To Err is Divine

Matthew 9:9-17

Karl E. Peters writes: “To err is divine.”

This phrase feels uncomfortable to most religious practitioners in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We have been conditioned to think of the Divine as an all-powerful being who has established unchanging standards of truth and righteousness in the world. Peters, on the other hand, identifies “God” as “the creative process working in our midst.”

Biological evolution happens by mistake. Mutations are copy errors in an organism’s genetic code. Most genetic mutations have a neutral or adverse effect on an organism’s chances for survival, but some of them turn out to be beneficial. When a mutation gives an organism a survival advantage, that error gets incorporated into the genetic code and is more likely to shape future generations.

Cultural evolution happens in much the same way. When Jesus invited outcasts into his grassroots movement and challenged established moral and theological standards of his culture, the leaders of his culture regarded his actions as mistakes. The appointed guardians of tradition branded Jesus as a dangerous heretic because he did not practice his spirituality in the “right” way or with the “right” people.

The early followers of Jesus incorporated his tendencies toward inclusion and innovation into the cultural DNA of their movement. These cultural mutations gave that community the independence it needed to survive and thrive after the Roman Empire razed the second Jewish temple in 70CE. Other religious movements survived because they centered their faith and practice in the study of the Torah, rather than the rituals of the temple. These two movements evolved into the religious traditions we now recognize as Judaism and Christianity.

The following questions arise: What creative mistakes are we making in our lives today? How might today’s heretics become tomorrow’s leaders? How might “the creative process working in our midst” be adapting our communities to include new voices and invent new ways of doing things?

Peters asks:

“Are these mistakes mutations in religious thought that ought to be destroyed or might they be something else, a new and helpful way of portraying the sacred? That will be determined not by what I am saying. It will be determined only by how you and others respond, by whether these ideas help you make sense of your own experience in living.”

Karl E. Peters. Dancing with the sacred: evolution, ecology, and God (Trinity Press International: 2002).

Now
is the space between
what is known and
what is new.

It is a constant
coming into existence.

No respecter
of who belongs
or how it’s done.

Some mistakes
turn out to be correct
and vice versa.

Some heretics
turn out to be prophets
and vice versa.

Stardust: A Meditation on Grief

One of the many remarkable truths about nature is that death is often a gateway to new forms of life. My favorite illustration of this process is the most powerful incident of death in the known universe: a supernova.

A supernova is how a star dies. Stars are born as hydrogen atoms are drawn to each other in the cold depths of outer space. These atoms huddle together in the dark until their bodies fuse into one. This fusion gives off a burst of energy that can be felt as heat and light. The end product is a new atom called helium. As more and more hydrogen atoms join the group, they start a chain reaction that results in a giant ball of gas that we call a star. Stars burn for billions of years, constantly making new kinds of atoms. You can look out the window on a clear day and see this process happening right before your eyes.

Eventually, these atoms become too big and heavy for this process to continue. When this happens, the inward pressure of gravity overwhelms the outward pressure caused by fusion and the star implodes. Because every action in physics causes an equal and opposite reaction, the star’s implosion results in a dramatic explosion. In that brief moment of tremendous destruction, the light of a single star outshines the entire galaxy.

I imagine that for you, the loved ones of those who have recently died, the pain of grief feels overwhelming in the same way. The felt absence of the one who died seems to outshine every other concern in life. This feeling is very normal and natural. You might wonder: Can my universe ever be the same again? Can any good possibly come from a loss so great? These questions are also very normal and natural.

Here’s how nature answers those questions:

Can the universe ever be the same again? No. A great star has been lost, just as the unique light of your loved one’s presence has faded from this world. We grieve this incalculable loss with you.

Can any good possibly come from a loss so great? Yes! The new atoms forged in the heart of that star get launched into space, where gravity draws them back together over billions of years. They form new bodies like other stars, comets, and planets. On our planet Earth, these atoms came together in just the right way to allow life to form and grow. Today, in the ground beneath your feet, in the air you breathe, and even in the atoms of your own body, you carry the remnants of these deceased stars. Quite literally, you are made of stardust!

The spiritual traditions of the world have observed this process and expressed it in various ways. Some believe in reincarnation while others believe in resurrection. Some believe that our physical life ends while our spirits live on in some mysterious way. What all of these beliefs have in common is the hunch that death is not just an end, but also a gateway to new life, just like a supernova.

I know that your world will never be the same again after the loss of this precious loved one. I invite you, in this time of overwhelming grief, to be patient and caring with yourselves and each other. May the gravitational forces of love draw you closer together and help you pick up the scattered pieces. May the blinding light of loss plant seeds of new life as it fades. And may you remember always the unchanging truth that fires your life with dignity: You are stardust!

Spiritual Nexus

What a great PBS program that highlights my home monastery, St. Gregory’s Abbey, and the other spiritual communities surrounding it in Three Rivers, Michigan.

I have written previously on this blog about my personal experience in Three Rivers, specifically through the monastery. Click here to read that article.

Ever since my first visit to the abbey, I have wondered whether pre-European communities felt similarly drawn to this land. I am also curious about the “Ley Lines” idea. I know nothing of the philosophy behind it, but the confluence of spiritual centers in a single area makes one wonder. Before now, I had only encountered “Ley Lines” in science fiction, but my experience in Three Rivers is giving me cause to wonder whether there might be some truth to them.

The Rev. George MacLeod of the Iona Community describes his Scottish island home as a “thin place”, where the border between heaven and earth is somehow more permeable. I would not hesitate to use the same language to describe Three Rivers.

The PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly recently did a story on the spiritual communities of Three Rivers. I have never personally visited the other spiritual centers around the abbey, although I receive spiritual direction from a member of the Apple Farm community. The video is posted below.

http://player.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365886858/

Here is also a link to a new book about the area, Spiritual Nexus: Discovery in America’s Heartland by William Allan Baltz.

If you have not yet visited Three Rivers, you really are missing out!

Click here to learn more about visiting St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers.

The Adoration of the Outsiders

Eliza_Codex_24_Ethiopian_Biblical_Manuscript_a
Ethiopian Biblical Manuscript. Public Domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

A few years ago, there was a big to-do about this book (and subsequent movie), The Da Vinci Code. I won’t get into the particulars of the plot, suffice to say that it provoked a lot of big, emotional reactions from people everywhere.

On the one hand, a lot of church-folks were offended by the ideas it presented, which didn’t exactly mesh with what we had learned as kids in Sunday School. On the other hand, a lot of folks from outside the church were really excited about the book because they thought it revealed a picture of Jesus that was bigger than the one presented by traditional Christianity.

I even had one friend who said, “I knew it! The Vatican has known about this stuff all along, they’ve just kept it hidden and locked up in some secret vault so that the rest of us won’t find out about it.”

Well, I don’t think I’d put much stock in that particular theory… or in the book’s ideas about the historical Jesus (The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction after all), but I do find the whole phenomenon extremely fascinating from a sociological point of view.

During the peak of the book’s popularity, Jesus Christ was once again on the cover of popular, secular magazines. Books were being written (and read) about him. For a brief cultural moment (and not for the first or the last time), everyone was talking about who Jesus is and what he means to the world. It was a really interesting thing to behold.

And here’s what stood out to me in that conversation:

People feel drawn to Jesus. They want to be connected to him somehow, even if they never darken the door of a church or call themselves Christians. Jesus means a lot to people. There are few, even in the non-religious world, who speak negatively about Jesus or the things he said and did. Most secular criticism is directed, not at Jesus himself, but at us Christians (and what we have done in his name).

In this morning’s gospel reading, we read about a group of people, the wise men, who also felt drawn to Jesus. Like the readers of The Da Vinci Code, these people came to encounter him from outside the bounds of conventional, orthodox, institutional religion.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”

To begin with, these wise men were not Jewish. The text of Matthew’s gospel simply says they were “from the east”, which probably means they came from Persia (the part of the world we now know as Iraq and Iran). They wouldn’t have known anything about the Bible or Jewish customs. They had probably never been to a synagogue service in their life.

So then, how did they come to be aware of this miraculous birth?

“For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

They were astrologers. They studied the stars and interpreted their movements as messages from heaven. We have astrologers today who do similar work, but most of it is for entertainment via 1-900 numbers. In the ancient world, astrology was generally accepted as a form of science. Kings and generals would have depended on the predictions of astrologers for guidance.

The message these particular astrologers were discerning from the stars was that something significant was happening in the Jewish homeland. A royal baby was being born. Matthew doesn’t say why, but something in these astrologers’ hearts was stirred enough that they felt compelled to go and pay their respects to the new baby.

So, they did what any reasonable person would do: bring gifts of congratulations to the royal palace in the capital city: Jerusalem. These wise men, Persian astrologers, felt drawn to Jesus, even though they had no idea where to go or what to do when they got there.

King Herod and the Jewish leaders, on the other hand, didn’t fare much better. Even though the astrologers had gotten a little turned around, at least they were aware that something important had happened. The astrologers’ arrival woke the Jewish leaders up to what they had forgotten or neglected in the midst of their own self-important agendas.

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.”

The astrologers’ questions sent the theologians and seminary professors scrambling for answers. As it turned out, the answer they were looking for was in a tiny, little, forgotten village:

“They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

The arrival of these outsiders and their questions woke the Jewish religious scholars up to those parts of their own country and their own faith that they had neglected for too long. At this point, Herod and the religious leaders have an opportunity before them. Their eyes have been opened to the Messiah’s birth. They now have the chance to step outside their own selfish, little worlds and become part of what God is doing on earth. Is that what they do?

“Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.”

Instead, there is a reactionary pushback against this news of the Messiah’s birth. The powerful ones are secretly plotting and scheming, not so that they can be part of what God is doing in the world, but so that they can keep their power and maintain their privileged positions in Israel. Those who have power want to keep it, even if that means going against the very essence of what defines them as a people. They would do anything, even kill the Messiah, to maintain their illusion of power and control.

Herod is so delusional, so drunk with power, that he even starts ordering these foreign wise men around like they were his own subjects or property:

“Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.””

The irony here is that he is the one who is dependent on them. He would have no knowledge of this situation if it wasn’t for their pagan, foreign practice of astrology. Yet the wise men are the ones who respond with open hearts and minds. They came to pay their respects because they felt drawn by the heavens. All these secret, back-door deals combined with biblical hermeneutics and seminary professors probably seemed pretty strange to them. In the end, it seems like they (rightfully) disregarded everything Herod and the religious scholars had just taught them:

“When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.”

Does the text say that the wise men set out to follow the biblical scholars theologically correct directions? Or does it say that they went back to following what they already knew?

The answer is the latter, of course. The wise men basically took the Bible and theological training and threw it out the window. They didn’t know about all that Jewish stuff, nor did they want to. They knew about stars. So, when they set out again (probably more confused than when they arrived), they went back to working with what they knew.

One might think that such pagan backsliding would lead the wise men down the path of sin and deception. Surely, they would be lost forever in the desert, never to find the newborn king.

But that’s not what happened. The text tells us that the star “stopped over the place where the child was.” Get this: by following what they knew, they ended up exactly where they were supposed to be.

They set out on this journey in search of Jesus, and lo and behold: they found him (in spite of the so-called ‘advice’ given by powerful figures and religious leaders). And what was their reaction when they found him?

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Their hearts were more open than the hearts of those who had spent their lives studying this stuff.

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”

Despite their unorthodox methods and status as religious outsiders, the wise men ended up exactly where they were supposed to be: with Jesus. Their faith did not look anything like conventional Jewish faith, but it proved to be more real and more authentic than the faith of those people who were supposed to have all the answers.

I wonder whether the same thing might be true in the world today?

It seems to me, based on what I saw during The Da Vinci Code’s popularity, that there are a lot of people in this world who feel drawn to Jesus, but want nothing to do with the church or institutional Christianity. To be honest, I can’t blame them. We Christians have a lot to repent for when it comes to representing Jesus to the world. We have often attached his name to our own projects and agendas, but rarely have we acted in a way that is consistent with his Spirit. I think that is what it really means to “Take the Lord’s name in vain”: When we talk about him, but don’t act like him.

Meanwhile, those wise souls who are diligently searching for truth and love in Jesus are driven to look elsewhere because the church has done such a poor job of pointing the way to him. In those circumstances, I am not at all surprised that God is willing to reach out take hold of people’s hearts using things like astrology, science, philosophy, or other religions. I have met atheists who have a closer relationship with God than some Christians (even though the atheists would never use that name: God).

The good news in this is that God is willing to reach out to us human beings using any means necessary. As my seminary roommate was fond of saying, “God will broadcast on any antenna you put up.” Only God knows those hearts that truly seek after God. And, as Jesus himself promised: “Those who seek will find”… he never says they have to seek God in a particular way.

The challenge given to us then is this:

Are we open to what God is doing in the world? Are we open to the fact that God might show up in the least expected way, or in the least expected place? When we encounter others who might be seeking God in ways that seem foreign or unorthodox to us, do we have the faith to trust that God is working in their lives (as well as ours) to bring us all to that place where we can worship Jesus together?

Just like the wise men, these outsiders have precious gifts to bring to the table. Will we work with them and help them to open their treasure chests so that these gifts can be offered to Jesus and shared with the world?

God is inviting us Christians to open our hearts, minds, arms, and doors to those outsiders to the faith who bring unconventional gifts to the table and seek God in unorthodox ways. The question that God sets before us is not “Do we approve of them (or their strange methods)?” or even “Do we welcome/accept/tolerate them in our midst?”

The question is: “Will we travel to Bethlehem with them?”

Will we seek Jesus together as companions in life’s journey? Someone else’s journey might not look exactly like yours and that’s okay. Will we be open to the gifts that others bring to the table? Will we let those gifts challenge our structures of privilege and power? Will we let them change the way we think about church and “the way it’s always been” or the way we think it should be done?

These outsiders come to us, not because we have something they need, but because God has led them to us and called all of us to seek Christ together.

So then: Let’s get going.

Including and Transcending

Mark 1:1-8, NRSV

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Have you ever experienced yourself (or some part of your life) as completely and totally unacceptable? Something that, if it were known publicly, would cause you so much shame that you’d probably just go ahead and spend the rest of your life hiding under your bed, eating Cheetos? I think we all do.

We all have some parts of our life that we think about and go, “If anyone ever knew about this, they’d never speak to me again!”

A lot of the time, we don’t even like to think privately about the fact that these parts of ourselves exist.

And, even though we believe theologically that God knows everything and God’s love is unconditional, a part of us is still terrified that even God would look away in from us in disgust if such a thing became known.

And so we hide… whether we’re under the bed eating Cheetos or covering ourselves with fig leaves like Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, we ashamed and afraid of being exposed, so we hide these parts of our lives.

Looking at our gospel text this morning, the narrator (who is named ‘Mark’ by tradition) opens his story with the announcement that this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

But the story is not just Jesus’ story alone: Right here, at the beginning, the narrator goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the story of the gospel includes parts of all different stories.

First of all, there is the Jewish story. This is not surprising, especially since Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jewish. So, it makes perfect sense that the story of Jesus would have a particularly Jewish feel to it: Jewish memories of the past, Jewish hopes of the future.

We can see Mark intentionally including those elements in the way he tells Jesus’ story:

For example, there is his use of the word Christ. Contrary to popular opinion, Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Christ (Christos in Greek) is a Greek word that translates the Hebrew word Mashiach (Messiah). The English translation of both of these words is Anointed. It refers to a part of the ritual for crowning kings in ancient Israel when a prophet or a priest would pour olive oil on the head of the new king. This anointing was a sign that the person in question was God’s choice as leader. In Jesus’ time, this idea had developed into a national hope for a coming king who would liberate the Jewish people from occupation by the Romans. So, by calling Jesus the Anointed (i.e. Christ, Messiah), Mark is including the Jewish story (with all of its memories and hopes) in Jesus’ story.

There’s another way that Mark makes this connection:

It’s not with Jesus himself, but with this other important figure: John the Baptist. When Mark introduces John, he spends a great deal of time describing what John is wearing – “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”

These are all very important visual cues that Mark is giving his readers, but we 21st century people are likely to miss them, since we’re not from the same culture as Mark’s readers. However, we can get an idea of what he is talking about: If I were to use visual cues to describe a fat man in a red suit coming down a chimney, who do you think I would be talking about? Santa Claus!

We recognize those visual cues because they are deeply embedded in our own culture. In the same way, Mark is giving his audience visual cues about John the Baptist by describing what he is wearing. When he says that John is “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and eating locusts and wild honey,” people in his culture would immediately recognize that as the prophet Elijah, whose return to earth was supposed to foreshadow the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed king.

Mark reinforces this idea by quoting a verse from the book of the Jewish prophet Malachi:

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.”

That’s all that Mark quotes, but if we kept reading in the book of Malachi, we would quickly come to this verse in the same section – “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

Again, we encounter this idea of Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah, God’s anointed king. Between these visual and verbal cues, Mark is actually laying it on pretty thick that John the Baptist is Elijah, so when John says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” Jewish readers would get really excited, because that means that the promised Messiah is about to come. And we, as Christians, believe that’s exactly what happened when Jesus appeared on the scene.

So again, Mark is including these Jewish memories and hopes in his presentation of the Christian gospel. The Jewish story is part of Jesus’ story.

But wait, there’s more:

Mark doesn’t just include the Jewish story in Jesus’ story, he includes the Roman story as well. This is really surprising. After all, the Romans were pagans who didn’t worship Israel’s God at all. Also, they were foreigners: an invading army that was occupying the lands of Judea and Galilee. One would certainly not expect the story of the Jewish Messiah to also include the memories and hopes of pagan foreigners, but it does.

Mark begins Jesus’ story by calling it “the good news” (euangelion), which is also where we get the word “gospel” from. The term was not initially a religious term, but a Roman political one. An euangelion was an imperial proclamation that a royal child had been born, that a new emperor had ascended the throne, or that Caesar was victorious over his enemies.

Also, Mark refers to Jesus with the title Son of God. These days, we’re used to that title being applied to Jesus, but in Roman times, it was a title reserved for Caesar alone. By using the terms euangelion and Son of God, Mark is intentionally including elements of the Roman story in Jesus’ story. He’s saying that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just for the Jews; it’s good news for the whole world.

However, even as the gospel of Jesus includes elements from these other Jewish and Roman stories, it also transcends them.

First of all, using Roman imperial images to refer to Jesus sets him up as another authority figure who will compete with the power of Rome. When the early Christians proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord!” they were making the dangerous and subversive implication that “Caesar is not.” That, to a large degree, is why the Roman Empire perceived Christians as a threat to national security and subsequently hunted and executed them.

The Caesars of Rome had a particular agenda that they were advancing: the Pax Romana. Their goal was to achieve world peace through conquest. They would impose Roman order over the face of the entire world under the leadership of Caesar. The dangerous claim of Christians is that they would achieve the same goal, but Jesus (not Caesar) would be the head of the global household. Also, the Roman vision was “peace through conquest” but the Christian vision was “conquest through peace.” The harmony of creation would be restored, not by imposing order from without, but by nurturing peace within. The Pax Christi (Peace of Christ) reigns in the hearts and minds of Jesus’ disciples by the power of God’s love, not by the power of the sword. The story of Jesus includes, but also transcends, the Roman story.

In the same way, the story of Jesus includes, but also transcends the Jewish story. The Jewish idea of the coming Messiah was that of a revolutionary leader who wields political and military power to liberate the Jewish homeland from foreign occupation and usher in a Jewish golden age of national security, prosperity, and fidelity to the Torah of Moses.

But the gospel of Jesus is much bigger than that. The gospel of Jesus is not just a Jewish story; it includes the Gentiles and all the nations of the world (even the Romans). So, just as it was with the Roman story, the story of Jesus includes, but also transcends, the Jewish story.

When it comes to our lives, I think the same principle applies. The Christian gospel includes, but also transcends our personal stories.

Nothing is left out: all that you have, all that you are, everything that has ever happened to you, and everything you’ve made happen is part of what God is doing in your life.

This is a message of total acceptance. You are loved and accepted, radically and unconditionally, by God. God loves you, not just in spite of your mistakes, faults, character flaws, quirks, and wounds, but with them. God loves you, just as you are. Full stop. No exceptions. God’s love for you is an act of free, radical, and sovereign grace. There’s nothing we can do to earn it or lose it. As the theologian Paul Tillich was fond of saying, “All you can do is accept that you are accepted.”

Like you hear me say every week: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is a powerful truth (which is why I make a point of saying it every week). If we were to let the significance of this truth sink into our souls, it would change the way we live our lives. I dare say that it would even change the world.

The story of Jesus’ work in your life includes all parts of your own personal story. Nothing is left out. Christ looks at every part of your life (no matter how bad) and says, “I can work with that!” Nothing ends up on the cutting room floor, as it were. Total acceptance. Total inclusion.

And just like the Roman story and the Jewish story, even as every element of our personal stories are included in the story of the gospel in our lives, every element of our personal story is also transcended.

Nothing is left out. Just as Christ looks at every part of your life (no matter how bad) and says, “I can work with that,” Christ also looks at every part of your life (no matter how good) and says, “Let’s work on that.”

God loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way. When I was a kid, there were recruitment videos for the U.S. Army that called soldiers to “Be all that you can be.” But Christ is calling us to be more than that.

One of my favorite hymns in our new hymnal is “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” The second verse of that hymn addresses this subject of transcendence and transformation directly:

O Light that followest all my way, I yield my flickering torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray, that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.

By including, but also transcending, all the various elements of our personal stories, Christ is calling us to a destiny that is bigger and more magnificent than we can possibly imagine. Just like the Transformers, there is “more” to us “than meets the eye.” Jesus is calling us up into that “more.”

What does it look like? Well, the answer is complicated.

We know that each person is unique. We believe that each person is made in the image of God. Therefore, it stands to reason that each person will reflect the image of God in their own unique way.

Christ is calling you to be more than you are now, but never calls you to be what you are not. God’s calling on your life will not look exactly like God’s calling on someone else’s life. Whatever you’re called to be, you’re not called to be exactly like them.

It’s like stained-glass windows in a church: each one is different from all the others; each one is hand-crafted by a master artist. But when the sunlight shines through them, it is the light of the one and only sun.

In the same way, our lives and callings in Christ will look very different from one another. We come with our own unique gifts and struggles. When the light shines through us, it shines differently, but it is the one Light of Christ: including and transcending all the various parts of our personal stories and making them part of the one Great Story: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Long Journey Home

One of the highlights of my college experience was Spring Break 2002, when I got to spend 10 days in Romania on a student mission trip. While there, we led evangelistic services in churches and cultural halls, visited orphanages and psychiatric hospitals, played and prayed with the people who lived there, and handed out packages of gifts prepared by volunteers through an organization called Samaritan’s Purse.

The trip was sponsored by the church I attended at the time: a non-denominational charismatic church in western North Carolina. Our pastors told us they had seen some pretty amazing things happen on these trips in the past, especially as they were praying for sick people. The Bible calls them ‘signs and wonders’ while most modern people refer to them as ‘miracles’. They told us the kinds of stories we had only read about in the Bible: blind people suddenly being able to see for the first time, injured people throwing their crutches up into the air and then dancing home.

I thought to myself, “Hey, that’s something I want to see!” I wanted to have direct, personal experience with the kinds of phenomena I had only read about in the Bible. But then it didn’t happen. I watched, I waited, I prayed, but it still didn’t happen.

When I go back and read my personal journal from that week, I’m kind of embarrassed at how obsessed I was with the idea of witnessing a miracle. It’s pretty much all I wrote about, even though I was on the other side of the world, leaving my home country and seeing real poverty for the first time, hearing another language, meeting people whose lives were very different from my own. I got to drive around the back corners of post-Communist, Eastern Europe, far off the beaten-path carved out for tourists. I woke up to the sound of Orthodox monks chanting in a church across the lake from the hotel where we stayed in Bucharest. I got to spend St. Patrick’s Day in Vienna, visiting a Gothic cathedral and drinking really good, dark beer with a bunch of singing old men in a hole-in-the-wall pub that had first opened its doors in 1435… decades before Native Americans discovered Christopher Columbus lost at sea.

I met a Baptist family in the city of Galati, who had transformed their home into a refuge for young men who had been turned out of the orphanage on their 18th birthday with no educational or occupational prospects for the future. This family welcomed these guys into their home, helped them learn enough to get a job, and incorporated them into the life of their church. This same family welcomed us as well and put out a delicious spread of hors d’oeuvres for our group of loud, whiny, and tired American college students who had driven in from several hours away and hadn’t had much to eat that day. We sang Amazing Grace together around that table, in English and Romanian… I think that moment the closest to heaven I’ll ever get in this life.

I even flew over the Alps, for crying out loud, the ALPS: one of the most majestic mountain ranges in the world. If it was miracles that I wanted to see, I was surrounded by them; I just didn’t have the eyes to recognize it the time. I was too obsessed with a particular idea of a miracle as a supernatural event that violates the normal laws of physics or biology. What I think I was looking for during that week was some kind of absolute assurance for my faith. I wanted to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is real and God loves me.

I think a lot of people are looking for that kind of absolute assurance these days. I think it’s one of the main reasons why people get caught up in cults or other kinds of religious fundamentalism. There is so much to be uncertain about in this life; they just want something to hold onto, so they look for it in paranormal phenomena, mystical experiences, sacred texts like the Bible or the Qur’an, theological systems like Calvinism, religious institutions like the church, or authoritative leaders like the Pope or David Koresh.

Faith is hard. It’s a long journey home. Just like Moses and the Israelites leaving Egypt and traveling to the Promised Land through the barren wilderness, it’s a winding journey that takes a lifetime.

People naturally look for something to hold onto in that journey. We’re looking for something to help us keep going when the going gets tough, which is why we so often stumble into problems like cults, fanaticism, and fundamentalism. We’re looking for something concrete that we can put our faith in, some kind of absolute assurance that God is with us and will be faithful to love us all the way home.

That was the inner need that drove the Israelites in the book of Exodus to build a Golden Calf. They had already experienced God’s presence and power in their lives: God had already led them, by the hand of Moses, out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

But now they were at a crossroads, camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses had disappeared over a month ago in a thunderstorm at the top of the mountain and, by Moses’ own orders, they weren’t even allowed to send a rescue mission to go look for them. After 40 days with no contact, they didn’t know if he was alive or dead.

So they said to Aaron, Moses’ brother, “Hey, we’ve been patient but enough is enough. We need to face the fact that Moses is probably never coming back. So, we want you to take command and the first thing we need you to do for us is give us some kind of absolute assurance, something we can believe in, something we can hold onto while we make this long, hard journey to the Promised Land.

So Aaron did what he could, given the circumstances. Someone in my profession might say that he was just trying to be a good pastor and meet his people’s spiritual needs. He took up an offering of gold, the very best they had to offer, and melted it down. Then he constructed the image of the Golden Calf from it and presented it to the people saying, “Here! This is your absolute assurance that we will make it to where we’re going… These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

And the people were delighted. They were unified, inspired, and motivated. Even Moses, with all his signs and wonders, hadn’t been able to give them something so clear and concrete. This was a God they could understand; this was something they could look to in the hard times, not some mysterious presence that could never be seen or touched. This was their “blessed assurance.”

The problem is that it was all a lie. In the eyes of God, their assurance, their absolute certainty, was nothing more than an idol: a graven image, made by human hands, to which they were bowing down in place of God.

God gives us many things, but certainty isn’t one of them. Absolute certainty, especially when it comes to the divine mystery, is idolatry. As it says in the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.

God had no desire to fit inside any box that can be made by human hands, be it a literal box, a statue, a building, an institution, a book, a theological system, or any other Golden Calf we can imagine with our minds and construct with our hands. The basic motivation behind religious fundamentalism, whether it leads people to fly airplanes into buildings or picket funerals with offensive signs, is idolatry. These people, who often have the loudest voices calling others back to “worship the one, true God,” are the very same people who have bowed their knee to a graven image: a god who fits inside of a box, a god we can wrap our heads around, a god we can see and touch, and ultimately a false god who is not worthy of our worship.

Whether the format is Pagan, Muslim, or even Christian, any God we can fully understand is unworthy of our worship.

But this divine mystery doesn’t leave us much to hold onto. Once again, we find ourselves with the Israelites: camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai, facing a long and difficult journey that we don’t expect to complete in this lifetime. We need something to hold onto. We need some kind of assurance, even if it isn’t absolute assurance. And Moses (who is not dead) knows this about us. And so he pleads with God on our behalf.

In today’s reading, God gives Moses two things: a mission and a promise. The mission is simple: “Bring up this people.” God wants Moses to guide his people home, to the Promised Land (which is always referred to as ‘up’ in Israelite geography). And God’s promise to Moses is this: “I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight.”

These are good words, powerful words, and they reflect the truth of God’s reality and God’s disposition toward Moses and the people. But Moses follows with a very reasonable concern: what might be an appropriate alternative to the Golden Calf? What kind of assurance can we, as God’s people, hold onto in this journey? Moses says, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight.”

He’s saying, in essence, “God, I believe that what you’re telling me is true, but how will I know?”

God replies, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

And again Moses puts the question to God, “But how will I know?” He says, “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?”

And God repeats again the very first thing he said to Moses, “You have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

And Moses says, “Okay, God. Show me… Show me your glory, I pray.”

And God says, “I will do the very thing that you have asked… I will make all my goodness pass before you.”

“But,” God says, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” God gives Moses what he asks for, but also doesn’t give it. God’s face, the fullness of divine mystery, is too big for anyone to handle. We can’t wrap our minds around it… our heads would explode. Moses has asked the impossible: he simply can’t see God’s face. But that doesn’t mean he gets nothing.

Moses has a direct experience of God, just not the one he asked for. God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you… See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Moses doesn’t get to see God’s face, but he does get to see God’s back. He has an experience, just not the one he asked for. It’s something less than the full experience of divine glory (which he couldn’t handle anyway).

Moses seeing God’s back reminds me of a parable that originated somewhere on the Indian subcontinent and is told and retold in many different religious traditions:

Six blind men decide to find out what an ‘elephant’ is, so they set out to examine one by feel. One touches the trunk and says, “An elephant is like a great snake.” Another touches an ear and says, “An elephant is like a great flap of leather.” Another touches the side and says, “An elephant is like a great wall.” Another touches a leg and says, “An elephant is like a great pillar.” Another touches the skull and says, “An elephant is like a great boulder.” And the last one grabs the tail and says, “An elephant is like a great rope.”

Now, which one has it right? All of them. And which one has it wrong? All of them. Each blind man is having some kind of true experience of an elephant, but none of them is experiencing the full reality of ‘elephant-ness’.

Just as it was for these six blind men and the elephant, and as it was for Moses seeing God’s back and not God’s face, so it is with us and our experience with God.

Just like Moses on the mountain, God’s back is all we get to see in this life. The only thing that spiritual experiences, the Sacraments, the Bible, theology, and church can do is, when they are at their best, express God’s reflected glory in an indirect and incomplete way. These things are all good as means to an end, but they are not ends in themselves. They point us to God, but they cannot replace God.

There is no such thing as absolute assurance or certainty in this life. We cannot see the face of God, but only the back. Faith does not come with a money-back guarantee, there is always a risk. We will always have to take that ‘leap of faith’ in order to believe.

When we do (take that leap), it changes the way we see the world. The brilliant physicist Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Through the eyes of a faith that dares to risk believing, everything becomes a miracle. The whole universe is able to reflect the glory of God’s back. Everything can be a metaphor for God.

In church, we tend to use the most well-known biblical image for God, “Our Father,” but did you know that the Bible also refers to God as a Mother? Also in the Bible:

  • God is honored as a king, yet humble as a shepherd;
  • God is powerful as a warrior and weak as a baby;
  • God is bright as light, yet ‘cloaked in darkness’;
  • God is one and God is three;
  • God is a rock, God is the wind, God is a river, God is a fire, and God is a star.

All of these are valid, biblical images for God, but none of them captures the fullness of the divine mystery. To paraphrase Rev. Forrest Church, “God is present in each of these things, but is also greater than all of these things.”

Anything and everything communicates something of God to us. Not the fullness, but a part; not the face, but the back.

Can we see it? Do we choose to see it with the eyes of faith?

If we let them, all things can point us back to God, their Source. In order to see it, we must trust (have faith) in the promise, God’s word to Moses: “I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight.” In other words, “I’m here, I’m with you, and I love you.”

This is all the assurance we have in this life. Indeed, it’s all we need for the long journey home.

Come to the Table: In Remembrance of Me (or ‘The Eucharist for Time Travellers’)

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By John Snyder (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I recently had the privilege of officiating at the funeral of a rather unconventional saint named Gloria. She was a rough-around-the-edges kind of grandma who exuded a kind of exuberant joy to those who loved her. Her home was an oasis for weary travelers who knew they could stop by any time and find food on the stove and drinks in the fridge. My favorite part of the funeral was when her grandson, Donald, got up and said as much about her. He spoke affectionately and off-the-cuff. It meant a great deal to everyone who came. Honestly, I think Donald’s brief remembrances of his grandmother did more to comfort bereaved family members than anything I said or did in the service.

What is it about the act of remembering that people tend to find so valuable? Obviously, the good feelings we get from fond memories help to offset the pain of loss, but I suspect there is actually much more to it than that.

When we remember something or someone, we saying that we want that thing or person to remain a part of us in some significant way.

For example, Donald sharing memories of his grandma’s hospitality and humor on behalf of his family was a way of saying that they want those same qualities of love and laughter to live on in them. We do this with negative things too, like the Holocaust. The great, resounding refrain that we hear again and again from the lips of Holocaust historians is: “Never again.” When we remember the Holocaust, we are not celebrating its existence, but stating out loud that we want the pain of twelve million lost lives to remain with us, so that future generations of human beings will never know the horror of genocide. This too, is a powerful kind of remembrance.

We’re talking about remembrance today. This is the second in a five-week series on the meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the life of the church. Remembrance is the part of this sacrament that we Protestants are most familiar with. We eat bread and drink wine in accordance with Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

This sacrament is obviously a great memorial to Jesus’ love and sacrifice. When we celebrate it, we are saying that we want those same values of Christ-like love and sacrifice to live on in us. But there’s even more to it than that: when we remember Jesus in the sacrament, we are saying that Christ himself lives in us. As we eat the body of Christ, we become the body of Christ; as we drink from the cup, his blood flows in our veins. To put it simply: you are what you eat.

This truth becomes especially pertinent when we consider how ancient humans thought about time.  We modern folks have been trained to think of time as a straight line, moving in one direction, from the past to the future.  Two fixed points in time can never get closer to one another.  Once an event has taken place, we can only get farther and farther away from it.  Memory fades and sooner or later, everyone is forgotten while the universe goes on.  That’s the modern, linear view of time.

But our ancestors in the ancient world didn’t see time that way.  They saw the world operating in cycles: every day, the sun would rise and set; every month, the moon would go through its phases; every year, the four seasons would come around again.  Time, for them, was a great big circle.  Every time a certain moment in a particular cycle came round again, they thought they were repeating that moment.  This is the cyclical view of time.

This way of looking at time is important for us linear, modern folks to understand because it helps us make sense of why certain holidays were so important to ancient people.  When our Jewish ancestors would celebrate the Passover, they really believed, on some level, that they were taking part in the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.  By taking part in the ceremonial meal, they thought they were joining their ancestors on that journey.  (For all you science fiction fans: it’s kind of like time travel.)

This is how Jesus and his disciples would have thought about the Passover meal they were sharing on the night before he died.  So, when Jesus starts adding elements to the story, saying “this is my body” and “this is my blood” over the ceremonial bread and wine, it was a big deal.  It meant that what was happening through Jesus was as important to history as the Exodus from Egypt.

Later on, as Jesus’ earliest followers started celebrating this remembrance on a weekly basis, they brought with them that cyclical view of time.  The truly believed they were joining Jesus and the apostles around the table at the Last Supper.  (Again: time travel!)

For them, the Last Supper was not a single event, fading slowly into the distant past, but a recurring one in which Christ is perpetually present.  According to the linear view of time, we can only ever get further and further away from Jesus, who lived on earth approximately two thousand years ago.  But according to the cyclical view of time, he is ever present: we meet him again and again as we gather around this table in this act of remembrance.

Why is this important?  I think it matters today more than ever.  You and I live in the age of the Information Superhighway.  Infinite bits of data whiz by our heads at all hours of the day or night: news headlines, sports scores, stock prices, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  Our culture launches ahead with each new discovery, each new technological innovation.  We’re obsessed with “bigger, better, faster, more!”  We call it progress.  But is it really?  But have these fancy, hi-tech toys really done much to improve who we are as human beings?  We’ve landed robots on Mars, but have we yet touched down on the surface of our own souls?  I’m not so sure.

We have a wealth of information at hand to keep us abreast of what’s happening in the world, but very little wisdom to tell us what it all means.  Without that kind of deep guidance, I fear that our rocket ship toward progress might actually leave us falling head first into meaninglessness.

Our ancient ancestors may not have had the kind of scientific knowledge that we moderns do, but they knew about wisdom.  I am continually amazed when I read the great spiritual classics like The Dark Night of the Soul and The Cloud of Unknowing and I find their messages just as relevant today as they were when they were first written, hundreds of years ago.

At no time is this truer for me than when I sit down at the table next to Jesus.  I hear his words, eat his bread, and drink his wine.  And suddenly, I find myself time travelling: looping around to connect again with the One who gives life meaning.  Jesus Christ is not a distant memory, fading slowly into the past; he is alive and present with us in his body and blood.

Taking time each week to remember this truth gives us the perspective we need to see the world aright.  In the act of sacramental remembrance, we step outside the constant stream of information and feed back repeatedly into this moment around the table with Jesus.  We remember once again what Jesus showed and taught us.  We remember what life is all about and then step back out into that data stream again, but maybe this time we’ll have the wisdom to see, not just what is happening in the world, but what it all means.

The answer we come up with, as people of faith, to that question of meaning will be fundamentally different from the answer handed to us by (so-called) modern civilization.  The challenge Jesus leaves us with is to remember in our souls and bodies where we truly come from, where we are going, and where our allegiance lies.

It’s a difficult challenge, one that we’re sure to fail at in the long term, which is why it’s so important for us to keep coming back regularly and participating as often as possible in this act of remembrance.  May this bread and this wine, the body and blood of Christ, nourish you with all the strength you need to make it through this week faithfully… and I’ll see you again next Sunday.

Redefining Success

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Károly Ferenczy [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Introduction

What would you say are the marks of a successful church?

Here are some of my ideas for North Church:

  • We’re going to court some billionaire investors. Not donors, but investors. We want to incentivize their giving by promising a lucrative return. Once we have their money, we’re going to make use of it.

  • First of all, because we need to keep them happy (so they’ll keep sending us money), we’re going to turn our upstairs balcony into a skybox where our wealthiest members can observe the service in comfort, with leather recliners and a full wait staff serving champagne and caviar.

  • For our music ministry, we’re going to hire a full-time, paid, professionally trained choir (we already have the best organist in Michigan, so we won’t need a new one of those). Our contemporary worship team will get brand new, state-of-the-art AV equipment.

  • We’re going to get TV cameras so our service can be broadcast live via satellite around the world.

  • We’ll get paid endorsements from celebrities like Derek Jeter (add Christina Hendricks and George Clooney for sex appeal), who will tell everybody how great North Church is.

  • And finally, we’ll need to protect all this new stuff, so we’ll need to get a security force to guard the church. And I’m not thinking just some smiling, helpful rentacops either… I’m talking about SWAT team gear with assault rifles: I want such an overwhelming display of power that nobody will even THINK about messing with our church.

If we had all of those things (i.e. money, fame, and power), we would be a successful church, right? Wrong.

Blessedness

Jesus’ definition of the word success is different from the one accepted by the rest of the world. The world has a very self-centered definition of success, but Jesus presents us with a God-centered definition of success. The word he uses is blessed, which can also mean successful or lucky when you take away the spiritual side of it. That word blessed, by the way, comes from the Latin beatus and is where we get get the word Beatitude from. Blessedness, from the God-centered perspective of Jesus, is quite different from the world’s self-centered idea of success.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The world sees wealth as a sign of success: the Armani tux, the Vera Wang dress, the Italian sports car, the yacht, and the mansion. The world looks at people who have those things and calls them successful/lucky.But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdoms of this world (governments, corporations, institutions) cater to the desires of the haves, but the kingdom of heaven (Jesus’ vision of an ideal society) will serve the needs of the have-nots. On the day when God’s dream for this world comes true, no more will Senators and CEOs vote to give themselves raises and go on vacation while the people whose jobs they cut sleep in shelters and line up outside soup kitchens. That’s not going to happen anymore.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The world looks at people who seem to be happy and calls them “successful.” Today is Super Bowl Sunday, the one day a year when people watch TV just as much for the commercials as they watch it for the program. How many people plugging products in those commercials will be average-looking folks, looking bored, and saying, “Meh, I guess this product is okay…”? Not very many, I think. TV commercials are full of beautiful, smiling people who are excited to tell you all about how a particular cleaning solution changed their lives forever. They want us to believe that we’ll be as beautiful and happy as they are if only we buy what they’re selling. The world says that happy people are successful people, but Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus invites us to not buy into that “cult of happiness.” Jesus doesn’t want us to turn away from the pain of this world, he wants us to look at it and do something about it. That’s what compassion is: Showing up with food or clothes, visiting the shelter, the drop-in, the hospital bed, the courtroom, and the prison cell. That’s the kind of love Jesus showed us and it’s the kind of love he wants us to show others. Wherever there’s pain, there’s Jesus, so that’s where we should be too.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

The world says that successful people are tough-minded alpha-dogs who stand their ground and don’t compromise. Those are the big-shots who end up in running the show. The world puts them in charge of things. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek (i.e. gentle, flexible), for they will inherit the earth.” I like this one because I read a book by a couple of biologists last year that talks about how competition is not the only driving force behind evolution. They make the case that cooperation plays just as big a role in the ongoing development of life. When God’s dream for this world comes true, the ones in charge will be the ones who know how to work well with others and value relationships more than ideologies.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

The world believes that truly successful people lack for nothing. They have everything they could ever want. They benefit from the way things are. Insulated by wealth and power, they don’t sense the urgency of the situation or feel the need to challenge the system. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (i.e. justice, fairness), for they will be filled.” That last part is especially ominous because history has shown, time and again, that poor people will not stay quiet and submissive forever. If the leaders will not change the system, the people will change the leaders. Jesus has been proven right more than once: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

The world says that successful people know how to give as good as they get. If you hit them, they hit you back. They make an example of you so that others know not to mess with them. That’s the politics of power. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Real power, according to Jesus, comes from knowing that you could rip your enemies to shreds but choosing not to. What’s more is that mercy is contagious: it comes back to you. It stops the cycle of violence from going around and around and escalating until the situation is out of control. The United States and the Soviet Union spend the latter half of the twentieth century with nuclear missiles pointed at each other in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). But then the Cold War ended, not with a mushroom cloud, but with a party: people singing and dancing as the Berlin Wall came down. The doctrine of MAD-ness did neither side any good in the end.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

The world says that successful people are savvy: they know how to read between the lines and close the deal. They’re street-smart; they have guile. Successful people know how the game is played and stay two steps ahead of the competition. These savvy, successful people are sure to see great big dividends on their investments. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Savvy, street-smart people see the world for what they can get out of it, but they’re missing a whole other dimension of reality. Those who see the world like Jesus does get to see the hand of God at work in creation. These blessed folks know that they’re not alone and that life has meaning. I like to compare this one to the scene in Star Wars when Han Solo is laughing at Luke Skywalker as he trains to be a Jedi Knight. Luke says, “You don’t believe in the Force, do you?” Han replies, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen *anything* to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls *my* destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.” Han is savvy but Luke is pure in heart. Luke is learning how to see the world through a different set of eyes and so, as Obi-Wan Kenobi said about him, he’s taking his “first steps into a larger world.”

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

The world defines success by winning. Whether it’s trophies on the shelf or notches on the bedpost, the world wants to know about your conquests. This was especially true in ancient Rome, where the empire was built on the doctrine of Pax Romana: world peace through global conquest. They believed that Roman order would prevail over the barbarians of the world by the mighty hand of Caesar. And Caesar himself was worshiped and given a very special title: “The Son of God,” Sol Invictus, “the Unconquerable Sun.” But Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers (not the conquerors), for they will be called children (lit. ‘sons’) of God.”

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Finally, the world says that respect is a measure of success. They say a good name is as good as gold. If people listen to what you say, you’re successful. If you get invited to the White House to advise the President on a matter, you’re successful. The world says it’s good to be admired and respected. Those who possess the kingdoms of this world are accorded respect, whether they deserve it or not. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice the parallel with the first beatitude. God’s ideal world belongs to the have-nots, the disrespected, the ones without a voice, and those who suffer and die for standing up and speaking out for what’s right. When God’s dream for this world comes true, these are the people we’ll be listening to, not the flattering bootlickers who only tell powerful leaders what they want to hear. We need people of conscience who will “speak the truth in love” to the powerful ones in charge. That’s what prophets do, but they’re almost never listened to or given the respect they deserve. Nevertheless, Jesus calls them “blessed” and commands us to keep doing it.

Conclusion

Jesus redefines success. He takes the world’s self-centered idea of success and replaces it with his own God-centered idea of blessedness. In the mind of Christ, success is not a blessing and blessing does not look like success. God’s blessing is upon the poor and oppressed peoples of this world, the ones without a voice, the ones who weep in the night, and the ones who are literally starving for change. God’s blessing is upon the gentle, the compassionate, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.God’s blessing is upon those who face the pain of this world and do what they can to make a difference. God’s blessing is upon those who are a blessing. And so it is that I say to you:

May God bless you and make you a blessing, this day and every day. AMEN.

The Religious Counterculture: An Open Letter to Religious Liberals

This is an interesting article that I have mixed feelings about.  On the one hand, I am fully with the author in her call for a radical, committed, active, counter-cultural, and fully liberal practice of faith.  Those of us who go by this label absolutely have to get away from the idea of diluted civil religion that only serves as the chaplain to the dominant society.  We have to get away from defining ourselves by what we don’t believe.  We have to re-engage with our traditions, our sacred texts, regular spiritual practice, and active involvement in our faith communities.

On the other hand, the author seems to be calling for the kind of rigid legalism that caused many of us to flee from more conservative expressions of faith.  Am I to believe that liberal religion should now mean pulpit-pounding, rule-making, and fear-mongering over issues environmental rather than pelvic?  No thank you.  As one who has endured the guilt and fear within fundamentalism, I can testify that it doesn’t work.  It creates self-righteous, Pharisaical bigots.  We would become the mirror image of the fundamentalisms we judge: compromising compassion and integrity for the sake of our own narrow-minded agenda.

What’s more is that the author’s stated end for these means is the increase of “political power” and “butts in the pews”.  I don’t share these goals.  An increase in attendance might be a by-product of a community’s spiritual growth, but it should never be an end in itself.  The loss of political dominance in society is a blessing, in my opinion.  It seems that almost all religious communities tend to be at their worst when they are on top of the heap.  That’s when they tend to stagnate, persecute others, and generally sow the seeds of their own destruction.  The marginalization of liberal religion has placed us in a position to actualize James Luther Adams’ vision of “the prophethood of all believers.”  Small, committed communities of believers working in solidarity with each other have the power to change the world at the grassroots level.

What we need, in my opinion, is a fundamentally different way of relating to the Sacred.  We must start from the place of radical grace and acceptance that extends from the inside out to include all beings (even fundamentalists).  This, I believe, is the good news of liberal religion that has the power to transform and liberate.

That being said, the author’s core point is one that I’m on-board with.  This article is very much worth the read, even where one disagrees with it.

Reblogged from Huffington Post:

by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

If you look at any of the traditional markers of religiosity, we religious liberals are less religious than the conservative or orthodox. Liberal Jews tend to not keep kosher; liberal Muslims tend to not pray five times a day; liberal Christians have been known to have premarital sex. As religions have liberalized and modernized over the years, communal religious practices have fallen away and religious fervor has cooled. This may seem obvious and inevitable, but when you think about it, there is no necessary correlation between the substance of a person’s theology and the amplitude of her religiosity. We religious liberals have erroneously forged this correlation and, beyond just making us the butt of jokes, this has really cost us.

Click here to read the full article

Are Liberals Too “Special” to Go to Church? (Reblog)

Reblogged from Religion Dispatches:

New research from psychologists from the New York University suggests that the desire to feel unique can undermine consensus, cohesion, and mobilization—at least in political contexts.

My hunch is that this may extend to religious contexts as well.

Chadly Stern and colleagues reported in the journal Psychological Science in November 2103 on the findings of a study on “truly false uniqueness” and “truly false consensus” among political liberals, moderates, and conservatives.

The study looked at two things. First, the researchers considered the degree to which participants over- or underestimated their sense that their beliefs were the same as those of others in the same political grouping (liberal, moderate, conservative). Second, the team measured the degree to which participants in the study were motivated by a desire to feel unique versus a desire to feel the same as others in their group.

Overall, Stern, et al found that “liberals underestimated their similarity to other liberals, whereas moderates and conservatives overestimated their similarity to other moderates and conservatives.”

Click here to read the full article