upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"altarnately" in the world

In her latest article in the Christian Century, Barbara Brown Taylor responds to the many letters that she has received since publishing her book "Leaving Church." She says that as far as her life of faith is concerned, the world has offered her a place to experience life in wonderful and trying ways; it is where her "transformation has taken place." She also says that the church is what has given her the eyes to see and the words to speak. Through the church she is able to mediate her experiences in the world. It seems that more and more I hear people talking about their desire to live fully in the world. There is a deep thirst that many people have to live in the present, alive to the hurts and pains and engrossed in the wonder of this world. And yet they also desire to experience this world in an alternate way, not restricted by the normatives that have been created by society and tradition. There are people seeking a holy existence, an "altarnate" life.

The renewed emphasis on the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are also reaching out to quench the thirst for holy encounters. People my age (30s) and younger are coming to the font and to the cup hopeful of a direct encounter with God and God's kin-dom. I, and people like me, want to put on Christ and walk in the world with God's eyes and with God's heart. Our sacraments offer us objects to reach out and touch and taste that invite us into this life.

We can see this most exemplified in the rise of "new monasticism." New monasticism invites committed individuals to live in intentional Christian community. While most of us aren't cut out to wade into the depths of such intentional life, there is a seriousness involved in our baptism that calls us all to live intentionally in the world as witnesses of God's love and grace, upholding one another in holy community, and striving to live in the midst of God's kin-dom while walking through the kingdoms of our making. One of the things that I would love for all who darken the doors of the church I serve to learn is that all of us are ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, invited into the full embrace of God and commissioned to share God's love wastefully in the world. This is the call of intentional Christian life.

One of the complaints that I hear from congregants is that the church isn't providing a serious forum for exploring what it might be to live alternately in the world - or altarnately, as I am interpreting it. The church, in its self-consuming focus on itself (numbers, finances, attendance, programs, mediating conflict) often loses sight of being the means to an end, a way to intentional living, a place for nurture, questions, and challenge. I'm glad that Barbara Brown Taylor has found church meaningful in her quest to live altarnately in the world, but too many people are finding it insufficient. However, I hope that instead of abandoning our churches that we challenge them to live into their purpose to offer us God's kin-dom. Church should be a place that nurtures us along our way, a community of support and challenge for spiritual pilgrims, the one place where altarnate life is held before us constantly.

Monday, May 28, 2007

taking down a post...an act of repentance

The last post that I put on this blog concerned the IRD ( the Institute on Religion and Democracy) and what I consider its less than straight forward agenda regarding the United Methodist Church. I can't tell you how many people read that post...almost eight times the number of folks who read other posts on this blog. Clearly people hold very strong opinions and beliefs about the soul and character of The United Methodist Church as well as the work of the IRD. I have taken that post down because I believe that the comments to it distract from the overall tenor of this blog.

When I first began this little project, it was with the intention of creating a place for people who are progressive and Christian as well as for people who are searching for spiritual nurture but unsure about church. I hoped to carve out a safe place for people (primarily those who attend the church that I serve) to explore spirituality and the core of progressive Christianity and the possibilities of progressive church. By and large I have stuck to that goal. Every now and then, however, I have found that I felt called to respond to an event or an article that took me away from my primary goal. The post about the IRD was one such post. I stand by my opinion that the IRD is not an organization concerned with the health and vitality of the UMC. However, I have taken down the post so that one post doesn't become the sum of all of the other posts.

For more information about the IRD, check out its website.

For more outside understandings of the IRD, check out the book United Methodism at Risk: A Wake Up Call.

For more information from a conservative United Methodist opposed to the work of the IRD, see "Renewal or Ruin? The Institute on Religion and Democracy's Attack on United Methodism".

The United Methodist Church is a wonderful denomination that is diverse in theological understanding and liturgical practice. It is my family's church and the church of my ancestors. It has shaped me and made me what I am. In this church, I see a great possibility for God's vision to be made real on earth. I realize that as a progressive Christian that I am a minority voice in this church. I also claim nothing short of being progressive; I do indeed want change in the church - change that I believe brings us closer to God's kin-dom, a belief born from reason, tradition, experience, and scripture. I also know that many look at me not only as heterodox but apostate. All I can say to them is that I read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and I have come to a different place in understanding a great many things.

And now we can return to the real intent of this blog...to create a safe space for those questioning and searching for a progressive Christianity that nurtures their souls and speaks to their minds. I apologize to my regular readers who felt that the post was a departure from what I had promised to write and who thought that many of the responses diminished the "safe" nature of this blog. I will add, though, that authentic Christianity takes us into debates, conversations, and struggles that are unsafe because the gospel itself is risky and dangerous. It calls us to be present in the midst of the world that wants to deny the change it demands. It calls us to witness regardless of risk. And it calls us into solidarity with those who are the most ridiculed and defiled. Sometimes who we are will bring us into difficult places. In many ways that is the invitation of the gospel. So, while I've taken down the post in order to restore a certain sensibility, I also want to note that we as a people must be willing to step into the hard places to witness and proclaim the gospel that shapes us even in the face of risk and hardship.

Monday, May 21, 2007

recovering the radicality of christianity

This year marks the tenth anniversary of my ordination. It has taken all this time for me to finally come to a few pretty basic conclusions about ministry in the local church.

1. There is usually a very big difference between what a pastor is saying or thinks she is saying and what the congregation hears.

2. Perception is more important than reality.

3. Congregations tend to filter the radical message of the gospel. They don't hear the radicality; they hear the gospel as supporting evidence for already held beliefs. The message is manipulated by our ears and our brains to conform to our expectations.

4. When people hear a pastor say the gospel is political, they hear the pastor say, "The gospel belongs to my partisan political viewpoint." We need to be much clearer in communicating that "politics" and "partisan politics" are very different concepts. And, that the gospel in 100% political in nature.

5. People are hungry for the gospel. We just have to find a better way to make it real.

I come to these conclusions after years of teaching courses on the politics of Jesus (which are kingdom of God politics) only to watch congregation members get mired in conflict over whether Jesus was a liberal or a conservative. I have watched my congregations reflect back to me their experience of a sermon, a stewardship drive, or a teaching that is markedly different, even antithetical, to what was intended. I also sit in holy conversation with members, constituents, and visitors and listen to them tell me about their deep hunger for meaning and for a sense of power in an overwhelming world.

There is a disconnect happening in our churches that I believe begins with a fundamental misunderstanding of what church is and what the gospel message is. Church is a community that enters into both the belief and the practice of God's kin-dom. We do so even while this world exists and tries to deny our foolish endeavor. Church is a community that practices an alternate way of life even while living in the cities, neighborhoods, and even families that are based on a different set of principles and values. The gospel is an invitation into this life. It is an invitation to believe in love and grace in a world of hate and vengeance. It is an invitation into the economics of abundance and the politics of radical hospitality.

As followers of Christ, we are asked to step outside of the preconceived notions of our world and to live in an alternate world, in an alternate way. In this alternate way of life the resurrection is not a superstition, it is a radical invitation to life in the midst of death. Birth narratives are not fairy tales, they are stories of meaning saying to us that life is pulled from barren places as well as from virginal places. Miracles show us that God's power stands outside of the power of the state which proscribes and prescribes.

We need to recover the radicality of the gospel and re-infuse Christianity with it. Until our perceptions of the church change, our understanding of politics is transformed, and we become ready to be changed by the gospel rather than changing it to meet our needs, we will continue to struggle in a futile battle to domesticate the wild and radical message of God. And the hungry will not be fed.

I wonder what the next ten years will bring.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

abc has lost its freakin' mind! kirk cameron, really???


A peeve of mine is that mainstream media refuse to cover religion in a meaningful and informed way. My prejudice against mainstream media grows when things like ABC's recent Nightline sinks the conversation to yet a new low. Nightline squared two atheists up against Kirk Cameron (yes, Left Behind - Growing Pains - Kirk Cameron) and Ray Comfort. This show did nothing more than give exposure to a particular kind of conservatism and belittle Christianity as a whole.

It's clear that Kirk Cameron has found some kind of meaning and purpose in his life since his conversion as a teenager. It was his conversion to evangelical Christianity that was a major part in the dissolution of his television show. However, the media continue to turn to voices like his as representative ones for the entire Christian community, leaving out the millions upon millions of voices of people of faith who can hold science and religion together, faith and reason together. Why don't media turn to the bishops of our great Protestant faiths or the pastors and the laity of congregations that have been engaged in ministry for hundreds of years to represent Christian ideals? Where is Bishop Janice Huie of my denomination when national media want a religious comment on a situation, theological concept, or crisis? Why don't the media invite Walter Brueggemann onto their television shows? Where are the great professors of our theological institutions? Where are the voices of preachers like Barbara Brown Taylor or James Forbes?

Mainline denominations in general and progressive Christians in particular are silenced by the media who turn to the most salacious voices in our communities for the exploitation of ratings. I've been heartened of late with the Human Resource Coalition's addition of faith-based resources on their website along with Step It Up's inclusion of faith communities in its work. Additionally, Jim Wallis has given some attention to progressive voices in his efforts as well. Even so, there is a lot of work that we need to do to make our voices heard.

There are many mainline and progressive churches and individuals of faith who are touched by the Holy Spirit. We believe earnestly in a God of love and justice. We worship this God with our whole hearts and with the entirety of our lives. We offer God all that we have and all that we are. But we have become too quiet and too passive. The gospel of the Christ we know and follow is worth sharing. It is worth us getting upset over the hi-jacking of our faith and the media that promote this theft.

ABC has lost its freakin' mind with this latest step into "religious conversation." I hope it finds sanity someday and invites the leaders and voices from mainline and progressive Churches. What a great day that would be!

Update: Just FYI, the articles on the ABC website that round out this issue for them include: "Searching for a Manly Jesus," "Rick Warren: Purpose Driven Strife," "Speaking in Tongues: Word of the Lord," "The Porn Pastors: XXXChurch.com," "I Don't Want My MTv," "Joel Osteen: Pastor of Prosperity," "Jerry Falwell: Fire and Brimstone" and much more. Gross.

Monday, May 07, 2007

update on spidey and forgiveness


It seems that searches for information about Spidey and forgiveness are quite the rage these days. I am having more hits than usual on this blog from people interested in exploring the theme and the movie. Sam Raimi is no stranger to exploring spiritual themes in his movies. It shouldn't be a surprise that he does it this time. What is interesting, though, is that he doesn't succumb to the temptation in Hollyobvious by hitting us over the head with overblown metaphors and imagery. Instead, the characters' need to seek and offer forgiveness is integrated throughout the storyline. Peter is Everyman, unlike Superman who is a Christ figure. Peter is just like you and me - flawed, timid, and searching. His path is neither straight nor fated. What happens in his life results from the choices that he makes - just like you and me. And the choices that he makes have repercussions for those around him. The same is true for the other characters in Spiderman 3. The formation of "Sandman" is the result of bad circumstances and worse choices. Marko Flint, driven by a need to take care of his child, commits a crime that culminates in the death of Peter's beloved uncle. Escaped from prison, he makes a series of even poorer choices that lead him into a situation in which he is transformed into the supervillain Sandman. Eddie Brock, driven by his ambition, chooses himself over others time and again until the same alien goo that turns Spidey black infects him, making Venom. Peter, Marko, and Eddie need forgiveness for the things that they have done and for the decisions that they have made. Peter's good friend Harry turned Goblin Jr. is driven by his need to avenge his father's death, which he attributes to Spiderman. And last, there is Mary Jane. She is hurt by the blackness growing inside of Peter and wounded by the hate growing inside of Harry. The betrayal that she experiences reminds her of her years growing up with an alcoholic father. Sam Raimi could have overdone any of these situations, but he doesn't. Instead, the superhero and his supervillains are humanized. They are wounded characters seeking a way back to wholeness. Some find this path and others don't. I'm excited to see so many people searching for information about the theme of forgiveness in this movie. Perhpas it has touched a nerve in people reminding us that we all need to extend a little forgiveness and we might even need to ask for it as well.

Friday, May 04, 2007

forgiveness looms large in spiderman 3


I saw Spiderman 3 today and was struck by importance of the theme of forgiveness. Throughout the movie, revenge and brokenness are challenged by the possibility of forgiveness.

Peter Parker's story picks up with life going very well for him and Mary Jane. New York loves Spidey. Peter Parker is doing well in school. And Mary Jane has a new play on Broadway. Of course this utopia can't hold together. Beginning with Peter's growing hubris, a string of events leads Peter into an inner struggle with revenge and ego. Mary Jane slides into a place of deep pain, recalling the feelings of loneliness she experienced in her childhood home and finding them lived out in her relationship with Peter. And Harry has to reach into the depth of grief while undergoing a difficult process to learn who he really is and what he's made of. Other characters also struggle with their limitations, from JJ Jameson's heart problems to the villains' (Marko Flint/Sandman and Eddie Brock/Venom) ambition and feelings of powerlessness. All of the characters in Spiderman 3 are seeking paths to forgiveness - for themselves and for others. And, we are shown just how difficult it can be to ask for it and to offer it. In a moment of great anger, Peter Parker tells Eddie Brock (soon to become Venom), "If you're looking for forgiveness, get religion" (or something close to that). Both Eddie and Peter run to a church in the moments of the deepest anguish. Not knowing what else to do, they go to the symbolic place of forgiveness.

What a gift it would be if our churches really were places of forgiveness, where people wounded by their pursuit of it (whether to give or receive it) could come and find something freeing for their souls. We live in a world that could benefit in exploring and rediscovering the power of forgiveness.

From a cinematic perspective, Spidey 3 is big. It is an epic. The effects are amazing. From a narrative perspective, it is a bit too long and convoluted. The story has too many characters and feels a bit choppy at times. But from a theological perspective, it hits the mark.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

church and the common experience

Once upon a time when Christendom ruled America, a pastor could stand in the pulpit and assume all kinds of things about his (and I mean "his") congregation. More likely than not they had been born into the parish (at least into a parish somewhere), understood basic concepts of Christianity and congregational life, and lived in or near the neighborhood. That is not the case anymore. This is one of the biggest challenges of ministry for me.

I read articles and books written by "emerging church" leaders and I realize how their approach to ministry and what they do in ministry just will not work in the church that I serve. When I look at websites that "appeal" to people my age and younger I see graphics and pop culture references that would fall short of hitting any mark in a group of people diverse in age and life experience. Even my own life experiences are far afield from the people I serve. I love LOST; no one in my church seems to watch it. I love movies; no one in my church is going to see Hot Fuzz (I can pretty much guarantee it!). And it's not just an age thing, either. The "younger" adults in church have made life choices that take them far away from the plugged-in and hyped-up world of many others their age. They have chosen to cut the cable, lose the high speed internet, have children, and go hiking. Most folks in worship have no clue what's happening liturgically, have no personal experience in Bible study, and don't know what church life can be. They don't know an ambo from a pulpit, and they don't care. In a church like this, where is the common denominator? Where is the common experience?

This question about common experience came up in Bible study the other night, actually. And it was great to listen to a discussion about it. It reminded me that the early church also struggled with a similar issue. As the church expanded to include non-Jews, the common experience of tribe, nation, culture, and tradition was lost. The early church found/created a new common experience through breaking bread and the sacrament of baptism. They created common experience by pooling their wealth. The created common experience in worship and in life shared together. It had to be an intentional act. I wonder what we'd have to do to get our churches to take the quest for common experience in Christ seriously. Every time we break bread in Holy Communion, we enter an alternate universe, one where God's kin-dom has already come. When we make promises in the baptism covenant, we promise to share our lives with one another. These are radical acts that call us to step beyond the confines of our individual experiences and into something more - much more.

Christianity is a gateway - not into "common" experience but into a shared "uncommon" experience. It seems that if we could take this seriously then things like pop culture references, vernacular, and personal likes and dislikes would fall by the wayside. Or, are these things so important that they will indelibly mark how we enter into God's kin-dom? I don't know. What I do know is that a church that includes diversity in culture, age, economics, and background has a hard way to go in even finding common language to explore the Divine as a community.

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