa may have his place, but for me, without the message of Christ there is no Christmas. 
When I join together with fellow church members on Saturday evening and again on Sunday morning, the message of Emmanuel, which is Hebrew for “God with us,” will ring out.
The promise of Emmanuel is laid out for us by the ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah, who spoke to a people facing a great crisis of faith. The little kingdom of Judah faced the impending invasion of a powerful empire. Fear had gripped the people, and yet the prophet declared that a young woman would bear a child who would be known as Emmanuel, and this child, who was probably the soon to be born son of the reigning king, would stand as a reminder that God would had not abandon them in this time of great difficulty (Isaiah 7:14). 
Later on, Christians would hear in this statement the promise the Christ, the one in whom God’s presence was revealed to the world. Although Christians often disagree as how this all works, I think we’re agreed that the story of a babe wrapped in blankets and lying in a feeding trough is a powerful reminder that God has not left us to our own devices. We may sometimes be surprised by the way in which God is present, but in the Christmas story, God’s presence is celebrated and acknowledged.
But it’s not enough just to acknowledge that God is present in this babe born in Bethlehem. The Christmas story also invites us to respond to the grace and love of God by reaching out to those around us, touching the lives of others, especially those most in need. I think it’s appropriate that in the story of Jesus’ birth, we’re not confronted by a child born in a palace, with all the luxuries of royalty, but that this one Christians acknowledge as Lord and Savior, is born to an impoverished family.    
Indeed, as the Gospel of Luke tells it, an imperial census displaces the family, forcing them to travel while Mary, not yet married to Joseph but pregnant, is forced to travel south to Bethlehem, where she bears a child in a stable. Then there’s Matthew, who tells us of a jealous king who slaughters innocent children so as to destroy a possible rival.
These stories speak of powers that are not receptive to God’s presence, especially a God who is made known to them in and through the one Isaiah hails as “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Yes, for Caesar and for Herod – and too many others in our world – there is too much at stake to let peace and justice prevail in the land. 
But as we attend to the Christmas story, both as spoken by the biblical authors or by one such as  Charles Dickens, we hear a call to “live sensible, ethical, and godly lives” (Titus 2:12 Common English Bible), that are committed to the pursuit of justice and peace for all.
Perhaps few of the classic Christmas stories are as pertinent today as that told by Dickens in A Christmas Carol. Set in 19th century Britain, when a rapidly-industrializing nation experienced the vagaries of income inequality that rivals what we see today in our country, Dickens called on his readers to let the full message of Christmas to transform their vision of life and their responsibility for the welfare of the other.   
One of the more challenging moments of this story comes when Scrooge asks about the two children hiding under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present.  The Ghost identifies the boy as ignorance and the girl as want, and the Ghost  answers: “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing is erased.” 
The question then as now concerns whether we will hear this harbinger of the future, and whether we will respond accordingly – not out of fear, but out of love of our neighbor as exemplified in the life and teachings of the one whose birth we celebrate at this moment. Scrooge heard the message, responded joyfully, and his life and the lives of those around him were changed. 
Even as Dickens speaks of a life changed by a Christmas encounter, so we too have the opportunity to be transformed by our encounter with the Christ child, and in so doing we have the opportunity to live fully the Christmas spirit, for as Dickens points out in the closing of the book, Scrooge knew how to observe Christmas better than anyone. And if the letter to Titus is correct, this means living a life that is “sensible, ethical, and godly,” as we reject the “ungodly lives and desires of this world” (Titus 2:12 Common English Bible).  
And lest we see in this word from the biblical text being little more than a moralistic focus on a few hot-button issues that have galvanized certain political interests, perhaps we can hear in this a broader message, one that we find revealed in the teachings of Jesus, that focuses our attention on working for justice for the poor, for the hungry, for the marginalized, as well as a call to pursue the peace of God in the world.  
For those who choose to celebrate Christmas, I invite you to consider with me this broader message of the season – that God is truly with us and we are invited to share in God’s glory and in God’s work of peace and justice in the world.  

Originally Posted at Troy Patch