A theology of the Cross and our 250th anniversary...

Without a doubt, theologian Douglas John Hall has given me more conceptual tools to work with than almost anyone else. To be sure, Dorothee Soelle, Gustavo Gutierrez, Cornel West, Reihnold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Richard Rohr, Carol Howard Merritt, Frederick Buechner, Dorothy Bass, Diana Butler Bass, Henri Nouwen, Mako Fujimura and Joan Chittister have also been allies with significant wisdom. But it has been Hall's careful articulation of a contemporary "theology of the cross," as well as his loving commitment to the "dispirited remnants of the Protestant establishment," that has given me bearings to remain grounded (mostly) during this season of shifting sands.
He is a straight, white, middle class man from North America - Montreal to be precise - who has studied and embraced the work of neo-Orthodoxy albeit with a contemporary critique.  As articulated in Thinking Our Faith, The Cross in Context and Waiting for Gospel, Hall's appraisal of this tradition is saturated in the "cruciform nature of (faithful) Christian existence." David Lott synthesizes the arc of Hall's writing like this:
Waiting for Gospel: An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant “Establishment” is Hall’s latest accounting on (his) perennial themes. A variation on the book’s opening sentence easily could have served as the beginning of any number of his earlier books: “The essays in this volume are all expressions of their author’s concern for the critical situation of the so-called Mainline Protestant denominations, especially (though not exclusively) in the North American context.” There you have it: the concern over Protestant disestablishment, the focus on context. Less obvious, though clearly implied as one reads further, is that “the author’s concern for the critical situation” has not just to do with the effects of disestablishment, but the ways in which the denominations are responding to this situation. For Hall, most Protestant institutions are simply looking for “more effective means of preserving the churches,” rather than giving primary attention to the word of gospel that is at its core. As he writes, “The only thing that can salvage a moribund religion is a lively recovery of its life-giving essence”—which points directly to his work on stewardship and the theology of the cross.(For an extended overview of Hall's writing, please see Lott's essay @  http://thecresset.org/2013/Easter/Lott_E3013.html)

Small wonder that I find myself turning to brother Hall's insights again as I reflect on the 250th anniversary of our congregation. I am currently working on an address for that celebration - Sunday, March 16th - that I pray will accomplish three things simultaneously: 1) Offer a brief summary of how the call to "pick up our Cross and follow Christ" has changed in 250 years; 2) Note how this transformation is leading us into the role of partner and servant in mission rather than leader; and 3) Encourage us to honor and rejoice in this altered context rather than lament or deny it. Not everyone, of course, wants to celebrate our new circumstance.  Some continue to grieve our real or perceived loss of social status. And while I would never wish to neglect their grief, after all we have been instructed to live into the rhythm of a life filled with paradoxical seasons - Ecclesiastes 3 - I suspect it is no longer a "time to weep, but a time to laugh; nor a time to mourn but a time to dance."
That is why our anniversary event will be essentially a musical concert filled with the sounds of First Church in our present incarnation. There will be a nod to the past on Saturday, March 15 when an open house art display will be shared with the wider community. At this time some of the historic photographs and documents will be on display, too. And, probably, this event will be the "real" anniversary celebration for some because it looks to the past. I am thrilled that there will be this prelude to the feast offered the day before our concert: not only does it honor what has taken place in the past - good and bad, faithful and broken - but it also reverently depicts our current context by showing how the world has changed in 250 years. As Santayana has said: "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it."

Our mission and ministry in 2014 if now fundamentally about partnership with the community. It functions from the wisdom of humility rather than power - and this is where Hall is uniquely helpful to me. He writes that for those of us in the once dominant Protestant establishment who now embrace our disestablishment, "the best way of conveying the theological method and spirit (of this age comes through) considering the three Pauline virtues of faith, hope and love... especially how these so-called virtues (work) in light of what they are each negating.  Unless the negation of each is understood, the positive statement of each is cheapened and made into a cliche." Waiting for Gospel, p. 90) 

First in the "thin tradition" that Luther calls a "theology of the Cross" rather than the triumphal "theology of glory" that defined the once Protestant establishment is faith.  "What does this term negate? The metaphor that crops up time and again in Paul's writing is sight. Faith, which comes by hearing and is precisely a not-seeing... is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  It is the act of trust - glimpsed as through a glass darkly, to be sure - and never fully seen. "Faith that is not sight" Hall notes, "is thus a faith warned against presumption."

Second, is hope - "an orientation to the future and a recognition that the present is still lacking its promised fulfillment - and its negation is reality. Human despair, fear, doubt, brokenness and sin. "What is hoped for must not be taken for granted, so hope must live with its antithesis of hopelessness and despair... for what we hope for has not fully happened."  Hall again points to St. Paul: "In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen. But if we hope for what we do not see, then we wait for it with patience."  Hall is clear:  first we practice trusting God, second we practice patience rather than presumption or even arrogance.

And third we live into love - "and love negates many things" - for "love does not insist on its own way." Quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, Hall writes: "'The crux of the Cross is its revelation of the fact that the final power of God over man (sic) is derived from the self-imposed weakness of his love.' This, I think, is of the essence of this theology and it is hard for all to accept who think of deity chiefly in terms of power, omnipotence and almightiness. But if God is love, then the divine power must accommodate itself to divine love and not vice versa. And for the theology of the cross this is basic."  Hall closes with an extended quote from Tillich whom we know to be bright and broken and even cruel - but often wise, too.
(photo by Ben Garver)

One of Luther's most profound insights was that God made himself small for us in Christ. In doing so, He left us our freedom and our humanity. He shows us His heart so that our hearts could be won. When we look at the misery of our world, its evil and its sin, especially in these days which seem to mark the end of a world period, we long for divine interference, so that the world and its daemonic rulers might be overcome. We long for a king of peace within history, or for a king of glory above history. We long for a Christ of power. Yet if He were to come and transform us and our world, we should have to pay the one price we could not pay: we would have to lose our freedom, our humanity and our spiritual dignity. Perhaps we would be happier; but we should also be lower beings, our present misery, struggle and despair notwithstanding. We should be more like blessed animals than men (and women) made in the image of God. Those who dream of a better life and try to avoid the Cross as a way, and those who hope for a Christ and attempt to exclude the Crucified, have no knowledge of the mystery of God and of man.

Hall then summarizes what is called for by those in the Protestant world who seek to be honestly engaged with the world as it is:

...the theology of the Cross is a theology of faith (not sight), a theology of hope (not consummation) and a theology of love (not power.) And if you want to understand what the theology of glory is (the theology that dominated our history) you just have to turn this ordering of the virtues around: it is a theology of sigh (not faith), a theology of consummation (not hope) and a theology of power (not love.)

As we attempt to live into a contemporary expression of the theology of the Cross, we have constructed an anniversary celebration saturated in song. It is time to dance to the Lord who lures us towards grace with faith, hope and love.  So there will be room at the table this year for Tom Waits' "Come On Up to the House" as well as a traditional "Gloria." We will rejoice and weep with Yusuf Islam in "Peace Train" as well sing boldly "Our God Our Help in Ages Past." And we'll invite our friends and mission partners to speak and sing as equals with us whether in Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" or in the modern anthem "Set Me as a Seal Upon Your Heart." I am getting excited about the whole weekend - honoring the past as well as celebrating the current as we look with hope towards the future - maybe you can join us? 


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