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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Post-Election Missionaries

     Ours is a  missionary calling.  Members Christ's body are sent into the world as aliens and ambassadors to a foreign culture. (Php 3:20; 2 Cor 5:20; 1 Pet 2:11) Let me state this negatively.  We are not primarily administrators of Caesars domain.  As most people in my subculture know, the church is not a co-dependent arm of pan-theistic governing powers who stir up the mob with the promise of bread and circus.  The handouts these powers impersonally offer shame their recipients and support a vicious bureaucracy which is a cruel substitute for real covenantal presence in and with the poor.   We get it, even if a large percentage of the country does not. 

         Yet, neither is the one true and universal Church of Christ a mob supporting a coercive insurgency—even if that pagan insurgency pretends to champion some of our values, and it won big yesterday.  Jesus is not Bar Kokhba trying to throw off the Roman establishment and make God’s chosen nation great again.  At the same time, Jesus is most certainly not Constantine, who in a fragmenting world, chooses to double down on the resentments of a culturally-Christian minority in order to prop up a newer version of an outdated regime. The results of yesterday suggest that that gig may be over, anyway.
        Again, primitive Christianity, if consumer religion will let us be interested in such a thing, insists that Christians are foreigners. The point is not merely that our greatest loyalties ought not to lie with the host culture.   Our primary function is to be an embassy representing a different Kingdom.   The point is that even if Christians are granted the rights of Roman citizenship, our political engagement must be entered into as if we are missionary diplomats, guests of Caesar’s regime, making sensitive suggestions about how to love and die for saint and sinner alike.  The church stands as an alternative temple to competitive politics, exhibiting the power of personal engagement and deferential love.   This bears witness to the lordship of the true King of all ethnicities who is busy, himself, personally welcoming the stranger, personally coaching the poor, empowering men and honoring women, healing the sick, renouncing coercion, and freeing the addicted of every nation.  Christian politicians, if that expression is not an oxymoron and an abandonment of our ambassadorial role, must seek the flourishing of the whole rather than agitate stronger factions who intend to stick it to the other sides.

      This ought to be basic ecclesiology.  But for those of us raised in the lap of Pharaoh, it’s hard to stop defending our position as the sons of Pharaoh’s daughter, and become a powerless ambassador for a nation of slaves.    

Friday, July 31, 2015

Trinitarian Love Beneath as well as Within the Rock

This article appeared in this past Sunday's Indianapolis Star.

      Percy B. Shelley in his poem, Mont Blanc, writes, “Thou hast a voice, Great Mountain, to repeal large codes of fraud and woe…”  With such faith I’m off to summit Mount Shasta in California.  Summer is a time for such things.  It’s a time for visiting a National Park, walking in the woods, or simply resting by the local creek.  We speak of such a time as a “get-away” with a kind of escapist excitement.  William Wordsworth, for instance, admitted that as a younger person he would climb the hills above Tintern Abbey, “more like a man flying from something he dreads, than one who sought the thing he loved…”  We need to escape the technical demands of contemporary life even though we may not always have the courage to leave the cell phone at home.  “Retreats” help us attend to our deepest selves.
        Yet, Wordsworth’s mountain-climbing became a way of actively seeking in nature “the thing he loved.”  The word “recreation,” suggests that we might be “re-created” while at leisure. Many religious traditions testify to a restorative experience of our own smallness in nature that cuts against the narcissistic grain of our age.  George Hartzog, the former director of the National Park Service, suggested this kind of experience can be universal.  He said of being among Sequoia trees, “You can’t stand there, all alone, without understanding there’s a power in the world that is far greater than anything you’ve ever imagined… and that you are connected to that power…”
           Since I was a boy I have felt such power as Van Gogh painted in his hills; I’ve sought to see beyond sensory horizons like the Psalmist, who felt the throb of mountains, “skipping like rams.”   Such poetics point not merely to the Psalmist’s subjective state, but to what is most real in the Mountain--the disturbing Mystery which Wordsworth said was “deeply interfused” within all things.  The Apostle Paul spoke to Athenians, some of whom had built an altar to an unknown numinous presence, when he declared that this God was in fact knowable in Christ: “in him we live and move and have our being.” It is this God that I seek to encounter on the mountain.    
           I know that for many today this personal God, heard about in Sunday-school texts, seems like a flannel-graph reduction of their experience of the sublime.   But if the Divine does not have a personality, then god becomes by default an indifferent and indistinct force, no more predictable than the weather.  This, for me, has always been the real reductionism.  For if God is responsible for our own conscious and relational existence, God must be at least personal.  The God of Trinitarian Mystery is certainly far more than what we can quantify as a knowable personality, but any God responsible for our personal experience cannot be less.  There is a sense within each of us that recoils at the raw and often murderous power of the Mountain.   This raging force renews us about as much as cancer, parasites and childhood disease.  And so I flee to the Mountain, not merely to get away from all the sickness of society—but to connect deeply with the Spirit of Love that mysteriously beats beneath as well as within so many square miles of rock.
      It’s good to make time for such things.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

My Psalm 10

Oh Defender of the Innocent,
Frankly, you seem distant these days--
When thugs use officials,
and officials become thugs--
Either getting a government pass
Or passing themselves as government.
They boast a compassion that is really lust,
recycling justifications,
forging corruption as a concern,
wreaking havoc, searching, seizing
under their own warrant.
Skilled in their own system
of gotcha.
Truth is mangled into a form of ill-will
by which they threaten
thinking that for now they are
their own judges.
Arise Lord,
Don’t forget the vulnerable,
Whose unschooled family is not present,
Who have no Father, no savvy coach—let alone a lawyer.
For them, Oh Lord,
Break over-reaching arms.
Bury the wicked in their autocracy. 
The Lord is King.
It’s the nation-states that will perish.
For you, God, feel the longing of the afflicted.
You encourage, listen and are deeply
In order that man,
Who is of the earth,
may terrify no more.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Dear John Letter at Christmas

Someone, who has recently endured the loss of loved one, and is now going through a break up of sorts, asked me if there was any insight that might lighten his burden.  I wrote him a “Dear John letter” that hopefully speaks a better word than his ex did.

Dear John,
      I don't suppose any of us can prepare for break-ups, or death, or lessen either's impact.  Right now my family is wrestling with a newly diagnosed cancer, and nothing prepares us for such things.   The only comfort I can afford is of another sort.
       I begin by suggesting we should not try to lighten grief’s blow.   I think that's what addiction tries to do--dull the pain--and ignore what the pain is trying to say to us.  If we will let it, grief can drive us back to fundamental issues which we have often avoided.   Grief sends an unmistakable signal that all is not right with us or the world.  We need a resurrection reality to come and take over creation.  If we believe that in the resurrection God will set all things to rights--that puppies and parents and children and lovers can all be in healthy relationships, forgiven, reconciled, integrated into the life of God and all creation-- then we can grieve with hope.  And we must allow ourselves to be seized by that hope.  Then, grief, itself, becomes a kind of joy.  It’s a joy that knows all things are mysteriously going to turn out all right, painful though our losses may now be. 
        If we rather choose to believe that death has the final word about this world--if we believe that life is all a cruel joke—if our Mothers were lying to us when they tucked us in and told us that everything was going to be OK-- then I think there isn't much to live for.[i]  If there is no God of creation to keep covenant with us, why should we believe others will?  At that point usually what is left is bitterness.
      And, if this is the case, we had better attend to that bitterness, too.  Does not the fact of this bitterness stem from the deepest part of us that recoils at the process of death?  Deep down have we not been operating as if by a rumor that we might expect something else?  Don’t we all intuitively feel that death is a damned, unnatural mess which wrecks our hopes and makes a mockery of that creative love that brought us, against 13 billion years of bad odds, to awe-inspiring life? 
       Hurt, and rage--they both need to be felt-- because they point us in the same direction—to hope.  If there never was any hope, then what are we mad about? What else did we expect other than relational break-up and ultimate loss?  The eastern religions say that we have been pretending that there should be an answer to our problem of transience.  They say our desire to live, form attachments and to love deeply is what is unnatural.  It is this deep desire for ongoing distinctive relationship that must be given up.
        I think they are profoundly mistaken.   I think our hurt and our rage emerge from a legitimate, deep, and eternal place planted in each of our hearts.  The Ecclesiastical writer said, "He has also set eternity in the hearts of men." (3:11)   So, for Christians, grief is a form of joy--a joy which lets go of our loved ones in the hope that God holds the departed in his care. God holds them as he continues to hold us.  And in the end he will mysteriously hold all things on heaven and earth together.  All creation looks forward to this liberation from relational and corporeal decay.
      So, let yourself grieve, my friend. The God who is present in and with your suffering will give you strength.   Let yourself grieve this loss, and by extension, over time, you will have the courage to grieve all the other losses that are too big to even think about right now.  In time you will be able to own all your life's disappointments in the hope that they all will be swallowed up in Christ's victory.  
        Come see me.  I want to be with you.

[i] John Polkinghorne’s work talks of this archetypal mother-and-child communication.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Healing Table

     The following ancestral story informed a sermon I preached at the Stone-Campbell Dialogue last year.  That sermon is about personal integration and the Eucharist, particularly for those, like Paul, who suffer from post-traumatic stress and from what is now commonly called “moral injury.” The sermon is due to be published and is on the Disciples’ website at the following link:

     I have a wide and varied spiritual inheritance.  My Grandfather taught me about theological reflection.  My Dad taught me to channel passions toward holy ends.  But it has always been the spirituality in my Great-Uncle’s Cletis’ preaching voice that resounds in my head as I pray. One afternoon about seven years ago I shared my frustration with my own development with my Great-Uncle Cletis, and, as afternoon turned to evening, he told me about a pivotal moment in his own young life.
         I repeat the story with some trepidation, for numbers of my readers will remember my great uncle in later years with great admiration. Some will still remember his father, my Great-Grandfather, Archie, as a supportive Elder in the Church, who traveled across the county each week to listen to his son, Cletis, proclaim the wonders of Christ’s reconciling love. 
       But it was not always this way. Great-Uncle Cletis told me that he and his Dad (my great-grandfather) were estranged for years, until my Great-Great Grandfather, Sherman Williams, went over to Great-grandpa Archie’s one afternoon with the instruction, “Come and go with me.” 
       Once in the car, great-grandpa Archie asked, “Where are we going?”
      “I’ll tell you when we get there,” Grandpa Sherman replied.
       As they pulled into uncle Cletis’ yard, it was Grandpa Sherman’s Christian gravitas that got both men—Father and son, Archie and Cletis--together at the kitchen table, where, with tears in his eyes, Grandpa Sherman plead for peace.  Something mysterious happened, and the two men were able to begin an incomplete but life-long process of healing.
       I am the third and fourth generation removed from these forebears, and as a student of Exodus I am thankful that it has been the ramifications of that healing which have been visited upon me.  I cannot fathom what is at stake for a vast future at such tables.  I probably can’t offer a greater tribute to these three generations than to say that by the time I came along I never could have dreamed that such bitterness ever existed.    Yet, to know stories like these is a precious inheritance to be passed down for a thousand generations for those that fear God.  Raw stories like this one, especially when they they hit close to home, seem to plant my feet more securely.  They infuse me with some kind of subterranean confidence.  Transformation is possible even for me and my family.  None of us who come to the Lord’s Table are completely stuck.  The family is open.  So is the table.             

       People often look at those of us who are trying to lead the church as if we could not understand their difficulties.   Sometimes that is only because stories like this one get buried.  Here’s the truth: the greatest women and men that I've known have always had a story about how grace healed their own broken heart.  Any healthy Christian ministry can name dirty laundry that has been aired and that the Savior continues to wash.  This was Paul’s story.  Blasphemers, violent men, they all belong at the family table.   Sheep still hear and recognize the Shepherd’s welcoming voice.   So, as I still hear Uncle Cletis re-sounding in deep places within me, I trust that through his voice I’m hearing the Shepherd who welcomed my broken family to table generations ago.  

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Fragmented Sentences

       This summer I followed the creek on the lower end of the farm where I grew up all the way to its confluence with another stream near the White River.  I did this with a new friend, and I got to share with him pieces of my childhood.  It's healing for me to hold old and new together.  At age 50 I better understand the joy of seeing an old friend at a reunion.  I know better now why older folks compulsively tell stories.  They are engaged in the monumental developmental challenge of holding diverse parts of their lives together.  It does not have to be an act of selfishness or mere sentimentality to want the church or its young people to sing songs that connect us to our collective past.  If the church can even begin talking about psychic and social integration, then perhaps we will rescue a collective past to pass on.
      This is vital right now, because Westerners live increasingly fragmented lives.  And our typical ways of speaking reinforce our dis-integration. 
      Take the sentence, “It’s nothing personal.”  This is common currency for institutionalized treatment of people based on exploitive, economic standards.  Such speech pretends that we can have healthy senses of self that are divorced from our professional or economic life.  The flip side of this kind of speaking might be the the congratulatory expression, “We have a good professional relationship.”  This praises our ability to compartmentalize—to put our emotional needs, likes, dislikes, and social lives in a holding tank-- so that we can effectively relate to others strictly as producers or consumers.   These bifurcations of the self can work economically, but the division between public and private or professional and personal, comes at considerable psychic cost.
        In such a market-driven culture where deeply personal commitments must be held in reserve, it is not uncommon to ask, “Is there nothing sacred anymore?”  We lament that fewer things (like employees) are treated with special care.  But why is something considered sacred rather than secular to begin with?  The purpose of priestly or ritual holiness in biblical times was not to marginalize everyday life, but it was to infuse all of life with with a sense of reverence by paying special care to symbolic things.  Jesus’ own criticism of the ritualism of his day must lead us to ask why secularity is not sacred. Once this dichotomy between sacred and secular hardens-- when large swaths of life are de-sacralized, then it’s no wonder we complain about increasing disrespect. 
       Personal/professional, sacred/secular—our lives are full of such divisions.  In England this Spring I was pleased to notice that people there go “on holiday” as opposed to us Americans who go on “vacation” or a “retreat" from parts of our lives.  Worse yet, the church sponsors, “spiritual retreats,” without asking why they are spiritual, and not also social, physical or medical?  I’m all for concentrated times of prayer, but I’m suspicious of a purely mystical impulse.  Is it that we are caring for our bodies and social lives so well that we need to take a retreat from them in order to give isolated care to our spirit?  Sanctification seldom works that way.         
      What do we mean by the human “spirit,” anyway?  My friends in the “Joy Fellowship” who meet in our church building come from “Charismatic” backgrounds.  They want to simply feel the presence of God, as one lady said, “all the way into my toes.”  I’m pleased that there is an integration here of bodily and spiritual experience, but I have to save my finely parsed anthropology and intellectual exegesis about the human spirit for a different audience—one that strives to integrate head and heart.       
        Sometimes it's even hard to integrate different parts of the intellect.  The modern academy is anything but holistic.  For instance, therapists and philosophers tend to speak only “within their disciplines.”  Is that only because we need intensely practiced techniques apart from theoretical foundations?  Do we really crave more specialized knowledge of Danish manuscript evidence from Kierkegaard?   I doubt it.  Yet, to write “outside one’s field” is still widely considered a breach of discipline; today's scholars still tend to keep separate things separate.  
       Do these psychological dynamics explain why art seems impractical to so many people?  Is it fair to say that contractors cannot appreciate art, or is it that art has built a ghetto for itself which ceases to be widely edifying?  In a world where ethical norms are mere social constructions, beauty and meaning are becoming matters of private interpretation which can make no claim on others.  Like Truman Capote’s famous character, Holly Golightly, more and more Americans don’t even want to impose a name on their own cat let alone demand covenantal expectations of others.
       When relationships become transitory like this, people frequently feel they have to “start from scratch.”  Expressions like this speak of being cut off from the past, beginning from the first scratch on a blank slate, or starting ex nihilo, as if at a beginning of a race.  This runs counter to all the studies which show that meaningful change has to build on past strengths in adaptive rather than utterly reactive ways.      
             When Las Vegas advertises a "get-away’” by insisting “what happens here stays here,”  Sin City is inviting us to live a fragmented life.  Under the guise of privacy, people are ushered into experiences that must be carried separately—dis-integrated and kept secret from all the other relationships that form a sense of self.  Even when activities in far away places are honorable, participating in different sub-cultures may require vastly different roles, and the healthy person has to learn how to hold these different functions of the self together. 
        That's one reason why it is good news that Christ has come to "bring all things in heaven and earth together under one head."   Human beings and the whole creation look forward to what the therapists call “integration” or the bible often calls “being whole.”  Biblical words for the sick and the lame carry with them the notion of being divided.  Healing, by contrast, is a form of being made sound, having structural and systemic integrity.  I believe something like this is what Jesus means when he speaks of being “perfect.”  Rather than thinking of perfection as a kind of flawlessness, it might be helpful to think more in terms of becoming a "well-rounded" person who knows who she is. A person pursuing Christian completion is seeking to have the parts of her life connected, serving one overarching purpose.  
      Such a vision of Christian sanctification requires that the typical polarities people experience—public/private, personal/professional, sacred/secular, spirit/body, mind/heart, aesthetic/practical, past/future etc-- have to be held in creative tension. These parts of the self need to speak kindly to one another without collapsing into one another. Kids today tell one another, "Pull yourself together.” That may not be too far from my grandparents' expectation when they began prayer with a period of centering silence with the exhortation, “Let's collect our thoughts.”
       Occasionally, people will ask me if I think it is normal if they talk to themselves.  I always tell them, “It’s not only normal;  It's vital."  We badly need to have a knowable, single self across time, space and circumstance to talk to.  Only then can we say with the Psalmist, “Be still, my soul…”


Monday, October 20, 2014

Front Porch Ecclesiology

    My neighbor five houses down on the other side of the street died not too long ago.  I didn't know his name.   The next neighbor down, a guy married to a lady named, Betty, now mows his yard.  Another neighbor, whose name now escapes me, told me the news. 

      Don't make excuses for me not knowing my neighbors.  I know the man's anonymity was in some ways his own choice.  I know I can't know all 6000 households in Speedway.  I know I'm one of the more outgoing people on my block.  The problem is that this isn't saying much. 

     So, I want to share something that gives me hope in the midst of my failures as a neighbor.  The reason I even got the news of the neighbor's passing was that my other nameless neighbor stopped by while I was building a front porch.   This is no secluded back deck where you have private or family parties; it's a front porch that faces the world as it goes by.  It’s a place where a guy doesn’t do anything in particular and everyone, without thinking about it, knows that it's no interruption to say, "Hello."  And so, when I'm on the porch they do. 

      My wife and I have complained for years that my neighborhood is not friendly, but now I've decided that this is because we had not built a front porch.  Michael, a veteran, walks his dog and cares for his sister-in-law.  He took some wood that was in my disastrous yard.  Tony decided that I needed his big ladder.  Mr. Zetsil, who is some kind of ex-clergyman-- I think probably an Episcopalian, or perhaps a Navy chaplain-- cusses with the practiced eloquence of a High Church sailor.  Actually, his swearing is an attempt to connect with me. He wants to see if we are mad about the same things.  Yolanda comes by daily with her dogs.  I dislike them.  She cherishes them in part because they don't yip at her, pee on her bushes, or poop in her yard.  But I don't mind that much because she actually gets my house design and likes it.  And her husband, Herman, has had cancer for years.  It looks like he's going to make it.

    More than a dozen others have commented on my porch.  Brother Ron and Bill, my church members, stopped by and sipped cold drinks with me under its shade.  I noticed the drivers-by noticing us.  Frankly, I'm amazed at the power of the porch.  It’s insignificant compared to the rest of my building project, but it is what gets most of the interest. 

    One Southern writer, still chafing at the outcome of the War Between the States, claims, "in New York every man's house is his prison, while in the South every man's porch is his home."  While my people fought for the Union, most of them came from the old part of Virginia.  And I know what the writer is saying.  Some habits, some architecture, some ways of living invite new relationships and places of meeting.

     So I'm now convinced that what the dying church in the West needs is to be converted to life on the front porch.  The word porch comes from the Latin, Porticus, which means, "a passage," or as we sometimes say, "a portal."   Like C. S. Lewis' doors to a wardrobe, the porch is a portal into another world, a place of meeting and of profound transition between what is "in" and what is "without."  A porch marks this transition with great care.  Entry may be very hospitable--even made relatively safe--but with a porch it is never totally casual.  It is a portal through which we enter another dimension, where the spiritually homeless can enter Christ's home.

    I am the door--the gate--Jesus said.  In him, so are we.  If his body is the temple--that portal through which heaven intersected the world--then we also are being built into a holy temple in the Lord.  We are the front porch where folks can actually taste the powers of the coming age.

     It should go without saying that this is not because the church has it all together. Paul taught us a “saying that deserves full acceptance:  Christ Jesus came into the world for sinners of whom we are the worst.  But for that very reason we, too, were shown mercy...”  Jesus has chosen to dwell in us not just in spite of our brokenness, but precisely and scandalously because of it. It is in this way we are the light of the world, a city on a hill, a sinful sign of the mercy to come.   In our grief and struggle we have hope.  In our anger there is a persistent forgiveness. In our sin there is reconciliation because there is a re-creative Spirit dwelling in our clay jars.

      Experiencing this mystery ensures that we realize at times how few answers we actually have.  Perhaps it is because of our vulnerability that a porch becomes inviting.  My porch first gained attention because the building addition made my property a wreck.  Jody Crum, wife of a local radio personality, came by to see what was going on.  She rang the door bell and awakened me from a nap because she felt compelled to know why, in her words, “the house was a disaster on all sides." My construction project draws people like the man left half dead on the road in Luke 10. It is our demonstrated need that is draws Samaritans into helping us, thus reuniting them with Israel.  In a profound sense, the late Robert Capon taught us, that it is the Christ figure nearly dead on the road who saves the Samaritan by inviting him into hospitable action.  So in all our brokenness we must not forget that [we] were once darkness, but now…are light in the Lord. Live as children of light. (Ephesians 5:8) 

      I want to be more of a front porch kind of guy, regularly inviting new relationship, vulnerably marking a transition between death and resurrection, darkness and light.   I can do this because Jesus forgives negligent neighbors like me.  He overcomes injustice. He gives love to the lonely and insight to the confused.  Jesus raises the dead.  And if that is so, and I of all people have been ordained to tell people so, then there must be no more excuses for doing a hundred things at church and still not knowing my neighbors’ names.