Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Power of Prayer -- A Sermon

James 5:12-20

Back in my Pentecostal days we talked a lot about the power of prayer.  We were taught to expect that God would do mighty things, just like in the Bible days.  So, if you pray for the sick, you should expect them to recover.  If they don’t, then something is wrong with the prayer.  Either the pray-er or the pray-ee must lack faith.

It’s easy for those in non-Pentecostal circles to make light of such views, but don’t you expect God to answer your prayers for healing by restoring people to health?  Why else would you pray?  And when someone we’ve been praying for reports back that their cancer has gone into remission or they got that desired job, don’t we rejoice at this answered prayer?    

Eric was my TA back when I was teaching in Kansas.  As far as I know, no one ever said anything bad about him. He was a joy to be around, and because he had all the tools to be a great youth minister, that’s where he devoted his ministry.  Yes, everybody loved Eric, but despite a lot of prayers, Eric died at a very young age of brain cancer.

Steve was one of my youth ministers. He went on to pastor a church, but he too developed cancer.  Although his community strongly believed in the power of prayer to heal and though they prayed with all their might that he would be cured of stomach cancer, like Eric he too died young.  Both men left behind wives and children, along with grieving churches.   

Just the other day I received word that Don Shelton, the retired Regional Minister of the Pacific Southwest Region had died of a recurrence of bladder cancer.  Although Don had “retired,” he remained active in ministry.  His death hit me hard, because if it wasn’t for his wisdom and encouragement I probably wouldn’t be in ministry today.   

In each of these cases people, including me, offered up prayers for healing, but a cure was not to be there for them.  So how do we respond?  It’s natural to respond with anger or sadness.  For some, faith shrivels up and dies of disappointment.  I expect that questions will always remain about why one person is cured and another isn’t.  So what do we make of prayer?  Should we hedge our bets – offer up prayers, while crossing our fingers?

The letter of James offers us a practical guide to Christian living.  He speaks to us across the centuries, inviting us to live lives of faith in such a way that the Christian community is strengthened.  James is clear.  Faith without works is dead.  And he closes this brief but powerful letter with some words of advice about the power of prayer.   

James tells us that if you suffer, then pray.  If you’re happy – sing.  If you’re sick, don’t just pray, send word to the elders and ask them to come and anoint you with oil and pray for your recovery.  Why?  Well, because  – “prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health.  And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” 

There’s a lot packed into these two verses.  In fact, the message here can be rather troubling, because it seems to link sickness and sin, healing and forgiveness. But not only that, he suggests that a faithful prayer will heal the sick.  And if you need an example of such prayer offered in faith – just look to Elijah.  He prayed that the rain would stop and the land experienced three and a half years of drought.  Then, when Elijah said let it rain, it rained and “the earth produced its fruit.”   Wouldn’t you like to have the power to pray like that?  Wouldn’t it be nice to have the power to control the weather or maybe raise the dead?  Well, even if you haven’t stopped the rain, moved mountains, or raised the dead, our prayers can affect the realities of our lives.

Now, I’ll admit – I struggle with prayer.  I’m not the contemplative type.  I have hard time keeping my mind still.  I need to be doing something – reading, writing, talking, doing.  Sitting for an hour or even 30 minutes is difficult.  So, I take comfort in Jesus’ teaching about the number of words needed to communicate with God.  You see, God apparently isn’t impressed by the quantity or even the quality of the words we speak.  A simple prayer offered with sincerity is just as affective as a long and flowery one.  But, my struggle with prayer doesn’t excuse me from sharing in conversation with God – whether in the privacy of my closet or in public.   

But whatever our prayers sound like, James speaks of their power.  So, where does the power come from?  How can the “prayer of a righteous person” be “powerful in what it can achieve?”  Could it be that the power is found within the relationships we have with each other?  Could this be what frees God up to work powerfully in our lives?  

Although  James doesn’t discourage us from going directly to God with our prayers, he does speak of the role of the community.  When you’re sick, you can pray for yourself, but call for the Elders as well.  Ask them to come and offer up the prayer of faith.  Isn’t it interesting that James doesn’t tell the reader to call the pastor, the prayer chain, or even the Stephen Minister – not that there’s anything wrong with that?  Isn’t it interesting that he tells us to call for the Elders, who are to come and anoint with oil and pray for healing? That’s their job. It was true back then and it’s true today.   So, with James’s directive in mind, do you know who your elder is, so that you can call on them when necessary?  If you’ve not heard from your elder yet, check out the list in the hallway and make a call – even if you’re not sick!      

James also speaks of confessing sins to one another and restoring the wanderer to the faith.  When you take instructions like these two, along with the instruction to lay hands on and anoint with oil, which speaks of touching the bodies of those in need of prayer, we see the importance of community.  

There’s power, it would seem, in the community.  It’s the power of the Spirit, which is symbolized by the oil with which the sick are anointed.  It’s the power that comes when two or three gather in the name of Jesus and he is present in their midst.  Yes, we can and should pray in our closets, but shouldn’t we also pray for each other within the community?     

Over the years, I’ve prayed with and for a lot of people.  I’ve prayed for healing, though like many, I may have hedged my bets a little by adding – “let your will be done.”  Have you ever done that?  You want to believe that the person is going to be cured, but you don’t want to be too disappointed if the news is bad. 

I’ll admit, I’ve not seen a lot of curing, but that doesn’t mean that healing hasn’t taken place. I once prayed for and anointed a parishioner not long before she died.  While it may not have been a cure, could it have been an act of healing?

  Last weekend Amos Yong helped us better understand the nature of wholeness and healing in the context of disability. He reminded us that healing and cures aren’t always the same thing.  The word we translate to speak of healing is also translated as salvation and wholeness.  So, the question is – What is healing?  Although it may not involve a cure, it could involve the healing of relationships or acceptance of what some would call a disability.  And the power of this prayer could be the community that the Spirit builds when we allow the Spirit the freedom to move amongst us and build relationships of openness, welcome, and inclusivity.  

My life has been enriched by the lives of Eric, Steve, Don, and many others, who weren’t cured, but through whom God brought healing to my life and to the lives of others.  May we find that our prayers will have that power that comes through the Spirit so that God’s world may experience peace, joy, love, and wholeness.      

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
18th Sunday after Pentecost
September 30, 2012

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Taking Jesus at His Word -- A Review

TAKING JESUS AT HIS WORD: What Jesus Really Said in the Sermon on the Mount.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.  X + 166 pages.

                The Sermon on the Mount, three chapters of text found in the Gospel of Matthew (and in briefer form and separate location in Luke), is a perennial challenge to Christians.  We like pieces of it – especially the Lord’s Prayer, which many of us recite each Sunday – but many other statements are difficult to receive.  Oh, we like the words; we just don’t see them being a realistic vision for this life.  Maybe in the next life we can love our enemies and turn the cheek, but in this life, especially in places where Christians are the majority, we feel the need to relegate them to a rather spiritual reality.

                  Having preached on this sermon myself, I know the difficulty of receiving the word that is present here, but are we who claim to be followers of Jesus willing to take him at his word?

                Addison Hodges Hart, a retired pastor and college chaplain, has taken up the sermon and has tried to exposit it for the contemporary Christian.  He believes that it not only speaks to life in the coming kingdom (that heavenly one so many Christians pine for), but to life in the present.  Here we have a word that offers guidance and direction for living the Christian life in a welcoming and ethical manner. 

                In this book Hart takes us step by step through the sermon, beginning with the Beatitudes.  Actually, he starts by inviting us to take the sermon seriously and then sets up the context.  Then, the exposition begins.  Hart writes that his wish for this book is that we’ll join him in a journey up the mountain to where Jesus shares this word.  He invites us to do so with imagination and with notebook in hand.  He goes up the mountain in the later stages of life, having already experienced life’s sorrows and joys.  His intent isn’t to theologize too much or even do too much exegetical work.  He writes that “this is a book of reflections; and I want to put any tendency to rationalize and categorize to one side, as best I can, and try to hear Jesus speak” (p. 2).  His focus isn’t on doctrines about Jesus, but the words of Jesus, seeking to hear them anew in a way that will transform life lived in this realm.   This is a book about living faithfully as a follower of Jesus.  He writes as one who had a priest, but who left the priesthood because he found it too hierarchical.  And as you read the book you’ll hear in his words a challenge to our institutional tendency to take a hierarchical road.  Though he writes for Christians, he welcomes all who would hear the words of Jesus to take the journey with him through the sermon. 

                After setting the context by getting us up the hill to where Jesus is teaching about God’s realm, he asks us to consider the question – what does this sermon have to say to us?  This is where the question of its realism comes into play.  He notes that many have suggested that the sermon is an unattainable ideal, but while a difficult road, he doesn’t think it an impossible one.  It takes patience and commitment, however.  At the same time, he warns us not to take the words too lightly, so that we think we can with little difficulty take up the quest.  The words aren’t merely inspirational.  We are called upon not only to hear, but to do.

                And so we take the journey.  We begin with the beatitudes, which define for us in nine statements the way of discipleship.  These words, taken seriously, should challenge the way live.  After all, how does one be a peacemaker and don a military uniform?  In the course of the next several chapters, he speaks of how Jesus invites us to internalize – not spiritualize – the Torah.  It’s not enough to keep the letter if the heart remains unchanged.  He speaks too of Jesus’ discussion of the spiritual practices that define the life of the kingdom – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  He writes about the way we deal with riches and anxiety, about judgment and the golden rule.  As he brings the exposition to a close, he notes that Jesus offers us a narrow pathway, one that involves doing not just hearing.  It’s not merely, saying yes to Jesus and then going on with life as usual.

                The title of the sixteenth and final chapter is instructive – he entitles it “The Sermon that has No End.”  By this he means, it’s a sermon that we must continually come back to so that it might challenge us and guide us into the future.  What this sermon does is call us to “examine our lives at their deepest levels and to work strenuously on our own, ongoing transformation.  It is a handbook for disciples who wish to shape their interior lives in such a way that, no matter what the practical daily functions of a community of disciples may look like the disciples personal ethic and behavior remains consistent with the character of God’s kingdom and righteousness” (p. 131). 

                Hart’s book doesn’t offer us any new and unique insight, but he does continually reinforce the importance of attending to these words as we live lives before God.  These aren’t simply words to hold up as an ideal that we celebrate but never seek to live into.  The challenge is difficult, but the life lived with this sermon will be transformative. 

                The book includes a study guide that makes it useful for study groups.  It also includes two appendices, one dealing with Jesus’ words and how we interpret them, and then one that focuses on the perennial issue of judgment.  As with most appendices, these chapters illuminate matters previously discussed, but which go beyond the scope of the sermon itself.

                It’s a good book.  It’s readable, challenging, and it reminds us that these are words to take seriously if we seek to follow Jesus.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Line -- Poverty in America

Too many Americans live at or below the poverty line.  We claim to live in the richest nation in the world, and the riches that mark America are great, and yet poverty continues to persist in our midst.  It affects people living in cities, in rural areas, and even in the suburbs.  Yes, there is poverty in Troy, MI, one of the most affluent cities in Michigan.  No, it's not as visible as in Detroit, but it's there, largely out of sight.

Jesus is quoted as saying that the poor will always be with you.  And that maybe true, but we shouldn't take that truism as license to ignore realities.  People are poor for many reasons.  It can be related to lack of education or bad decisions, but often people fall into poverty for reasons beyond their control.  Factories close, schools are improperly funded, jobs leave, storms hit, the rain ceases to fall, or a medical crisis drains the funds.  Many of the poor work multiple jobs to put food on the table and pay rent.  No one wants to live below that line.  No one really wants to be dependent on the government or any other entity.  We all want to live above the line, but it's important to remember that even when that line is crossed, it's not necessarily a move into prosperity or even into the shrinking middle class.  It's just that life is sustainable, but often precarious.

So, what do we do?  How do we respond?  Jesus said that we will be judged on the basis of how we treat the "least of these" (Matt. 25).  What does that require of us?

As a way of reflecting on this question Sojourners together with a number of partners has produced a film called The Line. 

The Line documents the stories of people across the country living at or below the poverty line. They have goals. They have children. They work hard. They are people like you and me.
From Chicago's suburbs and west side to the Gulf Coast to North Carolina, millions of Americans are struggling every day to make it above The Line. 

 In the Chicago suburbs, a single dad was laid off from his bank and is now a regular at the local food pantry, trying to make it by with three kids.  

On the Gulf Coast, a fisherman struggles post-BP oil spill and Hurricane Katrina because environmental crises mean the loss of his livelihood.
In North Carolina, we see that hard work and determination don't always mean success.

What does this mean for the future of our country? How do real-life stories change the narrative about poverty?

 Central Woodward Christian Church, the congregation I serve as pastor, will be one of the sites showing this film next Tuesday evening.  We're starting at 7:30 PM.  We'll watch the film together and then share in discussion.  If you live near Troy, then join us.  If not, check and see where the film is being shown.  The October 2nd date is important because it falls the night before the first Presidential debate.  Both candidates will need to respond to questions about poverty.  Neither candidate has given sufficient attention to this question.  Perhaps its because the poor don't vote in as large of numbers as the others, but their cries are being heard by God -- and thus the political powers might want to pay attention.

I invite you to watch the trailer, and then consider your response:

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Don Shelton: A Remembrance

Don Shelton (R) at my installation in 1998

 “I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.”  (2 Timothy 4:7 CEB)

I received word today that my friend, colleague in ministry, and my former Regional Minister, the Rev. Dr. Don Shelton, has died.  I write today to give thanks for his life, for his devotion to family and to his faith, his leadership in the church, and his loyalty to friends and family.  I reach out to Linda, his wife, and to his family, seeking to share my thanks for his life, while sharing my prayers for them in this time of loss.  I don't know the details of when he died or funeral plans, but I would like to share with you my words of gratitude for the life of Don Shelton.

If you don’t know him, Don served two terms as Regional Minister for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Pacific Southwest.  Before that he served as pastor of First Christian Church of Bakersfield.  Like me, Don and his wife Linda, were graduates of what is now Northwest Christian University in Eugene, OR.  He did his seminary work in the Bay area and served with distinction in ministry. In retirement he served as Interim President of the Division of Homeland Ministries of the Disciples and most recently had returned to Bakersfield where he was serving as Transitional Pastor of his former church.  In retirement Don had been diagnosed with cancer, had surgery and was doing well.  In a recent phone conversation he shared that the cancer had returned, but he continued with his ministry.

These details are contextual.  They tell you something about Don and his ministry.  I want to offer a brief memorial, offering my words of thanks for his gracious presence in my life.   If you’re reading this and you’re clergy, you know that “Judicatories” often get a bad name.  They can come off as ecclesiastical functionaries.  Some deserve such a rap, but from my experience and that of others, Don does not.  He will not be counted among the uncaring or the incompetent.  Instead, he will be counted among the wise and gracious. 

Don was Regional Minister for most of my ten years of ministry in Southern California, and in a time of crisis in my own ministry he was there for me and for my family.  When I told my son, he rightly said, Don means a lot to everyone in our family. 

Regional Ministers and Bishops often have to balance the needs of both congregation and pastor.  They have to be pastors to both, and it can get tricky.  I was faced with the prospect of resigning from my pastorate of 5 plus years.  I lived in a parsonage in a rather expensive community.  My wife was a teacher and my son just finishing junior high.  Don helped us find an equitable solution that enabled Cheryl and Brett to finish the year.  That was important.  But, equally important was Don’s presence as I processed my own call to ministry.  I would not be serving as pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church today had it not been for his support.  Indeed, I likely would not be in ministry today at all. 

Don helped me find a congregation to serve where both they and I experienced healing.  Before that moment I struggled with what seemed like conflicting callings – ministry of theological education or parish ministry.  But in the course of the years of ministry in Lompoc, which Don enabled, I discovered a call to parish ministry.  I am a pastor today because he stood with me.  For that and for his support of me and my family’s needs in a time of difficulty, I am and will be forever grateful.

As the passage from 2 Timothy states:  Don fought the good fight against cancer.  He stood firm in his faith and in his calling to ministry.  He offered himself to the church and to its pastors.  And for that he is to be commended as one of God’s good and faithful servants.

We're All in this Together -- A Lectionary Reflection

We’re All in this Together

       This is clearly an individualistic age.  Especially in the United States, any hint of collectivism is cause for concern.  Sharing power and resources – the idea of redistribution – is difficult to affirm.  Americans have long lived with the elixir of individualism.  Indeed, my own denominational tradition is built on the premise of individual freedom to interpret and live out the biblical story.  As a pastor it’s easy to get caught up in the game of doing it all – you know, if I don’t do it, it won’t get done.  Now, individual initiative isn’t a bad thing.  The freedom to interpret isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes we forget our kinship with one another.  Sometimes we forget that there is power in relationships. 

       I’ve become more aware of the power of relationships in the course of becoming rather deeply involved in faith-based community organizing efforts.  One of the most important principles of community organizing is that power to change realities is rooted in relationships – in working together as coalitions of people and groups who share a common commitment to making the community stronger.    As Kendall Baker points out – in community organizing the point isn’t furthering a political agenda or even achieving success with a particular issue. 
Rather, it is to develop an organization with the power of relationships that can act to make the larger community a more human place for all. An organizing principle: organizing is about people; people are about issues. Even when a particular organizing action does not meet all its objectives in moving an issue, it can still be considered a success. And that is because the primary goal is not to win, but to build a powerful organization[Kendall Clark Baker. When Faith Storms the Public Square: Mixing Religion and Politics through Community Organizing to Enhance our Democracy, (p. 144). Kindle Edition.]
In the age of the individual, it’s easy for our faith journeys to take on the cast of individualism, to become focused only on our own spiritual realities and blessings.  While I understand why some embrace the idea of being “spiritual without being religious” – especially since religious institutions are often dysfunctional and fail to live up to their own values -- such expressions tend to be focused on self-fulfillment rather than on building powerful communities that further God’s vision for creation and for humanity.

                It’s in this context that we hear these passages of Scripture, which remind us that we’re all in this together.  In Numbers, Moses forgets that the responsibilities for the community don’t fall totally on his shoulders.  Then, when a crisis emerges he starts complaining and feeling sorry for himself, but ultimately receives help, both from expected and unexpected sources. In James we hear about the power of prayer when it is shared in community.  And then in the Gospel of Mark, the power of relationship is developed in ways that challenge and enlighten.

                The word that comes to us in the Book of Numbers concerns a food crisis.  The people are complaining about the lack of meat.  They’re tired of eating manna, and their cries are getting to be too much for Moses – and apparently for God as well.  The people begin to pine for the “golden age” of yesteryear when they ate free food – cucumbers and melons, leeks and onions, as well as garlic.  Now, they’re wasting away.  That they once lived in slavery has been forgotten.  How easy it is to forget how things really were.  We’re quite good at it.  Oh, how wonderful it was to grow up back then – in the 30s or the 40s or the 50s.  Ah, those halcyon days, back when segregation reigned, when women faced discrimination at every turn.  Yes, those were the days. Let’s go back.  But of course, that golden age is an illusion, and so we must press on.  God is outraged at all the chatter, and Moses is frustrated – how is he supposed to deal with this rabble?  The answer is found in sharing power. 

In answer to Moses’ dilemma, God takes some of the spirit that is residing on Moses and places it on the seventy, so that they can share the burden.  But not only do they share the burden – the Spirit also falls on two brothers who have stayed back at the camp.  Maybe they’re guarding the tents, but they’re not counted among the elders.  That, however, doesn’t stop God from touching them and empowering them so that they can take their place among the leaders.  Now, such a reality doesn’t sit well with some who see themselves as paragons of authority.  Joshua gets upset at this act of God, and complains to Moses.  Moses, however, understands the ways of God, and says to Joshua – ah if only all of them were prophets.  That would be good.  There is more to this story than what I’ve shared, but in our context the witness is clear – this is a journey we share together, and leadership is shared as well – often with people we least expect.

                In James 5, as this letter comes to a close, we hear a call to prayer.  If you suffer – pray.  If you’re happy – sing.  If you’re sick, call for the elders so that they can pray.  The first two directives can be undertaken by the individual, but in this third directive, such is not the case.  Call for the elders, let them anoint you with oil and pray for you, so that you might be healed.  Such prayers have power, when they’re rooted in faith.  But, for James sickness has a corollary – there is the possibility of sin, so confess your sins – not just to God, but to each other.  As we hear this, directive, many of us will stop and wonder about its wisdom.  How much do we share and with whom? 

                  Churches are communities full of broken humans.  Sin resides in our lives.  Confessing sins can be dangerous.  Indeed, sharing our deepest secrets can be damaging to our lives.  James speaks here of sins, but what about those other markers of our lives that we hide?  People with mental illness dare not share their secrets, because there’s a stigma attached to mental health issues.  Oh, you have depression, why is that?  Is something wrong with you?  Or what about one’s sexual orientation – we practice “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but those who are gay or lesbian live in fear of discovery, live in fear of what the community might think.  Such fears render the community a place of brokenness rather than wholeness.  But, there is hope – in prayer, for it has the power to heal.  It may not cure, but most assuredly it can heal the brokenness that marks our lives and our relationships.  Perhaps that’s what needs to happen so we can restore each other to the path of God.

                As we come to the Gospel reading, we again come back to the meaning of community.  John comes to Jesus, much like Joshua came to Moses, raising concerns about unauthorized agents taking up duties seemingly assigned to the inner circle.  We saw people, he says, throwing out demons and such – in your name – so we tried to stop them because they weren’t part of our club.  But Jesus, like Moses, responds – don’t be an impediment to the Spirit.  If they’re doing powerful works in my name, then they won’t be cursing me.  And here’s a word for our day – “whoever isn’t against us is for us.”  Too often we worry about boundaries.  We limit whom God can empower and through whom God can work, but Jesus seems to rest content in the knowledge that God will do what God will do.  The point is doing something good.  If they give you a cup of water because you’re mine, then they’ll be rewarded. 

                From this important statement Jesus moves on to questions of judgment.  Verses 42 to 50 are difficult to hear.  Jesus seems to suggest that we should impair ourselves, if parts of our bodies lead us astray.  It’s a rather grotesque set of statements, and yet in the midst of this difficult passage, we hear a message – don’t cause my children to stumble.  Don’t be that impediment.  Instead, be salt.  Be refined by fire.  Why?  So that you can be salt to each other.  After all, we’re all in this together, and when we’re salt that retains its saltiness, then we can become a means of peace in the world.

                So, are we ready to work together to live into God’s vision of the New Creation?  Are we ready to share power?  Are we ready to find power in the midst of our relationships?  Or are we content to do it all by ourselves?  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Postcards from Claremont - 5 – Healing the World (Bruce Epperly)

The Disciples of Christ, as I've noted before, have as their motto -- "A Movement of Wholeness in a Fragmented World."  The point of the motto is to express our founding vision of being a community oriented to bringing unity to the Christian community, while at the same time expanding that vision into something broader -- a vision of working together to bring healing to the world.  In today's postcard from Claremont, Bruce Epperly picks up on that theme with a meditation on bringing healing to the world.  It's an important cause, to which he invites us to join him in.  Take a read, and consider how you might be used by God to bring healing to the world.


Postcards from Claremont - 5 – 
Healing the World
Bruce G. Epperly

For many years, I have centered my understanding of theological ethics and social concern around an image from Jewish spirituality – tikkun olam – mending the world.  Imagine my joy when during my first faculty meeting at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University both President Jerry Campbell and Dean and Provost Philip Clayton invoked “healing the world” as essential to the institutions’ missions.  Often, even in seminary education, the focus is solely on the church and its mission; but here at Claremont, the mission is global as well as ecclesiastical.  What happens in the classroom doesn’t stay in the classroom.  It’s intended to flow in the wider community and contribute to national and planetary well-being.

Study is a form of prayer and can contribute to mending the world.  In the words of Jewish mysticism, the energies of creation – the sparks that enliven every soul – have splintered off from each other, creating brokenness and injustice in the world.  In seeking to respond to this alienation, our prayers and actions radiate across the universe, touching even the spiritual realms, and are factors in raising the light of creation toward unity in a world of division.  Jesus’ prayer invokes the same imagery – “thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Our world is intended to reflect God’s vision of Shalom, the beloved community, the peaceable realm, in which joy and laughter, love and harmony, guide the affairs of persons and nations.

I am grateful to be with institutions – even if only for the Fall Semester – where interreligious dialogue and the quest to transform conflict into contrast are at the heart of their mission.  I use the word “contrast” intentionally.  Contrast is a term Alfred North Whitehead uses to describe the relationships of many diverse elements within a healthy and beautiful gestalt.  Rather than polarization, denial, oppression, opposition, or evasion, contrast involves seeing our lives and institutions in aesthetic terms.  It aims at a largeness of spirit that transforms opposition into an opportunity for learning and growth and polarization into the possibility of creative partnership.

“Red” and “blue,” for example, so often invoked in the political realm are not opposites with nothing in common.  In fact, when you join the two contrasting colors, variations of purple emerge and, as Alice Walker asserts, the color purple is beautiful and shouts out for our appreciation and gratitude.

In the wake of the recent violence in the Muslim world and the deaths of an USA ambassador and his diplomatic colleagues, the need to move from conflict to contrast is obvious.  I am grateful that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought immediately to balance security with reducing tensions.  While some who lack foreign policy experience and national leadership criticized their attempts at conciliation as weakness, saber rattling seldom solves deep-seated foreign policy issues.  USA resolve balanced by careful rhetoric opens the door to long term conversations in which all parties ratchet down their vitriol and look for common ground.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if our national representatives saw their current responsibility as working together to create contrasts rather than standing on fixed principles employed to demonize those who differ from them.

Mending the world – healing the Earth – involves honoring diversity and, more than that, recognizing that God loves diversity and has brought forth the many colors of the rainbow and the many religious traditions through a dynamic process of call and response, intentionality and inspiration, in particular cultural and environmental contexts.  Today, in a world of immediate communication, this diversity can be a call to creative synthesis.  This diversity has already transformed the world’s religions, both positively and negatively.  Negatively, some religious adherents among the great religions are circling their wagons, intending to deny or destroy anything that they perceive as threat to their doctrines and way of life whether in terms of science, literature, multiculturalism, or expanded human rights.  Positively, and this is where healing the world comes in, others see their religious traditions as living organisms, growing in stature by deepening their own theological reflection and spiritual practices while embracing congruent visions and practices from other faiths.  This is a religious attitude that heals rifts, forgives mistakes, and moves on in partnership.  This is healing the world in action.

This morning, as I take my daily walk through the colleges on my way to study and enjoy a cup of coffee at a local bistro, I walk through pre-dawn streets, blessing the earth, praying for perspective, awakening to otherness, giving thanks for the opportunity to be at Claremont, where I am daily reminded that one of my vocations is to be God’s companion in “healing the world.”

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: 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.   He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith Lectionary and   He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Coptic Papyrus -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

 Senior Christian statesman Martin Marty is back writing his Sightings column, offering words of wisdom that we need to hear with regularity.  So, here we have his wry take on the recent hullabaloo over whether Jesus had a wife.  You may have heard the news -- there's a fragment of a supposed Coptic manuscript that features the words Jesus and wife, and thus the debate begins.  For many of us, this is really a non-issue.  The canonical texts don't speak of a wife, but what if he did?  Well, as Marty notes -- as with most things relating to Jesus' identity, this one will like fade into history as fast as it emerged, but for now it's a cause célèbre!

Sightings  9/24/2012 
 The Coptic Papyrus
-- Martin E. Marty

Vying for space and time on the religion-and-media front this week, in competition with presidential campaigns, Muslim extremist riots, and almost numberless other stirs, has been the attention given to a tiny piece of papyrus which includes the teeny words “Jesus” and “wife.” This text was pictured as being “hot off the press,” with only a four century pre-publication delay after the time of the occurrences to which it presumably referred. Four centuries from the implied wedding of Jesus to this “evidence” is the amount of time from the writing of the Mayflower Compact to our own.           
There is little need to rehearse the controversy, so familiar has it become. The fact that well-recognized Harvard expert on Coptic Christian texts (and on more than that), Karen King took it seriously prompted other sober scholars to pay attention. We are told that her paper on the subject was one of some sixty delivered at a conference in Rome. The other 59 or so no doubt elicited yawns among many scholars of things Coptic and ancient Christianity in general, and suffered neglect by media. This one was different.           
Why? Some commentators assumed that publicizing this would shake the faithful for whom the canonical gospels are unique sources. The usual suspects from the “New Atheist” front checked in, picturing that their suggestion that Jesus may have been married would score one against God and all that stuff. As mentioned, alert scholars of Coptic texts had good reason to be more alert than ever, and to be seen as relevant in the 21st century. Most of all, we heard and read that this piece of papyrus would cause defensive Catholics—and there are many--who argue for and insist on celibacy for clergy to find their fortress shattering. They would have to cry “uncle,” throw in the towel, and let feminists have their way.           
We can put this kind of media event into perspective by noting that each such unearthing of non-canonical ancient Christian texts receives publicity in direct proportion to attention being given to particular controversial issues in the contemporary world. In the long perspective of Christian history of twenty centuries, my generation and I are virtual kids, with only a half-century of observation behind us. But we can see ancient textual interests and contemporary itches matching almost decade by decade.           
Thus: when in the 1950s-plus “we” were seeking precedent for social justice on Christian fronts (count me in!), Jesus got pictured as an East Harlem Protestant social worker. Then came a time when best-sellers and their publicists proved that Jesus worked wonders because he and his followers were chewing mushrooms which gave them hallucinatory and thus divine-revelatory visions. Just in time to match the world of hippies and consciousness raisers. They came and went. Remember the Passover Plot? It had its moment in a time when such plotting mattered. Recall the books on “Jesus the Zealot,” based on discoveries from times of old to match the most radical Liberation Theology of our time? This dagger-carrying Jesus came and went.           
Now the churches and the culture are hung up on sexual issues, and “Jesus-”and- “wife” prompts new obsessions. (Sexual issues won’t go away in any hurry, so the various celebrating factions can elaborate at leisure on this papyrus). But if the majority of Christian scholars don’t jettison all their other texts to embrace this one, we do not need to wonder. We and they might even yawn.  

 Rodrique Ngowi, “Jesus had a wife? Bible scholars question Harvard finding,” Associated Press, September 19, 2012.

This month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum is “Discursive Formation around ‘Shinto’ in Colonial Korea” by Isomae Jun'ichi (International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto). "In the current discourse," Isomae Jun'ichi writes, "Shinto is usually categorized as a national religion.  The discourse of Shinto as the national religion, however, is a product of history; it became dominant only after the defeat of Japan in the Asian-Pacific War in 1945." In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Isomae explores the late-19th and early-20th century discourse of Shinto "as a world religion," which discourse ultimately served to "legitimatize the invasion of Asia."  By recovering "the forgotten discourse of Shinto as a world religion," Isomae argues, "we have the opportunity to dislocate these dichotomous categories [of world and national religion] and investigate their contents." Read “Discursive Formation around 'Shinto' in Colonial Korea” here.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Energion Political Roundable -- Q. 6 -- Medicare and the Presidential Candidates

The Energion Political Roundtable has reached round six, which as you’ll see focuses on the question of Medicare.  My conversation partners are   – Allan Bevere,  Elgin HushbeckJoel Watts, and Arthur Sido.  You can check out their responses, and if I have opportunity I’ll share my own responses.  So, on to the question posed by our publisher Henry Neufeld. 
Here in Florida we're getting a lot of political ads. One of the key topics in both the Senate race between Connie Mack and Bill Nelson and in the presidential race is Medicare. How would you evaluate the plans that each presidential candidate has for Medicare? Should senior citizens be concerned?

            Living in Michigan, which apparently has ceased being a battleground state, the ads aren’t coming as fast or as furious (no pun intended) as they are south of the border in Ohio or I presume in Florida.  As for the Senate race in Michigan, this particular issue (Medicare) doesn’t seem to be a major issue, at least at this point.  So, it’s possible that I’m a bit distant from some of the political wrangling that may be going on in other more contested spots – and/or states with large numbers of seniors.    

            As for my take on the ongoing Medicare debate, I should note that I see it in a broader context, which involves providing affordable health care options for all residents of this nation.  In the 2008 election the debate centered on whether access to quality health care was a right or not.  Both candidates seemed to agree that everyone should have access, though they differed to some degree on the delivery mechanism.  One of President Obama’s achievements was creating a national health care system, one that involves private health care insurers.  With this achievement in the background to our conversation we can turn to the current debate over Medicare.

            I think we can start with Mitt Romney’s declared opposition to the so-called “Obamacare,” even though it matches up with a rather successful Massachusetts venture.  I’ve never understood how he can say that it’s great for Massachusetts, but not for the rest of the nation.  If it’s so great, then why shouldn’t the Federal government emulate it?    Although the question before us has to do with Medicare, some of the President’s reforms of Medicare are predicated on the broader reforms of the ACA.  This is why Romney’s charges that Obama is “stealing” from Medicare are less than honest.  Obama is working to end inefficient delivery systems (overpayment to insurers through Medicare Advantage), and tying in those reforms into a more effective delivery system for Medicare recipients.  Obama’s plan is designed to extend the life of Medicare, even as costs are contained.  Benefits aren’t being reduced, their being extended and insurers are losing their government funded money pit.

As advertised the Romney/Ryan plan would retain the current system for those over 55, and then turn the system for those under 55 (I’m 54) into a voucher system, that most experts believe won’t keep up with inflation.  Now, supposedly the current system would still exist, but how would it exist if the funding source is changed?  None of this really is clear.  But more importantly, this is a political attempt to court older voters (who vote in larger numbers) by sacrificing younger ones.  As I understand it, many seniors aren’t interested in taking from their children and grandchildren. But more importantly, some analysts are suggesting that the Romney plan ultimately will bankrupt Medicare before the voucher program goes into effect.  So, maybe seniors should be concerned.

Now, am I completely satisfied with the President’s plan?  No.  There’s a plan that neither candidate has embraced, but one that likely will be implemented in time.  That plan is to extend Medicare to all.  If Medicare was offered as a health plan for persons of all ages, so that we’re paying into the system at a much younger age, when we’re less likely to make use of it, then the system has more funds to work with.  Of course, this plan has another name – “Single Payer System.”  It’s not politically palatable right now, but I think it is the most sustainable way going forward, if for no other reason that it can help contain the accelerating costs of medical care.  Such a system could move us from the current (and wasteful) system of pay per service method of delivery to one that is more holistic.  You know, doctors work as teams to find the best solution to a medical issue, and not simply order unnecessary and expensive tests or operations, simply because they make money from it.   If you remove some of this motivation from the system costs will be contained and better medicine will be practiced.  Oh, and as for those “death panels” and other scary things you’ve heard about, remember this – rationing happens all the time.  If you have the money or the insurance (and insurance companies ration all the time), then you can get what you want.  If not, well – you know!

            But the question is – what about the two candidates and their plans for Medicare.  If I have to choose a plan, I’ll go with the President’s.  I think that Romney’s plan will lead to disaster, while the President’s plan gives us some time to deal with the issue in a more effective way – when the political climate will allow us to move to a better plan.   

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Disability, the Body of Christ, and Ministries of Inclusion

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the denomination in which I have my ordination and in whose churches I have and continue to serve as pastor, has as it's "motto":  "We are a movement of wholeness in a Fragmented World."  This motto not only serves to restate our founding vision of  being  advocates for Christian unity, but pushes the imagery further to envisioning our role in God's work of bringing wholeness to a world that is fragmented by ethnic, linguistic, social, cultural, religious, economic and political differences.  But what does wholeness involve?  What does it look like?

I've been pondering this question this weekend as Central Woodward Christian Church, the congregation I serve as pastor, has hosted it's third annual Perry Gresham Bible Lectures.  We've had as our presenter/leader, Dr. Amos Yong, who has authored a powerful book entitled The Bible, Disability, and the Church:  A New Vision of the People of God (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co., 2011).  We've been wrestling with what it means to be truly welcoming of those with disabilities.  We've wrestled with the biblical text and what it says to us as God's people about disability.  There are texts that suggest that persons with disability are blemished or suffer the result of sin.  There are other texts that offer a different perspective, one that is less harsh and more welcoming.  The question that we face concerns our ability to read the text of Scripture in a way that is liberating so that those persons with disabilities can not only be ones we minister to (Matthew 25), but minister with. 

I have spent much time with the whole idea of spiritual gifts, a concept that is laid out in 1 Corinthians 12.  The message here is that there is one body of Christ that is made up of many members, and that each member has a gift to offer, a gift that is indispensable to the body if it is to be whole.  

In the course of his presentations -- both Friday to clergy and other church leaders and Saturday to an even larger audience -- Amos spoke of Paul's vision of a community that recognizes and honors the indispensable gifts of those whom Paul refers to as the "weaker" members.  We may as a culture perceive persons with disabilities -- of all forms -- to be weaker, they have an  important role to play in the body.  They are conduits for the work of the Spirit.  

Amos writes:

We are not saying that the many gifts of the Spirit are given to the stronger members of the body so that they may minister to the weaker members, and thus that people with disabilities are needed only as recipients of the ministry of such gifts.  To be sure, that's part of what happens.  But I'm making a stronger claim:  that the many gifts of the Spirit are manifest through all members of the body regardless of their ability or disability.  In fact, it is more in keeping with Paul's theology of weakness that the more powerful manifestations are mediated through those whose abilities are less noticeable or who are thought to be lesser candidates for God's work from a worldly or "normal" point of view.  The members of the body neither earn nor merit the Spirit's gifts, nor do they somehow have greater capacities or abilities that attract and dispose such gifts.  In fact, here Paul emphasizes the opposite:  that it is the God the Spirit who chooses the recipients of the charismata, and that there is a variety of recipients precisely because of the diversity of the body's members. In short, the Spirit distributes gifts liberally and graciously so that people with disabilities are just as capable -- if not more capable -- of contributing to the edification of the community of faith, and hence are necessary in that sense.   (Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church, p. 94).  

People with disabilities need certain kinds of help, but they are not without ability to contribute, even if at first glance we may not see this gift.  A person can be severely disabled, and their ability to "produce" in a way that our culture prizes, may be limited, but that doesn't mean that such a person doesn't have much to offer.  We just have to look at things differently -- that may involve looking at things through the eyes of God.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The tension between sacred principle and human context: A Muslim approach

Today we have before us the second part of Keith Watkins's engagement with Ziauddin Sardar's book  Reading the Qur'an.  The conversation reminds us that every faith tradition must wrestle with bridging the gap between the ancient text and the contemporary world.  This book helps engage the Qur'an, but for Christians it can help us engage our own sacred text, helping us recognize our own issues of inculturation.  I would encourage you to first read the piece from yesterday and then take up this one.  This is reposted from Keith's blog Keith Watkins Historian.  

Just a note, Keith is a historian and liturgical scholar, retired from Christian Theological Seminary.


By Keith Watkins:

Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam, by Ziauddin Sardar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Part Two

The sacred books used by Christians, Muslims, and Mormons contain many prescriptions about how people are to live. They are given as commandments rather than suggestions, with the force of divine law rather than of guidelines for a happy and prosperous life.

The problem for the faithful in our time is that many of these ancient commandments are contrary to dynamic principles and practices of our own time. This conflict can clearly be seen in laws concerning the handling of money, marriage and divorce, politics and religion, crime and punishment, and the relations of religious law and civil law.

This challenge is one of the most important topics that Ziauddin Sardar (described on the book jacket as “one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals”) addresses in his book Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam.

As a devout, modern, and scholarly Muslim, Sardar use a short list of interpretive principles to resolves this conflict between ancient text and contemporary life. One of the most important is contained in the idea of contextualism.

An example comes in his discussion of Muhammad as the Prophet. Sardar writes that the Prophet “is always a conceptual model caught in the exigencies of his own time. This caveat applies not only to details of personal habits and dress, but must surely extend to the circumstances by which the nascent Muslim community he led secured its existence. For example, the revelations on warfare, the fight to survive as a community of faithful, addressed to Muhammad are entirely contextual. The fact that warfare, internecine as well as between peoples and nations, has remained a dominant feature of Muslim history is a testament to a failure of moral maturity to assert itself” (p. 223).

The tension between sacred principle and human context is at work in Sardar’s discussion of teachings in the Qur’an concerning marriage and divorce and the continuing relations between men and women. The social context when Muhammad wrote was male-dominated, polygamous, and ready to use violence as the means of resolving disputes.

Some of the teachings in the Qur’an, while accepting the fact of the current social order, laid down specific guidelines that would improve the situation significantly. Even these moderating features, however, were contradicted by other parts of the Qur’an which would “generate moral apprehension” of certain actions and which emphasized “an all-embracing emphasis on gender equality.”

The Qur’an has specific ways of banning actions such as polygamy and misogyny: reducing some practices to “a mere symbol” or allowing them only when “impossible contradictions” are practiced at the same time. “The moral goal is to move towards a society totally free from both polygamy and misogyny and their expression through domestic violence” (p. 308).

Christians have parallel challenges as we use the Bible to guide us in life today. How are we to deal with passages that tell women to keep their heads covered, be silent in church, ask their husbands about things afterwards, and be obedient to their husbands? How are we to deal with passages that instruct believers to obey their rulers because these persons have been set in their places of power by divine authority?

Some Christians make serious efforts to adhere to these principles within the context of contemporary American society. It’s rare to find any Christians who are absolutely consistent in this practice. Nearly everyone, whether they realize it or not, silently makes modest adjustments when circumstances seem to require adaptation.

Others declare that in some of these places the Bible is wrong and can be disregarded. The inculturation of the writers, these interpreters would say, kept them from perceiving God’s intentions for human society. The interpretive task for our time, therefore, is to set aside these erroneous passages and derive from our religious tradition and contemporary social theory a better way to pattern human life.

The contextualization that Sardar proposes stands somewhere between these two methods for dealing with the old texts. He readily acknowledges that the text as it stands contains ideas and issues commands that cannot be believed and practiced in other times and places. He is persuaded, however, that even these problematic texts can be understood in such a way that they are consistent with broader principles that can be applied in new times and places.

The challenge faced by the faithful is to wrestle with these texts until they allow their true meaning to be seen. Many Christians, conservative and liberal, Catholic and Protestant, evangelical and ecumenical, stand with Sardar in this middle position. Their reverence for the Bible and their devotion to its broad themes of the love of God and neighbor lead them to accept every text as “inspired by God” and serviceable for life today if they but work at the interpretive task long enough.

I have to confess that sometimes I lose that persistent patience. Sardar, however, encourages me to keep at the hard work of connecting text and context.