Saturday, May 30, 2009

How far he has fallen...

Today brought news that rock and roll madman/genius, Phil Spector, was sentenced for murdering his young lover one Los Angeles morning in his kitchen. It was the second trial for the 2003 crime of passion and brings to a close a wild, brilliant and creative career that has fallen so far. He is 69 years old.

I remember buying one of Spector's 45s back in the day, Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans' version of "Zippodee Doodah" - a goofy tune reworked from Walt Disney's "Song of the South" movie that Spector made all soulful. Drenched in what would be called his classic "wall of sound" style, it made your body want to move. Like many teenage boys, I was in lust with both the Crystals and the Ronettes when they did their passionate babe tunes like "He's a Rebel," "Be My Baby" or "Leader of the Pack." And still feel crazy every time my all time favorite was "Da Do Run Run" comes on the radio.


And when Spector brought his magic to the Righteous Brothers - two blue-eyed soul white boys singing "so righteously" as one Black DJ said that they had to be black - I was gone. I still can't get enough of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling!" It is a perfect song on every level... one of the true genre bending blessings of the mid 60s that pushed pop songs deeper into beauty and complexity. (See the Wiki note re: the fight over its length at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You%27ve_Lost_That_Lovin%27_Feelin%27)


Spector's touch was golden for many others, too: he created the sound Springsteen was searching for on his break through album, "Born to Run," he helped Tina Turner record her rock and soul masterpiece, "River Deep, Mountain High," he produced the Beatles' final album, "Let It Be" when they were in a mess and he added his gifts to George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" and John Lennon's anti-war song, "Happy Christmas: War Is Over."

And his influence isn't forgotten: just this morning the New York Times, for example, referenced his sound in the work of Brooklyn indie band, Grizzly Bear." His attention to detail, the layering of sound and the stunning beauty of his recordings are a true gift to all who love this music.


Clearly he needs to serve his time for stealing the life of another through murder. Anyone who has watched his career knows, however, that this rock and roll bad boy has been troubled most of his life - and alcohol, drugs and lots of money didn't help. Now we see how far this true genius has fallen...

Friday, May 29, 2009

Rethinking happy and joy...

In Eugene Peterson's little book, The Contemplative Pastor, he writes that one of the subversive truths pastors must teach and remind their congregations over and over again is the difference between being happy and living in Christ's joy. Not that there is anything wrong with being happy - Jesus was a party animal and enjoyed feasting and friendship and the beauty of creation as much as any of us - but the blessings of happiness are different from living in God's joy.

... my job is not to solve people's problems or make them happy, but to help them see the grace operating in their lives. It's hard to do, because our whole culture is going in the other direction, saying that if you are smart enough and get the right kind of help, you can solve all your problems. The truth is, there aren't very many happy people in the Bible.

But there are people who are experiencing joy, peace and the meaning of Christ's suffering in their lives. So the work of spirituality is to recognize where we are - the particular circumstances in our lives - to recognize grace and say: "Do you suppose God wants to be with me in a way that does not involve changing my spouse or getting rid of my spouse or my kids, but in changing me, and doing something in my life that maybe I could never experience without this pain and this suffering?"

(Not, of course, that the only way we learn is by pain and suffering (although that seems to be how I learn the best.) Nor is this to say that God caused your pain and suffering to make you change or learn something: that is just too cruel. But, rather, to embrace the paschal mystery and search for where the grace in even the worst experience might be so that you can find the good in any situation.) Peterson then nails it... I think that all I really do as a pastor is speak the word "God" in a situation in which it hasn't been said before, where people haven't recognised God's presence.

Joy, you see, is the capacity to hear the name of the Lord and to recognize that God is here... and that is enough at the moment.

He is searching for - and pointing towards - the incarnational truth of God's presence in even the crap and agony of real life!

Our vision of God's sacred presence is often way too small because we don't search for and find the Lord in the shit. Or it is too sanitized - put up on a pedestal - so we can't find the sacred in those rough, ugly truths of everyday living. Blind Faith got it so right back in 1969 when they sang, "Come down off your throne and leave your body alone..."


Time has come for these words to become FLESH... so maybe this poem by Maxine Kumin can help.

It is done by us all, as God disposes, from
the least cast of worm to what must have been
in the case of the brontosaur, say, spoor
of considerable heft, something awesome.
We eat, we evacuate, survivors that we are.
I think these things each morning with shovel
and rake, drawing the risen brown buns
toward me, fresh from the horse oven, as it were,

or culling the alfalfa-green ones, expelled
in a state of ooze, through the sawdust bed
to take a serviceable form, as putty does,
so as to lift out entire from the stall.

And wheeling to it, storming up the slope,
I think of the angle of repose the manure
pile assumes, how sparrows come to pick
the redelivered grain, how inky-cap

coprinus mushrooms spring up in a downpour.
I think of what drops from us and must then
be moved to make way for the next and next.
However much we stain the world, spatter

it with our leavings, make stenches, defile
the great formal oceans with what leaks down,
trundling off today's last barrowful,
I honor shit for saying: We go on.

Yeats put it a little more delicately in "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop" - the last line of which Alice Walker brings into The Color Purple - but the essence is the same wisdom, yes?

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.'

'Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,' I cried.
'My friends are gone, but that's a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart's pride.

'A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.'


Thursday, May 28, 2009

thinking about the blues...

Funny the way a flu bug can knock you on your ass from out of nowhere: yesterday was full and joy-filled and today... sick as a dog. I will be fine in another 24 hours but right now I'm thinking about the blues and how it filters through all your senses. Not the deep, soul aching blues that make you cry out at night and weep until you want to die... maybe just the low-grade blues that makes your head throb and joints hurt as your stomach tightens up into a mean-spirited fist.

It is good for me to feel these low grade blues from time to time, not because I like it, but because I am usually blessed with good health and tend to forget that so many others hurt and live in a chronic state of fatigue and pain. Most days I feel like the chorus in this great old tune by the Dream Academy: "Life in a Northern Town." Everything else is grey and sad and then the tympani pounds and the joyful voices break through the gloom - almost a la Beethoven (and certainly the Beatles.)


There are two prayers that I go back to over and over again when I visit people who are sick. One is from the Book of Common Prayer and simply says: O God, the strength of the weak and the comfort of those who suffer: mercifuly accept our prayers and grant to your servant the help of your power, that her sickness may be turned into health, and our sorrow into joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Simple, clear and tender - I like those kind of prayers rather than prayers that are too complicated - and I pray this often - even for myself. The other comes from the Book of Worship for the United Church of Christ; it is a prayer for those who are near death: Almighty God, by your gentle power you raised Jesus Christ from death. Watch over this child of yours, our sister... Fill her eyes with light that she may see beyond human sight, a home within your love, where pain is gone and physical frailty becomes glory. Banish fear. Brush away tears. Let death be gentle as nightfall, promising a new day when sighs of grief turn into songs of joy, and we are joined again in the presence of Jesus Christ in our heavenly reunion. Amen.

I think of it now - and pray it - because while I was in my own funky illness today the mother of one in the church died. I was unable to be present and I am sad. Life is so short - and unpredictable - and I prefer being with those who are approaching death. But, once again, I am learning that I am not in control, right?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pentecost, peace and grace...

NOTE: Here are my weekly sermon notes for this coming Sunday: Pentecost 2009. Curiously, the heart of my reflections were born out of a song my wife has been singing of late - Mason Jennings' "Some Say I'm Not" (http://www.last.fm/music/Mason+Jennings/_/Some+Say+I%27m+Not) - as well as my prayers about ministering to the real wounds I know within me and so many others... and what has made the difference in my life. Join us, if you can, on Sunday at 10:30 am. It would be great to see you.

For the better part of my adult life, I have understood today – Pentecost – one dimensionally. Oh, I have cherished the challenges of the texts and reveled in the revolutionary possibilities contained therein. I have celebrated the symbolism of the Spirit – proclaimed many of the comforting and potentially firery possibilities of that great and holy wind coming upon God’s people to bring revival – and have always found the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones to be simultaneously electrifying and bewildering.

“Son of Man, can these dry bones… live? Only thou knowest, Lord, said the prophet.” To which the One who is Holy said, “Then prophesy to these bones… call down my spirit upon them that they might hear the word of the Lord… and suddenly there was a noise, a rattling and the bones began to come together… bone to its bone… with sinews and flesh and skin.”

Oh, these are great stories and I have preached and pleaded with God on Pentecost for years for an encounter with this type of renewal and revival. But I have to tell you that for most of my life I have only seen Pentecost as through a glass darkly. As much as I love it, it has remained one dimensional to me… until late.

+ The other great feasts and festivals of the church – Christmas, Good Friday or Easter – have taken on deeper truths for me over the years. No longer do I think of Christmas as merely that midwinter holiday of the Christ child’s birth; but rather it has become a spiritual invitation to search for all the obscure and sometimes scandalous places where the God who loves us is trying to break into our lives. Where is God coming to the world in tender – and innocent – and even helpless ways?

+ Same goes for Good Friday: where is Christ being defiled and executed today? Where are people singing the blues and wailing in lament? Who is the current scapegoat?

You get what I’m trying to say: these other celebrations have become nuanced invitations for me to respond to the lure of God’s living presence – but not Pentecost. Until just this week, when it came to this grand Christian festival born of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, I spoke like a child and thought like a child.

But as St. Paul understood so profoundly: the time has come to put childish things away. The time is now to realize that God’s promises through Jesus Christ are real – not crazy ramblings – or worse yet, lies. They are real. And they are for right now as well as in the great life yet to come. How does John’s gospel for today put it?

“I still have many things to tell you,” Jesus said, “but you can't handle them now. But when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, he will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is. He won't draw attention to himself, but will make sense out of what is going on… indeed, out of all that I have done and said. He will honor me; he will take from me and deliver it to you. Everything the Father has is mine. That is why I've said, 'He takes from me and delivers to you.

And then he concludes with these words: Fix this firmly in your minds: You're going to be in deep mourning while the godless world throws a party. You'll be sad – very sad – but your pain will turn into joy.

Did you hear that? God will be sending Christ’s friend to us – the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Truth – and the Spirit will come to us and comfort us so that our pain might be turned into joy. And that is what an adult Pentecost is all about, it seems to me: learning how to live and nourish the Spirit within and among us so that we might experience Christ’s joy.
Pentecost, writes Jim Callahan, is not the birthday of the church; that probably happened on Good Friday when Jesus was hanging on the Cross and pleading with God that we might be forgiven for sins we couldn’t even name or imagine. No Pentecost is God’s reply to Good Friday – a day of great joy, power, fire and spirit – that isn’t reserved just for Jesus alone but is poured out upon all of the faithful disciples. How does the book of Acts put it?

When the Feast of Pentecost came, the faithful were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them. There were many others staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. And when they heard the sound, they came on the run… because one after another heard their own mother tongues being spoken. They couldn't for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, "Aren't these all Galileans? How come we're hearing them talk in our various mother tongues? Are they drunk?”

Strangers became kin folk on Pentecost. Frightened disciples became fearless evangelists on Pentecost. Women and men became equals on Pentecost. And everyone who experienced this revival could only talk about it like a banquet – or a beer fest – because the sadness was gone and joy filled the air. “In the midst of a numbingly sober and sour world, these women and men looked like a bunch of happy drunks,” Callahan writes, “because at last they knew that they were God’s beloved.”

Every last one of them experienced from the inside out that they were beloved by God just as Jesus had promised. What’s more they knew deep within that the heart of God was love – “not just in poetic theory, but in palpable fact.” They experienced, too, that in belonging to God they were not alone – they belonged to one another – in community. And the joy this gave them not only filled their hearts, “but gave them the inspiration to go out into the streets to heal and redeem.”

· This is what the spirit of the Lord had promised to Ezekiel when he prophesied to that valley of dry bones.

· This is what the prophet Joel had “predicted when he said that there will come a time when the Lord will pour out the Spirit upon all people” so that our sons and daughters might speak truth to power, our old men might live as visionaries again and our young people clear their heads in compassionate ways.

It is what Isaiah shared once and what Jesus took up again: the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach and bring good news to the poor and all who are wounded and broken. And Pentecost is the proof – the encounter – the experience that God really will turn our sorrow into joy.

And here is where I have to come down out of this wonderful and elevated pulpit… and talk with you as one broken and wounded soul to another. Pentecost, beloved, is not magic. It is not merely the stuff of hope filled myth nor sacred and spiritual fantasy. Pentecost is real. The joy of Christ is real.

+ Release from addiction is real. The end of our sorrow is real. The turning of our pain into joy is real, too.

+ Not that we still won’t have pain – not that all our tears will end in this life or the next – or that our experience of the living kingdom of God in the 21st century won’t also know anxiety, wounds, confusion and all the rest.

Jesus didn’t say that – and neither do I. As John’s gospel continues this morning, Jesus talks about the gift of the Holy Spirit coming to us like a woman giving birth. Listen carefully:

When a woman gives birth, she has a hard time, there's no getting around it. But when the baby is born, there is joy in the birth. This new life in the world wipes out memory of the pain. The sadness you have right now is similar to that pain, but the coming joy is also similar. When I see you again, you'll be full of joy, and it will be a joy no one can rob from you. You'll no longer be so full of questions. This is what I want you to do: Ask the Father for whatever is in keeping with the things I've revealed to you. Ask in my name, according to my will, and he'll most certainly give it to you. Your joy will be a river overflowing its banks!

This, you see, is a call for training – an invitation to prepare our hearts and minds for the Spirit – just like Jesus said to his first disciples. Here is what the resurrection/Easter story says without ambiguity: once the shock of encountering the Risen Christ was over, Jesus spent the next 40 days teaching his bewildered disciples new and essential spiritual practices. He had done this in the flesh for three years, but the apparently needed a refresher course.

And at the end of these 40 days – 10 days before the Feast of Pentecost – he told them, “Now I want you to stay together and study and pray. Wait for power from on high. And when it comes… then you will be ready to act.” Now listen to what the book of Acts tells us happened next because it is instructive for us:

· First the disciples went back to Jerusalem as Jesus instructed and spent time in prayer. (Acts 1: 12-14)

· Second, they decided they needed to replace Judas who had fled and taken his life – that is they needed to restore the number of disciples to 12 again – why? To symbolically fulfill their calling as the 12 tribes of Israel.

· And third they studied and shared life together: do you see what is taking place here?

They weren’t looking for a miracle. They weren’t pretending that their grief and confusion wasn’t real. And they weren’t just going through the motions or playing church. They were studying, they were learning new ways of prayer and… they were practicing the unforced rhythms of God’s grace.

Remember those words of Jesus? Back in Matthew 11 he was explicit: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.

It is my deepest conviction that what the disciples were doing was practicing the lessons Jesus gave them – they were learning the unforced rhythms of grace – getting ready to both see and experience the Holy Spirit when it was given. And they didn’t have to go anyplace special to receive this gift, did you notice that? They didn’t need to go to a university or a seminar, they just had to be together, open their heads and hearts and practice the unforced rhythms of grace.

Then, in the fullness of time, they were ready to receive, experience and claim the blessings of joy born of the Holy Spirit. Beloved in Christ, what was true then is no less true now… but we have some work to do: some study, some practice, some time spent learning the unforced rhythms of grace.

+ That is the promise of Pentecost: right here – right now – in our lives and in our time we, too, might come to know Christ’s joy.

· We will still weep – Jesus wept. We will still hurt – Jesus grieved for those who wounded him and ached when his body was attacked. We will still die even as the Lord died before us.

But we will also be grounded in a peace that passes all understanding – a joy that will change us from children to adults – a love that will not let us go. For we will know from the inside out that we are truly the beloved of the Lord - and this is where joy is born - when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, he will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is. He won't draw attention to himself, but will make sense out of what is going on…
so that your joy may be full.
(I've included this song because youtube doesn't have Mason Jenning's other tune - but this is fun, too!)

Monday, May 25, 2009

the unforced rhythm of grace...

I guess the timing is about right - nearly two years of sharing ministry - for I am starting to see more clearly where God is at work within and among us. We began by exploring Christ's open table - feasting to be exact - and what it might mean to turn our gaze towards joy and celebration. From the feast we were led into three commitments: building deeper community, focusing our mission activities and practicing faithful stewardship of our resources. (This tune by Jefferson Airplane says it all...)


+ Building community: using some of the wisdom of Graham Standish, our organizational structure is moving towards small group ministries of prayer, study, action and accountability. We spend time talking about our lives - and reflecting on scripture - every time we gather both so that we know and love one another as well as become living parts of Christ's body.

+ Focusing our mission: rather than trying to do everything, we have become focused; and rather than state our goals in abstract or overly theological terms, we have moved towards simplicity. We gather together with God and one another to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion. Worship, reflection, justice and compassion now help us choose how to use our time, energy and resources.

+ Faithful stewardship: we have been called together by God for ministry not to be a club. We have been given resources - time, insight and money - that are a sacred trust - so we must use them in ways that advance the compassion and justice of Christ rather than simply maintain our building.

I am VERY clear that we are just scratching the surface of this work together - it is exciting and spirit-filled - but still just the beginning. And now another dimension is being revealed: how to live into the blessings of Christ. Doctrine alone has never empowered God's people to become living, breathing and loving men, women and children grounded in the kingdom of God. And what has long been missing in many local churches is training in spiritual discipline -practicing in the spirituality of Jesus - so that folks don't dismiss the promises of Christ as either fantasy or lies. Or worse, consider themselves at fault when they've never had a chance to learn!

It took me about three years of work in Tucson to figure out what God was saying to us re: spirituality - and I hope I am listening better here. What is coming into focus and will probably shape my preaching and teaching throughout the season of Pentecost has to do with learning the unforced rhythm of grace. Without any illusion that this is complete - or even completely right - I have started to think of the peace that Jesus aches to share like this:

Ours is an upside down kingdom that honors the wisdom of our wounds, lives from the inside out and refuses to separate the secular from the sacred. We cultivate quiet humility, a generous imagination and seek always to integrate our head with our heart. We practice radical hospitality born of gratitude rather than obligation for these are the spiritual disciplines that help us embody the unforced rhythm of grace.

Now as I see it, there are seven spiritual components to this spirituality:

+ learning the wisdom of our wounds
+ acting from our deepest values rather than reacting to the pain of living
+ searching for God's presence in all of life
+ nourishing our inner lives
+ connecting our imagination with God's creativity
+ sharing radical hospitality with everything that is alive
+ expressing our faith as an act of gratitude

Now, there are clear ways of going deeper into each of this spiritual commitments - practices, habits and even disciplines that will help train us in the counter-cultural vision of Jesus and his grace - and I guess now is the time to start making this clear. What a blessing - and just in time for Pentecost! (Kinda feels like this song by Rob Schneider to me...)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Crazy, true or a liar...

I had a most challenging moment in worship today: while re-framing what it means to be "born again" through the grace of God, it became clear to me that a number of people - I really wonder how many - don't believe that we can know and experience the peace of God in this life! Scholars are clear that many church people have been trained to believe that the kingdom of God is mostly about heaven - and I appreciate how this insight needs to be deepened and expanded. But I guess I am just too dense to get why and how so many can suggest that the peace and joy Jesus promises is a lie.

Maybe it is too harsh to call these reactions a lie, but as Bono has said: "either Jesus is totally crazy, telling the truth or a liar." So where does this harsh rejection come from? I can understand that many have not experienced this peace and joy deeply. I am clear that our wounds, addictions, fears and pains can keep us from trusting God's promise. And I have had my own experience with doubt. But to call it a lie? There are probably better explanations for why the promise of Jesus is considered to be a lie, but here's what I've come up with:

+ Many of us confuse our feelings with the truth. While our feelings are part of the truth - and can point us towards something important - too many times we don't understand the wisdom of our wounds and fail to listen to what they want to tell us. (More on that during next Sunday's message...)

+ Many more of us are unable or unwilling to trust that God really is God. I know that was the biggest hurdle for me: I wanted to believe that Christ's peace could be mine - that I could be within God's kingdom right now completely - but I hated giving up being in control of my life to do it. Call it what you want - and it is different for women than men - but somehow or another before God's peace can mature within us, we have to let God be God in our lives.


Nothing summarizes these two truths better than Niebuhr's "serenity prayer" that points to the unity of feelings, trust, letting go and putting our choices into perspective in pursuit of the peace of Christ's promises:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can;and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next. Amen.


The spirituality of letting go and trusting God is hard work - complicated work - and I know that one of the reasons I didn't do it for so long was because I wanted God's peace to be magic. I wanted it to be easier. I was confused between the free gift of grace and its costly consequences.
Living in the peace and joy of Christ's love - God's grace - is a constant commitment - and sometimes I was too lazy. It is a never ending choice of letting go of that which I cannot change or control, while fully attending to that which is in my power to change. It is giving up the illusion of perfection - in me or others - and embracing the blessings of the small moments.


For joy, in the way of Jesus, has nothing to do with my feelings: it comes from a deep trust that God is God always - and we are not. Some of my old AA buddies used to say that what trapped them was:

+ stinkin' thinkin - that is, always looking for the worst in others or themselves

+ feeling sorry for themselves instead of dealing with the hand they had been dealt in life

+ magical thinking - living in a fantasy world of miracles and illusions

+ refusing to give their lives over totally to God's trust

+ holding on to some unhealthy habits/behavior in secret

+ the geographic solution - going any place in creation without realizing that where ever you go, you still take yourself with you

+ classic insanity: doing the same old shit over and over again while expecting different results

Richard Rohr talks about 12 step spirituality as an authentically American expression of the counter cultural truths of the gospel: they give us practical steps for embracing and experiencing the promises of Jesus about peace and joy. I can't force anyone to trust that God really will bring us peace and inner joy. All I can do is point to what I have experienced and extend the invitation: no wonder St. Paul spoke of this a sacred foolishness. Eugene Peterson reminds me: ...there aren't many happy people in the Bible (that's because life is hard.) But there ARE people who are experiencing joy, peace and the meaning of Christ's suffering in their lives.

Life is brutal - often ugly and mostly unfair and painful - but the peace that passes all understand that Christ promises... is not a lie! We can get stuck - and stay stuck for many, many years - and that doesn't make the promises of Christ a lie either. No, it is clear that Jesus wasn't bullshitting us when he said: Come to me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest.

Peace - God's deep healing, life-changing, grace-filled peace - is not a lie.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What's up with this?

Another older book that I find myself going over time and again is Douglas John Hall's classic, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. It stands on its own while also serving as an excellent synthesis of his three volume life' work: Thinking the Faith, Professing the Faith and Confessing the Faith. As Hall does so well, this book explores what a "theology of the cross" might mean for North Americans in the 21st century?

After reviewing the origins of this theology in the work of Luther - and sharing a critique of how it has always been a minority report within the Protestant church at best - he then posses a series of questions about what it might mean for people of Christian faith to embrace the radical servanthood of the Cross. Specifically, he writes:

For centuries theology has maintained that the true marks of the church are the four that are named in the Nicene Creed: "one, holy, chatholic and apostolic church" (unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity.) Each of these notae ecclesia can find some biblical basis, but not of them can claim a fraction of the attention paid to the theme of the church's suffering in these sacred writings. They are all latecomers on the scene of Christian ecclesiology. The earliest and most prominent manner of discerning the rue true and distinguishing it from false claims to christian identity was to observe the nature and extent of the suffering experienced by the community of faith.

Why? Because, of course, as Paul makes clear... if you claim to be a disciple of the crucified one you must expect to participate in his sufferings; if you preach a theology of the cross, you will have to become a community of the cross. Anything else would represent a kind of hypocrisy.... It is only within the last sixty or seventy years - and only among a minority - that there has been any serious attempt to come to terms with this persistent theme of the Scriptures
.
(pp. 140-141)

What I have found - as a straight, white man of the American middle class - is a way to wrestle with the insights that the various theologies of liberation have exposed and participate in the with solidarity and integrity. In a word, Hall makes clear that the calling of all of God's people is to "represent God's way and will among the inhabitants of the earth (knowing) that they will suffer in their pursuit of this vocation." Challenging the theology of glory long celebrated by dominant culture, he writes:

Theologies of glory have been productive of soteriologies that can seem to bring closure to the human predicament: eternal life in place of death and fate; forgiveness in place of preoccupation with guilt. But no theology of glory will be able to bring closure to the question, "what are people for?" For that anxiety, the only answer that will suffice is the participation in our lives of a God who shares the question, whose Presence gives us the courage to hope (and I would add: act!)

As Jan Nolton of Yale Divinity School has recently observed: the way of the Cross - and the testimony of Jesus in Gethsemane - offer us an alternative to either apathy or panic in the face of our fears and anxieties. "Jesus showed the disciples how to feel fear and vulnerability" without falling asleep, dulling ourselves into oblivion or reacting with exaggerated terror. (see Reflections: The Fire Next Time, YDS, Spring 2009) As I pray over how to be present with those who have lost their hope and jobs...

+ as I try to stay with loved ones whose hearts and bodies are breaking in the most staggering ways...

+ when I try to discern how to be a presence of hope in the political conversations of this day - from deeper US involvement in Afghanistan to ways of bringing balance to the Supreme Court'

... this emerging theology of the Cross is making more and more sense.

Friday, May 22, 2009

In the fullness of time...

Over the past week I've found myself re-reading - or maybe reading for the first time - two books by past masters that speak more to me now than ever before: Frederick Buechner's Telling the Truth and Eugene Peterson's The Contemplative Pastor. These books speak to me of maturing in ministry - gaining perspective and compassion - along with the grey hair. Made me think of the way five old friends - George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne - put it in this song:


Buechner begins this little gem with a story about Henry Ward Beecher coming face to face with his limitations and brokenness on the eve of delivering a series of lectures to the divinity students at Yale in 1872. While staring at himself in the mirror, Beecher comes to own his wounds as well as his potential - and a new chapter in his ministry is born. He writes:

So when (Beecher) stood there looking into the hotel mirror with soap on his face and a razor in his hand, part of what he saw was his own shame and horror, the sight of his own folly, the judgment one can imagine he found even harder to bear than God's, which was his own judgment on himself, because whereas God is merciful, we are none of us very good at showing mercy on ourselves. And Henry Ward Beecher cut himself with his razor and wrote out notes for that first Beecher Lecture in blood because, whatever else he was or aspired to be or was famous for being, he was a man of flesh and blood...

If preachers... are to say anything that really matters to anyone including themselves, they must say it not just to the public part of us that considers interesting thoughts about the Gospel and how to preach it, but to the private, inner part too, to the part of us all where our dreams come from, both our good dreams and our bad dreams, the inner part where thoughts mean less than images, elucidation less that evocation, where our concern is less with how the Gospel is to be preached than with what the Gospel is to us.


Peterson takes this deeper by saying: \

... my job is not to solve people's problems or make them happy, but to help them see the grace operating in their lives. And it is hard to do, because our whole culture is going in the other direction, saying that if you're smart enough and get the right kind of help, you can solve all your problems. The truth is, there aren't very many happy people in the Bible. But there are people who are experiencing joy, peace and the meaning of Christ's suffering in their lives... so sometimes I think all I do as a pastor is speak the word "God" in a situation in which it hasn't been said before, where people haven't recognised God's presence. Joy, you see, is the capacity to hear the name and to recognise that God is here. There's a kind of exhilaration because God is doing something and, even in a little way, it's enough at that moment.


Both of these insights resonate with me: God knows that I, too, have found myself feeling like I'm at the end of the line only to discover new ways of being in ministry as I wrestle with both my brokenness and potential in the midst of God's grace. And the joy that Peterson speaks of - not the giddy highs of addictions or the foolishness of running away from real life, but the profound awareness that God is truly with me as Emmanuel - continues to liberate and calm me all at the same time.

Funny how these two little books that have been sitting around on my bookcase for decades can jump out to me at just the right moment: makes me think of the fullness of time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Born again in a 21st century context...

NOTE: I am back into my Wednesday study/writing groove after a few weeks caught up in grief, death and memorial services. It is good to be back! And today is so stunning in the Berkshires that my gaze out my study window keeps luring me outside... but not quite yet. So, as I have noted before, this is #5 in a series inspired by Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins and Marcus Borg with a serious dose of Thomas More tossed in this week. I am grateful for their wisdom, tenderness and faithfulness to the heart of Jesus. Here are my worship notes - and know you are always welcome to join us if you are in town at 10:30 am on Sunday.

Oh how blessed is the man or woman who has grown beyond their greed and put an end to their hatred and no longer nourish illusions. For those who delight in the law of the Lord – those who revel in the way things are and keep their hearts open both day and night – are like trees planted beside streams of water and bear fruit in due time…
Psalm One (with assistance from Stephen Mitchell)

Last week I came across a poem by Billy Collins twice: once in a new anthology of his creations I am exploring and once in an essay by Marcus Borg. Both times it caused me to pause like the psalm for today encourages and consider the way of the Lord within the fabric of my daily existence. It is called, “On Turning Ten.”

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light –
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chickenpox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
By drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

This is a poem that reminds us that we are changed by life, yes? Like the Psalmist said there is a rhythm to life that includes walking, standing and sitting – I would add falling, too – and as we enter this rhythm, things change: we learn to worry and fear, we are hurt and cause pain for others, we win and lose, discover how to trust in new ways, fall in love, have our hearts broken and so much more. Like St. Paul observed, “When I was a child I thought and acted like a child… but now that I have matured I have put childish things away.”

That is to say that we have been born again – maybe not in the way we usually think about this expression – but we have experienced a dying and a rising in our existence. Indeed, doesn’t it “seem only yesterday that I used to believe there was nothing under my skin but light? If you cut me I would shine. But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life, I skin my knees. I bleed.”

Frederick Buechner has observed that most of us have experienced this change and transformation because most of the time we “live our lives from the outside in rather than from the inside out.” And that is what I want to talk about with you today: living from the inside out – engaging life in a new way – being born again – so that we might nourish the kingdom of God within and among us.

+ One of the central truths about Jesus is that he invites us to live in a way that integrates the personal and the political, the spiritual and the secular, the inward and the outward.

+ He understands that not only do we come from God in the beginning – and ache to remain in that love throughout our lives – but that often our lives become lost or alienated from God’s love. We are wounded – or broken – confused and even bewildered by the severity of real life so that over time we not only lose our original blessing and innocence, but start living from the outside in.

No wonder the heart of his ministry turns things upside down: that’s the only way to be reunited with God’s love. “Take it from me,” he tells us in this morning’s Gospel, “Unless a person is born again – that is, born from above – it is not possible to see what I am pointing to: God’s kingdom… Don’t be surprised that I tell you that this new birth must take place because what I am talking about is ‘out of this world,’ so to speak… so pay attention.” (John 3)

Those two ideas – being born again and God’s kingdom – are critical. But all too often, they have been high jacked or held for ransom in ways that are alienating and confusing. So, let’s talk about both so that we not only reclaim their spiritual and practical insights for our generation, but also experience the blessings of those sacred trees by the river who bear good fruit in due time, ok? And there are three insights I want to share with you about the words born again.

First, it is a way of talking about how God creates a new heart with us.

+ Do you remember the psalm we used throughout much of Lent – Psalm 51 – that began: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me?”

+ What about the words from Jeremiah that were inspirational for the Protestant Reformation: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… and it will be when I put my law within them – when I write Torah on their hearts – then I shall be their God and they shall be my people?”

To speak of being born again, you see, is a poetic way of describing our new and clean hearts born of God’s grace. It is short hand for the experience of returning to God’s love. “How blessed, indeed, are those who delight in the love of God – who have grown beyond their greed and put an end to their hatred – they keep their hearts open both day and night and become like trees planted near flowing rivers.” First, to be born again spiritually is to return to God’s love and experience what it means to have a new and clean heart within us.

Second, to be born again describes a spiritual ebb and flow that takes place throughout our lives if we are paying attention and is not a single or solitary event. Marcus Borg writes: The phrase “born again” occurs only twice in the New Testament. But the notion, often expressed in the language of dying and rising – death and resurrection – is utterly central in early Christianity and the New Testament as a whole. In fact, dying and rising and to be born again are the same root image for the process of personal transformation that is at the heart of the Christian life: to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of living, dying to an old identity and being born into something new – a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in the Sprit, in Christ, in God.

Are you with me? Do you see the connections? To be born again is to let one identity and heart die so that another more God-like heart can rise within. Consider these passages from the Scripture:

+ Jesus once told his disciples: If you really want to follow me then you must deny yourselves, pick up your cross and follow. Now we know that there was a literal truth to this, but it is also highly symbolic, too, yes? What’s he asking for: a change of direction, a death of sorts and a life of obedience and servant hood?

+ At another time he said: Those who want to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for my sake will save them. This is born again language, right? The paradox of obedience and freedom, dying to bring life, letting go so that God can be found.

First, being born again speaks of new hearts being cleansed by God’s grace. Second, it describes a way of living – dying and rising with Christ – that keeps our hearts centered in God grace. And third, being born again suggests that a new way of living emerges from clean and loving hearts. Look at what happens in the classic born again text we are using today: it is filled with symbolism, insight, nuanced spiritual humor and so much more. First, Nicodemus, a wealthy and influential Jew, comes to Jesus – a poor, itinerant Palestinian preacher – at night. An interesting combination, yes: old meets new, the rich realize the poor have some-thing valuable that can be shared, dark meets light, confusion journeys towards clarity?

Second, both men seem to be talking past the other: Nick is trying to understand the new way of Jesus but doesn’t know how to think symbolically; and Jesus – well, Jesus seems to keep changing the subject – which only intensifies the confusion of dear Nicodemus. “Unless you are born from above,” Jesus keeps saying, “you just won’t be able to see the kingdom of God.”

+ Nicodemus is a literalist – Jesus speaks in poetic metaphors.

+ The old one speaks of the flesh, the new one sings about the spirit.

The man of the night is afraid of the light, while the light of the world tries to shine something of God’s grace wherever he goes. And the language of the Bible plays this tension up in spades. Literally the words of Jesus mean born in the flesh a second time as well as to born spiritually from above. “Which is it?” demands Nicodemus, to which Jesus says, “Yes.” And no matter how precise the old man tries to get with his outmoded words, he continues to miss the point.

Because, you see, as Thomas More observes in his new book, Writing in the Sand, the change Jesus is describing – the metanoeo we so often translates as repentance – is greater than morality or far more important than our feelings. “Meta means ‘after,’ or sometimes ‘beyond,” writes More.

We use the word meta-morphosis for a worm becoming a butterfly – so just imagine the difference between those two beings – the worm and the butterfly – and that is the meta involved here: a profound, basic and unmistakable transformation in our living… If you were to go through all of the Gospels and retranslate this one word repentance, in all its various forms, substitute "a shift in vision or a discovery of a new world of meaning," you would discover an altogether different take on these ancient writings. Your task would be to live a different life, not just feel bad about the mistakes you have made or live in fear of punishment…. Indeed, you would come to realize that repentance – being born from above – is the way in which you enter the very kingdom of God.

Next week – which is the Feast of Pentecost – I’m going to talk with you about living in the kingdom: making our clean hearts, new minds and born again lives visible in the real world. But that is for later… right now let me just put it like this: When our eyes are opened to God’s grace, not judgment it is like we have been given a second chance – a new life – and we have been born again and born from above. “If you don’t go through this change of heart and mind, then you aren’t in the kingdom no matter how long you’ve held membership in this or any other church…”

+ You can believe whatever you want – you can say the historic creeds 100 times a day – and give this congregation thousands of dollars each year.

+ You can be a good boy – or girl – pay your taxes on time, love your momma and Jesus and America, too just like Tom Petty said...

“But if you don’t escape from your default reality and enter a new way of living – if you aren’t really baptized in the existential sense and not just in a formal ritual – then you are outside of the kingdom.” (More, p. 22) In the Jesus life, beloved, the kingdom life – the born again life – clean hearts lead to new ways of living:

+ You show wisdom by trusting
+ You handle leadership by serving
+ You handle offenders by forgiving
+ You deal with money by sharing, enemies by loving, and violence by suffering

For in the Jesus life there is a new attitude towards everything and everybody… and you handle repentance NOT be feeling bad, but by living and thinking different.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dark nights and blessings...

Another theme that keeps popping up in my spiritual life - besides that of feasting with God - is how there are blessings to be found even in our dark nights. For most of adult life I thought about God's kingdom only in terms of light - sometimes just happiness and/or good times - mostly because I had no model for discerning the blessings of the darkness.


Which isn't to say, of course, that I hadn't experienced darkness - but I never knew how to find the blessings within the darkness. The music of Portishead is an ally - the writings of Thomas Moore, Robert Bly, Anne Lamott and Gerald May are friends for this journey, too. Perhaps the most edifying, however, comes from the lament of Mother Theresa who experienced a "dark night" throughout her public ministry.

“In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss,” she wrote in 1959, “of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.” According to the book, this inner turmoil, known by only a handful of her closest colleagues, lasted until her death in 1997. Think about that: from the beginning of her new public ministry until her death, this modern saint did not feel the loving embrace of God's grace she had always known.
As James Martin wrote in the NY Times: "Mother Teresa’s ministry with the poor won her the Nobel Prize and the admiration of a believing world. Her ministry to a doubting modern world may have just begun."

To this my ups and downs seem like dust in the wind.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Feasting with God...

There is a theme that I find myself coming back to over and over again: feasting with God. As a metaphor for my spirituality, the feast is rich and inspirational for it is grounded in the reality of hospitality, abundance, joy and sharing. As a spiritual discipline, the feast helps me practice using my resources and time in ways that nourish. And as a way of talking about what is most important to me personally and socially, the image of the feast is almost perfect.

+ a feast is costly - it requires sharing my time, money and space

+ a feast is beautiful - it demands a well-set table, a clean house and tender care

+ a feast is intentional - there can be spontaneous gatherings but a feast takes planning

+ a feast is about community - anything less is self-centered

+ and a feast is sensual - it invites calling forth our hearts and bodies along with our mind

A feast treats people as honored guests, practices radical hospitality and gives us all a chance to be our best selves just as God intended. In one of my favorite books, Feasting with God: Adventures in Table Spirituality, Holly Whitcomb speaks of compassion as cum (with) panis (bread.) She makes the case that table fellowship is not only where Jesus did a great deal of healing, but it is also where we learn to practice sabbath rest most authentically as our hungers are satisfied:

Whenever we come together for table celebrations, our grace must openly be along the lines of, "for those without food, grant bread; for those with bread, grant hunger for justice." And then we must go forth to proclaim justice and perform works that serve it. But hunger for justice does not begin with deprivations, let alone with guilt. Hunger for justice begins with gratitude, by acknowledging our minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour thanks for the gifts of the earth that become the food on our tables... moreover, it is the act of thanksgiving - Eucharist - that kindles the realization that the earth-gifts meant for all do not reach all. Goodness exists, yes, but the world is not wholly good.

For the past 10 years, feasting with God has been at the heart of how I understand both my life and my ministry. Curiously, however, it was not until I recently reread Douglas John Hall that I realized that while table fellowship is essential to the spirituality of Jesus, many of us go out of our way to avoid coming to the table. The gospel of Luke reminds us that many times Jesus invited folk to the table but we had countless excuses:

Jesus said to another, "Follow me." He said, "Certainly, but first excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have to make arrangements for my father's funeral." Jesus refused. "First things first. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent: Announce God's kingdom!" Then another said, "I'm ready to follow you, Master, but first excuse me while I get things straightened out at home." Jesus said, "No procrastination. No backward looks. You can't put God's kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day."

So maybe it is time to revisit some of the table fellowship stories as spring slowly becomes summer in the Berkshires. I started our ministry of renewal with a conversation into feasting with God almost two years ago - and maybe the Spirit is calling us to look at Eucharist, gratitude and table fellowship again after Pentecost. We shall see...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

More on "I don't do sin..."

Three fascinating comments came my way during worship today after sharing my reflections on "not getting sin and salvation" anymore. (See my sermon notes below...) First, there was a deep resonance among some people who said that they, too, were interested in the nuanced and multi-layered sense of the human experience that the "new paradigm" church is exploring. "All of our sin-talk seems like a hamster on a wheel in a cage going round and round and never getting off!" Some saw the traditional words of sin as a way of letting some into the community while keeping others out; and some told me that our usual sin words are too narrow and don't help us consider things like poverty, race hatred and war. (I love the way Peter Rollins talks about this wrestling together in community...)


Second, there was a sense of "liberation and freedom" among others who said that they felt a little discomfort, too, in letting go of such an historic resting place. They grasped that the time had probably come to speak more creatively about the human condition but they also wanted to make sure that I wasn't claiming the whole idea of sin and salvation were over. And, of course, that was not my point. What I was trying to say was that the time has come to let go of our historic obsession with sin precisely because this letting go can be so liberating. Perhaps a better way of talking about this is finding the right balance when reflecting on our human condition.

And then there were the folks who didn't seem to hear the nuance of my suggestion - perhaps for them reality is always black/white or all/nothing - for they wondered what would happen if we didn't include the reality of sin in our spiritual anthropology? That would be a self-centered mistake - idolatry even - but that was not my point. (NOTE: one of my blind spots as a person and pastor is trying to hear/understand those who do not think paradoxically. I can usually grasp their insight, but it takes a LOT of listening and critical reflecting on my part because I most always see things as both/and rather than either/or.)


And when our worship conversation came to a close, a few folks even spoke to me about the new/old writings re: "what ever happened to sin?" I even got an email from a friend citing a survey that 61% of Americans believe in sin - and almost 85% are certain that some behaviors are totally sinful. Nevertheless, Marcus Borg seems to grasp what lies deeper when he writes:

All of our traditional formulations about sin are right and wise... Each "catches" a comprehensive dynamic at work in who we are. The problem is disobedience. The problem is estrangement. The problem is pride. The problem is infidelity. The problem is lack of trust. And each of the traditional formulations complement each other very nicely. The history of Christian thought about sin is filled with wisdom.

But... is "sin" the best comprehensive term for naming our problem (or the human condition)? Would we understand our problem - and its solution - better if we used multiple images to speak about it... for when we say that "we are all sinners," (aren't) we really saying, "something is not right, something is radically wrong, we are lost?" (Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 167)

And THAT is what this opening conversation was about: what is the BEST way to reflect on and address our true human condition? Like my wife said after worship while we were resting, "I need a quiet time every week in worship to consider where I have missed the mark... what perspective I am NOT seeing... so you can call it sin or brokenness or whatever... just don't take that quiet time away as you help us let go of some of our sin talk."

As this day comes to a close, I am grateful to God for all those who engaged in this conversation with me - those who share my questions, those who challenge me and those who don't seem to get it, too - for we are really all in this together. I like the way the Iona Community puts it:

O God of life - of all life and each life - we lay our lives before you;
We give our lives to you from whom nothing in us is hidden.
You are before us, Lord, and you are behind.
You are around us, Lord, and you are within.
O God of life, O generous Spirit,
Renew us all with your life: tonight, tomorrow and always.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

I don't get sin and salvation any more... do you?

NOTE: My weekly sermon notes... finally. Usually I get this done by Wednesday but we've been traveling and doing funerals and all the rest so... I am a little late. This is the fourth is a series of reflections inspired by both Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren's recent writings about why everything must change. Others in the series have looked at a new paradigm for talking about God, scripture and Jesus. So, if you are in the area, please stop by at 10:30 am and join us.

I believe that Jesus was totally honest when he told us: “I have come that my joy may be your joy – and that your joy might become wholly mature. This is my new commandment: love one another as I have loved you… and your joy shall be full.”

+ With everything that is sacred within me – heart, mind, body and soul – I believe and trust that this is true: I have come so that your joy may be full.

+ And I know that most Christians don’t really believe it because no matter what we sometimes tell ourselves, our tradition is obsessed with sin. One theologian likes to quote his Buddhist friend who told him, “You Christians must be very bad people – you’re always confessing your sins!”

So in the spirit of Jesus – and his call to love and mature in authentic joy – I want to suggest this morning that I think the time has come to let go of some of our sin talk. Not abandon it or pretend like sin doesn’t exist; but rather let’s put our humanity into a larger spiritual context where sin is only one aspect of our faith.

You see, I believe that the time has come for us to speak about the human condition with depth and breadth – with nuance and subtlety – with tenderness, honesty, affection and grace. And Christianity’s historic obsession with sin is just… incomplete at best. It is often unjust and even harmful to those who have been wounded by life.

+ I have come to prefer the way Thomas Keating speaks of the human condition; rather than sinners, he talks about broken souls searching for their true selves.

+ I like when Frederick Buechner speaks of being lost. “I think it is possible,” he writes, “to say that in spite of all its extraordinary variety, the Bible is held together by having a single plot. It is one that can even be simply stated: God creates the world; the world gets lost; and God seeks to restore the world to the blessings for which God created it.”

+ Or consider the way Marcus Borg deepens this insight of Buechner’s by embracing other creative images. In addition to our original blessing – and the reality of sin – he suggests that the human condition is also: Blind, in exile, in bondage; we have closed hearts, we hunger and thirst, we are lost.

Each of these images for the human condition, he writes, has a correlative image; that is, each implies a remedy, a solution, even a healing. If we are blind, we need to see; if we are in exile, we need to return; if we are in bondage, we need freedom; if we have closed hearts, we need to have them opened; if we hunger and thirst, we need food and drink; and if we are lost, we need a way – a map – and we need to be found.

This is another way of saying that it is time to let go of sin as the dominant and even solitary description of the human condition because it is neither true nor helpful. It is certainly a piece of our puzzle, but not our totality. Again, Borg’s words are helpful:

Our problem is not simply that we have been bad and have rebelled against God (although that may be true), but also that we are blind, estranged, lost, in exile, self-centered, wounded, sick, paralyzed, in bondage, grasping, afraid and broken… and Christianity’s traditional answer or response to sin – forgiveness – does not fully address this deeper reality. More than forgiveness, we need a way – a way of return from exile, a way to reconnect to Christ’s joy, a way of freedom from our bondage, a way in which our sight is restored, a way of having our hearts opened and a way that leads from being lost to finding and being found.

Now before I go any further, let me pause to ask: how does this grab you?

+ What are your reactions to my suggestion that we need to move beyond using sin as the central description of the human condition?

+ Is this a good idea – or bad? Is it helpful – or confusing?

You see, I believe that ours is a living tradition. The central theological understanding of the Reformation is: reformed and reforming. Like comedian Jon Stewart said about religion: If you want a Catholicism that is alive and creative – with choices and a place for sorting out the hard truths – they call it being Protestant. So I think we have to wrestle with both our past traditions and their implications if we are going to embody this wholly mature joy that Jesus promises: without doing this – without critically reflecting on what the ancient truths are saying to contemporary reality – ours is just a religion of the ancestors.

Now, we have some pretty creative ancestors in our tradition:

+ For the first 300 years of Christianity, sin was not the central image that defined the church: it was the Cross. Douglas John Hall, one of the great Reformed theologians of our day, has noted that Christians were essentially defined by their willingness to pick up the cross and follow Christ into lives of compassion, justice and integrity. There was suffering in this life, to be sure, but our suffering was born more of obedience, than sin. Like the old hymn says: I have decided to follow Jesus… the Cross before me, the world behind me… no turning back, no turning back.

+ Then, after the Church was institutionalized and made an instrument of empire, the emphasis shifted from bold obedience to the Cross to a spirituality rooted in personal sin and unanimity. That is, there was a revision from living as a community of the cross to searching for the way of holiness – and the key to this new paradigm was unity and obedience. No longer did Christians look to the Cross as the symbol of their praxis, they recited a Creed: I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

And our ancestors have wrestled with this tension for nearly 1500 years: Luther sought to revive the via crucis – the way of the Cross – but was enmeshed in an obsession with the politics of his day. In the 20th century, two of the great theologians of our tradition – Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich – sought to redefine our obsession with sin. Seeking the common good, Niebuhr spoke of original sin as our battle against hubris and self-centeredness while Tillich went inward and explored the experience of estrangement.


And I share that quick overview with you to remind you that rethinking and reworking our understanding of the place of sin and salvation in our spirituality is not something new. I’m not making it up to be hip, cool or even entertaining: it is in our blood as people who ache to make the Word of God flesh in our generation.

+ So, does that make sense?

+ Do you have questions about my overview? It was down and dirty, I know, but I hope it was suggestive of how this all works together, yes?

As a congregation, you see, we have been doing exactly this same kind of theological reflection in the creation of our mission statement. Did you know that? If you look at the top of your worship bulletin you will read: In community with God and each other, we gather to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion. And there are implications to this statement of mission, yes? There are five of them to be specific:

+ First we are promising to learn how to be a community rather than a collection of individuals. We are saying that we are going to look for the presence of God together – that being a community is essential to us – in this age of hyper-individualism. That is a counter-cultural claim, my friends, and it sets us apart from other spiritual traditions that emphasize what one of my daughter’s calls the “Jesus is my boyfriend” way of living. First, we seek God in community.

+ Second, we are spiritual pilgrims searching for God’s way in worship. And worship is God centered first and foremost – it puts us in relationship with the Creator in a unique way – where we have to learn that we are not the center of the universe. We may be created just a little lower than the angels, but we are not God: we gather in community to worship God. And that, too, is counter-cultural in an era that emphasizes getting all the gusto you can grab!

+ Third, we promise to reflect on our Christian faith – not parrot unconsidered slogans or blindly follow tradition. Reflecting means that we think – we love God with all our mind – but we also love God with all our heart, soul and strength, too. We are claiming an integrated and holistic spirituality – the inward and outward journeys – the faith of Jesus as way of questioning, doubting and always going deeper as much as studying, learning and trusting. We reflect on our Christian faith.

+ And then we make justice real and share compassion. Notice what we do not say in this mission statement: we do not say that we are going to evangelize a sin-filled world and win souls to salvation. We do not speak once about sin; rather we talk about making God’s grace visible in the real world – justice – and sharing tenderness with creation – compassion – just as the Hebrew prophets taught: What does the Lord require but to do justice, share mercy or compassion and walk with God in humility – not hubris.

Does that make sense to you? Do you understand how we have already begun to shift our emphasis away for an obsession with sin to something deeper, more creative and nuanced?

+ Ok, then let me add one additional insight: let’s be intentional about doing this? We want to embody a life of joy – not a tradition of obligations or requirements – and that takes practice.

+ Let’s find ways every week – in worship and reflection, in acts of justice and compassion – to consciously make a shift away from an obsession with sin. For example, I think that in addition to sharing a time for confession, we might also have a time for praying about the ways we are in exile – or the ways we are lost – or broken.

+ What do you think about that? We could pray for our blindness – our hungers – our fears – our lost connection to the heart of God – how we might be set free – new life out of death. Are you with me? I love the way the new theologians speak about salvation:

Salvation is about our life together. Salvation is about justice, peace and compassion within community and beyond it, too. It is about shalom – a word that means right relations between all people and creation – about the healing and hope… and joy. Indeed, salvation comes from God although it also involves our response.

Now, I could be wrong about this, but I sense that you are ready for this kind of approach – because you are already living into it – even if not in a wholly mature way. And I know this to be true because… I have experienced it. Over the past few weeks, while Dianne’s mother was sick – and then dying – and finally gone, we both felt your prayers: it was palpable in both our lives and we were hundreds and hundreds of miles apart. But you didn’t stop there:

+ One day I went into my office and you had left me this goody basket filled with sweet reminders of your compassion: bread and wine, a few sweets and a lovely, tender card.

+ And then last Sunday, just before we pulled out for the funeral, you came and gave Dianne a prayer shawl – a warm gift of compassion and remembrance – that said: we are with you always in love.

This is a spirituality grounded in Christ’s joy, beloved, not an obsession with sin. This is way of being faithful that makes the Lord’s words flesh: I was lonely and visited me… hungry and you gave me food… afraid and you brought me comfort. And they said, “When did we see you hungry, Lord and feed you… naked and bring you clothes… afraid and share compassion? And he said… do you remember? Whenever you did it unto one of the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you did it unto me.

I have come that my joy may be your joy – and that your joy might become wholly mature. This is my new commandment: love one another as I have loved you… and your joy shall be full. I can see it happening – let’s take it even deeper. Grace and peace to you always.

summertime is half over...

A gentle rain is falling in the Berkshire hills this morning. Already it feels like a day of contemplation and quiet rest. There was a Fac...