Monday, August 25, 2014

Who Do You Say That I Am? -- Becoming Fluent in Faith

Once Jesus asked his close followers, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (In other words, “What are people saying about me?”)

They answered with some of the prevailing theories of the day: “well, some say that you are John the Baptist, other people say that you’re Elijah-come-back. Still others say that Jeremiah, or one of the ancient prophets has arisen, and that’s who you are.”

Then Jesus turned to his followers and asked, “but who do you say that I am?” 

Who do you say that Jesus is? 

It’s a personal question, addressed to those individual early followers and addressed to us individual followers now. Apparently, Jesus isn’t much interested in second-hand knowledge.

And in fact, we can know a lot about something, but not really know it.   

Think of the Spanish language: I can know a lot about the language of Spanish:

I can know its origin: 

  • I could tell you that Spanish is a Romance Language,
  • that it developed from Latin in the North of the Iberian Peninsula,
  • that it is the first language of roughly 352 million people, making it the third or fourth most commonly-spoken language in the world,
  • that it is one of the official languages of the United Nations and the European Union, official language of 20 countries, at least 11 local varieties

I could know all about Spanish, but that does not mean I know Spanish.

I can know all ABOUT Spanish, but if I want to KNOW Spanish, I would have to learn it, not about it.

And to press this analogy, if I really wanted to learn Spanish or any other language, what’s the best way to do it? (Immerse yourself in the culture).

Take German. In high school, I studied German for four semesters. Two years. I attended every class, three times a week. A lot of time, I would even do the homework. And I learned some German.

But then in college, I had the chance to do a semester abroad, in Salzburg, Austria as a kind of exchange student, living with an Austrian family who didn’t speak a word of English to me. The first day, at dinner, they deliberately forgot to give me a fork.


“Gable, bitte?”

 Kann ich eine Gabel bitte? (Ah, sicher! Naturlich!)

And sure enough, I learned more German in the first three weeks than I had in two years of school.

(Which is good, because when I had first gotten there, I shortly after flying to Frankfurt, and waiting for transportation to Austria, I’d exchanged some money and went to buy some fruit at a fruit stand, and decided to try to use my German. Sale completed, I asked the guy how my German was. He said, in English, that I’ll do okay. “No no really, I want to learn, how can I do that if I don’t know how I’m doing?” I said. He said “okay, you basically said, ‘I’m an apple and I’d like to buy myself; how much do I cost?’”)   

We can know a lot ABOUT God – who God is, the things God has done throughout history, how God is revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit…we can memorize creeds and study theology and care a lot about liturgy and music and church history…

…we can even know that one of the chief characteristics about God is that God is love…

…and that therefore Jesus, as God incarnate, is love incarnate.   

– we could know a lot about God and Jesus in these ways, but that would not mean we know God or Jesus.

You could attend church for years, never miss a Sunday. Which is important. But -- like my attendance in high school German classes, it’s only a start.

If an hour or two on Sundays is all we’re getting, I think we are going out there in the world like,    

“Hi -- a Christian, does-not-worship-money-or-power and is-forgiving-and-accepting-of-others, and-is-full-of-joy. And I are one.”   

We can go to church for years, and know all ABOUT Jesus.

But every once in a while, we hear this more personal, more penetrating question: who do you say that I am?

Not, “what are people saying about me?”, what are the different theories out there? But who do you – YOU – say that I am?

Who do YOU say that Jesus is? What do YOU think of Jesus?

Moved, motivated, by that question, instead of learning ABOUT Jesus, we can learn Jesus.

And just to take the language analogy a step further: it’s said that an indicator of really knowing a language is when we dream in it. When we really know God we dream in God. God’s dreams for us become our dreams. God’s dreams for this world become our dreams for this world. God’s hopes become our hopes, God’s priorities our priorities.

Okay, but “HOW?”

How, how does that happen?

Practically speaking, it happens in three ways, in three places:

Pray, Worship, Serve.

Pray: prayer, Jesus said, is to be done in our “closet,” behind a closed door, in private. We’re talking time taken each day for silence and reading a Bible and solitude…time getting to know God. I have a friend, Wayne, who said growing up he knew all about his grandfather but it wasn’t until he was in 8th grade and spent a summer with him that he knew his grandfather. Relationships take time, not just quality time but quantity time. Prayer is the first way we learn Jesus. 

Worship: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it many more times: Sunday morning not your time alone with God. Sunday morning is for worship, for praising and thanking God together, corporately, as a community, gathered. It’s also about building connections within the faith community, building Christian community. Which is why exchanging the peace and coffee hour may be as important a time (not more important, but not less important either) as the sermon and communion. It’s during such times we build up the Body of Christ. 

Serve: Prayer and worship are not ends in themselves. If I’m reading my Bible correctly, the point of prayer and the point of worship is to transform us and send us out as transformed people into the world, to serve God and our fellow human beings. Serving God takes place through the ministries of the church and in your daily life where you spend the majority of your waking hours. Let me put in a plug here for our Annual Ministry Fair in two weeks – there are thirty (thirty!) different ministries here. If you don’t find one you are interested in, then start one. That’s how most ministries get started.

So these actions, in those places – prayer, worshiping, service -- are where we learn “faith fluency.”

You think Spanish or German or Cantonese is difficult? Try the language of true Christian faith, where there are vocabulary words like grace, forgiveness, compassion, joy, rest, solitude, abundance.

Where we learn to say -- and mean -- things like “who am I to judge?”

Or, “I forgive you.”

Or – here’s a really tough one: “I’m sorry.

And an even harder one: “I was wrong.”

(Remember Fonze, from Happy Days? He’d made a mistake and was trying to admit it to someone…he stands there going “I was wr---…I was wrrrrr…”)

We even learn to say things like, “I have enough. I am enough.” (h/t: Brene Brown.)

and, “I am accepted.”

“I am forgiven; I am free.”

And, “How can I help?”

Who do you say that I am?

Jesus, I say you are the pioneer and perfecter of the language I wish to speak: the person I seek to follow, the humanity we wish to be.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

God at Panera: Politics and the Pulpit, Part II

I wrote last week that throughout human history, and in much of the world today, the “given” is violence and poverty and sickness. The variable is, how do we human beings respond to it, and whose side is God on when we do? – on the side of murderers, exploiters, and illness, or on the side of peace-makers, the poor and the oppressed, the healers, and their allies?

The radical claim of Judeo-Christianity, so wonderfully encapsulated in the Magificat, is who God sides with. Who God intervenes for:

God has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”

But if we’re honest, it begs some questions, doesn’t it?

Where is this saving God for those fearing for their lives on the mountaintops in Iraq who’ve fled the so-called “Islamic State” fascists?

Where is this healing God in Africa, where people are afraid of coughs or handshakes due to the latest contagion?

Where is this “scatter the proud and bring down the powerful/lift up the lowly God” present in our criminal justice system and prison industry?

We hear of children being slaughtered and a journalist being beheaded in northern Iraq, and we and are rightfully outraged and heartbroken at the barbarity; closer to home, we wonder how to respond to children crossing U.S. borders seeking refuge.

Then we remember the King Herod(s) of the Bible who beheaded John the Baptist and served his head on a platter at a dinner banquet and who – when Jesus was born, killed all of the little boys under the age of two, searching for the Christ Child, making Mary and Joseph and Jesus cross the Egyptian border as political refugees.

This is not to minimize the enormity of suffering around the world, but to remind us that God broke into not some serene world of gentle people walking around in sandals, but a world that had all the same geo-political conflict (and worse) than ours.

Christians are not Deists; it’s not our belief that God acts as a kind of clock-maker who winds up the world and lets it run. No, the God we believe in knows what it feels like to be a child crossing a border seeking protection. The God we believe in fled – and then confronted – powerful religio-political enemies.

So where is God in the middle of all that is going on in the world? The answer is the same as it was in Mary’s and Jesus’ day: sometimes God breaks into our world in a miraculous way, but most of the time, God intervenes in an ordinary way. But how?   

Canon Andrew White, vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad, says, “We need two things: prayer and money. 
With those two we can do something. Without those we can do nothing. In regard to prayer, I have three ‘P’s that I always mention which is for protection, provision and perseverance. We need protection, we need to provide for those people and we need to keep going.”">In Liberia, we have friends, American missionaries, who are working to get anti-malaria medicine and food to children.[2]

Prayer and money, with those two we can do something.

Closer to home, let me give you an example: My friend and clergy colleague Mary Davila shared the story recently of having had coffee with a friend of hers who lives in Norfolk. The two of them sat outside early in the morning at a Panera, and when they sat down, Mary noticed a woman who had her head down, sleeping at the table a little ways from them. Mary presumed her to be homeless…she just had that sense. Mary was facing her, not really watching her, but she was in her line of vision. As Mary was talking with her friend, she noticed a woman come out of Panera, walk over to this table, set down a cup of coffee and a bag, presumably of food, walk around the table to the woman, lay a hand on her, and say some words over her. Mary assumed the lady was praying. And then lady left, the woman, still asleep and unaware, a cup of coffee and food awaiting her, a blessing said over her, prayers for protection, provision, and perseverance.

So where is evidence of the great reversal that Mary-the-Mother-of-God sings about? Where is evidence of the good news that is the Gospel of Christ?

Mary- my-friend saw it that morning at Panera. 

God is filling the hungry with good things, God is lifting up the lowly, showing strength with His loving arms.

As Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Sometimes – as Mary my friend says – “we just do the next right thing, we take our two fish and five loaves, and trust that God multiplies our offerings of goodness and love in ways that are beyond our knowledge or measurement.  Acts of evil yield diminishing returns; but acts of love are multiplied exponentially.”  

[1] White, Andrew. Blog is: The blog also has information about how to donate money.

[2] To donate, click here: Contact person is Kimberly Johnson.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Your business is politics, mine is running a saloon." Politics and the Pulpit, Part I

This past Sunday, I did a rare thing for me (preaching-wise), which was to refer to current events.

There is so much going on in the world that is overwhelming – Ebola; the so-called “Islamic State” fascists on the march; children fleeing across the U.S. border; Palestine-Israel; Russia. You turn on the television or read the paper, and it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed.

Yet each week we hear the preacher read and preach on the Gospel. And “Gospel” means “good news.”

So amidst all the suffering and need, what’s the good news?

Preaching or writing about current geo-political events is unusual for me. Ordinarily I try to follow Karl Barth’s preaching advice, which is that “preachers should aim their guns beyond the hills of relevance.” I agree with preaching expert David Buttrick, who finds “nervous, topical preaching based on ever-changing headlines” deplorable. (Not to mention boring.)

In fact, over the past twenty years of parish ministry, I have stayed out of preaching specific politics from the pulpit. That’s partly because my work prior to seminary and ordained ministry was either on Capitol Hill or in presidential or state politics. And one thing I learned from that time is that almost every issue is far more complex and has far more sides to the story than most of us realize.

That’s not to argue we should leave politics to the experts: In a democracy, we’re all supposed to participate. And it’s not to say that preachers and church resolutions shouldn’t try to increase our understanding of or even stir us to action on current events – understandings and actions that will have political implications as they play themselves out.

But when that preaching or those church resolutions presume to offer specific solutions – “if you care about homelessness, or gun violence, or immigration or Gaza, then you should support ABC and oppose XYZ” -- I find that most of the time, that preaching and those resolutions are na├»ve, overly-simplistic, and overly narrow. (Not to mention shrill.)

To me, good preaching and a good resolution stirs everyone – conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, liberals, non-partisans, and the apathetic – to go out and do what, from their conscience and perspective, needs to be done. We Episcopalians give a lot of lip service to “celebrating diversity,” but to me, a truly diverse church is also politically diverse: one that has a mix of “___________ for President” bumper stickers in its parking lot.

For my ministry, there’s an operative scene in the film Casablanca, where Mr. Rick abruptly leaves a conversation just as SS officers start cross-examining him on his past: “You’ll excuse me, gentlemen. Your business is politics, mine is running a saloon.”

Part of the reason I like that scene is that ironically, Mr. Rick is, all along, actively involved,  behind the scenes (and then when it is necessary overtly), in the Resistance.     

And it’s that concept – that we Christians are called to a modern-day Resistance Movement – that I plan to explore a bit more over the next few weeks.

For now, let me plant this seed in your minds: I think a major shift we need to make in our own heads and hearts is in what we regard as the "given" and as the "variable" when it comes to peace, prosperity, and health.

I think most of us North Americans living in the past 50 to 75 years assume peace and prosperity and health are the given. So we are shocked and horrified when we encounter the "variable" of violence and poverty and sickness.

Throughout human history, however, and in much of the world today, the "given" is violence and poverty and sickness. People kill each other. The rich exploit the poor. Disease runs rampant. THAT is the given. The variable is, how do we human beings respond to it, and whose side is God on when we do? -- on the side of the murderers, exploiters, and illness, or on the side of peace-makers, the poor and oppressed (and their allies) struggling to break free, and the healers?

The radical claim of Judeo-Christianity, so wonderfully encapsulated in the Magificat, is who God sides with. Who God intervenes for.

More about that in the following weeks.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How to Treat Others as you Want to be Treated

In his (tough, but brilliant) book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard describes a "Community of Prayerful Love: How to treat others as you want to be treated."

It's a great vision not only for us as individuals, but for us as a church.  

It's also impossible for us, or for a church to actually live this way. 

Absent the Holy Spirit's help, that is. So as a way of continuing our series on the Holy Spirit, I want to offer Willard's observations.

A "Community of Prayerful Love" behaves in at least three ways:
  • Not condemning or blaming those around us;
  • Not forcing wonderful things upon them; and
  • Asking what we want from them...and from God.
The first part -- not condemning or blaming others - is of course based on Jesus' command in Matthew 7:1-3 not to judge.

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

Or as the old saying goes, "whenever you point a finger at someone, there are three pointing back at you..."

Willard says that if we (as individuals and as a church) really want to help those close to us, and if we really want to live together with our family and our neighbors in the power of the Kingdom, "we must abandon the deeply rooted human practice of condemning and blaming. We should and we can become the kind of person who does not condemn or blame others." As we do so, God is more available to guide.

Could we, Willard wonders, really negotiate personal relations without letting people know we disapprove of them and find them to be in the wrong? Well, look at what is happening when we condemn others:

First, condemnation is the plank in our eye. "Condemnation, especially with its usual accompaniments of anger and contempt and self-righteousness, blinds us to the reality of the other person," Willard writes.

It's important to note that giving up condemnation is not the same thing as giving up "judging" in the sense of separating, making a distinction between, or appraising, as a dentist or doctor does. We still distinguish and discern, we still hold people responsible, and we still even discuss their failures with them and hold them accountable. But with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, we do this "without attacking their worth as human beings or marking them as rejects."

It's true, Willard says, that "some people, so desperate for approval, with little or no sense of themselves as spiritual beings, or their place in a good world of God, regard any negative appraisal of what they do as condemnation of themselves as persons. 'I am my actions,' they say, 'how can you say you disapprove of my actions but love me?' This can be a manipulative device to get you to approve everything I do."

But what we need to realize is that "what we are actually doing with our proper condemnations and our wonderful solutions, more often than not, is taking others out of their own responsibility and out of God's hands and trying to bring them under our control." (p. 230) 

Willard's most brilliant observation is this: "As long as we are condemning others, I am their problem. They have to respond to me, and that usually leads to their judging me right back. But once I back away, maintaining a sensitive and nonmanipulative presence, I am no longer their problem. ...As I listen, they do not have to protect themselves from me, and they begin to open up. I may even appear to them as a possible ally and resource. Now they begin to sense their problem to be [not me] but the situation they have created, or possibly themselves. Because I am no longer trying to drive them, genuine communication, real sharing of hearts," becomes possible.

And then -- through the power of the Holy Spirit -- God's Kingdom can come, and God's will can be done, in and through us.   

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Why Long Firework Displays on Independence Day?

Here's a whole new way to think about the reason we have long fireworks displays on Independence Day: 

As anyone who has raised a teenager, tried to break off a bad relationship, or free themselves from an addictive behavior can tell you, separation -- even healthy separation -- does not come quickly or easily.  

In other words, independence is a long and explosive process.
Why long fireworks on Independence Day?
We mark July 4, 1776 as the day we celebrate our Independence, because it's the date the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. We need to remember, though, is that the Declaration of Independence didn't start the American Revolutionary War. As important as the Declaration of Independence was, it was only a document.

That sheet of paper, by itself, didn't bring independence to anyone.

Love this version, showing edits
That's why a couple of other dates are important. One is April 19, 1775. That's the day (fifteen months earlier) that the Revolutionary War started, as the first shots were fired in the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The other date is September 3, 1783. That's the date (eight years and five months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord) that the Treaty of Paris was signed, formally ending the Revolutionary War.

In other words, by the time the Continental Congress declared our independence from Great Britain, we'd already been in armed conflict for over a year, and the fighting would continue for a total of almost eight and a half years.

Yes, armed conflict. Yes, fighting. I'm not a war monger, and I'm no expert in world history, but it's pretty safe to say that generally speaking, masters do not cheerfully and calmly relinquish control over their subjects. There are probably instances in history of an oppressed people achieving freedom from their oppressors without any bloodshed. But right off the top of my head, I can't think of any struggle for independence that wasn't...well...a struggle. A fight.  

Independence is a long and explosive process. We don't just wake up one day and say "I'm free!" Whether it's freedom from old habits/addictions/compulsions/attitudes, freedom from financial debt, freedom from "spiritual forces of wickedness," "evil powers that corrupt and destroy," "sinful desires that draw us from the love of God," or freedom from prejudice or a -ism, independence takes time. Whoever or whatever has a hold on us is not, generally speaking, going to let go easily, or quickly.

Which brings me to another point: as much as we idolize the idea of "independence," there's really no such thing.

That's right, there's really no such thing as independence: there is only independence FROM something or another as we become more dependent or interdependent on some other one or thing.  

Perhaps "Independence Day" should be called "Independence From Great Britain Day," because in order to achieve independence from Great Britain, early American colonists had to become more dependent on one another. Not to mention more dependent on France.

The point is, no human being is truly independent.

And that's not even a religious claim: a quick study of the process of photosynthesis proves we are dependent on a pigment called chlorophyll for every breath we take.

And no human organization is truly independent. We are all dependent or inter-dependent, to one degree or another, on God, nature, and on one another. That's true of businesses, schools, churches, athletic teams, and nation-states. No one is independent.   

So there you have it: as you watch fireworks this Fourth of July, give thanks for the long, explosive process our founders went through, teaching us something about independence. And then give thanks for our dependence and interdependence on them, on God, and on others for the freedoms we enjoy.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Church is Boring, Rote, or Irrelevant? And God Never Is?

We started this series on the Holy Spirit with a reminder that the Holy Spirit is a person, and should not be reduced to merely a thing or a feeling.  Last week we were reminded of Richard Hauser, S.J.’s point that to the extent that we are open to the movement of the Spirit within us, we will be able to fulfill what many believe to be the point of Christian spirituality. Namely, we will better be able to imitate Jesus, love and do the Father's will, and love and serve our neighbors.

Some of you might be wondering why we’re spending the whole summer considering the Holy Spirit.

Part of the reason is that for too many people – perhaps for you at times – Christianity or church is boring, or rote, or irrelevant to their daily lives.

Here’s the problem with that: go through the Bible and look up every encounter that a human being has with God – whether with God directly, or with one of God’s angels/messengers, or with Holy Spirit, or with God-made-flesh in Jesus – and you’ll not find a single instance where the person thought the encounter was boring, or rote, or irrelevant.

So: is it too much of a stretch to say  if people NEVER find God  (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) to be boring, rote, or irrelevant to our daily lives, but they are finding Christianity or church to be that way, it’s because people are not experiencing God there?

Or as Hauser quotes the following Eastern Orthodox prayer,

“Without the Holy Spirit, God is distant,
Christ remains in the past,
The Gospel is a dead letter,
The Church is just an organization,
Authority a domination,
Mission is propaganda,
Worship a ceremonial,
And Christian way of life a servitude.

But in him: the cosmos is uplifted and groans
            In giving birth to the kingdom,
            The risen Christ is here,
The Gospel throbs with life,
The Church is communion with the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating service,
Mission a Pentecost,
The liturgy both memorial and anticipation,
And human life is deified.”


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