St. Bernard of Clairvaux on Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself

 

‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.

And this is right: for the one who shares our nature should share our love, itself the fruit of nature. Wherefore if people find it a burden, I will not say only to relieve their brother or sister’s needs, but to minister to their pleasures, let them mortify those same affections in themselves, lest they become transgressors. They may cherish themselves as tenderly as they choose, if only they remember to show the same indulgence to their neighbors. This is the curb of temperance imposed on you, O mortal, by the law of life and conscience, lest you should follow your own lusts to destruction, or become enslaved by those passions which are the enemies of your true welfare. Far better divide your enjoyments with your neighbor than with these enemies. And if, after the counsel of the son of Sirach, you go not after your desires but refrain yourself from your appetites (Ecclus. 18.30); if according to the apostolic precept having food and raiment you are therewith content (I Tim. 6.8), then you will find it easy to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, and to divide with your neighbors what you have refused to your own desires. A temperate and righteous love practices self-denial in order to minister to a brother or sister’s necessity. So our selfish love grows truly social, when it includes our neighbors in its circle.

But if you are reduced to want by such benevolence, what then? What indeed, except to pray with all confidence unto the One who gives to all people liberally and upbraids not (James 1.5), who opens the divine hand and fills all things living with plenty (Ps. 145.16). For doubtless the One that gives to most people more than they need will not fail you as to the necessaries of life, even as God has promised: Seek the Kingdom of God, and all those things shall be added unto you’ (Luke 12.31). God freely promises all things needful to those who deny themselves for love of their neighbors; and to bear the yoke of modesty and sobriety, rather than to let sin reign in our mortal body (Rom. 6.12), that is indeed to seek the Kingdom of God and to implore God’s aid against the tyranny of sin. It is surely justice to share our natural gifts with those who share our nature.

from On Loving God, Chapter 8

Leading From the Center

Today’s Old Testament reading in the lectionary is taken from Joshua 6:1-14.

It is the story of the famous battle of Jericho, not the well-known part when “the walls came a-tumblin’ down,” but the calm before the storm as the Israelites marched around the city in silence:

“You shall not shout or let your voice be heard, nor shall you utter a word”

Meanwhile, the priests with the ark of the covenant walked between the front and rear guards of the people, leading from the center with the sound of music in the midst of silence:

“The seven priests carrying the seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark of the LORD passed on, blowing the trumpets continually. The armed men went before them, and the rear guard came after the ark of the LORD, while the trumpets blew continually.”

In the same way, it was the monastic mothers and fathers who led the way forward for western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Like the Israelites, they made their seven-fold rounds in prayer. Unlike the Israelites, their task was to preserve rather than destroy: they saved the very best of their culture from destruction. For a thousand years the monasteries were centers of education, hospitality, and healthcare while the rest of western Europe was struggling to survive the dark ages. It is no surprise that the leaders of medieval Europe, from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance, religious and secular alike, mostly had their formation in the monasteries.

Yet the preservation of societal treasures was not the primary mission of the monastic orders. They were not culture warriors by any stretch of the imagination. Their first call was to spirituality and prayer. Like the levitical priests, the monks and nuns made their daily rounds in the Liturgy of the Hours, “leading from the center” with music and silence as the city walls of Rome itself came tumbling down.

This idea of leading from the center with the combined music and silence of prayer goes against everything that industrial capitalism values. Our consumer-oriented economy prizes only that which obtains measurable results by way of traceable means. Even our churches fall into this trap. Just look at our paid staff positions: pastors, sextons, office managers. Within pastoral ministry itself, there are senior administrative pastors, pastors of Christian education, mission pastors, youth pastors, pastors for children and family ministries… when was the last time anyone saw a church with a full-time paid pastor whose primary task on staff was to pray?

Personally, I’ve never seen it and I doubt I ever will. Our culture tends not to value such things. Prayer is something that all parishioners theoretically want their pastors to do, but only when there isn’t something more important to do. Prayer is the first part of a committee meeting to be cut from the docket (save for a quick collect at the beginning and end). One of my seminary professors had a cartoon on his door: a parish priest kneels for prayer in his office while a parishioner pokes a head through the door and exclaims, “Oh good! You’re not busy!”

The one exception to this rule is in the monasteries. These are women and men whose entire lives are given primarily to the task of prayer (St. Benedict calls it “the Work of God”). Not surprisingly, monasticism is probably the least understood and least valued aspect of church life today. In a culture obsessed with money, sex, and power, people (even Christians) cannot fathom why some sisters and brothers would take lifelong vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and devote themselves to prayer. To them, that kind of behavior seems deviant (and it is); they are afraid that it will undermine their way of life (and it does).

I can’t tell how many times I’ve heard people talk about a beautiful nun or a good-looking Catholic priest and say, “What a waste!” as though attractive people had a moral responsibility to make themselves sexually available for the enjoyment of others. Only those who go out of their way to take up this way of life, or at least learn about it, can understand its value.

I am just beginning to learn. As the solo pastor of a small, inner-city parish, I could easily spend my entire day returning phone calls, going to meetings, replacing kitchen tiles, ordering candles, planning potlucks, fundraising, and fixing leaky faucets. I also visit the sick and the dying, write sermons, prepare the liturgy, educate the flock, and advocate on behalf of mental health issues in our community. After five years of ordained ministry, I have yet to reach the end of my to-do list (I’m told it will never happen). In light of this truth, it feels like an act of defiance to set aside the beginning and end of each work day for the liturgy of the Divine Office. All of the previously mentioned tasks, from replacing tiles to writing sermons, take on their truest and best meaning when they are led from the center and surrounded by the act of prayer.

Obviously, I’m not a monk (owing to the vows I’ve already made to the “holy order” of marriage). But I have recently joined the Confraternity of a local Benedictine abbey, which I have committed to pray for, support financially, and visit once a month. I also seek to broadly embody its principles of stability, amendment of life, and obedience through my daily living in the world.

I am only a beginner in this process. Joining the Confraternity represents the first step in following the Benedictine way. It is the step I am taking now and I look forward to seeing where it may lead me in the future. Most of all, I look forward to seeing how this way of spiritual practice will affect my approach to life at home and at work.

For me, the monastery helps me lead from center by being like a still spot on the wall, to which a spinning dancer can return his vision in order to keep from losing his sense of balance. This particular monastery focuses its work on prayer and hospitality (in that order). This community, centered in the brothers at prayer, and its 1,500 year-old font of Benedictine wisdom, is my “spot on the wall.” I don’t go there to “get away” from the pressures of work and ministry; my monthly visits and daily participation in prayer are spiritually centering activities that call me back to the Ground of my own Being, from which the rest of life and ministry can then flow.

In this day and age:

  • when some are beginning to wonder whether ours is a civilization in decline,
  • when those of us who advocate for moral and spiritual values feel quite small and helpless next to the towering stone walls of social injustice,

we would do well to remember the joint witness of the levitical priests and the monastic founders. We would have no hope of overcoming our societal problems if we depended on brute strength, political maneuvering, or bank accounts.

Like the ancient Israelites, we must realize that we are utterly unable to pull down the walls of injustice; we must pray them down instead.

Like the monastics, let us not seek to save our dying culture, but anchor ourselves in the Divine Rock which stands firm forever:

“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Let us lead from the center with music and silence, faithfully making our daily rounds in the spirit of prayer.

St. Benedict at the Border

37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

(Matthew 25:37-40 NRSV)

These words of Jesus, taken from today’s gospel reading in the Daily Lectionary, have challenged and disturbed me more than anything else Jesus ever said. I first came across them in high school, when I was steeped in evangelical fervor and biblical literalism. Every morning, I would drive past homeless men on my way to school. They would panhandle on the median of highway 15-501 at the stoplight, directly across the street from my favorite restaurant (*shout-out to Bojangles’ Famous Chicken n’ Biscuits).

The teachers at my conservative Christian high school were constantly calling students back to their personal responsibility to read the Bible and do what it says. Most of the time, what they meant by that was: “Go to church, don’t drink or smoke, and don’t have sex.” My guess is that the administration didn’t count on their students actually reading the above passage and taking it seriously (except in the most general sense of occasionally volunteering at a soup kitchen).

However, in my sincere effort to “read the Bible and do what it says,” I couldn’t get away from these words of Jesus. And I couldn’t stop thinking about those guys panhandling on the highway. People warned me to stay away from them because they were lazy bums who probably just wanted cash for booze, but if I was hearing Jesus correctly (and I think I was), the salvation of my soul depended quite highly on my personal relationship with these lazy bums. As Rev. James Forbes of Riverside Church once said, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

St. Benedict of Nursia said it like this:

Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35)…

In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown. Let the head be bowed  or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons. 

(The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 53)

This spiritual principle is similar to the one found in the Sanskrit greeting Namaste, which means: “The Divine in me worships the Divine in you.” Speaking in Christian terms, we honor one another as fellow beings made in God’s image, as members of the mystical Body of Christ, and as temples of the Holy Spirit. However we choose to express it, the truth remains that we are connected to one another in God, therefore we have a moral responsibility to care for one another.

In Christianity, there is no such thing as a “self-made person” who “pulls herself up by her own bootstraps” because we are all saved by grace and owe our hope, our redemption, our very existence to another (i.e. Christ). Therefore, when this Divine Other comes to us in those who are poor, in those who do not look or talk like us, and in those who make inconvenient demands upon our time and resources, it is imperative that we remember our indebtedness. None of us would be here were it not for the Savior who went out of his way to help us “while we were yet sinners”: undeserving foreigners, trespassers in the kingdom of heaven, and illegal aliens.

To borrow a favorite image from Dr. Bob Ekblad, Christ is the Coyote who smuggles us across the border of heaven’s kingdom “illegally” (i.e. by grace, outside the requirements of Divine law). We are all “wetbacks” who have passed through the waters of baptism, like the Israelites crossed the waters of the Jordan River into the promised land, like so many undocumented migrant people are now crossing the Rio Grande in hope of a better life.

When we made this baptismal journey with Jesus, there were no vigilante angels patrolling heaven’s border with shotguns and spotlights, no holding pens in the church where sinners awaited deportation back to hell, but only the invisible presence of our Coyote, delivering us into the arms of the pastor and the combined voices of our brothers and sisters:

With joy and thanksgiving
we welcome you into Christ’s church
to share with us in his ministry,
for we are all one in Christ.

(The Book of Common Worship, p. 414)

As payment for our crossing, Coyote Christ asks that we pass on the amnesty we have received. The debt we owe to him must be repaid by way of “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores… the homeless, [and the] tempest-tossed”.

Let us remember this truth as we read the headlines and see the images of Hispanic children piled on top of one another in warehouses along the border, when we encounter busloads of immigrants arriving at Wal-Mart, when we get stuck in line behind someone who does not yet speak English well.

The question we must ask in those moments is not “What is convenient for me?” or “What is best for America?” but, in the words of Psalm 116:10 – “How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?”

The hospitality we offer to these brothers and sisters at the border is nothing more or less than the debt we owe to Christ. According to St. Benedict’s guidance and Jesus’ command in Matthew 25:40, What we do for them is what we do for Him, and the souls we save in doing so will not be theirs, but our own.

Jul 16 – “The Righteous Gentiles”

Originally posted on Holy Women, Holy Men:

Illumination - The Righteous Gentiles

“The Righteous Gentiles
Raoul Wallenberg, 1947 | Hiram Bingham IV, 1988 | Karl Lutz, 1975
Chiune Sugihara, 1986 | André Trocmé, 1971 | Magda Trocmé, 1996
16 July

click here for books on the Righteous Gentiles


From the Satucket Lectionary

Although the phrase “Righteous Gentiles” has become a general term for any non-Jew who risked their life to save Jews during the Holocaust, it here appears to apply specifically to: Raoul Wallenberg [d. 1947, Swedish]; Hiram Bingham IV [d. 1988, American]; Karl Lutz [d. 1975, Swiss]; Chiume Sujihara [d. 1986, Japanese]; André Trocmé [d. 1971, French]; and Magda Trocmé [d. 1996, Italy].

Raoul Wallenberg passport photoRaoul Wallenberg (August 4, 1912 – July 17, 1947?) was a Swedish humanitarian who worked in Budapest, Hungary, during World War II to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. Between July and December 1944, he issued protective passports and housed Jews, saving tens of…

View original 1,263 more words

St. Benedict’s Day

J. Barrett Lee:

Saint_Benedict's_Abbey_

Today is the feast day of my newest friend in the Cloud of Witnesses: St. Benedict of Nursia. I was deeply privileged last spring to spend a week at St. Gregory’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan. While I was there, I came to realize that many of the elements, people, and practices that have shaped my spiritual journey thus far are not random bits that I’ve thrown together, but are all, in fact, Benedictine in origin. I am thinking specifically of the Divine Office, Lectio Divina, and Centering Prayer. I also discovered that one of my heroes in the faith, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, was a Benedictine Oblate. It seems that St. Benedict has been stalking me for quite some time. I must say that it feels good to finally be caught. Below I have re-blogged an article that is a reflection on the personality of St. Benedict, written by Abbot Andrew Marr of St. Gregory’s Abbey.

Originally posted on Imaginary Visions of True Peace:

BenedictChurchStatue1In his Dialogues, Pope Gregory I said that Benedict could not “otherwise teach than he himself lived.” Taking Gregory at his word, I will celebrate our holy father Benedict by drawing out of the Rule what we can glean about the kind of man he was.

The way Benedict carefully outlined the way the Divine Office should be done, listing what psalms should be done when, shows an ordered man who appreciated discipline and having everything and everyone in place. We see the same care in the way Benedict outlined the daily schedule for a balanced life. However, Benedict showed flexibility when he said that one can rearrange the office psalms if that should be deemed expedient. Although he wanted his monastics to be on time for the office, he cut some slack by allowing them to come before the Venite (Psalm 95) is recited, for which reason it…

View original 585 more words

The Deeper Yes

I find it to be a matter of common sense that you and I live in a fragmented world. We’re divided and scattered. Relationships are broken: between nations and neighbors, between races and religions, between partners and parties. Why, we’re even fragmented within ourselves: doing what we don’t want to do and unable to do what we most deeply want to do, as we heard St. Paul say in this morning’s reading from his letter to the Romans. We’re fragmented. Things are complicated. We don’t quite know what to make of it. We’re lost and we need to find our way again. We need to get our bearings, so to speak. We need context: we need to understand where it is that we are, how we got here, and how we can get to where we ought to be as individuals, as families, as communities, and as nations. This is the state of our generation on planet earth: fragmented, lost, Paul calls us “wretched.”

Into this maelstrom, enter Jesus. To quote Paul once again: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And Jesus shows up in our gospel reading this morning with his usual wit and insight that cuts to the core of who we are and lays our souls bare for the healing. Here, Christ the great physician (Doctor Jesus) is practicing a kind of spiritual surgery in order to get inside us and expose what we are so that we might become what we ought to be.

And his surgeon’s tools, the scalpel and forceps he uses to simultaneously wound and heal his patients, are twofold: Questions and Stories. Anytime Jesus asks a question or says “Let me tell you a story…” smart people will head for the hills because they know it isn’t going to be pretty. And in today’s passage, Jesus does both. He asks his listeners, “To what will I compare this generation?”

He’s making a comparison: using the rhetorical art of analogy to provide insight and context. He’s showing us how to recognize the patterns of thought and behavior that we have become so unconsciously accustomed to by force of repetition and reinforcement by societal values.
And here is his comparison: “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another”.

Children sitting in the marketplaces. Can you imagine anything more out of place? What if the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street had an annual “Bring your kids to work Day”? What would it be like to have kids playing games and chasing each other around the trading floor? What would it be like to have a bunch of whiny babies throwing temper tantrums on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives? It would be chaotic and disruptive. They would constantly be under foot. Nothing could get done.

“Children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another”. According to Jesus, that’s the fragmented state we’re in as individuals and as a society. We’re tripping over ourselves, getting in our own way, and disrupting the divine plan with all sorts of mindless chaos and petty selfishness.

Jesus said that we’re “calling out to one another.” What is it that we’re calling out? “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance”.
That’s an interesting one to me, especially in this consumerist, hedonistic, entertainment-addicted society. The world is always “playing the flute for us” in one way or another, isn’t it? We are bombarded with advertisements from the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we close our eyes at night. Every single product and service promises a long and happy life, but none can actually deliver on that guarantee. Sensationalist media headlines are specifically designed to get our attention and provoke a reaction from us. They force our emotions out of us by making each new experience faster, funnier, sexier, scarier, or more intense than the last one. They keep us on the hook. The world plays the flute and we are expected to dance like puppets.

What else are we, as a society of “children in the marketplace” calling out to each other? “We wailed, and you did not mourn.”

This one is the mirror image of the last disruptive cry. Once again, the world is trying to provoke a reaction from us, trying to throw us off of our spiritual center of gravity. But this time, they’re using pain instead of pleasure, the stick instead of the carrot. If you follow current events (from either the right or the left), you’re probably familiar with this “wailing” tactic: there’s no such thing as a small problem in Washington. When is the last time you can remember either Republicans or Democrats sitting down together around a piece of proposed legislation and saying, “I guess we have a few minor disagreements about this bill” or “I’m sure we can figure out some kind of compromise”? Does that ever happen? No. Every little problem is an apocalyptic crises. Every opponent is a demon and every ally is an angel. It’s all just another form of sensationalism and manipulation.

When the world isn’t playing the flute for us, it’s wailing at us. It wants to provoke a reaction in us so that we’ll keep on playing these little games and sending our money to the big shots on Wall Street, or in Washington, or in Hollywood. Their game is simple: if we play, they win.
So, what’s the solution? Don’t play. That’s what Jesus said. He said: “John came neither eating nor drinking”.
Here Jesus is speaking, of course, of his cousin, St. John the Baptist. John was a prophet: the greatest of prophet who ever lived, according to Jesus. John was kind of like a monk: he lived a very simple, ascetic life in the desert and people would come to be baptized and listen to him teach.

The thing about John the Baptist is that he didn’t play the world’s game. He said “No” to the flutes and “No” to the wailing. He didn’t participate. He boycotted. He was a resistor. He was a fiery preacher who wasn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. He criticized the religious establishment and he called out political leaders.

And what did the dominant powers-that-be do to him? They demonized him. They arrested him. In the end, they killed him.

His experience reminds me of the Civil Rights movement: people marching in the streets, speaking truth to power, boycotting the bus system, sitting in at lunch counters. They said “No” to racism, segregation, and inequality. Like John, many were arrested and some were killed. They too were demonized with the worst possible insult one could think of in the 50s and 60s: “Communist.”

If St. John the Baptist had lived during the 1960s, they would have called him a Communist too. John said “No” to the world’s childish games and they said, “He has a demon.”

Saying “No” is an important step in the prophetic ministry. We have to do it if we ever hope to regain our moral and spiritual footing in this life. We have to say “No” to what the world is offering in order to say a deeper “Yes” to what God is offering us instead. And what is that deep “Yes” that we are called to say with our whole hearts?

Jesus shows us: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking”. Notice the dichotomy with John’s ministry: “John came neither eating nor drinking” (he said “No”) but “The Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite name for himself, it really just means “human being”) came eating and drinking” (Jesus is saying “Yes”).

Jesus, if you remember, got his start by working with John in his ministry. John baptized Jesus and Jesus’ message, in the early days of his ministry, is almost indistinguishable from John’s: Both of them baptized people and told them to “repent and believe the good news, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

But then a shift began to happen after John was arrested and killed. Jesus branched out on his own and took the movement in a new direction. As John himself said, “He (Jesus) must increase and I must decrease.”

Rather than disengaging from society and staying out in the desert, Jesus ventured back into the city streets. He got involved in people’s lives, loving without judgment. He scandalized the dominant powers of this world in a different way: by practicing such open acceptance, he defied their nicely defined ideological categories and the boxes into which they so conveniently put people and God.

As a result, they reduced him to the lowest common denominator and called him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Ironically, they couldn’t be more right. The reality of God’s love in Christ was far deeper and broader than they could imagine. Jesus envisioned a community where all people would be welcome at heaven’s table, not just those who passed theological or ethical muster. This was more than the powers of this world could handle. They just couldn’t imagine sharing heaven with such pathetic riff-raff.

During this time, the disciple’s eyes were gradually opened to the truth that this Son of Man is also the Son of God. The Church, after reflecting on this reality for centuries, came to affirm that Christ is both “fully human” and “fully divine”. The theological term for this is Incarnation – the belief that God has taken on flesh, that through Christ, God is present with us in the very stuff of this universe. Therefore, the stuff of this universe is sacred. Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the Source from which all things come and the Destiny toward which all things are going.

In Christ, the universe itself finds healing and wholeness. Our broken world is fragmented no more. We are free to eat and drink once again, having overcome the clatter of this world’s childish wailing and flute-playing. We are now able to approach life with new eyes, the eyes of faith, strengthened by Christ’s Word and Sacraments, which point us back to the deeper truth of hidden wholeness beneath the fragmented surface of the world. All things come from Christ and return to Christ by way of Christ.

With that knowledge, we are able to put our worried minds at ease and our weary souls at rest, as Jesus himself said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Trust that Triumphs Over Wrong

Our Community Garden

Our Community Garden

Yesterday (July 2) was the feast of Social Gospellers Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and Jacob Riis in the Episcopal Church’s most recent calendar of saints (Holy Women, Holy Men).

Gladden and Rauschenbusch were both pastors. The former supported labor rights and opposed racial segregation. The latter served a small Baptist congregation in the aptly named “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York and was inspired to activism after officiating for so many funerals for babies. His care for these suffering families led him to ask why the infant mortality rate was so high to begin with.

According to Rauschenbusch, the goal of Christianity was to “substitute love for selfishness as the basis of human society”.

I had these words ringing in my ear yesterday as I attended a meeting at the Vine Neighborhood Association, where a group of us residents have been making dramatic improvements to our streets. A crack house down the block from me was finally torn down earlier this year. In its place, we have erected a community garden on the empty lot.

From crack house to community garden… sounds like the reign of heaven to me.

But now a local developer has hopped on board to buy the lot from the city and turn our garden into a parking lot.

From community garden to parking lot… sounds like a step in the opposite direction.

Having met with the neighborhood association and the city land bank, it seems that our options are limited and chances are slim that they will succeed. It is too late for the property to be taken off the auction block for communal use (something the land bank is loathe to do, because the land then produces no tax revenue). This developer is reportedly well-resourced, knows how to work the system, and has a reputation for being difficult to work with.

It appears that selfishness may reign over love, when it comes to salvaging this particular project.

Selfishness is what this is. Legal perhaps, but not morally right. The garden lot does not belong to this developer (yet). We the people of the Vine neighborhood have given our time and energy to each other and to this land for months, even before the abandoned crack house was taken down. Selfishness is blinding the developer to the truth that transcends legality and profiteering.

After I left that discouraging neighborhood meeting, I went to the midweek Eucharist at St. Luke’s Episcopal. There I was fed by the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation. I drew strength from the Source of Life that connects me:

  • to the ground of my being,
  • to everyone else in the room,
  • to all saints of future, present, and past,
  • to bakers of bread and makers of wine,
  • to wheat and grape that grow from the earth.

I am connected. I am part of the whole. And once again, Christ substitutes love for selfishness in me.

After Communion, the congregation sang this hymn by Washington Gladden, one of the Social Gospel saints we remembered yesterday:

Teach me thy patience; still with thee,
in closer, dearer company
in work that keeps faith sweet and strong,
in trust that triumphs over wrong,

in hope that sends a shining ray
far down the future’s broadening way,
in peace that only thou canst give,
with thee, O Master, let me live.

No matter what happens next, may we not lose hope in the vision. May we keep faith with God and one another, even if friendships, rather than tomatoes, are the most lasting fruit this garden produces.

An Open Letter to The Young Women of the PCUSA

An Open Letter to The Young Women of the PCUSA

Originally posted on First Presbyterian in Argenta:

Dear Jordan, Hannah, Amanda, Yuri, Hannah and other young women who grew up in the PCUSA,

Don’t ever take for granted the privilege of being a woman brought up in the Presbyterian Church USA. Like me, you have had a voice in your congregation, in your Presbytery and even at the national level of our denomination since you were confirmed as a full-fledged member of the church. Neither your youth nor your gender has prevented you from being leaders in our church community.

This is not true for all women.  Not all (not even most) women raised in the Christian faith have shared your experience.

There are women who are moved to tears when you ask them to be the liturgist in a worship service because they have been led to believe they don’t have the authority to do so.

There are smart, creative and confident women who have to muster…

View original 252 more words

Church, Interrupted

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f7/Rembrandt_Abraham_en_Isaac%2C_1634.jpg

When you come to church, what kinds of things do you expect to do?

Sing hymns? Say prayers? Read from the Bible? Hear a sermon? Receive Communion?

In our denomination’s Book of Order (part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church), we have a list of ‘the Elements of Worship’ and they are:

  • Prayer,
  • the reading and proclaiming of Scripture,
  • Baptism,
  • the Lord’s Supper,
  • Self-offering, and
  • Relating to each other and the world.

All of these things are pretty normal things to have happen during church services. We’ve come to expect them. If there was a church somewhere that said, “We’re not going to pray or read the Bible anymore during our services,” we would wonder about that church (*Side Note: I’m particularly delighted to see that more and more Protestants are including the Eucharist in their list of things that are central to Christian worship).

If there was a church somewhere that didn’t do any of the above things, most of us would probably want to ask, “What then, makes this gathering a Christian church?”

It might be a perfectly good social group, activist organization, or educational institution, but most of us would have a hard time seeing it as a church (as people typically understand the term) unless there was some part of its communal life that was specifically devoted to worship.

It was that way in the ancient world too. People in that culture expected certain elements to be part of their worship experience. One of those elements was sacrifice.

It was widely believed in the ancient world that deities fed off of the sacrifices offered by the people. These sacrifices could be things like bread, wine, animals, or even people. The general idea was: the more precious the thing sacrificed, the more pleased the deity would be. If you really wanted to get on a particular deity’s good side, you sacrificed something really valuable to you. In return, that deity would then grant you favors related to his or her sphere of influence (e.g. fertility, harvest, war, etc.).

To the ancient mind, that’s just how religion worked. They could no more imagine worship without sacrifice than we could imagine a church service without hymns.

Human sacrifice, in particular, was just one of those accepted elements of worship. It sounds horrifying to our 21st century ears, but the idea that God would ask someone to sacrifice their firstborn child was not all that unusual for people in Abraham’s culture. That’s why we don’t hear Abraham raising a fuss when God asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac in this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis. Asking for the life of his firstborn would have sounded like a perfectly normal request for God to make.

Yet, this is a very shocking passage, to ancient ears as well as our own. The shock, for Abraham and the early Jews, was not that God would ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but that God would stop the sacrifice from happening at the last second.

“Wait a minute,” they would have said, “do you mean to tell me that God didn’t want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in the end? Do you mean to tell me that God actually interrupted the sacrifice and asked for a ram instead? What kind of God would do such a thing?!

It would have been amazing and unheard of for them. It would have upset all their conventional religious ideas in favor of something new that had never been seen before. People in that culture might have even had a hard time imagining how such a religion would work; for them, it would be like church without hymns, or prayers, or the Bible, or Communion: it just wouldn’t feel like church.

Abraham stood at the forefront of a revolution: a radical shift in his culture’s understanding of God. His God would no longer demand human blood in exchange for favors. Only animals would be sacrificed from that point on. This move was a step in a particular direction.

Later on, the early Christians would do away with the practice of animal sacrifice as well, proclaiming that the death of Jesus had put an end to the need for sacrifice altogether. That was a step.

In the sixteenth century, our Protestant ancestors, Martin Luther and John Calvin (among others), started another revolution when they proclaimed that membership in the Church of Christ depended on one’s personal faith, rather than loyalty to the Pope. As we already know, this idea blew people’s minds and shattered their cultural expectations of what church was all about. That was another step.

All of this leads me to wonder: What is our revolution? In what ways is God calling us to be radicals? How will history look back at us and say, “Wow, those really stood at the forefront of a new understanding of God/church/religion”?

Let me be clear that I really do believe they will. I really do think that we live at one of those turning points in history: one of those moments that influences the shape of things to come for centuries. Just like the ancient and medieval ages before it, our modern world is now coming to an end. We’re entering what many academics are calling the postmodern era of history.

As we make this shift and the world is changing around us, we Christians are asking some pretty big questions about things like church, God, and religion. Some of us are questioning old patterns and forms of worship; some of us are questioning old dogmas and concepts of God that were based in assumptions about the universe that people in the 21st century no longer hold; at the end of the iconoclastic modern era, some of us are returning to more ancient and medieval practices with a new set of spiritual eyes. Most of these questions are bound to make us uncomfortable. Like most of our ancestors who lived at similar turning-points of history, people in the postmodern world will probably end up keeping some things from the past while they change other things. That’s just the way life works: nothing stays the same forever, and nothing is totally independent of that which came before it.

Time will not permit for me to talk about all the different questions and changes that might be coming our way in the near-future (I highly recommend the books of theologians like Stanley Grenz and Brian D. McLaren, if you yourself are interested), but there is one current shift that I would like to briefly touch on:

The Christian Church, ever since the days of the Roman emperor Constantine in the 4th century, has long been at the center of Western European and North American society. Even where Christianity wasn’t established as the official state religion, the church (as an institution) nevertheless enjoyed the benefits that come with considerable money and power. Church membership was culturally expected as part of what it meant to be a person of a particular nationality (e.g. English, Italian, or American).

In the past half-century, all of that has begun to change. Our society is becoming more secular. People no longer assume that their neighbors go to church anymore. Neither our pews nor our offering plates are as full as they used to be. The Church has gone from being at the center of society to being out on the edge. Christianity exists in the margins of society at this point in history.

Many people are saddened or even frightened by this shift. Looking at the empty buildings and smaller budgets, they long for the “good old days” when the Church was more culturally central and enjoyed the money and power that came with such privileged status. Some folks even think they might be able to re-create that imaginary Golden Age, if only their church had the right kind of pastor or Sunday School program.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen. Just like Abraham, Jesus, and Calvin, I think we’re living in a time when ideas about God and Church are changing on a radical level. The Church of the future will look very different from the Church of the past.

I see Christianity becoming a religion that exists at the margins, made up of people who live at the margins. I see us becoming a Church of the poor, for the poor, and by the poor: a home for the homeless, a family for the outcast, friends of sinners, a community of prophets that critiques the values of the dominant culture instead of underwriting them.

When I imagine the future, I see a Church full of people like Abraham, who was so open to hearing God’s voice that he was able to stop the sacrifice of his son Isaac at the last possible second. He looked instead at the ram caught in the thicket and imagined, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a new way of doing things, a new way of practicing religion, a new way of being Church, and a new way of understanding God that had never been conceived before.

I believe that we, at North Church, already have a head-start on that future. We are already a small church of the poor that exists on the edge of society. I believe we have something special to offer our brothers and sisters in the mainline churches. We are showing them where they are going. In our life together, we are living proof that the future is not all doom and gloom, but light and hope as the Church-at-large returns with its whole to heart, not to the good old days of money and power, but to that which really makes us the Church: our passionate love for God and one another in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Varieties of Religious Blogging

J. Barrett Lee:

This blogger admits that he has been guilty of all of the above at one point or another…

Originally posted on A Red State Mystic:

Meh

We here at A Red State Mystic* believe in taking the work out of blogging. Sure, you could still aggregate and like Facebook pages and follow on Twitter, but you don’t have time for that. You’re busy writing a screenplay. Being a mother. You know, stuff. We understand. That’s why we’ve decided to boil down ninety-five percent of contemporary religious blogging into five categories. Now you can go back to doing the important stuff, like not caring when internet people internet. Hashtag: urwelcome.

The Let’s Get Real, Guys:
Exemplar: Rachel Held Evans.

Let’s face it. A lot of Evangelicals think x. I’m tired of arguing about x. Forty years ago, everybody else decided was okay. I might feel better if I just let it go. But, I won’t. I won’t even. I won’t even stop writing simple sentences. I won’t even stop bolding the important ones so you can skim. I won’t even…

View original 555 more words