Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Sabbath Journey Ends

            On September 1, Cheryl and I attended worship at Rochester Church of Christ.  Thus began a three month sabbatical journey that I have entitled “Reclaiming a Founding Vision.”  Tomorrow morning I’ll be “back to work” at Central Woodward Christian Church.  I return rested and ready to take up the calling of serving as pastor of Central Woodward, along with my other responsibilities in the church and community.  I’ve been fortunate to have this opportunity, provided by the church, an opportunity that I encourage colleagues to take up themselves.  I return on the First Sunday of Advent, and while we’ll be sharing in a service of Hanging of the Greens tomorrow so that I don’t have major responsibilities, it is fitting that I return on the morn when the church starts a new liturgical year.  We begin with a sense of expectation that God is with us as we move into the future. 

            During this journey I have been pondering not only the future or the present, but the past as well.  I started out with the premise that the way forward requires a connection to the past.  So, I journeyed to England and spent time at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, exploring the letters and papers of an obscure English priest who ventured out of the Established Church and into the wilderness of the Nonjuring Church.  While in England I stepped back in time, visiting Stonehenge and the Roman Baths (at Bath).   I worshiped at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford and St. Paul’s London. Touching base with my own Episcopal spiritual heritage while in England, I discovered that this Anglican part of me runs rather deep.
            Once home I continued the journey with a brief trip to Nashville, where I spent four days rummaging
through the letters and papers of Edgar DeWitt Jones, founding pastor of the congregation I now serve.  As with the England trip this was extremely enlightening.  I even sat behind the Jones desk at the Disciples of Christ Historical Society.  There is much to share about this experience and I shall do so in due time.

            When Cheryl and I traveled to Southern California in late October, I spent more time relaxing than researching.  I thought I might do some research, but really didn’t get around to it.  Instead, we saw friends and enjoyed being “back home” – both in Pasadena and in Santa Barbara.  While in Southern California, I did reconnect with two pieces of my personal journey.   First, on the day we landed, before we checked in at Fuller Theological Seminary, we stopped in at Angeles Temple, the mother church of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.  We spent several hours touring the church and the Heritage Center (formerly the parsonage).  This allowed me the opportunity to touch base with the Pentecostal portion of my journey.  For those who don’t know Aimee’s story, it is a rather intriguing one.   In a day when even liberal Protestants were looking for “manly men” (see the quote from Edward Scribner Ames on the mantle of the Disciples Divinity House, University of Chicago), Aimee was forging new paths for women in the church – as a preacher, church planter, evangelist, and religious broadcaster.   The next morning I took a short trip to St. Luke’s of the Mountain’s Episcopal Church in LaCrescenta.  Although I have no memory of this place, it was the place where I was baptized.  I had the opportunity to sit and contemplate the course of my spiritual journey, one that really started in this place.  The baptismal font from that era is no longer present, but in my imagination, I could reconnect with that moment in my life when my parents committed me to the life of the church.

            November was largely spent close to home – with my recent sojourn to the AAR-SBL Meeting in Baltimore being the sole excursion.  But even at home I was able to continue the journey through my reading and writing (I finished two articles for publication).   On most Sundays, I was in church somewhere.  Two Sundays were spent in English Cathedrals.  Besides these two Sundays, and the first week with my Church of Christ friends, I shared in worship at two Episcopal Churches, along with Disciples (Lompoc), Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic congregations (for some reason I’m missing a week!).  I didn’t get everywhere I’d hoped (I was hoping to get down to Little Rock Baptist Church, which resides in the former Central Woodward location in Detroit.

            I did a lot of reading.  I attended a couple of clergy education events – one at Central Woodward with Scott Seay of Christian Theological Seminary and a Region-wide Anti-Racism training event.  Besides that I attended several sessions of Brett’s Muslim-Christian Interaction class at Rochester College.   Besides that I took walks, did some yard work, tried to fix a leak in the skylight over Cheryl’s shower – not completely successful -- and just enjoyed not going to meetings for three months!   I had hoped to lose some weight along the way, but alas that didn’t happen!          
            So, what is the take-away from all of this?  I think it’s this – at least for me – I have come away with a great sense that the future of the faith is linked to its roots in the past.  As I finish up this adventure with God, I’ve been reading Margaret Bendroth’s The Spiritual Practice of Remembering(Eerdmans, 2013).  She writes that the past plays an important role in creating our present realities.  “This is why we spend hours with therapists and counselors, hoping to distill some useful truth from an inventory of our life experiences. But the invisible power of the past is also true in human groups, and especially so in communities of faith.”  That is why, she writes:
Year after year, as new members join a church and children come of age in the Sunday school, they accept a certain understanding of ‘who we are’ and ‘why we are together’.  So much of this has to do with the circumstances of a church’s origins, often long buried but still real.  It makes a difference if a congregation was born out of angry controversy and schism, or as the result of a miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit. (p. 112).
The truth that is present in this book came to the fore during a session of the American Academy of Religion.  The topic was the “emergent church.”  Some of the conversation centered on the idea that the future of the church would be found in freedom from the constraints of tradition and institution.  While I believe that the church continually is emerging in new contexts, it doesn’t emerge ex nihilo.  It emerges from somewhere.  It might be a reaction or a natural trajectory, but there is a connection to that which came before it.

            So, as I move from my “time away” back into the ministry at Central Woodward, I am
more convinced than ever that our future has connections with our past – and not just the past of Central Woodward, but the entire story of the Christian faith – the “communion of the saints” that bears witness to God’s realm.  

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013: "So Far From Want" -- Sightings

I heard that on Thanksgiving the average American will eat 4500 calories during the Thanksgiving Meal. I can believe it. I probably did eat that much. For many of us, Thanksgiving is a time to enjoy the abundance that is ouirs. But for others around us, such is not the case. While some enjoy the bounty others go without. This is, in many ways, the message of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which the family and I saw on Thanksgiving Day.  I won't say more so as not to offer any spoilers, but if you've seen the movie or read the book you know what I'm talking about.  In this edition of Sightings, Jeanne Bishop, a Public Defender from Chicago, offers us a reminder that not all enjoy the bounty.  She reminds us of the true meaning of scarcity.  Pope Francis has been calling us to focus on those who hunger and thirst.  Thanksgiving might be a good time to take stock of our realities. Thanksgiving Day is over -- having been swallowed up by the encroachment of Black Friday (Thursday) -- but it is not too late to do some remembering.  Take a read and offer your thoughts.

Thanksgiving 2013: "So Far From Want"
Thursday | Nov 28 2013
 stokkete /
When President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as “a day of thanksgiving and praise” for the nation, he did so in the midst of war, 1863. He asked people to thank God for “bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come.”

Lincoln’s proclamation included another, equally weighty request: that we repent and remember the bereft, that we “do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to [God’s] tender care all who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation….”

That notion—that our celebrations of abundance should be coupled with mindfulness of need—goes back to the earliest American Thanksgiving in 1621.  One witness described that event in rich detail: colonists, Indians, “their greatest king Massasoit,” deer, fowl, harvest, three days of feasting.  He wrote that  “although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

I thought about “want” the other day in the lockup at the courthouse where I work.  I am a public defender in Chicago, and I start each workday in the place behind the courtroom where prisoners are held. On this morning, the small, stuffy cell was crammed with people.

They were all young men charged with burglaries. There had been a sweep of teenagers, most of them accused of breaking into homes and cars in Chicago’s suburbs.

As I interviewed them, one by one, a pattern emerged. Almost all had come from perilous childhoods: neglect, abandonment, abuse.

I asked one young man why he and his siblings had been taken away from their birth home. “My mom chose drugs over us,” he said simply. Most of the young men were living in group institutions, foster homes, or the apartments of overburdened relatives where the defining characteristics were poverty and the lack of any responsible adult who cared deeply for them.

Another pattern emerged. All were in school, even involved in after-school sports. None had a criminal background. These were promising young men.

I had to ask: how is it that a good kid like you is accused of stealing? One young man in foster care motioned to the clothes he was wearing—jogging pants with holes in the knees and a grimy t-shirt—and explained that by the time his foster mom paid the rent and food bills, there was no money left for clothes. Another dropped his head in his folded arms on the table, telling me how his aunt complained bitterly about the money he was costing her. She wanted him to help with expenses. Others had been part of a mentoring program; their mentor allegedly exploited them by recruiting them to do the crimes.

Scarcity. Want. My city is full of such children.

When they were brought into the courtroom for their hearings, the judge set bonds too high for the young men to post. They knew what that meant. They were going to jail.

After the last hearing, I heard wailing from the lockup. I went to check, and saw this sight: a cell full of teenaged boys, sobbing and wiping away tears. Two boys, perhaps strangers until that moment, clutched each other’s heads with their hands and held tight as they cried. It was a gesture of comfort in despair. These boys had no money for clothes or bail, but they had this: the impulse to care, to help.

The image of those boys, led by a thousand failures to that moment, should move us to a Thanksgiving repentance. Amid bounty, what do we owe to children unguided and uncared for? Amid scarcity, how do we celebrate abundance? To be so far from want that we wish others to be partakers of our plenty—that is something for which to give thanks.

Strauss, Valerie. “Lincoln’s historic Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863.” The Washington Post, November 21, 2012.

Illinois Historical Archives. “Mourt’s Relation, or Journal of the Plantation at Plymouth.”

Photo Credit: stokkete /
Author, Jeanne Bishop, is an attorney with the Office of the Cook County Public Defender, an adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law and a member of the Marty Center Advisory Board. Ms. Bishop is a regular contributor on religion for The Huffington Post and has written for, among other publications, the CNN Belief Blog, Sojourners, and The Christian Century.

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

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Reflections -- 2013

It is Thanksgiving Morning.  I am blessed with family, friends, and a faith community I'm privileged to serve.  I am a child of God, living in relationship with God in Christ through the Spirit.  

Thanksgiving Day has always had a harvest theme -- one that goes back to the Hebrew Bible.  Even though I've always lived in the city and gathered my food not from the land itself, but from the grocery store (there are some who question the validity of a harvest based holiday in an urban age, but I think that there is sufficient imagination that we can get the picture).  I grew up with Psalm 100 as the central text of the day, for it is an invitation to join with the rest of creation in making a "joyful noise to the Lord"  

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
    Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he that made us, and we are his;[a]
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
    and his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever,
    and his faithfulness to all generations.
     (Psalm 100 NRSV)

On this day let us stop for a moment, even as we eat dinners and perhaps watch football games and parades to remember that the Lord is Good and that God's "steadfast love endures forever."  It is this message of divine love that needs to carry the day.  May we, together, join in celebrating God's blessings by being that blessing to the creation.  

Happy Thanksgiving!

Awaken to God -- Alternative Lections for Advent 2 (David Ackerman)

During this holiday season it is easy to lose track of the presence of God. We get caught up in the commercial aspects and neglect to remember the spiritual foundations. But these texts remind us of God's active presence. God is in the business of entering our lives and bringing transformation. The apocalyptic elements might be difficult to wrestle with, but the apocalyptic, that sense of God's purposeful entry into our midst to bring into existence the reign of God, is central to the season and to our faith.  Advent invites us to look forward into the future to the time in which God brings into being the fulness of God's realm.  In the meantime, these texts from David Ackerman's alternative lectionary -- Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionary --  invite us to remain faithful even during difficult times.


Advent 2

“Awaken to God”

Call to Worship: Psalm 57:8-11 NRSV

One: Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn.
Many: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.
One: For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds.
Many: Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.

Gathering Prayer: You have brought us together today, God, amid all the hustle and bustle of this time of year. Help us to filter through the static of life so we may hear your voice calling us.

Confession: We confess, God, that we haven’t been faithful to you as we should because we’ve been far too distracted by other things. You cry to us but we do not listen. We have been hearing selectively and have chosen the noise of our world over the sound of your voice. Forgive us, and awaken us to your presence among us.

Assurance: God breaks through our resistance and comes to deliver us from every power that would keep us from being fully human. Let us give thanks, then, to God, who names us and claims us as beloved children.

                        Daniel 3:19-30 – “The Fiery Furnace”
Revelation 11:15-19 – “The Seventh Trumpet”
Luke 1:5-20, 57-66 – “The Birth of John”

Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.

Reflection Questions:

·         Worship leaders will want to set the scene for Daniel 3:19-30. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue, and their punishment is to be thrown into a fiery furnace. Who do you think is the fourth person in the furnace? (Hint: it’s not Jesus – the answer is in v 28.) What do you think is the point of the story?

·         What do you think is the point of today’s reading from Revelation 11? Do you hear an ecological warning given at the end of v 18?

·         Does the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke 1 remind you of any other story in the Bible? Which one?

·         Have you ever doubted something that you knew you should believe in? Is it hard for you sometimes to have faith?

·         Today’s stories are filled with angels. Do you believe in angels? Who do you think they are and what do you think they are like?

·         Do you sometimes feel that you are on sensory overload this time of year with all the noise that is around you? How can we awaken to the presence of God in times like these?

Prayer of Thanksgiving: You have rescued us, God, from persecutions outside us and doubts inside us. Thank you, God, for freeing us to be new people this day.

Benediction: With shouts of victory, God sends us out to proclaim good news of deliverance and love. Let us go forth as people fully awake to the presence of the Holy One who goes with us this day. Amen.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Is it Time Yet? -- Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1A

36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One.[a] 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One[b] will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. 43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One[c] will come at a time you don’t know.
            Advent is an apocalyptic season.  It invites a sense of expectation.  God is getting ready to do something new – a revealing of the realm of God.  That can hold out good news or bad news.  It might come as a word of hope or a word of judgment.  Now, with Black Friday behind us, the Christmas decorations abounding, and the Christmas carols playing non-stop, the last thing that people entering a church service want to hear is a word of judgment.  In fact, for many Advent seems to put a damper on the holiday season.  Since holiday songs are present everywhere else, why not the church as well.  Those Advent hymns don’t compare well with Christmas carols.   But the Gospel reading from Matthew nevertheless demands that we pay attention to the mission of God. 

            The 24th chapter of Matthew 24 has an apocalyptic focus.  The conversation begins in verse 1, with a conversation about the Temple.  The disciples are impressed by grandeur, and well they should, for it was one of the great wonders of the ancient world.  But Jesus cuts the conversation short but telling them that the day is coming when this Temple will be no more.  For the readers of the Gospel, that day had already come.  By the time this Gospel was composed, Jerusalem had fallen and the Temple had been reduced to rubble.  In the text, the disciples want to know when this is going to happen.  The answer comes in the form of three parables, and then this warning -- no one knows when this is going to happen.  Not the angels, not the son, only the Father.  In other words, it’s not something you can figure out.  There’s no mathematical formula that’s going to let you pin down the date – though many have tried and will continue trying to figure out the formula. 

            What does Jesus want us to do in preparation for this Day of Judgment?  He wants us, it would appear, to be ready at all times.  This is illustrated in three further parables or stories.  

If you can set aside the historical/scientific questions for a moment, the story of Noah is quite revelatory here.  At first glance, if you know the story – even the Steve Carell version
 it’s not as if the people don’t know something is up.  After all, why would you build a big boat and fill it with animals if something unusual is about to happen?  For Matthew’s Jesus, the message of Noah is one of normalcy.  Noah might be doing something odd, but people ignored him and went on with life.  They ate and drank and got married.  This isn’t the Epicurean message of eating, drinking and being merry because tomorrow we die.  No, this is about settling down to live life to its fullest.  The people aren’t paying attention to either Noah’s message or his act of building the big boat and filling it with animals.  Whatever Noah is up to, it has no meaning for the majority of the people.    Of course that is life.  We may stop for a moment to gawk at something out of the ordinary, but our attention spans are short.  It doesn’t take long to get back to business as usual.  Our goal, it would seem, is the pursuit of normalcy.  The parable of Noah stands as a reminder that even if we stop for a few moments on a Sunday, do we really attend to the message of Advent?

            The second set of stories helps give rise to rapture theologies.  When the Human One comes there will be two men standing in a field.  One will be taken and the other left behind.  There might be two women at the mill grinding the grain – one is taken and one is left behind.  In the parable Jesus never really tells us which one is righteous and which is unrighteous – in either case whether a culling or a harvesting, the parable speaks of God’s act of separation for judgment. 

            Finally there is the thief who comes in the night.  If you know that the thief is coming you’ll be ready for that occurrence, but that’s not the way thieves work.  They don’t send you a note letting you know ahead of time that they plan to break in and steal your goods.  No, they come in under the cover of darkness, unannounced, when you’re not prepared.    

            The point of course is this – always keep awake.  Be prepared.  The Day of Judgment will come when least expected, when we are busy at work.  As I read this, I do struggle with the message of judgment.  I want there to be an open door policy.  Perhaps there is – in a way – but surely there is a refining, a culling of those things that keep us from fully experiencing and expressing the presence of God.  As Advent begins I am ever mindful of my own shortcomings.   I too get distracted.  If truth be told, I prefer Christmas to Advent!

            So is it time yet?  No one knows so be prepared.  Don’t spend your time getting distracted with speculation.  Instead, keep focused on the mission of God – that the blessing of God would be known by all Creation through the incarnation. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Exorcism -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

When we who are religious leaders speak or act in a liturgical/sacerdotal manner, we must always keep in mind how this is perceived.  What is the message -- intended or not.  Martin Marty, who is always a keen observer of such things, reflects on a recent liturgical act -- an exorcism -- that comes across as a political stunt.  I invite you to read and reflect on the message of this Week's Sightings essay.

Monday | Nov 25 2013
Jesus casting out demons (Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy)           Nick Thompson / flickr
Non right-wing activists who read Embattled Ecumenism by Jill Gill will get the chills as they read of events (up to 1963) that led to travails for one element in American religion. Boise State professor Gill, in a well-researched and even-handedly written history, shows how the leaders of The National Council of Churches, even if/when their positions were appropriate, failed to effect positive purposes because they failed to make a moral case among their own ought-to-be followings. (No one “joins” councils of churches; their church bodies do, which means that membership is at second hand.) The councils made historic, theologically informed contributions to civil rights, “welfare,” and peace causes. But as times changed and they opposed the Vietnam War, many lost their bearings and hearings. Why bring up that ancient “Sixties” history this busy week?

Answer: Because there are manifold signs that the leaders of “Mainline,” “African-American,” “Evangelical,” “Catholic” and other churchly forces may hold refined moral positions, but that they generally fail to have strong and enthusiastic constituent followings “in the pews.” We used to speak of these leaders—whose views I often supported and support—as “generals without armies.” Now, today there are in most of these churchly and other religious groups thoughtful leaders, lay and clerical, who are trying to re-set the strategies and make the moral case.

But recent events, one in particular, reveal how tricky it is for religious groups to use church instruments to make political points if their constituents are not with them. I refer to the efforts by the Peoria, Illinois, Roman-Catholic Bishop, who last week made headlined appearances as he ceremonially bade “Vade Retro Satana!” “Begone, Father of lies, enemy of human salvation. Give way to Christ.”

The context for this archaic and arcane shout? The bishop timed his cathedral ceremony to follow by one hour Governor Pat Quinn’s signing of Illinois’ legislation, which authorizes same-sex marriages in his state. “Politicians responsible” for enacting such marriage legislation, added the Bishop, “are morally complicit as cooperators in facilitating this grave sin.” Etc. One would expect pro-same-sex marriage groups, within or alongside churches, to deride the Bishop. Many dismissed his ceremony as a “stunt.” But the word “stunt” also shows up, not only among secular writers, but also prominently in critical writings of responsible Catholic editors and theologians.

When a profound liturgical act, the prayer service, with an exorcism attached, gets seen as a “stunt,” it loses its ability to achieve its non-stunt end, of which nothing is more profound and urgent in Catholic and other Christian liturgies.

Let’s back up: “Exorcism” once had a clear if often misused function, back before it became a pop-cult feature (after films like “The Exorcist”). Add to that, non-stunt forms of exorcism are repeated in many church liturgies (including, by the way, Lutheran baptismal rites). And, while the faithful may not imagine “Satana” in his caricatured form—clad in a red union suit and with a flaming pitchfork aimed at troubled and troubling sinners—it’s not hard to picture more-than-human agencies behind the manifest evils around and within the believing community (and everywhere else).

But stunting liturgies perceived simply as attention-getting political gestures stunt do not attract or sway the faithful. The American Catholic bishops have recently sent out a new instrument, a questionnaire, to help them “hear” the faithful. We wish them well.

References and Further Reading:

Balmer, Randall. Review of Embattled Ecumenism, by Jill K. Gill. The Christian Century, July 17, 2012.

Lindsey, William. “On Yesterday’s Paprocki Show: A Selection of Commentary.” Paperblog, November 21, 2013.

Pashman, Manya Brachear. “Exorcism against same-sex marriage decried as ‘political stunt.’” The Chicago Tribune, November 19, 2013.,0,6854748.story.

“Bishop Thomas John Paprocki to Offer ‘Prayers of Supplication and Exorcism in Reparation for the Sin of Same-sex Marriage,’” Office for Communications, Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, November 14, 2013.

“Gay Marriage Exorcism: Illinois Bishop Plans Prayer Service Opposing ‘Evil’ Marriage Equality Law,” Huffington Post, November 14, 2013.

O’Loughlin, Michael J. “Over objection, Catholic bishop holds anti-gay exorcism.” Religion News Service, November 20, 2013.

Paprocki, John. “Homily for Prayers of Supplication and Exorcism in Reparation for the Sin of Same-Sex Marriage.” Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, Diocesan Blog, November 20, 2013.

Geller, Allison. “Right-Wing Group Blames Illinois Tornadoes on Gay Marriage,” Opposing Views, November 21, 2013.

Photo Credit: Nick Thompson / flickr
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.
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