Saturday, February 27, 2010

Breaking Through the Pastoral Fourth Wall

Over the last several years, I've been a part of the gradual transition of my worship service. When I started at my church, a-ways back in 2003, we did things in an entirely traditional way. We sang from hymnals. The service followed a stock-standard Presbyterian format. I stood behind the communion table, and preached from a written text whilst wearing my Geneva robes and a stole and some Jesus-bling around my neck.

Things have changed, because they had to change. As our incarnational worship has taken the more contemporary form that our young adult majority church prefers, we no longer sing from the hymnal. We don't have a regular paid accompanist any more, choosing instead to rely on an all-volunteer praise team for a significant part of the liturgy. I ditched my robe and stole a few years back, for all but special occasions. I preach almost exclusively from presentation software.

The basic structure of the worship is the same...but the way we do it and the style in which we approach it is utterly different.

As of this month, as we began the transition to using presentation software to guide the congregation through every element of worship, I no longer even bother sitting behind the table. I am no longer physically separated from the congregation during worship. I'm sitting in the first pew now, next to our lay pastor. He works the sound system. I keep those Keynote slides popping up to lead folks through prayers and praise.

In fact, I think it would be difficult for a new visitor to tell upon entering the sanctuary that I was even the Minister of Word and Sacrament in the house. I'm just another guy in the pews, right up until I pick up the laptop, move to the lectern, and start in on reading the scripture and delivering the message.

I'm not sure how many other pastors do this in my denomination. I'm not sitting up on some throne-like chair coolly surveying those who have gathered to hear the authoritative words I have to deliver from on high. I'm not waiting behind the curtains of the Jesus MegaCenter, ready to come before the adoring throngs as spotlights and fanfares announce my arrival. I'm making myself useful.

I wasn't sure how I'd feel about it when we started doing it this way. But honestly, I kinda like it. It gives my role in worship more of a Mark 9:35 feel.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Presbyterian Universalism

We Jesus people are, as the Apostle Paul once said, supposed to pray without ceasing. Folks in my denomination aren't necessarily always the best at that. To make up for it, one of the things that we Presbyterians do without ceasing is research, research, research. We're constantly examining ourselves to see who we are, how many of us there are, and what we believe. Surveys from the Presbyterian Research Service arrive on my desk with impressive frequency. Sometimes this can be a tiny bit on the organizationally onanistic side. "It needs more research" is one of those things that folks in my home town say when they really and truly want to guarantee that nothing real gets done. But other times, as with so much constructive self-examination, it can surface interesting insights.

Which, of course, call for further research.

One of the more challenging findings of our recent collective self-exploration came from an ongoing survey of 5,000 Presbytypes. This particular polling of the group examined our religious preferences and theological predilections. In it, 36% of Presbyterians indicated that they did not believe that only Christians would be saved. It's a minority, true. But only three percentage points separate this minority from the plurality of Presbyterians (39%) who hold the more traditionally orthodox position. More interestingly, the numbers shifted as you polled Presbyterian pastors, with a significant plurality (45%) of Presbyterian pastors not limiting salvation to Christians.

I am, of course, part of that forty-five percent. With a Jewish wife and Jewish kids, that's not really much of a surprise. But I am also not a universalist. Let me endeavor to explain.

Universalism, meaning the theological movement within Christianity that arose in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, is the assertion that everyone is ultimately right with God. God is love, so the infinitely loving and gracious Creator's intent is that every creature will be reconciled to God. This theme in Christian thought goes way back to the third century, to such early Christians as Clement and Origen.

But while I know from faith that God is love, I also can't honestly look at what Jesus taught and see grounds for a universalistic faith. Our actions and what we believe mattered to Jesus...or else, quite frankly, there'd be no reason for Jesus to have been going on and on about repentance and the Kingdom of God. Jesus is not just one option in a great new age buffet of spirituality, in which whatever path you choose is fine so long as you're into it. I know Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He definitively establishes what it means to be in right relationship with God. Christ's Way is the only Way. Those who live and believe in ways that do not conform to the transcendent love of Other that He taught and enfleshed are ontologically SOL.

In that sense, I am theologically orthodox, up to and including having a rather more vigorous sense of the reality of hell than most of my progressive brethren.

But then things get...nuanced. Where Jesus teaches about what it means to follow him, it's clear that there's more to it than just swearing fealty to a monarch so he won't kick your butt. We don't just follow Jesus around and obey his commands like a puppy hoping to get tossed a salvation treat. What we're called to do is be inwardly transformed by God's grace, and in our actions be conformed to the love that underlies the purpose of all sentient life.

And while the boundaries of our purpose are clearly delineated by Jesus, anyone who pulls their head out of their presuppositions and actually looks at the human creatures around them will see that Way being lived out by folks who aren't formally Jesus people.

There are Muslims who welcome you into their home and treat you like family. There are Jews who care for you when you're sick. There are Hindus who'll feed you when you're hungry. There are atheist doctors who go into the deep back-country of the Sudan and save the lives of children. If you have a heart that discerns, you'll sense that many of these souls aren't doing this out of self-serving obligation, which is the essence of "salvation by works." They're doing it because love for the Other rises up from within.

They are doing it because the Way for which they were made moves in them, even if they don't grasp it as such. Seeing that familiar grace at work, I cannot believe for a moment that Christ would have anything other to say to those surprised souls than "Well done, good and faithful servant."

While universalism isn't Christian, what Jesus taught and lived and died for was radically universal.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

So Ron Paul, Noam Chomsky, and Jesus Walk into a Bar...

Whenever my theopolitical ramblings show my disdain for capitalism, an old friend has taken to calling me a commie. This is just not true. I am not a communist. I would never, ever, ever describe myself as such.

I prefer the term anarcho-syndicalist.

Yeah, I know, I know. I'm the world's most insufferably bourgeois suburban anarchist. I've named it and claimed it. When I sit in the breakfast nook of my little two-story rambler, I'm not plotting the overthrow of the global hegemonic power structures. I'm just bustling kids off to school, drinking my coffee, and doing church work on my laptop while my puppy snuffs and chews in the background. Yet still and all, if I had to define my political philosophy, it would be some peculiar fusion of Ron Paul and Noam Chomsky, some blend of hopeful American libertarianism and clear-eyed free-will collectivism.

The reason for my perspective is, unsurprisingly, theological. Christian faith is essentially anarchic. It is also syndicalist. Why?

An honestly examined Christian faith leads to an anarchist perspective because Christianity is a faith tradition ungoverned by laws. We do not have laws. We have a single defining principle. That principle is the ethos of radical love of both God and the Other. It is a principle not just written down, but fully lived through the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

This "law" is not something we perceive as a "law" at all. It is not a coercive mandate, to be imposed upon others by force of arms or force of wealth. Those of us who have tasted of the presence of the Holy Spirit know that those ways of enforcing social norms are shallow, empty, and destructive. They are, to use biblical terms, "powers and principalities," and they cannot define our life together. When we are radically oriented towards the sovereignty of our Creator, those sociopolitical forces cease to have any governing meaning for us.

Instead, our governing purpose is an expression of the purpose and design of creation. We act on it not out of fear of physical or spiritual punishment, but out of joy in participating in a grace that radically transforms our reality. Jesus-followers are a people who have moved beyond the need for the Law to enforce social norms or moral behavior. The reality of our participation in Christ renders the law unnecessary. We haven't rejected it. We've just transcended it.

That does not mean, of course, that we're out there wearing black bandannas and lobbing Molotov cocktails at our local Dennys. That would defeat the purpose of our liberation. That purpose is...well...not just about us as individuals. Being rooted in a transcendent love, the goal of the Christian is not the furtherance of our own hungers or needs or wants, but the furtherance of that love. We do not burn with the fires of righteous hatred of those who oppress...because in Christ, we love them.

It is from that love that the syndicalist part comes in. Here, I wander off a bit from the classical form of anarcho-syndicalism. The "syndicates" that traditional leftism is talkin' 'bout are typically trade unions. According to that model, the way to get things done is to wave flags and parade around and go on strike. Stick it to the Man! Fight the Power! The Free People's Widget Collective demands twelve weeks of paid vacation, dental benefits, and a dark chocolate fondue fountain in the break room!

Therein lies the problem. Trade unions and other associations of common material interest are absolutely crappy at expressing the ethic that Jesus taught. While individual members of those associations might live according to the Great Commandment, the associations themselves seek their own collective power and profit. Individual human beings are capable of repenting and changing their attitude towards others. Nations and corporations and unions and associations have a much, much harder time doing this.

So instead, I see the shared expression of our anarchic faith played out most perfectly in the church. Why? Churches...real ones...are free associations. They act collectively out of a sense of shared purpose, undertaken devoid of coercion. While they have governing structures, real churches view those governing structures as structures of convenience, ones that are inherently imperfect. I follow the Presbyterian Book of Order because it helps frame and guide our life as a community. It does not make me better than Baptists, or Pentecostals, or Episcopalians, or Catholics. Well, maybe a tiny bit better than Pentecostals, but not so much that Jesus cares.

Real churches...meaning ones that exist for the joy of expressing Christ's love...also intentionally struggle against the power dynamics that can corrupt the lives of secular collectives. The church exists to serve others, and to support others, and to share joy with others. Healthy congregations look beyond themselves and don't see a world full of infidels, heretics, and enemies. They see children of God who are worthy of the free and generous application of God's love. Period.

I may have some difficulty persuading my session that we are, in fact, all Christian anarchists. A presbyterian anarchist seems almost a contradiction in terms. And yet, if we have the awareness that it is not our structures but the Spirit that matters, we are.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

There Has Never Been and Will Never Be a Christian Nation

One of the tubs that American conservatism loves to thump on a regular basis is the idea that America is a Christian nation. Or, if they're feeling a teensy bit more open-minded, a "Judeo-Christian" nation. Cross and country, faith and flag, all woven together, until the blood running from the wounds in His hands and feet and side isn't just red, but white and blue as well.

This takes many forms. It was a major theme in the recent Tea Party gathering, where godancountry was practically one word. It includes the recent "Patriot's Bible" translation/commentary (thanks, Jonathan) that asserts the American journey is essentially the same thing as the great story of the Gospel. This lovely piece of work affirms those who exist to wave the flag and feel good about America in their conviction that America is God's Nation, no matter what. Because we all know that reflexively loving your country above all other things is something that the Bible strongly endorses.

But while I view the order and structures of our society as a blessing, I also am not fool enough to believe that a nation can be Christian. In this, Christianity is...well...different from the other Abrahamic faiths. I had this realization a few months ago during an interfaith conference. You can have a Jewish nation. Or a Muslim nation. But not, no matter how many tears run down Glenn Beck's cheeks or how often Sarah Palin earnestly wrinkles her nose, a Christian one.

Why not?

Well...what is a nation? A nation is a people, a society, bounded and knit together first by geography, but second and more significantly by laws. Those legal structures provide the common ground upon which the collective life of a people are founded. They establish justice and balance between the inevitable competing interests that arise when human beings share life and space. That legal order can be used to oppress, or to..as the United States Constitution does...provide an equitable foundation for our life together.

In the Torah, Judaism has just such a set of laws, established to govern both the cultic and the jurisprudential life of a Jewish nation. In Sharia, Islam has another set of laws, which serve essentially the same purpose. But Jesus did not provide us with a carefully considered system of governance. He did not lay out the rules and standards for running an orderly society. He only gave us One Law, one which is intended not for the governing of human society and the balancing of competing interests, but for the transformation and spiritual liberation of human persons.

That One Law can, if it is embraced by a significant portion of the population of a country, change the character of that nation. It can help insure that the application of the coercion that undergirds the power of the state is leavened with grace and mercy. Even so, we shouldn't confuse it with the laws in our courthouses.

The kingdom of God is not far from us...but the Stars and Stripes is not it's flag.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Animals and Eternal Rest

Having already done two posts on our pets and heaven, I'll wander away from scripture and the patterns of traditional theology and more into my own spiritual sense of the eternal destiny of the animals that fill our world. It might be a bit too esoteric to share with your typical seven-year old wondering whether Mr. Barky is in heaven...but then again, seven year olds often surprise you with what they can take in.

My own personal spiritual predilections are pretty intensely mystic in character. Those moments of numinous, ecstatic presence that shook me from a position of alternately cynical and hopeful agnosticism into my current faith in Christ and Creator have left me feeling rather differently about the creatures around me. Meaning, no more Vietnamese steak marinated in red wine and rolled in pepper on a bed of lightly dressed salad, no matter how much that thought still evokes a Pavlovian response.

Ultimately, I believe that the existential barriers of self that we perceive as unbreachable boundaries between us mean exactly diddly squat. With Thomas Merton and other Christian mystics, I see our awareness in this life as deeply limited. Though we do not now directly perceive the harms or joys we cause in the same way as the beings with whom we interact, that lack of perception is a limitation of our temporal and material existence. We are, whether we like it or not, all participants in one another. Once we enter into the unmediated presence of God, we come into the wholeness of what the Apostle Paul would have called our "spiritual body." That, as I have come to understand it, is not just the "us" that we know, but the full fruit of our words and actions as they play out across every relationship in which we have participated.

Every joy caused and every harm inflicted is unmediated and fully us, written forever into the fabric of existence. That standard, as I know it through my faith, includes not just our interactions with the homo sapiens sapiens around us. It also includes the creatures with which we share this beautiful and fragile little planet. If I strike or harm another being, that harm is mine, forever scarring me. If I give comfort to another being, that comfort is a part of my place in eternity.

For simpler creatures that lack awareness of self, this interweaving of being is just part of what they are. The lion will know the death throes of the wildebeest, and the wildebeest will know the contented sleep of the full bellied lion. Feel free to start singing that Lion King song, if you must. Creatures that exist moment to moment are simply living as they must live. They have little understanding of themselves as selves, and even less understanding of the other as a self.

As beings grow in sentience and awareness of self and other, they become more...spiritually complicated. But the interconnectedness remains the same. It is to that interconnectedness that the greatest and only law of the Gospel speaks. We are to be aware that we are part of a glorious something that transcends us and our culture and our species, and to love that Glory with all our heart and mind and strength. As a part of that knowledge, we are called to love the Other as we love ourselves.

The creatures around me are part of the great story that God is telling, just as I am part of it. Our destiny is the same. We move into the presence of God as one.

When I come through the door at the end of a long day, and our little puppy comes galumphing up with her tail wagging in unconditional, exuberant joy at my arrival, that knowledge is a pleasure.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Reezus Reist Ris Ry Rord Rand Ravior

Why wouldn't our lickity pals be able to chase that frisbee through the pearly gates? A heaven without our furry friends would seem like rather less than a delightful place.

But that doesn't mean that there might not be folks out there whose theology is not..umm...dog friendly. As I fished around in my noggin for a hypothetical reason some compulsive Calvinist might deny eternal reward to a pup, I was only able to come up with one. So, here goes:

For many Christians, it is axiomatic that a prerequisite for entry into heaven is professing faith in Jesus as one's Lord and Savior. In fact, that's a pretty standard refrain for those who would consider themselves pure-bred orthodox. If faith in Jesus is a necessary prerequisite for salvation, then dogs and cats and sea monkeys are pretty much out of luck. Just getting Ms. Barkerton not to poop on the rug is hard enough. But getting her to speak and...believe in the salvific power of Jesus Christ? I'm not sure that even the most dedicated megachurch doggie training ministry could pull that one off.

From that radical position, salvation is two things. First, it is intensely anthropocentric. Meaning, about humans, kids. True, deep and right relationship with the Creator is only something that applies to humankind, which is made in the image of God. Other creatures, being less Goddy, are just SOL. Second, the fulfillment of that right relationship with our Creator can only be worked through faith in Jesus Christ. As animals...even the smarter ones...are not capable of having that faith, they're presumably just consigned to nonexistence. Their earnest howling and meyowling isn't part of the heavenly choir.

If your pastor is a heartless pharisaic sunnavabeetch, this is what he'll tell your children when your dog dies. Should that be even a remote possibility, I recommend finding another church.

But this theological position...which is the only one I could come up with...has within it a major flaw. Beyond it's obnoxiousness, I mean. If we are being truly orthodox about the purpose of Christ's saving work among us, we understand that work as undoing the brokenness that was wrought in the Fall. From that second creation story in Genesis, humankind drifted out of the perfect awareness of our place in Creation and with our Creator. We ate of the knowledge of evil...for we already knew the good...and drove ourselves from the Garden. By we, I mean "human beings." From a strictly Biblical perspective, there is no evidence that any other creature other than the serpent shares in our fallen state.

Dogs aren't fallen creatures. Neither are gerbils or hamsters. I'm not so sure about some cats, but we'll give them the benefit of the doubt. And if animals are not fallen, then they are not in need of reconciliation and restoration to be what God meant them to be. We're messed up, sure. We find all sorts of ways to not be the gracious, just, and loving beings we are intended to be. But they already are what they were intended to be. As such, there is no doctrine of sin that could meaningfully apply to them. And if that's the case, well, there's no reason that the pets of even the most rigidly orthodox can't join them in the hereafter.

Of course, this is all working within the framework of orthodox Christian thinking. Though I buy it in part, I'm...well...not quite that person.

So next post, I'll get around to presenting my own spiritual sense of this pressing, pressing issue. ;)

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Definitive Teaching About Dogs and Heaven

There's been a little bit of lull in my blogging lately. And my Facebookin'. And, in fact, across much of the other non-essential activities of my existence. The reason for that is the introduction into our household of a little scampering bundle of lickity affection. After forty-one orbits around the sun, and a full year of lobbying from my nine year old, I have a dog for the very first time.

Ellie is an eight week old blend of Golden Retriever and Standard Poodle. She eats, she sleeps, she runs in crazy little circles. I haven't been this focused on feeding schedules and their resultant output since my younger son was a tot. It's not as intense, as she's far lower maintenance than an equivalent toddler. She's tiring, but in an utterly-worth-it sort of way. I am, as the missus puts it, totally smitten.

In one of those synchronous events, one of the blogs I feed pitched out a musing about dogs the other day. It's the blog of a leader of one of the most ferociously hard-core conservative cells within my denomination. Carmen tends to look for things that trouble her in the church, signs of liberality and progressivism and the creeping influence of secular/Wiccan/socialist/French heresies. Here, though, she was "going after" a church that allows dogs in it's services. It seemed tailor-made for harrumphing. Not taking worship seriously! Not showing respect to the orderly praise of the Creator of the Universe! Only, try as she might, she couldn't quite bring herself to get into high dudgeon about it. Because she..well..she loves dogs. It's hard to get all ornery about them, even if being ornery is your favorite hobby.

The conversation that followed among her commenters surfaced the classic question asked by every earnest 12 year old: Does little Barky go to heaven? One of her readers said no, for reasons that probably have to do with having presuppositional apologetics beating in their chest where their heart should be. But the majority (true-believing conservatives all) said, um, maybe. Probably. It'd be nice if they did. That's not a good enough answer, though. In my capacity as the Pastor Who Spends Way Too Much Time Thinking About Things (tm), I will now offer up the definitive Christian answer to that question: Yes.

Why yes? Well, let me elucidate. First, from scripture.

The Bible doesn't spend a whole heck of a lot of time talking about the eternal lives of canines, felines, gerbils, and hamsters. For some reason, this probably didn't seem like the highest priority for an ancient Semitic people. But as we look at how creatures are directly approached in the Hebrew Scriptures, it's clear that there are some moral and spiritual obligations towards the animals in our care. From the Torah, we hear in the 10 Commandments that the Sabbath is to be kept sacred by all. A day of rest is to be given not just to those who are part of Israel, but also to the stranger in the land and the bondservant...and to the animals. This assertion of care for the well-being of domestic animals is repeated in the Exodus teachings about the value of the Sabbath. Critters get included in.

Now, some might say this is simply utilitarian. You got to keep 'em rested, so they can work harder and/or taste better. There is no spiritual component to this, some might say. But in the Writings, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes speaks directly to the question of the spirit behind the inscrutable eyes of your cat. The answer, from this wisest of the wise souls in the Bible, is that there is no difference between humankind and animals. We are all creatures of earth. We are all animated by the same breath.

So on the infrequent occasions that the Bible teaches directly about the non-human beings around us, it seems to point to the strong possibility of animals sharing in whatever our eternal destiny may be.

But there are deeper Christian theological principles at play here too...which I'll deal with in my next post.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cars, Community, and the Snowmapocalypse

Back in the 1990s, there was a little book by Robert Putnam, a Harvard political science professor. The book was entitled "Bowling Alone," and chronicled a strange movement in American life. Americans had always been social people, community oriented and engaged. We seemed compelled to gather in voluntary organizations, which were the seed beds of our democratic inclinations. We also gathered to pray and play, and the bonds of our local organizations wove us together into a whole.

Putnam documented a shift in the American ethic, as more and more neighborhood associations withered and died. We seemed to no longer care about our communities, or about the folks immediately around us. Even community pools and bowling leagues seemed to be drying up. We would "bowl alone," rather than in leagues. He argued that this was a trend, and that it was unsettling. It got buzz. Some folks agreed with him, and fretted. BowlAmerica disputed his premises. He did the talk show circuit for a while, which is pretty much unheard of for political scientists. He milked it for a while, and then faded off into comfortable academic obscurity.

But for all the buzz and hubbub amongst the talking classes, Putnam's thesis of social and political disengagement had...well...a little flaw. When folks would ask him why this was happening, he had absolutely no clue. None. No governing thesis. No subtle intuition. The closest he got to it was to suggest that maybe we watch too much teevee.

This last week, those of us who live in and around Washington DC got a hint as to the real cause of the decline in our civic life, which seemed to elude Putnam. It isn't television.

It's the automobile.

For one week, we've been without consistent access to our cars in this town, as the Snowmapocalypse (tm) has pounded the bejabbers out of our road system. I've driven our car just twice since last Friday, once to go get a couple days supply of pizza on the night of the first storm, and again so that the family could just get the heck out of the house in the lull between the first and second storms.

In that time, I've repeatedly met and talked with neighbors as we shoveled and walked to the nearby grocery store. For days, folks were exchanging greetings, talking about both the snow and life in general. The neighborhood was suddenly not full of cars. It was full of faces. Yes, they were under hats and wrapped in scarves, but the neighborhood stopped being filled with passing Toyotas and Hondas and Fords. It was populated, suddenly, with human beings. Who, naturally, we'd want to nod or smile or talk to.

As we drop back into our sealed transport pods, we're going to lose a little something. Yeah, I know, we get our social primate jollies other places now. Here in the blogosphere, for instance. Or on Facebook or Twitter. We also get in our transport pods and go to far flung activities for the kids, or to the mall, or to our Jesus MegaCenter to share some inspirational screen time with three thousand strangers. There's a sort of community there, right?

Perhaps. But it isn't the same. Being sealed away from our neighbors as we go about our business has an impact on our communities. It undercuts our situational awareness of one another, and dehumanizes a huge proportion of our daily lives. A nation that has conformed itself to the culture of the car will, inevitably, be a little less social. A little less community-oriented. A little less open to the give and take that is at the heart of democracy.

A little less American.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Journey's End

I'd wanted to ride motorcycles since back when I was sitting around with an old friend in GT Bio, and we'd both sit there ignoring the teacher and kicking back chopper style behind our desks, making a quiet variant on the Mouse and the Motorcycle noise.

As soon as I left for college, much to the lament of my mom, I procured myself one. It was a big loud sloppy CB750 with a snarling shot exhaust. It got me to school. It got me home to cast my first vote in a presidential election. I used to ride it in circles around my fraternity, go tearing around the countryside in the middle of the night, and give occasional rides to some of the women who hung around the house. It was fun.

In the summer of 1989, it got me to my second date with my wife. We blatted into town to hit the museums, and when it rained and we wound up under a bridge with four other bikers, she wasn't just not complainy. She was laughing and having fun. It was a good day.

My CX500 came next, and took me back and forth from Charlottesville to Williamsburg dozens of times to see her. It was a torquey little pig of a bike, as trusty as a stone. Then a careworn 750 Sabre, which failed me again and again, it's electrics giving out in the most inopportune moments.

Then a Shadow VLX, which was slow and short of breath, but utterly reliable. It got me to and from work for years, shaving an hour a day off my commute and giving me precious time with my then-baby boys. It sliced and diced through the city to get me to the ministry that reignited my calling. It got me to the church where I interned. It got me to seminary. Four seasons a year, in everything but ice and snow...and sometimes that, too.

From there, a bikeless lull, as I looked for a church. I'd whine and make sad puppy noises whenever a motorcycle rode by, much to the exasperation of the wife.

Then, with my ordination, a used YZF600R. A fine bike, trusty and fast, with remarkable range and more speed than I need. For six years, it got me where I need to go. It mixed getting places with moments of adventure. It was both practical and exuberant and a great conversation starter. I have been "the pastor with the bike." It has been part of my identity.

But somewhere in the last year, that part died. I'm not sure exactly when. But I found I cared less and less. It just no longer mattered. Rides for pleasure had long since stopped happening. Kids needed to be picked up. Things needed to be ported from one place to another. I'd look at the bike, and think, is riding on that same godforsaken quarter-loop of Beltway...again...really worth it? Do I want to throw a leg over the thing? And the answer, which had for more than two decades been yes even if it was 20 degrees out or storming, kept coming back "No."

Things started to fail on the YZF, and rather than fixing them, I just rode less. When the battery died in late summer, I did nothing. It has not started since then. A thick layer of dust covers it. I can't even remember the last time I rode it.

Over a month ago, I determined to sell the thing...and while the missus was convinced that this was just an elaborate ruse to get a newer scoot, it isn't. I'm just ready to have it gone. Not now, of course. With blizzards pounding us, ain't no selling a bike. But come Spring, when the air is sweet and warm, and the trees are speckled with new green life, someone will be more than happy to buy it once it's fixed up a bit. I know I would have been, years ago.

For everything there is a season, I guess.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

No Worship Today

On a typical February Sunday morning at about this time, I am walking the halls of a cavernous contemporary building with a fistful of bulletins and my keys. I move systematically from room to room, turning on the heat in the library and the kids room and the choir room, in the parlor and the Youth Room. I unlock the secondary doors with my key, then go to the primary entryway and plug in the 16 digit passcode to unlock it. The bulletins get put in place, and I kick on the lights in the sanctuary.

This would all have happened between nine and nine fifteen. But today, I'm at home.

On that same typical Sunday, right about at the instant I'm writing this, I'd be rehearsing my message, thinking about wording and the slide transitions in my Keynote presentation. As a sudden realization of a new and necessary slide popped into my head, I'd drop it in after googling an appropriate jpg. A few minutes from now, I'd do some worshiper recon. I'd check in with the praise leader, pass some pleasantries with an early arriver, and take a quick look to be sure the wireless mike still had juice. I'd set out my laptop and my bible. I'd return to my office to pray and meditate...or to scamper around trying to resolve some last minute problem.

Not today. Today, my little car can go no farther than the end of my driveway. There, a full two feet of snow sits. My neighborhood is utterly impassable, with the exception of full sized four wheel drive vehicles and human beings walking down the tracks those vehicles have left. Beyond my immediate locale, the city itself is floundering, as helpless as a cat tossed into a snow bank. I ain't goin' noplace.

If my church were within a mile or so, I'd walk there. But it isn't. Even our local Jesus MegaCenter, which runs worships with the precision of a Special Ops mission, has canceled all activities for today. So today there will be no service of worship.

Do I miss it? I do, for a variety of reasons. I miss the rhythm of it, the pattern of it, the "time-set-apartness" of it. Lots of folks, particularly amongst my fellow progressives, are fond of saying that anything can be worship. We progs can worship sitting around talking about social justice and Thich Nat Hanh and the Green Party while we drink strong coffee or home-brewed beer. Lots of other folks, mostly evangelical-ish, also like to say that you can be a Christian 24/7. Just keep the contemporary Christian music crankin' on your nano. You can worship sitting on your barcalounger watching Joel Osteen on the TBN at 2 in the morning with a Bible and a Red Bull and a bucket of Double Butter Blast popcorn. It's all worship, baby.

But I'm not sure how true that is. Ritual sometimes gets a bad rap among both the emergent and the contemporary evangelical crowd, but it's a part of human existence for a reason. Patterns of ritual behavior help change our awareness, to set us into a frame of mind that is different from our standard patterns of being. It is those patterns that give us a sense of the sacred and the holy. They signify for us that this time is not normal. That's why we set aside both time and space for worship.

We can do this on our own, of course. We can practice mindfulness, and engage in prayer and patterns of awareness that can change the character and flavor of even the most mundane task. But those rituals are better and stronger when they are not just a reflection of us, but a community. Very few of us are called to a hermit's faith, even though our culture of isolation often drives us into that challenging spiritual place. Even introvert I needs the witness and presence and engagement of others to pull me beyond myself and into a deeper relationship with the One who made me. The ritual that affirms that...well...it just can't happen today.

Instead, I'll find a few moments to pray. I'll stay mindful as I shovel, and as we check in on neighbors, and as I watch the morning sun sparkle a thousand diamonds across the snow. And I'll look forward to next week.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Emergence, The Spirit, and the Trap of the Klatch

There's been much to do lately in my denomination about the intersection between the "emergent church" and the Presbyterian Church. To hear it from some, it's the great hope of the church. The synthesis between this postmodern and socially-networked movement and the mainline church will, finally, bring in the young people.

Meaning, people under the age of 40. Sigh. I'm not even young by Presbyterian standards anymore.

There are articles about it in Presby magazines, and on the Presby website. Folks are eager to embrace this new movement. Of course, given the rapidity with which Presbyterians do things, this new excitement more or less coincides with the death of the emergent movement.

Truth be told, we're not a particularly lively critter lately. There's some puttering around on the presbymergent Facebook page, and a few meetings of good hearted fellow travelers. But the contagious energy and passion that drives and grows a movement? I wish I saw it, but I don't.

Where I still struggle with emergence, in either it's generic or presby manifestations, is in two particular areas.

First, that I just can't seem to find anyone else who's willing to write or say: emergence is a manifestation of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Yeah, I know, progressives and mainliners get all stammery and awkward when that topic comes up. We'd rather talk about interpretive frameworks and the dynamics of community and a relational church. Those things are nice and comfy and process-oriented. But somewhere, someone needs to be saying: "I've had a dream. I'm feeling a calling. I feel God moving in this." They don't need to be getting all glassy-eyed and Benny Hinn about it. We're just not that thing, thank the Maker.

But if this isn't about God working something new to transform and further our understanding of the Way Jesus lived and taught, then it's...well...not really worth paying attention to. It's just another incursion of cultural expectations into the life of the church. Yeah, it comes out of liberal academe. But if that's all it is, it's of no more spiritual value than the cultural phenomenon of the megachurch, and with considerably less influence. Maybe I haven't read enough. Maybe the forty presbymergentish bloggers whose feeds feed me just haven't gotten around to saying it or pointing me towards someone else who does. I'll keep listening.

Second, and related to the first, if the idea of relationality and the transforming power of Spirit-lead dialogue is to have any impact on the church, then it needs to be expressed in a very different way. Best I can tell, emergent conversations tend to be conversations among the like-minded. Little circles of young and youngish progressives gather to suck down Starbucks and light candles and read Rumi and do drum circles and talk amongst themselves about how crappy and abusive the rest of the church is. Sometimes, those same progs go and klatch with older progs in crumbling mostly-empty buildings. Candles are once again lit. It's all very cozy and safe. It's a fallout shelter for progressive Christians in a megachurch-nuked America.

But transformation only occurs when you graciously engage with the Other. That means making a point of getting out of our comfortable klatches and pushing outward into ones that aren't quite as easy. Can we share the value of Spirit-driven relationality with that fundamentalist blogger? Or that atheist with a chip on his shoulder? Do we reach out to that young Korean who's burned out on the relentless demands of the church she grew up in? Or that soldier who has returned from war with a shattered faith? Or that mom who goes to a Big Parking Lot church because it's kids program is a well-oiled machine that fits well with little Tyler's soccer schedule? Or the blue-haired matriarch of that little country church with 22 members?

Entering into dialog with folks who are Not Us in this era of social media is not logistically hard. Just spiritually challenging. Those conversations require us to speak our truths and have them tested. They require us to listen to others, and to speak the grace that we know in ways that might speak to them. Our faith does not ask us to limit our conversations to those who are us. Or to only value and show grace to those who are like us.

In fact, we're required to do exactly the opposite.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Powers, Principalities and Alito



After getting a heads-up on this from another spear-oriented blog I regularly read, I've been recently watching chunklets of a rather interesting documentary on corporations, which is accurately if unimaginatively titled: "The Corporation." It's faskinating schtuff, and draws from perspectives from both within and outside the business community. It's worth a watch.

It's particularly intriguing given the recent Supreme Court decision to permit corporations to act as if they had the same rights as citizens of our democratic republic...up to and including direct action to effect an election. One of the more striking segments (which you can watch above) discusses the dynamics of these corporations. The question is asked: What kind of person is a corporation? Among the answers:
  • They are "immortal persons," meaning they can exist forever.
  • They are constituted for the purpose of shielding human beings from culpability for their actions towards other human beings.
  • They exist for the purpose of providing profit for themselves.
  • They have no soul.
  • They cannot be held personally accountable for their actions.
Reflecting on this, I encounter two things. First, a slight shiver as I think about the ground that such "persons" stand upon morally and spiritually. One wonders how Jesus would respond to such a "person," and whether that response would involve a herd of pigs and a cliff.

Second, I wonder how these "persons" relate to the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. Are they the governed? Is government instituted among them, and does it require their consent for it's just powers? Are they...men? Meaning, you know, people?

They do not live. Liberty means nothing to them. They cannot know happiness. And these entities will be influencing and guiding our nation?

I've said it once, and I'll say it again, these are interesting times in which we live.