A year of living as fools for christ...

Clearly my mind is set upon sabbatical as New Year's Day shines through the brilliant cold. We are moving slowly this morning, putzing about in preparation for returning home, even as we enjoy our daughter/son-in-law's mountain farm house. Di is baking them cookies so that when they get back from NYC the place will smell sweet. I've been tending the animals and stoking the wood stove. And all the while my mind has been thinking about sabbatical.

This morning, after the goats and chickens were tended, I read this essay by Douglas John Hall: http://www2.ptsem. edu/uploadedFiles/IYM/YCCL/Hall-Finding.pdf. Hall is my go to theologian in North America. I hope to share tea or something stronger with him one afternoon while in residency in Montreal. At the heart of this essay, and much of his work over the past 30 years, is this insight about the challenge of being faithful in the 21st century:

The “difficulty” of Christianity that we must all encounter in an original way in our time could in fact be stated in precisely these terms: namely, that unless we are able, as Christians, to discover ways of conducting our life and our mission that differ radically from the Christendom form of the church that has dominated throughout most of Christian history, we shall be doomed in the future to be part of our world's problem, not its solution.

One of the reasons I value Hall's contributions is that he is a theologian of humility. To be sure, he knows the lingo and can speak the parlance of the academy as a full fledged insider, but he refuses to be seduced by its promise of self-importance. He has broken outside of the seminary's self-referential walls and is circumspect about next steps. In fact, he is fond of saying that given our history of triumphalism since the fourth century and our institutional insistence on certainty since the Reformation, more than anything else, now would be a good time to learn how to listen to the world around us.

For the present, I think, the most important step that any serious Christian
or Christian community can take toward the future is a deliberate and disciplined step in understanding. Like most people who feel called upon today to speak publicly about these matters, I am frequently asked, “But what can we do?” We North Americans have always been a practical people, activists to the core! In the face of any problem, we want to be able to act, and to do so soon—at once! 

Our brand of success as a people is perhaps greatly due to this kind of practicality. But mere activism does not help, and in fact it often greatly hinders, where a whole spate of planetary problems are concerned, problems that have become, in our time, the most pressing—including the great instabilities of economic and other forms of injustice, war, and violence, and the degradation of the natural order. All such problems are only exacerbated by the kind of let’s-do-something approach that I ascribed, in my previous lecture, to the Henny-Pennys of our society. Act we certainly must; but pertinent acting, judicious acting (for Christians, obedient acting) presupposes theory the present, I think, the most important step that any serious Christian presupposes the often much harder work of thinking, including that form of thought that is

called prayer.

Years ago, I saw a poster in the most unlikely place—a Protestant church!—that read, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” This, I believe, is the first requirement for any Christian person or congregation or denomination today that wants to find a way into the future. Thought—original, deep, critical, theological thinking—is the conditio sine qua non—the condition without which the Christian movement will not find its way into the uncertain future. Another word for the kind of thought of which I am speaking is the much-misunderstood word “theology.” Ours is a time when theological reflection may be the most important thing Christians can do if they are earnest about their future.

With four months left before our departure - and so much to accomplish both personally and professionally before that time - I spent the better part of yesterday "sitting there" just as Dr. Hall ordered. I have been pondering, listening and discerning just what my work requires during this curious transition time. And part of what has come to me involves my contribution to the worship and study life of my congregation. Specifically, two series of messages geared towards interpreting this time of sabbatical. In-between, of course, there will be Lent/Easter with its own unique charism and kerygma. But for the time before and after that penitential season, I am considering a two part series (January-February and then April) re: Living as Fools for Christ - a Time for Sabbatical Playfulness. Yesterday, I took a stab at an outline for the first six weeks that looks something like this:

+ The foolishness of baptism: affirming our beloved selves in a culture of judgment.

+ The foolishness of community: the wisdom of the Cross as celebrated by MLK

+ The feast of fools: how worship reinforces playfulness (with reference to Harvey Cox)

+ The foolishness of trust: democracy and service within our Congregational tradition (annual meeting Sunday)

+ The foolishness of sabbath (and sabbaticals)

+ The foolishness of grace (Transfiguration Sunday)

We'll be playing a lot of jazz during this time, too. And one of Hall's insights about listening as a theological discipline strikes me as essential for jazz, too: reclaiming the original wisdom of the Trinity helps us all explore the presence and calling of both Creator and Spirit in creative ways. He writes:

But besides being truer to the original, the Trinitarian conception of the Christ proposed by Niebuhr is terribly important for any possibility of a Christian mission that today includes (as it must!) dialogue with other religious faiths. In this social context, where we brush shoulders daily with persons of other religious persuasions, the glorious, powerful Christ-of -Christendom can only offend and alienate these others. St. Paul rightly insists that there is an “offense”—a scandal—in the Christian message. But the scandal Paul has in mind is not the idea of a powerful messiah who in the very grandeur of his person excludes and humiliates others; rather, it is the scandal of a messiah who, contrary to everybody’s expectations of divinity, enters into complete solidarity with the suffering world and seeks to change the world, not by force, but by the weakness of his radical compassion—agape.

Our sabbatical time - mine and the congregation's - will be saturated in jazz and jazz teaches us to trust that God's grace is greater than our fears. We are going to spend some time playing together like a hot jazz quartet - and that means a whole lot of listening - and trusting and practicing. As a faith community we've learned to do some of this in modest ways. And now the Spirit could be calling us to go deeper - deeper as fools for Christ.


Judith said…
Doug Hall taught me Systematic Theology eons ago. Taught me to think, too although it was a bit off putting when he came to listen to my student sermons.
RJ said…
smiles... i bet it was... still a growing experience, yes?

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