Monday, April 24, 2017

Easter Spirituality

The Church of Jesus Christ is in the season of Easter. That's right, ladies and gentlemen, Easter is a season. It is not just a day. In fact, Easter is a point of view. It is a perspective, a way of life, a spirituality unto itself.

The Spirituality of Easter is all-too-often taken for granted. While it has stood as a hallmark of Spring, an omen that portends the end of the school year, the coming of warmer weather and a return to outdoor living, Easter is actually much more inclusive and encompassing than we have often imagined. Easter is new life. It cannot be had unless it comes from a dying, the closing of a door, moving on from what had been and moving toward that which shall be.

Easter is an opportunity to move toward a healthier version of what it means to be fully human, fully spiritual, fully incarnational.

Let's see if I can articulate this in an understandable manner. Jesus was Crucified. His lifeless body was placed in a borrowed tomb. On the third day following his death, women (or a woman) of the community around Jesus go to the tomb in order to: 1. Be certain that Jesus is really quite sincerely dead instead of being just merely dead; 2. Treat his body with caustic spices that are meant to hasten the decomposition process; 3. Wrap his corpse in linen cloths that, together with the spices, allow the entire process to take place in the length of one calendar year. Shock of all shocks, Jesus' body is not there. The angels declare that he has been raised from the dead. The women share the news and the disciples finally receive affirmation, in a series of post-resurrection appearances.

If this completes our telling of the story, we miss its power, however. Jesus' body is a vessel in which the animating spirit of God dwells, at least as human life was understood in the Middle Platonism of Jesus' day. The corporeal, physical flesh was little more than a vehicle for the animating spirit. It was an opportunity for that which lives to articulate the heavenly virtues in which the spirit existed apart from animating the flesh. The core of Jesus' life was therefore spiritual. It was in the Spirit that Jesus defined himself, understood himself, determined his behavior and shaped his life. It is in and from the Spirit that Jesus ministered and served.

To be fully human in Jesus' understanding meant to be fully spiritual. The point to which Jesus represented that spiritual reality of his humanness set him apart from those who live only in corporeal, physical, carnal reality. To put it bluntly, spiritual reality lives in order to makes the lives of others healthier, happier and more productive while the physical reality seeks to make one's self healthier, happier and more productive.

Easter Spirituality suggests that the new life of Christ is incarnational only insofar as we live as the body of Christ. It matters only insofar as we live spiritually, as empowered, enabled, called and sent ones, who dedicate our lives to the practice of those same heavenly virtues that Jesus so faithfully demonstrated. In this spirituality, we can cease our search for the body of Jesus Christ. In the spirituality of Easter, we are the lost body of Christ. His Spirit dwells in us, each of us and all of us. We represent him when we live in that spirituality.

We can be Easter together, then, in the incarnational reality that Jesus so vitally expressed. We are the body of Christ!  

Monday, April 10, 2017

Not Easter Week!

Contrary to popular opinion, this is not Easter Week! Starting on the first day of the week, Easter Week is next week, Sunday April 16 and following.

This week is Crucifixion Week.

Crucifixion Week begins with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, at what we call Palm/Passion Sunday. It is no Triumphant Entry, however. Jesus arrives at Jerusalem and decides to enter the city in the symbolic form of an alternative king who comes for coronation. This is great news for those who beg at the Temple Gate. The population exists there as a gathering of lepers, the blind, the lame, the deaf, the poor, the Mudblood, the menstruating, the ugly, the broken and the damned. Unable to work, they sit and beg. There is no social safety net for the rejected and excluded masses of Bethany and Bethphage. They see Jesus as new hope, the possibility of social systems that will consider them, attend to their needs, see them and care for them. As Jesus rides past them, as a new king for coronation, these suffering masses applaud, yell, bow down, genuflect. chant and honor the new king who comes to deliver them from their miserable state.

These are tense times. Passover is pending. It starts Friday at sundown. Passover is the ancient recognition and celebration of emancipation from the slave pits of Egypt. It honors liberation from the oppressive power of the Empire. It is dangerous to be Empire in a season of celebration of liberation.

Of course, the Temple had reached accommodation with Rome. As long as Judaism remained a benign family and spiritual religious practice, it would be allowed to exist within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. As long as religious sentiments were held behind closed doors and out of public discourse, then the Temple remained safe. The moment that Judaism became a public display, however, the second it stepped from the realm of personally held beliefs, it became a threat to the Pax Romana.

On Sunday, the Temple authorities heard the stirrings. It threw the ruling classes of the Temple into turmoil. Some would-be prophet from Galilee, named Jesus, had caused a riot at the Gate. He arrived at Jerusalem in full public demonstration, as a new king for coronation, riding on an animal (or two, in Matthew's case) that had never before been ridden. The people at the Gate were all roiled up, chanting that their new king had come to deliver them. No matter what the Temple authority said or did, they could not hide the purely political statements that were inherent in this symbolic Jerusalem entry. The Pax Romana was in danger, and the very existence of the Temple was at stake.

Jesus marches on through the Gate to the Temple. The people of the Gate imagine that they might follow, but doing so would simply be too dangerous, too risky. Perhaps this "Jesus of Nazareth" would work for them, do miracles on their behalf, free them from their malaise, deliver them from their suffering. While they refused to accompany him to the Temple, their hope rode in with him on his pack animal. The Temple authorities were waiting with a less-then-warm-welcome. Jesus had endangered the already tenuous relationship between the Temple and Rome. One can only imagine Jesus, leading the Gate people to the Temple, meeting with a harsh arrival, turning to what he hopes is a throng, only to discover that Jesus stands utterly alone.

Jesus exits Jerusalem. He returns to the Temple on Monday, seeing for himself the economic and social injustice that is connected to the Temple. Jesus throws over the tables on the money changers, who charge a premium for the transfer of currency for the Temple-tax shekel. He sees, too, the many and varied animals that had been brought to the Temple for would-be sacrifices. Jesus knows that those animals would be sold instead, that only one animal would be sacrificed and the rest simply collected as additional revenue. Jesus sets loose the animals from their pens and cages. That is Monday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Jesus returns to the Temple, where he teaches God's will as opposed to Temple injustice. The people of the Gate remain at the Gate, however. The people of the Temple remain at the temple. Nothing changes.

On Thursday, Jesus gathers with his disciples for a traditional Passover celebration. They dine. During the meal, Jesus alters the traditional liturgy with a new act that involved bread and wine. After they eat, Jesus leads his disciples (and others) our to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prays while his closest associates sleep. Finally, after waking them, Jesus is betrayed and arrested. He faces several sham trials, one before the High Priest and another before Proconsul, Pilate. Pilate offers to release Jesus. The Roman bureaucrat even pits his release against a notorious outlaw, named Barabbas. But the crowd wants Jesus' blood. They chant for his crucifixion. They demand his death. Pilate is powerless before them and washes his hands of the affair, saying, "His blood is on your heads."

They taunt Jesus. They beat him. They spit at and on him. They tear his skin with a crown of thorns and flog him repeatedly. The guard is allowed its fun. Finally, they lead Jesus out of the city to Golgatha, a high hill from which all will see those who oppose Roman authority hoisted on crosses. This is the hill upon which Jesus is lifted high on the Cross of Crucifixion. Hour later, thinking that God had abandoned him, seeing in the small crowd not a single one of his followers, Jesus breathes his last. Utterly alone, Jesus dies. The hope of those at the Gate dies with him. The Temple is safe.
The week ends with Jesus dead in a borrowed tomb. He is simply dead.

This is not Easter week! But next week is!  

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Standing with Jesus in Dangerous Times

Jesus approaches Jerusalem. It is the capital of power and authority, the seat of religious tradition and a symbol of institutional compromise with Rome. Yet, Jerusalem stands, opulent and extravagant, amidst the suffering of its own people. Worse, the city stands in cooperation with the forces that have given rise to the suffering. The Temple exists as proof of the collusion. It dare not speak up. It dare not act out. It dare not express its opposition to empirical power, lest it be utterly and eternally destroyed. The Temple must be protected above all, even if it means silence in the face of oppression and injustice.

This fact is especially sentient during Passover. Now, Passover was an ancient recognition of Israel's emancipation from nearly three centuries of Egyptian slavery. You know the story. Moses, the one-time pretender to the throne of Egypt, had been found guilty of murdering an Egyptian guard who was abusing a Hebrew slave. Moses' unintentional subterfuge was revealed. Before he was sentenced to flogging or death, Moses escaped to the land of Midian, where he married into the High Priest's family. There he became heir to the high priesthood of Midian, following his father-in-law, Jethro. One day, Moses saw, on the side of the great mountain, a bush that was afire but not consumed. He went up on the mountain and was directed, by a cloud-voice, to return to Egypt and emancipate the Hebrew slaves. Moses went. After a series of plagues, the spirit of death killed all the first-born of Egypt, including the son of Pharaoh. The Hebrews were spared only by painting their doorposts withe the blood of a lamb. The spirit of death "passed over" them.

From the time the Hebrews settled in the "Promised Land," to the time when they returned to the land from Babylonian exile, Passover remained the core celebration. Within the celebration, Jews recognize the bitterness of their slavery, the oppression of the Egyptians, the emancipating power of God's outstretched arm, and the responsibility to which God's benevolence called them in the land.

In the time of Jesus, Jerusalem stood in allegiance with the forces of oppression, violence and fear. Jerusalem stood with Rome. In fact, many of the policies and practices of Judaism were, at worst, amended and, at best, accentuated, in order to fit the Roman agenda. While the Pharisees and Sadducees protected the Temple system in compromise with the Romans, the Zealots and Essenes separated themselves from the collusion of the Temple.

Jesus was likely an Essene who followed his mentor and Rabbi, John, who we know as "the Baptist." Jesus stood against the Temple authority. A year earlier, John  had been arrested and martyred. Jesus had taken over the mantle of leadership and was distinguishing himself as "The One."

It was Passover. Jesus returned to Jerusalem from Galilee, where he had created a movement of his own, based on inclusion, the Spirit of God and the potential in each person to represent God's power on Earth. He was going there to state his case, to argue his point, to speak up for those who had been victimized by the Roman way of life, and to work the kind of emancipation that Moses had accomplished centuries earlier.That the Temple had become the enemy of God's people was meaningful for Jesus. After a "triumphant" entry, he went there. The town was abuzz, in turmoil, the Gospel of Matthew reads, because Jesus entered in the symbolic manner of an ancient king on the day of coronation. (He also entered miraculously in Matthews account, on two animals.) He went to the Temple and found exactly the kind of economic and spiritual corruption that he anticipated. Jesus reacted violently, clearly challenging the Temple authorities.

It is perhaps ironic, during Passover, that an attack on the Temple authorities is also seen as an attack on Rome. The Temple authorities react. They get Rome to react. Jesus ends up dead, on the Cross of social revolution and political dissidence, as the sun sets to begin the recognition of Passover.

Who stands today for those who are victimized by the systems under which we live? Who will march on our Jerusalems? Who will speak up? Who will act out? Who will dare to put themselves at risk? Who will place themselves, with Jesus, on the Cross? Or will we simply remain silent, abandoning him, like his own disciples, waiting for some divine miracle to deliver the oppressed? This is a dangerous age, my friends. These are challenging times. Let's stop concerning ourselves with the unpopularity of the church in our culture and act for those who are rejected and excluded by it. You know, following Jesus.    

Monday, March 27, 2017

On the Backswing

I golf. But I cup my left wrist on my backswing. I am also prone to the dreaded flying elbow. As a result, I often hit my drives offline. Why do they plant trees just where my ball in prone to go, anyway?

The backswing determines, in oh so many ways, where the ball will go. Even while the muscles and the brain cooperate to try to correct its path, the backswing, and the grip, the stance and the ability to keeps one's head down, determine the quality of the resulting swing.

This posting is not about golf, however. It is more about a Hegelian synthesis, and what it means to see the pendulum of cultural evolution swing so far in the reverse of its ultimate and inevitable course. I just thought it was more interesting to tie the concept to golf than to an arcane philosophical model.

Let me illustrate. In a Hegelian synthesis, inevitable progress is made when the pendulum of cultural evolution swings far into uncharted and unfamiliar territory. There is always a popular response that causes the pendulum to swing far in the opposite direction, often leading to repressive and regressive policies, actions and tendencies. Over time, the pendulum of cultural evolution comes to some kind of synthesis. While that synthesis represents neither end of the pendulum's swing, while it reaches neither extreme, the compromise situation that it reached moves the culture onward and forward.

We can say, to some degree of certainty, that the cultural evolution in which we find ourselves is expressed in the pendulum swing toward otherwise radical inclusion, acceptance of diversity and the unity of all persons. The pendulum has swung far from the comfortable and familiar confines of past traditions, values, understandings and assumptions. This swing has caused some, if not most, to respond in fear and anger, focusing on the stasis that is lost therein instead of looking to what progress lay ahead. That segment of the population has attempted, at least somewhat successfully, to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, back toward sectarianism, segregation, white male hegemony, privilege and power. The pendulum had swung so far in the first fifty years of cultural evolution that it has caused a regressive and repressive response.

This is no surprise. It is unfortunate, however, mainly because it has been accompanied by a violent inhumanity, a narrow mindedness, a name-calling, exclusionary partisanship that tears at the fabric of who we are as a people and a culture. Terror attacks have become the norm. Violence against other human beings is commonplace. Abridged human rights are justified by the need for safety and security in a fearful and dangerous age. Life is being devalued in the pendulum backswing.

Here is the good news. Despite the desperate attempts to reformulate culture in repressive and regressive ways, cultural evolution is inevitable. It will no longer support divisiveness, segregation or undo privilege. Culture marches on toward its ultimate constitution. We can be confident that the utlimate constitution of culture reflects acceptance of diverse persons, positions, identities, life-styles, backgrounds, races, genders, etc. The list is all-inclusive and unfolding.

Here is the cautionary tale, though. Just as the backswing in golf determines where the drive sends the ball, so the pendulum swing against the tide of cultural evolution determines how healthy and whole we will be in the synthesis. How much damage will we have to suffer? How many lives will be lost? How much violence will be relied upon in the name of social order? How far will we devalue human life or trample on human rights?

It is enough! It is time to find the cultural synthesis. To do so will take work and compromise from those at either end of the extreme pendulum swings. The vast majority of those between the extremes must demand that the conversation lead to solutions instead of continued divisiveness, violence, name-calling and devaluation. The entire course of human culture depends upon it...upon us.    

Monday, March 20, 2017

Dig for Us!

Leadership in a volunteer agency, like the church, can be risky business. Let's be honest. People do not have to come to churches. They do not have to join, and they certainly do not have to be active or vital participants. Those who do so choose to do so.

In a best-case scenario, people would join Christian churches in order to respond to a spiritual call to action. They would be there to learn, to be inspired and to figure out how to use the gifts that God has given them in service to the whole human family. In that case we could move, as the new SONKA Ministry Council theological foundation states: Toward being actors in the process of shaping communities of justice and peace. This is to say that the aim of our local churches, and of the Association, is to nurture and support the spiritual calling of their men, women and children as incarnational forces that affect community development and provide community service. Pastors are called to guide the flock into greater faithfulness to this vision.

All too often, however, leadership in our churches falls more prominently into the category of meeting member needs and struggling against member expectations, opinions and traditions. In order to attract members, and to please those who have remained from past generations, the church often falls into the trap of serving itself. When churches fall into the pit of populist movements and member service, they move away from the spiritual calling of the men, women and children to whom spiritual care is assumed.

Moses guided God's people from the slave pits of Egypt, freeing them from their centuries-long bondage. He led them across the Negev Desert, to the south southeast, toward Sinai, from whence Moses had been sent. Along the way, the people encountered hunger. They called upon Moses to feed them. They encountered blistering sun. They called upon Moses to provide shelter. They encountered great thirst. They called upon Moses for water. "Feed us." "Give us shelter." "Give us water to drink."

Where was Moses supposed to get food, water and shelter? He had no supernatural powers to conjure from the arid air food, shelter or water. The only way that Moses could have made water in the middle of the desert was to dig for the people a very, very deep well. Would they have been satisfied had Moses dug from them? Yet, each time the former slaves threatened Moses' bodily safety, each time they challenged his calling, every time they doubted his leadership, Moses turned to the Lord for direction. And, each time, God provided. There was quail. There was manna. There was the rock at Horeb, from which water flowed freely before God's people.

Moses never lost sight of the destination, however. While the immediate needs of God's people were tangent to that trek, Moses persisted. While the people did not know, could not understand, refused to imagine the destination of their journey, Moses knew where he was going, where he was leading, and he was confident that the people would end up where God intended.

How are pastors to lead in churches that are filled with real persons, with real needs, real desires, real doubts and authentic understanding and misunderstandings? Perhaps Moses would serve as model. He did not dig for them. He did not plunge the depths of their spiritual calling. He simply led them toward the destination, relying on God to meet their needs along the way. Moses did not become fixated upon the tangents, but maintained focus, knowing where he was leading and trusting the possibility of fulfillment.

Today, like then, people want the pastor to dig for them, to solve their problems, to resolve their issues, to make sacrifice easier, to take the sting from vocation, to promise them some great reward in return for their faithfulness. Fortunately,however, the eyes of the leaders remain on the ball. We have only this: Toward being actors in the process of shaping communities of justice and peace.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Bridging the Divide

I ran into a member of Shiloh Church yesterday as I was getting gas in Englewood. This person was coming out of the store as I was going in. Admittedly, I was irritated that I had to go into the store. There was no paper in the gas pump from which I had pumped a full tank. Really?! Why don't one of the four people workers who were milling about the store at the time come out and change the paper in the pump instead of making me bear the inconvenience of having to go in to retrieve the print out?

Whatever the case, I was not a happy camper. As we passed I said hello, of course. Then I added that we had missed the family yesterday (this was on Monday following Shiloh's Black History Celebration service). The person exchanged my greeting and told me that they had planned to stay home. I asked why. I probably should not have asked why. But I did. The person explained that it was very difficult to get everyone around on the Sunday that the time changes (it was also the beginning of Daylight Savings Time). Besides, the person continued, it was that Black History service. We aren't Black and we don't like the long service (it usually runs about 90 minutes, as it had that Sunday).

It is true that the person that I engaged in this case was Caucasian. The whole family was white, as a matter of fact. Then I said something else that I probably would not have said if I had not had to run into the store in order to get the receipt that should have been produced by the pump at which I had pumped a full tank of gas. I said that one of the problems of racial divide in our community is that we won't go out of our way to share histories, to share experiences, to share stories. We still practice segregation of experience and that leads to bias and forms prejudice.

The person frowned and added that the person thought that, "If we have to suffer through that, at least you could do it in February, which is designated 'Black History Month.'"

Uh oh. I asked, "If we held the service in February, on a Sunday when Daylight Savings Time was not scheduled to begin, would your family then come?" The person said that the family would likely still not come. I told the person that it was sad that such was the case. Worse, it is exactly that kind of unwillingness that gives life to discrimination, prejudice and racial bias.

How are we supposed to span the divide if we refuse to work at doing so? How can we imagine the unity out of which we live if we never learn, never hear, never see anything other than what the media, or bigotry, tells us?

I find it sad in the extreme that persons are not willing to sacrifice a few additional minutes, a bit of their precious attention, even a scant bit of energy and enthusiasm to bridging the racial divide that plagues us. It lends credibility to what was stated at the book review that followed our community luncheon. A woman from the community attended and said that, "There is something wrong in white communities that refuse to work at ensuring that we are all one genetic family..." Some people were struck by the idea. Some were offended. I was troubled too, until I engaged yesterday a member of Shiloh Church at the Speedway in Englewood. The words rang in my mind.

Yes, ma'am, I agree. There is something wrong in communities that will not work at bridging the racial divide...or any other divide for that matter. The Church of Jesus Christ is called and equipped to represent his mission and ministry. He died for all people. He healed broken relationships. He went out of his way for people who were different from him and his. We can do so much much better!

By the way, I print this with permission of the person that I engaged in conversation, as long as I do not mention the person's name. It doesn't matter who it is anyway, as the lesson applies to all and each of us.  

Monday, February 27, 2017

Dribbling Footballs

The liturgical season of Lent is, perhaps, the most ancient and storied of the liturgical seasons. It likely began as early as the late first century, when Lent was added as a season of preparation and instruction, prior to new adherents to the faith being welcomed at Easter. Most of those who were joining at that time were of Jewish background and faith, though there were certainly some Gentile proselytes as well. Either way, these new initiates required considerable instruction that was neither Judaic nor Roman.

I appreciate these roots from which the season of Lent has sprung. In fact, I hope that we can return to something akin to the original purpose of the season. This is not in order to gain new initiates to the faith. No. Instead, it is because each of us benefits from refresher courses, a concentration on the basics, and a way for us to keep an eye on the ball of Lenten practice. It can be a whole new understanding of March Madness.

Attempts to focus on the basics of the Christian faith are especially important in an age when the Church of Jesus Christ is in transition. The Church of Jesus Christ is evolving from  understandings and practice of the faith that belongs to previous cultural, social and religious eras, to ones that lead us headlong into new articulations of the faith's core values and faithful practices. These new understandings and articulations are actually more of a reprise, or recovery, of ancient understandings and practices. The evolutionary step leads us back to a time before institutionalized Jesus and orthodox Christ. In that brief age, those who followed in the "way of Christ" understood themselves as Christ's incarnation, as his representatives, as his embodiment in the world. Before 90 c.e., and maybe even before 70, followers of Christ Jesus saw themselves as a community called to do what he did, to sacrifice themselves for the sake of social, religious and cultural justice. They did less believing and more doing. They listened to fewer sermons than they performed. They were active participants in the ministry and mission of Jesus Christ.

In our current cultural, social and religious evolution, we are moving toward this pre-institutional age of Christian witness and action. We are moving away from doctrine and orthodoxy, away from exclusionary and judgmental policies and procedures, toward inclusion, empowerment, call and acceptance. No matter how desperately some factions of Church and politics try to pull the culture backward, away from this pre-institutional age of Christian witness, the culture will evolve. It will move forward. It will be deterred only momentarily on its inevitable course toward full realization.

I have told the story many times. A coach, on the first day of college basketball practice, has the team simply dribble for three hours. The team members dribbled with their right hands, then their lefts. They dribbled behind their backs and between their legs. They dribbled in straight lines and around pylons. They worked on body positions and hand positions. They dribbled with someone in front of them, behind them and all around them. All morning, the team just dribbled. And this was college! Finally, the coach sat the team in the bleachers and asked them why, did they think, they just spent three hours dribbling. After a few snarky comments, the coach told the team that they spent all this time on dribbling because ball handling was the basic activity of the game and, if they controlled the ball, then they controlled the game.

The allegory works until one realizes that, given the evolutionary strides into which the Church of Jesus Christ is being called, we are trying to dribble footballs. It is time to rethink the game, my friends, because we are playing with an entirely new set of rules. Let's use the season of Lent to focus on some of the new fundamentals.