Friday, July 31, 2015

Talking Stewardship!

Every year congregations will establish budgets and invite members and friends to contribute to the sustenance of that budget. As pastor I will preach on stewardship, though I don't generally teach tithing. I have members who do tithe and their commitment to giving has been a blessing to the congregation. One of the reasons I don't focus on it is that when we focus on tithing we end up focusing on rule and duty and not divine grace. Stewardship involves financial giving, but it is much broader than following a rule. As my friends declares in the video I'm going to recommend to you, stewardship is not about how much we give, but how much we keep. That is, everything belongs to God, so how much of that do we need to live on. I want to invite you to watch and consider the video below. This conversation is part of the weekly hangouts offered by Energion Publications, with whom I have published several books. The conversationists here are my good friend Rev. Steve Kindle, a retired Disciples pastor, who has written a brief examination of stewardship titled: Stewardship: God's Way of Recreating the World and Tithing after the Cross: A Refutation of the Top Arguments for Tithing and New Paradigm for Giving by David Croteau, a New Testament professor at Columbia International University.  I've read Steve's book, which I recommend, and am intrigued by David's book. What is interesting is that the two conversationists come from different theological perspectives. One is a conservative evangelical (David) and a liberal (Steve), and yet they come to similar perspectives. This is an interesting conversation, which I recommend. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Encountering Jesus in the Eucharist

What happens when we gather at the Lord's Table?  Is what we do a simple memorial of Jesus death (he died for our sins is a common prayer)? Are we encountering Jesus at the Table in a unique way? My own theology of the Table has been evolving in recent years. I believe that the Table should be all. As one of our church members in a conversation about a grant proposal suggested -- the Table is a crossroads where people come and go and in the midst of that coming and going encounter God in a transformative manner.  I wrote a little book about the evolving theology of the Eucharist that was published last year. I think it's a good place to start -- to see the way in which we have as Christians theologized our Table practices: The Eucharist: Encounters with Jesus at the Table (Topical Line Drives Book 10).

My own tradition, the Disciples of Christ, gather weekly at the Table. Our theology of the Table is Reformed (of the Zwinglian kind). My own theology is closer to that of John Calvin, who embraced a much more robust understanding of presence. For Calvin, as we partake of the elements of bread and wine/juice we are taking into ourselves the very person of Jesus. The Table is a point of communion with Christ that is transformative.  Calvin's theology didn't win out in this case among Protestants, but it's much richer.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Vanishing Clergy -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Before he takes the month of August off, Sightings contributor Martin Marty has decided to opine on the state of the clergy -- or the vanishing of the clergy in America. As churches shrink and close opportunities for clergy, most of us being rather well educated, are becoming fewer in number. There are plenty of churches out there, but fewer can sustain paid staff at a rate that is commensurate with their education and experience. I'm less than a decade from retirement. I think I'll make it, but what about the future. How many churches will be in the position to call a full-time clergyperson. There may be benefits to serving bi-vocationally, but there are many challenges as well.  In any case, this posting is worth reading, whether or not you are clergy. 

Vanishing Clergy
By MARTIN E. MARTY   JULY 27, 2015
George Fox Evangelical Seminary Graduation 2015                                Credit: flickr via Compfight 
Our editor suggests that we postpone our next Sightings until September, to give a busy staff a breather after the busiest summer-news of news-logging we can remember.

Our files and e-files bulge or pulse with folders called “Current.” Before we tuck them away, one file stands out for timely comment almost any week of any year. Making the rounds after its publication in July 2014 is an item forwarded by many: from The Atlantic, David Wheeler’s catchily-titled “Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bread of Life Available Today -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 10B

John 6:24-35 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 
25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which[a] comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.


               My preferred words for sharing the bread and cup at communion are these: “The Bread of Life” and “The Cup of Salvation.” I use them rather than the more traditional Body and Blood of Christ. I’m not quite sure why I chose to embrace this alternative, but I have found them to be more expansive than the traditional words.

                The people whom Jesus fed (the 5000) are hungry once again. Since Jesus had fed them the day before, why not today? It is important to note that Jesus had crossed the lake in the night so this group decided to get into boats themselves and find him. When they do find him they go back to the original question—what sign are you going to give to get our allegiance. Jesus, of course, sees through the ruse. They really don’t want a sign. They want bread. Bread was the staple of life. The Romans understood this, so they used bread and circuses to distract the people, allowing them to essentially do as they pleased. When the crowds began to demand more liberty, they offered more bread. It was simple and relatively cheap (at least it was cheaper than expanding the military).

Monday, July 27, 2015

Disciples -- What's Your Eschatalogical Vision?

My Disciples ministerial colleague Brian Morse responded to my posting from yesterday by arguing for the importance of eschatology to the Disciples theological vision. I would agree whole-heartedly with Brian's assessment.  In fact, I devote one of the chapters of my upcoming book with Wipf and Stock Publishers -- Freedom in Covenant -- on this very topic. It is good to remember that Alexander Campbell titled his influential journal the Millennial Harbinger. For his part, Alexander Campbell was a Postmillennialist who took an optimistic view of the future. It seemed as if Protestant Christianity was on the move, with America at the forefront of the missionary movement that was spreading across the world (often on the coattails of European empire builders). Be that as it may, the point is -- Disciples had eschatological visions, even if not all were in agreement as to that vision.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Theology, the Church, and the Disciples of Christ

I spent much of the past week in Columbus, Ohio at the biennial General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Since I returned home to finish my vacation I'm not posting my usual Sunday sermon. Feeling the need, however, of sharing something with the blogosphere, I decided to continue my reflections that emerged out of the General Assembly. What has been on my mind and continues to be on my mind concerns the importance of theology to the life of the church. I know that there has been some resistance recently to putting much emphasis on doctrine in some circles, especially progressive ones. This is always an attractive option to Disciples who have a tendency to dismiss theology as being divisive. Unfortunately our avoidance of doctrinal conversations haven't prevented division, it has just changed the focus of our conversations.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Culture Wars about Culture Wars -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Are you as tired of the "Culture Wars" am I?  Is there an alternative to the constant Left-Right bickering that so dominates modern conversation? Martin Marty takes note of a David Brooks column that seems to have upset the apple cart a bit, leading Marty to offer his own thoughts on a more fruitful path. Brooks is a thoughtful conservative who is able to dialog with more liberal folks. The question is this -- can we find a different avenue for pursuing our conversations that go beyond constant battles for supremacy?  Or following Oliver Cromwell (of all people) might we recognize that we could be wrong!  Take a read and offer your thoughts.

Culture Wars About Culture Wars
By MARTIN E. MARTY   JULY 20, 2015
David Brooks                                                                                           Credit: Aspen Institute / flickr
“The Next Culture War,” a New York Times op-ed (June 30) by David Brooks, set off one of the high-level debates of this summer, and will be in the news for some time to come.

Brooks models a civil approach to controversy in his Friday night, on-camera conversations with Mark Shields on the “PBS NewsHour,” one of the few can’t-miss broadcasts in our house. But his column on “The Next Culture War” inspired an abundance of often uncivil internet responses from all sides of “culture war” talk.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Did We Soar? Reflections on Disciples General Assembly

I'm home from the 2015 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I have gone to all but one Assembly since the Denver Assembly in 1997 (my first). At the time I was in the midst of a job search since I had been forced to resign my teaching position at a small Christian college in Kansas. By my count that's nine assemblies.  I have been fortunate that the congregations I serve and have served have deemed it appropriate for me to attend and have provided the necessary funds to make that possible. As I have stated in previous posts, the General Assembly serves as the primary gathering point of the extended Disciples ecclesial community. I know that Assemblies are costly, and it appears that the General Church is being forced to look at different means of gathering (perhaps less frequently -- not a good idea in my mind -- or in less costly venues -- my preference). Nonetheless I believe that this is an important part of being in a larger covenant body, which by the way is only a part of the larger church of Jesus Christ.  As Michael Kinnamon reminded us at the Disciples Seminary Foundation luncheon, this is not about being interdenominational; it is about being intentionally ecumenical. 

The question that is being asked of me as I return home and prepare to return to my position of pastoral leadership in a local congregation (I'm back on vacation till Monday) is whether I soared at the General Assembly. I'm not sure I soared, but I'm glad I participated in the experience that is General Assembly. It isn't the business meetings, which don't excite me. It's not the worship itself, which I must admit left me a bit bemused (I prefer corporate singing to performance, especially during communion). It isn't the workshops either, though for many these can be very helpful. No, it's the connections we make with each other. That's what makes for a good assembly -- the opportunity to connect with old friends and to make new friends.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Is the "Institutional Church" Inevitable?

It is Wednesday at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Assembly will close this evening and we will head home to our congregations. Some of us will be inspired and others frustrated. The questions that have been facing us for some time haven't gone away. Is the day of the denomination over? Is instituional structure a hindrance that we should abandon. At the time the Disciples tradition emerged, we were an anti-institutional bunch. Now we have a structure that is nearly fifty years old. The questions that haunt us concern whether it is time to reinvision what it means to be Disciples. In this post I wrote two years ago after the closing of the 2013 General Assembly, I asked the question of whether institutionalization is inevitable. I repost that essay and ask the question once more.  


Many people decry the existence of the institutional church.  It is seen as wasteful, inert, unproductive, and perhaps even unbiblical.  Congregationalist types of churches have tried to limit the damage by limiting their structures to local congregations, but for some even that is abhorrent.

The ecclesial community of which I am a part, in which I hold ministerial standing, long held that denominationalism was sinful.  When we finally decided to embrace what many already knew to be true -- that we'd already crossed the threshold -- it was in the late 1960s and the world had entered an anti-institutional stage of history.  The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) declared itself to be a full-fledged denomination at the very moment that denominations were declared to be irrelevant.  For the past four decades we have struggled to figure out our mission and purpose.  We've done this at at time of decline in numbers of adherents and finances.  

One of the issues facing my tradition over the years was the seeming need to find the appropriate biblical pattern for church structure.  Unfortunately, we never found that elixir.  If you moved a few decades into the second century you'll find clear evidence of an expanding episcopate, but the biblical texts offer little guidance on the proper institutional formats.  Ronald Osborn notes the problem we faced in the 1960s.  We had jettisoned our restorationist beliefs -- our search for the biblical pattern -- and then faced the problem of what kind of structure would work for us.  We could and we did look to our neighboring denominations, but their structures didn't necessarily fit our realities.  

Osborn offered two guiding principles:

1.  Any ecclesiastical institution must seek to manifest its best understanding of the gospel and of the nature of the church to the fullest extent that this is possible through a historic institution.
In other words, it must always keep in touch with its founding purpose and principles -- it's divine calling.  This requires theological conversation.  It's not just a question of management principles.  

2.  If a denomination is a historic institution belong to the church's historic existence, then it must be built of the stuff of history, taking over principles and procedures from its own historic time.  Every religious institution has done this, whether it has recognized it or not.  Thus the task before Disciples is not to seek some presumed absolute, some divine pattern, but calmly to consider our need and the institutional materials available in our couture to give expression to the nature of the church, as we understand it.  With a humble prayer for the power and even the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit we must address our corporate thought to the task before us.   ["Ronald E. Osborn, "A Theology of Denominations and Principles" in The Revival of the Churches, Wm. Barnett Blakemore, ed., (St. Lous:  Bethany Press, 1963), pp. 105-106].
I understand why many people, especially younger ones, find institutional religion problematic.  They can be ponderous, difficult to reform, and yet I'm not sure that we can live without them for long.  These institutions serve as a kind of skeleton that keep the body erect.  An organism can live without a skeleton, but its form determines the way it lives out its purpose.

Osborn offers two good principles.  The first calls us to ever keep in mind our founding purpose, which is to bear witness to the gospel.  When we move away from this, then we must pursue reform.  Second, we will, most likely turn to the structures present in our own context to create the needed structures.  What is interesting to me is that once we've created these structures, we seem to believe that this is the necessary structure.  The Roman Catholic Church wisely borrowed the structures of the empire.  It made sense in the fourth century.  The Disciples borrowed structures from the new American Republic.  The other day, Tony Jones, who is a constant critic of the denominational system offered up another possible organizational framework.  Tony is suggesting that we fix our denominations by getting rid of the bureaucracy.  

It’s not the people that is the problem, it’s the bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is bad for the gospel. Bureaucracy is good at sustaining itself, but only for its own sake, not for a larger, more noble purpose like the gospel. 
I think that denominations might take a lesson from a new kind of company in America. These companies are being founded and funded, but they have no managers.

While I'm not yet convinced we'll get the denominations to switch over to this new non-bureaucratic framework anytime soon, it's quite likely that new movements within the church might take it up.  They will add another format of ecclesial life to our realities.  If it works -- well great -- if not -- well we can go back to the Roman model, which has worked for about 1800 years!  But note this -- Tony was taking us back to Oborn's first point -- whatever our structures, they must manifest the gospel!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Kingdom Signs -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9B

John 6:1-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.[a] A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages[b] would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they[c] sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” 
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. 
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles,[d] they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I;[e] do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.


Many have taken up the quest for the historical Jesus. They want to know who this Jesus really is. Is he a mere human or is he more than a human? Is the post-Easter Christ the same person as the pre-Easter Jesus? Many who affirm the divinity of Christ seek to offer proof for this appellation. They seek to offer signs—usually in the form of miracle stories as proof that Jesus was not simply a man. In the modern age many of those stories have been questioned by historians and other scholars. Following David Hume they ask a useful question—how often have you seen people healed, raised from the dead, etc.? Since few of us have actually seen something like what the Gospels describe Jesus doing, we are put in a tough spot. We could quote C.S. Lewis’ famous retort that due to the claims Jesus made for himself, he was either “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic.” The problem with Lewis’ response is that we’re not sure whether Jesus made those claims for himself. So the quest continues. We seek to discover who Jesus was, and once we answer that question perhaps we can answer the question of who he is for us today.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Disciples of Christ Polity -- A Congregation's Rights and Responsibilities

It is Monday at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), meeting in Columbus, Ohio. I'm continuing to repost a series of reflections I wrote soon after the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando in July 2013. In this piece I take up the issue of the relationship of the congregation to General and Regional Manifestations. I think that many of the issues that emerged at the last Assembly will emerge once again, so here is my "re-take."  Take a read and offer your thoughts.


As I continue this series of posts concerning the polity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as laid out in The Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I would like to come back to the role of the congregation in our understanding of the church.  In the previous post I suggested that we might look a the social Trinity as a model for our understanding of the relationships among congregation, Region, and General Church.  Using the idea of perichoresis or mutual indwelling, we would affirm that congregation, region, and general expression do not exist outside the relationship with the other.  More on this in a later post.

Here I'd like to say something about the rights and responsibilities of congregations in this triune church.  We hear a lot about the rights of congregations.  Congregations have the right to call their own pastors (and fire them as well), own their property, and decide how to use their money.  When the Disciples went through restructure great efforts were made to protect these rights.  

That we talk a lot about rights shouldn't surprise us, since the Disciples were born in the context of the founding of the Republic.  The Bill of Rights had just been affirmed.  Americans have been very vocal from day one about protecting their rights.  So, it's no surprise that this kind of language has been with us from the very beginning.  With this in mind The Design defined these congregational rights: 

11. Among the rights recognized and safeguarded to congregations are the rights to manage their affairs under the Lordship of Jesus Christ; to adopt or retain their names, corporate documents, and organization of ministry; to determine, in faithfulness to the gospel, their practices; to own, control, and encumber their property; to organize for carrying out the mission and witness of the church; to establish their budgets and financial policies; to call their ministers; and to participate through voting representatives in forming the corporate judgment of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

There is a great deal of independence or autonomy allowed in this description of congregational rights.  But what about responsibilities?  What responsibilities do congregations have to Regions and the General Church?  Or to put a different way, how do Congregations express their covenantal relationship beyond the life of the Congregation?  

12. Among the responsibilities by which congregations demonstrate their mutual concern for the mission and witness of the whole church are the responsibilities to proclaim the gospel and administer baptism and the Lord's Supper; to provide for the spiritual nurture of their members and families; to grow in understanding that the church is a universal fellowship, transcending all barriers within the human family; to engage in evangelism; to sustain their ministers in faithfulness and honor and, in matters pertaining to relationships with them, to seek counsel from the regional minister; to be faithful in Christian stewardship, striving to share proportionately in providing the resources for the total life, work, and witness of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); to choose voting representatives to the General and Regional Assemblies; to share with other ministries of the church in the establishment and nurture of new congregations; and to seek to realize the oneness of the church of Jesus Christ through cooperation with other congregations and with present and emerging ecumenical structures.

As you look at these items, you find that there are key practices such as proclaiming the gospel, administering baptism and the Lord's Supper and providing pastoral and spiritual care.  They do this in relationship to the broader church.  

More specifically congregations are encouraged to "seek counsel from the regional minister."  I have made it my practice to be in regular conversation with the Regional Ministers I've served with.  I've made sure to invite them to the church and fill the pulpit.  I think it's wise to seek their counsel when making decisions. This is especially true as a congregation enters search and call.  Whenever seeking a new pastor it is incumbent on the congregation to trust the Regional Minister to help guide them in the process.  

A second item has to do with stewardship, with the encouragement to "share proportionately in providing the resources for the total life, work, and witness of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)."  In other words, make the Disciples Mission Fund a primary recipient of a congregation's outreach dollars.  For one thing the Regional Church and the General Church depend on those gifts to sustain their ministries, but there's another reason for giving through DMF and other Special Offerings.  This is the way in which we demonstrate our covenant relationship, even as the stewardship of individual members of congregations demonstrate their commitment through their giving.  But if you look closely at the Yearbook, you will find that large numbers of congregations, may of which are sizable give little or nothing to Disciples entities beyond the congregation.  In my region, out of around forty plus churches, I think twelve gave money through DMF.  

Then there's the involvement of congregations in Regional and General Church life, including participation in Regional and General Assemblies.  After the recent General Assembly there were a number of complaints about cost and such, but I would ask whether these same persons/congregations participated in Regional Assemblies.  In my Region, about the same number of churches that give money send representatives to the Regional Assembly.  

The Design goes on to speak of other cooperative ventures congregations participate in as Disciples, from starting new churches to pursuing ecumenical ventures.  The section on Rights and Responsibilities ends with a statement that all of this responsibility is voluntary. You don't have to do anything outside the congregation and claim to be Disciple -- based on shared heritage I suppose -- but I would ask are these congregations that fail in their responsibilities to engage with Regional and General Church being true to their covenant?  Is there mutuality of relationship existing?  Or, to go back to the top do we really have a unitarian ecclesiology?    

Where is the Church? Thoughts on Disciples of Christ Polity

Yesterday the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) began. As promised I'm reposting the second of several pieces I wrote not long after the Orlando Assembly in 2013. I am sharing these pieces to spark conversation about identity as we near the fiftieth anniversary of Restructure, a process that turned the Disciples into a self-affirming denomination, complete with structures we called church.  So the question is -- what does it mean to be church as Disciples?  Take a read and offer your thoughts. 


When we talk about the nature of the church, where do we find its fundamental unit?  Is it the congregation? Is it the denomination? Is it something beyond the congregation? Is it visible?  Or is it invisible?  If I were to venture a guess, I would say that most people who call themselves Disciples of Christ, would claim that the "fundamental unit" is the congregation.  In fact, I have often thought in this vein.  But is this true?

Wm. Barnett Blakemore, one of the key contributors to the theological foundations of what became the restructured Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), notes that this idea that the congregation is the "fundamental unit" is a 20th century concept.  In the 19th century Disciples would have probably spoke of the individual being that "fundamental unit."  Blakemore suggests that Disciples face two important questions.  The second has to do with the locus of power, a conversation that I'll leave for a later post.  The first question has to do with the definition of this "fundamental unit."   [W. Barnett Blakemore, "The Issue of Polity for Disciples Today,"   in The Revival of the Churches (Panel of Scholars Reports, vol. 3),  Wm. Barnett Blakemore, ed, (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1963),  pp. 66-67.]

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Gathering as Church: The General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Today the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) begins. Several thousand Disciples will be gathering for the next few days in Columbus, Ohio. We will worship, study, fellowship, and of course do some business. Not long after I returned from the last Assembly in Orlando, I wrote several postings speaking to some of the questions we face as a denomination. We are forty-six years removed from what Disciples call "Restructure." Most of us who serve churches today were old enough at the time to have participated in any meaningful way (if we were alive). In 1969 I was 11 years old and not yet a confirmed Episcopalian. So as we gather, I am going to be reposting several of these pieces to spark conversation, the first of which addresses the question of whether we gather here as church or not.


 At the time of Restructure in the 1960s, the Disciples of Christ, my denomination, was known as the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ).  Note the use of the plural -- churches.  To that point we considered ourselves a free and voluntary association of churches and agencies, all of which were autonomous.  With Restructure we changed our name slightly, and adopted a new understanding of church – a church that existed within the Universal Body of Christ in three equal manifestations.  It was a difficult transition, one that we’re still trying to embody nearly a half century later.  We understand to some degree how the church exists as a local body, but how are regions and the General manifestation – now expression – church?  We changed our language, but have we changed our theology or our practice? 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Religious Revitalization of US Muslim-Palestinians: New Solidarities and New Tensions -- Sightings (Loren Lybarger)

The United States has often been the destination for migrations of displaced persons, whether the displacement is economic or political in origin.  One of those communities that has migrated over the years is the Palestinian community, whether Muslim, Christian, or secular in orientation. Chicago and its suburbs has become the most important destination of Palestinians, whose presence continues to grow, especially as the Israeli occupation continues without end. The orientation of the immigrants has moved from secular to religious, making it more difficult to create unity across religious lines.  I invite you to read Loren Lybarger's very insightful essay, which helps bring the issues at hand into focus.  


Religious Revitalization of US Muslim-Palestinians: New Solidarities and New Tensions

The Prayer Center Mosque in Orland Park, Illinois, built in 2004        Credit: flickr creative commons
Immigration to Europe, Australia, and the Americas has been one of the primary strategies that Palestinians have adopted to cope with their decades-long displacement. In the United States, Chicago has historically served as a main hub of Palestinian North American migration.

This migration began in the late 1880s when Palestinians, subject to Ottoman imperial rule, sought relief from land reform laws that had rendered sharecropping increasingly difficult.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Turning Points in Iranian-American Relationship?

Yesterday we awoke to news that a historic nuclear arms deal had been agreed to by Iran and a group of world powers, including the United States.  For the majority of my adult life the USA and Iran have been at odds. I was in college when the Shah fell and the present order was instituted. I remember during college the nightly reports on ABC with Ted Koppel updating us on America taken Hostage.  I remember as a recent college graduate the news that the hostages had been released even as Ronald Reagan was being inaugurated. Since then we have lived at odds with this ancient nation.

I am not naive to think that this deal will lead to peaceful easy feelings in the region or between the USA and Iran. I do have hopes however that this could be the beginning of a new engagement with Iran. I'm hopeful that this deal will strengthen the more moderate/progressive parties in the country, while weakening the hardliners (who oppose the deal).

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

No Rest for the Weary -- Lectionary Meditation for Pentecost 8B

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

                Clergy talk a lot about self-care, but were not very good at it. We talk about setting boundaries, but we don’t do very well at that either. I must confess that even as I write this meditation, I’m starting a vacation period. I probably should be doing other kinds of things, like relaxing. However, this blog won’t take care of itself, and I have a book that needs finishing. I have books to read (and they’re not what you would call “pleasure reading.” So, if I offer words of advice in this meditation, I’m probably not following them. I’m not supposed to eat chips and drink soda either! I make the confession up front so you won’t think I’m being holier than thou!    

When it comes to getting away from things, I can do it. I just have to turn off the phone and leave Facebook alone. It’s just that FB is so tempting! So, if I can’t relax it’s probably my own fault. But enough about me (and my clergy colleagues), we have a reading from the Gospel of Mark to consider.

                This reading from the Gospel of Mark frames the story of the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ trip across the lake without the benefit of a boat (walking on water). The story begins with the disciples returning from their first preaching mission. Jesus wants to know how things went. He knows that they’re probably tired. They’ve given their all (we preachers know what that feels like—Sunday afternoon is best spent away from church life). It’s time to sit back, have a meal, and share some stories. We call this retreat time! There is only one problem with this scenario—Jesus can’t seem to get away by himself. Where he went, the crowds followed. The people were hurting and they were hungry (both for food and a word from God). They were, Mark reports, like sheep without a shepherd. Sheep without a shepherd can get lost in a hurry. They need herding. They need protecting. When Jesus sees the people he has compassion for them. So what does that mean?

                Douglas John Hall writes that the meaning of compassion here needs to be understood as more than mere pity. Pity, he suggests, “is something you can manage from afar.” When I see a commercial that shows pictures of starving children or brutalized animals, I can have pity on them. I might even send in a few dollars to help with their plight. According to Hall, that’s not what Mark has in mind here. He writes: “You do not have compassion, really, unless you suffer with those to whom you refer. The precondition for compassion is unconditional solidarity with the ones for whom you feel it” [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3 p. 262.] So, Jesus ministers to them. He will, as the text continues on beyond the portion chosen for the day, feed the people, even though it will tax his strength. He needs to get away, but now is not the time. There are needs that need to be attended to.

                I’m not sure how to apply this passage to my own life and ministry. Compassion is a tall order, at least if it is more than simply showing pity. Yet, if Jesus is our model and our guide (as well as our redeemer), then his actions should provide some guidance. To act with compassion is to be involved in the lives of thus hunger and thirst and hurt.

                Wherever Jesus went, the crowds were sure to follow. Back and forth he went across the lake. He couldn’t get ahead of things. People were there, ready to engage him.  He is the shepherd who heals and feeds the people. He welcomes all who come. He visited villages, cities, and farms. As he walked through marketplaces people laid the sick at his feet and begged him for permission to touch the fringe of his cloak.

                At the same time, Jesus did take time away. Yes, it was difficult to do. There was often little leisure time for him and his disciples to have a bite to eat. Still, in the omitted verses, which detail the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ venture walking on water, Mark reminds us why Jesus sent the disciples off in the boat by themselves. Jesus needed time away to pray (Mark 6:45-46).  Yes, we forget that Jesus needed to take time off by himself so he could reconnect with God and find inspiration so he could continue on his journey. He faced great pressures, but he was also committed to the principles of self-care. When out in public Jesus rarely had time to be anonymous.  So, he had to schedule time alone (even away from the disciples). After all, they might have been his apprentices, but they were sheep needing tending as well.  So, off he sent them.

                So, what word do we hear in this passage?  There is, of course, a strong message about Jesus’ acts of service. But there is also a call to step back and experience refreshment in the presence of God. Perhaps this word of wisdom from Karen Marie Yust is appropriate for us to hear:
[T]he message of verses 30-34 is ambiguous: set yourselves apart for divine and physical sustenance, and at the same time, set aside your own retreat when others are in need of spiritual sustenance. How does a congregation shape its life together to honor both of these teachings?   [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3,  p. 262].

The first call is to show compassion, but where and when possible take time for refreshment. That likely will require discernment and intentionality!

Monday, July 13, 2015

General Assemblies -- Disciples and the Doctrine of the Church

Later this week Cheryl and I, along with several thousand other Disciples of Christ clergy and lay persons will travel to Columbus, Ohio to attend our denomination's General Assembly. We have a good group of people going from Central Woodward Christian Church, several of whom will be attending their first General Assembly.  I have attended all but one General Assembly since going for the first time in 1995 (Denver).  While I will admit that I don't go for the business part of the experience, I do believe that the General Assembly -- a biennial gathering -- is an essential part of our denomination's life together. Unlike many mainline denominations, every congregation can send delegates (all clergy with standing along with at least two lay members can vote) to the Assembly.  Since we don't have a creed or a true hierarchy (we have a General Minister/President, but that person's power is largely persuasive and not administrative), the General Assembly is that one piece of the denominational experience that binds us together as a community of faith. When we gather at the Assembly, more than the business meetings (over which one of my close friends will preside this time around), it is the fellowship in the halls and meals along with worship that binds us together. 

Word is out that we are well below the needed number of attendees for the Columbus Assembly.  In fact the deficit is sufficient enough that it is deemed wise not to sign contracts for the 2019 General Assembly, which I understand is scheduled to meet in Des Moines, Iowa.  I realize that attendance at the General Assembly is expensive, especially if you live far from the host city.  Many of my West Coast friends rarely attend due, I'm assuming to distance.  The hotels aren't cheap, but they're not overly expensive (staying in the contracted hotels is important because it reduces the costs of the convention center, and thus registration).    

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Time to Celebrate - A Sermon for Pentecost 7B

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19

What religious symbols stir in you an awareness of God’s presence? Is it the communion table? The chalice and the bread that sit on the table? Is it an open Bible or a pulpit? For the people ancient Israel one of the most potent symbols of God’s presence was the Ark of the Covenant. This Ark, according to the book of Exodus, was a wooden box overlaid with pure gold. On that box sat the mercy seat and two cherubs with wings outstretched. This wasn’t a magical box, but it did represent the presence of God to the people (Exodus 25:10-22). 

In modern times this sacred symbol became the centerpiece of a popular action-adventure movie. You may have even seen this movie titled Raiders of the Lost Ark!  The setting of the movie is World War II. Adolph Hitler is trying to collect artifacts that can help empower his dreams of world conquest. One of these artifacts that he wants to find and control is the Ark, which according to the book of Hebrews contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded (Hebrews 9:4). 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Bedrock of Civil Society? Mercy in the Face of Death -- Sightings (William Schweiker)

Ever since we first heard about how a young man chose to attend and then shoot a group of men and women studying the Bible, we have been talking about what led up to that shooting and how we might or should respond. Yesterday, we watched as the state of South Carolina took down a divisive symbol (Confederate battle flag) as one response. While it may get lost in the noise of our conversations, another thing happened in the aftermath. A number of the families pronounced forgiveness of the young perpetrator of this act of unspeakable violence.  William Schweiker of the University of Chicago Divinity School wants us to focus on that act of forgiveness, insisting that it is the key to peace. Yes, forgiveness, something Jesus pronounced from the cross, is the foundation of a new vision for society.  In the midst of the meditation Schweiker makes this point: 
One of the major challenges—maybe the major challenge—facing religious people in all of the world’s religions, is, to be frank, how to interpret their sacred writings in the most humane way.
It is true that all of our religious have violent readings, but the question for us is how we read those texts. Can we, will we, interpret them "in the most humane way?" 

Take a read and consider this question. 

The Bedrock of Civil Society? Mercy in the Face of Death

Credit: Monkey Business Images / shutterstock
Death stalks the schools, cinemas, and churches of America. Not a day passes without some report of a madman killing innocent people and then turning his weapon on himself or cowardly fleeing the scene of the suffering he has sown.

Most of the time, the newspapers give the details of the crime, the unbelief of the victims' families, the calls for retaliation against the criminal and for the end of open access to all manner of weapons, and, predictably, the NRA’s drumbeat of “guns don’t kill people, people do.”