upper room daily devotions

Sunday, September 30, 2007

church shelf-life

I've been wondering lately how long a congregation can sustain itself. I mean, when Paul went out there planting churches and growing Christian communities, was he expecting those communities to exist continuously and in tact for all time? Well, maybe Paul did... But I've been reading quite a bit about congregational health, church planting, church growth, and leadership and what I don't see written about is a congregation's shelf-life. Is it reasonable to expect churches to endure 100, 150, 200 years with health and vitality? When did we fall into the pattern of establishing a church expecting it to endure ad infinitum? Or is it possible - across all of our denominations - to adjust our thinking in such a way that we don't bemoan the loss of some local congregations? Could we instead celebrate the power of their witness and rejoice that they've nurtured many individuals over time and also allow these congregations to die with dignity and even... joy?

I'm sure there are congregations out there that are celebrating their 150th anniversary and maybe even their 200th anniversary, but is this a goal to which we should all aspire? Is perpetuity our goal or is faithfulness - even faithfulness of 20, 30, 40 years? Why do all congregations have to last forever? Perhaps they don't.

What does this musing have to do with progressive Christianity? Nothing specific perhaps, but it does have to do with faithfulness, which is fundamental to any real and authentic Christianity. I wonder if we spend too much energy in pursuits that lead us away from faithfulness, from vitality, from lavish grace and prophetic wisdom.

Now, I am not suggesting that we abandon struggling or hurting congregations. Not at all. Congregations - all congregations - deserve to be honored, celebrated, and recognized in a way that best suits them and their true goals. All congregations deserve care and faithful leadership. I am not even suggesting that this "wonder" about end points for congregational life is an "ought." I just wonder...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

humans and our violence exact effects on other creation

Another report has come from the Democratic Republic of Congo about a poached gorilla infant. The animal was poached when park rangers had to flee their work due to escalating violence in the North Kivu province. Poachers hoped for a return of $8,000 for the dead gorilla.

The violence of humans extends far beyond human casualties. As a Christian, I believe that my witness to life and grace includes non-human creation. When I read Genesis, I am less concerned with "original sin" than I am with how our continued sin destroys the creation made by God and upon which God looked and declared "good."

I wonder how we might live in the world if we saw it - in its entirety - as the Garden of Eden, that place where we have been set by God to live in harmony with all of creation. We have a sacred duty, I firmy believe, to be fierce protectors of all of creation. As a result, we have to make difficult choices to step away from lives and actions that exact violence upon God's good earth and precious, precious animals.

It's getting bad out there, folks. What are we prepared to do about it? Once we're expelled from this garden, there's no where left to go.

For more on the poached gorilla, read here:

Congo Park Rangers Find Dead Gorilla
By TODD PITMAN, Associated Press Writer
Tue Sep 25, 5:38 PM

DAKAR, Senegal - Park rangers in Congo found a dead mountain gorilla after a raid on a suspected ring of gorilla traffickers in which authorities detained two people, conservationists said Tuesday. (More)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

how the news reports on episcopalians

According to the BBC, the Episcopal Church has agreed to halt the ordination of GLBT persons in order to head off a schism in the 77 million member Anglican communion. Yet the New York Times is reporting that the US bishops have done no more than to affirm stances already taken while demanding that foreign bishops (mainly African) cease their ordination of US clergy to serve breakaway churches within the US.

I find it fascinating how two news organizations can take the same experience and interpret it so differently - in opposite ways, actually.

I have been in prayer for the Anglican communion as a whole, but I especially pray for the Episcopal Church and the pressure that it is experiencing. I hope a schism isn't coming, but I hope more strongly that the US church stands as a witness faithful to the gospel as they have prayerfully and earnestly understood it.

Update: The Boston Globe contributes yet another voice with another perspective. It found a more moderate approach to the story.

Monday, September 24, 2007

praying the hours with thomas merton

Lately I've listened as a number of people talk about the difficult time they have living with joy in their lives. The reasons for this difficulty are numerous and differ from person to person, but what seems to be a constant among them is the shear volume of bad news - even apocalyptic news - with which these people feel inundated every day. As I've reflected on these conversations and prayed for these people, I thought that it might be true that other people whom I've never met may also be feeling depressed, disempowered, and overwhelmed. I don't believe that there is an easy solution for our emotional responses to the overwhelming issues of our day. I don't believe in a religion that proffers simplicity. However, I do believe that Christianity is at its best a transformational religion that helps us not only to make it through difficult times, but to exact change upon our times. The first step along this pathway of empowerment, you may not be surprised to hear me say, is living a centered life circumscribed by prayer.

Many Christians claim to pray daily, although most Christians I've counseled struggle with the function and purpose of prayer. People, in their honest and vulnerable moments, admit that they don't know how to pray because they don't know why they pray. The people who share with me this spiritual road block don't believe that God is there at our beck and call; God isn't there just to make us feel better and fix our problems, so what are we hoping to accomplish in prayer. They wonder if all those Christians who claim daily prayer are honest, and, if so, why can't they?

I think we've made prayer too complicated and too simplistic at the same time. Because Protestants pride themselves on extemporaneous prayer, many people get caught up in distressing thoughts about their poetic ability, their creativity, and their theology. Concurrently, we tend to reduce prayer to a list of "give-me" items that we hand to God. Prayer is much easier than this. Prayer is much different from this. Prayer is set apart time for communing with the Divine. During this time, we may lash out, weep, speak casually, listen, or use no words at all. One way to remove our trepidations with crafting prayers is to return to the use of others' words. This way of praying, after all, is how most of Christianity has prayed for 2,000 years. Extemporaneous prayer didn't begin its ascent to prominence, even among Protestants, until the mid to late nineteenth century. It's okay to use the words of others; it doesn't make your prayer any less authentic or any less your own. Using the words of others can free you to rest inside the prayer, free from worrying about the next word and next thought.

One way to sink deeper into prayer is to pray the hours. It's an ancient way of prayer that requires diligence and commitment. When we pray the hours, we not only pray daily, we pray multiple times daily. There are a number of online resources that can introduce you to praying the hours, but one book that I would like to lift up is "A Book of Hours" by twentieth century contemplative Thomas Merton. The prologue includes instructions on how to pray the hours and the book is inviting and welcoming of those for whom this may be their first trip down the road of praying with regularity.

Praying the hours doesn't present God with a laundry list of items. Praying the hours is an invitation into a life lived in communion with God. This act of centering our lives is one way of opening ourselves to both the pain of the world and the joy of life. Both are all around us. Finding balance between them is part of the art of spirituality. It is only after we find a balance in life that we have the ability to move into the world as agents of God's transforming grace and love.

If you pray the hours or give it a try, I'd love to hear your feedback.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

news from the democratic republic of congo

The BBC is reporting that a truce has been negotiated between rebels loyal to renegade General Nkunda and UN peacekeeping forces. The truce has taken place in Sake, which lies on the road to the capital of the Kivu province Goma, which is on the eastern boarder shared with Rwanda. People have been streaming out of Sake in attempts to walk the 30km to Goma. This region has been the locus of the heaviest fighting in the DR Congo, and is informed heavily by the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis. General Nkunda explains his presence as a protective force for the Congolese Tutsis, and there is some fear that as the rebels recede into the hills that Rwandan Hutus may follow.

Just over a week ago I arrived home from the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, I spent time in the province of Katanga - the most stable and economically prosperous area of the country and far to the south of the violence in North Kivu. I asked the people there if they feared a return to armed conflict. They seemed to think that the violence of the eastern portion of the country would not reach down into the southern part of Katanga. However, it is clear that the war is not far from people's minds. I heard it referred to mostly as "the time of crisis."

The United Methodist Church is alive and vibrant in Katanga Province, but it is not able to flourish beyond those boundaries because of instability and violence in the north and east. The church's presence in the south is a vital presence providing food for street children, homes for orphans, food for displaced persons, refugee aid, scholarships for post-secondary education, training and equipment for farming, training and equipment for various women's/girls' trades (sewing primarily), and of course churches for worship. The Democratic Republic of Congo is on my mind and I ask you to pray for that country - its people, its nonhuman animals, and its natural environment suffering from the effects of war and ill use of land. We as the church may not be able to move into the places hardest affected by war and violence at this time, but we can be present through our prayers.

For what UMCOR is doing in the Democratic Republic, click here.
For the BBC's full article, go here.

Here are just a few pictures from my trip to Lubumbashi and Kolwezi, both cities in Katanga. If you would like to use any of the pictures, please contact me.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

canon or collection?

I am preparing for Rally Day this Sunday, so what else do I have to do but write in my blog? In my preparation, though, I've been reading a number of books and reviewing several curricula for Sunday School that have me thinking about the difference between understanding the Bible as the "canon" or as a "collection." When it comes right down to it, I must admit that I read the Bible as a collection of works about God's revelation throughout Judeo-Christian history; I don't approach the Bible as a closed revelation. That makes a big difference in my life as a Christian and as a person of faith.

By definition, a canon is a closed unit. When we discuss the canonical works of an author, we are referring to the universe and its inhabitants as imagined and written by that author. That means that articles about those works, fiction by others placed in that universe, or other imaginings do not count as canon. Canon can also refer to a formula used in science; this is a rule followed the same way each time. Canon is actually Greek for rule, normative, standard, or measure. Canon, whether it's in literature or science, refers to a closed circuit of understanding. The same thing is true in a religious canon.

For Christians, the canon of scripture comprises the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament. Further discoveries of manuscripts do not lead to a expansion of the Bible. Likewise, discoveries that certain "books" in the Bible are not authentic to their purported authors do not result in the omission of them from the canon. The canon presents all 66 books as the final written revelation of God. Many people - most people, I would suggest - believe that the Bible is not only closed, but, like so many other canons, it presents a unified world. The Bible can be read as a whole - one long and coherent story.

This is not how I read the Bible, however. The Bible offers glimpses of how faithful people over time have understood God at work in their lives, and how they have hoped for God to be at work in their lives. It is not a unified story, but a collection of stories spanning hundreds of years of authorship and, perhaps, thousands of years of oral history. In the midst of this collection I find pictures of God at work, but these pictures do not always complement one another. The gospels, as I read them, do not offer one narrative of Jesus, but four - drawing from the same core stories but focusing on very different understandings of his personhood, his divinity, his ministry, and his life, death and resurrection. In the Bible there are two divergent understandings of "end times." One presents an image of a divine and holy war; the other depicts a heavenly banquet. These are just examples of why the word "collection" better describes the Bible to me than canon.

I think that many people struggle with Christianity because they come to it expecting to find a unified and simple story, but once they dig into the rich scriptures of our faith they find many stories that are complicated and layered. What if we told people right up front that the Bible can be understood in many ways and that it gives us a collection of stories that center around the One God? What if we didn't tell people who Jesus "must" be, but allowed Jesus to emerge in the imaginations and souls of people as they read and grapple with the richness of our scriptures? What if we let salvation take place in people's lives without instructing them on how we think God works - letting God do the work?

These are just questions. I am sure that many people will vehemently disagree with them. What about you? Do you find meaning in the canon of the Bible? Does the word "collection" work for you as it does for me? Would approaching the scriptures as a collection threaten its prominence and influence? Could it withstand a review and a revision? Is it time to add to it newer stories of God at work in the world? Or, does it stand on its own without need for tinkering?

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