Thursday, February 26, 2015

That to Which I Am Utterly Devoted ...

Wow, and then some ...

Tillich takes to task "orthodox Lutheranism" for two shortcomings: 1) to contrast the salvation of the individual with the transformation of historical groups and separating them; 2) to contrast the realm of salvation with the realm of creation, and separating them ... leaving the Kingdom of God as something beyond time and space and history, something which the "saved" enter upon death.

"Finally, this view interprets the symbol of the Kingdom of God in a static supernatural order into which individuals enter after the death - instead of understanding the symbol, with the biblical writers, as a dynamic power on earth for the coming of which we pray in the LORD's Prayer and which, according to biblical thought, is struggling with the demonic forces which are powerful in churches as well as empires."  ~ Vol. 3, p.356.

Much of the 20th Century Evangelical World fell into this trap, on the one hand, and on the other, in its "reconstructionist mode" in the last 40 years, envisions itself as "God's mighty army marching off to war," conquering this world for Christ, eliminating all ambiguity, and in such war (possibly literal), ushering in the Kingdom of God as a utopian end of history, with Christians in charge and "everyone bowing the knee," whether they like it or not.

If a former orthodoxy led Christians out of the world, allowing the orders of the world to lumber on without complaint or challenge, the current kind of Christianity, extremist and angry, will bring incredible disorder to the world by conquering the various orders and bending them toward a full and complete Christian hegemony, which has never worked, and never will, since the creative impulse of God's love engenders creativity and spontaneity and freedom rather than absolute control and management.

There are different kinds of Christianity, some of which are decidedly dangerous; some of which are purposeful and driven by justice and peace and a serious hope that, at least in fragmentary ways, history can be transformed and actually reflect the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

To this end, and to these purposes, I devote my life.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Troubling Texts in the Bible

Anyone else do the PCUSA lectionary this morning?

The readings from Deuteronomy and Titus proved unpleasant, not in any sort of spiritually challenging manner, but in the rawness of hatred of "the other" (Deuteronomy 7.12-16) and the imposition of "quietness" on the slave and "submission" of women to their husbands (Titus 2.1-15).

There was a time when I would engage in all sorts of exegetical/social/historical/critical gymnastics to soften these hideous passages. But that's not fair to the text - no sense in making it say something else. The text says is clear. And it's troubling to me in ways similar to hearing someone shamelessly promote the exceptionalism of the United States while banging the drums of war in order to secure global domination, or hearing those who demean others because of their race, economic status or gender.

I turn away from such people, and I turn away from such texts.

I confess that my "sacred text" suffers from these evils, and has been used to promote "righteous" war, the abuse of women and the institution of slavery.

For me, no sense in ducking the matter with sight-of-hand interpretations. These are troubling texts because they support attitudes and behaviors that have brought great harm to the world.

For me, the Spiritual Presence in our world today says something else about how to welcome and affirm "the other" and that slavery and misogyny are terrible evils. Whether it be a Martin Luther King, Jr. or an Anne Lamott, there are great and small voices lifting up the "better angeles" of faith, hope and love.

As for the text, I find much value in the prophets and their challenge of xenophobic traditions and how Jesus challenged the power of Jerusalem; I find hope in all the other texts that enabled leaders and missionaries and scholars to lay the foundation for the fight against slavery and misogyny, to craft the struggle to deconstruct national barriers and to welcome "the other."

The larger tradition offers me guidance: the text pitted against the text, and personal perceptions against personal perceptions. Leaving me, as God intended, with the task of making real decisions, for which we I am responsible.

Jesus stepped beyond the rules and laws of the day and cherry-picked the text to formulate his summary of it all: to love God deeply and to love the neighbor as the self.

As Luther said before the tribunal: "I can do no other, so help me God. Amen!"

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Taxing Churches

I oppose the taxation of churches.
It's taken awhile for me to get my head around this one, and, no doubt, some will suggest that I have a vested interest in this matter, being a Presbyterian minister, though now retired.
Whatever the origins of the policy and how it evolved over the decades is quite beside the point for me, though it pays to know the story.
But history aside, what we have now are thousands of small congregations, urban and rural, some very tiny, carrying on ministry, much of which is worthy - the Friday Night Pot Luck in honor of Mabel's nephew who has recently enlisted in the Peace Corps, or the funeral luncheon after Mary's memorial service, or Bill teaching Sunday school, Fred and Alma visiting the nursing home every Saturday morning, the guest preacher who holds up the kingdom of God, and a thousand other little things that never make the radar screen of life beyond a ten mile limit.
Suddenly imposing taxes would, I fear, put these enclaves of faith, hope and love out of business. 
Yes, I know - we all read and hear about the megachurches and their excesses, the lavish life-styles of their pastors, and the millions held in their bank accounts. Well, so it goes - they will have their day in the sun, and their day of demise, too. Yet even here, we need some careful analysis: who can discount in toto the ministries of many a megachurch? Is there a complete absence of good there? 
For every church scandal that hits the front page of my daily RSS and email feeds, there are a million good deeds, kind words and tuna casseroles sustaining millions of people across the land, in places where megachurches don't exist and never will. 
What have is something quite different than the news-grabbing megachurches. What we have are small spiritual communities, sometimes dysfunctional but of great value to their members and their communities, scattered here and there: First Presbyterian, 39 members; St. Norbert's, 150 members; Hope Methodist, 19 members; Christ the King Lutheran, 63; Pilgrim Congregational, 78 members; St. Paul's United church, 207 members; Community Bible Church, 49 members; Glory Pentecostal Church, 43; Faith Baptist, 63 members ... these are all Christian places. But we can also add to this list Jewish Synagogues, the growing number of mosques and Sikh temples, Buddhist and Hindu gathering places.
The megachurches and large synagogues would find ways to pay their taxes, but most of the little places of light and love would likely close their doors. 
This is price way too high to try to sort out the good, the bad and the ugly.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Butterflies and Bullfrogs - Creation, Evolution and Celebration

Sometime in early college, maybe earlier, when I had a chance to think about it, I became an evolutionist, a theistic evolutionist. I believed that God created the world, and gave it life, and its life took off, evolving from one from to another. At every moment, the creative impulse of the Creator was there ... always and forever moving the universe along with love, for billions of years. 

I love this kind of a world - it's big. I mean, really big. And I like big things, loud things, like thunderstorms and diesel locomotives ... and waterfalls and fast cars and airplanes.

My scientist colleagues know that the world, the universe, is really, really big, and I find in their musings something of the greatness of the God in whom I have found myself living all these many years.

For me, there can be no religion that denies the material world, for the material world is of God, a marvelous creation full of wonder and mystery and bewilderment for us, mostly always exceeding our grasp at the moment, and I think it'll be that way for as long as human beings ponder and probe. I think the material world has an infinite dimension to it, and if not infinite, at least really big, big enough to keep us studying for millions of years.

To look at the Grand Canyon or any other structure of the universe and to see the expansive nature of God is great joy for me. It's big in its material form, it's big in its immensity of time; it's just big! And somehow or other, that bigness is God for me. But as big as it is, there's a kindness to it, a gentleness that creates butterflies and bullfrogs, and dancers and poets, and little girls and boys who love Gummy Bears and ice cream.

I know that others see something else, and that's okay ... I'm just glad when anyone sees anything that's great and large and mysterious and wonderful. Who find in the world they see love and passion and justice and mercy. 

For me, I see a great personality, a great love, whatever, at work in the eons, the ages ... and love has left its mark, because love creates life, a myriad of forms, large and small, enduring and momentary, much of it consigned to the mud, compressed over millions of years to be found by us, dug up and put on display in museums.

To affirm this, and celebrate it, is to affirm God, and to celebrate Creation - something really big, big enough to delight us and keep us from getting uppity. 

I'm an evolutionist - makes sense to me and affirms what my scientist friends find in our world, a world trustworthy to the eye and mind and heart, a world that intrigues, but doesn't trick; a world of much mystery, but not unkind deception.

I'm a theistic evolutionist who loves the imagery of Genesis 1 - a God of great order creates a marvelous world full of marvelous forms ... and the imagery of Genesis 2, the God of dirty hands - who takes a little mud and forms a creature and dares to blow God's own breath into it, and it lives - a little bit of mud, and a little bit of God, all wound up together in something quite beautiful, and sometimes downright mean and nasty, too. Our meanness, I don't think is of God, but of our mud trying to hold on to the breath of God, and it's a lot of work, and sometimes the mud gets scared, and angry at other mud flopping around. And yet the breath of God holds on to the mud, too, and keeps pumping breath into it, for another day, another go at it. 

Anyway, that's how it is for me, a theistic evolutionist ... 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"You're Wrong. Flat-out Wrong"

"You're wrong. You're flat-out wrong."

So writes the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians (today's lectionary, 4.21-5.1).

Paul cared deeply about the Galatians, and so he writes: "You have adopted another gospel. What's wrong with you?"

Lots of time could be spent on the whys and wherefores of Paul's dispute with the Galatians, but it seems to me much of the issue rests upon two elements: 1) Christian freedom in Christ, and 2) in Christ, by the Spirit, the Fruits of the Spirit.

It seems that the Galatians, after their initial enthusiasm in Christ decided that the Gospel needed some dressing up, and what better clothing to put on the Gospel than the froo froo of the Jerusalem Establishment and a few other things to boot. And with that, says Paul, you've given away your freedom, a freedom hard-won by Christ, and you've descended into a dark world filled with rotten fruit.

What strikes me here is Paul's willingness to "judge" ... call it discernment, call it whatever you will, but Paul says, "This is flat-out wrong."

Of these two systems, says Paul, only one can work - one produces enslavement, the other liberty.

In a world of competing world-views, American Christianity faces something similar - I'll let the reader figure out what I have mind - and Paul might well say, "Open your mouth, and challenge the system that's more about enslavement and the tools of enslavement: fear, oppression, strife and quarrels."

"But," you say, "isn't Paul engaging in strife? Quarrels?"

Indeed, he is. And so does Jesus, and Jeremiah and Moses, too, to name only a few.

And so it goes in our tangled world. So, who's to judge?

Well, Paul for one.

Some strife and quarreling arise out of the struggle for power, dominance and control, and the lies needed to win.

Some arises out of a concern for liberation, justice and the things that make for peace. Think Martin Luther King, Jr. (and how he was bothered by this, and I can hear the same distress in Paul, here and in his letters to Corinth, too. It's not fun to engage like this, but it's needed).

And there are tests to be applied.

The system Paul opposes produces little good and lots of harm, even as it looks so very tempting, what with all of its "success," and the "assurance" that such success produces.

On the other hand, the system Paul espouses, the Gospel he proclaims, produces a great deal of good, summed up in the Fruits of the Spirit and above all else, Freedom! The clean, clear, air of freedom in Christ.

Paul is wiling to engage in strife and quarreling because he cares about people, he's committed to the Gospel, God's restorative justice, and restorative justice requires truth, and truth needs to be defended now and then, in a world where lies can so easily capture mind and heart.

Thank God for Paul's willingness to engage a system of thought in which he saw danger and his willingness to simply, clearly, say of it: "It's wrong. Flat-out wrong."