Saturday, June 30, 2012

Cultivating Sent Communities -- A Review

CULTIVATING SENT COMMUNITIES: Missional Spiritual Formation (Missional Church).Edited by Dwight J. Zscheile.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012.  Xv +201 pages.

                Being missional is about more than simply doing things.  It’s a question of being.  It relates to the identity of a congregation, and therefore it’s a very spiritual reality.  Our doing emerges out of our spiritual being.  That said, no congregation is born missional.    Missional identities must be formed – spiritually. 

                In Cultivating Sent Communities, we’re presented with a series of essays that focus specifically on this issue -- the spiritual formation of missional communities.  The list of contributors reveals that this particular book has a “Lutheran feel,” or at least the majority of contributors has a connection with the Lutheran tradition or is connected with Luther Seminary (the editor for the book is an Episcopal priest who serves as Assistant Professor of Congregational Mission and Leadership at Luther Seminary).    The contributions to this book emerge from a missional consultation at Luther Seminary held in 2010. 

There are a myriad of books on being missional, with my book shelves becoming overly full with the latest contributions to the conversation.  As we read the latest missional book it’s clear that this is an idea or concept that has a variety of expressions that run the theological gamut from right to left.  Churches have embraced a missional identity that focuses on conversion, while others have developed an identity focused on compassion and service.  Theological identity thus plays a significant role in how the church sees its missional calling, but however it functions, congregational life must be spiritually formed. 

If, according to the principles of the book, to be missional requires the church to see itself as an agent of God engaged in the work of healing the nations, what is the nature of the spiritual formation that will enable the fulfillment of this calling?  The answers are varied and involve theological understanding, biblical awareness, and practice.  The result is the catching of a vision that allows the church to let go of that which keeps it from loving its neighbors and moving out into the streets and neighborhoods, going where God is already at work. 

                There are nine chapters, beginning with the editor’s development of a “Missional Theology of Spiritual Formation.  Zscheile seeks to move us beyond a “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” wherein a good but distant God wants us to be nice to each other and feel good about ourselves, before going to heaven when we die.  It “operates somewhere in the background of life, largely invisible” (p. 3).  Zscheile suggests a different sense of being Christian, one that is missional and offers definitions.  Most specific here is the definition of spiritual formation, which he understands to be the work of the Holy Spirit.  “It is a communal process that unfolds over time, uniquely for each Christian and often in nonlinear patterns” (p. 7).    It is Trinitarian and involves being conformed to Christ, which leads ultimately through the use of Christian practices such as worship and prayer to the formation of people whom God shapes so that they can “testify to the in breaking of God’s reign in a world of many faiths and no faith.”   This leads to the creation of a community that “offers a living, visible alternative to a society rent by enmity, division, greed, injustice, and hopelessness.  (p. 27).  

With this chapter offering a theological foundation to the missional project, we move on through Richard Osmer’s discussion of building connections between ministries of upbuilding and sending, Scott Hagley’s conversation about short-term missions, and on through discussions of living the biblical narrative (Allen Hilton), practices of dispossession (Christian Scharen), ministry in the first third of one’s life (Nancy Going), practices of congregational discernment (David Hahn), a conversation about missional formation in the Ethiopian Evangelical context (Dinku Bato), and finally a discussion of baptism and missional formation. 

As seen by the listing of chapters above, there are many dimensions to this conversation.   There are theological, biblical, and practical implications.  One of the key points of the book is found in Hilton’s conversation about inhabiting the biblical story.   He makes it clear that being missional is not our natural pose.  If we read the Hebrew Bible, the story is clearly insular.  God may have commissioned Abraham and Sarah to be lights to the nation, but there’s little evidence that they took this task up.  But, before we’re too hard on the forbearers of the church we should know that, from the point of view of the Book of Acts, neither was the early church.  Although one might expect that the Spirit empowered Jerusalem church would become the hub of missional activity and identity, that’s not the way it was.  Even there resistance to the other was present.   Hilton writes:
The blemish on the church that our narrator never explicitly identifies – but loudly implies – is the utter failure of any Christian in Jerusalem to initiate a mission beyond the walls of the city throughout the first seven chapters of this story (p. 90)    
The story is clear, without divine encouragement, the church stays put.  But, ultimately there is forward movement.  By attending to the story, inhabiting it, and then living it we participate in this ongoing act of formation for missional life. 

                Although there is necessary overlap between this book and others, it offers a helpful over view of the path toward spiritual formation.  It’s clearly not enough to simply go out and do.  We must be formed and that involves more than programs and education opportunities.  It involves attending to the spiritual lives of those who inhabit the congregation, so that they might be empowered and prepared to enter the broader world and be agents of God’s healing work.   It is a process that is initiated, in the estimation of these contributors, by the Trinitarian God, who in God’s own being sends the Son and sends the Spirit into the world, and we have the opportunity to participate with God in this work of God.  

This is a recommended book for all who are interested in becoming or being missional.  It has its overlaps with other books, but the focus on spiritual formation is not as prevalent elsewhere, so this will be of helpful guidance, especially for more Mainline congregations who are looking into this concept.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Health Care Reform, the Court, and Jesus!

 Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that the Health Care Reform law enacted by Congress in 2009 is Constitutional under it's ability to issue taxes.  In essence, with this 5-4 decision, the Court sent the issue back to the political arena.  John Roberts, a rather conservative Justice, doesn't seem to have joined the majority because he liked the law, but because to reject it outright threw the court into the middle of a political storm, and this time he didn't want to do this.  So, now the Congress and the current or next President will have to deal with the consequences -- for good or ill!

As for me and my house, we welcome the decision.  The Affordable Care Act is far from a perfect law, but it is probably the best we can do at this moment to provide health care for as many Americans as possible.  The United States has a great health care system if you have the money or good insurance, but for the most part its a system designed to react to health problems not prevent them.  It's a system that is profitable for specialists, but doesn't necessarily provide good care for a majority of people.

One of the rallying cries of opponents to this law is that it is an unreasonable extension of federal control over the American people.  Leave it to the states, we're told.  But in our increasingly mobile society is this state-centered reality realistic?   It seems to me that we would be well served if our choices were less determined by state or region, and medical care would seem to be an area where a more federalized system would be beneficial.

But, while there are economic and social benefits to accrue from the law (as I see it), there is another vantage point -- and that's from a faith perspective.  What do we owe our neighbor?  As I read the Scriptures, I hear the call to love my neighbor, to be hospitable, and compassionate.  I don't think that God cares whether it's a NGO, a church, or a government providing services.  The point is -- compassion should lead us to making provision for our neighbors welfare.  The needs of the nation are too great to be relieved by religious organizations alone.  We can assist, but we can't do everything.  So, some of us feel it appropriate to advocate for government assistance and care for our neighbors.

My perspective is reflected in the words of the General Minister of my denomination -- The Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, who issued this response to yesterday's ruling: 
 "As a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, Disciples of Christ pray for and work for the health and well-being of all God's children. Jesus’ witness was that abundant life includes physical, mental and spiritual wellness. I welcome decisions that help all of us make progress in this direction, including today's Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act
“Jesus’ ministry was one of healing, bringing life to the dying, sight to the blind, wellness to the sick, and peace to the troubled. The call upon us is to make this vision a reality for all."
It's important, in my mind, that we commit ourselves, if we're followers of Jesus, to the ministry of healing, which is a ministry that emerges from love of our neighbor, which is the 2nd Great Commandment!  Not everyone will agree on how to do this, but for me, this Law is a good starting point.   

Translating the Trinity for Muslims -- Sightings

I want to start off with a confession-- I am a Trinitarian who is in regular conversation with Muslims about what monotheism actually means.  I am also part of a Christian communion that has traditionally shied away from making determinative statements on the Trinity -- not with Muslim consciences in mind, but because the word is not present in the New Testament and it took three centuries for the doctrine to be fully defined.  In addition, as Miroslav Volf points out the concerns that Muslims have about the Trinity can be relieved if we are careful in our definitions.  I say all of this to introduce the Sightings column written by Sarah Yardney that deals with the complaints made against the Wycliffe Bible Translators, whom they charge with removing the Trinity from the New Testament (as if the full blown doctrine is actually present).  As Yardney notes much of the debate focuses on English words, rather than on what would be the best way to translate Pater and huios into Arabic or Urdu.  Besides, if a translation can avoid offending Muslims so that they can get a better sense of the Gospel, why is that a bad thing?  Anyway, as I go with my family to meet for lunch with a Muslim friend today, I leave this article for your consideration!

Translating the Trinity for Muslims
-- Sarah Yardney
An online consortium for ministry to Muslims, Biblical Missiology, has accused Wycliffe Bible Translators of dismantling the Trinity, the Christian doctrine that God is three persons in one, in their translations of the Bible for Muslims. They claim that Wycliffe, a non-profit organization that has translated the Bible into over 700 languages for missionary purposes, has removed the titles “Father” and “Son” from their translations for Muslims in response to Islamic influence. Wycliffe defends its choices by explaining that in certain Muslim societies, the titles “Father” and “Son” give the impression that God physically had sex with Mary, and the organization wanted to avoid this misunderstanding. In lieu of “Father” and “Son,” the titles used in the Wycliffe Arabic and Urdu Bible, among others, “are translated more accurately to the inspired Greek.” Biblical Missiology, however, argues that the traditional titles give no such impression of carnality and that Wycliffe is distorting the word of God to avoid offending Muslims.           
We cannot know whether Wycliffe has translated responsibly because the disputed translations are not available to the public: Wycliffe has agreed not to publish them until the organization’s translational practices have undergone an audit by a panel assembled by the World Evangelical Alliance. But there are a few things that could be said in response to Biblical Missiology’s accusations.           
First, the claim that the Wycliffe translations fail to represent the Trinity is somewhat disingenuous. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which states that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one and the same God, does not appear in the Bible. Although inspired by biblical texts (most importantly Matt 28:19 and 2 Cor 13:14), the doctrine did not take the form familiar to modern Christians until the Council of Constantinople in 381. Strictly speaking, therefore, a translation of the Bible can neither represent nor fail to represent the Trinity because the Trinity is not in the Bible. It is a concept that developed later.           
Second, it is problematic that the whole debate, at least at the public level, is taking place in English. Biblical Missiology charges that instead of “Father” and “Son,” Wycliffe is using terms like “Guardian” and “Representative.” Clearly in English “Father” and “Guardian” are not synonymous, nor are “Son” and “Representative,” but that is irrelevant. What matters is whether the terms Wycliffe has used in its translations are good equivalents for the Greek pater and huios, not whether Wycliffe’s terms would be rendered into English in the same way the Greek is. A conversation about Wycliffe’s translational choices cannot happen responsibly using only English equivalents; it requires precise discussion about the meanings of the Greek terms and the meanings of the terms in the target languages. Otherwise we simply do not know what we are talking about.           
Of course, it is easy to see why Biblical Missiology prefers to stick to English and not get into the nitty-gritty of Arabic, Urdu, Turkish, Bangla, etc. The American Evangelicals whose support they seek probably do not know the languages in question and, more importantly, are emotionally attached to the traditional English titles. What Christian who has been going to church her whole life is going to feel comfortable hearing “God the Guardian” instead of “God the Father,” or “This is my beloved Representative, in whom I am well pleased”? By keeping the conversation about English words, Biblical Missiology enhances the sense of threat to Americans’ own liturgy and worship practices.           
Finally, we should be a little suspicious of the charge of Islamic influence. The accusation that the Trinity is being removed from the Bible to avoid offending Muslims sounds rather like the fear that sharia law will supplant the American justice system. One has to wonder whether similar translations into, say, indigenous languages of South America would have elicited such a fervid response. Islam has become America’s bogeyman since 9/11, and Americans tend to startle more easily when Muslims are involved. There may be valid objections to raise against Wycliffe’s translations, but Biblical Missiology has not raised them.
Jeff Kunerth, “Wycliffe criticized over Bible translations for Muslims,” Orlando Sentinel, April 29, 2012.
Fact Check: Biblical Missiology’s Response To Wycliffe’s Comments On “Lost In Translation”

Sarah Yardney is a PhD student in Bible at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a participant in the 2012 Jerald Brauer Seminar on translation.


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

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Authentic Love -- A Lectionary Reflection

Authentic Love

          We robustly sing “They will know we are Christians by our love” believing that these words accurately reflect our profession of faith in Jesus Christ.  But is this accurate?  Is our love of God and others truly authentic?  And what is the mark of this love that we profess?  Are we willing to lay down our lives for our friends? 

            When we think biblically about love, we often turn to the Greek word agape.  I think the best definition of this word is offered by theologian Tom Oord, who defines agape as “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being” (Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theologyp. 56).  He calls this “in spite of love.” 
Agape does good in spite of evil previously inflicted.  Just as God loves us in spite of our rebellion, complacency, and sin, so we ought to love others and ourselves in spite of the pain, suffering, and destruction others and we have done.
Oord’s definition of love begins with intentionality and commitment to the overall well-being of the other, and in the case of agape it is the one who intends evil to us.  It’s a high calling, but one that is transformative.

            In similar vein, Richard Beck, a psychologist, speaks of love in terms of hospitality.  We tend to create boundaries that separate us from others, but those boundaries (purity laws?) can prove detrimental to love, especially the kind of love envisioned by Jesus.  It’s one thing to love kin and clan, but what about those outside the borders?  How willing are we to extend hospitality to the stranger?
In all of this we see how the practice of hospitality is the antithesis of sociomoral disgust. Where the dynamics of disgust and dehumanization foster exclusion and expulsion, the practice of hospitality welcomes the outcast and stranger as a full member of the human community. Hospitality seeks to expand the moral circle, to push back against the innate impulse that assumes “humanity ends at the border of the tribe.”  [Beck, Richard.  Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, (p. 124).]
            The relationship between faith and love is key.  We show our faith in God through our love for God and the other.  Our love for the other ultimately is rooted in God, who loves in the community of persons we call the Godhead.  Our ability to love is a reflection of the image of God, in which we are created. 

            In the texts for today we hear words about God’s love and God’s hospitality.  There is a richness of opportunities present in the Hebrew Bible readings, but since I’m preaching from Lamentations 3:22-33, that’s the reading I will explore here.  In this passage from Lamentations, a book of poetry that emerges out of exile, we hear a word of hope.  Then, in Paul’s letter we hear a call to sharing gifts so that all might be equal in the community.  Finally, in the Gospel we hear two healing stories that are expressions of compassion and love.  So, what does it mean to love in such a way that people look at Christians and know that they are Christians because of their love? 

            We begin with the word from Lamentations.  Tradition suggests the authorship of Jeremiah, but that’s unlikely.  The context may not be that important, but it does appear that this series of acrostic poems comes from the period of the exile.  In this passage we wrestle with the question of finding faith in the midst of despairing situations.  For a moment in time, this series of lamentations breaks forth into words of hope and trust, such that this passage inspires one of the most beloved hymns of the church.   “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my father, there is no shadow of turning with thee, thou changest not thy compassions, they fail not, as thou has been thou forever wilt be.”  There is a certainty present in the hymn that isn’t as present here in the text.  It expresses both faith and doubt, but ultimately it expresses confidence in the God who is faithful, whose compassion will not fail, for “they are renewed every morning.” 

            We live in difficult times.  A strong majority of Americans believe the nation is going in the wrong direction.  It doesn’t matter that the statistics tell another story, people just can’t get their heads around the possibility that things are better now than they were a few years ago.  We just don’t feel it in our bones.  We seem to have lost hope.  Not even God seems capable of lifting our spirits.  But is our situation as dire as that of the exiles?  Have we lost everything?  Do we feel as if God has in this moment of time put our mouths in the dirt?  We may not have the same sense of Divine providence as the days of old, but do we feel God is present?  Do we believe that God will ultimately reveal to us God’s compassion and covenant loyalty?   Can we “wait in silence for the LORD’s deliverance?”  Indeed, can we sing with joy “Great is thy faithfulness”?

            Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church suggests that there has been much resistance to his message and leadership.  There is a lot of defensiveness in the letter, but he also persists in offering a word of grace and love.  Here he seeks to test the “authenticity of your love.”  In doing this he offers Jesus as their example, reminding them that “although he was rich he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty (2 Cor. 8:9).  In reading this passage we get another reminder that there were serious problems present in this congregation regarding social stratification.  We see this in the first letter, where he has to speak to their table habits and even regarding their understanding of spiritual gifts.  Here, Paul seeks to remind them that in Christ there is equality, and not just “spiritual” equality, but true equality.  He calls on those with much to share with those who have little.  It seems as if they had started working on sharing their resources, but need further encouragement.   He suggests that “at the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficient so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit.  In this way there is equality” (8:14).  You could call this socialism, which is a rather unpopular ideology at the moment.  But the point here is the authenticity of love.  Am I willing to love my neighbor enough to share?  Is it voluntary?  I suppose, but the principles seem to call forth from us the need to develop a heart for the other, and if that involves a social safety net provided by the tax payer, then perhaps that would be a faithful response to the call to share.  Remember that our current separation of secular and sacred wasn’t the pattern in the first century or back in the day of Moses.  What is authentic love?  How do I experience and express it?  That is the question.

            In our gospel reading we happen upon two healing stories that get intertwined.  There is a young girl, who is dying, and as with Lazarus in John 11, Jesus will get there too late – but happy results are in store.  It’s important to note that there is a religious leader involved.  Jairus’ daughter is ill and though he’s part of the ruling class, he finds himself at a difficult point and so he seeks out Jesus, and Jesus is willing to go with him.

            As he journeys toward the home of Jairus, a woman approaches him.  She has been experiencing bleeding for twelve years.  That’s the same number of years as Jairus’s daughter has been alive.  The woman has suffered from a malady that robs her of energy and makes her “unclean” and thus unable to be part of the worshiping community.  Purity had trumped mercy (Hos. 6:6).  She has also suffered at the hands of her doctors.  How fitting that this text appears in the same week that the Supreme Court hands down its ruling on the US health care reform act.  America has the best health care system money can buy, which means that a goodly number of people can’t gain access to this wonderful system.  She has suffered mightily at their hands and now the money is gone, and she has no other hope.  That is, until she hears about Jesus.  And so, she sneaks close, knowing that if discovered she’ll be shooed away (at best).  Her only hope is to touch his robe and hope that this act of faith does the job.  And sure enough it does, but Jesus also recognizes that something has happened and he calls out to her, inviting her to make herself known.  And instead of condemning her for touching him, thereby making him unclean, he commends her for her faith.  He does what the doctors failed to do, and he didn’t take her money.  He risked being made unclean so that she might be made clean – and thus drawn into the circle of faith.  

            But the journey isn’t over – having restored this woman to health, he continues on to Jairus’s home.  But, there has been this delay, and his daughter is dead.  I suspect that Jairus was a bit frustrated.  He was a man of influence and of means, and yet the commotion around the woman had delayed Jesus, and thus delayed the healing of his daughter.  How dare she?  I don’t know if that’s what he was thinking, but it’s possible.  By the time he arrives the girl is dead and the professional mourners have arrived.  They tell him – don’t bother it’s too late.  But Jesus’ response is one of compassion and promise.  He tells the people, “don’t be afraid, just keep trusting (Mk. 5:36).  And them putting out everyone but the parents, he goes into the girls room and calls her back to life, after taking her by the hand.  Note once again that he takes an action that makes him unclean – that is, he touches the dead body.  But in doing so, he gives it life again.  And she gets up, starts to walk, and Jesus suggests that she be given something to eat.  Oh, and don’t tell anyone – as if they could keep this quiet!    

            God is love and God acts on behalf of the people who live in exile, who live in difficult times, and he shares with rich and poor equally, though in sharing with the poor he seems to talk from the rich!   This God values mercy rather than sacrifice, so how shall we respond to God’s call to embody authentic love?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dancing With Diana 3 -- A Multi-Faceted God (Bruce Epperly)

Who is God?  What is God's nature?  That is the question that Bruce Epperly takes up in response to his reading of Diana Butler Bass's Christianity after Religion.  The stern, angry, distant God, seems to be going by the wayside.  The question is -- how do we envision this God we seek to encounter?  Take a read, offer your thoughts.


Dancing with Diana – 3 
A Multifaceted God? Part One
Bruce Epperly

My dance partner Diana Butler Bass notes perceptively “God as Stern Father is going away and is being replaced by a multifaceted divinity open to invention and interpretation.” (Christianity after Religion, 50)  While there are a lot of Stern Father God’s still out there, many of them in the most conservative sectors of the religious and political worlds, a more fluid and accessible God is emerging not only among seekers but among mainstream, progressive, and evangelical Christians.  As Thomas Jay Oord argues from an evangelical perspective, our best images of God place love rather than power and relationship rather than domination at the heart of God’s nature.

I want to explore in a few paragraphs the possibility of imaging God at all, and then in subsequent pieces, describe one vision – a process-relational vision – of a multi-faceted god.

Historically, theologians have used the terms kataphatic and apophatic as ways of describing the delicate balance between accessibility and idolatry in imaging God.  The kataphatic way focuses on words and images.  If we speak about God at all – including God’s revealing itself in mystical experiences – what we say or experience comes to us as humans, using our language, cultural symbols and biases, and imaginative hymns and poetry.  Accordingly, almost any positive words – and sometimes negative words – have been used to describe God from the stories of Zeus and Krishna and their dalliances with mortals to the Plague Sending Yahweh and Plato’s artistic world-creating reason and Jesus’ dear and intimate parent.  Our poetry, hymnody, and theology speak of God in words such as: dove, rock, wind, spirit, love, power, energy, fortress, light, shepherd, Sophia/wisdom, father, mother, lover, and child. 

The kataphatic way is grounded in the sacramental nature of life, reflective of divine omnipresence.  If God is active everywhere and in all things, then all things are, as Meister Eckhardt says, words of God.  “Cleave the wood and I am there,” the Gospel of Thomas proclaims.  Matthew 25 asserts that “as you have done unto to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done unto me.”  Of course, the incarnation of Jesus is the most compelling image of divine omnipresence: fully human, fully divine, fully reflecting God’s vision for human life. 

We need images and hymns and intimacy with God.  Yet the kataphatic becomes idolatrous when we claim that God’s nature is exhausted by our symbols, rituals, and images, or holy books. While we need to respect the holy books of every tradition, they are always fingers pointing at the moon and not the moon itself, as the Zen Buddhist maintains.  Clinging too tightly to our images and words – and to our holy books – leads to parochialism, excommunication, intolerance, and inability to grow in relationship to an evolving world.
It leads to fighting any changes in the cultural and scientific worlds that threaten our literalist interpretations.

In contrast, the apophatic way asserts that no image fully describes the divine.  God is always more than we can imagine.  The finite can never fathom the infinite.  All words, images, and symbols are provisional, limited, and conceal while they reveal.  The God of 100+ billion galaxies always remains mysterious, sharing divinity with humankind in ways we can understand and interpret, yet always leaving much in reserve simply because we cannot fathom it.

Historically, the silence of the apophatic has been the greatest source of humility in the spiritual journey.  It encourages doubt, questioning, and confession of limitation.  Sadly, some proponents of the apophatic way have not taken their own theology to heart.  The God you cannot fathom, they assert, is best described as impersonal and unchanging.  Yet, impersonal and unchanging are also words and represent a bias against the personal and changing.  Perhaps, divinity includes some sort of multiplicity that embraces both personality and impersonality, and intimacy and universality.

While my personal spiritual bias is toward kataphatic way, it is clear to me that these are essential aspects of theological reflection.  We need both the yin and the yang; sacraments and iconoclasm; words and silence, to understand who we are and the Reality in whom we live and move and have our being.  Truly theology is an adventure of the spirit (Whitehead’s description of worship) that lures us to frontiers and worlds beyond our imagining.  Let’s dance!

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 may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Southern Baptist Decline -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

As the pastor of a Mainline Protestant congregation, I know all about membership decline.  My congregation, actually is holding its own after years of experiencing decline, and hopefully poised for growth.  More liberal or moderation congregations have been told repeatedly that conservative/ideologically narrow congregations grow, while more open ones don't.  I think that theology could play a role, but I think cultural adaptation plays a bigger role.  Conservative churches appear to have been first adapters of technology and they tend to have larger families.  But, I digress.  In this week's edition of Sightings, Martin Marty notes that both the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Church are experiencing declines of their own.  What all are encountering is a changing attitude among younger people, who are no more enamored with Baptist mega-churches as they are with organ-playing Mainline ones.  So, with Dr. Marty, we contemplate the realities of the day.  Decline really isn't inevitable, but the future depends on how we respond to our realities!

Southern Baptist Decline
-- Martin E. Marty

The two “big kids on the block” of American denominationalism are making front-page and prime-time news this early summer in ways which crowd out other stories of events and trends in most other groups. Only the Mormons are in competition for the spotlight right now. The two churches which are hefty enough to throw their weight around are the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention (a.k.a. “Great Commission Baptists” after a vote in convention last week). Most of the headlines are unwelcome in the eyes of their Public Relations agents and the hearts of most serious members, but there they are. We do not even need to remind readers of what these churchly involvements in politics, scandal, etc. are. (P-s-s-t: but do notice that the Southern or Great Commission Baptists, their denomination born in slavery, did elect their first African American president in the bad-news weeks.
Through all the decades-long travails of sects, cults, confessional bodies, dissenting and minority denominations, and more, people could always look at the big two and gain confidence in the knowledge that those two, with their millions, knew what they were doing. Critics of what went on in moderate and mainline and liberal church bodies could always point to these two as models: they are doctrinally firm, conversion-seeking, and not wishy-washy as the others are. So, what do we make of current trends?
Sightings is not announcing anything new when we mention that Catholicism, apart from its Mexican (etc.) masses, mirrors most trends of the Protestant decliners. Sociologist Everett Hughes many decades ago said something like “everything that can happen sociologically has already happened in the Catholic Church.” Non-Hispanic Catholicism has “happenings” to match social trends in Mainline Protestantism.
The Baptists of the Southern/Great Comission persuasion were supposed to be exempt from (largely) white-Protestant-wide downward trends. Yet in convention in recent days they announced declines in membership every year of the past five, with more decline most recently. You can be sure that leadership will work strenuously to reverse trends, and one may hope with them that they will recover, but . . . .
Google, or use any search instrument on your computer, and type in “declines” and pair it with the names of churches such as UCC, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Reformed, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, and on and on, and you will not lack data about decline. Link almost all of these with their more conservative acronymic partners, e.g., RCA/CRC, ELCA/LCMS, PCUSA/PCA, etc. and you will find the word “decline” easily. These bodies were looked to as potential winners by church growth experts because they blew against the Zeitgeist with their own spirit, were staunch and not flabby, counter-cultural, God’s own people in conflicts. Yet, while not all of them have declined as much as their more moderate counterparts, they also have not been able to resist cultural trends which work against them.
This is not the day to isolate all the trends affecting all the groups, but they include the demographic along with so many more. It is the day to suggest that they are demonstrating that there is no place to hide from cultures named “millennial” or “youth” or “pop” or “consumerist” or any other one might name. One does not have to be an ideological “declinist”—I refuse to be one, and I have plenty of company—to know that by amassing the stories of decline one can paralyze or, perhaps, awaken and nudge.


Bob Smietana, “Nation's largest Protestant group faces 'decline',” USA Today, June 11, 2012.
Kathy Finn, “U.S. Southern Baptists Elect First Black President,” Chicago Tribune, June 19, 2012.

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

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

Monday, June 25, 2012

Blurring the Lines -- Review

BLURRING THE LINES.   By Jerry Zehr.  Self-published, 2012.  203 pages.

I was asked by the author of Blurring the Lines to read and offer my thoughts on this first novel.  As an author, I must commend Jerry Zehr for taking on the task of writing a novel that would offer a compelling story while also providing a platform for readers to explore spiritual things.  Narrative is an increasing important vehicle for us to share faith stories, but it's not an easy genre to master, especially in a first novel.

Taking into account that this is a first novel, we can let question of style and formula take a back seat as we try to inhabit the story that Jerry wants to tell in these pages.  We're invited to see the world  in all its beauty and ugliness (and there's a lot of ugliness in this story), through the eyes of Thomas, a young man who grew up Mennonite in a small Indiana town that is predominately Amish.  His father had left the Amish tradition but remained present in the broader Anabaptist community.  Thomas has this faith as a foundation, but he seems to hold it loosely.  He may have religious foundations, but he is, like so many young people today, a spiritual seeker.

In this story Thomas leaves his Indiana home for Los Angeles, where he seeks to fulfill his dream of making big in Hollywood.  It’s a dream that many have sought to fulfill, and of course many fail at it.  LA is full of waiters and hotel desk clerks who have the same dream.  Thomas ends up taking a job as a desk clerk in a Beverly Hills hotel where stars stay who don’t want to be seen.  As he seeks to find his way he ends up being drawn into the Hollywood scene of drugs, sex, and gambling.  He falls in with the wrong crowd, in large part because he feels the need for money, which leads to some drug running escapades.    But, he also falls in love and he has to wrestle with what it means to be true to that relationship.   I won’t say anymore so as not to spoil the journey with the book, except to let readers know that the language and descriptions are at times graphic.  It’s not surprising considering the crime drama/Hollywood dream genre, but while this is a religiously oriented book, it could offend some readers.

The other element of the story is Thomas’s spiritual quest.  Jerry Zehr is a Disciples of Christ minister (like me), who is committed to interfaith work (like me).  I will confess that we approach this matter of interfaith work somewhat differently.  Like many of my colleagues he has followed the path farther than me in the direction of a more generic/eclectic spirituality.  I’m committed to interfaith work, but my own faith confession is more traditional.  What Jerry does, however, is offer a way for the growing numbers of “spiritual but not religious” people to explore matters of faith and spirituality. 

Diana Butler Bass is one of many writers who are reminding us that things are changing.  The old ways are failing to grab the attention of increasing numbers of people.  Religion is giving way to spirituality.  They are dissatisfied with narrowness of belief and practice.  But what is it that they desire?  Is it a defined spirituality or an eclectic one that borrows as much from East as West (and in this book it seems that East is the dominant spirituality).

The vision that Mr. C. provides in the book, one that seems eclectic and even perhaps New Ageish is attractive.  The reader will have to decide if it works for them.  And a story like this is useful.  Mr. C. the “good guy” in the story is a religiously committed person, who is compassionate and self-giving.  He cares about Thomas and watches out for him (and others).  It’s a vision that should be attractive and it should push us to ask the question – does my faith cause me to reach out and care for others?

The book ends with a cliff-hanger, and Jerry promises a sequel, so that we can see where Thomas’ faith takes him. 

Stylistically this is probably a typical first novel.  It’s somewhat formulaic and predictable.  It slows down at points, but I expect that the writing will improve over time.  In the stylistic vein, I would suggest that in future editions to consider a more traditional (Times Roman) type face.  The current sans-serif style makes the book look self-published, which it is.  But that’s just me.   Again I commend Jerry for taking on the task of writing in this form.  So, if you’re interested in spiritual narratives that push beyond the traditional religious books, then give Jerry’s book a try.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Friends for Life -- A Sermon

1 Samuel 17:57-18:5

What is a friend?  In the age of Facebook, that’s not as easy to answer as it was before the advent of Social Media.  I have nearly a thousand Facebook friends, but truth be told I’m not quite sure who many of them are!  Still, I’ve found Facebook to be a wonderful way to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. 

  Of course, we’ve always known that there are different levels of friendship.  Some can last for a week at camp and others a lifetime.  Some are extremely close and others are more distant. But this need to make friends is a reminder of what God observes in the Garden – It’s not good for humans to be alone.   
I know that Facebook or Twitter isn’t for everyone, but we all find ways of connecting and reconnecting with others. That’s the reason many go to reunions.  We like to keep rekindling old friendships.  But, it’s not enough to keep old friendships alive, we have continually make new ones, and for introverts like me that’s not always easy!  But maybe being part of a church – the body of Christ -- can help!  

Our reading this morning tells the story of one of the most famous friendships of all time.  It’s the story of a very unusual friendship that continually gets tested and yet it thrives.   Jonathan, who is the son of the king and heir to the throne, and David, who is not only beloved by the people but already anointed the next king, develop a friendship that transcends all the challenges.    

Although Jonathan seems to know what is happening around him, he doesn’t seem to care.  Some might criticize him, saying he lacks ambition, but perhaps he shows us a better way, the way that Jesus would later embody.  Here is a man who cares more about the welfare of his friend than about himself.  His actions seem to reflect Jesus’ famous words: “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13 CEB).  

The story begins shortly after David’s famous encounter with Goliath.  David had traveled to Saul’s military camp to visit his brothers at the front, and after watching as the great Philistine warrior Goliath taunted the Israelites and seeing that no one would face Goliath, he  takes up the cause.  Although young and inexperienced he brings down the great warrior with nothing more than a stone and a slingshot, and as a result, he returns home a hero.  There are shades of this story in the first Star Wars movie, when Luke Skywalker, just off the farm, delivers the fatal blow that destroys the Death Star and saves the rebellion. 

  As our hero arrives at court, bringing Goliath’s head as a gift to the king, we’re told that “Jonathan’s life became bound up with David’s life.”  Or, as Eugene Peterson put it in The Message:  
Jonathan was deeply impressed with David—an immediate bond was forged between them. He became totally committed to David. From that point on he would be David's number-one advocate and friend.  (18.1).  
Jonathan and David make a covenant with each other that will transcend every other relationship.  Nothing would come between them, including Jonathan’s increasingly jealous father, who seeks to kill his rival and even on one occasion, sensing that Jonathan was in cahoots with David, throws his spear at his son and heir.  This is a friendship that is constantly being tested, and yet it endures to the end.          

As I think about my own friendships, I have to wonder, am I this committed to the welfare of anyone else?  We probably can answer yes if the other person is our spouse or our children or grandchildren.  But what about someone outside this immediate circle?  If we’re to love our neighbors as we ourselves, how far are we willing to go to live out this calling?  
Of course, we all know stories, whether fictional or real, about sacrificial friendships.  Recipients of the Medal of Honor have often demonstrated such commitment to their comrades, risking their own lives for others.  In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock sacrifices his life for the good of his shipmates.  The always logical Spock reminds Captain Kirk that “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few . . . ”  

So, what is the true depth of our friendships?  And, how do we reflect our own spirituality though these friendships?  Eugene Peterson writes that 
Friendship is a much underestimated aspect of spirituality.  It’s every bit as significant as prayer and fasting.  Like the sacramental use of water and bread and wine, friendship takes what is common in human experience and turns it into something holy.  [Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall 53.]
There is something holy about this covenant friendship between Jonathan and David.  Like Spock, Jonathan is willing to offer his life and his future for the good of another.  I’m not so sure that David was quite as committed, however, so there is a wrinkle in this story that I can’t seem to resolve.  
Such a sacred form of friendship is deeply rooted in trust.   As we all know, perhaps instinctively, trust is difficult to earn and easy to lose, which makes Jonathan’s immediate bond with David all the more surprising.  But while this friendship is constantly being tested, it never wavers.   

Paul speaks of the depth of his own commitment to the lives of the people who inhabited the Corinthian Church, despite their tendency to resist his leadership, recounting  the many struggles and difficulties he had encountered in the course of his ministry – beatings, imprisonments, and the like – and he did it because “there are no limits to the affection we feel for you” (2 Cor. 6:12).    

But, even as we celebrate this friendship, we need to again recognize that it seems somewhat one-sided.   Jonathan seems to give up everything for David.  We see this in the way that he takes off his robe and gives it to David, along with his armor, his belt, his bow, and his sword.  In other words, he’s abdicating the throne.  And what does Jonathan get as a result?  Like I said, there are wrinkles to this story, but it appears that even though the relationship may be somewhat unequal, there is a bond here that can’t be broken.  There are no limits to the affection felt for the other, not even when tested by other relationships. 

If we’re willing to invest ourselves in the lives of others, as these two men invested themselves in each other, our relationships will be tested.  It may be another relationship that demands our loyalty or it may be a growing difference of opinion about life in this world.   Like Jonathan you may be forced to choose between your friend and your family.   This often happens if you have been raised in a bigoted family and you make a friend who is from a different ethnic, religious, social or racial background.  What would you do?   Who do you choose?  It’s not any easy question, but it’s a question that people face every day.

   For example, there are many stories about Israelis’ and Palestinians getting together and trying to overcome the animosity that exists between their two peoples.  These attempts at friendship put them at odds with their families, their clans, and their nations.   Sometimes it even costs them their lives, but they persist because they’ve entered into sacred and covenantal relationships. 

As you know, we are in the middle of a listening campaign.  Our listening team is making appointments and having conversations with as many of our members and friends as possible.  We’re doing this for a couple of reasons, but among the most important is simply to get us talking with each other.  You may have been part of the congregation for years, but how much do you know about each other?  There are some other elements to this, but the most important is creating deeper relationships. 

  This morning, as we move toward the Lord’s Table, think about your friendships, especially the deeper ones.  Ask yourself: What is the nature of these friendships?  Do I love the other as much as I love myself?  Am I willing to lay down my life for that person? Do I consider any of these friendships to be sacred?

I think we can all say that even within the church, our relationships can get tested.  We may not be all that big a church, but we’re pretty diverse in our theologies and our politics, our music preferences and many other things.  It’s not always easy living with each other, but we’re living in covenant with each other.  So,  let us take heart in Jonathan’s last words to his friend:
Go in peace!  The two of us have vowed friendship in God’s name, saying, “God will be the bond between me and you, and between my children and your children forever!”  (1 Sam. 20:42, MSG)

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday after Pentecost
June 24, 2012

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Beware the Contagion of Sinners and Tax Collectors!

9 As Jesus continued on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. He said to him, “ Follow me, ” and he got up and followed him. 10 As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “ Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? ”12 When Jesus heard it, he said, “ Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. 13 Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice.t I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.   (Matthew 9:9-13 CEB).

I stay with the text from Matthew 9, as I continue with my reflections on Richard Beck's provocative book Unclean.   As you read and reflect on this brief passage, which speaks of God's preference for mercy over sacrifice, consider why the Pharisees might be concerned about Jesus' table fellowship.  As we reflect on this passage, we will do so with the ideas of contamination and contagion in mind.  As Richard works with this idea he references the idea of "magical thinking."  
The logic of contamination is called “magical” because it makes causal judgments that defy the laws of physics. That isn’t to say that magical thinking has no basis in reality or adaptive value.  [Beck, Richard . Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (p. 27). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.] 
 The Pharisees are worried about Jesus' actions.  If he is hanging around with sinners, then surely he is one.  It has to be catching -- right?  Richard writes:
We find magical thinking at work in Matthew 9. If sin is “contagious,” extending hospitality becomes impossible. This is the psychological dynamic at the heart of the conflict in Matthew 9. What worries the Pharisees is Jesus’ contact with sinners. This worry over proximity is symptomatic of the magical thinking imported into the religious domain through the psychology of disgust.  [Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (p. 26).] 

Now you might say that by engaging the sinners, Jesus is working to change their behavior -- surely Matthew  is changed man because of his encounter with Jesus, but the Pharisees don't seem to be buying this idea.  Contagion only goes one way.  Richard notes the idea of "Negative Dominance."
When a pollutant and a pure object come into contact the pollutant is “stronger” and ruins the pure object. The pure object doesn’t render the pollutant acceptable or palatable. (p. 28). 
Oh, and that contamination is likely permanent.  So, what's at stake?
Negativity dominance has important missional implications for the church. For example, notice how negativity dominance is at work in Matthew 9. The Pharisees never once consider the fact that the contact between Jesus and the sinners might have a purifying, redemptive, and cleansing effect upon the sinners. Why not? The logic of contamination simply doesn’t work that way. The logic of contamination has the power of the negative dominating over the positive. Jesus doesn’t purify the sinners. The sinners make Jesus unclean.  (p. 30).  
So, consider the ways in which the church seeks to be missional.  Do we believe that the gospel is the contagion or sin?  Do we believe that we can be leaven, or will the world simply leaven the church?  If we believe that sin is contagious and that the contagion always contaminates, then there seems little hope of being a missional congregation.  But is that the gospel message?  Does Jesus become unclean by dining with the tax collector?  Or does the tax collector become clean because of the opportunity to dine with Jesus?