Editorial: A Perilous Shift

The last persecution of Christians by the Roman empire was 303 a.d.  A decade later, Christianity was the official religion of the empire.  This meteroric rise from the bottom to the top changed the way Christians thought about their faith and practiced it.

A reading of pre and post-Constantinian writings in Christianity shows a shift in theology as Jesus the Suffering Servant diminished and Jesus the Reigning King grew.  Now protected by the empire, the focus became about holding onto their newfound power. The Sovereignty of God became the starting point for theology, creating the need to codify and enforce it in some way in both the church and the state–all the while establishing an ecclesial categorization (by some means) of who is “in” and who is “out”–how “outsiders” can become “insiders” and/or how “insiders” can be deemed “outsiders.”

Becoming and remaining a Christian shifted from espousing and expressing the two great commandments to obeying a growing list of rules and regulations (made by the empowered), complete with partisanship that pitted one version of “right and wrong” against another.  Church councils tried to stem this tide by producing Creeds, but the default button back to sectarianism remained in the institutional machine.

Similarly, in John Wesley’s day, one of the things he feared most was the day when Methodists would move from being largely made up of lower classes to being made up of those from the middle and upper classes of society.  He was not hopeful that Methodists could handle power any better than their Christian predecessors had.

Wesley feared that holiness (i.e. perfection in love) would be replaced by yet another form of works’ righteousness and the accompanying judgmentalism that always attends it.  He worried that humility would be replaced by pride and the need to preserve status that it creates.  He lamented that another have/have-not dualism would replace a “we are one in Christ” mindset, causing generosity to give way to possessiveness. 

And so it continues to go when Christianity moves from being one among the religions and becomes the “official” religion, whether in fact or perception.  It is not the fault of Christianity per se, but rather the result of how we handle it, using faith language to cover up hidden agendas.  The Cross is eclipsed by the Congress–where political partisanship raises its ugly head and once again divides the nation and the churches into competitive and contentious groups trying to enthrone their view.  “Liberty and justice for all ” fades away in the smoke-filled rooms, whether by cigars or incense.

Faith becomes interpreted and legislated by those in power.  An “other” group is formed, and as long as “they” are outside the legislation (by choice or design), they can always be viewed as “less than” in some way.  From then on, it becomes a matter of the empowered maintaining their power.

History shows that something happens to faith when it becomes located in Rome, Geneva, or Washington D.C..   When our hallowed halls replace the Via Dolorosa, theology easily becomes theocracy.  And then, as always, we enter a Dark Ages that must await a reformation.

Today on the streets of Baltimore and on the floor of the Supreme Court (and God knows where else), we find the same tensions playing out.  Today is a day to pray that the Beatitudes might rise above and give sway over bullets and briefs.

Posted in Editorials | 4 Comments

Journey: Worship Alive!

Read: “The Uprising of Worship”

The incarnation transformed humankind’s understanding of God.  As E. Stanley Jones put it, “Jesus put a face on God.”  The face was attractive, so it is not surprising that the early Christians gathered to receive instruction, to partake of holy communion, to enjoy fellowship, and to pray.

We have cone to call this worship, and it is clear–both from Judaism and Christianity–that worship is the central act of the people of God.  What we learn from early-Christian worship, however, is that this was almost certainly not confined or compressed into one hour.

In fact, worship was a whole-life experience spread over the course of a week.  It happened for a while at the Temple, but also in homes and other designated locations.  Worship was a thread winding its way through the totality of time so that every moment was a God-moment.

It is good for us to gather weekly as a community if faith to worship God, but there is a downside, and that is coming to define worship as an event that occurs one day a week for an hour or so.  Once that becomes our operative definition, worship ceases to be a manifestation of a resurrection uprising and becomes instead an expression of institutional religion.

McLaren rightly exhorts us to return to about a.d. 51, when to worship was to be alive to God 24/7.  It is a return to the original reason for gathering in the first place; namely, to come together to bear witness corporately one day a week to what had been occurring pervasively the other six days of the week.  That’s what makes worship an uprising.

Posted in Journey | Leave a comment

For the Bride: The Confirmation of Love

The desert Christians were earthy folk, perhaps in large measure because of the environment in which they worshipped and worked.  While some of the Church’s best theology comes from the early-Christian era, it is almost always expressed through a tangible practice of some kind.

When it came to love, the desert Christians moved from earth to heaven, reminding themselves that the confirmation of their profession to love God was confirmed by their practice of loving others.  In this they were living out St. John’s reminder that we prove our love for the unseen God by the ways we love the seen people around us (1John 2:9-11; 4:7-12).

John Colobos, for example, defined the term ‘commandment’ in terms of behavior, not in terms of belief.  For him, a commandment was not a concept, it was a contact.  It was not an abstract principle, it was a specific enactment.  In other words, our professed love of God was only confirmed by our expressed love of others.

In my Wesleyan tradition, I see this picked up by the early Methodists’ commitment to practical divinity–a commitment expressed in the phrase “faith working by love.”  For them, the two great commandments were always in a dynamic relation with each other–with the love of God kindling the flame of our love for others, and our love of others verifying our love of God.

As Christians, we are heirs of the incarnational principle, where Word always has to become flesh, otherwise we reduce faith to dangling doctrine and alleged affirmations.  Eternal seeds of truth germinate, grow, and bear fruit in the soil of tangible practices.  Love is confirmed by loving.

Posted in For the Bride | Leave a comment

In-Sight: Making Disciples

Those of you who know me know that I am a pragmatist more than a theorist when it comes to theology.  I can work with abstractions and principles, but my mind keeps wanting to know how the doctrines and affirmations play out in the lives of individuals, groups, congregations, and in society.

I feel this way when I hear folks say that the current concerns about human sexuality are a diversion from the Church’s mission to make disciples.  Let me be the first to say that I do not want anything to erode this mission.  And I would also agree that the Church (and the part where I am involved, The United Methodist Church) has spent an enormous amount of time, energy and money dealing with human sexuality. But the practical side of me will not allow me to view this as a diversion from our mission.

The practical reason is this:  when individuals, groups or congregations overtly or subtley cease to be welcoming and affirming of all God’s people, gay people stop coming. Oh, I know there are exceptions in the nearly half million congregations here in the USA–to say nothing of the rest of the world.  But pastors of churches where the delicate dance of “welcoming but not affirming” is attempted will tell you it is tricky and difficult.

In most congregations that I know about personally or read about in my research, those who are not inclusive soon have a reputation for not being so, and gay people go elsewhere, or they stay in the closet, knowing that if they came out, their place in the congregation would immediately be viewed differently.

The practical side of me says, “That has a direct impact on a church’s ability to make disciples.”  We cannot share the good news with anyone (straight or gay) who views us or our congregation as a bad news church.  We cannot claim to be loving when the word on the street is that we are judgmental and mean-spirited.  We cannot make disciples of people who are not there, or make disciples of those who know we will hand them a second-class discipleship ticket in the process.

This is larger than our position on human sexuality, but human sexuality just happens to be a bellwether indicator of a person’s or congregation’s disposition and design. People, by and large, give us the opportunity to make disciples of them when they feel genuinely (not conditionally or provisionally) loved by us–and when our definition of “disciple” appears to be the kind of person they want to be as they pay attention to their imago dei and respond to the work of the Spirit in their lives.

So, it seems to me there are always sub-layers to our mission statement of making disciples, and we must deal with them if we want the mission to occur.  One is surely the extent to which those we seek to reach, receive, nurture, and send view us as formative rather than deformative.  If people view us as “hot stoves,” they will not touch us, no matter what we claim to be cooking up for them.

Open hearts, open minds, open doors must be a living faith–an experienced reality–or it will soon be perceived by seekers and members alike as a slogan devoid of transformative content.  When the words “kind of” or “sort of” are placed before the word “open,” many will turn and walk away.  And that is what is happening among gay seekers when they attend or hear about some of our churches.

So, I cannot separate the mission to make disciples from the human sexuality issue, because the spirit with which we make disciples and the atmosphere in which it takes place is a necessary prerequisite to the process itself. I  believe that whenever the Body of Christ is working to become more loving, more non-judgmental, and more conversational, we will enhance our ability to turn a missional phrase into a reality–what John Wesley called ‘practical divinity,’ and what Jesus meant in the Great Commission when he told us to make disciples of all God’s people.

Posted in In-Sight | 1 Comment

Journey: The Two-Word Gospel

Read:  “The Uprising of Discipleship”

Using another week of fictional narrative, McLaren invites us into the apostolic fellowship once again.  This time he takes us to what must surely be the essence of the Gospel–two words, “Follow me.”

Perhaps like me, you have lost count of the articles and books you’ve read, the sermons you’ve heard, the seminars you’ve attended, the audio & video presentations you’ve done, and the studies you’ve engaged in on the subject of discipleship.  Most were good and worth doing.

But in another sense, they take us farther away from the two words, “follow me” through the sheer volume of their words.  We move from the center to the circumference, and if we are not careful the messages and mentors can eclipse the Master.

McLaren rightly reminds us that if we lived the two-word Gospel (“follow me”), we would never have to worry about getting it wrong or drifting astray.  We could forget trying to categorize everything (e.g. personal/social, conservative/progressive) and just walk with Jesus.

If we needed to pray, he would kneel and invite us to kneel with him.  If we needed to play, he would find a ball and toss it to us.  If we needed to witness, he would be sure someone crossed our path.  If we needed to serve, he would show us where and how.  If we needed to protest something, he would reveal his breaking heart to us.

This is not naiveté, this is Nativity–light and life that come as we follow Jesus.  A holy simplification would emerge from a harried complexification.  The person of Jesus would emerge from all our plans and programs about him.

“Follow me” covers it all, creating what McLaren this week calls the uprising of discipleship.

Posted in Journey | 1 Comment

For the Bride: The Command to Love

An emotion-driven concept of love draws back from thinking of love as a commandment.  But the withdrawal is based on two false assumptions:  that we love (or not) on the basis of how we feel, and/or that love is a transaction instead if a relationship.  These false assumptions lead us to view loving God and others more as a rule to be obeyed than the purpose of life itself.

The desert Christians teach us a better way–the way of realizing that the commandment to love comes to us from God, who is Holy Love.  Suddenly, our ego is not the gatekeeper of love, and our lives are the channels through whom God’s love reaches the world.

Jesus’ words, “Love one another as I have loved” (John 15:12) make the command one of opportunity, not obligation–one of privilege, not pressure.  Our will to love is itself fueled by love–we love because he first loved us (1John 4:19). 

When this experience saturates us, we cannot imagine not loving, and we lose interest in trying to decide when, where, how, to what extent, and whom to love.  In fact, we realize that the most soul-wearying thing we can ever do is to be the self-appointed managers of God’s love.

So, we see the desert Christians loving–loving regardless, loving anyway, loving nevertheless.  Theirs was not a knee-jerk, unconsidered love, but rather it was a Spirit-anointed love made possible by grace.  It was a love marked by universality and generosity.

Ours can be too.

Posted in For the Bride

In-Sight: Music and Spirituality

I am on thin ice.  I do not read music, and I am not a trained musician.  So, whatever I have to say about it arises more from intuition than from knowledge.

But even with my limitations acknowledged, I am convinced there is a strong link between music and spirituality–that in some sacred and observable ways, music is a language of the soul.  There are numerous ways to describe this, but for today I will look at music itself.

Among other things, music has tune, harmony, tempo, and style.  We can learn something about spiritual formation from each element.

The tune of music is what identifies it regardless of where we hear it or what instrument is used to play it.  We can whistle the National Anthem or hear it played by a full military band.  But when we hear the tune, we immediately know what song it is.

The spiritual life has tune.  It comes to us through the classic doctrines of Christianity, revealed in scripture and interpreted by tradition. We are not free to make up the tune; it has been given to us.

The spiritual life also has harmony–what we might call sub-tunes that align with the basic tune to produce a rich and expansive piece of music: bass, alto, tenor, soprano, etc.  Harmony cannot violate or compete with the tune; otherwise there is discord.  But with harmony the tune is enriched.

I take this to be the fundamental expressions of Christianity (Roman, Orthodox, Protestant) and the orders and denominations which have emerged over the centuries.  Let everyone sing!  We get a fuller sound than if everyone sang the same tune.

Music also includes tempo.  This not only means that some songs are faster or slower than others, but that the beat of songs varies as well.  Most people appreciate multiple tempos, even if they have a favorite.  And they may select music with a tempo that reflects a mood or spirit they are in at the time.  No problem–music is ready to “soothe your soul” in more than one tempo.  So too, the spiritual life varies as to its pace, tempo, and beat.  No problem.

Finally, there is style.  Again, there are many.  Some (e.g. opera and country) have been around a long time; others may have only recently been named.  But every style attracts fans, even if people enjoy a variety of styles.

And so, we find style in spirituality.  The sacred silence, followed by chants at the monastery or in a Taizé service.  The pulsating liturgy week after week at an Episcopal Church.  The good-old Gospel songs at a revival service.  A classical or contemporary anthem sung by a choir.  You name it.  Styles–that touch us in ways no single form could do.

Ending this meditation and realizing I have tried to use words to describe the spirituality of music, leaves me feeling a bit awkward.  I think I will stop writing and start listening to some music–and allow it to speak for itself.

Posted in Gatherings, In-Sight