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 more...so 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.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Coexistence at Laodicea

Anyone who knows me, has ever taken a class from me, whether at Shiloh Church, University of Dayton's Life-Long Learning Institute, or through Shiloh's Bible @ Boston's program, likely knows that I have a life-long affinity for archeology. If you know me well, you likely know that my favorite publication is the Biblical Archaeology Review, edited by Hershel Shanks. You also likely know that I firmly believe that the revelations of ancient times can help us better understand the world we live in today.

A point in that case is timely and important, I think. In the most recent issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Mark R. Fairchild offered a meaningful and exciting article, entitled, "Laodicea's 'Lukewarm' Legacy: Conflicts of Prosperity in an Ancient Christian City". In the article, Fairchild makes clear that Laodicea's history, while something of a remaining mystery, is an indication that, at least at times in the city's history, Christians and Jews shared space and, perhaps, time. The implications are drawn from relics that have been discovered during excavations of ancient Laodicea. Most telling of those discoveries is an ancient column, now broken, that depicts four symbols. Those symbols were a Jewish shofar, or ram's horn, a menorah, and an olive branch, which can be representative of both Judaism and Christianity. The fourth etching was a large Christian cross. The Jewish symbols were carved before the Christian images, but the Christian images were added to, instead of covering over, the Jewish ones.

The fact that both Jewsih and Christian symbols appeared together on ancient finds is important. The author suggests that the presence of both religions' symbols means that those faiths likely took place in the community side-by-side, likely in the same spaces and perhaps even at the same time. This suggestion reflects something that we have long suspected of the early pre-Christian and Christian periods. We have suspected that the Christian movement grew out of the Jewish synagogue and, at least for a time, lived fairly amicably side-by-side. The important point of the carvings is that neither symbol or faith is demonstrated at superior to the other. The presence of the unified symbols shows that they were contemporarily respected and honored images.

Which brings me to the age in which we live. We heard, just yesterday, of the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Missouri, where hundreds of tomb stones were thrown over, displaced and broken. At this time, before the video cameras are investigated, there is no suspect and no claim of responsibility.

I suspect that the accommodation of developing Christianity in the synagogues of ancient Judaism likely lasted until the institutionalization period of Christian development, beginning after 70 c.e. The separation picked up steam, of course, at the Council of Jamnia, in 90 c.e., when the Hebrew canon list was further established by the exclusion of "Christian" elements. This event signaled an institutional break between the two faiths.

Since then, there has been varying degrees of open conflict, sometimes subtle anti-semitism, outright violence, mistrust and competition that is meant to prove that one side or the other is more faithful as God's favorite. If the carvings at Laodicea teach us anything it is that Christians and Jews can live, worship and thrive alongside one another. We can live in unity, sharing time and space in such a way that both faiths, and all of the human race, benefit. We can, if we will, return to a state of honoring each other's sacred symbols, holy places and important images. There is no room in that relationship, and it is of no benefit to humankind, to desecrate graves, destroy images, or harm people.

Learn the lessons of the past, my friends, and coexist. It is of benefit to all people!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sermon on the Mount Applied

Jesus stood above his followers on a small rise in the terrain, in order that he could be seen and heard, and taught them the most radical of things. He challenged them to think through for themselves just how to live out the ethical archetype that he promoted, that which we will come to call the "Christ Ethic." Much of what Jesus said flew directly in the face of traditions in which the majority of his followers were raised. How dare he speak it? And how dare they listen? More importantly, how dare they undo centuries of tradition and follow him?

The "Sermon on the Mount" is earth-shattering and foundation-shaking. It is completely and utterly "other." It is nothing that anyone of Jesus' time would have been used to. It questions the authority of scripture and the trust that humanity had placed in the traditional teachings of God's law. It says, basically, "Do not rely on what you have been taught. It may not be the most faithful response to following God's will. Instead, do this..." The Sermon on the Mount marks a shift in perspective without which Jesus ministry cannot be understood or embraced.

The Sermon on the Mount remains, even today, a radical statement of the faith that follows Jesus, his actions and his teachings. Who can think of the actual teachings and practices of Jesus without hearing and experiencing "love your enemies," "you have heard that it was written, but I say unto you..." and "when you speak evil against another, you do the other damage?"

If Facebook posts are any indication, otherwise good Christian men, women and children have completely missed the point of a key teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. Many have missed the cornerstone of Jesus' teachings. Folks, it is not okay for people to label others, refer to them by some critical epithet, and dismiss them as not worthy of our time, attention, or effort. To call names and insult is simply to dismiss, to estrange, to reject. The cornerstone of Jesus' teachings and actions is inclusion of those who are different, who believe and behave differently, who have been rejected and excluded.

It is not okay to post on Facebook, or to state in any other forum, something that dismissed certain parts of the population . It is not faithful to Christ Jesus to do so. I do not care what you read in the polemical press. I do not care that you have an opinion about politics or economies or social values. To call names and insult is not acceptable. To exclude, dismiss and reject is in no way in line with Christian values.

I therefore urge those who read The Shiloh Insider to refrain from posting things that insult, dismiss or reject others. Refuse to use language, or to take stances, that do others damage. Carefully consider the teachings and actions of Jesus Christ. Choose to refuse the bandwagon of lack of civility. Respect instead. Honor instead. Care instead. Even when you vehemently disagree, if what you are tempted to say diminishes another, choose to say nothing. When you speak and act on behalf of those who have been victimized, those who have been oppressed, excluded, rejected or dismissed, remember, please, to use language and take actions that do not damage, dismiss, reject or exclude others.

Think through what you do and say. Apply the Christ archetypical ethic in very practical ways to how you treat others.  

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

News

Can you remember with me when news was news? Do you recall when we believed at the end of a Walter Cronkite evening news report when he would habitually say, "And that's the way it was..." My favorite news tag line, by the way, was Linda Ellerbee saying, "And so it goes..."

Perhaps news was as polemical then as it is now. Maybe network were just as concerned with ratings, popularity, and the celebrity of its anchors. Maybe those were just more innocent times, when we believed what we were told and trusted the reporting as an ethical and honest depicting of what actually happened.

Something has happened to news and its sources. Somewhere along the line, the sensationalism of a story, or the opportunity to attack certain values, opinions or world-views has replaced factual recitation of the day's events. Perhaps there is simply too much news. In the competitive market, the more polemically a tale can be told, the more it appeals to this faction or that. Advertisers are so sophisticated that ads for items are placed within polemical environments, targeted audiences and demographic categories. News has become factionalized. It is compartmentalized, targeted, sectarian.

I noticed it first, of course, with news sources that disagreed with my own opinions and values. "They" were slanting their news toward a certain perspective. It was later that I began to realize that the news sources upon whom I relied for information were doing the same thing. "We" were doing exactly what I accused "them" of doing. Once able to make that admission, I could face honestly the nature of contemporary entertainment newstelling.

How does one get at the truth of anything in such a slanted news environment? It is not easy. It is not comfortable. It may, at times, not even be possible. But here are a few simple guidelines that I follow:

Trust No One: Do not follow a particular telling of the news as if its content and context were the absolute truth of the thing itself. No telling of the news takes place in a vacuum. Everything you read, hear or watch is slanted in some subtle way or another. (Like scripture, all news is contextual.)

Read, Watch, Learn Widely:  Because no single source is to be trusted with the truth of any single thing, turn to multiple sources, including those with whom you disagree. Read incessantly and watch reports from varied outlets. Become cosmopolitan in your newsgathering. (Like scripture, there is no single truth.)

Get Near Originals: Get as close as you can to original reporting. Almost every news outlet sites sources for their stories. Go back to those sources, if you are able, to see what was originally said. Many times, the slant placed on the news lies in the difference between what was originally reported, and that said about the original story. (Like scripture, news is filtered.)

Keep an Open Mind: Do not decide too quickly what a particular news item means. Take the time and make the effort to analyze for yourself the impact of any story, fact or occurrence. Think creatively and honestly about what you hear or see. Do not allow any news source to do the analysis for you. (Like scripture, news can constantly surprise us.)

Adopt a Wide Scope of Interest: News reporting relies increasingly on narrow viewpoints and make up minds. The telling caters to what sources believe people want to hear and see. Break out of that categorization to a wider worldview. Refuse to be pigeon-holed. Demand more eclectic information. As always, those who want to make certain people happy will tell them what they want to hear and show them what they want to see. Do not fall for it. (Like scripture, a wider worldview informs instead of challenges.)

Finally, embrace an ethical standard through which you determine whether or not a certain news story is of value, of what value, and what to do, think or say about it. Mine is the ethical archetype that is established in the life, ministry, Crucifixion/Resurrection of Christ Jesus. I run everything through the sieve of the standard of sacrifice for others and the universal benefit of life lived according to that ethical archetype. This is my tool for analyzing news and its reporting. You do not have to embrace it or adopt it. You are free to establish your own. I just find this one a faithful response to my calling and my understanding of being Christian.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Evolutionary Braking System

See if this resonates with anybody.

Students of history, of whatever discipline, have discerned a pattern of major cultural shifts that have taken place in human history roughly every 500 years. The shifts have been so meaningful in character that they have resulted, through time, in axiomatic shifts within every human discipline. There has been no corner of human endeavor unaffected by the cultural evolutionary process. The evolutionary process has been undeniable and inevitable, despite the best efforts of those who would rather it not be the case.

If we are correct in assessing those major cultural shifts, the last took place in the 15th and 16th centuries and is characterized in the religious realm by the Great Reformation. Now, 500 years later, we find ourselves in a similarly discernible phase of cultural evolution. The difference lies in our ability to recognize the cultural shift for what it is. One would think that we would cope with it far better than have past generations. But, no.

Each of these 500-year phases in cultural evolution has been characterized by a rough transitional period, lasting some 100 years, which we may understand as a battle between the old and the new cultural identities. Therefore, the age of tension in which we find ourselves these days is nothing new. It has happened every 500 years. If we are correct that the transitional phases take about a century, there is both good and bad news. The bad news is that we are only about halfway through that transitional phase. The good news is that we are halfway through that transitional phase.

There will be a Hegelian synthesis formed, as a modulation between the two extremes of what the culture had been and what it is becoming. That synthesis takes place as both extremes express themselves, often as reducto ad absurdum, and we see that neither is practical or practicable. To state the case more concretely, it is likely that the culture is moving in paths of unity, acceptance of diversity, tolerance and a continual blurring of cultural, racial, economic, gender, and political boundaries. Divisiveness is disappearing. Segregation is diminishing. Separation of kinds, types, clans and ilks is becoming antiquated, both as notion and practice. There will be forces that seek to articulate the divisiveness, segregationist, protectionist, fearful stance of previous cultural articulations. They will be powerful forces that seek to pull us back from the brink of cultural evolution. There will also be powerful forces that work for unity, peace, justice for all persons, equality and tolerance. Our culture will tend to shift from one cultural footing to the other, until we reach some synthesis of the two opposing positions.

The pendulum of cultural expression is swinging. American culture has just said that it fears the direction, and the pace, at which we are moving toward the inevitable cultural evolution. We pulled back. No judgment here, of course. Serious students of history would have expected just such a cultural response. It is natural and rational. It is doomed to failure, however. No statement of cultural opposition, whether religious, political, economic, social or military, can keep culture from evolving. It will move on. As certainly as we will see cultural opposition, we will certainly see cultural progress. While those who would put on the brakes of cultural evolution may do significant damage, do not fear, culture will evolve. In the meantime, perhaps we can work for those who are harmed by the pendulum swing.