Thursday, April 28, 2016

Worship's Narrative Arc -- Christian Formation

I believe that worship stands at the center of the Christian faith. During this Easter season I have been preaching from the lectionary texts drawn from the Book of Revelation. This very apocalyptic book is also a book of worship. It reveals to us the importance of being engaged in fellowship with the Creator by offering songs of praise and thanksgiving. 

Worship is one of my passions. I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and that liturgical tradition helped form me as a Christian in ways I didn't understand at the time. Though I left the Episcopal Church during high school and settled within a Pentecostal Community (with it leaving its deposit in my understanding of worship), for most of my adult life I have been part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Disciples are a Free Church tradition that doesn't have a prescribed liturgy, though a liturgy of sorts emerged over time. Central to Disciples worship, as is true for the Episcopal Church, is the Table. Each week we gather at the Table to celebrate the Eucharist. That very decision helps form us as Christians, even if we don't always consciously understand how it is forming us.

With these introductory words I'd like to share a word from a new book by James K. A. Smith.  Central to Smith's book is the premise that Christian worship, indeed, Christian discipleship is less about information (intellectual) and more about habit. Sometimes we think that habits are bad things, but perhaps not. So with this in mind I share this word about how historic liturgy helps form us:

Worship that restores our loves will be worship that restor(i)es our imagination.  Historic Christian worship has a narrative arc that rehearses the story of redemption in the very form of worship--enacting the "true story of the whole world." And it does so in a way that speaks in the language of imagination, the part of us that understands in story. Intentional, historic liturgy restores our imagination because it sanctifies our perception -- it implants the biblical story so deeply in to our preconscious that the gospel becomes the "background" against and through which we perceive the world, even without "thinking" about it. Only when you are formed this deeply can you say as C.S. Lewis did, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." This is a "belief" that you carry in your bones. [You Are What You Love, p. 94].
When we share the Lord's Prayer each week, it can be, and often is, something we say by rote. But then at points in our lives it connects with God in a way that we had thought about. It was simply there to remind us to whom we owe allegiance. When we gather at the Table and share the words of institution we're drawn back to a meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. We remember, and as we remember, we participate in that meal with Jesus. For some of us, we do this each week. And often we do so by rote. It's simply something we do, but then at certain moments we recognize that God is forming us by this narrative arc.  We discern God's act of redemption. 

Worship is not simply singing a bunch of songs followed by a speech. It is a lot more than that. It is a connector to a long line of Christian experiences, that help form us as Christians.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Lord's Prayer and Allegiance -- A word for our times

As I watch the political drama unfolding in our land, I do so with a mixture of emotions. While I believe strongly in the importance of being involved in public life, especially when matters of social justice are involved. However, as a Christian, I must affirm the premise that my ultimate loyalties belong God and not to nation. For those of us who recite the Lord's Prayer each week, we're reminded of that loyalty. Several years ago I preached a series of sermons on the Lord's Prayer, which became the foundation of a book titled Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord's Prayer, which explores the relevance of the prayer for our times. I believe that a close study of the prayer (hopefully guided by my book) can be of help as we navigate the political waters. Whether Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or Green, or simply Independent, our ultimate allegiance is to God.  Below are a few paragraphs extracted from the book's preface, which gives a flavor of the message of the prayer (and my interpretation of it).

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Time to Get Going - Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6C

John 5:1-9  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

5 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. 
Now that day was a sabbath.

                A man had been ill for thirty-eight years. During all this time he’d been sitting by a pool located in the Temple Precincts. It was known in Hebrew as Beth-zatha, but is better known to many of us as the Pool of Bethesda.  This passage is part of a larger conversation that focuses on Jesus’ decision to heal on the Sabbath, and not only heal on the Sabbath, but make a claim to have done son on the authority if his Father.  To many who heard Jesus’ claims, this sounded as if he was equating himself with God. For good monotheists this was a problem. This fuller story, however, is not included in this lectionary reading chosen for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (this is one of two choices, with the other being John 14:23-29).

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Woman, the Hour, and the Garden (Addison Hodges Hart) -- Review

THE WOMAN, THE HOUR, AND THE GARDEN: A Study of the Imagery of the Gospel of John. By Addison Hodges Hart. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016. X + 113 pages.

                Among progressive/liberal Christians there is strong preference for the Synoptic Gospels. John is often set aside because it seems more other-worldly than the Synoptics. Of course, the Synoptics have parables, while John has speeches. The Synoptics have miracles, John has Signs (even if they’re miraculous events they seem to give off a different sensibility. Because John seems rather mystical in orientation, it doesn’t lend itself to quests for the historical Jesus. Nonetheless, John offers us great riches if we're willing to engage the Gospel on John’s own terms.

                One who embraces John’s mystical side is Addison Hodges Hart. Hart is a retired pastor and college chaplain. This is the third book by Hart that I’ve read, and from these books I have gleaned a sense of Hart’s interest in the mystical side of things. At the same time, he wants to be grounded in scripture and tradition, including Origen!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

God’s Home Is with Us - Sermon for Easter 5C

Revelation 21:1-6

One of the consistent messages of the Book of Revelation is that God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things. To borrow from Aristotle, God is the first cause. Or, as the Prologue to the Gospel of John puts it:  “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And, everything that exists was created through and by this  Word. Finally, a few verses later we learn that this “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:1-18). Not only is God the beginning of all things, but according to the Book of Revelation God is also the completion of all things.   

If God is the beginning and the end of all things, should we not also say that God is also present in all things at all times? As Rick Lowery reminded us yesterday in his sermon at the Festival of Faith, in a moment of theological crisis, the people of Israel learned that God is not limited to a piece of land, but that God is the God of all places and all peoples. No matter where you go, God is there with you. You may not always fell like God is with you, but that doesn’t mean that God is not there.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

France's "Incomplete Citizens" and Why Some Put Islam First -- Sightings (Myriam Renaud)

We're hearing a lot about the Islamization of Europe, especially France. There is concern in an increasingly secularized Europe that the religious identity of Muslims overshadows their loyalty to nation. At the same time, for many Muslims, there is significant discrimination against them due to religion -- in part perhaps because of more overt displays of religion. Having written a book titled Ultimate Allegiance,  in which I suggest that the Lord's Prayer is the Christian pledge of allegiance to God, I would affirm the prior allegiance to God over nation.  Myriam Renaud offers us a look at the challenges facing Muslims in France and why they are finding their identity in religion.  I invite you to read and offer your thoughts.  

France's "Incomplete Citizens" and Why Some Put Islam First
By MYRIAM RENAUD   APR. 21, 2016
Credit: ilolab / Shutterstock
When most readers survey the media’s analysis of last year’s Paris terrorist attacks, they ask, “Why?” Why do some French-born-and-raised children of immigrants place Islam first and France second? Why do some Muslim beneficiaries of the many advantages of French citizenship and of a top-notch education become radicalized? Any real answer to this question will be complex and multifaceted and thus ill-suited to the 24 hour news cycle with its focus on stories that entertain and its zeal for the fresh scoop. The result: the question remains unanswered. French and non-French, Muslim and non-Muslim, continue to wonder. Why?

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Earth is the Lord's, So Take Care of It (For Earth Day)

Whether it's global warming, air pollution, lack of safe drinking water, or the extinction of species, from the looks of things we humans have created a mess. It was for this reason that Earth Day was born in 1970. Inspired by a devastating 1969 oil spill off our own Santa Barbara County coast, a movement was born that called the nation's attention to the fact that we had clogged our rivers and streams and fouled our air with any number of pollutants, making the earth less livable for all of God's creatures. Much progress has been made since then, but work remains to be done.

In recent years the issue of climate change has grabbed our attention. Although some in national leadership pooh-pooh global warming as some kind of environmentalist scam, and some preachers have called this ecological movement a Satanic distraction, the scientific evidence continues to mount that we humans contribute significantly to a burgeoning crisis. If current trends continue, we will likely see increased drought, the melting of the polar ice caps - hastening the extinction of species such as the polar bears and rising sea levels, which would displace millions of people. Deadly storms such as Katrina could become more frequent. So, if there's still time to turn things around, what can we do?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Rethinking Baptism in an Open Table Theology

            In a previous post I argued for the adoption of a completely open Eucharistic Table. I made this argument on the basis of Jesus’ own practice of Table Fellowship. In the practices of most American congregations, at least Protestant ones, the Table is completely open. That is, rarely does a congregation bar a person from taking Communion. They may suggest that it is open to believers and may even suggest that children refrain from taking communion if they’re not baptized, but other than that it’s open. The rationale for this practice is more pragmatic than theological. We want to be nice and hospitable, but is that enough? As for me, I would like to have a theological foundation for my practice. I hope to explore these ideas in more depth over the next few years.  One of the components of this conversation is the role of Baptism. If you open the Table to all-comers, what does that do to Baptism, which has traditionally functioned as the entry point into the community and the prerequisite to receiving communion?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Sustained by the Bread of Life

I have long been fascinated by John 6. It is a passage of Scripture that proved to be highly influential among high church Anglicans and Nonjurors in the 19th century. John Johnson, vicar of Cranbrook wrote a lengthy book titled: The Unbloody Sacrifice and Altar Unvailed and Supported (1718).  The chapter, which features the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus' discourse about him being the bread of life has been used to define the idea of real presence.

Today in our bible study we will be looking at John 5-6, with most of our attention directed to John 6. While the passage does lend itself to eucharistic interpretation/usage, it may go deeper. In preparing for the session I encountered this nugget from Karoline Lewis, in her book: John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries.  She focuses on what John has to say about abundant life, and how the relationship with God in Jesus relates. She writes:

Jesus as the Bread of Life cannot be understood as merely metaphor, but rather as a literal revelation of who Jesus is and what abundant life entails. Bread, an essential component of daily life in the ancient world, is what Jesus is. This promise hinges on John's central theological claim of the incarnation. If the incarnation is only euphemistic imagination, then it defies its own logic. To stake and entire theology and Christology on God becoming human requires that at every turn the incarnation is completely present. As a result, Jesus as the Bread of Life, first and foremost, before rending its interpretation through the lens of the Old Testament or eucharistic liturgical practices, must be grounded in bread as a necessity for sustenance as a human being. Anything less could very well undermine what is at stake in the contention that the Word became flesh.  [Lewis, John, p. 84]. 
 If we are to understand John, especially here in John 6, we need to always keep in mind the premise that Jesus is understood by John to be the Word (Logos) who became flesh and dwelt among us.  Our connection to God comes through Jesus. As we abide in him, he abides in us. Thus, the message of John 6 is one of relationality. It is an invitation to be in complete communion with God through Christ, who is the Word become flesh.

It is easy to understand how John 6 can be misread. It requires a spiritual imagination to understand how this works -- even as the Son is one with the Father, we are one through the incarnation with the Son and the Father.

When we are feeling like we might want to walk away, perhaps we might heed Peter's words:  “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." (John 6:68-69).  

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Love each other—Like I love you -- Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5C

John 13:31-35 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

                We remain in the Easter season, but the lectionary takes us back to John’s story of the pre-Easter Jesus.  This time we’re in the upper room. Jesus and the disciples are having that final meal that has given birth to the Maundy Thursday remembrance that underlies our Eucharistic celebrations.  According to John, Judas has left the building intent on fulfilling his own mission.  The meal that remains undescribed by John is over. Jesus has washed the feet of the disciples, showing them what it means to be a disciple and a servant of God. We know from what follows that this was not, from John’s perspective, a Passover meal. That’s because John places the crucifixion on the Day of Preparation for the Passover (Jn. 19:14). Passover begins Friday evening.  But, even if the chronology is a bit different, John assumes a meal at which Jesus gives final instructions to his disciples. This Farewell Discourse will go on for several chapters before Judas returns, this time with the authorities ready to arrest Jesus (John 18:1-14).  

Monday, April 18, 2016

Worship and Divine Action

Over the recent past we've heard a lot about worship wars. Should worship follow traditional lines or should be more contemporary? In answering this question we often raise the question of authenticity. Which form of worship is most expressive of my faith?  In asking the question this way, worship is seen as something we do. We are the subject of worship. But what if God is the subject? What if worship that is true and reflective of the Spirit isn't something we do, but is something that is done to us. 

I'm reading James K. A. Smith's book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit {Smith will be speaking on this subject next fall at Rochester College's Streaming Conference.] In the book, which I'm only about a third of the way through, Smith is arguing that we are often formed by secular liturgies, including consumerism. He believes that worship can offer an alternative liturgy, a spiritual liturgy, that can form us spiritually.  Worship that focuses on being expressive so as to be "authentic" can often be consumerist and is more about us than God. He writes of historic Christian worship, suggesting they are not just old:

They are rooted in a fundamentally different understanding of what worship is, a fundamentally different paradigm of the primary agent  of Christian worship.  Instead of the bottom-up emphasis on worship as our expression of devotion and praise, historic Christian worship is rooted in the conviction that God is the primary actor or agent in the worship encounter. Worship works from the top down, you might say. In worship we don't just come to show God our devotion and give him our praise; we are called to worship because in this encounter God (re)makes and molds hearts us top-down. Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn't just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts. [You Are What You Love, p. 77].
The question then becomes -- how do we as church construct worship/liturgy that allows God the freedom to act? What does this involve? Since my tradition gathers at the Table weekly, what does that mean for the we we understand the Table, especially if we practice an open table? What about the music? Prayers? Preaching? 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Drinking from the Water of Life -- Sermon for Easter 4C

Big Springs, Mt. Shasta City Park - headwaters of Sacramento River

Revelation 7:9-17

On this fourth Sunday of Easter we continue our journey through the Book of Revelation. When we last gathered, we found ourselves standing before the throne of God. We were singing praises to God and to the Lamb who was slain. This morning, we again find ourselves standing before the throne of God. We look around and we see a great multitude that is drawn from every nation and tribe and people and language. Together we declare that “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 

There is a company of people robed in white garments standing in the midst of this multitude. One of the twenty-four elders asks John: “who are these, robed in white, and where do they come from?” While John didn’t know the answer, he learned that they are the faithful witnesses who stood firm in the midst of persecution at the cost of their own lives. These martyrs stand before the throne of God waiting to receive their reward. This is their reward: they will hunger and thirst no more, because the Lamb will be their guide. The Lamb of God will become the shepherd who leads them to the springs of the water of life. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Loss of Nuance

One of the biggest losses in any political season is nuance. Stump speeches and debates leave little room for nuanced discussion.  Part of this is due to the way the media poses questions, but they're not the only ones to blame. Our attention span seems to short at times to take in nuanced views. So, we jump on bandwagons without really examining the full range of pros and cons. 

Let's take income inequality. It is a problem. But how do we resolve it?  I'm not sure I've heard good answers from any political candidate, because it's often placed in us versus them language.  Nuance is the  casualty.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Identity and Institution

Yesterday I spent much of the day at my first Commission on the Ministry meeting for the Michigan Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  In May I will become the new chair, which means I will lead the group that decides the fate of ministerial candidates, as well as determines standing for current clergy. It's an important responsibility, because churches need competent, faithful, and committed leaders. 

I can't reveal anything about any of the candidates we met with. That would be inappropriate, but thinking about the process we undertook got me thinking about the role of denominational identity in one's call to ministry. Should a congregation expect their pastor to not only have an understanding of the denomination, but a commitment to it? I don't mean blind allegiance, but a commitment to represent the values and theology of that denomination to the community we are to called to lead?  I ask these questions as one who has strong ecumenical inclinations.  

I should add that contributing to my ruminations was the conversations I was listening to on NPR as I drove to Lansing, conversations about political affiliation. I find it interesting that both parties feature candidates with little commitment to the party they seek to lead. They were looking for a vehicle to pursue their agendas, and have found support and resistance from more committed party members. Should the parties expect a certain loyalty? 

To bring this reflection to a close, I simply ask does the institution help define one's identity, whether in church or politics or any other station in life? 

I am a member of a political party, because it seems to be the right vehicle for me to express my understandings of governance and social policies.  Being a political junkie of sorts, I understand what makes the system click, and that strong parties are a necessity in our current system. But, I'm not so sure that the party defines my identity. 

As for the church. My inclinations are ecumenical. Yet, the principles and values of the Disciples fit who I am. I get frustrated with the institution, but I remain committed to this institution because it gives form to the values that I embrace. I affirm the principles of freedom and unity. I affirm the principle of frequent communion at the Lord's Table. The institution, even if it is a fragile and very human thing, provides a context for these values to be expressed and lived.  So, when it comes to pastoral leadership, I do think it is important that one has a good understanding of the denomination's identity and a commitment to teach it to one's congregants.  In my tradition that is the purpose of covenant -- the glue that holds us together!

That is, I must say, the message of my book Freedom in Covenant! 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Conscience -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Pope Francis is a beloved figure in many circles. Progressives love his economic and environmental vision, but they seem confounded by his mostly traditional views on marriage equality and birth control. Traditional Catholics on the other hand don't seem enthralled by his economic views and his less that passionate commitment to medieval liturgies. So, his latest missive will likely frustrate many.  Titled Amoris Laetitia, it emphasizes mercy and pastoral accommodation, but doesn't change the rules. Thus, it won't satisfy those wanting change, but then if he had gone all the way he would have had a major revolt from those on the right and from those in the Global South, whose views of marriage and sexuality are much more traditional.  I offer Martin Marty's analysis, which is always helpful.  Take a read and offer your thoughts!

By MARTIN E. MARTY   APR. 11, 2016
                 Credit: Giulio Napolitano /
“Surprised!” is the rarest response of almost everyone to the long-awaited papal document on the joy of love (Amoris Laetitia). So devotedly had Pope Francis and Catholic episcopal leadership pondered and worked on the new 256-page document on the family and marriage (etc.) that the resulting product was predictable.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Marriage in Interesting Times -- Book Announcement

I wanted to share word that the release of my newest book is on the near horizon.  Titled Marriage in Interesting Times, this is part of the Energion Publications Participatory Study Guide series. It is specifically a bible study guide dealing with marriage that invites us to rethink how we understand the Bible and what it might say about marriage for a twenty-first context where marriage is no longer the sole domain of a "man and a woman." We hear people talk about "biblical marriage," but in many ways this vision of "biblical marriage" is more a twentieth century vision than a biblical one.

In the introduction to the book I write this about my reasoning with regard to the book: 

 I titled the study guide “Marriage in Interesting Times,” because we are living at a time when profound changes in the way marriage is understood. Not that long ago, it was assumed by many in American society that traditional marriage not only involved a man and a woman, but the man was the head of the household and the woman was a homemaker. The man earned the money, and the woman cared for the children and kept the house in order. Then came the idea that husband and wife were equal partners in the marriage. In most cases both partners worked outside the home, and they shared more equally the duties of the home. Today, the definition of marriage has evolved one more time to include same-sex couples … So, when we talk about marriage in the twenty-first century, at least in the United States, and a number of other nations around the globe, we must remember that the legal definition, if not the religious one, includes both gay and straight couples. Yes, these are interesting times.
If you're interested in diving into biblical texts that speak to marriage, I offer this book as a helpful resource. I don't write as a professional Bible scholar or as a marriage family therapist. I write from the perspective of one who is a pastor, a theologian, and as one who has been married for over thirty years (I did take a theology of the family class in seminary!).  

The book is now available for pre-order from the publisher at 30% discount. That's only $9!  Just click here and place your order!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hearing the Shepherd’s Voice - Lectionary Reflection for Easter 4C

 John 10:22-30 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”

                The fourth Sunday of Easter has been deemed Good Shepherd Sunday. Therefore, the lectionary deviates to some extent from its Easter reflections on the resurrection and returns to the pre-Easter story of Jesus’ ministry. According to this section of John’s Gospel, Jesus has been in a discussion of sorts with some Jewish counterparts—perhaps leaders—about his mission and whether they will affirm it. The setting is Jerusalem. He’s in town for the winter festival of Dedication or Hanukkah. This is the only reference to that festival in the New Testament. We know this festival to be the celebration of the Maccabean rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, which had been desecrated by Antiochus IV. Whether this festival has a deeper meaning for John is unclear, but it is a reminder that in John Jesus regularly travels to Jerusalem.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Wholeheartedness (Chuck DeGroat) -- Review

WHOLEHEARTEDNESS: Busyness, exhaustion, and healing the divided self. By Chuck DeGroat. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016. Viii + 200 pages.

                Are you exhausted? Do you feel like you’re so busy with life that it seems like you’re being pulled in a thousand different directions? If you’re not, God bless you!  As for the rest of us, exhaustion is the name of the game. As a pastor I often feel pulled in multiple directions. Part of that is my own failure to set boundaries and say no when necessary.  But again, I doubt that I’m all that different from many others, including members of my own congregation. So, what is the solution? Some would say, get some rest, but is that possible and is that the solution? Just sleeping more might not rectify the situation.

                For those seeking some guidance in these matters, Chuck DeGroat’s book Wholeheartedness might prove helpful.  DeGroat is a therapist and professor of pastoral care at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.  He is the author of another book that I had the pleasure of reviewing: ToughestPeople to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in YourLife -- Including Yourself, (Eerdmans, 2014).  In both books I found wisdom shared by one who has not only studied the challenges of life, but has learned from his own challenges.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Time for Worship - Sermon for Easter 3C

Revelation 5:11-14

The Book of Revelation is in many ways a book of worship! In fact, I think it is a call to engage our holy imaginations in the worship of God. 

If you’ve read any of the Chronicles of Narnia books, you know that the imagination can have a powerful effect on the way we see spiritual realities. In the best known of these books, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy, who is the youngest of four siblings, discovers a pathway into the magical land of Narnia. When Lucy returns from her visit to Narnia, she shares her discovery with her older brother and sister. They dismiss her report as a mere tall tale. When she shows them the wardrobe, all they find is a wardrobe filled with old coats. There is no pathway, no portal, just the wooden back wall of the wardrobe. 

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Beyond Therapeutic Christianity

There has been much talk of late about what has been termed "moral therapeutic deism." In MTD content doesn't really matter when it comes to religion. What matters is that it makes one a better person and it enables one to get through life. It's understandable that such a vision has taken root in our society, and its understandable that churches and preachers, seeking to survive in this environment have taken our cues from MTD. But the question is, will such a vision transform lives? Will it make a difference, or does it simply allow me to make due with the status quo? 

Friday, April 08, 2016

Explained: Religion, the Birth-Control Controversy and the Supreme Court -- Sightings (Douglas Laycock)

The question of how we express religious liberty is a complicated one. It involves questions of the role government has in both accommodating religion and regulating aspects of life. We often talk about the government's compelling interest. Thus, religious communities are subject zoning regulations and safety regulations. As for matters of doctrine and practice, unless they endanger lives there is a lot of freedom. Currently there is a case before the Supreme Court that deals with contraception. There are religious exemptions, but how far do they go. Is there a better way? The Court will decide (maybe), and Douglas Laycock offers us his take, which seems to offer a way through the Gordian's knot.  Take a read and add your thoughts!

Explained: Religion, the Birth-Control Controversy and the Supreme Court
Credit: American Life League / flickr
The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in seven cases of religious nonprofit organizations that do not want their insurers to provide free contraception under the Affordable Care Act. The facts are complicated, hard for the press to report.

Basically, the law requires insurance plans to provide free contraception. But Catholic institutions object on grounds of conscience, and some Protestants object to providing emergency contraception, also on grounds of conscience.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Ten Prayers that Changed the World (Jean-Pierre Isbouts) -- Review

TEN PRAYERS THATCHANGED THE WORLD: Extraordinary Stories of Faith that Shaped the Course of History. By Jean-Pierre Isbouts.  Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2016. 270 pages.

                It is said that prayer changes things, and I believe that there is truth in this adage. I believe it is especially true when we inhabit prayers that inspire us to action.  As a Christian who recites the Lord’s Prayer most every Sunday in worship, I know its power. It is a call to give allegiance to God, above all other allegiances. There is power is that kind of prayer.

                The Lord’s Prayer, also known as the Our Father is one of many prayers that we could name that have proven influential down through the ages. Indeed, it is one of the ten prayers that historian/author/filmmaker Jean-Pierre Isbouts has chosen to highlight in his book Ten Prayers that Changed the World, a book published by National Geographic. This review of the Isbouts book is one of twelve contributions to the TLC Book Tour. This tour is a promotional venture that allows bloggers like me and my fellow blogger James McGrath to highlight certain books. I was pleased to be asked to participate.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

How to Save Your Soul - Sightings (Martin Marty)

We live in a digital age. I use Facebook, Twitter, email, text, and of course I blog. Since I have a smart phone I'm able to check things out whenever I please. It's easy to become overloaded by it all. So, how do we navigate this digital world and still keep our souls intact? Martin Marty points us toward an article that has some strategies to save our souls. I invite you to spend a moment reading this essay and considering how you might keep things in perspective!  

How to Save Your Soul
By MARTIN E. MARTY   APR. 4, 2016
                 Credit: Matthew G / flickr
“How to Save Your Soul in a Digital Age” is the bold banner on the cover of The American Scholar (Spring, 2016). No, the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society is not turning evangelistic. On page 22 the editors simply translate author James McWilliams’ title to one that is in keeping with secular times: “Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie.”

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Going Fishing - Lectionary Reflection for Easter 3C

John 21:1-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 
4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 
9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
                John 21 is a rather odd chapter. In many ways it seems like an addendum to the gospel. John 20 offers us resurrection appearances and commissioning of the disciples, along with a summation of the gospel. What more does one need? Why John 21? The author does offer us one explanation. This is the third appearance, but is it? That is, has the editor put that phrase in the narrative so as to connect the two scenes. Whatever the reason for adding this epilogue, the story is lively and enlightening. The focus is on Peter’s rehabilitation and his commissioning. 

Monday, April 04, 2016

Releasing the Holy Imagination

During this Easter season we are attending to the words of the Book of Revelation. It is a book of the Bible that many have found difficult to understand and easy to misuse. That has led persons ancient and modern to rid the canon of its embarrassing statements.  Nonetheless, there is something powerful about this image-laden book. It requires that we let loose our holy imaginations. 

As an ordained minister in a denomination that has valued a reasonable/rational faith (we're good Lockeans), I know that our people find it difficult to embrace mystery. I shared in my sermon yesterday a word from Alexander Schmemann, that speaks of being in the Spirit in terms of being drawn into the heavenly realm. It is easy to disparage the idea of being drawn into the heavenly realm as contributing to an abandonment of this world and its need for transformation. My concern is that for many in our churches, we end up in a position of overvaluing the intellect and undervaluing the imagination. 

Schmemann makes this comment about the eucharistic liturgy, speaking of the "sacramental entrance into the risen life of Christ.

The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom. We use this word “dimension” because it seems the best way to indicate the manner of our sacramental entrance into the risen life of Christ. Color transparencies “come alive” when viewed in three dimensions instead of two. The presence of the added dimension allows us to see much better the actual reality of what has been photographed. In very much the same way, though of course any analogy is condemned to fail, our entrance into the presence of Christ is an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world. [Schmemann, Alexander (2010-04-01). For the Life of the World (Kindle Locations 308-313). St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition. ]

Note that Schmemann makes it clear that our procession into Christ is not an escape from the world, but a new vantage point by which we can view it. That seems to be what we need, a new vantage point in which we see the Spirit at work in our midst.  I fear that if we don't get to the point of letting go our need to control our own access (as well as that of others) to the heavenly realm, then we will not be of either heavenly or earthly good.  Therefore, may we let God set free our holy imaginations so we can see God at work on earth as in heaven! 

Sunday, April 03, 2016

To God Be the Glory - A Sermon for Easter 2C

Revelation 1:4-8

Easter Sunday was once again glorious! How can you beat trumpet and timpani accompanying the organ as we sang “Christ the Lord is Risen Today?” It’s hard to move on from the glories of Easter Sunday, but the journey of faith must continue. As we go forward, the spirit of Easter remains with us as we worship the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Yes, to this God be glory and dominion forever!

The Book of Revelation is one of those books of the Bible that many find to be strange and even off-putting. Because the imagery and the language are so difficult to decipher, there have been many both ancient and modern who would like to evict it from the canon. Luther declared “It is just the same as if we had it not, and there are many far better books for us to keep.” Since the lectionary rarely offers the book, preachers rarely visit it. Despite the preachers mixed feelings, there is good news to be found in this book, and the creators of the lectionary set out a series of readings for this Easter season, which we will be exploring over the next few weeks!

Friday, April 01, 2016

Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Theologian with a Passion for Reconciliation -- Sightings (Noel Leo Erskine)

On Monday we will observe the 48th anniversary of the assassination of the Martin Luther King, Jr. His vision of the Beloved Community, in which humanity experienced true reconciliation, was rooted in his incarnational theology. In some ways we have achieved parts of this vision, but in other ways we remain from its realization. Even in his own frailty Dr. King sought to embody this vision, inviting us as well to embrace the call to love one's neighbor. I invite you to reflect Dr. King's legacy as you read this poignant essay by Noel Leo Erskine of Emory University.  

Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Theologian with a Passion for Reconciliation
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Though revered and claimed as an inspiration by people with a wide range of religious and political commitments, Martin Luther King, Jr., as he often reminded audiences, was nurtured in the Black Church. King demanded justice for the powerless and advocated on behalf of the voiceless while a pastor in the Black Church. When he preached about the restoration of human relationships and communities, he used the Biblical language of the Black Church. In the sacred spaces of the Black Church, he discovered his vocation, worked to heal and bridge communities, and found the courage to risk his life for the sake of others.