Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Be My Witnesses -- A Lectionary Reflection for Ascension Sunday (Acts)

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

                The Easter season ends with the celebration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Sunday doesn’t get the attention of either Easter or Pentecost, but it is important enough that the creators of the Creeds took notice:
 He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
      From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I realize that such a statement seems archaic and a reflection of an outmoded worldview. We no longer envision a three-storied universe, with God up and out there. We’ve been to the moon and back. We’ve sent space craft to the ends of the solar system. We’ve yet to find this heavenly realm out there. Yet, here we are with the story of the Ascension of Jesus staring us in the face. Now, it is true that only Luke tells this particular story of the Ascension, but does that mean it lacks importance? After all, only Luke tells the story of the continuing mission of God in the power of the Spirit (at least in narrative form).

Monday, May 22, 2017

Reinhold Niebuhr -- An American Conscience

As I watch the news, I am deeply disturbed by the chaotic nature of our political situation. Many Americans chose to throw a monkey-wrench into a broken system, perhaps hoping that it might reset things. In reality, that monkey-wrench has only made things worse. I watch as the nation I live in and love, becomes increasingly polarized. Partisans on both sides of the spectrum speak of the other in terms of good and evil. Perhaps it's my recent reading of 1 John with my Bible study group that has made me increasingly sensitive to this dualistic vision that is present in that letter, but is also present in our political debate. 

So where do we turn for guidance? I wish I could say that there were public theologians who could help us discern a better way, but there is no one with the stature today of a Reinhold Niebuhr. Whether you agree with him or not, he spoke to the great issues of his day, and his voice continues to echo into the present. The very fact, that we're learning that the now fired FBI director, James Comey, wrote his senior thesis at William and Mary College about Niebuhr, comparing his political philosophy with that of Jerry Falwell, is a good indication that maybe we should pay attention to his voice?

I finally got to watch the documentary that explores Niebuhr's life and message that has been broadcast on PBS stations. Ironically, it never got broadcast in Detroit, where Niebuhr got his start as a pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church. It was from Detroit that Niebuhr moved to Union Theological Seminary, 

In many ways Niebuhr is like Bonhoeffer, in whom one can find whatever one wishes to enhance one's position. While this is true, I believe that Niebuhr's realism is needed. Am I a Niebuhrite? I don't know. What I can say is that for sure, but I am paying greater attention to this former Detroiter! 

I direct your attention to the link below, which will take you to a full-screening video of the documentary An American Conscience at PBS. It should be available between now and September. Listen to figures such as Cornel West, Stanley Hauerwas, Jimmy Carter, Susannah Heschel, and David Brooks, among others speak of his legacy. Cornel West notes that Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society remains the most important book on religious social ethics to this day (and I've yet to read it -- I shall soon rectify that deficit).  Please take some time to view and then reflect on the legacy of this man who spoke to the reality of sin in human life. Then we might make better sense of our situation and find better ways of responding.  


Friday, May 19, 2017

Sessions, Drugs, Incarceration

In yesterday's Detroit Free Press opinion section, former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade took up the U.S. Attorney General's new policy on drug prosecutions. This policy is a bit of a "back to the future" policy, in that the tough on criminals prosecutor wants to through the book at alleged drug offenders, going for the maximum penalties allowed by law. As McQuade notes, the policy failed back in the 1980s and 1990s to do anything about drugs, but it did fill up our prisons. If the policy is reinstituted it will once again fill up our prisons, often with elderly prisoners, costing the government millions of dollars. For what?

We tried the Sessions strategy in the 1980s and 1990s and it didn't work. Drugs are still prevalent.  The only difference is the number of people in prison. The federal prison population rose from about 200,000 inmates in 1970 to about 1.5 million in 2010. America is now home to five percent of the world’s population, and 25 percent of its prisoners.  What have we accomplished?  
By distrusting his own prosecutors, Sessions has set us on a course that is doomed to fail again. The drug supply will not abate, but the bills will keep coming due for generations. 
We have a mass incarceration problem in America. It especially affects communities of color, in part because the laws on the books often impact them more severely, and because the justice system still privileges those who are white, especially affluent ones.

So, here's my question: Will we make America great by filling our prisons with drug offenders,often throwing away redeemable lives and spending billions on policies that have failed in the past and will continue to fail? That is, unless we really believe in the employment possibilities that come from building more and more prisons so we can warehouse more and more of our citizens. As for me, I think there is a better way, one that deals with the demand side of the equation, empties the prisons, and allows lives and communities to be restored and redeemed. Thus, we need to say no to Jeff Sessions and say yes to the common sense vision laid out by Barbara McQuade, who during her term of office in Detroit was highly regarded (unlike the new AG in Washington).

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Democracy’s Darker Side - A Reflection

The following reflection appears in my book Faith in the Public Square, (Energion, 2012). This was written, as you can see, during the presidency of Barack Obama, but I think it speaks to what we're going through currently. I am, like many Americans, concerned about the current state of affairs. I don't think this is a partisan issue, it goes deeper than that. We are struggling to make sense of our national institutions. We are seeing the darker side of democracy, even as we hope for a better day.  I invite you to read and consider the message (and of course, I invite you to purchase a copy of the book, for it speaks to many of the concerns of the day.  (You can order from Amazon by clicking here).

I believe in democracy because despite its messiness it’s the best political system yet devised. In theory, it empowers us to take control of our lives, but if it’s to work we must take responsibility for our lives and actions. Freedom and responsibility are the two sides of the democracy, and an effective democracy requires that these two be kept in balance. Or, as St. Paul said: “‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial” (1 Corinthians 6:12).

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Living with Christ in the World

I am in the midst of a bible study series at church in which we are studying the Letters of John. Although 1 John does appear in the lectionary during Easter in Year B (and I've preached most of the texts), how often do we study these letters in any depth. There are wonderful passages in 1 John that declare that God is love and that we who love God should (must) love one another. These powerful statements about love, however, appear in a document that has strong dualistic tendencies. In fact, it is clear that one should not love the world. Instead, one should conquer the world.  
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,  for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.  Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?  (1 John 5:3-5).
Reading 1 John leads me to the current conversations prominent in Christian circles, many of which advocate some form of withdrawal from the world (Benedict Option, etc.). This leads me back to H. Richard Niebuhr's classic study Christ and Culture.  One of the categories in Niebuhr's book is the "Christ against Culture" paradigm. In his discussion of this paradigm, Niebuhr discusses 1 John. He notes why this view emerged, why it has a necessary witness, and why there are problems with it. Thus, with John, Niebuhr asks us to consider what the proper relationship with culture should be? 
So Niebuhr writes:

The relationship of the authority of Jesus Christ to the authority of culture is such that every Christian must often feel himself claimed by the Lord to reject the world and its kingdoms with their pluralism and temporalism, their makeshift compromises of many interests, their hypnotic obsession by the love of life and the fear of death. The movement of withdrawal and renunciation is a necessary element in every Christian life, even though it be followed by an equally necessary movement of responsible engagement with cultural tasks. Where it is lacking, Christian faith quickly degenerates into a utilitarian device for the attainment of personal prosperity or public peace; and some imagined idol called by his name takes the place of Jesus Christ the Lord. What is necessary in the individual life is required also in the existence of the church. If Romans 13 is not balanced by 1 John, the church becomes an instrument of state, unable to point men to their transpolitical destiny and their suprapolitical loyalty; unable also to engage  in political tasks, save as one more group of power-hungry or security-seeking men. Given Jesus Christ with his authority, the radical answer is inevitable; not only when men are in despair about their civilization, but also when they are complacent, not only as they hope for a kingdom of God, but also as they shore up the crumbling walls of temporal societies for the sake of the men who might be buried under ruins.  [ Niebuhr, Christ and Culturep. 68.]

This witness is essential, but there is a flip side to this vision. Niebuhr, of course, respects the Christ against Culture vision, but rejects it as incomplete. While we need this witness, the truth is that we live in the world. We are partakers of culture. He writes that "Christ claims no man purely as a natural being, but always as one who has become human in a culture; who is not only in culture, but into whom culture permeates (p. 69). I could go on, but hopefully the point is made. We live in the culture as followers of Jesus, that provides important challenges. 1 John offers us an important word, but it is likely not completely adequate to the task at hand.

Thus, my question to those who read this: What should our relationship to culture be?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Word about Religion - A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6A (Acts)

St. Paul Preaching - Sebastiano Ricci
Toledo Museum of Aart

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’ 
29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

            We live in a post-religious age, when growing numbers of people claim to be spiritual but not religious. By religious then mean, engagement with traditional institutional forms of faith. Where once religion and spirituality were essentially one and the same thing, today we tend to separate them. As Diana Butler Bass notes, “spirituality is understood as somehow more authentic, religion as having ‘a somewhat cynical orientation’” [Christianity after Religion, p. 67].  Many of those who read this reflection will, like me, be in the religion business. I am a religious professional, and so I have a vested interest in the survival of religion. At the same time, I would like that which I participate in to be authentic.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography (Michael Long & Chris Lamb) -- A Review

JACKIE ROBINSON: A SPIRITUAL BIOGRAPHY: The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero. By Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

I am a fifty-nine-year-old baseball fan, so I know the story of Jackie Robinson, or so I thought. I have known since I was relatively young that Jackie Robinson broke the color line, which allowed players like my hero Willie Mays, along with others such as Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and many more to enter major league baseball. Baseball was transformed as black players entered the system, proving that they were just as good if not better than white players. Even though Jackie Robinson was a Dodger, and I’m a lifelong Giant fan, I have always held him high regard. Jackie Robinson was more than boundary-breaking baseball player, he was a man of faith and a man of deep commitment to civil rights.

Although several biographies have been written over the years, this book by Michael Long and Chris Lamb is the first one I’ve read. While baseball factors into the story, it is not the main topic. Faith and commitment to civil rights. These are the key topics, and baseball was the vehicle through which Jack Robinson made a mark that transformed a nation.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Evangelical, Sacramental, & Pentecostal (Gordon Smith) -- Review

EVANGELICAL, SACRAMENTAL, & PENTECOSTAL: Why The Church Should Be All Three.  By Gordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. 140 pages.

Having been an evangelical, a Pentecostal, and an Episcopalian, I was intrigued by the title of this book. As a Mainline Protestant with progressive leanings, I have tried to integrate these three parts of my faith journey into my current faith experience. I came to this book with a certain set of expectations. I was looking to see how the author would explore these three expressions of the Christian faith to see how they fit with my own experience and understandings of the three. Because the publisher is rooted in the evangelical tradition, I expected that the book might reflect that orientation. I was correct in this expectation. The author is an evangelical writing to other evangelicals, inviting them to incorporate the gifts that the sacramental and Pentecostal traditions offer them. If I were to write this book, the orientation might be that of a Mainline Free Church Protestant inviting those who share my perspective to incorporate the gifts of the evangelical, sacramental, and Pentecostal traditions. In fact, I’ve envisioned that very book. But, that’s not the book in view. This is Gordon Smith’s book, and he writes from an Evangelical perspective..

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

How Life Should End -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

How should life end? We will all die some day, but how will we die? That is a question that many ponder, but few are willing to discuss openly. As a pastor I have some of those conversations. As a son I have been having some of them as well. Such conversations are difficult, even for people of faith. Martin Marty invites us to have that conversation, citing articles in The Economist, which speaks to dying well but without reference to religion. He also cites a Brazilian article that does. Having read recently with a clergy group Atul Gawande's Being Mortal, I am even more aware of the need to be open to the conversation, as difficult as it might be. Part of that conversation will need to include faith. I invite you to read and respond. How should life end?




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How Life Should End
By MARTIN E. MARTY   May 8, 2017
Photo Credit: mattyp_/Flickr via Compfight (cc)
It was not hard for Sightings to spot a topic of importance this week. “How life ends: Death is inevitable. A bad death is not” was on the cover of The Economist (April 29th). Inside were stories with headlines like “How to have a better death” and “Mending mortality.” And there was a story about Brazil, “Death wishes.” The task for this columnist is to spot references to religion(s), something one would think would be natural, since the “Abrahamic faiths” have so much to say about death, dying, and what might follow. Yet we did not find anything about religion or the religions or religious hopes in The Economist’s main story.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

A Dangerous Witness - A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5A

Acts 7:55-60 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Stephen was one of the seven disciples selected by the Jerusalem church to relieve the Apostles of their work serving tables. Ordained along with six others by the Apostles, he seemed to have a mundane job (Acts 6:1-7). In my tradition, we call them deacons, and they are supposed to help the Elders in their duties, by serving the communion elements. But, it seems clear from Luke’s account that the job of the seven would grow beyond serving tables, as important as that job was in a community where everyone shared everything in common. They were chosen for this job because some in the community were being neglected (the Hellenistic Jews). As for Stephen, he quickly moved beyond waiting tables to preaching. Apparently, he went to the synagogue of the Freedmen, where diaspora Jews gathered, and began preaching about Jesus. That led to his arrest on charges of blasphemy. In chapter seven Stephen makes his defense of the gospel before the Sanhedrin, facing trumped up charges of disparaging the Law and the Temple. To his accusers, these are the foundations of the Jewish faith.  Standing there, listening to the charges being laid out against him, his countenance changes, and we’re told that his face began to shine, as if he were an angel (Acts 6:8-15).

Monday, May 08, 2017

Intercultural Ministry (Grace Ji-Sun Kim & Jann Aldrege-Clanton) - A Review

INTERCULTURAL MINISTRY: Hope for a Changing World. Edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Jann Aldredge-Clanton. Foreword by Dwight N. Hopkins. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2017. Xviii + 208 pages.

Most churches in North America, including my own, are mono-cultural. We are evidence of Martin Luther King’s observation that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. Many of us would like our congregations to be more diverse, but getting there has proven difficult. We seem to like the cultural accouterments of our congregations. We like our music, liturgy, instrumentation just the way they are. To move toward a more inclusive experience of worship, one that reflects the vision of the heavenly court in Revelation will require great sacrifice. While we might want diversity, the cost seems too steep. It would probably be easier to do this if you were starting from scratch, but for existing churches it remains a seemingly impossible dream.

While not widespread, there are congregations out there that are not only racially/ethnically diverse, but intentionally inclusive. Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Jann Aldredge-Clanton, two theologians, one Korean-American and the other Euro-American, have gathered essays written by pioneers in intercultural ministry. In the gathered essays, the writers share their experiences with intercultural ministry and worship, along words of wisdom and some practical advice regarding something that Dwight Hopkins, in his foreword to the book, suggests “might be the defining theological line of the twenty-first century—how to be curious about, have sympathy for, and develop long term friendships in the mixing of the world’s cultures” (p. vi). We may be witnessing, at this moment, pushback against globalization, but the mixing of cultures isn’t going away. Younger Christians seem more adept at welcoming diversity and inclusion, but we all have a ways to go before we reach the point where intercultural ministry will be the norm not the exception.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

What Should We Do? - A Sermon for Easter 4A

Acts 2:14a, 36-47

Brett will often ask me “what’s going on in church-land today?” Even if his question is job-related, it is a good question. What is happening in church-land? What does it mean to be church? To use the words of a song by Bill Thomas, do you “see a church with a vision; ... a church with a mission?” [Chalice Praise, 133.]

Although we are still in the season of Easter, the reading from Acts 2 takes us to the Day of Pentecost and beyond. Easter is awe-inspiring, because it invites us to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. It invites us to take hold of the promise that in Christ life conquers death. But the story of resurrection continues in the life of the new community which was commissioned to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world, as Jesus directed on the day of his ascension(Acts 1:8), and then formed into a dynamic missional church by the Spirit on Pentecost. 

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The Stories We Live (Kathleen A. Cahalan) -- A Review

THE STORIES WE LIVE:Finding God’s Calling All Around Us. By Kathleen A. Cahalan. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Xii + 136 pages.

Maybe you were a lot like me growing up. I tried to envision what my vocation would be when I grew up. Living in Mt. Shasta, California, my next-door neighbor was a Fire Control Officer for the Forest Service. I admired Mr. Gray; so I figured that when I grew up I would be just like him. That was the first of many professions that envisioned. Later, I thought I would like to spend my life as a college or seminary professor. I even went and got the proper credentials for that vocation. In the end, I found a calling as a pastor. I also discovered a calling as husband and parent.

                In religious circles, we often speak of call in relationship to serving in vocational ministry. But what about the rest of life? Could each of us have a calling? And could it be that our vocations will change over time? These are the kinds of questions that Kathleen Cahalan takes up in this thoughtful and engaging book that invites us to share the stories of our callings in life, and to do so in the context of the life of faith.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

“Shocking” News on Worship and the Public - Sightings (Martin Marty)

When it comes to selecting a church, what do you value most? That's a question that Gallup wanted to test out. Apparently, the results of the poll are quite shocking. It appears that people value sermon content first and foremost, and music last. Do you find these results at all surprising? Here's my question, leaving aside the question of music, what is meant here by sermon content? In any case, it does appear that preaching is still important to a lot of people.

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“Shocking” News on Worship and the Public
By MARTIN E. MARTY   May 1, 2017
Photo Credit: Steve Snodgrass/Flickr via Compfight (cc)
The focus of Sightings is on the “public,” as in “public religion,” a concept which often leads to discussion of “church and state” affairs or “religion and public life.” The “private religion” of the sanctuary and temple does not often make news. Yet we have to be ready for surprise, and we were prompted to be surprised, even shocked, by headlines like this one from last week: “Survey shocker: music dead last, sermons first, as worship draws.” It headed an article at Baptist News Global by Jeff Brumley, who was shocked—shocked!—as he presumed most of his readers, Baptist or non-Baptist, must have been. Instantly the subject of this “survey shocker” appeared in many articles on the internet.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Church Life -- A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 4A

Acts 2:42-47 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. 
                My son regularly asks me “what’s happening in church-land today?”  Indeed, what is happening? As we progress through this Easter Season, I am reflecting on the first reading from the lectionary, which is taken from the book of Acts. The reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year A continues the story of Pentecost and its aftermath. The questions raised by the readings from Acts focus on the formation of the church and its witness to the gospel. Having been filled with the Spirit at Pentecost, who is this congregation of follower of the risen Christ?  What is distinctive about them and their message?  

Monday, May 01, 2017

Race & Place (David Leong) -- A Review

RACE & PLACE: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation. By David P. Leong. Foreword by Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2017.  208 pages.

It has been fifty years or more since the days that the Civil Rights Movement made great strides in overcoming the most overt forms of systemic racism. Racism may not be quite as overt has it was “back then,” but it remains with us. In fact, we are seeing signs of a backlash against what are perceived to be threats to white privilege and supremacy in America. Things are getting a bit too diverse for many in this country. Thus, it is time for reflection on the current state of racial/ethnic/religious relationships if we’re to move toward true reconciliation. Part of the process of reconciliation is recognizing our own place in the conversation. Therefore, as I write this review of a book that speaks of race and place, I need to acknowledge that as a white male living in America, I have certain privileges that that others do not have due to the color of my skin. I also know that these privileges are deeply embedded in our society—including in the church.