Monday, August 31, 2015

LOVING LATER LIFE: An Ethics of Aging (Frits de Lange): A Review

LOVING LATER LIFE: An Ethics of AgingBy Frits de Lange. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015. X + 159 pages.

                Although the young continue to set the trends and advertisers (and media) target the 18-35 demographic, the population in the developed world, including the United States, is aging. The largest generation ever is retiring at rapid pace and will like live for several decades past retirement. These new retirees and those following on their heels (myself included) are likely the parents of that preferred generational target. We are aging for two reasons—birth rates are down and we live longer than ever before. If you’ve visited a mainline Protestant or a Catholic Church, you will likely notice many people with gray hair, many of whom are over 80. This growing demographic of aging Americans will likely spend at least a decade or more attempting to remain in control of their own destiny and enjoying as much of life as their bodies and minds will allow. This is mostly true of the younger elderly (65-85), but those entering the oldest cohort of the elderly will face increasing challenges and decline both physically and mentally. For this cohort, control of one’s own life becomes increasingly problematic and thus one becomes increasingly dependent on others.

                As a pastor of a mainline Protestant congregation I am called upon to minister to and with a significant cohort of elderly parishioners. I watch as they seek to maintain agency in life, and for some the challenges that age produces. Even as I minister to/with them I have become increasingly aware of my own aging status. I am within a decade of reaching retirement age myself, even as my mother and father-in-law move into what author Frits de Lange refers to as the Fourth Age (the oldest cohort of the elderly).

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Beloved Calls - Sermon for Pentecost 14B

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Every generation since the beginning of recorded human history has had its love songs. You might have a favorite and I might have mine. It’s likely that our differences of generation will influence our choices. Our scripture reading this morning is itself a love song, or at least a small portion of one of the great epic love songs ever written.

As I was thinking about this song, a tune from my teen years came to mind. It’s one of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles hits, and I think it fits the moment. The first stanza goes like this: 
You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs

I look around me and I see it isn't so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what's wrong with that?
I'd like to know
'Cause here I go again
I love you, I love you
I love you, I love you.
Yes, what’s wrong with singing silly love songs? 

There’s another song from those years that also speaks of love, but in a somewhat different way than McCartney’s song. And it goes like this: 
What the world needs now is love, sweet love

It's the only thing that there's just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No not just for some but for everyone

So, as McCartney so profoundly puts it: “Love isn’t silly at all.”  No, everyone needs to experience a bit of love. For as Paul put it: “Faith, Hope, and Love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Loving our Aging Selves

Like many mainline pastors I have in my congregation a goodly number of older persons. Many have children my age, so they could be a parent to me. I've not reached old age yet, but having reached my late fifties, I am becoming more cognizant of my own aging self. I'm not as young as I used to be! My hair is gray, my joints stiffen up, and the flesh isn't nearly as supple as before. By the world's standards of beauty, I'm past my prime. We can try to stave off aging, but it will eventually catch up with us, whether we're ready for it or not. As I wrestle with my own aging, I must also be attuned to my aging congregants, quite a number of whom are in their 80s. I'm amazed at times how vibrant some of them are. They keep on going. They stay active. But time is not on their side. 

While I've not finished the book yet, so this isn't a book review, I have found Frits de Lange's book Loving Later Life: An Ethics of Aging(Eerdmans, 2015) to be an incredibly enlightening read. I will be reviewing it soon as I'm almost done with it, but I wanted to share an important word that the spoke to me. That word is -- if I am to love the elderly, especially the frail elderly (what he calls the 4th age), then I must love my own aging self. He sets up the whole question of loving the elderly by exploring the ethics of love, including the Golden Rule.  He writes:
In the admonition to love our aging self, the command to love not only offers a normative ethics but may also explain why caring about the elderly is such a difficult thing. My contention is that we do not love our own aging, we do not love growing old, and thus, in general, we do not love old people. There is a deep-seated aversion toward aging -- and consequently toward old people -- that is widespread throughout human culture. Evolution gave us a spontaneous care instinct for the bodily needs of vulnerable babies, but it left us without such an instinct toward vulnerable old people. On the contrary, the idea of old age is horrific disgusting, and tainted by mortality has a long history in Western classical traditions as well as in Eastern cultures. Simone de Beauvoir was undoubtedly correct when she said: "If old people show the same desires, the same feelings and same requirements as the young, the world looks upon them with disgust: in them love and jealously seem revolting and absurd, sexuality repulsive and violence ludicrous." Old people may be stereotyped positively as exemplars of virtue or negatively stigmatized because of their vices. "In any case, either by their virtue or by their degradation, the stand outside humanity." [Loving Later Life, pp. 62-63]. 
If we cannot love ourselves as aging people we are likely unable to love the elderly. Why, because they serve as reminders that this is our future, and we would rather not face that fact. We would rather embrace the lure of being young.  For many people the early retirement years, perhaps up to the mid 80s offer the opportunity for being active and in firm control of one's own life, but eventually we come to that point in life where we lose our ability to control our lives and become increasingly dependent on others. That is, as I've discovered from my many conversations with older persons over the years is very scary. But by loving our own aging selves, we are in a better position to be of support to those who find themselves increasingly dependent on others.  

I will share more on this once I am able to review the book.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Reading and Preaching the Song of Solomon

It is rare that the lectionary takes us to the Song of Solomon. It is probably rarer still that a preacher would choose to focus on this passage. If you're a lectionary preacher are you going to join me in taking up Song of Solomon 2:8-13?

The question raised by the song as a whole has centered on whether to read it as a secular love song -- after all, nowhere does God appear in the poem.  It is a conversation between two lovers. It is erotic in nature. While the language is poetic and full of euphemism, it is fairly easy to figure things out. Thus, there is a clear reason why ancient Christian interpreters chose to follow rabbinic interpretations and move toward spiritual/allegorical readings. We're just not that comfortable talking about sex in church.  It's not just the question of gay and lesbian relationships, it's sex in general.

So, what do we do with this song?  It sits there within the borders of Scripture. It is sacred scripture. Perhaps it is the link to Solomon that cemented its place there, but it's still there.  Historical-critical readings lead us to interpret it as it was most surely first written -- a secular love song between two lovers (who may or may not have been married).  At the same time tradition invites us to read it allegorically as a love song between God and God's people (Jesus and the church). Could both be possible?

As I ponder these things in the midst of writing this week's sermon on this passage (yes, I'm taking it on), I would like to share this paragraph from Stephanie Paulsell's commentary on this book.

The history of the Song's reception is a history of multiple readings that find in this erotic poetry about two lovers' fruitful ways of pondering the relationship between God and Israel, Christ and the church, God and the soul. The song itself resists any absolute declarations about the intention of the author(s) or the final identity of the characters; it is poetry, after all. At their best, Christian readings of the Song enter the long conversation about this poem about the Song's own concerns: love, desire, the body, and the distance between even the most intimate lovers.  [Harvey Cox & Stephanie Paulsell, Lamentations and the Song of Songs: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible), WJK Press, 2012, p. 194].
If you would like to see how I handle the passage from this book you'll have to join us Sunday at Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy or simply check back to see the posted sermon. It's always more interesting live!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Defiled by Traditions? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14B

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders;and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 
‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

                Traditions can be helpful. They help preserve and pass on important information that helps define one’s identity and purpose. Tradition is a bit like the genetic code, which passes on useful information that help form a person’s biology and identity. It’s the nature part of the nature vs. nurture debate. Unfortunately genetic material can get corrupted (mutated), causing immense problems such as hereditary diseases.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Vicar of Tent Town (Shauna Hyde): An Endorsement

THE VICAR OF TENT TOWNBy Shauna Hyde. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2015. vi + 89 pages.

Sometime back I was asked to write an endorsement of a book written by a United Methodist pastor about her ministry with the homeless in Charleston, WV.  I'd like to share that brief word of endorsement and recommend to you this book from Energion Publications, which I must add has published several of my own books.  

In The Vicar of Tent Town the Rev. Shauna Hyde tells the story of her calling to what most would consider a rather unusual ministry. Newly called to a Charleston, WV United Methodist church, she is introduced by members of her own congregation to a homeless encampment, and in the course of the story she becomes its Vicar – the pastor for the homeless, even as she served a traditional congregation. In the course of this insightful book Shauna Hyde we are drawn into her ministry, getting to know both members of her congregation who encouraged her in this ministry and who shared in it with her. We also get to know the residents of this community, discovering that there are many reasons why people end up homeless and why they stay homeless. You might be surprised at what you learn. This is not only a book that informs; it inspires one to new visions of ministry. In a time when religion is seen as irrelevant to life, Shauna Hyde offers evidence to the contrary.
Shauna currently serves as the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Ravenswood, WV. Her book is a powerful meditation on ministry with persons who live on the fringe of our society.  I highly recommend it, especially congregations wrestling with becoming more involved in ministries touching the community's most vulnerable persons. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

No House for God - Sermon for Pentecost 13B

1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43

Having a house is a good thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re buying or renting, whether it’s big or small, it’s good to have a roof over your head. Soon we’ll be hosting SOS, and I expect that during that week many of us will pause to give thanks for our homes. Home ownership has its challenges, but it is good to have a home. 

We can give thanks that as a congregation we have a roof over our heads and a fairly comfortable space to gather for worship, for fellowship, and for study. Since this building has been around for more than thirty years, it’s easy to take this blessing for granted, forgetting that it takes a lot of resources to keep up the place. 

This morning’s reading from 1 Kings forms part of a story about a house built for God. We meet up again with Solomon, that wise king whom Susan introduced last week. He’s standing before the altar of the newly constructed Temple in Jerusalem, getting ready to deliver his prayer of dedication for the house he built for God. Maybe he did this because he was feeling guilty about living in a big house while God’s Ark rested in a tent. He had permanent lodgings, but God had to make do with an impermanent abode. So he built a Temple and now it’s time to dedicate it. Solomon stands before the altar and invites God to take notice of the building. I expect that Solomon was proud of his achievement and he hoped God would be pleased. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Know-Nothings Redux

Citizen Know Nothing, image of the Know Nothing party's nativist ideal

Back in the 1850s a political party emerged that came to be known by the moniker "the Know-Nothings. The official name was the "American Party." The "know-nothing" label was a reflection of its "secret society" inclinations. More specifically it was a nativist party, that largely directed its ire against Roman Catholics. In 1856 they even put up former President Millard Fillmore as their candidate, though it's not clear that he was a member of their group.  The targets at the time were the Irish and Italians, both of which came from predominantly Catholic countries. It may be hard for many today to conceive of a large anti-Catholic contingent in the American populace, especially when six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Roman Catholic, but such was the case back then.

Well, that mood is with us again.  We see it in the anti-immigrant verbage of Donald Trump, which has pushed other GOP candidates, though not all, to adopt similar verbage. Trump talks of building a big wall and making Mexico paying for it. He also talks about an embargo on Mexico, which is our third largest trading party. These candidates are also talking about abolishing "birth-right citizenship." 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Jesus' Welcome Table

As I continue to reflect on the open table, and Jesus' practice, I want to turn from my conversation with Dennis Smith's book From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World,which is a scholarly examination of the origins of the Eucharist to a more "popular" reflection. So, for this reflection I want to turn to Nora Gallagher's book The Sacred Meal: The Ancient Practices SeriesNora writes not as a professional theologian but as a lay Christian -- she is, to my knowledge, still a member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara -- a church I know well.

In the book Nora offers her position on the Open Table, noting that "if you make up a bunch of rules about who gets to take Communion and who doesn't, then Communion is reduced either to a special club with only certain kinds of people who are allowed in, or magic: "If I have confessed my sins, the something wonderful will happen. If I have not, then it won't."(The Sacred Meal: The Ancient Practices Seriesp. 90).

She continues a few pages later:
You are welcome at this table. The altar is the big table. This is the table that wants everyone there: poor and rich, women and men, children and older people, the mentally disabled and depressed, the homeless, the sane, the happy and the sad, the straight and the gay and the in-between. Thieves are welcome here, and embezzlers; so are murderers and prostitutes and sex abusers and those whom have been or are abused. Those who have had abortions are welcome here as well as those who have not. Drinking alcoholics, and those who've joined AA or have quite. Everyone. Just like the tax collectors and the blind man and the leper who followed Jesus . The gospel story that makes the most sense tome about the Eucharist is the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus didn't ask those thousands of people camped on that hillside whether they had confessed their sins or how clean they were. He fed them. (The Sacred Meal: The Ancient Practices Series, p. 92).
Now, the end result of coming to the Table could be transformation, for we all need to have transforming encounters with God, but that's not in our control.  As I think about the Open Table I'm mindful of the idea that the Table is a converting ordinance. 

Lest someone think that I don't take the Eucharist seriously, I need to state up front that I do take it very seriously. I believe that it is central to the life of the Christian community. I believe in frequent communion. Yes, I believe that the Eucharist is a sacred event in the life of the church, but I also believe that it is a sacrament of grace that Jesus the host shares with all who will come, wherever they may come from. As Nora puts it: "Holy Communion is an act of the imagination" (p. 94). I think too often we lack imagination, whether we offer an open or a restricted table.  So, may we let our imaginations go free so that we can engage the meal in a way that honors God and proves to be transformative for all who gather around it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Worshiping at the Table -- Thoughts on an Open Table

There is a tendency for people in every age to try to envision something from the past in contemporary terms. Therefore, when my own denominational tradition was born at the turn of the nineteenth century on the "American frontier," the founders tried to "restore" the worship and practices of the early church, but did so in 19th century garb. That's understandable.  If we are to learn from the practices of the early church, it's important to remember that we probably won't be able to completely "restore" what went before.

I've been reflecting on the Eucharist and the Lord's Table (the recent lectionary reflections on John 6 can be added into this conversation, but this will be the third to draw upon Dennis Smith's From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian WorldWhat I want to take notice of here today is Smith's point that Pauline congregations likely worshiped at the tables where they ate their dinner. Dinner wasn't merely a time of fellowship separate from worship, but the eating of the meal coincided with worship, which took place in the same space. Smith writes:

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Where Would We Go? - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 13B

John 6:56-69 Common English Bible (CEB)
56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them.57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. 
60 Many of his disciples who heard this said, “This message is harsh. Who can hear it?” 
61 Jesus knew that the disciples were grumbling about this and he said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 What if you were to see the Human One[a] going up where he was before? 63 The Spirit is the one who gives life and the flesh doesn’t help at all. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 Yet some of you don’t believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning who wouldn’t believe and the one who would betray him. 65 He said, “For this reason I said to you that none can come to me unless the Father enables them to do so.” 66 At this, many of his disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him. 
67 Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” 
68 Simon Peter answered, “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We believe and know that you are God’s holy one.”

                Sometimes we receive words that are difficult to hear and accept, and yet it’s important that we hear them. In John, Jesus often shares words that confuse and even offend. Such is the case as the sixth chapter of John comes to a close. For several weeks now we have been moving through John 6, a section of the Gospel that has long been seen as a Eucharistic text. Bread and wine here are symbols/signs of body and blood. Jesus invites his followers to eat his flesh (bread) and drink his blood (wine) so that he might abide in them.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Isaiah for Everyone (John Goldingay) -- Review

ISAIAH FOR EVERYONE (Old Testament for Everyone). By John Goldingay. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Xii + 260 pages.

            The book of Isaiah has long been a flashpoint of controversy within the Christian community. There are several reasons for this. One has to do with authorship. Was there one author, an eighth century prophet in Judah who answered the call of God in the year that Uzziah died (Isaiah 6:1), or were there several, some of whom lived in the post-exilic world? References to Cyrus were seen by some as proof that Isaiah was truly a prophet who could foresee events centuries ahead of time.  This becomes important because Isaiah has been looked to for prophetic insight into the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Thus, the translation of Isaiah 7:14 has proven to be a matter of great concern. Was the prophet pointing to a person born to a virgin or was he speaking of a young woman, perhaps the wife of the king, who was about to bear a son who would be seen as a sign of hope for the people of Israel? It’s good to remember that in the 1950s conservative Christians burned copies of the Revised Standard Version because the translators chose not to use the word virgin in that case, understanding this to have a more immediate context. What Matthew would do with it later on was a different matter.

                There continue to be readers of Isaiah who hold both to a single Isaiah and the older use of the word virgin over young woman. John Goldingay is not among them. Goldingay is the David Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at my alma mater—Fuller Theological Seminary. He came to Fuller after I had finished my studies, so I didn't have him as a professor, and therefore I can only speak of him in regards his written work. Goldingay is a British evangelical Anglican (Episcopalian in this country). From what I’ve read of his work he is a mainstream biblical scholar committed to an evangelical understanding of the Christian faith. Like N.T. Wright, who has authored the New Testament version of the series in which this commentary appears, he is rather centrist. He wants to attend to scholarship, but is committed to what some might call traditional or orthodox Christian faith.  Thus, on the matter of Isaiah 7:14 Goldingay writes:
If she is at the moment a virgin, she will be an unmarried girl who is going to marry and conceive in the usual way. We don’t know who the girl is—indeed, Isaiah doesn’t need to have a particular girl in mind. The point is that by the time a few months have passed and the girl has had her baby, the crisis that preoccupies Ahaz will be over. It will have been proved that “God is with us,” and she will be able to call her baby God-is-with-us, Immanuel. (p. 34).

This particular contribution to the Old Testament for Everyone series from Westminster John Knox Press, focuses on Isaiah. As is true of other contributions to this series that stands as a successor to the earlier Daily Bible Study series, the book is devotional and not scholarly in focus. It is meant to be accessible for the lay person without advanced training. It is written in a very personable style, with each portion of the text under consideration prefaced by personal comments that derive from some event or concern of the moment. Maybe he has gone to church that day or is preparing for a class. He mentions his wife (his first wife died while he was finishing an earlier contribution) regularly. You get the sense at times that this is a fairly free-flowing, almost extemporaneous reflection. It reminds me of my own weekly devotional posts. It seeks to bring out key points that have importance for the contemporary situation.

  Isaiah, as I’ve already noted, is an ever challenging book. It is among the longest books in the Bible. It was produced over a long period of time. It addresses important questions of theology and social justice. There are words of judgment and words of hope as well. There are beloved sections, especially the servant songs. There are a number of call passages, including Isaiah 61, which provides the foundation of Jesus’ own call in Luke 4. Having reflected on a conversation with a student at Fuller struggling with a sense of call, he notes that with the prophets there was little room for wondering about whether the call was there or not:
This particular account starts with the sense of Yahweh’s spirit or breath or wind being on the prophet. It’s unlikely to have been a gentle experience or one hard to discern. Yahweh’s breath blows you over and leaves you without options. (p. 234).

As you read this volume, you get a sense of how far evangelical Bible scholarship has come in recent decades—without a wink or a nod, Goldingay accepts the premise that Isaiah has multiple authors, who were active/prophesied/wrote over a period of several centuries, beginning in the 8th century and concluding some time after the end of the exile. Goldingay identifies six separate sections within the book: Chapters 1-12 comprise messages about Judah and Jerusalem during the reign of King Ahaz. Chapters 13-23 focus on the surrounding nations, giving reference again to Ahaz. Chapters 24-27 give attention to the destiny of the world without referencing a particular monarch. Chapters 28-39 feature messages about Judah and Jerusalem, giving reference to Hezekiah. In the next several chapters we jump well into the future. Chapters 40-55 feature messages about Judah and Jerusalem, while referencing Cyrus, the Persian monarch who conquered the Babylonian empire at the end of the 6th century BC. It was Cyrus who allowed the exiles to return home and eventually rebuild their city. This Cyrus is pictured in near messianic terms. Finally in chapters 56-66 we find discussions of Judah and Jerusalem, but no particular monarch being mentioned. 

The commentary features a fresh translation that is free-flowing and modern. Familiar passages, thus, don't always sound as familiar as they might. He uses Yahweh where older translations use Lord (Adonai) and where reference is God Almighty he uses the direct translation of Yahweh Armies, which is a favorite in the early part of Isaiah. As I noted Goldingay begins each section of the commentary with a brief personal aside that normally fits what is to come. The commentary is not exegetical in format, but is instead meant to be read devotionally.  There is almost an extemporaneous sense to the commentary, with Goldingay getting up in the morning and finding a personal connection with the text, and then he gets down to business. Now, at least with Isaiah Goldingay has some considerable experience. He has written other more exegetical commentaries on Isaiah [eg. Isaiah 56-66: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary (International Critical Commentary)], as well as a book on the theology of Isaiah [The Theology of the Book of Isaiah: Diversity and Unity]. This is a book with which he is very familiar and thus able to guide our conversation.

What we have is a very readable, thoughtful, theologically moderate commentary that should be especially useful for Bible study groups. Preachers might get some help from this, but for deeper questions they will want to look elsewhere.  Like William Barclay’s commentaries of an earlier era, there is much to like about these thoughtful volumes. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Eucharist -- Expanding Boundaries

Continuing with my conversation about the Eucharist and the development of a theology of the Open Table, I want to once again draw from Dennis Smith's book From Symposium to Eucharist. I am still reading the book and I have questions about his approach, but I do think that he is on to something by suggesting that the Eucharistic practices of the first couple of generations owe much to existing Greco-Roman banqueting practices (though modified by Christian needs). In other words the forms and rules of typical banqueting practices served as a foundation, on  to which a distinctively Christian vision was stamped. In the earlier post I noted the role of boundary setting in these meal practices. Smith goes into great detail showing how meal practices were marked by boundary setting. Thus, while Jews could dine with Gentiles, there were dietary issues involved. There was also social stratification involved as well. As the old adage puts it -- "birds of a feather flock together."

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Eucharist, Boundaries, and the Open Table

I would say that a majority of progressive/liberal leaning Mainline Protestant churches practice an open table of some sort. We're long past the day when denominational differences preclude coming to the Table. For many congregations the invitation may be given to all baptized Christians or perhaps simply Christians in general. Others of us, believe that the Table is open to all, drawing the circle of inclusion as wide as possible. It's not that we don't take the Table seriously, we simply believe that it is inappropriate to bar people from the Table.  We may do this as an expression of hospitality (or simply out of a desire to be nice), but do we have a theology of the Open Table?  That is a question that I am pursuing with some earnestness with members of the congregation (we're working on a worship  vitality grant application that seeks to link our Table practices with our Missional calling). 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Isn't this the end for the church?

It is often said that the church and with it Christianity is on the way out. Christendom is dead. The church is irrelevant.  You're heard it said, right?  Maybe you've said it yourself.  But it appears that this sentiment isn't new. Consider this reflection by Burris Jenkins, writing in his memoir published in 1939.  Jenkins was pastor of Community Christian Church in Kansas City. He was a liberal's liberal. He was Disciple, but he didn't consider denominational lables to be that important.

In the concluding chapter, as he's finishing up his life story, he reflects in a brief paragraph about the church and its future.  I thought I'd share it with you.

Ah, but isn't the church losing out? Isn't religion on the wane? Aren't people outgrowing it, becoming absorbed in the matieral, the mundane? Ask history -- the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, all the ages. The church has its ups and downs, its depressions and recessions. Tim eand again the populace and especially the intelligentsia have bade it good-by. But it has come out of the storm the spindrift, though its canvas was ripped and torn or else every stitch drawing. Religion has gone on in all ages and lands. No fear.  [Where My Caravan Has Rested, (Willett, Clark, & Co., 1939), p. 238}.

 That was 1939, prior to the great revivals of the 1950s and early 1960s. People bemoaned the state of the church and its influence then, but perhaps we might heed this word from Jenkins -- "No Fear." The church has had its ups and downs and yet somehow it survives. Perhaps the Spirit isn't as boxed in by our whims as we'd like to think.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Flesh and Blood Communion -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12B

Flesh and Blood Communion

John 6:51-58 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
                I recently saw a bumper sticker that referenced John 6:54. It said something about choosing life. At first I thought it might be an anti-abortion reference, but checking things out on my smart phone I realized that it referenced Jesus’ claim that eating his flesh and drinking his blood would lead to eternal life. I don’t know who produced the sticker but it seemed to be a Roman Catholic version of the distinctive evangelical text—John 3:16. Is it believing or eating? Theology seems to offer choices, and there’s no better place to reflect on such things than the Gospel of John.

                This is the fourth of five readings from John 6. Jesus has fed the 5000 and now faces questions about whether he will continue feeding the masses. He offers instead his flesh and blood as true food and true drink. The bread he shared with them in the first encounter would last for a day at most, but eating and drinking his flesh and blood would lead to eternal life. It’s not surprising that not everyone found this appetizing. It serves as a reminder why many contemporaries of early Christians thought they were cannibals.

                As I’ve noted in previous reflections, this chapter has taken on a distinctively Eucharistic interpretation. Since John lacks an institution narrative (Jesus washes feet instead in John 13), this is seen as a theological foundation for the Eucharist. Bread and wine serve as symbols of body and blood, so that be ingesting them one partakes of Jesus’ spiritual body and blood, and thus are made ready for eternal life. In Roman Catholic thought this passage provided a biblical foundation for the doctrine of transubstantiation. So consider the words of Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on John:
972 There is great usefulness in eating this sacrament, for it gives eternal life; thus he says, Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. For this spiritual food is similar to material food in the fact that without it there can be no spiritual life, just as there cannot be bodily life without bodily food, as was said above. But this food has more than the other, because it produces in the one who receives it an unending life, which material food does not do: for not all who eat material food continue to live. For, as Augustine says, it can happen that many who do take it die because of old age or sickness, or some other reason. But one who takes this food and drink of the body and blood of our Lord has eternal life. For this reason it is compared to the tree of life: “She is the tree of life for those who take her” (Prv 3:18); and so it is called the bread of life: “He fed him with the bread of life and understanding” (Sir 15:3). Accordingly, he says, eternal life, because one who eats this bread has within himself Christ, who is “the true God and eternal life,” as John says (1 Jn 5:20).  [Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Lecture 7 --]
One needn’t, in my mind, embrace the doctrine of transubstantiation to affirm the life-giving properties of the Eucharist, as promoted here in John 6.

                The message of John 6 is that material bread, while important to the sustenance of human life, is insufficient. There is more to life than the physical realm. There is also the spiritual realm. We are both creatures of the earth and creatures of heaven. The Eucharist seems to connect the two.  Bread and Wine are products of the earth. The Eucharistic Bread and Eucharistic Cup take those earthy elements and turn them into something spiritually nourishing. They are the means of salvation—in that they connect us to Christ.

                John Calvin was clear in his rejection of transubstantiation, but he affirmed the presence of Christ in the sacrament. It was, for him, no mere memorial as it was with Ulrich Zwingli. Of the message of John 6, he writes:
Such is the presence of the body (I say) that the nature of the Sacrament requires a presence which we say manifests itself here with a power and effectiveness so great that it not only brings an undoubted assurance of eternal life to our minds, but also assures us of the immortality of our flesh. Indeed, it is now quickened by his immortal flesh, and in a sense partakes of his immortality. [Institutes of Christian Religion, IV:17:32]

So what do we make of these words from the Gospel of John, which speak so boldly of eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking of his blood? What do they convey to us about the Eucharist? In what sense does communion provide sustenance to our spiritual lives, even as bread provides sustenance to our physical lives? We can even push this a bit further—what does John’s account say to us about how we observe the sacrament? If it is spiritually a means of communing with Jesus in a way that is transformational then how does heaven impact earth? In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul speaks of partaking worthily and discerning the body. It seems clear to me that Paul is speaking of the horizontal dimension of the supper.  That leads to a further question—how do the vertical (divine-human) relationships intersect with the horizontal (human-human) relationships? 

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Spirit of Grace (Alister McGrath) -- A Review

THE SPIRIT OF GRACE: A Guide for Study and Devotion (The Heart of Christian Faith).  By Alister E. McGrath. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. X + 115 pages.

                With this volume Alister McGrath nears the close of his five volume The Heart of Christian Faith, which offers a basic introduction to what one might call traditional/orthodox Christian faith as outlined in the Apostles Creed. The first book in the series—Faith and Creeds—laid out the value and purpose of the creeds.  McGrath starts with the premise that what one believes is important, for belief forms the foundation of one’s world view, which allows for the moral life to be experienced. McGrath, who serves as the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford insists that faith as outlined in the creeds provides an anchor for life.

                McGrath is an interesting person. He’s a British evangelical, an Anglican Priest, a theologian, and a scientist (his first educational experiences were in the sciences, and only later did he turn his attention to theology). McGrath is in many ways a contemporary version of C.S. Lewis (only much better educated theologically), who has made his mark on communicating often complex theological concepts to a lay audience, offering up what Lewis called Mere Christianity.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

You Can Always Write!

What do I do for fun? Well, I write things!! So, here I am on vacation and feeling the urge to write. So in my defense I share a word from one of the more intriguing figures in the history of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Rev. Burris Jenkins, long time pastor of what is today Community Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri.  Here is his word of advice to clergy (you must remember that in the 1930s most mainline clergy were male and that the idea of inclusive language had yet to emerge):
Every man should possess an avocation, a side line, something to amuse himself with and help release the strain of living and working. Ministers who can no longer play even croquet can always write. It is great fun; and as Robert Louis Stevenson said, it is worth while even if one never publishes a line of it, just for the joy of the working.  [Where My Caravan has Rested, (Chicago: Willett, Clark, and Company, 1939), p. 90].
The great thing about contemporary technology is that you don't even need a publisher -- you can publish yourself on a blog.  However, you have to be careful about this. Jenkins, who I should add was one of the great liberals of the first half of the 20th century, offered some words about who should judge the quality of one's work. He recommends submitting to a publisher, as one cannot trust the judgment of either friends or enemies. 
Even the unbiased staff of a publishing house, who do not know you at all, make mistakes, both for and against you; so how can your friends, who like you very much, or your enemies, who dislike you heartily, test the value of your writing?  
So write. Send to a publisher. Don't worry if you get rejected.  I know the feeling.  Keep pushing on and someday, well, who knows!!

Friday, August 07, 2015

The Ted Nugent Paradox -- Liberals, Small Town America, & Class

Manistee, MI
This is likely the first and last mention of Ted Nugent in one of my blog posts. I'm not a fan of his music or his politics. That said, my friend Luke Allen wrote a blog post with that title and I'd like to engage it, because Luke has raised some important questions for those of us on the left side of center, especially those of us in the church! The post isn't about Ted Nugent, but about the realities of white rural America and attitudes among white liberals toward what some term red necks or white trash -- often the white working poor. 

Luke places himself on the liberal side of the political spectrum, but he grew up in small town Michigan. In recent years he has spent considerable time doing urban and suburban community organizing (I partnered with him and another pastor in launching what became the Metro Coalition of Congregations).  Luke has a strong passion for communities like the one he was raised in, even though he lives in the urban/suburban part of southeast Michigan. My experience isn't quite the same as his, but I grew up in a small city in southern Oregon that reflected some of the more conservative values that he identifies. 

Thursday, August 06, 2015


                It would be appropriate to call the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) a Table-centered communion. From our earliest days as a movement, which spans at least three major groupings in the United States, we have gathered weekly at the Lord’s Table (if not more often). The symbol that represents the denomination is a red chalice with the St. Andrew’s cross imposed upon it. Our liturgy of the Table tends to be simple and among major denominations the Disciples are unique in that they do not require an ordained minister present at the table to consecrate the elements. Indeed, until recently the table was the domain of lay elders. Today most Disciples churches will have the Minister preside, offering the words of institution, while elders will offer the prayer over the elements.

Although there are similarities between contemporary practice and that of the early 19th century, Disciple practices have evolved over time. Gerard Moore, a Roman Catholic scholar from Australia who has made worship the focus of his own studies, has chosen to examine Disciple practices, their liturgies, and their theologies of worship and the Eucharist. It might seem odd that a Roman Catholic would focus attention on the Disciples, but even if the practices and the theology are different, the two communions share in common a focus on the Table. It appears that this book is a revision of a master’s thesis written at Catholic University of America some years ago (Keith Watkins who is one of the objects of Moore’s attention remembers reading that thesis) under the guidance of important Catholic liturgical scholars.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

One In the Spirit -- Stalcup Lecture on Christian Unity (Jose Morales)

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has made the pursuit of Christian unity one of our foundational principles. Thus, we are an ecumenical people. This ecumenical principle has been at the heart of my own spirituality, in large part because my own spiritual journey has taken me to several different denominational traditions, all of which have contributed to my identity. 

With that in mind I would like to share the Rev. Jose Morales' Stalcup Lecture on Christian Unity entitled "One in the Spirit," which is sponsored by the Council on Christian Unity and Brite Divnity School. Jose speaks here of an ecumenizing spirituality that involves lament over our division, our self-emptying of self (church), and movement toward unity of all life -- a new heaven and new earth.

Jose is a good friend with whom I share a passion for theology and its importance to the life of the church. He is currently a Ph.D. student in theology at Claremont School of Theology and Director of Pastoral Formation at Disciples Seminary Foundation. Before that he was Regional Minister for the Central Rocky Mountain Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). 

There is a word here that really stood out to me and that ecumenism is the "charismatic font of our livelihood as a particular people called Disciples." What stands out here is the reminder to Disciples, who tend toward a rationalistic faith, that this is a spiritual enterprise.  With that said, I invite you to listen, reflect, and respond to this good word to the Church -- whether Disciple or not!

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Come to the Table and Taste the Bread of Heaven

John 6:35, 41-51 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

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. 
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”


C. S. Lewis famously declared in Mere Christianity that Jesus is either “Lord, liar, or lunatic.” Now there are reasons to dismiss Lewis’ declaration, largely because we don’t have a definitive record of what Jesus may have actually said about himself and his place in God’s economy.  That being said, in John’s mind, as recounted in John 6, Jesus is most assuredly seeing himself standing at the center of God’s vision of creation. He is the bread of life, and whoever eats of this bread, which is his flesh, will live eternally. If you want to take hold of the promise of eternal life, then you’re going to want to believe in Jesus. I realize that the idea of belief is problematic for many, at least if belief is understood to be assent to creedal statements. In large part that is due to the Enlightenment quest for certainty that turned statements of faith into religious checklists. If you assent (without any doubt) then you’re in.  If not, well – sorry about that. In addition there is the question of living faithfully in a pluralistic world. The desire to engage persons of other faiths, which I do consistently, has led some to give up any sense of confidence in the tenets of their own faith. Would we not be wiser to hold our beliefs humbly, recognizing that others might have good reasons for their own beliefs. In other words, confidence needn’t lead to arrogance.

Monday, August 03, 2015

The God We Worship (Nicholas Wolterstorff) -- A Review

THE GOD WE WORSHIP: An Exploration of Liturgical Theology (Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology)By Nicholas Wolterstorff.  Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015. Xi + 180 pages.

Theology asks the question: Who is God? Liturgical theology asks the question who is the God confessed and celebrated in the liturgy? That is, how did the creators of the liturgy understand God as they laid out that liturgy? Yale philosophical theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff has written an important book that seeks to make explicit what is implicit in the liturgy. Liturgical theology is different from other forms of theology in that it focuses its attention on lived experience of worship. It is a corporate theology that influences communities of faith as they seek to live out the Christian life. This is a form of what Wolterstorff calls “church-reflexive” theology. It overlaps other forms of theology, but it is undertaken for very different reasons, reasons that are important to the life of the church.

                As a pastor I am charged with helping create and lead worship. My current tradition is part of the free church movement. We have Reformed roots, but we don’t have prescribed liturgies. That makes doing liturgical theology somewhat difficult. That may explain why the author focuses his attention on Anglican and Orthodox liturgies, along with more formal Reformed liturgies. In trying to define liturgy, Wolterstorff writes that “Christian worship is liturgical when it is—to repeat—the scripted performance of acts of worship” (p. 8). Liturgy is, he insists the actualization of the church, and it is the church who enact liturgy (not clergy). As the church enacts its liturgy it expresses a particular of God, a vision of God that is usually implicit. The author wants to make that theology explicit. Wolterstorff’s project exists on four levels. First it examines the view of God that is “implicit in the liturgy as a whole.” Second, it looks at the understanding of God that is “implicit in the various types of liturgical acts.” Thus it starts with the big picture and then moves deeper into the details. From the general description he moves to the view of God “implicit in particular liturgical actions” such as praise of God, blessing of God, intercession, and more. Finally, he wants us to understand how God is understood in terms of the “sequence of liturgical actions.” The book focuses primarily on the final two levels—liturgical actions such as preaching and the Eucharist—and the order in which these actions are set out.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

You’re the Man - Sermon for Pentecost 10B

Bronze bas-relief on the doors of La Madeleine
2 Samuel 11:26-12:15

Last Sunday you heard the story of how King David -- who was supposed to be a righteous king and the writer of great spiritual hymns -- took a woman from her husband, raped her, and then had her husband killed to cover up the fact. Bathsheba’s husband was an honorable man who refused to share the comforts of home when his comrades were at the front fighting for the king who had stolen his wife. As I understand it, last Sunday Rick talked about power and how it can corrupt.

We human beings have this tendency, when we accumulate great power, to believe that we’re above the law. We can do whatever we want when we want, and no one can stop us. Sometimes we’re brazen about it. We don’t mind if people see us squishing the little guy. At other times we decide to project an image of uprightness to cover the dark side of our lives. After all, reputations do matter.