Thursday, May 31, 2012

Transformed by God's Glory -- A Lectionary Meditation for Trinity Sunday

Transformed by God’s Glory

            For the third week in a row, the church celebrates a historic festival of the faith.  We began with the Day of Ascension, whence we remember Jesus’ farewell commission and accompanying promise to send to the disciples the Spirit of God, who would empower their mission into the world.  From there we moved on to Pentecost, wherein we celebrated the coming of that promised gift of the Spirit, who would be our companion along the way, empowering us and encouraging us as we fulfill our calling to be witnesses of the in breaking of God’s reign on earth as in heaven.  Now, we observe Trinity Sunday, the one festival of the church that is focused on a doctrine rather than an event in the ongoing story of the revealing of God’s reign in this world, which God loved enough to send a Son, that those who entrust their lives to this reign might experience fullness of life.  

The doctrine of the Trinity has defined the Christian understanding of God for generations, and yet few truly understand it in a way that would make a difference in their understanding of God, themselves, or the world.   The very fact that there are so many different perspectives on the Trinity is reflective of this reality.  So, whatever we say about the role of the Trinity in defining who God is must be done with humility.  We must make our statements about the nature of God using analogy and metaphor, knowing that none of these devices truly captures the reality that is God.   And yet, as enter this conversation and experience the complexity of God’s reality, we can experience new life, new birth, new hopes and dreams.

            As we come to observe and celebrate Trinity Sunday, we are given the opportunity to reflect on our own understanding of the nature of God.  I’m not a creedalist, so I don’t feel bound by the 4th century definitions, though I find them useful.   What I do believe, very strongly, is that what we believe about God – how we define or perceive God – makes a difference in the way we live in the world.    That is, the way in which we envision God’s character and person influences the way we live and move and have our being. 

Being that Christianity is rooted in a monotheistic tradition that affirms that there is but one God, and that we are to keep the name of this one God holy, whatever we say about the nature and character of God must, I would assume, respect that principle.  But what does it mean for God to be one?  What difference does it make?   If we complicate things by using Trinitarian language to define the nature of God, what difference does that make?  These are the kinds of questions raised by Trinity Sunday, and that find their way into our conversation about the lectionary texts for the day.  What does Isaiah, Paul, or John have to say about God that can contribute to our conversation about the Trinitarian nature of God in the 21st Century?

Isaiah 6 is a powerful statement about the glory that is God.  Isaiah has a vision of God seated on a throne in the Temple of God, high and lifted up with the edges of his robe filling the Temple.  The description has many anthropomorphic aspects, but it stands as a reminder that there is something different about God.  It’s a reminder that we’re not on the same plane as God.  There is a difference, and this difference brings out a sense of awe and amazement.  With the winged creatures, the Seraphim, we join in the singing of that great hymn: 
“Holy, Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts! 
The whole Earth is full of his Glory.”
And as they sing, the door frames of the Temple shake and the house of the Lord is filled with smoke.  In response to this display of power and glory, Isaiah, becomes downcast.  He recognizes himself to be a person of unclean lips, who lives among people of unclean lips.  It’s not that he is a worm, but that he recognizes that in himself, he cannot enter the presence of God.  But as he makes the confession, a creature takes a coal from the altar and places it on his lips, cleansing him with God’s refining fire, removing sin and freeing him to embrace the call of God, which comes quickly.  Who will go and speak for me, says the Lord?  And Isaiah answers – he I am, send me. 

            What does Isaiah 6 say to us about Trinity?  We must be careful about reading later ideas into an earlier text.  That said, Isaiah 6 is good starting point for our conversation about the nature of God, and the glory that is God’s presence.  Whatever we say about God must recognize the holiness and the transcendence that is God.  It also stands as a reminder that God seeks to speak to us, even to a world – as John 3 makes clear – that is experiencing darkness and is often hostile to the things of God.  But in the end there is a life that is changed so that one can embrace one’s call.

            If Isaiah calls on us to reflect on the holiness of God, so that we might be transformed, in Romans 8 Paul follows this up by speaking of our relationships with God and with one another.  Again recognizing the context of the moment – Trinity Sunday – we must ask ourselves how this passage reveals the Trinitarian presence of God.  Again, noting that there is no fully developed Trinitarian theology in the New Testament, all that we can truly find here are reflections and expressions of God’s presence that reveal something of God’s Triune nature.  A simple accounting of references to Father (Abba), to Christ, and to Spirit, will demonstrate that all three are present, without defining in an unambiguous way the nature of their relationship.  But, if we understand that the triune nature of God is reflective of a community of persons, a social Trinity, where the unity is the community, we find that there is a clear witness to relationships and community.   Most specifically, there is reference to familial relationships.  By the Spirit’s empowerment, we can cry out to God “abba Father.”  First we hear the Aramaic and then the Greek, signaling the importance of this familial relationship that we are invited to share in through the Spirit.  Thus, we become children of God – not by blood of course – but we are children nonetheless, and therefore heirs with Christ of God’s glory, though our opportunity to share in this glory requires that we suffer with him. 

   But what is the nature of this relationship?  What is its outcome?  Is it not a transformed view of our relationships with each other?  As children of God who cry out “abba father” we are no longer slaves to fear.  There is abundance in our status as heirs with Christ of God’s glory.  As there is no fear, and recognizing this abundance that is God’s we can let go of our need to hoard and to control.   There is, therefore, no need to live our lives according to the principle of selfishness.  This is an important word for our day, especially for those who live in the United States, where in recent years the message is one of selfishness.  Indeed, according to Ayn Rand, whose writings are all the rage, selfishness is a virtue.  But such is not the case for those who, like Paul, are followers of Christ.  Selfishness leads only to death, not life in its abundance.   But the choice is ours?  Will we share in the bounty that is God’s or will we follow Ayn Rand into the death producing principles of selfishness?

We now come to the Gospel of John, where we encounter Nicodemus, the religious leader who comes to Jesus in the night, seeking wisdom, but also living in great confusion and doubt.  Nicodemus recognizes Jesus to be a teacher of truth, but this truth does not fit well with received tradition.  Nicodemus can make this claim because he has seen the miracles – signs that Jesus has come from God, but he’s not sure how this all works – how does Jesus reveal to humanity the reality that is God?  Yes, there is confusion and doubt – a state of being that is underlined by his coming to Jesus in the night, which symbolizes just such a state.  We stumble around in the dark, unable to find our way, but there is light that can be shed on our path through the power of the Spirit.    

Again, the Trinity is present in the text, though more implicitly than explicitly.  We must connect the dots from the God who sends the Son as a sign of divine love and who transforms those who respond to this love through the Spirit, for we must be born not only physically (through water) but also in the Spirit, which blows wherever it wishes. 

To Nicodemus, Jesus offers an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective, but that requires a complete transformation of his identity and being.  He has to be “born again” or perhaps better “born from above.”  Then, Nicodemus would understand.  Unfortunately, at this point at least, Nicodemus, like so many of us, gets caught up in the literal – how can a person return to one’s mother’s womb – and misses the point.   To catch the vision, Nicodemus has to move beyond such a narrow view, to start seeing things from a spiritual vantage point.  Nicodemus’s basic problem is that he’s confused about the nature of God.    

David Lose suggests that Nicodemus failed to understand two basic premises about God.  First, he failed understand the freedom of God, who like the wind blows wherever God desires.  Nicodemus, like many, wishes to keep God in a box, but “God is dynamic and God’s activity is therefore not always as predictable as we might like to imagine.”    Nicodemus also fails to understand the nature of God’s love.  As Jesus declares here, God loves the kosmos (world), and as Lose notes -- elsewhere in John, the kosmos is described as being hostile to God.  Yes, God loves a hostile world and does so through Jesus and through the ongoing presence of the Spirit – the wind of God – and as a result the world is transformed by the glory of God.
The desire of God is not judgment – though that which is hostile to the purposes of God will face judgment – but rather the salvation of that world, a renewing of the covenant so that the love God might reign over all.
As we observe this Trinity Sunday, may we be aware of this reality, that the God, who comes to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a God who is both free and loving.  We encounter this God in and through God’s works, which we experience in the Spirit, in whom we are reborn so that we might live without fear and carry the message of God’s glory to the ends of the earth.    

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Are You a Trinitarian?

This coming Sunday has been designated by the ecclesial calendar as Trinity Sunday.  For much of Christian history Christians have designated God as Trinity -- "One God in Three Persons."   It is a key divider of Christians from the other two Abrahamic faith traditions, that like Christianity affirm monotheism.

Saying that you believe God to be Trinity, however, is not the same thing as understanding what it means for God to be Trinity.  My sense is that most Christians nod at the idea of Trinity and then move on, adopting one of two basic ideas -- unitarianism or tri-theism.  Many Christians think of Jesus as more divinely inspired prophet than God in the flesh, in that they would embrace a view that is shared by unitarianism -- as well as Muslims.  Many other Christians, however, end up in what is best called tri-theism.  That is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are essentially three separate beings.  It's no wonder that many Muslims see Christians as tending toward polytheism, or at least adding something to God that doesn't belong to the nature of God.

So, as we head toward Trinity Sunday, if you're a Christian, are you a Trinitarian?  If so, why?   If not, why not?

I have struggled with my definitions, but end up affirming a Trinitarian view of God.  Much of the debate over the centuries has been semantic in nature -- how do we understand words like person of substance?  Much of the debate was held when Platonism or Neo-Platonism held sway, so the vocabulary used in the debate reflected that philosophical bent, but we no longer operate in a Platonic context.   As we talk about God, we must recognize that all language is insufficient to describe God's nature and purpose.  We can use analogy and metaphor, but in the end our language breaks down, as God transcends this language.  That, however, does not excuse us from the need to reflect on who God is and how God engages us.

 So, how then do we engage God as Trinity. The idea of the economic Trinity, that is, knowing God as Trinity through the way God encounters us is helpful.  The ontological or immanent Trinity, the Trinity in God's essence is difficult to comprehend without turning to abstract thought, but we can understand God in God's activity as Trinity.   

With this in mind, I like the way David Lose of Luther Seminary puts it.      

Perhaps the best way to approach the Trinity, then, is to think of it backwards. It is through the power of the Spirit that we can receive Jesus as God’s surprising and unexpected messiah who reveals to us the gracious and loving nature of the Father. 
The ultimate question for us concerns the character of God who is revealed to us through Christ in the power of the Spirit.  

So, once again -- are you a Trinitarian?  And does this confession make a difference in your understanding of the Christian faith?  Is it an essential or is it non-essential?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Onward Christian Soldiers . . . ?

Growing up I learned my share of hymns and songs at church.  Among these was the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers."  It's not in the Chalice Hymnal, but a generation earlier it was a singular favorite.  

The first stanza goes like this:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;  forward into battle see his banners go! 
Refrain:  Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.

It was sung with missionary fervor -- Christians saw themselves taking the message of Jesus to the far ends of the globe, making the world a Christian place.  And with whom were we at war?  Well, the second stanza suggests that our foe is Satan (the ruler of this world).  We push Satan back by converting to Christianity the people of the world.  In an age when "foreign missions" galvanized the church, not just evangelicals, but Mainliners too, the idea that  Christians should be crusaders for Christ was an unquestioned assumption. 

As we look back on this earlier age, it becomes clear that the developers and supporters of this agenda didn't allow for much daylight between the gospel and western civilization.  Mission was imbued with this idea of manifest destiny.  Consider this statement from Josiah Strong's book Our Country.

   It seems to me that God, with infinite wisdom and skill, is training the Anglo-Saxon race for an hour sure to come in the world's future. Heretofore there has always been in the history of the world a comparatively unoccupied land westward, into which the crowded countries of the East have poured their surplus populations. But the widening waves of migration, which millenniums ago rolled east and west from the valley of the Euphrates, meet to-day on our Pacific coast. There are no more new worlds. The unoccupied arable lands of the earth are limited, and will soon be taken. The time is coming when the pressure of population on the means of subsistence will be felt here as it is now felt in Europe and Asia. Then will the world enter upon a new stage of its history-the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled. Long before the thousand millions are here, the mighty centrifugal tendency, inherent in this stock and strengthened in the United States, will assert itself. Then this race of unequaled energy, with all the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it-the representative, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization-having developed peculiarly aggressive traits calculated to impress its institutions upon mankind, will spread itself over the earth. If I read not amiss, this powerful race will move down upon Mexico, down upon Central and South America, out upon the islands of the sea, over upon Africa and beyond. And can any one doubt that the result of this competition of races will be the "survival of the fittest?"
Now, it should be pointed out that Strong wasn't a conservative.  Theologically he was very liberal.  He was a social gospeler and a Christian Socialist, but he believed strongly in the religious value of American imperialism.

I share this information this morning because there continue to be strong pushes within the Christian community to support not only mission but Western imperialist actions.  Although I am horrified by what is happening in Syria, I'm worried that forces are gathering that will push us into one more military action -- either in Syria or in Iran that can have devastating impact.  I'm also concerned that some of the rhetoric is reflective of the kind of ideology exhibited in Strong's imperialistic theology.  The call for America to have such military dominance that it can impose it's will wherever and whenever it wishes in unilateral fashion will lead us down a dangerous road.  That most of our recent military efforts have been focused on primarily Islamic countries, and the belief in these countries that the United States is a monolithic Christian nation, only fuels the cultural and political divide that leads to violence.

There is a reason why "Onward Christian Soldiers" isn't in our hymnal.  It is a reflection that as a denomination we have rejected an earlier imperialist understanding of the gospel.  Jesus's realm will not be built by Christian soldiers marching as to war.  Let us, therefore, be cognizant of our own responses to calls for war on the part of politicians and preachers.  And we who seek to be missional in our understanding of our faith, need to be wary of any tendency in that direction as well.  

Monday, May 28, 2012

Gathering at God's Table -- A Patheos Book Club Review

GATHERING AT GOD'S TABLE: The Meaning of Mission in the Feast of FaithBy Katherine Jefferts Schori.  Woodstock, VT:  Skylight Paths Publishing, 2012.  Xxvi + 218 pages.

          What is the meaning of mission for Christians living in the 21st Century?   Is it something done “over there” on the mission field?  Is it centered in converting non-Christians to the Christian faith?  I once worked for the U.S. Center for World Mission (I was director of their library), and at the center of their vision was making sure the Christian message penetrated every people group.  Or, is mission seeking to bring healing to bodies and souls?  Is it defined in terms of acts of service – building schools and hospitals?  Mission has many different connotations and nuances, depending on your theology and how you view your place in the world. 

There is an effort underway to define the church as “missional.”  That is, instead of the church doing mission, mission is the church.  It’s not one emphasis among many, but it defines the nature of the church.  It involves doing, but more importantly, it is a question of our being.

It is in the context of this conversation, into which I’ve become deeply immersed, that I picked up (at the behest of the Patheos Book Club) Katherine Jefferts Schori’s book Gathering at God’s Table.    I said yes to the request in part because it spoke of mission in context of God’s Table.  As a Disciples of Christ pastor, I am especially interested in the way in which the church’s table fellowship defines our sense of mission.   Like many Episcopalians, Disciples come to the Lord’s Table to share in bread and cup each week.  Our practices and our theology of the table differ, but the Table is a defining part of our sense of identity and mission.  I was also interested in the book because I grew up Episcopalian.  Before I became a Pentecostal and then a Disciple, I was as deeply involved in the Episcopal Church as a young teen could be.  I was an acolyte at the age of eight, a lay reader by age fifteen, and to top things off – I sang in the choir. I was baptized as an infant and confirmed by the bishop when I was twelve.  So, the fact that the author of this book is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church spoke to the closet Episcopalian in me.  I wanted to hear how the first female Primate in the Anglican Communion would define mission.   And the title of the book led to an expectation that the Eucharist would define the nature of mission.

In her introduction Bishop Jefferts Schori states that her goal in writing the book is to “explore the once and future mission of the Jesus people,” using the Anglican tradition as the context for this exploration (p. xiii).  What does it mean to proclaim the gospel?   In the very beginning of her exploration of the idea, she makes it clear that mission is more than going to Africa or Asia and baptizing non-Christians.  She recognizes the need for making disciples, but is clearly uncomfortable with what she deems proselytism.  In this she shares a common sense of understanding with many if not most mainline Protestants.  Recognizing the Matthew 28 is commonly used to define mission, she suggests that our understanding can be broadened if we see this calling to make disciples in light of Matthew 25 – the judgment scene, where Jesus reminds us to serve him by serving the least of his brothers and sisters.  Thus, “mission also means caring for the vulnerable” (p. xv).  That is, “mission is primarily about how Christians are meant to live their lives, and what actions are asked of them in relation to their neighbor” (p. xvi). 

The book is organized around “Five Marks of Mission” that were developed by the Anglican Communion around a quarter century ago.   Thus, the church is to:  1) “proclaim the good news of the kingdom”; 2) “teach, baptize, and nurture new believers”; 3) “respond to human need with loving service”; 4)“seek to transform unjust structures of society”; 5) “strive to safeguard the integrity of creation.”   Under each of these five marks, Jefferts Schori offers a series of reflections that lift up that particular mark.  At the end of each of these brief, often sermonic, chapters, she places a question that is defined by the title:  “Making Your Mark.”

Although the first two marks focus on preaching and disciple making, it is quickly apparent that Jefferts Schori sees mission in terms of serving others, of doing justice for others.  It’s not charity that we are enjoined to embrace, but rather a robust commitment to social justice, both at home and abroad.  She brings stories into the conversation from the Anglican Communion, often places she’s visited – from small churches in America to partner churches in Africa.  The non-Anglican is invited along for the ride, but Jefferts Schori is speaking primarily to Episcopalians, bidding them to join her in transforming the world, so that it is a just and peaceful world. 

As an invitation to a mission defined by social justice, Jefferts Schori’s book will be a boon to our conversation.  She reminds us that the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation is full of examples and exhortations to love our neighbors, even as we love God.  It is an invitation to embody God’s realm in the world – with words if necessary, but surely with deeds.

This is a good book, one worth reading, even if you aren’t Episcopalian.  It’s thoughtful, at times provocative and prophetic at others, and it explores the biblical call to serving and loving one’s neighbor with thoroughness.   Having said this, I must confess some sense of disappointment with the book.  The fault may be mine, not the bishop’s, but it still haunts the way he received the book.   I was blessed by much that I read, agree with most of what Bishop Jefferts Schori wrote, but I always sensed that something was missing.

What I sensed as missing from the book stems from how I read the title of the book.  That may not be fair to the author, but it’s the title that grabs me, not the fact that the author is the titular head of the Episcopal Church in the United States.  I was hoping that the book’s subtitle would give definition to the direction the book would take.  What is “The Meaning of Mission in the Feast of Faith”?   I was hoping that she would draw out the missional implications of the Eucharist.  Now, she does talk about the sacraments, but she really doesn’t use the Eucharist to frame her understanding of mission.   The Episcopal Church has a rich theology of the Eucharist, especially the more high church and catholic centered portions of the church that celebrate weekly communion.   It is a reminder that the Christian faith is truly an embodied one – we share in the body and blood of Christ, experiencing his continuing presence in the sacrament.  Of course, the sacramental understandings of the Episcopal Church can prove as divisive as they can be unitive.  The need for episcopally ordained clergy to consecrate the Eucharist is a stumbling block to the table being a truly ecumenical place for mission to begin.  Jefferts Schori seems to recognize this problem in discussing the difficulty in reconciling ministries with AME, AME Zion, and CME churches (all black Methodist Episcopal Churches).  She writes that after years of discussion, the representatives of the Episcopal Church discerned a “clear sense” that “we think our historic episcopate is better or fuller than theirs, and that coming together in full communion would require some recognition that theirs was deficient.  Any liturgical celebration of that full communion would require that the Episcopal bishops lay hands on the Methodist Episcopal bishops to convey the fullness of the historic episcopate.  I think it’s fair to say that that was perceived as racism dressed up as theology” (pp. 170-171).

So here’s the question that emerges from my reading Bishop Jefferts Schori’s well-written and thoughtful book:  How does the church’s table fellowship define our understanding of mission?  If the way we envision the Lord’s Table or the Eucharist excludes rather than includes, because some members of the body of Christ consider the sacraments of other members of the body to be deficient, then how can we truly reach out to the world in a way that is just and that brings healing and wholeness?  If our Table fellowship is broken, as we gather at that Table that God sets before us, how do we find meaning for our mission?  

Andrew Greeley -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

In today's edition of Sightings Martin Marty revisits an earlier conversation regarding Andrew Greeley, prompted by a review published by Kevin Christiano of Greeley's book Chicago Catholics and the Struggles within Their Church.  Marty speaks of his long friendship with Greeley, and Greeley's observation that American Catholics remain faithful, but not necessarily obedient.  We've been watching recent attempts by the bishops and the Vatican to rein in the faithful, but their success rate is questionable.  Marty updates us on Greeley's condition after suffering brain damage from a fall some years ago.  I invite you to read and comment on the question raised by Greeley concerning the way in which the Catholic Church will function going forward.
Sightings  5/28/2012  
Father Andrew Greeley
-- Martin E. Marty
 Sightings does not conventionally review books, but one book has been on my desk for months as a prompt for something on which I wanted to comment. This week, fortuitously, friend Kevin Christiano of Notre Dame, knowing of my interest in the subject, sent a copy of a review from Contemporary Sociology. To the point: the book is Chicago Catholics and the Struggles within Their Church. The author is Father Andrew Greeley, Catholic sociologist based in Chicago.           
As I said, I had wanted to comment on this book, but more on its author. “Andy” and I have been close for sixty years, through vocations and interests involving The University of Chicago, Chicago itself, sociology of religion, and so much more. He has written scores if not hundreds of books and countless articles, surveyed and commented on the opinion of Americans (and more). He respected me because of my age and, he said, the perspective seniority brings—I am literally three hours older than he. When I am occasionally “on the road” to campuses etc., as he was, no question do I get more frequently than, “How’s Greeley?” Since we live in the same building, I should know.           
Sadly, there is not enough good news. Three and a half years ago as he exited a cab he was dashed to the pavement, his coat having been caught in the door. Serious brain injury occurred. I see him, wheelchair bound, on our elevators on occasion and, with my wife Harriet (for whom he careth more than he does me), at mass in his condo. Concelebrators, e.g., David Tracy, hold up the book; Greeley cannot mouth the words but, remarkably—experts on the brain might ponder—he can gesture the gestures, even if wanly. In my visits we finally come to communicate through few words. His family give more details on his interests on his web-page.           
Now Christiano tells of this book as a cobbled-together set of bridges from one packet of data to another, gathered and edited by friends, to form an admittedly slight book, but one which—Greeley being Greeley—does not lack punch. He and his team had interviewed a sample of Chicago Catholics, while Greeley summarized the findings. He lists eleven things which “everyone knows” about the people in his sample. And then, Greeley being Greeley—he leads off with a sentence that typified his writing pre-accident: “The only problem . . is that none of the propositions happens to be true.” I think that more of them than he thinks are at least half-true, but that’s not the point of his book. His sample of the Catholic population does not match the stereotypes.           
Christiano says regular Greeley readers will not be surprised to read Greeley saying: “Faith persists, obedience does not.” Greeley finds not a crisis of faith, as many do, but a crisis of affiliation. Many of those interviewed are now “ex-Catholics” who left not for cosmic faith/un-faith reasons but for “mundane or unspectacular reasons.” Those who stayed, he finds, “are loyal, extremely loyal, exceptionally loyal, but neither blind nor unthinking.” The vast majority do not follow the church’s teachings on sexuality. They trust their local priest and parish more than they do hierarchs. So did he in his long prime. I know that Sightings is not devotional, but it would be untrue to Father Greeley did I not say that through all the vagueness of his mind, this would be his firm plea: “Pray for me.” He’d plead in a sort-of Irish accent, tempered by Chicagoese.

Kevin Christiano’s review appears in Contemporary Sociology, May 2012. 
Andrew Greeley, Chicago Catholics and the Struggles within Their Church (Transaction Publishers, 2010). 
More details on Greeley's current situation of health, activities, and outlook, are on his web page.

Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at  
 On the occassion of John Paul II's visit to India in 1999, the Advaitin teacher Swami Dayananda Saraswati addressed a public letter to the pope entitled "Conversion is Violence." The letter, as Reid Locklin summarizes, drew an "absolute contrast ... between 'aggressive, converting' religions like Christianity and Islam and 'non-violent, non-converting' religions like Hinduism." But is it true that Hinduism does not convert?  In this month's Religion & Culture Web Forum, Locklin, a Martin Marty Center Senior Fellow in 2010-11, explores "whether and in what respect modern Advaita movements may be said to advocate religious conversion"; and he identifies "a key methodological defect in the controversy: namely, a univocal concept of conversion." Locklin also suggests ways that "an Advaita theology of conversion might ... offer resources for reconsidering, reimagining and redescribing conversion to Christ, on the model of that most famous of converts, the Apostle Paul." Read Up, Over, Through: Rethinking "Conversion" as a Category of Hindu-Christian Studies. 
 Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Welcoming our Companion -- A Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Pentecost Sunday has finally arrived and some of us are wearing red or something that suggests the color of fire.  We’ve come to celebrate the arrival of the Spirit of God, whom Jesus promised would come and empower the people of God.  It’s also Memorial Day, so we stop to remember those who have died, whether they are family, friends, or those who have died in service to country.  Perhaps the text for today offers us a sense of connection between the two.  Jesus is about to leave his disciples behind, but he doesn’t leave them alone.  If he goes away, the Spirit will come and be present with them, wherever they go in the world.    

The ways in which we celebrate Pentecost varies from tradition to tradition and from region to region.  I recently learned that in Germany, for instance, Pentecost is a two-day holiday.  It begins with worship on Sunday, but continues on into Monday, when Germans, and many other Europeans, get the day off from work so they can participate in parades and fairs and other kinds of events – sort of like Memorial Day!  

Although Pentecost isn’t a national holiday in the United States, it is a day of celebration.  The wait is over.  The Spirit has come.  We are now empowered to fulfill our calling to be God’s missional people, declaring in word and deed the mighty works of God.   

The story of Pentecost is told in great detail in Acts 2, where we find Jesus’ followers waiting patiently in the upper room for the coming of the Spirit.  And the Spirit falls on them at a most serendipitous moment.  The streets of Jerusalem are filled with pilgrims who have come to participate in an ancient Jewish festival that celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses and the people of Israel.   As they mill around the streets, they hear the sounds of people speaking about the things of God in their own languages.  They’re amazed and they want to know what all the fuss is about.  That leads to a sermon – on the part of Peter – that connects Pentecost with the coming of the Spirit on all people at the end of the age.  Since we’re still here, we might want to see Pentecost as the end of one age and the beginning of another.  But as Joel makes clear, when the Spirit falls everyone will be empowered to dream dreams and speak with wisdom and insight about the things of God.  That promise continues to this day, as we open ourselves to empowering presence of the Spirit revealed in such a powerful way on that Day of Pentecost.  .

John’s version of the Pentecost story is some different.  As we listened to the reading of the Gospel this morning, we found Jesus sitting with the disciples.  The Supper is ended, and they’re talking about the future.  He tells them that his time of departure has come, but he isn’t abandoning them.  He will send to them the Paraclete from the Father.  Depending on your translation, the Greek parakaletos appears as Comforter, Advocate, Helper, or maybe Companion.  Each translation picks up a different nuance of a word that literally means – “to come along side of.”  The Spirit of God, whom Jesus promises to send, will offer them comfort, wisdom, and companionship, even as the Spirit serves as our advocate with God and the world. 

Since I’ve been reading the Common English Bible of late, I was again struck by its rendering of the text and find the use of “Companion” to be most helpful.  John writes that God will send them a Companion, who is the Spirit of Truth.    This companion will reveal to them where the world has gone wrong, and help them see their role in changing this world for the better.  Jesus tells them that there are many things still to be revealed, which suggests that, as the UCC slogan declares, “God is still Speaking,” and the Spirit of Truth, our Companion sent from God, will reveal this truth to us, if we’re open to listening.       

I think we can resonate with this image of a companion.  Even the most introverted among us, feels the need for companionship of some type.  It is as God discovered with the creation of humanity – it’s not good for humans to be alone.  

In the course of my life, there have been a number of people who have been my companions in life, people who have walked with me as comforter, helper, and advocate.  And for me there has been no more important companion along this way than Cheryl, my companion in life for nearly thirty years.  To me that sounds like a long time, but I know that some of you have been walking together for a lot longer than that! 

When we first started dating, I was a little concerned that Cheryl didn’t share my love of theology.  Talking theology into the wee hours of the night wasn’t her definition of fun.  For a budding theologian, this was puzzling, and so I had a conversation with a co-worker at the bookstore.  Patty was a wise and discerning person, and she spoke words of great wisdom to me:  Cheryl, she said, would help balance out my life.  She would help keep me grounded.  And she was correct – Cheryl has kept me grounded, though sometimes that means kicking me under the table!   She has also been my encourager, which was noticed early on by one of my closest friends.  On the night before our wedding Mark and I went for a walk, and he told me how much I had changed – for the better – since I’d met Cheryl.  He noticed a lot more confidence and sense of purpose in me.  Cheryl has been my encourager, my advocate, and my companion, for these many years.  

If we hear in this translation of the word parakaletos the idea of the Spirit being our constant Companion, always being there to speak truth to us and through us, then we’ll realize that no matter what happens in life – we’re not alone.  The Spirit is present always.  But as the Pentecost story reminds us, the Spirit doesn’t come upon us simply as individuals.  It is as a community that the people of God receive the Spirit and are empowered to declare the mighty works of God.  Simply because we have received the Spirit as our Companion, doesn’t mean that we don’t need each other.  It is in community that the Spirit speaks to us this word of truth.    

I understand why so many people are abandoning the institutional church and pursuing their own spirituality without benefit of institution.  The institutional church can be a stumbling block to the spiritual well-being of people, especially when it gets caught up in church politics, but we still need each other.  In fact, I believe that most people who seek to experience a relationship with God, also seek to be in relationship with others who share this desire.  They are seeking community.    

As a Spirit-filled and Spirit-empowered community we have the opportunity to support one another’s hopes and dreams, and to bear witness to the love and grace of God.  Listening for the Spirit to speak truth in our midst, we are empowered to speak this same truth to our communities.   John McClure writes this about our witness:  

Witnessing means standing firm for one’s convictions in situations fraught with fear, ambiguity, and instability.  Like the disciples we follow the leadership of the Spirit through the world, plowing our own way through uncharted territory where truth is contested (Preaching God's Transforming Justice, p. 258).  
We don’t know where the future will take us, but we go forward, knowing that the Spirit is with us.  That should give us a sense of confidence – not in our own devices, but in the faithfulness of God.  

One way we will be doing this listening for the voice of God in community is through our participation in a Listening Campaign sponsored by the Metropolitan Coalition of Congregations.  A Listening Team, which will be commissioned next Sunday, will be contacting everyone in the church to make an appointment to do what is called a “one-on-one,” which is a 30-minute intentional conversation that is intended to do two things.   First, these conversations are designed to build community within the congregation.  Although we’re a small congregation, that doesn’t mean we know each other well. We hope these conversations will help create new relationships within the congregation.  There is a second purpose for this effort, and that is to discern the community issues that you are concerned about, whether it’s jobs, education, transportation, home values.  After we’re finished with this six-week campaign the members of the team will get back together and share their findings, which we’ll then take to a gathering of participating congregations on August 5th.  On that day we’ll all share our findings with each other and with invited political and community leaders.  

It’s difficult to stand firm in our faith when we feel like we’re all alone, but when we live in a community that is empowered and sustained by the Spirit of God, who is our Companion we can, as that old civil rights anthem puts it – overcome some day the forces that resist the justice and love of God.  Indeed, empowered by the Spirit, who is our Companion, on this Pentecost Sunday, we can say:  

We shall overcome, we shall overcome, 
We shall overcome some day!
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome some day. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost Sunday
May 27, 2012

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Any Day a Beautiful Change -- A Review

ANY DAY A BEAUTIFUL CHANGE: A Story of Faith and Family.  By Katherine Willis Pershey.  St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2012.  118 pages.

                Writing one’s memoirs is risky, because it requires one to be rather transparent about our lives.  A good memoir not only celebrates one’s successes, it also reveals the pathos and struggles that we endure.  Unlike a work of fiction, even ones based on real events, the stories told in a memoir involve the lives of real people whose names are not always changed to protect their identities.  When the persons standing at the center of the story are family, especially a spouse and a child, one must be rather circumspect about what is revealed – their interests must be taken into consideration.   My own inclination (and family request) is to keep family matters relatively private, but to make this a compelling story, and the author of this Any Day a Beautiful Change,  Katherine Willis Pershey, takes a leap of faith and opens up her life and that of her family for our viewing.     

This is the story of a young woman who is a pastor (a Disciples of Christ pastor currently serving as the associate minister in a United Church of Christ congregation in suburban Chicago), who is married and has two children – one of whom figures prominently in the book.  Before moving to her current position Katherine served as pastor of a small Disciples congregation in a Southern California beach town – much as I had done prior to my move east.  Indeed, Katherine and I were colleagues in Southern California, so I’ve known her for a number of years.  Over these years, I’ve come to admire her as an author. 

Any Day a Beautiful Change is rooted in Katherine’s blog, but of course in this context, her testimony is more developed and more focused.  It is a courageous book because it tells stories that many of us keep close to the vest.   In this brief but moving book, we read stories of her struggles with her faith and her spirituality, as well as the difficulties experienced in her marriage, and their journey into parenthood.   It tells a story of a quick courtship that is rooted in a mutual love of poetry.  There is also the ongoing issue of Benjamin’s alcoholism, and the steps she has to take to be supportive of his own efforts to find sobriety, which he is able to experience.  Not long after they are married, Katherine seeks to follow a calling to ministry, and so she heads to California, a place far from their Ohio home.  From seminary to ordination and on to ministry, we follow the trail.  She takes a small congregation – just twenty-four at the time – and seeks to be its pastor.  It’s an older congregation that sits along the Pacific Coast Highway.  From experience I can tell you that it’s not easy being a pastor of a beach town church.  It is there that she becomes pregnant and gives birth to their first child, Juliette.   This reality requires church, pastor, and spouse to make some adjustments – and they do.  Benjamin becomes the stay-at-home dad, while the church becomes surrogate grandparents.  It’s a struggle to balance ministry and family, but for the most part it is pulled off with aplomb.   There is a deep love for this congregation expressed in the book, but there is also an expressed desire to return to the Midwest, and when the opportunity presents itself, they take it.  Now, being that I’ve lived a healthy portion of my life in California, I must confess to be mystified by her joy at leaving Southern California to take up a new ministry in the Midwest.   But then, she’s from these parts – unlike me! 

This is a book, as the subtitle declares, about family and faith.  Katherine invites us into her story, to experience her both the joys and the disappointments of life.  She shares her struggles with both family and faith matters, especially the challenges of juggling parenting with ministry.   As we read this book we discover that women clergy who are married and are parents encounter a very different set of issues than those of their male colleagues (like me).  In part this is because all of this is rather new – we’ve not exactly figured out the roles!  But there are different expectations and roles played mothers in our society.  While her husband chose to stay home with their daughter during the early years of parenthood, there still are different expectations.  We also share in the stories of pregnancy, birth, disappointment with doctors, struggles with post-partum depression.  For those of us of an earlier generation (one generation earlier for me), we also learn something of attachment parenting and the family bed.  I must admit I’m still mystified by all of this, but then each generation seems to do this parenting thing differently!  My parent’s generation is sure we’ve messed our kids up too!

                The test of a good author is keeping someone who isn’t part of your intended audience engaged.  As a fifty-four year-old male member of the clergy, I could easily engage with the issues of ministry and even juggling ministry and family, but there are the generational and the gender issues involved.  I must confess that reading about lactation and leaking breasts and the description of vaginal birth aren’t the usual kind of stories that I focus on.  Part of me says – too much information – and yet I understand the importance of this honest and open portrayal of life today.  Even though there were times when I might have been tempted to put the book down – had Katherine been a lesser author – she found a way to keep men engaged.  When I might have found myself distracted, she reconnected me to the story.  

                The book’s title comes from Katherine’s blog, and the book has its origins in that blog.  But as I noted earlier, the key to understanding the message of the book is to look to the subtitle.  This is the story of family, in all of its grandeur and travail.  It is also a story of faith – of one woman’s faith journey that is lived in the context of her family and in ministry.   She deals with theology in a very experiential way, illustrating her developing understandings of faith as she lives as wife, mother, and pastor.  We hear the confession that so many of us resonate with of struggling to connect head and heart, of moving from abstraction to reality.   It is in the context of family that her faith evolves and blossoms.  She admits that family comes before ministry, noting that she understands why a single person can be more responsive to the needs of congregations.  And yet, as she notes, her life experience as wife and mother has enriched her ministry.   Indeed, as she writes so eloquently:   “So even if I have moderately compromised my pastoral vocation by strapping myself with a spouse and child, in noteworthy ways I’m a better pastor for it” (p. 110). 

                As I said, there are risks undertaken in writing such an honest and open memoir, but Katherine pulls it off.  I am amazed at her graceful style as a writer, especially for one so young.  There is an eloquence and ease with which she writes.  Thus,  I know that we will hear from her many more times as she blesses us with this gift of writing.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Wait is Over? -- A Lectionary Meditation for Pentecost

The Wait is Over?

            On the Day of his Ascension, Jesus gave the disciples a commission – be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.  He also told them to wait for the day when the Holy Spirit would come upon them, to empower them, so that they might fulfill this calling (Acts 1:1-11).  The question is – did they do this patiently or not? 

Waiting patiently is not something most us do with any degree of success.  More often than not our waiting is filled with anxiety.  If you call me in the afternoon and tell me you want to meet in the morning to discuss something important – I’m going to fear the worst.  So, if you’ve got something to say – tell me now, because I’ll be tossing and turning all night.  So, let’s get this over with.  Of course in this case the disciples know what has to be done; they just have to wait for the right moment.  They may not be filled with fear, but anxiety can still creep in to our thoughts.  And in our day, when instant gratification defines our existence, can we wait patiently without losing our intensity?

            Now, however, the Day of Pentecost is upon us.  These ten days of waiting have ended and the day of empowerment has arrived.  Are they ready?  Are we ready to act in concert with the Spirit of God in bearing witness to the message of God’s good news? 

As I picture the early followers of Jesus as they are waiting for the Spirit, I have made the assumption that they remained a sad and demoralized group.  They had bid Jesus good bye on two occasions – before he was taken to the cross and then on the day of Ascension.  In both cases a meal precedes the departure (according to the gospel of Luke).  But are my assumptions correct?  Could it be that their time of waiting is filled with hope?  Could they be spending their time getting ready, preparing for this day?  According to Acts, they did fill one of the leadership positions.  So maybe they are waiting expectantly not pensively.  Now that Pentecost has arrived, however, the wait appears to be over.

            Reading the texts for Pentecost, one isn’t sure where to start.  I could have chosen to bring the reading from Ezekiel 37, which speaks of the revivifying of the valley of dry bones, into the conversation, but instead I want to use the Pentecost story as found in Acts 2, which is the other first reading.  Before I go there, however, I want to first visit Romans 8 and the reading from the Gospel of John.  Both of these texts help us think through what it means to wait for the Spirit, a wait that comes to a close in Acts 2. 

Paul writes in Romans 8 that the whole of creation is “groaning together and suffering labor pains.”  This is a powerful image that draws from the process of giving birth, something I’ve observed, but not partaken in directly – I’m a father, not a mother.  I was there when my wife gave birth to our son, but she did all the hard work.  But I can identify with Paul’s image.  

It’s been a long time since I was at the hospital participating in the birth of my son, but I was reminded of what is involved in labor and birth as I’ve read Katherine Willis Pershey’s book Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family.  Giving birth has its blessings, but it’s not easy.  So, Paul draws on this experience – second hand, of course – to describe the movement of the world toward its salvation, a salvation that is brought to fruition through the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Creation and we ourselves have been waiting for the day in which the reign of God makes itself felt in our midst, transforming our reality into one that reflects God’s vision for Creation.  Having received into our lives the presence of the Spirit, we are the first fruits of the harvest.  But the job isn’t finished.  There’s more to do.  We live, Paul says in hope – even as pregnancy is a time of hope and expectation.  We hope not for what we’ve seen, but for what we’ve yet to see.  That nine-month journey (give or take a few) is filled with hope, but until the day of delivery – we don’t know what this life will be.  Yes, we have sonograms and such, things Paul never envisioned, but even that doesn’t tell us what we need to know – the character and  the personality of a life to be lived.  And so it is with the reign of God, which brings into the world with full force on the day of Pentecost. 

In waiting for the fullness of the reign to take root, however, we can experience weakness, but the Spirit comes to our aid, providing words we cannot utter, except through unexpressed groans.  The Spirit, the one who is coming and who has come, well plead our case, and will do so in ways consistent with the will of God.  Whether or not we wish to understand these groans as ecstatic utterance or glossalalia (speaking in tongues) is really irrelevant.  The point is – there is a hope, at it has borne fruit in our salvation! 

In the reading from John’s Gospel, we find ourselves back at a point prior to the cross.  It is in the afterglow of the Last Supper (we’re making an assumption that in addition to washing feet, Jesus also shared a meal with the disciples), that Jesus speaks of one whom he will send, who will be their Comforter, Advocate, Companion.  The Greek is parakaletos (paraclete), a word that means “to call along side,” and which is translated variously, suggesting that there are nuances to this name/title that help us understand the role the Spirit plays in our lives.     The Spirit comforts us when we are saddened and discouraged.  The Spirit speaks on our behalf with God and with the world, interpreting our groans before God.  And it’s clear that the promised one will be with us in all times and places, and thus is our Companion.             

As John tells this story, Jesus tells the disciples that if he doesn’t go away, the Paraclete can’t come and be with them.   The Spirit (Paraclete) doesn’t come of the Spirit’s own volition – Jesus sends the Spirit from the Father.  The Spirit proceeds from the Father and testifies about Jesus, and as a result they will testify (as will we, if we’re willing) – the Orthodox seem to have the upper hand on the question of procession of the Spirit in this text (no filioque here). 

In the suggested text there are verses omitted, and something should be noted why this may be true.  As is often true in John, the Jews seem to be a target – perhaps directly or metaphorically – but we must always be careful with how we read the text to avoid anti-Jewish sentiment.  The fact is, there’s nothing crucial in the omitted verses, so it might be best to let them be (quiet that is). 

As we read this text in the context of Pentecost, it’s clear that the Spirit comes upon the people of God as a permanent presence – as their companion.  But the Spirit also has a judicial responsibility (Advocate), to show the world that it was and is wrong about “sin, righteousness, and judgment.  Sin in this case is defined as disbelief.  John McClure writes  that what is condemned here are “patterns of disbelief that turn away from love and justice and cleave to violence, ambition, greed and self-securing power” (Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, p. 257).  

As Companion, the Spirit is able to do what Jesus is unable to do – reveal to the disciples (and to us) all that needs to be revealed.  Jesus tells the disciples that they’re not yet ready to hear this word of truth – not just yet.  The phrase, in the Common English Bible, “you can’t handle it now,” reminds me of that statement made by Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men.  Tom Cruise’s character, Lt. Kaffee, tells Col. Jessup (Nicholson), “I want the truth,” to which Jessup replies:  “You can’t handle the truth!”  Without comparing Jesus to an out of control Marine colonel, can we not say that there are times when we’re ready to handle the truth, at least in its fullness.  It takes time and patience, but the Spirit of Truth is coming and will reveal this truth – in its proper time and place.  The Companion will guide us “in all truth.”  The Companion will speak what is revealed by God, and will glorify Jesus by taking what is his and making it known.  There is a hint of the Trinity in this passage – What belongs to the Father belongs to the Son and it is revealed to us through the Spirit.  So are you ready for the Truth?  Can you handle it?  Is the time right?  We’ll see.

And thus we come to that most definitive of Pentecost texts, Luke’s description of the Day of Pentecost.  The disciples – all of them, male and female, young and old – are gathered in one place.  Perhaps they’re praying.  Perhaps they’re planning for when the Spirit comes.  They are, however, together, waiting for the Spirit.  Not, perhaps, as a fearful band of disillusioned followers of Jesus, but people waiting expectantly for that moment of revelation, when the Wind of God blows life into those old dry bones that lie scattered over the valley floor.  And as the wind blows, the disciples now filled with the Spirit, their lungs alive with breath, their hearts on fire, they begin to speak – in languages they may not understand, but which are understood by those who gather in the streets of Jerusalem.  Pilgrims from across the Diaspora, they hear these supposedly unlettered Galileans declare the mighty works of God.  People ask – what does it mean?  Others speak derisively of new wine – just a bunch of drunks, chattering away, their words meaningless.  Perhaps – or perhaps meaningful to those ready to hear, those ready to call on the name of the Lord and be saved – as the prophet Joel foretold long before that day.  The Spirit comes and barriers fall as bridges are built so that all might hear the good news, respond to it, and find peace, wholeness, hope, grace, and love. 

They waited patiently – now the time has come for their patience to bear fruit – and so it does.  Pentecost is here, and with it comes a new day!  Living in the afterglow of Pentecost, we continue that mission established by Jesus’ commission, and fueled by the empowerment of the Spirit, who is our comforter,  our companion, our advocate – interpreting, when necessary our groans as prayers before God.  Yes, the wait is over!