Wednesday, July 31, 2013

When Will You Do the Right Thing? A Lectionary Reflection -- Pentecost 10C

Hosea 11:1-11

Colossians 3:1-11

Luke 12:13-21

When Will You Do the Right Thing?

         Most of us who live on the liberal/progressive side of the Christian faith have qualms about the portions of Scripture that deal with things like judgment and wrath.  We prefer a loving God over an angry God; the light side of God to the dark side.  We know that these images are there, we’d just rather they not be there.  They complicate our theology and our image of God.  The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) seem to understand our sensitivity and so they do their best to filter out as much as possible such images.  However, occasionally we must face God’s dark side. 

            In each of the texts I’ve chosen to address there is both a word of hope and a word of judgment.  We might call this realism of sorts. 

The prophet Hosea speaks to a people facing great uncertainty.  After experiencing the long reign of Jeroboam II, things have gotten somewhat chaotic and the Assyrian Empire is knocking on the door.  Before too long, the nation of Israel will cease to exist.  It’s to this situation of uncertainty, something that many persons in our world, indeed in the Detroit region itself, are experiencing.  It seems inevitable that empires and nations will fall, even as they have risen to prominence.  Soon Israel will fall, but after that powerful Assyria will meet its end.  They’ll be followed by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians and their successors, the Romans – and on and on.  We who live in the United States often believe that we are invincible, but we seem to be facing an uncertain future.  We may be the lone superpower, but beyond our military prowess, we’ve fallen behind many of our allies in terms of education, infant mortality rates, and more (watch the opening scene of the first episode of the HBO show The Newsroom to get a sense of our dilemma).  You can feel the angst rising up in the nation.  Perhaps we are in a position to understand the message of Hosea. 

            As we read Hosea 11, it seems as if the voices present in earlier chapters – where Hosea takes Gomer the prostitute as his wife for no other reason than to use her as a parable of Israel’s disobedience – have given way to a different set of voices.   Carol Howard Merritt has called on us to think about this prophetic oracle and discern whether it can speak to us in light of its demeaning depiction of women.  It is a good warning, and yet there is this switch of voices in Hosea 11 that beckons us to hear this text.  The characters in this portion of the text seem to be mother and child, that of the doting parent who seeks to care for an infant child.  There is tenderness and love.  Parents can understand this passage, with its apparent description of divine compassion for a people that have drifted away from the right path.  Yes, many parents understand such a situation, for they have lived it. 

           Here in Hosea 11, the conversation seems to be an internal one within God’s person.  There is this opening word of compassion.  “When Israel was a child, I loved him.”  The divine parent speaks of teaching Ephraim to walk and picking up the beloved child and providing healing.  “I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them.”  What expressions of love, expressions parents can identify with. 

Yet, there is another side to this conversation – the dark side of the conversation.  Parents understand this experience as well.  When a child spurns the parent’s love and affection and provision time and again, frustration can build.  You may want to dispatch the child to another realm!   God has reached out with love and compassion, and yet Israel has chosen to go astray, spurning God’s compassion.  
            Does it surprise you to find the voice changing?  Does it trouble you that the patient lover shows some impatience with the disobedient child?   God contemplates letting them fall to the Egyptians and the Assyrians.  That will teach them!  Since the people of God are bent on turning away from God, God isn’t going to lift them up in their time of trial.  You made your bed, now lie in it.  It’s a rather discomforting word, but isn’t it understandable?   

Nonetheless, according to Hosea, this frustration is short-lived.  God seems unwilling to give up on Israel.  God’s compassion “grows warm and tender.”  There’s the promise that God will not act in the heat of anger.  There is the hope of return from exile.   The parent who has struggled with raising a child who tests the limits may understand this passage better than the one whose child has rarely pushed the boundaries.  There are parents who take pride in the fact their children never score below an A- or disobey an order.  Most of us, however, have been and maybe have dealt with children who are less perfect.  There is a wrestling of the spirit as to what to do.  Do I cast the child off or keep the child close?  Hosea leads us to believe that God will withdraw the judgment, though history tells us that Israel suffered destruction anyway.  We need to acknowledge the dark side of God, the wrath of God, but also recognize that God is compassionate. 

            The Colossian reading also has words of hope and judgment.  There are pieces of this passage that not everyone will be comfortable with.  There is a word of hope – a word of unity among all peoples.  Christ is – all things to all people, and as we heard at the Disciples General Assembly (if you were there), “all means all.”  But, there is also a word spoken about judgment.  In reading up on the passage I was reminded that the emphasis here on the spiritual life could lead us in a Gnostic direction that dismisses the physical life.  The wrath of God is poured out on the disobedient.  That is, I believe, God is concerned about those who walk in disobedience.  Parents understand this reality.  When a child continually acts out, flouting the parents’ wisdom, then ultimately they will suffer the consequences. 

            There is this word of judgment present in the passage, and it needs to be heeded.  I know that many in our land would like Christianity and religion in general to take a live and let live attitude.  Don’t judge lest ye be judged!  But is there no room for judgment?  As I read the texts of scripture, it’s clear to me that not all behavior is the same.  To be part of the new creation, one will demonstrate a transformed life.  To put it a different way – the way of Christ is an ordered life -- ordered not by rules and regulations, but by the love of God. 

            In the Gospel reading we’re confronted with the question of possessions.  Scripturally, it is said that the love of money is the root of evil!  Greed or better covetousness is the foundation of all manner of evil.  For if you desire what belongs to another, you may find yourself engaging in behaviors that are destructive.  The question is often asked – how much is enough?  Human behavior suggests that we never will have enough.  It’s not just the rich that seek more riches, to be honest, we all want more than we have now.  A person comes to Jesus and asks him to be the arbiter of dispute with the person’s brother over the inheritance.  Tell my brother to give me my portion.  Why would he come to Jesus – especially since Jesus seems to have had no predisposition to the pursuit of wealth?  In any case, Jesus turns down the request to decide the dispute, but instead cautions the person and the crowd – beware of greed.  Unlike the character of Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street, Jesus isn’t a fan of the idea that “Greed is good.”  Rather than pursuing possessions, one should have a different sense of reality.  The parable that Jesus shares, reminds us that we can’t take it with us.  We can’t hoard, expecting to live forever.  You can build bigger barns, but at some point your time is up – so what defines your life?  It’s not that being rich by itself is evil.  Bill and Melinda Gates are quite wealthy, and yet they have devoted attention to the needs of others.  At the root of the issue here is one of trust.  Grace Ji-Sun Kim writes: 
"The rich man thinks he can control his own life.  This is the foolishness of rich people who do not trust God.  Jesus taught that the only source of true security was a relationship with God – the loving Creator who feeds even the sparrows and clothes the fields” [Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year Cp. 340]. 
No one in recent memory has better exemplified the attitudes prescribed here than the newly consecrated Pope Francis.  Here he is, head of the largest and wealthiest religious institution in the world.  And yet, he has put aside much of the traditional trappings of his office.  He has not made himself lord of the manner, but servant of servants.  He has called the church to move outside the buildings and serve the world, especially the poor.  He speaks to the Roman Catholic Church, but many of us outside that realm are listening and pondering his challenge to us. 

            When will you do the right thing?  God calls on us to live well-ordered lives, lives that are just and loving, lives that are committed and connected.  Yes, our fiscal lives are to be well ordered, but so also should our sexual lives are to be ordered for the good of God’s realm.  To go back to the images in Hosea, images that are challenging and even problematic, like a parent, God promises to love steadfastly.   

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Legacy of the Protestant Mainline Reconsidered -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

As Martin Marty packs up his bags to go to the "beach," he offers us ideas for reading.  It's not typical beach fare, but it will be of interest to those of us interested in the present and future of the church in which many of us serve . . .  The readings focus on the whole question of Protestant liberalism and the decline of the mainline.  Why, the question is asked, should we be surprised by the decline.  History shows that empires rise and fall, or at least decline.  Those groups regnant today will likely find their own day of decline.  And some empires even regain their footing!  Take a read -- it will be the last opportunity to read Martin Marty until September.


Legacy of the Protestant Mainline Reconsidered
by Martin E. Marty
Monday | July 29 2013
NOTE: Sightings will be on hiatus during the month of August and will return September 2, 2013.
During Sightings’ annual “August Hiatus,” I (figuratively) load up my beach bag with books and other reading materials. I provide some suggestions at the end of this column should you be doing the same. My recommendations are tied to last week’sSightings (July 22, 2013) in response to readers who are interested in more talk about the Protestant “Mainline” and “Decline.” For readers who want to come up to speed on the main issues, I recommend having a look at Jennifer Schuessler's July 24, 2013, New York Times article: “A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered.” I also covered one aspect of these issues in a recent Christian Centuryblog-post, which inspired last week’s Sightings.

The topic is well framed in books by David Hollinger and Elesha Coffman (see this column’s Reference section). Hollinger, whose writings are collected in After Cloven Tongues of Fire, has impressed me for years because of the assignment he gave himself and keeps addressing. “Cloven Tongues of Fire,” he reminds us, refers to the biblical story (Acts 2:1-11) of such tongues, and such fire, on the heads of the disciples of Jesus who gathered on Pentecost. In this story, seventeen languages are spoken and understood. They represent: a) diversity, and b) fire, as in “being fired up.” Hollinger uses this “myth” to describe the universalizing and motivating power of earlier American Protestantism. But he has been writing mainly about the issue he signaled with the first word of his collected writings' title: After. . . 

The work of many historians, sociologists, theologians, and religious leaders since World War II has been devoted to analyzing what happened “after” the height of the Protestant establishment, later known as “the Mainline.” All thoughtful historians who reach further back than a few years write about the decline of some dimension of human life that once had been established or mainline.

It puzzles historians to see any particular version of the mainline-then-decline pattern treated as a novelty. I used to ask students, when this subject came up: name an empire, an establishment, a mainline, that lasted. Zero. Egypt, Babylon, Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, the European established churches, etc. etc. Their legacies include times of revival, renewal, reinvigoration, and often instances of decline. So what’s new?

What about the United States? Nine of thirteen colonies had “established churches” and a “mainline” religion at the birth of the nation. These did not disappear without a trace, though their statistics show shrinking (some want to exempt currently prospering versions of Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, but their historians and other scholars know better). What happened to New England Puritanism, the Awakenings, the Social Gospel, regnant Fundamentalism, the Revival of Popular Civic Religion in the Eisenhower era? Schuessler's New York Times article points to a remarkable legacy!

Let Hollinger spell out the details of this legacy. In effect he says to mainline mopers: “What are you griping about? You won!” He describes enduring achievements—invented, inspired, or significantly promoted by the Protestant establishment or Mainline—including much of the ethos of the United Nations, racial justice, and social programs that “saved” America after the 1930s and have some impact still. They were all opposed, and many still are, but they came to exist or thrive, thanks in no small measure to the “declined” movements that we observe adapting today.

Historian Hollinger is not a bit interested in writing promotional literature for American religious groups, but he is concerned about telling a more full story than we often get. He does not spend much energy on what the surviving bearers should do, or can do, without strong institutions and programs. But this work is for others to tackle, if they are not lost in moping or whining. Dealing with After is everyone's agenda.


Schuessler, Jennifer. “A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered.” The New York Times, July 23, 2013.

Marty, Martin. “Rough treatment.” The Christian Century (blog), July 17, 2013.

Coffman, Elesha. The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Buchanan, John. “Editor’s Desk.” The Christian Century, July 22, 2013. (Note: this article is only available to subscribers. To read Rev. Buchanan’s full editorial, please beg, borrow, or subscribe!).

Hollinger, David. After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Hartman, Andrew. “Hollinger on the Protestant Dialectic.” S-USIH: Society for U.S. Intellectual History, Aug. 2, 2011.

Dochuk, Darren. “Searching out the Sacred in U.S. Political History.” American Historical Association, May, 2011.

Schmidt, Leigh, and Sally Promey, eds. American Religious Liberalism. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012.

Hedstrom, Matthew. “A History of the Unaffiliated: How the ‘Spiritual Not Religious’ Gospel Has Spread.” Religion Dispatches, Oct. 24, 2012.

Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  



Monday, July 29, 2013

Created and Led by the Spirit (Mary Sue Dehmlow Dreier) -- Review

CREATED AND LED BY THE SPIRITt: Planting Missional Congregations (Missional Church).  Edited by Mary Sue Dehmlow Dreier.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.  Xiii + 209 pages.

                In this day and age, it is important to describe one’s church as being missional.  Confession – my church seeks to be missional also.  It’s too early to know if the word missional is so widely used that it’s descriptive usefulness is questionable, but whenever one reads a book on being missional, it’s probably a good idea to stop and take stock to discern whether this is really a missional book or not.  Created and Led by the Spirit is missional in orientation, but it places its focus on the task of planting missional congregations.  Thus, it’s not a book about becoming missional, it’s about being intentional in the course of planting churches that these congregations see themselves as being missional from the start.

                Created and Led by the Spirit is the most recent volume in a series of books published by the Missional Church Consultation.  The essays were part of a 2009 consultation on missional church planting, and seeks to build upon the previous consultations.  Most of the participants have a connection to Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN.   Most are published for the first time here – the exception being an excerpt from Miroslav Volf’s book A Public Faith that focuses on human flourishing and fits into the opening section of the book.   Because of the Luther Seminary connection there is a strong Lutheran component, though not all the participants are Lutheran.

Section One focuses on theological frameworks, emphasizing the work of the Spirit in a Trinitarian context.  Section two moves into the practical, with two chapters that explore congregations that have entered into the church planting arena, with a missional focus.  Finally, the third section focuses on “new appearances.”    In this section we have chapters that look at the “emerging church” idea, multi-cultural church planting, and finally a chapter looking at “postbureaucratic churches.”  This final chapter looks at new forms of organization and leadership that are emerging within congregations, especially those that are new.  Throughout the book there is interaction between theology and practice.  Each informs the other. 

As is true with any collection of essays, readers will find some more compelling than others, depending on their interests and inclinations.  For me on the key elements was the emphasis on the work of the Spirit, but then I have long had an interest in pneumatology and the relationship of the Spirit to the church (see my book Unfettered Spirit).  The other theological component was the Trinitarian emphasis.  Being part of a faith community that doesn’t emphasize the Trinity, but being Trinitarian in orientation, it was useful to see how the idea of Trinity, especially the social Trinity of Jürgen Moltmann, fit into the picture.  The idea that the sending out of the church into the world is related to the sending out of Jesus and the Spirit is crucial.  God is outward looking, and so should the church.

In the sermon by Paul Chung, a professor at Luther Seminary, that forms the epilogue of the book, Chung declares that “we cannot live in intimate communion with Jesus without being sent to our brothers and sisters in the world” (p. 209).  The question is – what form should this take?

Like any collection of essays there is unevenness.  Readers may prefer one essay to another, depending on their interests.  At times, they could find themselves bogged down in the weeds of a particular context that doesn’t their own.  Whatever the drawbacks, there is a strong message here that the church that is missional will plant churches that are also missional.  They may be emergent or multicultural or both.  They can occur among Lutherans and Pentecostals (both of whom are represented here).  The point is – that newly planted churches should have a missional orientation, one that is empowered and led by the Holy Spirit.  If you’re interested in church planting – either as venture of your own or because believe the church should reproducing itself – then you should read the book.  

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ask, Seek, Knock -- Sermon for Pentecost 10C

Luke 11:1-13

The theme for this year’s General Assembly emerged from this very passage of Scripture – “Lord, Teach Us to Pray.”  It was a good theme for us to take up as we entered once again into important but often difficult conversations.  It is always good to bathe our conversations in prayer.  After all, we come together as followers of Jesus who seek to be in relationship with the living God.  Sometimes we forget that this is true.  Our prayers become perfunctory rituals.  We offer a quick word to God, assuming God is paying attention, and then we get on with business, often forgetting that we’ve invited God into the conversation.    

The Disciples come to Jesus and they ask him to provide them with a distinctive way of praying – just like John did for his disciples.  And Jesus complies.  The result is a prayer that in one form or another we’ve been offering up to God for two millennia.  

Luke’s version is a briefer than the one in Matthew, which is closer to what we pray today.  But the basics are there, even if the words change here or there.  What do you see in this prayer?  If we’re to look to it as a model for our own prayers, what’s the take away?  

Do you find that this prayer, as a model for our own prayers, both public and private, is both simple and honest?  As Wilma Bailey of Christian Theological Seminary puts it: “In this text Jesus wants the disciples to understand that simple prayers are as efficacious as long complex ones” [Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year Cp. 333].

I think this is a good observation.  I know that many Christians, including some of you, are afraid to pray in public because they don’t feel like they measure up.  Maybe you’re feeling intimidated by prayers that seem eloquent and pious.  The good news, as I hear it in this passage, is that all God wants to hear is the confession of our hearts.  Simplicity and honesty, not eloquence or the pretense of piety, is what matters.

Yes, it’s okay if your prayers are simple and even halting.  Paul writes to the Romans and tells them that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26 NRSV).  The Spirit of God knows our hearts and interprets them to God.  That is indeed good news!

Not only does Jesus invite us to offer up prayers that speak from the heart, but he also invites us to be persistent in our prayers. 

As I read this passage, the character of Sheldon Cooper, from The Big Bang Theory, came to mind.  If you’ve seen this sitcom, you know that Sheldon has a rather distinctive way of knocking on doors.  Let’s say he wants to talk with Penny, who lives across the hall from the apartment he shares with his colleague and friend Leonard Hofstadter.  When Sheldon knocks on the door he’ll knock, say “Penny,” and then repeat this until Penny comes to the door.  It doesn’t matter if it’s mid afternoon, or the middle of the night, when Sheldon wants to talk he knocks on the door until it’s opened.  And you’d better respond, because he won’t go away until you do!  They call this persistence! 

That’s the kind of persistence I perceive in the first parable.  Like Penny or Leonard, Howard or Raj, this neighbor gets up and provides the requested loaves of bread, not out of love of neighbor, but so he can go back to bed.  So, if this is true of your neighbor, who gives in to your knocking, because of your persistence, what will God do when we come in prayer?

Jesus’ word to us is simple – ask, seek, knock!  Ask and you’ll receive.  Seek and you’ll find.  Knock, and the door will open.  These words appear as present tense verbs, which speaks of an ongoing action.  So, it’s asking, seeking, and knocking.  Persistence, it seems, leads to action.

Now, there’s a problem with this passage that needs to be acknowledged.  As you know, not all prayers are answered in ways we might like or desire.  I’ve spent time in groups that teach that if you have enough faith, then God is obligated to do what you ask.  Experience has shown me that it doesn’t work that way.  So, maybe we need to look at this asking, seeking, knocking in a different way.  

Paul writes these words that help expand on what Jesus is saying here:
 16 Rejoice always. 17 Pray continually. 18 Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1 Thess. 5:16-18 NRSV).  
What does it mean to pray continually?  Is Paul suggesting that we should continually mouth prayers to God?  Or, is Paul thinking about our attitudes and demeanor.  Does the way we speak and act represent an attitude of recognition that God is present in every moment of every day?  That’s a rather scary idea, don’t you think?   

When we gathered in Orlando, we had some difficult conversations to take up.  They were difficult because for some they were being asked to take on a vision they weren’t entirely comfortable with.  They were also difficult because some in the room were impatient, ready to move on, get busy, end the discussion.  That’s why when the time came to have this difficult discussion and vote about sexual orientation and the church, Sharon Watkins came out and prayed for us. And the question is – did the way in which we conducted ourselves give evidence that we are or were a people of prayer, a people committed to being in relationship with the living God.  Was it a perfunctory act, or was it one of faith?  

The second parable raises the question of whether a father would give his child a snake if the child asked for a fish?  Or, would a father give his child a scorpion instead of an egg?   Yes, we know the horror stories – there are parents who would give their children snakes instead of fish and scorpions instead of eggs, but I don’t think we’d call them model parents!  No, when Jesus talks here about the parent-child relationship, he’s assuming that a parent will be concerned about the welfare of their child.  Yes, if we who are “evil” – how do you like that description? – know how to give good gifts, then surely God is faithful to do the right thing!   

Getting back to prayer, the point of the conversation isn’t getting things, but rather pursuing a relationship with God.  Even if we can’t see God – or at most see God’s backside, as Moses did in the Wilderness of Sinai, God allowed Moses to see his goodness, but not his glory (Ex. 33:17ff) – there are ways of discerning God’s presence and voice.   

That’s important because relationships require conversation.  My relationship with Cheryl would suffer if we didn’t talk with each other.  It’s not the length of the conversations.  It’s not always even the substance of the conversations that matters.  What matters is that the conversation is taking place.  Relationships begin to falter when we stop talking.  Well, the same is true of our relationship with God.

And so we come to Jesus, and we ask him – “Lord, teach us to pray.”  That is – help us be both simple and persistent in our conversations with God.  May this be true when we talk publicly or privately.  

And the Lord says to us – Ask, seek, knock.  Because if you do this, you will find me. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 10C
July 28, 2013 


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Why Are Millennials (and others) Leaving the Church? Thoughts on a Rachel Held Evans Post

Demographic studies tell us that Millennials (our current group of young adults) are leaving the church in droves.  Those of us serving in leadership at smaller mainline churches already know this to be true. In fact, for many of our churches it's not the Millennials who are missing, it's the GenXers who seem most absent (at least this is true in my congregation).   

So, depending on who you listen to or read, the reasons given vary, but the fact is -- fewer young adults are attending church than in previous generations (I should not here that when we look at trends it's quite likely that the 1950s was an anomaly).  Whether in church or not, many still seek to be spiritually-oriented and even see themselves aligned with specific religious categories -- but as for the church as a body -- not so much.

It's not a new conversation, but a posting today at the CNN Belief blog Rachel Held Evans sought to answer the question:  Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.  She has a clip of the longer article on her blog --, where you will find a rather lengthy set of comments (including a few of my own).  This posting is being shared fairly widely on Facebook, garnering a lot of comment and not a little angst.  

In my initial response to Rachel's article, I noted that the reasons given for why Millennials are leaving the church largely have to do with the evangelical church -- where the most young adults happen to be hanging out!  The reasons given for leaving the church have to do with sex (especially anti-gay attitudes), the anti-intellectualism that accompanies the faith/science debate (can you be a Christian and believe in evolution? -- by the way, I say yes in my latest book Worshiping with Charles Darwin).  Then there's the politics issue.  On this one should note that while the nation as a whole still seems to trend moderate to conservative, most Millennials are trending the other direction.  Millennials are also telling survey takers that they're not all that attracted to edgier worship -- read contemporary -- and are even attracted to more high church options (Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal).  They apparently see this as more authentic (though growing up Episcopalian I'm not sure this is true).  

In my response I noted that you'll find much of what Millennials seem to like in Mainline Protestant churches -- sort of like mine -- but they don't seem to be stopping by.  In Rachel's response, she noted something that I've known for some time:  These days, when people leave conservative leaning churches they don't try out the more moderate/liberal versions.  They just leave and have no interest in trying out the other options.  Whether they'll come back later is unknown.

One of the the critiques of moderate/liberal churches is that while we may not welcome LGBT folks, believe in evolution, and pursue social justice, we're not nearly as good at connecting these commitments to our faith commitments.  In other words, we don't seem all that different from other non-profits.  So, they seem to wonder why they should bother.

For churches like mine, going "high church" isn't likely in the cards -- we're not a high church tradition.  At the same time, we're not going total contemporary, which I sense is like chasing squirrels.   Now, I should note that we do have young adults at Central Woodward Christian Church.  Most were raised in the church. We have attracted a few others who weren't raised in the church -- but they have connections to long term members.  I'd love more.  And as for whether they have a say in the life of the church, we have made a concerted effort to bring young adults into leadership.  Not just committee members but leaders.  One of our most active 20 somethings was elected as Vice President of the Congregation and as an Elder (he's a youngish Elder, but he's still charged with spiritual leadership).  Is everyone totally comfortable with younger leaders?  Maybe not -- but as pastor of the church I am committed to making sure that the opportunities are there for those ready to answer the call.    

So, what is the take away?  I think it is this -- we need to connect what we're doing with Jesus.  There has to be some theology not just sociology in the conversation!  

Here's another thought.  While many are leaving.  Maybe we should also ask:  Why are many staying?

In the end, I would simply like to invite Millennials who are disenchanted by narrow theology and politics, but who aren't enthralled by techno-worship -- to come gather with churches like mine.  Join us in building a new future.  Yeah, a majority have gray hair.  I have gray hair.  But we're not dead yet.  And many of our older people welcome the presence and leadership of younger generations.  So, come along and join us!!

Liberty to the Captives (Ramond Rivera) -- Review

LIBERTY TO THE CAPTIVES: Our Call to Minister in a Captive World.  By Raymond Rivera.  Foreword by Jim Wallis.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.  Xii + 160.

            It is a truism that conservative theology goes with conservative politics.  That may be true in middle class suburban communities and congregations like the one that I inhabited during my late teens and early 20s, but it’s not necessarily true in Hispanic or African American communities.  In these communities a strong commitment to social justice is often combined with evangelical theological commitments.  Experiences of oppression, discrimination, racism, and economic marginalization can eventuate in a theology of liberation that calls not just for charity but for systemic restructuring of society.    

In Liberty to the Captives Raymond Rivera, a Pentecostal pastor and social activist, offers a vision of the church engaged in prophetic social engagement.  The theology is, as one might expect from a Pentecostal preacher, is quite traditional evangelicalism.  For those like me who live in a more liberal (post-liberal really) theological environment Rivera took me too close to old theological haunts than perhaps I was comfortable with, but at the same time he makes it clear that the God of his Bible is committed to justice for all (well, except for LBGT folks).  He’s not supportive of marriage equality or abortion, but that doesn’t keep him from allying with those who do.  His politics is near leftist but he seeks to keep non-aligned with political parties. 

This is a book for Christians, especially evangelical ones, who sense that God desires to bring hope and redemption to their communities.  He challenges Christians reticent to step outside their comfort zone to recognize that God is already out there ahead of them working for justice, liberating the captives, and inviting us to join in the work of God ministering to and with a world crying out for the freedom only God can bring.

Though a longtime pastor, Rivera also offers a testimony of a life completely turned around – moving from gang member to Pentecostal preacher and then to a Reformed Church of America pastor.  Throughout the book, Rivera weaves his own story with the biblical story to offer a compelling call to service.  Based on over forty-five years of serving as pastor of inner-city churches, Rivera's inspiring vision challenges all Christians to think again about how their faith should lead to social action and defense of society's most vulnerable people.

The book is full of practical advice about how holistic community-based ministry can bring transformation, healing, and liberation from captivity.  In Liberty to the Captives Rivera encourages Christians to respond to God's call by ministering wherever God has placed them.  I believe this book will be of use to two specific groups.  First, conservative Christians who believe that God isn’t in the social justice business (remember Glen Beck) need to read this.  Rivera makes it clear that God stands on the side of the poor and the marginalized, not corporate interests.  I think that liberal/progressive Christians can find value here as well.  Too often those pursuing social justice ministries conclude that those with conservative theologies aren’t possible allies.  Reading this will disabuse them of this myth.

I will admit that at times I found Rivera a bit too self-referential.  His lists of accomplishments make it almost seem as if he had superhuman strength and endurance.  That being said, it is a compelling read.   

Friday, July 26, 2013

Finding God in a Song -- Sightings (Mary Channen Caldwell)

What is the relationship of musical genre to faith expressions?  Back in the day, during my teen years, as I became more engaged with evangelical/Pentecostal Christianity, I exchanged my old Moody Blues records for Love Song and Andrae Crouch.  The lyrics changed, but for the most part the music wasn't all that different.  The early Jesus Movement bands were composed of rock and rollers who had converted, and as Larry Norman asked:  "Why Should the Devil have all the Good Music?"  In this piece Mary Channen Caldwell explores the question of genre and faith in relation to two musicians, one Jewish and one Christian who shared in a duet on a hymn.  I invite you to read and consider the question -- what is sacred music anyway?


Finding God in a Song: Religion, Klezmer, and Country
by Mary Channen Caldwell
Thursday |  July 25 2013
In a 2012, New York Times music-album review, “On Religion: A Search for God Through Bluegrass and Klezmer,” klezmer musician Andy Statman discusses a Christian hymn that appears on his album Old Brooklyn: “It’s about belief in God, a direct experience of God…It’s a song any monotheist can get behind.’”

On his album, Statman, who found his way to Orthodox Judaism as an adult, performs the hymn with country/bluegrass singer and evangelical Christian, Ricky Skaggs. In another review of the album, music critic Ari Davidow writes: “[t]his CD captures Statman the davenner, the musician who prays with his music, who wraps up the joy of creation and shares it with his listening audience. His duet with Ricky Skaggs, “The Lord will Provide,” as his clarinet davens in duet with Skaggs voice is a perfect example.”

How curious that both Samuel Freedman, the author of the NYT article, and Davidow comment on the spiritual identity of Statman by focusing on a song that resists easy categorization as Christian/Jewish, sacred/secular, liturgical/popular.

Statman publically defines himself and his music as an expression of his faith while Skaggs has said that “my music is for the glory of God.” The tie-in between their music and spirituality raises the question of how “secular” genres like klezmer and country become religious. Do they do so as a result of the artist’s intent, rather than through ritual function? In other words, how do secular genres become capable of expressing faith? Or, more to the point, can secular, musical genres become acceptable or even orthodox expressions of faith even when neither typically appears in religious rites? What makes song sacred?

Historically, country music has close ties to the Protestant, Christian tradition, ties so pervasive that contemporary country artists like Kareem Salama and Ray Benson are notable due to their “divergent” faiths (Islam and Judaism, respectively).

With few exceptions, the lyrics of country music largely revolve around Protestant, Christian belief systems, epitomized in the songs of Ricky Skaggs, as well as those of mainstream artists. In the history of country music, religion and church music played a formative role, and some artists continue to simultaneously produce mainstream and religious albums (the 1958 Hymns by Johnny Cash is a well-known example of the latter). The continued infiltration of religious themes into country music follows this historical trajectory, with the genre emerging from, and continually influenced by, the music of Christian rituals.
By contrast, klezmer music has a tenuous relationship to religious practice, originating as secular folk music of Eastern-European Ashkenazic Jews and performed at weddings and other life cycle events. If anything, klezmer music has been denigrated by Orthodox Jewish groups, and the activities of klezmer musicians (Jewish and not) have often been limited by religious and civic authorities.

Following a lengthy European history, klezmer arrived in the United States in the late 1800s and flourished as Jewish and Eastern European populations grew. Interest in Jewish musical and cultural heritage continued to increase, especially in the 1970s, under the influence of Statman and others.

Though klezmer and its musicians are linked to Jewishness, and the genre points to Jewish identity worldwide, traditionally and now, klezmer is considered secular music and plays no role in religious rites. Elements may derive from Jewish musical practices but klezmer remains resolutely secular and neither its performers nor its audience members are necessarily Jewish, either historically or after the 1970s revival.

Reflecting on Statman and Skaggs’s duet on Old Brooklyn in light of the history of their respective genres in Protestant Christianity and Judaism offers a richer perspective on the way these two artists integrated their faith traditions in one song. Neither musician performs their songs within religious contexts but both turn to popular music as an outlet for devotional impulses.

Since Statman recorded his duet with Skaggs, however, he has moved away from the klezmer music he helped popularize. Statman explains (in an article by Michael Orbach) that klezmer “became very much an expression of Judaism for me, and once I began observing the mitzvot I didn’t feel the need to play the music anymore.” Leaving klezmer behind, as Statman did when he became more religiously orthodox, parallels a similar path taken by several country musicians for whom “pop country” dimmed in appeal as they pursued increasingly devout musical expression.

But why, if the songs of Skaggs and Statman are capable of connecting them to the divine, is there a push away from this music in the interest of becoming more religiously observant? Perhaps “finding God in a song” becomes more difficult, if not impossible, when orthodox practices begin to clash with and replace an individual’s own musico-spiritual pursuits.

Davidow, Ari. “Andy Statman / Old Brooklyn.” Klezmershack.comFebruary 17, 2012. Accessed May 21, 2013.

Freedman, Samuel G. “On Religion: A Search for God Through Bluegrass and Klezmer.” The New York Times, November 30, 2012. andy-statmans-search-for-god-in-music.html?_r=0.

Grimshaw, Michael. “‘Redneck Religion and Shitkickin' Saviours?’: Gram Parsons, Theology and Country Music.” Popular Music 21, no. 1 (2002): 93-105.

Malone, Bill C. “The Gospel Truth: Christianity and Country Music.” The Encyclopedia of Country MusicThe Ultimate Guide to the Music. Compiled by the staff of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Edited by Paul Kingsbury, Laura Garrard, Daniel Cooper, and John Rumble, 218-221. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Orbach, Michael. "Andy Statman: Klezmer Is Finished By: Michael Orbach." June 26, 20120. Accessed May 23, 2013.

Slobin, Mark, ed. American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Author, Mary Channen Caldwell, completed her PhD in Music History and Theory at the University of Chicago in June 2013 on sacred Latin songs in premodern Europe. She also harbors an ongoing curiosity in elements of the sacred in current popular music. She will be the visiting assistant professor of music history at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts in fall 2013.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

When We Fall, God Raises Us -- Alternative Lectionary Proper 13 (David Ackerman)

With his book and website -- Beyond the Lectionary -- David Ackerman provides preachers or students of scripture an alternative lectionary, with focus on texts that often get neglected. We all know the story of Samson and Delilah. We learned it in Sunday School, but do we preach it. Then there's the story of Eutyches, who falls out a window due to Paul's long winded sermon, and in the Gospel of John there's conversation about eternal life. I invite you to consider these texts and David's guidance into them.


Proper 13

August 4, 2013
“When We Fall, God Raises Us”
Call to Worship:  Psalm 119:17-24 NRSV
One:  Deal bountifully with your servant, so that I may live and observe your word.
Many:  Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.
One:  I live as an alien in the land; do not hide your commandments from me.
Many:  My soul is consumed with longing for your ordinances at all times.
One:  You rebuke the insolent, accursed ones, who wander from your commandments.
Many:  Take away from me their scorn and contempt, for I have kept your decrees.
One:  Even though princes sit plotting against me, your servant will meditate on your statutes.
Many:  Your decrees are my delight, they are my counselors.
Gathering Prayer:  Spirit of life, you have blessed us with so many gifts.  You have raised us up and empowered us to be your disciples in this world.  As we come together this day, may we trust in the good news of your resurrection and be blessings to this world in your name.  Amen.
Confession:  So many times, God, we confess that we fall.  We give in to temptation, our courage lapses, our strength is broken, and we disappoint ourselves, others and you.  Have mercy on us.  Forgive us and change us so that we might follow you anew in faithfulness and love.  Amen.
Assurance:  God lifts us up and gives us the promise of eternal life this day.  Because of this, we can live with boldness, knowing that God will raise us up when life knocks us down.  Amen.
Scriptures:  Judges 16:1-5, 16-31 – “Samson and Delilah”
Acts 20:7-12 – “The Fall of Eutychus”
John 6:37-40 – “Raise It Up on the Last Day”
Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.
Reflection Questions:
In today’s story in Judges 16, how does Samson fall?  Delilah?  The Philistines?  What do you make of the violence in the passage?  Do you see anything redeeming in this story?
The story of Eutychus might be a cautionary tale for preachers who go on a little too long!  Is this a story of resurrection?  What would you have thought if you had witnessed such a thing?
Jesus speaks of the raising of believers to eternal life in John 6.  What do you think he means by “eternal life?”  When is the “last day?”
Have you ever fallen in life?  Has God raised you up?  What was that like for you?
Prayer of Thanksgiving:  For all those times that we have fallen and you were there to lift us up, we give you thanks, God Most High.  We praise you with all of our hearts for all the good that you have done for us.  Thank you, gracious God.  Amen.
Benediction:  We go now as a people of resurrection and new life.  We go to share good news of a God who raises us from the dust of death.  Let us move on then to joyfully lift up this message with our lives.  Amen.

Marriage Equality, by Steve Kindle -- Review

MARRIAGE EQUALITY:   Why Same-sex marriage is good for the church and the nation.  By Steven F. Kindle., 2013.  178 pages (Kindle version available).

When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June on a 5-4 vote it confirmed what growing numbers of Americans had already begun to believe – the definition of to whom one can be married has begun to change.  In recent years, slowly but surely the states have begun to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  The vast majority of states continue to ban such marriages, but as for the Federal Government, at least in states where marriage rights have already been granted, the Federal Government shall henceforth affirm them as legal marriages.

The trend may be moving toward both openness and affirmation, but there remains a strong though diminishing opposition.  Most opponents argue from a religious perspective – arguing that the Bible forbids it.  They may also turn to “nature,” but nature is proving to be a dubious ally.  And then there’s precedent.  We’ve just not done it that way.  Despite the push back by a small majority, support for same-sex marriage has continued to win the day.  While most of the resistance to extending marriage rights/rites to gays and lesbians comes from the religious community, not all religious communities share the same views.  My own denomination took the tentative step of extending welcome and grace to all persons, no matter their sexual orientation.  This resolution didn’t legislate marriage equality, but it recognized by a sizable margin that the denomination is moving toward not just openness but affirmation as well.

In Marriage Equality, Disciples of Christ pastor and advocate for the full inclusion of LGBT persons, Rev. Steven Kindle, gives the reader a straightforward, no-holds barred, defense of marriage equality.  Steve is Straight, but he has heard the call to advocacy.  The book is rooted in the seminar he has led for quite a number of years – a seminar that inspired the wonderful film For The Bible Tells Me So.  Steve hasn’t always been an advocate, but over time he came to believe that the church should be open to and affirm all of God’s children, including those who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender.  The results of many years of diligent study is made available in this book, which was released at the time of the Supreme Court Ruling.

In the course of this relatively brief book, Steve introduces the reader to what it means to be gay, helps us understand the nature of the closet many Christians are happy to push their LGBT neighbors back into, discusses the nature of marriage, and shares his insights into the biblical texts that are used in denying LGBT folks a place in church and society.  He has a chapter in the book that outlines the various options the Supreme Court could take – one may now look back and see if Steve has rightly defined the issues.  He also offers a word to pastors as to how they might take a stand in this cause and lead closed churches into being open and affirming ones.  As he deals with issue after issue, he reminds us that our LGBT neighbors are human beings, just like those of us who are straight – the only difference is the person to whom one is attracted.  He reminds us that this really isn’t about sex or even pleasure – it’s about relationship – intimacy.  In making his case he looks at the Bible and Theology.  He looks at church practice.  He also looks at the scientific and psychological evidence.  In the end he is able to examine and address many of the myths and even lies that have entered into the conversation.  The reader ends up with a much more complete picture of the situation, and as a result is enabled to take another step toward fully embracing LGBT neighbors as fellow Christians.

The book can be hard-hitting at times.  It can even be graphic when Steve feels that is necessary.  He’s not afraid to step on toes, largely because he believes this is a topic needing to be addressed for the good of the individuals involved, but also the church.

The book’s usefulness is enhanced by the presence of  discussion questions after each chapter for groups.  Faith communities looking to move toward affirmation will find this a most useful book.  Because the book humanizes and personalizes the story of our LGBT neighbors, readers are better able to stand with those seeking full equality.  So, If you are giving this question serious thought –  and I hope you are – you’ll want straightforward and reliable information.  Steve’s book provides this.   I believe that if you take seriously the arguments in this book you will become better acquainted with your LGBT neighbors.  You will likely find that your attitudes are changing.  You may even find any opposition you’ve had begin to dissipate.  Like Steve and like me, you may also become an advocate for the rull rights of our LGBT neighbors.

I would suggest that one read Steve’s book together with Jeff Chu’s Does Jesus really Love Me?  Jeff provides the narrative, while Steve provides the foundations for the work toward inclusion. Hopefully, in the end you will cease to wonder if Jesus loves his LGBT brothers and sisters.  If Jesus loves them, then surly the same is true of the rest of us. Indeed, one may even discover that the Bible isn’t as clear-cut as some had originally believed.