Monday, September 30, 2013

Billy Graham Taught Christians New Ways of Being in the World -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

In her recently published book on The Christian Century, Elesha Coffman noted how Martin Marty was involved in Century efforts to counter Billy Graham's growing influence in the 1950s.  A lot of water has gone under the bridge, and both Marty and Graham are considered senior statesmen of the Christian faith in America.  Graham is older and feebler, but both continue to have influence.  In this posting Marty reports on what he heard at a recent conference at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.  He concludes that Graham may have had and continues to have a salutary influence.  Although he doesn't address how he felt in the 1950s, here we find a word of appreciation.   Take a read and offer your thoughts.    

Billy Graham Taught Christians New Ways of Being in the World
by Martin E. Marty
Monday | Sept 30 2013
 White House photo office / Wikimedia Commons
Billy Graham was feted in a conference at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois, September 26-28, 2013. The Institute for the Study of Evangelicals planned and hosted the event, which featured a dozen substantial in-process chapters from a forthcoming book. The 95-year old now-weakened evangelist is in retreat at Montreat, his North Carolina home.

Instead of following my usual Sightings approach, which depends on the press and the internet, I’ll lapse back into my old journalistic mode and report, using my own ample notes and impressions. The forthcoming book’s editors, Edith Blumhofer (of the Institute) and Grant Wacker (who is writing a major biography of Graham), and the book’s authors have more to say.

What business does Graham have in our context of “public religion?” Were not his preaching of the Gospel and acting pastorally part of a vocation usually typed as “private religion?” No: he broke barriers and holds the patent on evangelistic activities which are, to say the least, public.

Summarizing from the conference's lectures, films, books, and conversations: we heard frequently that Graham has appeared in more forums dealing with more expressions globally and nationally to reach more people than any human who ever lived. Add to that his inventive use of television, which multiplied his messages and messagees by the millions. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea—I think it’s tea that they drink at Wheaton, isn’t it?—and his political, economic, and cultural approaches did not always match mine. As if that’s important in this context!

What we conferees learned was how often and how much he changed through the years from his Southern fundamentalist beginnings and through many steps and missteps on the diplomatic and political fronts. Here are just a few jottings from my many pages of notes:

            1. In my metaphor, he’s on the Mt. Rushmore of Protestant American shapers such as Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther King. (Fill in the fourth sculpted spot with a figure of your choice.) Once a subject for journalists, now his record is for historians.

            2. Part of his power came from the single-mindedness of his vocational sense. When he wandered into formal political or theological realms he often embarrassed himself and had to backtrack and re-track. But from 1948 into our times, he was consistently an evangelist. He could speak of salvation in Jesus Christ within the contexts of a semi-secular society and was heard.

            3. He turns out to have been (to be?) a pastoral diagnostician of what ails generations and populations that do not naturally give voice to their real situations. In a glib society, he reminded people that they will die. In cultures where loneliness is lethal, he offered common life, modeling through his Christian language what, by analogy, people in other religious contexts could understand.

            4. In Emanuel Levinas’ sense, he dealt with “face,” or in Martin Buber’s language with “I-Thou,” as opposed to the mere “I-It,” and this in his busy, crowded world.

            5. He taught the people we now call “Evangelicals” about fresh ways to be at home in the world. As Christian, I read him through the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: a) he asked, “who is Jesus Christ for us today?” b) He contended that “Christ exists as community. c) For him, prophesy is “hope projected backward,” and put into action.

End of sermon. Next week I’ll no doubt have lapsed back into my at-home-in pluralism approach to religion and religions in public life. I owed this one to Billy.
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. She was a 2012-13 Marty Center Junior Fellow.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ode to the Organ

Christ Church Cathedral
The organ played poorly is of no value to worship.  I'm in agreement with that assessment, and I've been privy to some bad organ playing over the years.  But, I've also been blessed with very good organists.  My current organist being among the best around.   I appreciate that he doesn't drag the hymns, but knows how to lead the congregation in good singing from the organ (and we have a very good organ as well).

Magdelen College Chapel 
During my sojourn in England, I was treated to some very fine organ work.  You will find pipe organs in churches of all sizes, along with the chapels of most of the Oxford Colleges.  The music at Christ Church Cathedral (Oxford) and St. Paul's Cathedral (London) was led from the organ (along with men and boys choirs).   I was treated to recitals at Magdelen (pronounced Mawd-lin) College (Oxford) and Westminster Abbey (my only opportunity for entrance to the Abbey since I worshiped in the morning at St. Paul's).  

I realize that not everyone likes the organ.  For some it is an anachronism, a left over from a bygone age that needs replacing with guitar and drums.  Now, I like guitar and drums, so don't get me wrong.  I'm not a traditionalist for tradition's sake.  But is the organ out of date?  Indeed, is the hymn out of date, needing to be replaced by praise songs?  (Again, don't get me wrong, I enjoy singing praise songs).  

Magdelen College Hall
So, why the organ?  Well, some hymns just do better with the organ (and some do better with piano or even guitar).  The organ offers a sense of grandeur, of transcendence, that I think we need at times.  It is, you might even say, a counter-cultural instrument in our day. Indeed, it maybe that more traditional hymns are counter-cultural.  And, in an age of cultural conformity, isn't it worth rethinking what is counter-cultural?!

Methodist Central Hall London
Oh, and as for organ pictures -- I have a lot more! And, while I didn't get to hear all of them, and couldn't get pictures of the ones at St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey, I think you get the idea!    

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Upon the Return from Pilgrimage

The first month of my sabbatical is drawing to a close.  I have returned home from my two plus week trip to England.  For me this was more than just a trip, it was a dream fulfilled.  It's been twenty-two years since I finished my Ph.D. program at Fuller.  I didn't get to England during my school days, and I hadn't gotten there since.  But the dream was there.  While many Christians seek to go to the Holy Land and trace the footsteps of Jesus, my point of pilgrimage was England.  I finally made it there, thanks to my congregation's willingness to support my sabbatical, and a fellowship provided by the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History (Oxford Brookes University).  

In an earlier post, before going to England, I had pointed to Salisbury Cathedral as the centerpiece of my pilgrimage.  It would be there that I would experience that thin place we seek to find when on pilgrimage.  I enjoyed going to Salisbury.  It is a magnificent cathedral -- and the company (my friend Bill Gibson) was wonderful.  But I didn't experience any spiritual elation, no special connection.  Stonehenge was interesting, but I didn't experience anything powerful there either.  

The day following my trip to Salisbury, I went to worship at Christ Church Cathedral (Oxford) for the first time (I worshiped there four times in all).  It was then, in the much more intimate setting of Christ Church Cathedral, that I found my spirits lifted.  The organ, the choir, the liturgy, and the Table all drew me in.  The sermon was a fine lecture by an important theologian, but it didn't speak to me spiritually (a good reminder for my own preaching).  As I noted in earlier postings, my inner Anglican came through powerfully.  In a sense I knew I was home.  Now I'm not planning on leaving the Disciples any time soon, but spiritually I am very much at home in the Anglican tradition -- especially the Broad Church tradition represented by the Cathedral.  No incense (I didn't grow up with that).  One of the reasons I'm drawn to the Anglican tradition is that in this tradition we go to the Table, rather than sit and wait for people to pass out the trays of thimble sized cups of juice and little pellets.  It is a tradition that uses real wine rather than grape juice (sorry the early church didn't use Welch's).  

But eventually it was time to return home.  Susan Copeland writes in her chapter "Return," in her book Finding The Waymarkers: A Pilgrim's Journal for Modern Times -- 

There comes a moment on pilgrimage when the heart begins to turn toward home.  This may be set
in motion by a new quickening:  the sense that we are experiencing and learning needs to be shared with others.  Often, pilgrims feel a yearning to resume an ordinary life in which new insights into faith, hope, and love can be practiced.  We find ourselves futuring, attempting to discern how daily life can be enriched.  We stand, in fact, at the central moment of our pilgrimage, alert for the path and the waymarkers that will guide us to a more abundant life
(P. 71).    
I loved being in England, especially Oxford.  But by Monday, with just a few days left in England, my heart began to turn homeward.  It was time to, as Susan notes, time to resume my ordinary life -- with Cheryl and Brett.  It wasn't a long separation, but . . . .   And so I returned.  

Before I returned home, on my final evening in Oxford, I returned one more time to Christ Church Cathedral for Evensong.  For one last time I would worship in what had become my spiritual home.  I listend to the organ play ancient hymns, and the choir intone the Psalm, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis.  With this, I was prepared spiritually for the journey home.  And now I seek to reflect upon what I experienced, taking stock of new insights into my own sense of personhood in the presence of God.  Now, the sabbatical is only just one month along, with two more to go, but I have been well served by this first leg of the journey!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Being Catholic -- Some Thoughts

Salisbury Cathedral

When we use the word Catholic we think of it in denominational terms.  Even if the Roman Catholic Church eschews the idea that they are a denomination, they are in fact one -- whether they like it or not.  They are but one branch of the Christian community.  

The word "catholic" speaks of universality.  Thus, it is proper to speak of the Roman Catholic Church.  The word Roman modifies the word Catholic.  In my time in England I spent time working in the Bodleian Library, reading through letters and papers that flowed between Thomas Brett, a Nonjuror, and a wide variety of other correspondents, most of whom shared his Nonjuring commitments.  The Nonjurors are a rather obscure group of late seventeenth through eighteenth century dissenters from the current religious and political establishment in England during that period.  I won't go into detail on the Nonjurors -- if interested you can read my online article about their theology -- but I bring them up because they, even in their own schismatic behavior (who was schismatic is a matter of opinion, of course), they sought to give voice to a principle of catholicity, one that was rooted in a connection to the practices and beliefs of the Primitive Church.  By Primitive Church, unlike members of my own Disciples tradition, they meant the church that existed in the first five to six centuries.  They made great use of the principle of Vincent of Lerins --   semper, ubique, et ab omnibus (always, everywhere, and by everyone) --  to under gird their proclamation of a vision that was to be truly Catholic.  It wasn't Catholic in the Roman sense, but in a broader sense, one that sought to place the church within the broader history and tradition of Christianity.  Now, there are dangers in this.  The Nonjurors are good examples because they sought to make certain practices, especially liturgical practices, necessary for proper faith.  They became fundamentalists of the Patristic kind.  

I am by most markers part of the Protestant Tradition, that is, my own faith journey has taken place within that branch of the Christian community that takes its origins from the Reformation.  I was born and bread Episcopalian, which like the Church of England, derives from the English Reformation.  I am a Disciple, a community, that both takes cues from and eschews the Presbyterian Tradition.  Both traditions have been influenced by John Calvin.  My Nonjuror friends sought to avoid the Calvinist contribution by rooting their beliefs and practices in the Reforms that came about prior to the coming of Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr.

So, back to being Catholic, a theme that I want to dwell upon for a few posts, especially leading up to World Communion Sunday, I'd like to suggest that whether Roman, Orthodox, Protestant, that it is important that we embrace the principal espoused in the Creeds that we are part of the "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church."  As a Disciple pastor my ordination may not derive from direct episcopal (apostolic) succession, but in terms of faith tradition, I am part of that One Catholic Church.  By worshiping these past two weeks in Anglican Cathedrals (Christ Church, Oxford, and St. Paul's London), and especially as I took Communion in these communities (if anyone wants to raise any questions about my ability to do this, I should note that I was confirmed into the Episcopal Church, so that indelible mark should still be holding strong), I found myself receiving this witness of Catholicity.  

Can you, with me, affirm that to be a Christian is to be Catholic?  

Thursday, September 26, 2013

“God Can Deal With Our Anger” -- Alternative Lectionary -- Proper 22 (David Ackerman)

Christians aren't supposed to get angry!  We've all been taught this bit of wisdom.  And yet we do get angry.  And for good reason.  Even Jesus gets angry on occasion.  And we've all heard about the wrath of God -- right?  A good Jedi always keeps his or her emotions in check (Stoic), for anger leads to the dark side.  But is there a place for emotions?  These are the kinds of questions that David Ackerman raises for us in this set of alternative lections for Proper 22, which falls on October 6 (World Communion Sunday).  David invites some reflections on that connection as well.  I invite you to consider this set of readings for Proper 22. 


Proper 22

October 6, 2013
“God Can Deal With Our Anger”
Call to Worship:  Psalm 119:113-120 NRSV
One:  I hate the double-minded, but I love your law.
Many:  You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word.
One:  Go away from me, you evildoers, that I may keep the commandments of my God.
Many:  Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope.
One:  Hold me up, that I may be safe and have regard for your statutes continually.
Many:  You spurn all who go astray from your statutes; for their cunning is in vain.
One:  All the wicked of the earth you count as dross; therefore I love your decrees.
Many:  My flesh trembles for fear of you, and I am afraid of your judgments.
Gathering Prayer:  We come together, God, having been hurt and wounded by the world.  We feel this hurt deeply, and we ask that as we gather today, you would teach us how to cope with it, as we seek to be your disciples in the world.  Amen.
Confession:  God, we confess that we have a hard time trusting you with our anger.  We do a lot of different things with the anger that we feel.  We express it, suppress it, and deny it.  Sometimes it comes out in healthy ways, but at other times we allow ourselves to be consumed by it.  Help us, God.  Forgive us for not having faith that you are big enough to deal with our anger, and give us the resources we need to express anger in ways that you would have us do.  Amen.
Assurance:  God is bigger than any emotion we feel and is there for us in every circumstance of life.  For grace beyond our imagining, let us give thanks and praise to God.  Amen.
Scripture:  Job 3 – “Why Did I Not Die at Birth?”
2 Corinthians 11:16-31 – “Paul’s Defense”
John 8:39-47 – “Jesus Defends Himself”
Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.
Reflection Questions:
Job 3 expresses feelings that many people find to be negative and even unacceptable in themselves.  Do you think such talk should appear in the Bible?  Why or why not?  What good can come out of it?
Paul’s defense of himself in 2 Corinthians 11 is a clear case of self-justification in scripture.  Do you think it is ever okay to defend yourself like he does?  Why or why not?
In this passage, Jesus has some very harsh words for his opponents.  What do you think about such words being placed on the lips of Jesus?  What does this say about how we as Christians should deal with our own feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal?
Do you think that the expressions of anger that are shown in today’s scriptures are the best examples for us to follow as Christians?  Why or why not?  If not, what do you think are some better examples?
Many Christians celebrate World Communion Sunday today (except when October 1 falls on a Sunday, in which case it is observed on Proper 21).  What do you make of the divisions that exist in Christianity today?  Is it ever okay to be angry about them and if so, what, if anything, do today’s scriptures have to say about how we might deal with such anger?
Prayer of Thanksgiving:  Thank you, God, for the gift of anger.  Teach us to look to you for help when we have a hard time knowing how best to express it.  Amen.
Benediction:  God sends us out to change the world.  Let us do so, knowing that God goes with us.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lively, Loose, and Affirmative: "Loosely Christian" as Transformative Faith (Bruce Epperly)

Bruce Epperly returns to offer us a vision of a Christian faith that is able to move with some fluidity, isn't rigid and yet able to transform.  As I have been considering the transcendent in my own reflections, Bruce brings in the immanent in his.  I appreciate his ability to provide a means of finding that bridge between spiritual dimensions.  So, from England, I invite you to consider Bruce's offering from Massachusetts. 


Lively, Loose, and Affirmative: “Loosely Christian” as Transformative Faith

Bruce Epperly

I believe that we can claim the term “loosely Christian” as a positive affirmation.  We can affirm the life and teachings of Jesus and share intimately in Christian community and mission, and also be open to God’s movements in the novel and rich textures of a post-modern, post-Christian, and post-Anglo-European world.   In this ever-changing, multi-centered world, faithful Christians, can embody a fluid, protean, and transformative faith.  They can sit loosely on the growing edges of the Christian tradition at the intersection where faith and culture converge as partners in healing the earth.  Here at the lively and flexible growing edges of faith, we may discover that margins are the spiritual frontiers beckoning us on a holy adventure with an innovative, fluid, and resourceful God as our companion.  Christ is on the loose, showing up where we least expect it, and this is our calling today – to be Christians on the loose, pushing the boundaries of faith and practice.  We are frontier people, making new paths as we journey towards God’s evolving vision of Shalom.

These are difficult times for Christians today.  For many congregations, the future is in doubt.  Other more conservative Christians fear the growing ethnic and religious pluralism in North America.  They see equal rights for non-Christians, including atheists and persons from other faith traditions, as an attack on Christianity.  But, faith is always lived out in the concretenesss of the present moment.  Faithfulness embraces the now with all its limitations as the place where we discover God’s possibilities for us today.

As you consider your own congregation and its current challenges and successes, for a moment, let go of your fear about the future shapes of Christianity.  For a moment, don’t even worry about issues of institutional survival as important as these may be to you professionally and congregationally.  Can you imagine new worlds being born as we die to images of faith that tether us to a bygone era?  Can you imagine the current marginal status of moderate and progressive Christianity as invitation to travel light and loose, creating new maps of our spiritual landscape?  Can you visualize the emergence of frontier spiritualities, inspired by the vision of God as innovative, fluid, and constantly on the move – the image of God as an active verb, rather than a static noun?   Can you envisage spiritual and political partnerships with open-spirited evangelical and Pentecostal Christians? Can you appreciate the irony that a fluid, shape-shifting God and a constantly growing faith provides the best hope for healthy “stability” in a swiftly moving age?

The limitations give birth to possibilities.  Jesus was born of a limited, concrete woman, not women in general.  Jesus lived in Judea, not everywhere.  But, Jesus lived “loosely,” inviting people to launch out into deeper waters, and to go beyond their spiritual comfort zones to embrace God’s ever-evolving horizons of the spirit.  Jesus experienced the depths of God’s vision, birthed along the Galilean see and shared a message that is ever new and always creative. In that spirit, I propose that being “loosely Christian” may be among the most inspiring images for understanding  the church, theology, and faith as we seek to embody and create healing, guiding, and transforming spiritualities for the twenty-first century. 

We are not the first Christians to recognize that an innovative, fluid, protean, and agile faith is necessary for facing a novel and challenging environment.  A living, spirit-centered Christian faith, like a living cell is animated and guided by its nucleus, the transformative encounter with Jesus Christ.  It is energized by its mitochondria, the inner movements of the Spirit, that reflect the liveliness and adaptability ascribed to the Greek figure Proteus, who shifted shapes to respond and anticipate changes in the environment.  Wildly flexible and sensitive to its context, a protean faith loosely yet dynamically fulfills its mission through its willingness to embody God’s good news in diverse and creative ways.  Like the emerging faith of the first century Christian communities, we must also make it up as we go along, creatively joining tradition and ritual in forming innovative visions of God, human life, the non-human world, theology, and spirituality. 

Next week, we explore “Christ on the loose.  Following Jesus means coming alive to God’s energy of love in lively and life-transforming ways.  Jesus embodies novelty as well as order; Jesus pushes us toward new horizons and adventurous possibilities.  Jesus opens us to God’s ever-evolving, ever-emerging vision of Shalom for humankind and this good Earth. (For more on this vision, see Loosely Christian: Answering God’s Call for a Creative Faith for Today Bondfire/Patheos books.)

Bruce Epperly is pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA.  A resident of Cape Cod, Bruce has previously served on the faculty – or on an administrative or ministerial capacity – at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Lancaster Theological Seminary, and Claremont School of Theology.  The author of twenty seven books in spirituality, ministry, healing and wholeness, and process theology, his most recent books are Letters to My Grandson: Gaining Wisdom from a Fresh Perspective and  Loosely Christian: Answering God’s Invitation for a Creative Faith for Today.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Rewarded in Heaven? A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19C

Luke 16:19-31

Perhaps you grew up with the adage that the poor, or at least those who have been treated with some degree of oppression, will get their reward in heaven.  I suppose that this idea has some roots in this parable from the Gospel of Luke.  If you know the parables at all, you've heard this parable.  Like others in Luke, the poor are set above the wealthy.  Poverty, whether voluntary or not, is more likely a sign of godliness -- or at least of God's preferential treatment.  Pope Francis, thankfully, has been giving attention to this vision, reminding us that the Church has a responsibility for the needs of the poor.    

For those of us who are Protestant the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man can be a troubling passage.  It seems to speak of something of a middle state, or at least a post-mortem reality, where sinner and saint are in close proximity but separated by some sort of barrier.  One's position seems determined by how one lived prior to death, perhaps how well one lives in life, and the positions one has in this next dimension seems to up turn that prior to death.  
In the parable, a poor man named Lazarus -- not to be confused with John's Lazarus -- dies at the same moment that a rich man.  In death their positions are switched -- I'm thinking of the movie Trading Places staring Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy.  The rich man is, interestingly enough unnamed, which is surely a sign of turn of fate.  It is the wealthy whose names are remembered even in death.  Having visited the Cathedrals of England these past two weeks, I've seen plenty of monuments to the important and the wealthy.  If you have enough money you can provide yourself with a nice monument along the walls.  The poor, on the other hand, are more than likely to end up in unmarked graves.   No monuments to be built in the cathedral for them.  
As Jesus  tells the parable, the Rich Man finds himself in just a bit of agony.  In death his situation is opposite that of life.  Lazarus, on the other hand, who in life sat near the rich man's table, hoping to scoop up a few crumbs from the Rich Man's table, even as the dogs came licking his sores, making them, one assume, even more offensive, is enjoying the blessings of living in the presence of Father Abraham.  The Rich Man  is in agony, experiencing unquenchable thirst.  He looks across the divide, and notices that Lazarus is enjoying the blessings of sitting in Abraham's bosom.  Father Abraham, he pleads, won't you send Lazarus over here to bring water to quench my thirst.  Lazarus and the Rich Man have gotten their just rewards, but the Rich Man still perceives Lazarus as his inferior.  Send him over and have him tend to me.  Have him do for me, what I refused to do for him in life.  
Alas, the divide can't be crossed. Lazarus has his place, the Rich Man his.  This has to be additional torment for the Rich Man.  He can't even depend on the possibility of a servant in his place of agony. If this is true, then perhaps, Abraham could send Lazarus to his friends still living so that they might be forewarned and change their lives.  You know, sort of like Jacob Marley goes back to warn Scrooge (though Marley is Scrooge's equal and not his inferior).  But again, such is  not possible.  Indeed, the friends already have Moses and the Prophets.  If they don't listen to them, then why should he expect that they will listen to one coming back from the dead.
Moses and the Prophets -- if only they would listen they would understand God's care and concern for the poor.  Here is a Word from God.  They should know better.  Indeed shouldn't we know better?  Do we listen to Moses and the Prophets?  Or, are we self-selective, choosing those passages that offer comfort to us in our comfortable lifestyles?  When we read this do we spiritualize it enough that we land in Abraham's Bosom?  Surely, God is gracious to welcome even one such as me in my own affluence, even if I do walk by the beggar on the street (yes, I have the proper rationalization for this).  After all, God works by grace.  My works don't determine my place. I'm quite aware of the Pauline vision.  I embrace it.  But, it does seem that Jesus once again is determined to upset my apple cart.  So, can we just let things get sorted out in heaven?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Transcendent Moments -- Reflections after a Day in London

On Sunday I traveled to London from Oxford by train.  It was my one stop in London -- and I only had time to get a glimpse of the city.  I began the day in worship at St. Paul's Cathedral, the 17th century  edifice designed by Christopher Wren to replace the earlier Gothic Cathedral that had gone down in the Great London Fire of 1666.  Worship at the Cathedral is what one would call Broad Church -- or Middle of the Road Anglicanism.  No Incense, but still vestiges of ritual.  Choir and organ dominate.  The sanctuary was full -- maybe a 1000 in attendance.  Some visitors like me, others regular attenders.  The sermon on the Gospel delivered by Simon Jones, Chaplain at Merton College, Oxford.  Our ability to hear with understanding was hindered by the echo of the dome.  Interestingly enough the Dean of St. Paul's as he led the Eucharistic Liturgy could be heard without problem or without echo -- perhaps because of his location closer to the center of the dome.  While I must say I prefer the intimacy of the much smaller Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, St. Paul's grandeur (and it is beautiful) does lift you into a transcendent state.  

Near the end of the day, before I found my way back to Paddington Station, I took in an organ recital at the much more ancient Westminster Abbey.  Westminster is not a cathedral -- it is a royal peculiar (meaning it belongs to the monarch and not to the church).  It too lifts one to transcendent heights.  We sat (maybe 800-1000 of us) in the Nave, behind the Nave Screen that separated us from the choir and the high altar.  The organ filled the room with its lofty sounds.  It wasn't worship per se, but music does seem to lift the soul Godward.

I know that we live in an era where the material dimensions of spirituality are somewhat diminished.  Worship in a school auditorium is fine.  No need for crosses either.  Church is the people and not the building.  Now I affirm that the church is the body of Christ and not a building, but I wonder if in our attempt to free our spirituality from religion we are in danger of losing something important.  As I worship in St. Paul's, I'm mindful that for almost four hundred years people have gathered in that spot to worship God, to share in the Eucharist, hear the Word of God read and proclaimed.  Again, we come to roots.  Where do we find them and how do they find us.

In our world of self-developed, self-created spirituality do we not become sovereign rather than God?  God ceases to be monarch and becomes merely a President whom we elect.  In my Anglican worship experiences we have recited the creed, something we would not do in my own Disciples circles.  We take pride in not being a creedal people, but even if the creeds represent formulations of theology that reflect fourth and fifth century ideas, maybe we would be well advised to recite them on occasion, to be reminded that others have heard and reflected and considered what it means to be faithful to God.  Yes, God is transcendent (and immanent at the same time -- but that's for a different discussion).  

Saturday, September 21, 2013


I'm nearing the end of my time in England.  Just four more days I return home.  As I begin to reflect on my time here, including my many hours spent reading through three hundred year old letters in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I'm recognizing the need for rootedness.  Not foundations, but roots.  Organic not building materials.  While I understand the attractiveness, of being "spiritual but not religious," I'm not sure it is sustainable.  While I understand the attractiveness of starting new communities, I also see the value of long established communities.

Coming here to England has allowed me to connect with my inner Anglicanism.  I attended services at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford on three occasions.  On Sunday the 22nd, I will attend services at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.  The cathedral in Oxford is much smaller than St. Paul's.   I don't know how these two experiences will contrast with each other until I actually go to St. Paul's.  But I found this very traditional Cathedral Worship, complete with organ and choir, extremely powerful.  Although different in scale to the Episcopal church of my earliest years, I found a linkage.   
As I move forward on this pilgrimage that is my sabbatical, I am being guided by a theme -- Reclaiming a Founding Vision.  After being here in Oxford, I'm beginning to rethink this just a bit -- moving toward rootedness.  Although I'm attracted to my Anglican roots, I don't believe that there is just one place to look for roots.  But I do think they need to be authentic.  They can be eclectic, but I don't think they should be cafeteria style.  It's not so much as creating our own spirituality, but getting in touch with those traditions that inform our life journey.  Mine has some diversity -- Anglican/Episcopal, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Disciple (with a bit of Covenant, Presbyterian, and Baptist mixed in). 
Going back to the beginning of my post -- the question of whether one can be spiritual but not religious.  I suppose it depends what you define as being religious.  If you mean by this -- institutionalism, I agree that it doesn't contribute to one's experience of the holy.  But if you mean by this -- being in control of your own spirituality, then I'm not sure that this is workable.  When we control spirituality, we are tempted to manipulate it.  By connecting to authentic roots, we put ourselves in line with the whole company of saints -- those who have gone down this path before. 
I'll have more to say in the coming weeks.  But I want to start the conversation about roots.  What are your roots.  How does your spiritual life relate to it?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Preach it, Putin! -- Sightings (William Schweiker)

One way or another Syria seems to be in the news.  So far no bombing runs, but the rhetoric continues.  I've not read Vladimir Putin's op-ed, but apparently he brings the Lord into the conversation.  Not sure Vlad is truly a prophet of God, in fact he doesn't seem keen on practicing what he's preaching, but we can always be reminded about the need to pursuit peace and justice!    Take a read and offer some thoughts.


The University of Chicago Divinity School

                   SIGHTINGS, a publication of

Preach It, Putin!
by William Schweiker
Thursday | Sept 19 2013
Credit: Creative Commons / Russavia            
As readers of Sightings know, these columns often bring to light expressions of religion hidden in public life as it engages current events.  But sometimes truths are concealed even in religion’s appearance.

Consider Syria: the use of chemical weapons on citizens; charge and counter charge between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels about who is responsible; violent abuses of Human Rights by both sides; the U.N. enquiry into these chemical weapons; millions of refugees and thousands of deaths; President Obama’s and Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to marshal national and international support for a punitive airstrike on Syria and Assad’s government; the wild turn of events when Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, announced the possibility of demands for Assad to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons under U.N. oversight; Putin’s and Assad’s attempts to play on global public opinion; and almost daily, a new turn of events.

Yet, for the readers of Sightings, a gripping religious development is found in the last sentence of an editorial Putin published—who knows if he wrote it?—on September 11, 2013, in the New York Times.

The editorial explains why, in Putin’s judgment, the U.S. should abide by U.N. Security Council procedures and, lacking U.N. approval, desist from military strikes on Syria. Putin also chides President Obama and American citizens for their American exceptionalism.

But what about the last line, you ask. The trappings of religion suddenly appear to sanction—and to conceal—political gain: “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” Preach it, Putin!

The editorial has garnered praise from around the world and opinion seems to paint President Putin as an elder statesman with equal moral standing and political clout as President Obama. Within the U.S., some have chided Obama for supposedly losing presidential control while others praise his responsiveness to a complex and changing international scene.

Still, political talking-heads also note the oddity of Putin requiring the U.S. to abide by Security Council decisions when Putin has already promised to veto any U.S. proposal for the strikes (not to mention that Russia itself has skirted the Council in the past). Others state that a call for equality is confusing from a President who imprisoned a female rock band, “Pussy Riot,” for political dissent (see Sightings, Sept. 20, 2012) while also putting in doubt the civil rights of Russia’s gay community (read more on this in next week’s, Sept. 26, 2013, Sightings).

Even more astonishing is the charge against American exceptionalism which fails to acknowledge that peoples around the world take pride, mistaken or not, in their own exceptionalism. Has Putin somehow never heard of “Mother Russia?”

And then there is the matter of Russia’s support of President Assad including with weapons. In light of Putin’s homiletic flourish at letter’s end, one can only say that, in all honesty, there is sin enough to go around. But still we should ask for God’s blessing.

Sighting’s readers should note something that critics and pundits have ignored. It is the bewildering word “God” in Putin’s editorial and the “altar call” that concludes the piece.

Of course, our readers have long spotted the strategy of American political leaders who drop the “G” word, and beseech God’s blessing on our land. God, they tell us, sanctions without question their vision of the country and the world. (Only honest Abe Lincoln was theologically subtle enough to avoid that blunder. He knew that God’s purposes were God’s alone to know.)

We also recognize the bewilderment of other cultures with the religiously saturated character of American political discourse and discord. And this is what makes Putin’s editorial all the more fascinating. The man who proclaims the blessings of the creator God and human equality was a KGB agent of an officially atheistic state, the former U.S.S.R.; his relations to the Russian Orthodox Church have been, well, up and down. Scientific Marxism, let alone Putin’s political program, hardly rests on a creator God.

It is equally doubtful that Putin’s claims about human rights depend on divine sanction. And one also notes that while he speaks of equality as a divine endowment for humanity, there is no mention in his letter of freedom. Nor is there mention of the God-given rights of the chemically slaughtered Syrians whose only equality is the grave.

One must conclude with a nod to a longstanding insight of Sightings: too often explicit religious discourse in the public arena betrays more about what is missing than what is present.


Putin, Vladimir. “A Plea for Caution From Russia.” New York Times, September 11, 2013. Accessed September 18, 2013.

Reznik, Larisa. “We Are All Pussy Riot” But Who Are ‘We’?Sightings, September 20, 2012. Accessed September 18, 2013.
Author, William Schweiker, is Director of the Martin Marty Center and Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of Dust That Breathes: Christian Faith and the New Humanisms and Theological Ethics and Global Dynamics: In The Time of Many Worlds.

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

Thursday, September 19, 2013

God Frees Us to Be Faithful -- Proper 21 (David Ackerman)

What does it mean to be free? How does freedom lead to faithfulness?  Who is the one who sets us free, and what are we free from?  These are all questions that are pertinent for today's world.  David Ackerman's alternative lectionary choices allows us to consider these questions, and at least in 21st century America, the freedom of God isn't the same thing as libertarianism!



Proper 21

September 29, 2013
“God Frees Us To Be Faithful”
Call to Worship:  Psalm 119:89-96 NRSV

One:  The Lord exists forever; your word is firmly fixed in heaven.
Many:  Your faithfulness endures to all generations; you have established the earth, and it stands fast.
One:  By your appointment they stand today, for all things are your servants.
Many:  If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my misery.
One:  I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life.
Many:  I am yours; save me, for I have sought your precepts.
One:  The wicked lie in wait to destroy me, but I consider your decrees.
Many:  I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad.

Gathering Prayer:  Bring us together today, Holy Spirit, so that we might overflow in generous love for you and each other.  Amen.

Confession:  Redeeming God, so often we find ourselves in prisons of our own making.  We trap ourselves by our own lack of faith and we fail to look to you in our distress.  Forgive us, God.  Teach us to delight in your liberating love, so that we might find ourselves free from every obstacle that would keep us from following you faithfully.  Amen.

Assurance:  At this time and in this place, God has delivered us from every bond of sin that would keep us from grace and love.  Let us live then as a liberated people, set free to live for God’s praise and glory.  Amen.

Job 1:6-22 – “God’s Deal with the Adversary”
2 Corinthians 8:1-6 – “Generous Macedonians”
John 8:31-38 – “The Truth Will Make You Free”

Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.

Reflection Questions:
What do you make of the figure of Satan (or “the Adversary”) in Job 1?  Is Satan depicted differently here than in other parts of the Bible?  If so, how?  If you had faced the kinds of losses Job faced, do you think you would have responded as he did in v 21?

Why do you think Paul is telling the Corinthians about the Macedonians in today’s epistle reading? 

Have you ever known people who are examples of generous giving?  What are they like?

In John 8, Jesus talks about slavery to sin.  How does Jesus set us free from sin?  What do you think about his statement, “The truth will make you free” (v 32)?

Have you ever felt like you were imprisoned in something?  How did God set you free?  What were you able to do once you were free?

Prayer of Thanksgiving:  Thank you, God, for delivering us from sin and helping us to live faithfully to you.  Show us how to share with others the good news of your liberating love.  Amen.

Benediction:  God has rescued us from every prison that would keep us from living the lives we were intended to enjoy.  Let us now go and share the good news of God’s saving grace with a world that yearns to break forth into fullness of life.  Amen.