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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Living the Nativity: Teach, Proclaim, Help

The past month has been an interesting one. Articles have abounded on-line and in print about the exodus of the Millennial generation  from the church. The reasons that are said to be the cause of this phenomenon are as manifold and as divergent as those who report on it. When you get down to it, though, they all seem to come down to a two-fold critique of the church; first, on the basis of how she treats her own, and second, how she treats those who stand outside her walls. I do not believe that there are any quick and easy answers to these critiques. I do believe there are answers- don't get me wrong- I just don't believe they are quick or easy.

First, we must admit that people aren't flocking to our doors. But why should that come as a surprise? In theory we, as Christians, are called to be a "peculiar people"- peculiar in that we are supposed to stand as a witness to the love, justice, freedom,  and peace that finds its root in the soil of the Kingdom of God of which Jesus was the harbinger. In practice, if we are honest with ourselves we must admit that we have allowed that call to be peculiar to morph into the easier goal of being just plain weird. Our churches have lost their edge, and the plot. What we call evangelism and discipleship have become, more or less, transparent attempts to perpetuate a two-thousand year old institution for one more generation. Frankly if all the church has to offer is simple self-perpetuating weirdness, then it ought to be left to die its slow and lingering death. I do not believe, however, that this is the case.

What is needed in our churches is an alternative narrative. One that focuses not on the slow death by degrees of irrelevancy, but one that focuses anew on Jesus. Do you remember that old hymn- "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus?" I know that at its heart this should be what all churches are supposed to be about. But, so far as I can tell, the problem is that amid all the car washes, bake sales, raffles, talent shows, lock-ins, concerts, bingo nights, committee meetings, sub-committee meetings, ad hoc committee meetings, exploratory  meetings, fund raisers and building campaigns, we often fail to follow. Following requires commitment, courage, and  humility. Instead of displaying these characteristics in spades, we have found ourselves as a haven for fear and all its friends (gossip, slander, bigotry, hatred, small-mindedness and back-biting). We have taken those elements in our culture that once seemed to serve our ends and have made them sacred. We have enshrined the Bible, calling it the Word of God (a title it never claims for itself) and have given it our highest reverence, because that is easier, less costly, and far less dangerous than doing what it asks of us (namely, loving the God to whom it testifies and loving and serving our neighbors around us without condition). We have become too caught up in what many of us saw as the beautiful scenery of a bygone era. In turning around to enjoy the view, we have taken our eyes off of Jesus as he continued pressing on and as a result the church now finds itself in a panic, trying to remain relevant and important in a world that rightly sees our activity as "…full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."

This is why we at Central have decided to turn to the hard work of simply trying to follow Jesus. When I was younger, I would lose about anything put in my care- toys, books, homework, shoes, you name it. When I did, my parents would have me retrace my steps from the last time I could absolutely and reliably remember having whatever it was I lost, until I found it again. It was often difficult and time consuming, but more often than not it worked. In this vein, we have decided to start back at the very beginning, in the Gospel of Matthew, where many of us first met our Christ- in a manger.

In the weeks that have followed, we saw him baptized and realized that in the telling of this story God is signifying that in our walk with him we too ought to identify with those around us and seek to serve them rather than being served. We followed him into the wilderness, where we learned that along the way we too will be tested and tempted to do what seems necessary, right, or expedient. We may even hear the Scriptures used by those who would sway us. We learned that a good way to tell if the voice quoting the Bible to us is demonic is to listen to what it is compelling us to do. If it is calling us to do something destructive to ourselves or others, whether physically harmful or spiritually dehumanizing; if it is calling us to hate our brothers or sisters for any reason whether it is on the basis of their age, gender, race, economic status, educational status, citizenship, or sexual identity; if it is compelling us to put our own abilities on display and leverage our own relationships for self-promotion, then we can be certain that the voice of the sinister is whispering through those words, regardless of where they come from or who is mouthing them. We learned that on our own journey we must ultimately rely on God alone- God's timing, God's ways and not our own.

This week we got introduced to the rule of threes. In Matthew's Gospel, we continually run across sets of three. In the genealogy, in the temptations in the wilderness, and in the triad of stories that mark the beginning of Jesus ministry in Galilee we run across the number three. This week, we followed Christ as he picked up where John the Baptist left off as a sign of God's faithfulness, proclaiming his first message: "Get ready, here comes the Kingdom of God!" We learned that he chose people- normal, everyday people- to be the community that God would use as the instrument through which this Kingdom would spread.  Finally, we learned that as Christ went throughout Galilee doing the work of God.

It is here, in his doing the work of God, that we run across another set of three. That three-fold work  was: teaching, proclaiming, and helping others in their weakness and need. I believe that this is the work that Christ is leading the church to do, and what we must do if we are to follow his lead: teach, proclaim, help.

Christ is leading the church to teach the will of God to the people. This will is not synonymous with any party platform or any set of Church Dogma, rather it is the content of the self-sacrificial life and love of Jesus Christ. It is revealed in both his words and deeds, and I look forward to picking back up the warp and woof of those teachings as we continue our journey with Jesus in the months and years ahead.

Christ is leading the church to help. This means we need to be just as present for and in tune with the needs of people in our local communities as Christ was those who came out to see him from the land around the Jordan, from Syria, and from Jerusalem. We need to be involved in our neighborhoods, know who is there, and have a way to provide for their needs. If we live among the hungry this can mean starting a food pantry. If we live among the sick, we can try and provide access to healthcare. If we live among those whose work-a-day world seems to swallow all their time and energy it can mean helping them to find a way to slow down, to reconnect with friends and family, and to reorient their priorities. If we live among the old it can mean a ministry of visitation and household help. If we live among the very wealthy it can mean helping them to see how to serve others with their things, their influence, and their abilities. Regardless, Christ set the example in helping others in their weakness.

Finally, Christ is leading the church to proclaim. Decry injustice. Declare the inherent worth of people. Give voice to that cry within the human heart that there must be something more to life than existence. Cry with a loud voice, "God accepts you! God loves you! You don't have to have it all figured out! You don't have to be young! You don't have to be pretty! You don't have to be "successful"! You don't have to have your life together! You don't even have to believe what we believe! There is more to life than all of that! The kingdom of love is here- and love is calling you to be a part! To come home!"

That is our message. It was the message of Christ. Let it echo in ten thousand permutations throughout the church. We will try. We will fail. We will try again. I do not know if this message will get Millennials interested. I do not know if it will perpetuate the church for another generation. I do know that it is the message of Christ and that if we claim to follow him that we must walk as he we walked. And I do know what we'll be humming as we follow him down that road… no turning back… no turning back… 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Living the Nativity: The First Family Tree

As those of you who read our last blog post know, we have started an experiment at Central. We have decided that instead of simply believing in Jesus, we would try and live out what he taught (in honesty, humility, and forthrightness) by both word and example. We decided to begin our new journey with Jesus by starting in the gospel of Matthew and working clear through to the end of John in an attempt to try and figure out what the core of the Christian way of life is, so that we can follow Jesus authentically and deliberately.

Well, as I sat down with my Bible and began reading, it occurred to me that Jesus doesn't "do" anything in the first couple chapters of Matthew's gospel (not even so much as a peep from the little eight pound six ounce baby Jesus laying there in his golden fleece). Jesus' first words recorded in Matthew don't come until near the end of the third chapter! In the first two, Matthew treats Jesus like a prop. Here he not only sets Jesus firmly in the history of the Hebrew people (in David's lineage!), he makes Jesus' life a microcosm of the history of the Hebrew people (complete with his own mini-pharaoh in the person of King Herod). It seems for Matthew Jesus isn't just a Hebrew person, he is the Hebrew people.

In the entire first chapter, Matthew traces Jesus family tree through his "not his dad's" side and it reads like a Who's Who of the Hebrew Bible composed by a genealogist suffering from OCD (especially considering that some ancestors had to be left off the list to make the whole three generations of fourteen thing that Matt's doing work). The three groupings of fourteen generations marking out the genesis of Jesus are likely an exercise in Biblical numerology (as the number 14 was the number of the name "David") used to reinforce the idea that Jesus was not just a son of David, but rather the son of David. The inclusion of four women on this list two of whom were definitely Gentiles, the other two of whom were regarded by many so to be, indicates that in the person of Jesus, not only is Hebrew history personified, but the Gentiles the world over are included as well (as the number four frequently signified the created realm in the numerology of the day).

In the end of the first and throughout the second chapter, Matthew gives us a dramatic story with largely the same point as his genealogy- complete with ultra-Jewish historical ties and the inclusion of the gentiles (this time in the form of the wisemen). The first words spoken about Jesus in Matthew come from a messenger of God to Joseph in a dream. Here we are told that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that he will save the people from their sins. Leaving the questions of how either of those things is supposed to work aside, let's look at how these first two chapters address our desire to simply follow Jesus.

First, we need to understand that Jesus comes from a particular people, in a particular time and place. These people are very different from us on a number of levels (culture, language, use of numerology, etc...) so we need to try and understand first how they would have understood before we can attempt to apply that knowledge to our world. This will require some work. Second, if we believe that Matthew is setting up Jesus as the Hebrew people this means that in the life and ministry of Jesus, God will be singing that old song that played throughout the history of Israel in a new key. We need to be attentive to the tune so that we can pick up the notes when it starts to play again, whether in our stories of the life of Jesus or in our own lives. Finally, a note to the literally minded among us: Matthew's telling of the family history and infancy of Jesus is at odds with the telling of both in Luke. This is no big shock and has been known for at least 1800 years. For those I would recommend taking a deep breath, enjoy the clip below and try to take its advice to heart. This is going to be a long journey, so let's get it underway:

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Living the Nativity

I was sitting in a hospital waiting room the other day, while a friend was going under the knife. After a while, the gentleman sitting next to me struck up a conversation.

All the typical social pleasantries were exchanged:

"Some weather, huh?"

"Who are you waiting for?"

And finally, "So what do you do for a living?"  

It was at that last one that the conversation started to take off. I told him I was the Pastor of Central Christian Church and his eyes lit up.

"Oh, the one that used to be on Macon Rd. The one with the Living Nativity!", I nodded and he looked overjoyed.

He continued, "I love the nativity! My parents used to take me, and this past year I brought my four year old daughter. It just wouldn't be Christmas without the Living Nativity."

This isn't the first time I've had this conversation. "The Living Nativity" a dramatic retelling of the birth of Jesus with bits from Matthew and pieces of Luke (with a few barnyard animals and classic carols thrown in for good measure), is the most widely recognized piece of public ministry Central offers. It is in fact, the only thing that we do that most of our community knows about.

"So what do you do for a living?"

I'm the Pastor of "That Church with the Living Nativity." That would shave a couple of seconds off of this encounter each and every time... And I will tell you, it's a good time. The people love it, the congregation loves it, and even here in Southern Georgia, it's the only exposure that many get to that old, old story.

As cool as all that is, it occurs to me. I don't want to be known simply as the Pastor of "That Church with the Living Nativity." I want to be a part of a group that is radically committed to following the teachings of Jesus- a group that exists in the bonds of love and humility; a group guided by the Spirit of the living God; a group that stands for something; a blessed community made up of people of all cultures, ages, genders, sexual orientation, income levels, political views, and levels of education- brought together in a spirit of mutuality and love; a group committed to providing care for the sick, help for the needy, clothing for the naked, and freedom for the oppressed. 

I don't want to be just the Pastor of "That Church with the Living Nativity." I want to be a part of those people who are "Living the Nativity."

So, how does one do that? Frankly, I don't know. I have heard how other communities have undergone transformations like this. The problem is that I am not in any of those communities, and in every place this happens it's going to look different. 

I know where we are, and I know where I feel God wants us to be, but how do we get from here to there? I've been reading, and studying, and living, and loving, and praying- and in my prayers a verse keeps coming to mind. "Jesus said to them, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'" (John 14:6).

That word, "way" in the Greek text means not only "way", but "road" and "method of conduct." In fact, it served as one of the oldest names for Christianity, "The Road" (apologies to Cormac McCarthy), and roads aren't made to be believed in, or sung about, or even dramatically reenacted- they are made to be traveled. 

So we are beginning an experiment here at Central Christian Church. We are going to spend our Sundays from now, until however long it takes, reading and discussing every action and word of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, from Matthew through John, with an eye towards how we are to walk that road in the hope that instead of just believing in Jesus, we might "Do Jesus"- "Travel The Road"- "Live the Nativity."

So here, on "That Which is Central" I will be chronicling this process, writing about where I am in my studies of the Gospels, and how our community is growing, changing, and reshaping itself along the way. I don't know about you, but I am excited to see how this turns out.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fate, Free Will and the Will of God

So, do we choose God (as it would seem to indicate in Joshua 24, “As for me and my house…”)? Or, does God choose us (like Paul tells us in Romans 8 with his talk of predestination)?
Predestination, that’s a funny word. Used religiously- “Predestination in its broadest conception is the doctrine that because God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and completely sovereign, he "from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass," (Westminster Confession).[1]

“Whatsoever comes to pass…” That’s profound- so if that’s true, if God laid this all out before the foundation of the universe, do any of us ever really choose anything at all? When I was young, I had a Radio Flyer (a little red wagon), and my brother and sister and cousins and I would play all sorts of games with it. In one, we tied the wagon to a bicycle, two of us would climb in the wagon and one would get on the bike and pedal like mad. Eventually it would end in a spectacular crash of the bike rider’s choosing. So, is the universe structured in such a way that our fate is pulling us into our particular future, the way the little red wagon got pulled by the kid on the bike?

Why do we do what we do? We don’t even have to get religious to give some serious thought to that… behaviorist, and philosophers have debated this one for ages. Is our behavior determined by nature alone? That is by our genetic make-up coupled with the chemical reactions that take place in the body from moment to moment? Take love for instance, do I love my wife because I choose to, or do I love her because as a man I am genetically predisposed to look for “certain features” that she happens to possess and in response to her presence my brain produces dopamine, and norepinephrine, then later oxytocin to promote feelings of excitement, attraction and attachment. Do I love her because society has developed the institution of marriage and due to its pressures and expectations I have been conditioned to love her, and to continue so to do? Or do I love her because I chose to love her?
Or, as a different and perhaps less weighty example, why is blue my favorite color? Do I like the color blue because I am genetically predisposed to like it? Is it because I’m red/green color blind and it was the only one I could consistently identify on those impossible kindergarten “Know your color tests” that the diabolical Mrs. Taylor  tormented me with-  Why did you color the fire blue, Paul? Why is the grass red, Paul? Why is that picture of Santa all brown, Paul? (oh they were the bane of my existence)… And to make matters even more confusing why was my favorite color red before kindergarten if I can hardly even see it?
Are the answers in my DNA or in my history (including the sum total of societal influences that have accumulated to this point)? Is it a combination of the two, or is there still something else at work? And what does all this say about God? I ask this because if we are to accept that God is all knowing and all powerful, then God knew that one day there would be a Paul Appleby, like it tells us in Jeremiah, “… before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”
In the beginning, God set up the universe, in all its starting conditions in one way. One way and no other. In so doing, God decided the physical make-up of all that is, down to the last molecule. And the first words of the Good Book tell us, “In the beginning, God…” God was the history of the universe. So if God is all knowing and God is all powerful, then when God set up the universe in this way and in no other, down to the last molecule, God presumably knew how it would all unfold. Every action down to the most minute detail, just like a man lining up dominoes knows how they will all fall as he tips the first one.

Not only that, but, before that first domino fell, before the first atom began to spin, God knew about Mrs. Taylor, and knew about Paul Appleby. He knew about my former love of red and now blue, and knew about the love I would one day have for my wife. If he was in control, totally in control, of the very first circumstances of the cosmos and if he really knew all there was to know of the future, then he could have made any of it come out differently. Had he decided that the visible light spectrum would start 100 nanometers lower, then my favorite color, instead of changing from red to blue, might have changed from orange to a now unperceivable ultra-violet. Had he decided to change even the slightest detail, the strength of the first breeze, the length of the first rain, the number of hairs on the head of the first man- these changes could potentially have had untold future consequences, leading to a present day world beyond our imagining. 

But, he didn’t. God chose this way and no other. So, if that’s the case then: the discovery of fire, Davinci painting the Mona Lisa, the Beatles getting together, even our showing up here this morning are mere no accidents, but rather the orderly carrying out of a Divine plan. But if that is the case then not only is God, ultimately, the author of every good thing, like my love of my wife, and every inconsequential thing, like my love of the color blue, then he is also the author of every evil and every instance of pain and suffering in the universe as he could have prevented them, or had them unfold in any other way by simply changing the conditions that were present at the foundation of the world. And don’t give me that “free will” stuff, because if what we perceive to be an exercise of will is really no more than a result of chemical reactions that occur due to evolutionarily bread impulses and historical conditioning then what we perceive to be “free will” is nothing of the sort…

This is getting pretty deep. Since this is a blog written from a Christian perspective, let’s see what light the old Bible can set on the question at hand. It seems in our reading from Joshua that Josh and the children of Israel are really choosing something. Here they seem to make up their minds and choose God… But in our reading from Romans it seems that God chose some people for salvation before the world was made. In Jeremiah (1.5) it says, “"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." And in Isaiah 46:9-10 it says, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me,  declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, `My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,' This means that if God decides something, it is that way… And God decided to make the world, and everything in it in a particular way, in that way and no other, so if the future is knowable, and if God mapped out everything that is, then everything must be the way it was always supposed to be. Unless… Unless God can change God’s mind!
So can God change his mind? Let’s see, Numbers 23.19 tells us “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent.” (to repent means- roughly- to change your mind, and to change your behavior accordingly) But when we look to, Amos 7.3 we are told, “The LORD repented concerning this; "It shall not be," said the LORD.” Well this just made things more confusing…

You know, people have been pondering this problem, the problem of free will that is, for a while now… And most of their answers can be divided into two camps. There are those who argue on the basis of texts like Romans and the dictates of logic for predestination. In theological circles, they are (mostly) known as “Calvinists” (named after the famous reformer John Calvin) and in philosophical circles they are called “fatalists” (in that they argue for fate… see…. Fate, fatalist… it makes sense).  And a lot of people fall into this camp because… well… because it makes sense. It squares with logic. And it makes everything seem profoundly meaningful. After all, according to this view everything and everyone is a part of God’s big plan.  There are three main drawbacks to this view:
1.      It just doesn’t always square with whole witness of Scripture (as we saw in Joshua and as can be seen elsewhere).
2.      It doesn’t really square with experience (as it really seems like we are choosing things and not choosing others).
3.       It can make God out to be a monster. After all if God predestined some for salvation, it is implied that God didn’t preordain others for salvation, and by not choosing them for heaven it would seem, he created them for the sole purpose of sending them elsewhere in the sweet by and by…

For me that’s too high a price to pay for logical consistency. Bearing that in mind there are others who want to emphasize the theme of choice found in our reading from Joshua- they are called Arminians (named after the not so famous theologian Jacobus Arminius, though many of you are probably familiar with John Wesley- founder of Methodism, who was also an Arminian)… These Arminians believe that people have a free will and can really choose things. They believe that God has chosen everybody and that people are free to choose God back or to not choose God. This squares with some scriptures, like John 3.16 which says (chant along if you know it): “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It also squares with the way experience choosing things feels. And it gets us away from that whole God looking like a monster thing… The only problems with it are that:
1.      It makes the universe seem a little more arbitrary, by making all of life feel less universally/cosmically important.
2.      It forces us to ignore parts of the Bible that talk about God ordering the universe.
3.      It makes no sense philosophically, because like Calivinism it treats the will like a thing and, philosophically speaking things are entirely determined and can’t be free.
Nope… this won’t work either… what we need is a different approach.

Maybe the will isn’t a thing like a book, or a cross, or a table. Maybe the will is a force and perhaps God gave people a truly free will. I mean, truly free. That the chemical impulses we receive provide stimulus and that they can reinforce of deter a particular action, but we can actually act against them- and that our history, provides social structures and patterns of thought that we can reflect upon and accept or reject? Further could it be that God doesn’t know what you, or I, are going to do next? I mean how could that be? How could it be that if God knows everything there is something God doesn’t know? That’s like the old conundrum: If God can do anything can he make a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it? C.S. Lewis argued that, “[God’s] omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense.” If knowing the future, or what I will do at any given moment is intrinsically impossible, then the question, “Can an all knowing God know the future?” is nonsense. God could make a good guess, and could act in the future as a fellow free-agent, but if the future is intrinsically unknowable, then no, God would not know it.

And maybe we aren’t looking at fate the right way… Maybe fate isn’t something in front of us, pulling along toward our destiny like a kid pulling a wagon… Maybe it is pushing us from behind… Here, take a look at this (sets up two poles, one labeled “Freedom” and one labeled “Destiny”).  When I was fourteen years old I was a freshman in high school and I remember, after the first football game of the season we all went out to Eat ‘n Park to celebrate, and after about a million bowls of all-you-can eat chili (which as a 13 year old I viewed as a challenge) and after almost as many glasses of Raspberry Iced Tea, I had to do what any person would have to do, and I excused myself to the bathroom. And as I sat there, in that stall, something occurred to me. If I hadn’t been born in Akron, Ohio; if I hadn’t gotten a Superman cape from my Grandma on my third birthday and though that because I had a cape I could fly, and if I hadn’t jumped off our upright piano (superman style), hit my rocking horse and broken my shoulder- which sidelined me from t-ball for a season; if my parents hadn’t divorced when I was eight (as my dad was a baseball man, and didn’t care as much for the old pig skin); if I hadn’t made friends with Scott who introduced me to the game of football; if I went to a private high school instead of public school; if I had opted for the salad instead of the chili; if at any point in my life I or a million other people around me or one of the billions that came before me had made one decision differently, I wouldn’t be where I was right at that moment. If the sum total of human history and my own genetic makeup were not what they were, I would not be there, at 2:30 in the morning (yes my mom let me stay out that late, and no that doesn’t mean that any other thirteen year old who may be reading this should) in stall number two in an Eat n’ Park in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. And with that in my mind, I did the only thing I could do. I flushed and washed my hands…

When we were kids, my brother, sister, cousins and I would sometimes play a different game with the wagon. Here we’d get it to the top of the small hill in our driveway, two of us would climb in and the one in front would steer and the one in back would lean left or right. Then a third child would start to push, and we would pick up steam as we started down the hill. Maybe fate isn’t pulling the wagon, maybe, it’s pushing it. Maybe fate is the sum total of human history, including our own genetic make-up, that have brought us together in this moment. And in this moment, we’re the kid in the wagon, holding on to the handle. We can steer it a little left, or a little right and our decisions affect, in a very slight way, what our destiny looks like in the next moment, and where our fate is leading us. 

So then, if this is the case, life isn’t arbitrary, the God who put us in our wagon knew what this ride we’d be taking was and wanted us to go. And our decisions have real consequences and together our own little movements shape our own destiny and the destinies of everyone around us. Because while individually we can only move a little, together, we can move mountains. Together we are shaping the world and continuing the act of creation that God began. You may be thinking I am making us out to be more powerful than we are. That only God can shape the world like this, but you’ll remember the words of the Psalm and the words of Jesus when they say together, “You are gods, all of you.” So what does all of this mean? It means we are not in control of a lot of things. Others have shaped the world in which we find ourselves and others continue to shape it. We cannot change the past, just like you can’t do a 180 in a Red Rider. We need to accept the world as we are now in it, with its events in the process of unfolding. And we cannot opt to get out of the wagon; we’re here because this is where God placed us. But God isn’t pulling the wagon, God is part of the force pushing it, God determined how it would work, and how it would steer. Because just like our question about God making a rock so heavy that God can’t lift it is nonsense, not because God isn’t all powerful but because such a thing is an intrinsic impossibility and therefore absurd, so too our future is open, so too God doesn’t (by and large) force our hand to make us steer one way or the other, God lets us in a limited way, control where the wagon goes, and enjoy the ride. It also means that we are in control of a lot of things. We steer our wagon through an act of our own will, which is a force not a thing, and can drive it a little closer to the kingdom of God through acts of love that bring about justice, freedom, and peace, or a little farther away.

This also means that the story isn’t written yet. We know where it began; it began in an act of creation as the God of all the Universe brought this world and all that is in it into being. We know where it ends; it ends where it began, in an act of creation as the God of all the Universe redeems the cosmos, and makes all things new both on earth and in heaven. But the middle is up to all us gods to work out together. And so I ask you, oh people, who God foreknew, where shall you go from here? Choose this day whom you will serve; but as for me and my household we will serve the Lord.

[1] “Predestination” from accessed 6/6/2012

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Different Approach to Christian Education

" people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests..." (Hosea 4:6a) This charge, originally leveled against the people of Israel, should serve as a word of warning for us all. In the Gospels Christ told his followers that the first and greatest commandment was to, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." (Mathew 22:37b) but far too often people are not able or willing to apply their mental faculties to their walk with God. Here I would like to take a moment to explore: why we as Christians, and especially Protestant Christians, must do so with renewed vigor, what keeps us from doing this (why we are comfortable checking our brains at the church door), and a suggestion for a new systemic approach to Christian Education in our churches. It is my hope that in doing so we can begin a conversation that will better equip Christians to navigate the increasingly complex and sophisticated world in which we find our selves, and help bring the Church back to the intellectual and cultural fore in the twenty-first century.

One of the major difficulties brought about by the Reformation is that the Protestant can no longer rely on others to do his thinking for him. The rallying cry of the Reformation, "Sola scriptura! Sola fide! Sola gratia! Solo Christo! Soli Deo gloria!" ("By scripture alone! By faith alone! By grace alone! Through Christ alone! To the glory of God alone!") brought with it the consequence that every person must now become an intentional theologian. By undercutting the authority of the Pope and as a result the traditions and teachings of the Church in favor of a return to sources the early reformers now needed to encourage scrupulous study of the Scriptures, every Protestant was placed in the position where they had to decide what the teachings of the Scriptures, and the Spirit of God were saying to them. To this was added the burden of learning logic and reasoning, extra emphasis was placed on this branch of learning during the Enlightenment (also called the "Age of Reason"). Later Protestants were encouraged to deliberately draw from their own experiences of God as sources for their theology as Empiricism exerted greater and greater influence in the hearts and minds of the people. Finally, it was understood that an understanding of history, sociology, psychology, linguistics, etc... would be needed in order to obey Paul's call to Timothy, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15)

Now some may object, "I don't need theology to know God." In one sense this is correct, you do not need to know theology to know God any more than you might need to know biology in order to be alive. However, everyone is theologian- whether or not they intend to be (similarly everyone is a biologist in that we all have ideas about how life works; everyone is a mathematician in that they use mathematics, etc...). Theology comes from the Greek words "theos" meaning God and "logos" here meaning "the treatment or study of". Anyone who has any ideas about God is a theologian. The question is whether or not one wishes to engage in the practice intentionally or not. I believe that the distaste for theology has become popular in our churches largely because of a distrust of "so-called experts", a misunderstanding of the nature of the Scriptures (the idea that they do not require interpretation, that they are "The Word of God"- a claim they never make of themselves that amounts to idolatry, or a misunderstanding of their intent),  a fear of losing ones place in a community in the event ones beliefs change, an attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance ("a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions [e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions] simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment."- thank you Wikipedia [accessed 5/16/2012] ), false piety (fearing that theological inquiry is an affront to the holiness of God), and intellectual laziness.

I firmly place the blame for the poor state of theology in the life of the Church my fellow Pastors and Christian educators (this paragraph and the one following are for them). Perhaps we ourselves have grown up in traditions or churches that were hostile towards thought. Perhaps we are afraid that theological education would undermine the faith of some of our parishioners. Maybe we labor under the mistaken notion that such education is boring or irrelevant for Christian living. It could also be the case that we are afraid that our parishioners may not like the conclusions they come to, perhaps they will disagree with us, perhaps they will feel the need to search for another church that agrees with their new found theologies. These are all possibilities- though I believe that the main reasons are: again, intellectual laziness, a fear of being exposed as not "all-knowing", and a confusion about how and where to begin. None of these are adequate justifications or excuses for our present state of affairs. It is true that James 3:1 warns us, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." But Christ also tells us that, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48b). If you as a minister have been given the gift of teaching and entrusted with the blessing of a college or seminary education, you are accountable to put them to use to further your kingdom. The word "Pastor" is a Latin word that means shepherd. What kind of shepherd would have their sheep malnourished when they know a of source for sustenance nearby- it may be hard to get there, but the flocks are starving and we need to get a move on.

If  as Pastors we are to teach the people first we must learn ourselves. Loving the Lord with all our minds is a lifetime endeavor. All Pastors should have a program of personal study that includes the study of the Scriptures, theology proper, history, tradition, philosophy, sociology, etc... You can't teach what you don't know and most churches have a continuing education budget (if not, talk to your board/vestry about establishing one) and wear that sucker out. In the event they do not, there are many seminaries that offer classes through iTunes U for little to no cost, and library cards are normally free. Heck, take some time to read all those books you claim to have read in school! Remember, its like St. Augustine said, "all truth is God's truth." Second, we must love the people we are teaching and trust God to honor our good faith efforts. Anytime before I preach or teach I say the following prayer, "Lord, let all that I say and do that comes from you take root and grow and flourish. Let all that does not wither and die by your grace. Amen". 

Next we all must acknowledge what stops us from learning. Now here, I do not mean mental or learning disabilities. I would be far out of my depth to speak to such special cases, but there are other excellent resources out there. For most people, learning stops when: we stop being introduced to new materials, we become bored and cease to hear new information that is being presented, or (and this has, in my experience been the toughest nut to crack) we have more invested socially and emotionally in our previously held ideas than in the ones now being presented. The first and second problems are easily addressed by having interesting imaginative well educated teachers . The third is a little harder nut to crack. You see, simply being correct is not enough for most people to abandon an idea if the previously held position is doing more for them than the one being presented will. This is especially difficult in matters religious where adherence to particular statements and teachings may cause the inclusion or exclusion of someone from fellowship. In order to overcome this obstacle a the equation needs to be stacked in such away that acceptance of the new idea will have a greater benefit than adherence to the old one, or maintaining of the old idea becomes stigmatized in such a way that its continuation would result in a cost deemed too high to bear. It would be my suggestion that first, we relax the limits on what technically keeps one in fellowship with the church itself to a bear minimum. I personally like the standard set by Alexander Campbell (one of the founders of the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ]), "But who is a Christian? I answer, every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will." In this definition, you will notice the only doctrinal "musts" are belief in Christ, repentance, and an attempt at obedience to the best of one's understanding. There is nothing here about belief in the virgin birth, the infallibility/inerrancy of Scripture, the place of women in the Church, the issue of homosexuality, etc... In so doing, we remove the risk of formal exclusion from the church- the issue of exclusion from informal social groups (cliques, friendships, etc) is still in place, however. These concerns can best be mitigated by promoting a culture of tolerance and acceptance within the fellowship of our churches, but it can never be entirely removed.  Whatever you or your denomination sees as the sine qua non of their fellowship, I recommend taking as loose an interpretation as possible- because advances in thought happen best and most frequently in a lower consequence environment. Similarly, the parodying of willful ignorance (as a type mind you, never particular individuals), and the praising/public promotion (say encouraging them to teach a class or play a more public role in the church body) of those who have taken such risks (whether or not their conclusions necessarily match your own) can help to create an environment that rewards free thought. I know that this is simply the tip of the iceberg, but a blog isn't exactly the place to tease out the implications of this idea. Finally, as I continue a paragraph the length of which would make Kerouac blush, there is still the matter of cognitive dissonance associated with the period of time when both the old and new ideas and the baggage inherent therein are weighed by the individual. During this period both ideas can be viewed as more or less true. Here a pastoral touch is needed. As a minister or a friend of someone going through this period understand that this causes distress for the individual and can be endured (in most cases) for a very short period of time. Here the best way to help would not be to argue for the "truth" of one thought over and against the other but to attempt to empathize with the individual. During this period there may be mourning as the realization that the selection of one path or the other could close some doors in terms of interpersonal relationships. If the change is in the persons best interest, commiseration is recommended and perhaps one should take the opportunity to show the doors that such a change opens to the individual. 

In the course of Christian education, one can overcome all of the obstacles to education: one might be well educated and interesting, one might well feel the power of the Spirit at work in their teaching ministry, one might well be adept at helping those in their care navigate the psychological and sociological pitfalls associated with learning. All of this without a systematic program to give people the tools they need to be responsible theologians will have mixed results at best. John Wesley proposed that in our theological reflection we draw on the sources of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. This is a great starting point, though I would argue that reason is not nearly so important as it was in Wesley's world. I would recommend a modified form of this paradigm wherein we work with Scripture, Community, and Experience. In this scheme the three building blocks of Christian education would be: Hermeneutics (the art and science of Biblical Interpretation), Theology (the study of God both historical and modern- this discipline takes into account the beliefs and practices of the individual community [church congregation], the testimony of the Church historically, and the use of the tools of logic, as well as interaction with the sciences), finally Experience in terms of the study of the Christian Disciplines (prayer, study, meditation, fasting, simplicity, worship, etc...) and the service of others (in terms of missions/service projects).

In this approach a basic grounding would be required: an introduction to biblical interpretation, an introduction to theology, an introduction to Church and denominational history, an introduction to the Christian Disciplines, introduction to evangelism, etc... prior to building on this base in their various disciplines (for example a basic course in biblical interpretation would be required prior to a study of, say The Book of Acts). I recognize that this approach would work best with at least two teachers (at least after the first class, as the second would have to be an introduction or it would run the risk of being closed to new members). But this can be overcome through sufficiently talented/trained lay teachers. I would also recommend that this approach be taken inter-generationaly (incorporating high school aged children on) in order to help the remainder of the class benefit from their inquisitive nature and enthusiasm and because their stage of mental/spiritual development and their lack of societal ties can make them more susceptible to accepting new ideas and can help change the overall atmosphere of a group for the better (the same is true of the very old, but for different reasons). I recognize that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and I hope to continue on the conversation with you in the days and weeks to come. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why are Americans So Religious? (Part Two)

Part Two: A different approach
            As I noted before, I have not been trained as a historian, sociologist, or other social scientists, my training has been in Christian ministry, theology and biblical studies. As such, I have a slightly different perspective on what constitutes religion than those who observe it as a social/psychological phenomenon. I recall from my college days hearing a debate that began over the notion of what constitutes religion. While the names Foucault and Durkheim were being bandied about with great excitement, I sat quietly remembering the words of the epistle of James, chapter one verse twenty-seven, “Pure religion and undefiled before the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” What might the relative religiosity of Americans look like if it is measured by this standard?
Towards a biblical view of religion
            Of course, I understand the problems and perils of attempting to apply a first century definition of religion given in the context of a particular epistle that addressed people of another time, culture, and social situation; however, there is something to be said for the fact that the Christian scriptures provide such a straight forward definition. So let’s take a look at James 1.27, and see if we can find a way to apply the definition of religion it provides towards America’s religious situation. This definition will seek to address issues of belief in that belief influences action, and it will seek to find criteria for determining religiosity that do not depend on self-reported behavior. It will do this by focusing on what “true” religion claims to do (sorry, it’s the pragmatist in me)- because the degree to which the goals of “true” religion are being accomplished may help to provide an objective measurement of the degree of religiosity for a nation. In so doing I hope to provide a way to measure America’s religiosity that can be used for an apples to apples comparison with any other nation in the world- but this starts with the book of James. Lest the author be accused of taking this verse out of context, let’s start with an overview of the book of James and its teachings, as a whole, on the nature of religion.
On the Epistle of James      
The Epistle of James was written, according to tradition, by James the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church. Though, it is difficult to determine the accuracy of this tradition. The theology of the letter is very straight forward, and its style makes it very difficult to place within a particular Christian tradition. It is addressed to “those of the twelve tribes”; this could either mean it was written to Jewish Christians, or that a high degree of importance was placed on the Jewish symbol world by the community to whom it was written. James has been a part of the Christian scriptures since the third century, and it has been in continual use by the entire Christian church since the canonization of the New Testament.
The primary concern of the Epistle of James is praxis- that is: religious thought put into practice. In the first chapter of James’ epistle, the author admonishes his readers to: joyfully endure trials, bless those who endure temptations, remember humility, to give freely, speak well of others, and to live in humility, freedom and peace.
The second chapter warns against the evils of materialism and showing partiality to one person over another because one has more money. It explains that faith without works is useless, in that it is not enough to wish the hungry fed, the homeless housed, and the naked clothed, but one must initiate concrete particular action to see to it that it is done.
The third chapter argues against boasting and cursing others and that one should eschew selfish ambition. The author admonishes his audience in 3.13 saying, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” This illustrates the epistles emphasis on practical action and its teaching that one’s inner religious life must lead to concrete particular actions. If these actions are not present in the life of the individual, regardless of their self-reported beliefs, the individual is not religious according to James. Or to put it in the author’s own words, “What good is it… if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? ... Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead” (James 2.14, 20).
Chapter four of James’ epistle addresses the need for humility before God, and explains the foolishness of boasting, the wrongheadedness of judging others, and the problem of boasting about getting rich. This segues into the fifth and final chapter which warns in apocalyptic language against the injustice and the problems inherent in being rich, as well as unrighteousness and inequity in mistreating workers. It also addresses the need for patience in suffering, the need for compassion and mercy, the importance of not making vows, the place of communal prayer and ritual, and the need to accept those who left their Christian community and want to return.
James is, above all, an immensely pragmatic book whose preference for production over pondering, and results over rhetoric will help to provide a workable, quantifiable definition for “religious-ness” that can be used to measure the degree of religious adherence in the United States and elsewhere so we can finally answer our the question posed by this article.
Principles from James 1.27 and a standard for measuring religiosity
            It has been said once already but it bears repeating. James 1.27 tells us that, “Pure religion and undefiled before the Father is this. To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Here the author provides two measurable values for our judging the relative “religious-ness” of an individual, group, or nation. Applied to a nation one may ask: How well do the people of the nation in question care for orphans and widows, and how well do they assert the priorities of “true religion” above those of the world (i.e. Do they care for others or for their own fiscal gain)?
            Combined with the lessons of James chapter one, we could also examine rates of charitable giving, humility, patience in national rhetoric and discourse when facing calamity (like economic down-turn). We could also examine how well the people of a nation promote peace globally (perhaps by examining the nation’s history of military aggression and the public perception of particular armed conflicts among its citizenry and the larger world).
When the lessons of chapter two are taken into consideration we could also examine a nations’ welfare spending, as well as the efficacy and stigmas related to its welfare programs as indicators of national “religious-ness”. Additionally, charitable giving (both in terms of quantity and percentage of individual earnings) could be used as a criterion for determining “religious-ness”. Further, equal access to resources like high quality schools, libraries, hospitals, and such the like could be examined, as James chapter two condemns disproportionate treatment based upon income.
Chapters three, four, and five add to our list questions of the tenor of national discourse and the need for humility therein as markers of “religious-ness”. The need for fair and equitable treatment of the poor and the working class is also a marker of “religious-ness”. Both of these can be gauged by examining minimum wage and worker’s rights in particular nations.
It becomes clear, if the criteria of the book of James are to be used as markers of religiosity and not self reported belief in God, or self-reported church attendance, that we could turn our attention to the national and domestic policies of a people in democratic nations, as well as personal charitable giving in order to determine the “religious-ness” of that nation’s people.

The standard applied and America’s “Religious-ness”
Domestic Policy: welfare and minimum wage
            The first statistic to be examined in order to determine American “religious-ness” is the amount of welfare spending in the United States. In 2000, the United States spent $434.3 billion on welfare programs to help the poor among the U.S. population[1] this amounts to a little over five percent of the U.S.’s annual GDP.[2] Compare this to the thirteen to thirty-three percent of GDP spent by member nations of the E.U. on social welfare programs each year and it becomes clear that the health and well being of the poor is not as great a national concern to the United States as it is to their European counterparts. If spending on the poor and less fortunate is an indicator of religiosity it would appear that when compared to their European counterparts, Americans are not particularly religious.
            James four and five show a preoccupation with the plight of workers and a concern that they are treated with justice and equity. The minimum wage in the United States was designed in 1938 to ensure that Americans had enough money to live.  The original calculation for this wage was based upon food costs. In 1938 one third of an individual’s income went to food, when food costs were calculated and multiplied by three a living wage (minimum wage) was arrived at; unfortunately presently food costs account for far less than they used to, and the minimum wage calculation has not been changed to reflect this. As a result, it is no longer possible in most places to live off of a minimum wage income in America.
            In Europe, however wages set by member states are at times drastically higher than those set in the U.S. and in most cases have greater buying power (see Figure 2).
As can be seen in the above figure eight European nations have a higher, and one a similar, minimum wage as the United States. Further, when one considers that many of the European nations listed above practice some form of socialized medicine, and as such do not require their minimum wage workers to purchase outside insurance, it is clear that the standard of living of most minimum wage workers is higher in many European countries than in the United States. If minimum wage and cost of healthcare are the markers of a nation’s religiosity it is clear that the United States is no more religious than about a third of European nations, and with healthcare costs factored in is less religious than most of the E.U..
Foreign Policy: International aid, war, peace and diplomacy
            James tells us that our care for our neighbor is an indicator of the authenticity of our “religious-ness”. Foreign aid, the monies allocated to disease prevention, to alleviate starvation, provide health care and other basic necessities, is a major way in which nations care for their neighbors.  As a group, the “EU's spending on foreign aid far surpasses the United States.”[4]
            When issues of war, peace and diplomacy are taken into consideration the picture becomes dimmer. The Bush doctrine, an unprecedented national security stance originally voiced in the 2002 “National Security Strategy of the United States of America” established the pre-emptive war doctrine, or “Bush Doctrine” as the rules by which the U.S. would engage perceived threats. This pre-emptive war doctrine has provided the justification for the United States to declare war on any nation or group they wish provided they perceive said nation or group to be a present or possible future threat. The E.U. has no corresponding doctrine in their European Security Strategy, and instead favors diplomacy, and cooperative action to solve military problems[5].  Judging by both the criteria of international spending on foreign aid and on stances towards war and international diplomacy, it is clear that while America is a nation, in this respect it is not particularly religious, or at least less so than its European counterpart.
Personal Action: Charitable giving
            Charitable giving is one area in which the U.S. demonstrates its “religious-ness”. In the U.S. more money is raised by individuals for the purposes of charitable giving than in any other nation in the world (see Figure 3) [6]. This includes individual E.U. member nations, and dwarfs the contribution given by the E.U. as a whole. In this regard, the argument could be made that America is “so
religious”. Though the combined rates of individual giving and national aid for the poor and foreign aid are still lower than many of their European counterparts.
            In conclusion, when one examines some of the definitions of religion set forth in this article and the one preceding it, and uses these to judge the relative “religious-ness” of the United States against that of Europe, one can see that the U.S. is not more religious than the E.U. but would rather be seated in the top third of E.U. member nations as regards “religious-ness”. Once the subjective criteria for determining religiosity are abandoned (i.e.: self-reported behavior about the existence of God and self-reported attendance rates at religious services) in favor of more objective criteria that focus on the function of religion, one finds that Americans are perhaps less religious than their European counterparts (with the notable exception of individual charitable giving rates). Though to listen to the national discourse and the condemnation of “godless Europe” in some circles in contrast to America as a “Christian Nation” it appears that in one half to one third of cases, the opposite is true… I wonder what James might say about that?

[4] Schweiss, Christina. "Challenging US Hegemony: The European Union's Comparative Advantage in Nation-Building and Democratization" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Le Centre Sheraton Hotel, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Mar 01, 2004
[6] International Comparisons of Charitable Giving November 2006 found at, accessed 12/07/08.