31 December, 2013

Truth Squared

While cleaning out a drawer in the study of a parsonage I was occupying, I found a sole piece of a puzzle.  From that one piece, I could not imagine what the whole picture would have been, nor could I have determined which way the piece fit into the puzzle.  I didn't have enough information from that one slice of the whole picture to know what to make of it.  I needed more information, more pieces of the whole.

Truth is also an illusive thing.  For every occasion, there are several perspectives.  Where the truth of the matter is remains either separate from any perspective, or as a combination of the the many perspectives.

If I am a witness to an auto accident, I see things only from my perspective. I cannot claim to have the only true version of the accident. I did not see the whole picture; I saw only the slice that was within my viewing.  My perspective does not include what the drivers of each car saw, nor that of the person who might have been standing opposite from me on the other side of the scene.  And none of these perspectives include what might have been visible from above the scene.  No one who witnesses the accident has the complete truth.

The challenge for our society is to recognize that there are many perspectives of truth.  Our tendency is to clasp on to one perspective and claim it to be the complete truth, the only truth, and then proclaim all others as in error or as lies.  This is arrogance on our part.  It serves only to bolster our own ego, to build up our own self esteem with the hot air of self aggrandizement.

If we are intentional about listening with our hearts to the many perspectives of living, we can only get closer to what is true.  Only by understanding the many perspectives can we get a full picture.

When we fail to listen, when we assume ours is the only perspective, we create division and disharmony.  Such is the source of much of the conflict around us and even within each of us.

John credits Jesus with saying, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold." (John 10:6) and  "In my fathers house are many dwelling places, If it were not true, would I tell you that I go to prepare a place for you?" (John 14:2)

If we are to honor what scripture teaches us, we must first accept that there is much we have yet to learn; there is another perspective that also holds truth; and we must learn to listen to one another to seek understanding and not project our own opinion upon the words of another.  No more than we have the whole picture from the single puzzle piece, neither you nor I hold or know the whole truth.

As I enter a new year, my hope is that I will learn and remember to listen with my heart for the new perspective of Truth that God is trying to give to me.  May I be blessed by a growing faith.  May I be graced by peace within and amongst all.  And may the Spirit thrive in our joy.

21 December, 2013

Late Advent Ponderings

On of my childhood memories of Advent is watching out of the windows of the church during the (boring) sermon while the snow accumulated on the panes outside the clear glass.  There was a real candle in hurricane glass on the inside of each sill, and around the base was real greenery and real red berries.  As my young mind wandered and the snow accumulated, the congregation sang songs of preparation for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  We just don't do Christmas like that anymore!

Bethlehem, the town just south of Jerusalem, is on a hill and surrounded by valleys and plains. "In the bleak mid winter, frosty wind did blow...." is the carol we sing.  The secular world plays songs about the descendant of St. Nicholas (AKA Santa Claus) and of sleigh bells, and white Christmases.

We learn so much about what we believe by looking at the words to songs we sing.  And, we also learn a bit of falsehood from those same, beloved carols.  As we prepare to let Jesus be born again in our hearts, let's look with new eyes at the story of Jesus' birth in light of what scripture does and does not tell us.

Was it really winter when Jesus was born?  Probably not!  Caesar's census was taken in July;  the shepherds would have been in the fields at night during the lambing season in the spring and would have corralled them during the winter months.  However, the Romans had their mid winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays of the winter solstice around the same time.  In 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) on December 25.  Christmas, it seems, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals.  The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on that day was in 336 C.E. under Constantine.  It is thought that Christians chose this date to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world:  If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, perhaps more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.

What -- our Holy-Day is founded on a pagan celebration?  That's not how we learned it in Sunday School!  Yet, it is true.

It is also true that the scripture does not say there were three kings.  Matthew says that an unspecific number of sages, who would be astronomers, came from the east and brought three gifts.  In the King James version of the Bible, these sages are called kings-- an erroneous translation from the Greek motivated by the political interest of King James to use scripture to uphold and enhance the authority of the English Monarchy.  Again, another secular source of the story we've come to love.

In our time, Christmas has again become a generally secular holiday season.  The decorations began going up in the stores in August.  Christmas music starts playing over store sound systems in October.  Christmas is the most lucrative season for the consumer goods economy of our capitalistic society.  Businesses are using the birth of a child born into poverty to promote materialism.  Our economy is fueled by the buying and selling of stuff for the celebration of one who told his followers to sell all you have and give it to the poor.  Our society's determination of a successful Christmas season is measured in dollar $igns.

How will you measure the success of Christmas this year?

  • By the number of parties you attend?
  • By the dozens of cookies you consume?
  • By the number of gifts you give or receive?
  • By the amount of snow that is on the ground on Christmas morning?
  • By the number of merchants who wish you a Merry Christmas instead of a Happy Holiday (holy+day)?

  • Will you count the number of blessings you have already received from God and give thanks?
  • Will you sacrifice something to help "one of the least of these? from Matthew 25?
  • Will you bring (non-materialistic) joy to someone who you consider your enemy?
  • Will you let the word of Jesus into your soul and let them grow into acts of love, mercy and kindness?

The time is near.  Make straight the path. Clear the highway in the desert of our world.  Prepare the way of the Christ Child to live in your heart.  And, plow aside the stuff of the world.  

05 December, 2013

We all make mistakes; We all do stupid things; We all need forgiveness.

Yes, we all make mistakes.

And of course I'm no exception.

On Being with Krista Tippett 8/5/2013
It's been a long week with lots of stressors, but that's no excuse.  The holiday week cut short the work week; a sinus infection has haunted me all week long; the stress of holiday gatherings; a dozen spider bites from a stored blanket have sent my immune system into further dysfunction; a long day of driving; letting loose of a loved one under less than perfect conditions,..... these all contribute to poor judgment, but they are not excuses.  They are nothing more than the setting from which my poor judgement and bad behavior arose.

The bottom line is that I did something I should not have done.  I stepped on someone else's toes, offended their authority and professionalism, and infringed upon their domain.  I am clearly in the wrong.

And having been called on the carpet for my doing so, I feel like dirt.

Having apologized, acknowledged to the other my breach of trust and professionalism, having vowed to never cross this line again, and having asked for forgiveness,  the relationship is nonetheless scarred.  There remains a cold wall between us despite the chitchat and information exchanges between us.  That cold wall is the remnant of a broken relationship; a scar in the skin of the body of Christ.  It can be mended, but requires tender care.  It is able to be healed, but will take time.

That cold wall could easily turn into a grudge or a root of bitterness that grows inside and between us. It would be so easy -- and familiar -- to carry anger, hurt, betrayal, and cold stares into the the future of the relationship.  This is the way of the culture around us.  This is one of the sources of our radically divided society, the divisions in our political and social strati, the fights in our communities of faith.  Our inability to humble ourselves, admit wrong doing, being hurt, betrayed, struggling -- our inability or unwillingness to set aside hubris -- will build cold walls, dangerous divisions, and cankerous wounds.  These will become grudges and bitterness that will ultimately divide the Body of Christ.

Only forgiveness will keep that from happening.  Forgiveness is the mending that needs to happen. Forgiveness is not forgetting or pretending nothing happened.  Forgiveness is understanding the harm, understanding the wrongness of the wrong-doer, and agreeing between you to try again.  To forget anything happened will cause the wound to fester and infect the whole Body.  To not change the status of the relationship would be further denial; if I did not feel like dirt, there could be no hope for forgiveness! Entering into the path of forgiveness is digging through that dirt, wearing it on my penitent forehead, and sorting through all the implications and wariness of the new situation, the new relationship.

So we have a choice. We can nurse the pain; we can respond to the continued pain, pulling out swords and spears to slash and stab back. We can hold a grudge and remain cut off. Or, we can sincerely, deeply from our hearts choose participate in forgiveness. I can turn my sword and spear into repentant love that, in its own way, has a much better chance of piercing the other's heart, of reaching them. There is no guarantee, however, that the other will put away their sword and spear. There is no assurance that the other will be changed moved to forgiveness. But it will change me. It will keep a root of bitterness from growing inside me, replacing it with love.

Forgiveness is not easy.  In order to turn spears into to pruning hooks or swords into plowshares, the blacksmith must pound upon red hot iron; sparks fly in his face and all around him.  It is grueling labor.  It is uncomfortably hot. Peacemaking is difficult and dangerous work.  It is not possible for us to beat our own swords into plows, to bend our own words and actions and attitudes into means of forgiveness, peace and love on our own. We need the strength, skill, and extravagant love of a master blacksmith.  God has provided us One!

Even if forgiveness is offered and received, the cold wall will remain until enough time and space passes for the healing to happen.  Healing is the slow rebuilding of trust, of care, of mutual respect, of honor for the other.  These are relationship essentials that may have been offered freely once but now must be earned.  Only time and consistent care can heal.

We all make mistakes.  We all do stupid things.  We all need forgiveness.  In this season of Advent, let's journey toward making peace, shalom, happen first within and among us.

23 October, 2013

Changing Seasons

For everything  there is a season, and a time for every  matter under heaven.
  Ecclesiastes 3:1
   Can you feel the seasons changing?  The weather has gotten colder; frost has greeted us on recent mornings.  Most of us are ready to turn up the thermostat and to put warmer blankets on our beds.  We've put the gardens to bed, and are rushing to get the harvest out of the fields.  Change is in the air.
   Can you feel the season of change in our churches?  It is becoming harder to attract and retain new members.  Fewer folks are able to help out with the church activities and annual dinners; and  more people chose the drive through at the dinner than came inside to fellowship while they eat that delicious meal.  There are more people shopping at the mall on Sunday morning than attending a church service. And, over 65% of US Americans under the age of 30 have no church affiliation.  Change is in the air. 
   Adapting to change is not always easy.  Most of us would prefer to remain within our comfort zones.  When the whole world is changing rapidly around us, it would be so nice if church was the one place that stayed the same, wouldn't it?
   While that sounds like something we'd like, the long term implications would threaten the existence of the Church.  What worked well in the world of 1860 or 1960 are not always efficient or appropriate today.  Can you imagine what things would be like if we still spoke the German of our ancestors in a culture that speaks English?  Or a sanctuary with the hard pews and no heat or air conditioning?  In a culture that drives, depends upon the internet and electronic media, we would be ill advised to expect our members  find the church by walking the streets of town, to arrive to worship via horse and carriage, use stencil-printed bulletins and respond to news sent via the Pony Express.  While "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8), the means by which we acquire knowledge of Christ has changed significantly from word of mouth to papyrus to printed pages to pixels on a screen. And, the world into which Christ's message is proclaimed has changed significantly in 2000 years!
   In the midst of change, we too must change to remain relevant to the world to which God calls us to bring the Word.  We must change or we cease to be faithful members of the Body of Christ. First, we must continually learn and grow in our knowledge and in Spirit.  A disciple of Jesus Christ should not be stagnant in their faith but should be in constant motion!  Scripture reminds us that  "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed." (Cor.15:51)
   We must change how we "do church."  Diana Butler Bass makes a distinction between the spiritual and the religious; the implication of "religion" is the institutional church, the form and practices of congregations including the traditions and methodologies of worship, Sunday School, and fellowship.  "Spiritual", on the other hand, confers the relationship of a person to the heart of God, the ways in which God's light shines through an individual or community; it's about relationships both vertical and horizontal.  Younger generations claim to be "spiritual but not religious." They relate to the substance and heart of faith, but not the institution or form of the Church.  In the Preamble to the Constitution of the United Church of Christ, we affirm "the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God." It is part of our organizational DNA to be about change so that the Body of Christ can and will relate to each new generation.  We must change or we will be responsible for the death of this Body!
   The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that even in the midst of change, God's plan is being fulfilled.  "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."  (Jer. 29:11)  This is Good News!  It's more than pocket change; it is change we bank our future upon.  We have not only the interest but the promise and commitment of God to see us through it. 

16 October, 2013

Are we Changing or Decomposing?

I’m sitting at my laptop on a table with a calendar hanging over it. The calendar sports several pictures from days gone by: my husband and his sister singing in church at about age 12 or 13, my youngest son strumming a guitar, my husband reading a newspaper with a teddy bear under his arm, and my youngest son leaving the church amidst bubbles with his new bride on his arm.

It’s the large picture in the center, however, that draws one’s eye first. It is a smiling 3 year old, my first born son, who is eating freshly frosted sugar cookie. Outside the window behind him, snow sits on the window sills and the snow on the roofs beyond the window is deep. In the fore ground are unfrosted sugar cookies: the bottom of a snow man, a couple of candles. By the turtleneck and long sleeves and the chapped lips on the child, it is clearly mid winter.

It’s a memory I cherish of my oldest son’s earlier Advent seasons. The enamel topped metal table and matching red chair upon which my son kneels reminds me of a different time when my children were so very small. His baby teeth shine in his bright smile. His eyes twinkle with joy as he “sneaks” a bit of a cookie he’s supposed to be decorating for Christmas.

Those were very different times. Life was simpler. The laughter of children in the house made a different atmosphere of daily living. It was a harder life. Our income level was only just enough on which to live without receiving welfare; we struggled to pay off our student loans. It was a time of stress as we juggled the roles of young parents, freshly minted pastors, part time social advocates, and full time naïve young couple.

As I look at this picture now, I long to tickle that little boy’s tummy with my fingers to hear him squeal with laughter. I remember all the good times we had in that little house in Pennsylvania. And it all feels like something I’d want to do again.

Only I don’t. Even if it were possible, I wouldn’t repeat those years. Yes, I remember them fondly. Yes, I feel things were easier then. But I wouldn’t want to repeat them because it would mean losing out on the experience of today. Today, when my sons are young adults exploring lives of their own. Today, when as empty nesters we have the joy of being able to pick up and go whenever we choose without regard to school calendars or nap times. Today, when I am wiser, more mature, and certainly a different person that I was 27 years ago. Today, while a very different era, still offers its own joys, challenges, stresses, and—yes – sad times.

I can’t go back; I am not the same now as I was then. I can’t go back; it is not possible to turn my adult sons into children again. I can’t do it over; I’m not that same young and spry, limber and energetic person I was 27 years ago. I don’t want things to be the way they used to be even if I’m not completely happy with how things are today – because I know in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t as happy then as my memories would like to lead me to believe.

What is true in life, is also true in the church. We can never again be what we once were because the world is not the same now as it once was and because you and I are not the same people we used to be. We have grown older, (hopefully) more mature and more wise, and (hopefully) to a different place on our faith journey. We can never again be what we once were because the world doesn’t need us as we used to be; Christ needs us in the world as he calls us to be for today. What worked in the culture of yester-year cannot work in the world today.

Friends, we’re not in Kansas any more. We are in a new era when the Church is not dominate in culture (if indeed it ever was in our lifetimes), where the choices of belief systems have developed along side of our capitalistic, consumer based economy, and where people of faith struggle as an alien culture in a strange land. Just as we do in our everyday lives, the Church needs to adjust to the realities of this new era.  The proverbial way we've always done it isn't working any longer; we have to adjust and adapt, and, by trial and error, find new ways of relating to one another and the world around us.  

The good news is that we know how to do this!  We've been doing it in our homes, in our work places, and in our everyday living.  We've adapted to new technology (internet, Skyping, networking via social media, microwaves, hybrid cars), to a smaller world and all its connections, to new relationships, and new ways of thinking.  We've reconsidered our opinions and ways of thinking about issues.  We revisited our values and priorities in light of all these changes.  

Now it's time for the Church and each part of the Body of Christ to do the same.  

Because if we don't adapt, we will cease to exist.  When any organism ceases to change it dies, and then the decomposers feast upon it.  The dead become the food of the living.  I'd rather we change than decompose.  Wouldn't you?! 

15 August, 2013

Accepting Uncertainty

The question is often asked by church members and others, "Tell me what you believe about doubt. Is it wrong to have doubts?  How do you understand doubt in relation to faith."  Here is my imperfect response.

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers, used the expression, “Accept Uncertainty.” Uncertainty, doubt, is indeed a precious commodity.  Without the ability, freedom, to question, we are left with a rote, uninterpreted faith; if we accept what our forbearers have handed to us without question, we are robots and mechanized practitioners of faith. If we explore, question, and test what is taught to us, we make it our own.  Each generation must do this; each generation must make the faith its own or the faith will become an ancient artifact which is looked upon a couple of times a year and forgotten the rest of the time because it is not relevant to our living. 

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.                                                                                 1Cor 13:11-12
For a young person to become an adult, they must be fully self differentiated from our parents and our families.  The process of differentiation is necessary for a person’s self identity.  From the time we are very young, we test the boundaries.  As toddlers and preschoolers, we are
comforted by those boundaries; they keep our world safe.  As teens, we push against them with the desire for independence from our parentally imposed limits; we desire freedom.  As adults, we set our own boundaries when we are more confident in our identity and values; these often reflect the lessons we learned in our youth. 

Paul reminds us in 1Corinthians 13 that even as adults, we see only dimly what we will see clearly; we know only in part what we will know fully.  Paul affirms that even in our adult faith, we do not know everything. If we are content that we know everything, we are not only arrogant; scripture tells us we are wrong.  We must never be content with what we know; we must continue to learn.  Without curiosity, we cannot learn. We need to question, test, and probe to continue to grow throughout our life journeys.  If we stop learning, stop questioning, stop testing, stop probing, we remain a child with immature faith.

God creates us to be inquisitive. The creation accounts in Genesis give us a picture of humanity exploring and seeking to understand what is around them.  These narratives expose the testing of boundaries and the questioning of authority; like growing young people, the first humans are exploring, seeing differentiation, and defining values and identity.  When we can see only dimly, we naturally question what is not in focus. 

“Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” Mark 9:23-24(NRSV)
The man has brought his beloved son to Jesus for healing.  He stumbles on the “if” word:  “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”  No one else has been able to heal the boy; this father has experienced the failure of his hopes.  He’s not about to set himself up for a complete dashing again.  “If you are able….” allows him to give this itinerant healer/teacher an out.  After all, no one else has been able to do it. 

But notice how Jesus does not respond.  He does not scold the man for his doubts.  He does not tell him he will be condemned to death for questioning the ability of this Man of God.  Instead he responds to the man’s request: “Help my unbelief.”  Jesus orders the unclean spirit, which has kept the boy from hearing and speaking, out of the child.  In doing so, Jesus has not only placed the child back into the realm of health and well being, he has also given the father a ladder rung toward faith in the power of God, hope in the ability of God’s love to overcome evil,
and a reason to further explore the teachings of this itinerant Rabbi.

No human mind, no community of faith can completely capture in words or creeds the fullness of the mystery of God. To claim that we have done so is idolatry and (again) arrogance.  To say that we have the complete and only answer places limits upon God by suggesting that God cannot reveal Himself to others differently from our experience of God.  This leaves us only the option to say, “I don’t know God that way.”   I believe; Lord help my unbelief!

Jesus doesn't ask that we believe him; he tells us to follow him.  Following Jesus necessitates
walking the journey called The Way; it requires us to keep our attention on where we are being led.  It does not keep us from asking questions along the way.  Jesus asks a lot of questions! Those whom he encounters and who follow Him ask a lot of questions as well.  The basis of a question is either to test the other or to expand one’s knowledge and understanding; questions are the evidence of doubt.  Jesus does not scold the questioner, does not lash out defensively when faced with doubts, does not send the unbeliever away.  He embraces the other where they are and seeks to open their eyes, ears, and hearts with understanding recognizing that mere humans cannot possibly contain all that there is to know about God.

In order to have any doubts, one must believe something first.  Faith is stronger than doubt; but doubt fuels faith; nourishes it; keeps it alive, active and relevant to one’s life and living.  Defenders of the faith – be so confident of what you believe that you are free to question it, probe it, and test it.

12/05/2013 Post Script:  Here's a link to Nadia BolzWeber's sermon on this topic.  Well worth the read!

03 August, 2013

Atonement and Forgivenss

The original meaning of the word "liberal" involved being open to a variety of ideas and ways of thinking, to be intellectually generous.  I am a liberal in this sense: I am open to and supportive of many ways of thinking and believing.  For me, when things are split into issues of black and white, I see only division and alienation.  For some, the boundaries of black and white are comforting and necessary; the gray only clouds their thinking and causes insecurity.  Unfortunately, many in the church hold black and white theology that cannot accept anything different from what they believe -- even if it is proven to be ill-based or non biblical.
I've just written this from the top of my head... no footnotes or bibliography; just a long winded exposition on a question asked of me in an interview with a Pastoral Search Committee with which the folks are caught up.
The Question:
     "John 14:6 while Jesus was comforting his disciples he said to them, 'I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.'  This speaks to the fact that one must believe, and accept that God sent his only Son to die on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins and that by believing this and by His Grace alone are we saved.  Is this belief the only way we can be assured of an eternal home with Him?"
My initial response in person was something to the effect that Jesus didn’t ever say he came to die for our sins that this is a construction of Paul’s and the later church’s.  I added that Jesus was careful to not label individuals as “sinners” when he healed them and offered them forgiveness.   I went on to say that shortly before the passage quoted is another: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2)  and that in another place Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”  I went on to say that this is good news for people who have not found hope in a particular faith. 
What some members of the committee heard me say was that Jesus never talks of sin, and that Jesus never called people sinners.  So, here is a full expository of response to this question.
In our time, we have a tendency to put the words of the whole of the New Testament into the mouth of Jesus.  “This speaks to the fact” indicates that what follows is assumed in the reading of the scripture; what follows is a theory of atonement that was developed in the Eleventh and Fifteenth Centuries and is not based upon Biblical texts.  In fact, much of the theology of this question arises from later theology, not the words or ministry of Jesus.
The challenge of the question lies in the conclusion of the second sentence.  This sentence makes a conclusion about the text of John 14:6 that is out of context with the text itself.  The question starts with the context – “while Jesus was comforting his disciples, he said to them….”  The scripture in context is part of Jesus’ response to Thomas about how they will know the way to where Jesus is going.  Jesus is instructing the disciples on what to expect after his death and resurrection.  Jesus is giving the disciples a pep talk, a comforting assurance that if they follow the way they have been taught by Jesus, they will know God; that if they are faithful to what he has been showing them, leading them, and guiding them, they will find their way to God the Father.  He says that if we know Him, we know God the Father.
In the context of John 14, Jesus is giving the assurance that they have learned well what they need to know, that they know the Father already.
  •       I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father
  •       If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.
  •       I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.
  •        Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

Then the question deviates from that context.  Jesus is not talking about the forgiveness of sins here; he is talking about the immediate future of the disciples and their finding their way in his absence.
At this point in the Gospel of John, Jesus has not yet died; he has not yet risen.  There is not any talk of death, let alone a sacrificial death, though everyone at that last meal together knew full well that Jesus was going to die at the hands of those whose power was threatened by his teaching of truth.  Jesus is saying that if the disciples want to know God, if they want to know where he is going, they need to love one another the way that he has loved them (John 15:12).
Jesus is not the author of the theory that “one must believe, and accept that God sent his only Son to die on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins and that by believing this and by His Grace alone are we saved.”  The seeds of this theory originate in Paul and are germinated and harvested by Anselm of Canterbury, the Protestant Reformers, and, later, Twentieth Century Evangelists.  The theory that Jesus was sent to die for the forgiveness of our sins is not found in the Gospels.  Further, the idea that “the death of Jesus provides forgiveness of sins” and “His Grace alone” saves us are oppositional to one another.  Payment for forgiveness is not forgiveness; it is a transaction.  Forgiveness is indeed grace, but it cannot be bought by any means or it ceases to be grace and forgiveness.
Okay, having said that, I’m going to give a very long explanation.
Prior to the Eleventh Century and based upon Jesus’ statement in Mark 6:45 that he offered his life as a  ransom for many,  the (Roman)  Church taught that the ransom must have been paid to those powers that hold us captive—namely the devil and the other fallen angels. Adam and Eve turned the entire human race sinful when they listened to the serpent (devil), and therefore making the devil our owner. Jesus offered himself to the devil in as the price of our freedom from this sinful state. The devil didn’t realize that he couldn’t hold the God’s son captive in death and was therefore tricked into losing both us and God’s son.  This is the ransom theory of atonement.  It’s not particularly Biblical; but it’s logical for the era from which it arises. 
In the Eleventh Century, Anselm of Canterbury debunked this theory and developed the concept of blood atonement.  This theory springs from the Old Testament concept of sacrifice.  The underlying assumption of this idea is that the moral order, God’s justice, or something about God’s nature, requires that God punish our sin – and inflict corporal punishment upon us, classically by sending us to hell—unless some substitute can be found to pay the penalty for sin.  Anselm stressed that there is no way for mere humans to satisfy God’s need for punishing us so the need is satisfied by the perfect obedience of Jesus even to the point of dying (note the words of the Apostle’s Creed).  This is the satisfaction theory of atonement.
In the Fifteenth Century, the Protestant Reformers took this a step further and asserted that Jesus chose to take the death penalty in our stead as punishment for our sins (as opposed to obedience to God). This is the punishment theory of atonement.
Either way, satisfaction or punishment, the theories assert that violence is necessary to please God’s need for justice.
There are two places in the GOSPELS that are often used to support these theories of atonement; both are problematic.  In Matthew 26:28, Jesus says “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  In the same vein (pun intended), Hebrews 9:22 says that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.” The Greek word translated in these passages as “forgiveness” means release from bondage or to free from prison.  Even when understood as “release from penalty,” it merely provides an alternative means of fulfilling the same solution and life-giving role that the law and its penalties were supposed to provide.  Atonement allows God to justly release us from punishment for sin.  The idea that God requires a payment of some sort is logically in conflict with God’s forgiving our sins; true forgiveness involves relinquishing the demand that the penalty be paid.
The second is the text from Mark that I used in the discussion of ransom atonement.  The Mark text has to have a lot of speculation or preconceived understandings thrown into the picture in order to pull a theory of atonement from it.  We can read our concept or idea into the text and pull the meaning we desire from it; this is eisogesis:  reading our understanding or position into the text. If instead we begin with the text from Mark devoid of our preconceived understandings, we cannot arrive at a theory of atonement.  Solid Biblical study begins with the text and its context, not our own theology.
Jesus said he came to fulfill the law and the prophets; Jesus did not say that “by His Grace alone” we are saved.  Paul said this, and we read it into the words credited to Jesus.  Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God and what we must do to bring God’s reign to earth.  Jesus showed us the way, the truth and the life through his example, his teaching, and his willingness to die for what he believed is God’s way, truth, and light – which the religious and political powers of his day found threatening to their status and power.
What Jesus teaches is not about what is to come in the next life (again, that is Paul and American Civil Religion’s Prosperity Gospel); what Jesus teaches, preaches, and lives is God’s affinity for the “least of these,” the oppressed, the down trodden, the rejected, and the powerless.  What Jesus assures us of is that God’s realm is found when all people do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).  What Jesus assures us is that the high will be made low, the first last, the weak strong, the hungry fed, the poor rich in spirit.
This is what I meant when I said that Jesus did not come (or die) to forgive our sins; he came to show us the way to God; the way of justice; the way of peace.  He certainly did offer forgiveness to people – freedom from that which binds them -- usually the people no one else would ever dream of unbinding, and always as a means to bring justice to the situation at hand.   But he does not assert that he's going to die for our sins.
Does this make sense, or am I rambling out of my physical exhaustion?

18 July, 2013

The Erosion of Covenant

I live in a subdivision where we have a Home Owners’ Association Covenant.  Every person who buys a home in the subdivision is required to agree to the terms of the HOA Covenant as a condition of their buying property within the subdivision.  The Covenant was designed to keep the home values at the highest possible, and for the safety and aesthetic value of the community. 

There are basic rules such as keeping your lawn cut and your sidewalks shoveled.  There are environmental concerns such as keeping grass clippings off the street so they don’t end up in the storm drains and pollute the lakes; safety concerns such as putting a fence around your yard if you have a child’s swing set and keeping your car off the street overnight.  And, given that there are no street lights in the subdivision, every home is required to have either coach lights on the outside of their garage or a lamp post closer to the sidewalk.  These are reasonable rules for safety and aesthetic value.  In the early years of the subdivision as homes were still being built and original owners lived in those homes, the covenant was widely enforced.  People were gently reminded to keep signs out of their yards, to put their cars in their driveways or garages. 

But as original owners sold their homes and moved away, the covenant was enforced less and less.   Advertisements for various events appeared in yards; cars were left on the street, trampolines appeared in unfenced yards, and coach lights were disconnected from their governing light sensors.  A broken down, unregistered car drips oil on the driveway of a home while the running cars are parked on the street because there is no room for them in the driveway.  And a police car remains parked on the street for days on end as if the one who enforces our laws is above the covenant.  If reminded of the covenant, residents sneered and were rude about someone telling them how to keep their property.

This struck home with me when I listed my home for sale.  The Realtor told me that if it weren't for the trampoline in the yard of the people behind me and the rusting swing set in the home beside me, I could ask $10,000 more for my home than I could with those “eyesores.”   When I asked the officers of the Home Owners Association to enforce the rules, my e-mails went unanswered; six months after my initial request and three requests later, I received an e-mail that said they were no longer enforcing the covenant rules. 
My response was disappointment and a keen sense of injustice.  I purchased this property and built my home under the terms of the Covenant.  I have always been conscientious of the rules and followed them.  Yet I was being punished (economically) for the decisions of others to not follow and not enforce the rules.  It was grossly unfair.  Further, those in the neighborhood of whom I had reminded of the Covenant rules were openly hostile to me for my voicing my concern. 
“Are you telling me that my putting a damn church yard sign in my yard is taking down the value of your home?  Bull Shit!  Let them fine me.  I have freedom of religion.”
“There are trampolines all over the subdivision without fences around them.  If others can do it, so can I.  Just try to make me take it down. I’ll sue your ass off in court.”
The final straw for me was a note left on my car in my driveway earlier this week.  It read:
“You can’t move out of the neighborhood fast enough.  Your need to control everyone elses property have pissed off enough people.  Your lucky I haven’t burnt your house down to get you out faster.”
Of course the note was unsigned. 

It would seem that following the rules that one agreed to when purchasing the property is no longer a necessary part of life together.  If the rules are not convenient for me, I don’t need to live under the covenant to which I signed my name in agreement.  And, it’s fine to be rude and hostile toward anyone who has an interest in following the rules. 

The prophets of the Old Testament faced the same situation.  Amos was called by God away from his herds and vineyards to address the breakdown of the covenant between God and the ten tribes of the northern kingdom, Israel.  As soon as he voiced the concerns, he was asked to leave.
And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."  Amos 7:12-13
Likewise with Elijah in 1Kings 17 and 1Kings 19.  Even Jesus was not immune from this rejection:
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.   Luke 4:28-30
As long as there have been communities, there have been covenants.  And as long as there have been covenants, there has been an erosion of those covenants.  It would seem that we humans are not capable of a long term commitment to live by the rules to which we initially agree.  Like my neighbors, the rules become inconvenient to keep let alone enforce.  They become cumbersome and stand in the way of our individual happiness and our self-serving interests.  We fall away from being interested in the well being of the community in favor of our own comfort and convenience. 

This is true at all levels of society, not just in my subdivision.  As a nation, we care less about what is important for the environment and for future generations than what is most advantageous for me now; I want my cheap petroleum products, my gas guzzling SUV, my succulent green lawn in the desert, and my grocery store stocked with factory grown, cheap food stocks.  The wells destroyed by fracking, the CO2 raising the planet’s temperature, the depletion of water resources, and the health of migrant workers who work in chemical laden fields of genetically altered produce (while their families cannot afford to buy any fresh produce) be damned; MY needs must be met.

The root of the word covenant  is from the Latin word convenīre which means “to come together” and “to agree.”  We are a society that does neither.  Witness our congress: they can neither agree nor come together to pass basic legislation that benefits the well being of others.  We are so bound to our self-interest or those who pay us hardily for taking care of theirs, that we do not function any longer as a community.  The “Me” generation attitude has gone viral and spread across the bounds of age. 

And in the meanwhile, the planet is baking, children are starving, people are dying of preventable diseases because they cannot afford basic heath care, the educational system has fallen into major disrepair, people are homeless, prisons have become big business, and people cannot earn a living wage.  We need to come together; we need to care about the communal good. 

But that’s not in my best interest or yours.  Or is it?

26 June, 2013

A Sermon Unspoken

He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”                      Luke 9:3-5 NRSV

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”                            Luke 9:51 ff NRSV

It is the middle of the night. Except for the light from the screen, darkness envelops me.  The words of Luke’s gospel shine from the page and beckon my spirit to engage the Word and Spirit contained within, between, and behind them. 

“I will follow you where ever you go.”  The words of this unnamed companion to Jesus, spoken on the road to Jerusalem and death, echo those of Ruth to Naomi on a road away from the comfort and familiarity of her native land and into the unknown region of her mother-in-law’s home.

These are words not spoken easily in our time.  Relationships are temporary; commitments are fleeting.  “Where ever” is so open-ended and uncertain.  What about my needs and my desires – why commit to the unknown and to that which is out of my control?

Those were my thoughts about ministry some 30-something years ago.  I was struggling to understand whether I was in an accounting degree track for my own purposes or to appease the expectations of others.  The young associate pastor of the Congregational church in town had taken me under her wing.  We’d joined her friend from seminary at a concert at a church in another Boston suburb when she asked me in her off-the-cuff way if I had ever considered going into ministry.  I laughed; and looking them both in the eye I told them that I wanted a job that pays enough to pay the bills and would stay in the office after I’d left for the day. 

I’d seen the incredibly meager salary my small-town pastor was paid.  Even my father – who never finished fourth grade -- made twice what the Congregational church paid the pastor who had a master’s degree.  I’d seen the stress in his thirty-something year old face as he dealt with the strong opinions of the church members; I’d watched him defend the young people’s new ideas and idealistic dreams.  Those crazy church members were mean and nasty when they wanted their way.  I wanted no part of such a thankless job.

It is the middle of the night. Except for the light from the screen, darkness envelops me.  We live and breathe in a time of much darkness.  News of self-serving greed and malice screams from the television, radio, and internet pages.  Politics and society are divided by cold chasms of immeasurable depth.  Ego and greed have replaced grace and faith as the fuel and motivation of actions.  And yet, the Word shines forth from corners; slivers of light mark the path of this journey called life.

He sent his messengers ahead of him into a village of partisan believers.  Because his journey led him toward Jerusalem instead of Shiloh, they turned him away. 

“Be the bigger man,” someone used to tell me.  I didn’t understand how I could be a “man” let alone a “bigger man.”  With time and experience I’ve come to appreciate the phrase despite its gender issues.  Jesus understood the concept; he rebukes the idea that they treat fire with fire and simply moves on.  In Matthew’s Gospel he instructs them with more detail:
As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.     Matthew 10:12-15  NRSV

Shake the dust from your feet as a testimony against them…. this is a strong image that would embarrass the hospitality code of the middle east where a host is expected to welcome the stranger and sooth the tired feet of the traveler.  The metaphor of leaving behind the dust of that inhospitable place is not lost in translation.  Rather than work the divide, rather than expend energy and resources upon those whose faces are set against civility, whose minds are set in their own agendas and egos, take nothing from them and journey on toward the goal.  Leave even their means and methods behind.  Be the bigger man; don’t stoop to the level of those who dwell in darkness.  Leave them to die in their darkness.  Move on toward the light.

It is the middle of the night. Except for the light from the screen, darkness envelops me.  Outside my window, light reflected from the waning moon leaves shadows in the grass and a
neighbor’s cat crouches in the shade of the magnolia tree.  That waning moon, the remains of the super moon of two nights ago, still shines even if less than in its full glory. 

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Turned down by one village, Jesus sends his followers to yet another village in the same foreign land.  Ours is the journey of faith walking upon a road of grace.  There are no guarantees of welcome or rest; but the promise of light in the darkness remains.  Even the reflected light of a waning moon gives light; even in the night the blade of grass is illumined.  The scent of the magnolia cannot be hidden in the night.  The Word shines with grace that gladdens the sojourner even in the middle of the night. 

“Be the bigger man.”  “Shake the dust from your shoes.”  Journey beyond the reign of darkness in the faith that the dark with fade with the morning star.  

12 June, 2013

What's in Your Spiritual Garage?

Our garage is filled with the tangible evidence of our living. There are bookcases, cooking implements, computer software, a lawn mower, various kitchen utensils, lots of canning jars and a canner, ... well, you get the idea. The garage is filling up with the stuff that we've outgrown, out used, or just won't have a place for in either of our future homes. It's stuff we have to get rid of.

Some stuff has already been given or sold to others. A small TV with a DVD player to a church's nursery; a lawn mower to our neighbor; landscaping tools and some plants to yet another neighbor. Things we asked others if they could use because we thought they might and because we cared about what happened to them.

As I weed through the stuff in this house and think about what I really need for the next, I keep finding more stuff I really don't need. Why do I have so many sets of sheets when I only have one bed? Why so many sets of towels? Why so many curtain rods? Where did all these computer and phone cords come from anyway? The more I open boxes and closets, the more stuff that ends up in my garage for the sale. I really don't need most of this stuff. So why did I buy it in the first place? And where has it been hiding all this time?

Some things I take hold of and wonder if I could possibly live without even though they have no practical or monetary value. It's all in the sentimental or memory value. The box of letters my mother wrote to me over the years, the tattered and worn table scarf that was Dan's grandmother's, my mother’s cookbooks; and the dress I wore to my son’s wedding. These collect dust or sit in a box untouched. Some are too fragile to be handled. Their real value is in the memory, the association to a loved one, the emotional connection. I can't bring myself to throw them away. So into a box they'll go and they'll get moved yet again.

Then there are the things I thought I lost that I'm finding. The keys to my desk and firebox. The box of blank DVDs I replaced already. The angel food cake cutter that I bought in a kitchen specialty shop 20 years ago and only used once and lost. Treasures I fretted about losing that now will be sold in the garage sale. Not so valuable after all.

Moving is always a time to "clean house" and "clean out." We don't want so much weight in that moving van because we pay by the pound. This time, we're moving to a much smaller spaces -- two homes in different corners of different states that don't add up the same space we have now in one place. And, eventually (in 24 months), all the stuff we move to both places will have to fit into just one space again – While the parsonage where Dan will live is half again the size of where we live now, we have to move him on our own and will probably have to move him to where I land as well. So, we really must pare down what we own, sort through our stuff and prioritize what is really important to keep and what we throw away, and what we can pass along to others either through this sale or by donating to a charity. We must make choices today that we may regret later -- either because we got rid of something of value or kept something that has no value at the other end of the move.

What would a "spiritual move" do in our lives? What if we intentionally chose to journey from where we so comfortably live now in the faith to a different place -- a new place? What if we explored a different way to express or experience our faith? What would we need to leave behind, or put in our "spiritual garage sale"? What would we pack away into "spiritual storage"? And how much of that would we later unload?

It was a spiritual garage sale that began our journey to this place – ministry amongst a community in Southwest Indiana that we vowed we’d never live in after an interview here in seminary. We had to move to a whole new place spiritually to put ourselves where we could be open and ready to do God's new thing, re-imagine the Church for a new generation of people. We brought with us the necessities and a few things we didn't need. We left behind those things that were no longer useful. We had to find new tools and means once we began the new work. We made a move. We can't go back to where we were. We can only go forward to yet a new place.

As we ready ourselves to begin a new leg of our journey, moving on to other ministries in new places (yet to be determined in my case), we begin again the sorting and the sifting. This journey begins with divergent paths -- two journeys from one and merging again somewhere beyond the present. What will we need for the journeys? What will we take that we find we no longer need? What will we pass on to others who will find it useful?

Our garage is filled with the evidence of our material living. What is the evidence of our Spiritual living? What have we passed along to others? Given away freely? Offered at a price? What's in your Spiritual Garage Sale? 

Blessings, Carly 

29 May, 2013

Baptism Anniversaries

Today is the anniversary of my baptism.  

Normally, I would not even have realized this. But I am re-sorting and packing boxes and noticed the date on the certificate as I removed it from my wall. I scarcely remember the occasion.  Or, should I say I don't remember the first at all and my memory of my second baptism is sketchy.

Two baptisms?  It's a long story.  I'll abbreviate it by saying my home church had no record of my baptism at the time I was in confirmation class.  I was a junior in high school at the time of my confirmation, having missed confirmation with my peers by a series of my own bad decisions.   Confirmation happened on Pentecost.  It also happened to be the morning after the prom. 

I had been on the prom committee, so after all the work of preparing for the prom,  I had been sure to snag a date (captain of the boys' track team)  for the event. The most memorable thing of the evening was that I sat by the pool at the Hilton most of the evening listening to my date talk about his plans to attend Williams College.  With my non-existent cadre of friends, my date and I had gone from the prom to the school-sanctioned after prom party and from there to watch the sun rise from Mt. Greylock. The after prom party was at the Community Center ("the Cow House" as it was popularly known) where there was a swimming pool, a large gym, and a band.  I only remember swimming while my date talked track with other members of the track team.  Having limited experience being up all night, I fell asleep in the car on the way to watch the sunrise.  My date returned me to my home just in time to change and get to church so I could teach Sunday School (3rd grade) and then be confirmed during worship.  

I don't remember much of the worship service that day.  I was more than a little tired.  I remember kneeling on something (a prie-dieu or was it the floor?).  I remember water on my forehead.  I don't remember the sermon that day.  I don't remember the questions asked (pre-UCC Book of Worship days).  I don't remember the congregational assent. 

What I do remember are the Saturday morning classes every other week at either the church or the church with which ours was yoked.  I remember long conversations on car rides to regional and conference-wide youth events and over games of Pinochle on Saturday night about faith as it relates to everyday life.  I remember the solemnity with which he asked me if I was sure I wanted to make the commitment of baptism and confirmation.  

What I do remember is Ruth Margaret Brown.  She was an elderly woman in the congregation who "adopted" me and another girl (Sandy??) who was a year younger than me as her "granddaughters."  She had no children. She and her sister-in-law lived together in a very rustic home about 5 miles from the church.  It was Ruth with whom I sat in worship whenever the choir was not singing.  Ruth invited Sandy and me to her home for dinner about 3 times a year.  And, Ruth wrote to me weekly when I went off to college.  She wrote a poem years before and shared it with me on the occasion of my confirmation.  I found it just last week as I was going through some old boxes as I re-sort and repack to move.

It was a fitting poem for me, the girl with little social grace.  It also fit her to a Tee.  She was as real a person as ever I have met.  Even in her eighty's, she was an authentic New Englander and stoically humble about it.  A person of strong faith.  A person who held my hand through the journey toward a life in the church. 

Much like the prom, I remember the preparation for the event of my baptism.  I have little memory of the event itself. 

A year following my (second) baptism, our beloved pastor resigned to take a new call to a church in Connecticut.  He was re-sorting and repacking items to ready for the move (as pastors know well how to do) when he came across an old box in the parsonage attic.  It was an assortment of old church bulletins from which a previous pastor had intended to record significant data in the church records.  Some had been recorded. Some had not.  Being a historian by nature, the good Rev (as we affectionately call him still) diligently sorted the bulletins and checked to be sure all the data was indeed entered into the church record book.  That's when he noticed it.  On January 29, 1961, four very young children were baptized:   Kenneth C Galeucia, Norman Timothy Sanderson (born the day before me), Stephen R. Peters (a Christmas baby), and me.  The boys' baptisms were noted in the record.  Mine was not.  Rev had baptized me the previous year because there was no record of my baptism.  When he told me of his great find, he joked that all he had really done was wake me up from my post-prom stupor.

What?  My baptism was not a baptism?   It was a redundancy and an error.  You can't "re-baptize;" one can only renew the vows made at the original baptism.  Since that's what I had done with the confirmation vows, the baptism was not a baptism.

I have no memory of that first baptism.  I grew up with those three guys and am quite sure none of them remember theirs either.  Promises were made by their families that they probably didn't remember for very long either.  That baptism was in an era when we became a "Christian" by drinking the water and breathing the air.  It was just supposed to happen.

I was aware of the promises I was making at that second baptism that wasn't really a baptism.  That day was an intentional act of commitment even if I don't remember the actual event.   It is this second baptism that is commemorated by a plaque on my "power wall" -- in a frame that is bigger than any of my diplomas, and larger than my certificate of ordination. It is this baptism, deemed unnecessary and redundant by my pastor, that means the most to me of any of my other "accomplishments."  It is this date that marks me as a follower of the Way of Jesus, a Christian, a person who has covenanted with God to live as a child of God.  

Today is the anniversary of my meaningless and yet so meaningful baptism.  I was reminded of this as I took down the plaque from the wall to pack it in bubble wrap and paper in a box with other framed items so that it can be moved to an as-yet-undisclosed-by-the-Spirit location.  The date on that baptism certificate from so long ago jumped out at me as I prepare for another relocation for ministry in God's church.  

How fitting that today -- as I place (blind) trust in the Spirit for a new call -- is the anniversary of my baptism.