Archive for April, 2012

Hope

Posted in Uncategorized on April 23, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

As there is no chapel this week and our semester finds itself drawing to a close, our iChapel this morning turns its gaze upon all the scurrying and cramming, late nights and early mornings, toner-drained copiers and mind-decanted essays.

In this season of finals and finales, a short poem by Emily Dickinson may prove inspiring.

Have a magnificent start to your weeks and end to your terms. It has been a wonderful year of life, learning, and community as we share in a precocious and holy ministry together.

“Hope Is a Strange Invention”

Hope is a strange invention —
A Patent of the Heart —
In unremitting action
Yet never wearing out —

Of this electric Adjunct
Not anything is known
But its unique momentum
Embellish all we own —

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You

Posted in Uncategorized on April 16, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
—1 John 4:1-12

In this passage from the first letter of John, we read that famous declaration that “God is love.” Such a declaration seems rather patent, rendering it a gratuitous confession. Yet, the fact that the writer of John believes it necessary to state the obvious means that something must be driving the writer’s impulse to underscore the loving character essential to the Divine. So, what is driving the writer, and is this claim of love as clear as we might initially think?

A little background on this text and the community that produced it might help answer these questions.

Emerging from the same community and at about the same time as the Gospel of John, this letter appears to have been written at a defining moment in the life of the early church, in general, and the Johannine community, in particular. These writings from John’s community are coming just after the fall of Jerusalem and the formal split between those early Jewish-Christian communities and their host synagogues. In other words, for the first time, we might be able to say that there are Christians and there are Jews and that they see each other as distinctly different faith communities.

This division has caused an identity, theological, and communal crisis, a crisis we see working itself out in the pages of John’s letters, gospel, and—to a lesser extend—revelation.

For the first time, these Christians have to understand themselves as the bearers of a tradition that both traces its heritage into the deep past but that finds itself at odds with a competing and continuing community claiming that same heritage. As far as John’s community is concerned, one group has the truth and the other does not. The community’s identity is forming around this stark division between right and wrong, truth and deceit, sin and love. The writer illustrates this division through the repeated metaphor of light and dark.

In the second verse of our chapter above, the writer sneaks in the defining theological division separating John’s community from the “false prophets,” i.e., their former friends and fellow worshipers. That division centers on a claim regarding the nature of Christ. John’s community claims that Jesus was God in the flesh while the others claim that Jesus was God just not materially real as we are. In other words, we are catching a glimpse of one of the earliest debates within the church on the nature of the incarnation. And, for John’s community, the incarnation is everything.

As an exercise in theology, recall the prologue to John’s gospel and the declaration that the Word was made flesh and lived among us or the end of John’s Revelation and the vision of God and heaven descending and living among us—interestingly, the same Greek word is used in each instance to explain God’s material presence with humanity. In other words, for John’s community, the material presence of God in the person of Jesus means everything. It means that God really cares about us. It means that our lives and bodies and this world matter. It means that the gospel is not about some future expectation but a present reality. It means that life and hope are not some distant possibility but an immediate experience. And, it means that love—as John uses it here—is not a description of an emotion or of sentimental reflection. Rather, love is the description of God’s real and true presence. That is to say, love is a call to abiding and material shared life with each other. And, since some have chosen to separate from the community, in large measure, because of their rejection of God’s materially reality, then they cannot possibly know love or God or the truth. (At least, that is the writer’s contention.) Love, after all, as John’s community sees it, rejects rejection, seethes at separation, and manifests itself in material presence.

Communally, the claim to a necessary unified social body of the faithful as the attestation of God’s reality and real presence is summarized in the writer’s affirmation that God’s incarnation as materially present love is “perfected in us.” In other words, God’s love will always and must always be expressed in an affirmation of material—not virtual or theoretical—shared life together. Such a life witnesses to God and God’s love. Efforts to dissolve such a community and to diminish materiality, physicality, “flesh” are contrary to the gospel and to God.

(This claim to the apparent theological value and essentiality of community, unity, and materiality might appear odd when we examine the history of the church and the church’s spotty record on matters like sexuality and schisms and its sometimes disparaging of the present and material needs at the expense of exalting future salvation and heavenly rewards. We Christians can be a complex and confounding people.)

What I find most useful from these verses from John’s first letter is the dual affirmation about materiality and about us.

First, John is clearly resisting any temptation to disparage the present and physical world. To the dismay of many who have listened to television preachers, the gospel message, as John’s community understands it, is less a commentary on future events and eternal results than a call to loving action in the present world, emerging not from the world but from God in the world. Second, the writer insists that the truest test or confirmation that we are continuing Jesus’ work and the proper bearers of his witness and life and truth is our ability to love each other and the world like God loves, i.e., by a presence-seeking, materiality-affirming, unifying force. Such a force, it turns out, becomes the very material manifesting witness of God, leading the writer to conclude that “. . . since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us . . . .”

All this year, we have been concentrating our thoughts around what it means to say the “gospel” or “good news.” Early on, we considered how this expression emerged out of a Greco-Roman declaration that a battle had ended. Adopted by the early church, the use of this term encapsulated a confession that in Jesus some sort of victory has been won. Throughout this year, we have examined the nuancing of this claim to victory, considering how the various and diverse voices from within the Christian faith have articulated this claim, creating, at times, a cacophony of disparate assertions and, at times, a chorus of unified declarations.

In the end, it is my opinion that both the disparate and the concordant make up a varied, melodious, and complex harmony that is the church’s fractured and faithful witness. Such a claim might seem odd, especially given John’s apparent call for unity. I mean, how can something be both faithful and fractured when at the core the gospel seems to be about a shared life? I think we have our answer in John’s definition of love.

God’s love in John’s estimation is less about singular and uniform statements as much as it is about a singular and unified life. The gospel, it turns out, is more about a common commitment to shared life and love and compassion for the world and each other and for God than it is about seamless theological harmony and unequivocal doctrinal uniformity.

What a wonderful witness it seems we would offer if our energies were less directed to establishing exactly what to say or believe and more concerned with sharing each other’s joys and pains and celebrating successes and embracing those that stumble.

In a world were so many claim to have sole possession of the truth, this simple multiplicity seems to undermine the possible validity of any of their claims to certainty. Such a faith predicated on saying the right thing, believing the right doctrine, or articulating the right theology is far more likely to be in error than to have located or deduced what is right. Rather, what the gospel or good news seems to be is a gracious directive that what we must do to get it right is truly to live it together and that there is no time like the present to get started.

As we conclude this year’s reflections on the gospel, our last area of focus is you. That is to say, how are our lives the manifestation of the gospel, a living declaration of the good news of God’s love and life? It seems that John is offering us a straightforward answer: in a world of iPods and podcasts and iChapels; facebook and social media; virtual conferencing, Skype, and iChat; and ubiquitous smart phones and old fashioned telephones and televisions, that one of the most significant ways we might live as we are called to live is to put all that useful yet isolating technology down and share some time with each other, share a meal, share an afternoon, share a joy, share a sorrow, share something other than electrical current and binary code. My recommendation might seem trivial or trite or overly simplistic or a misdiagnosis of the problem or a false prescription to the crippling sins of the world. All that may be true. Yet, at least, my recommendation is a start, a start at a new material and present life together.

And, that sounds like good news to me.

Belief

Posted in Uncategorized on April 9, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

Christ is risen and forever lives
to challenge and to change
all whose lives are messed or mangled,
all who find religion strange.
Christ is risen. Christ is present,
making us what he has been;
Evidence of transformation
in which God is known and seen.

Music has a way of transporting us to new states of experience and alternative levels of thought. Yet, sometimes, it works in the inverse; music transports new states and ideas to us.

In church on Easter Sunday, we sang a hymn entitled “Christ Is Risen” by the Scottish minister and Iona community member John Bell. New to me, the hymn’s concluding verse seemed particularly poignant for an Eastern morning. I have included that verse above.

Because of their simple complexity, I think these lines deserve some quick consideration.

The opening line encapsulates a standard declaration appropriate to the day, reiterating the church’s historical attestation to Jesus’ resurrection to eternal life. While central to the faith, this declaration’s pairing with an expectation of practical impact upon our “messed and mangled” lives seems more novel. Often, when making such propositional claims like the one in the first line of this hymn’s final stanza, we do so in the abstract, like some objective fact out there located somewhere in ethereal infinity. Yet, here, Bell’s linking of the abstract with the practical transitions the declaration from a statement about the past to a promise for the present.

If these first three lines prove novel, I find the next line even more fascinating: “all who find religion strange.” I love this phrase because I, too, more often than not, count myself in the number of those who call religion strange. As someone who makes his living dedicated to studying, promoting, and practicing religion, it might seem odd that I would find religion strange. Yet, I do.

I particularly find religion strange when religion is understood, as it often is, as a series of declarations about certain truths concerning the nature of the Divine, life, and us. While certainly important, claims to ideas seem like a rather flimsy foundation upon which to rest one’s life. Those claims vary so significantly from denomination to denomination from creed to creed that our claims cease to possess much, if any, credibility. Facts and definitive assertions, it turns out, prove less reliable as the cornerstone for our faith or religion than we might hope.

Yet, if not facts and assertions, then what might serve as the foundational building blocks for the edifice we call faith or religion? The hymn seems to suggest a useful alternative by substituting one noun for another, i.e., replacing “what” with “who.”

The hymn does a wonderful service to religion, rescuing religion from the obscurity of abstraction and excessive variance and linking faith not with intellectual ascent but with our personal and collective action as an imitative exercise. Or, to paraphrase Will Willimon from his text Pastor, religion is not what we hold to be true but what we do.

While statements of faith are certainly important, the essence of the Gospel is not encapsulated in the content of declarative statements as much as the willingness to make a statement in the first place. As a certain kind of action, statements of faith remind us that for faith to be resuscitated from lifeless doctrine, faith must be seen as a kind of doing that emerges from and transforms our being.

Moreover, Bell understands that faith, again, is not found in abstract formulations but as an act of personal trust experienced and known between peoples and with God. As Bell asserts, God is made known and seen through our acting as agents of transformative change. This kind of knowing, again, is a kind of knowing connected with living life together, not as a type of intellectual but, rather, of personal familiarity. In other words, it is a biblical “knowing”—something known and experienced intimately, personally, socially, communally, deeply.

This kind of knowing affects our intellectual reasoning, certainly, but its source and substance are less the product of mental gymnastics as the outcome of the day-to-day habits of life shared and persons trusted and truth exercised and God pursued. In other words, the doing affects our knowing—as much if not more—than the inverse.

In this short stanza, Bell reminds us that faith is not a point of arrival at the end of proper intellectual ponderings but the starting point from which we launch a life shared in imitating love of the One pursued.

Travel well for the road ahead will not be easy, but, also, remember not to travel alone.

Peace.

Response

Posted in Uncategorized on April 2, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.

Acts 16:11-15

 

For many reasons, scripture is amazing.  In particular, I am always delighted to discover those subtle ways that in scripture relatively simple literary structures are used to underscore more complex theological claims.

 

The story of Lydia from the Book of Acts includes just such a structure.

 

In the recording of the encounter between Paul (and Silas and Timothy) with Lydia in Acts, the missionary apostles go outside the city walls to find Lydia (and other women) who had gathered for prayer.  Lydia listened to Paul; her heart was opened; she and her whole household were baptized; and, then, she opened her home to her new friends in the faith.  Within this short story, there is a wonderful oscillating rhythm. 

 

First, Paul goes out.  Then, Lydia invites Paul into her home.  This out and in movement might seem insignificant. Yet, when viewed within the larger events of Paul’s missionary work in Acts, this little story embodies the dynamic and programmatic call of the gospel.

 

Recall that immediately before speaking with Lydia in the Acts narrative, Paul and others have just succeeded in convincing the early church leadership in Jerusalem to embrace missionary work among the Gentiles.  The church, ready to risk something new, is plotting a novel trajectory for the expansion of its mission.  The success and validity of that decision is still very much in doubt.  It is in this uncertain yet pivotal moment, the Paul has a dream, calling him to Macedonia.  In other words, at the very moment that the church has decided to consider the importance of risking the gospel message outside the relative safe and known world of their Jewish communities in Palestine, Paul senses a call to go to a most definitively non-Jewish place, Macedonia. 

 

Macedonia, particularly Philippi, was a Roman colony in Greece with a very small, virtually nonexistent Jewish community.  The Jewish community in Philippi was so small that they did not even number enough to form a synagogue congregation.  Instead, this small community gathered outside the city walls at some convenient place for prayer.  To demonstrate the paucity of the Jewish community’s presence in Philippi, Lydia is counted among their number. As her Greek name and origin betray, Lydia was not even a Jew but a “worshipper of God,” i.e., code for a Gentile believer but not a formal convert.  In this subtle way by including Lydia in the count, the writer of Acts discloses that Jewish community in Philippi and their non-Jewish supporters were so small in number that combined they still did not constitute a large enough gathering to justify forming a synagogue. 

 

If there ever was a test for the newly sanctioned expanded missionary policy of the early church, Paul’s arrival in Philippi marked that test’s beginning.  Paul was well outside his and the Jewish church’s theologically and culturally familiar territory.  Paul, his mission, and the gospel were exposed and vulnerable.  And, the narrative structure of the encounter with Lydia helps frame this reality. 

 

Yet, countering the weight of their vulnerability, Lydia’s positive response to the gospel message and her unexpected and disproportionate invitation to Paul and Timothy validates their mission’s initial risk with the offsetting abundance of Lydia’s hospitality, welcoming the gospel and the gospel’s messengers into her entire household.  Said another way, equaling Paul’s vulnerability of being out of his comfort zone, her hospitality to the gospel and receiving its messengers included a comforting invitation of Paul into her own home. 

 

As much as Paul was going out, Lydia was letting in.

 

If the image of Paul and Lydia meeting outside the walls of the city paralleled the predominately-Jewish church’s movement outside its mission field and its own people, Lydia’s unexpected and fruitful invitation into her life parallels the larger success of Paul’s missionary work among a people initially considered by the church to represent unlikely/unworthy converts.  

 

As the story with Lydia in Acts is immediately proceeded by a larger story detailing the church’s vulnerable movement out, the story of Lydia in acts is immediately followed by a story of unexpected success found within. 

 

After staying with Lydia, Paul and his cohorts find themselves before the magistrate because of an economic encumbrance that resulted from Paul casting a divining demon out of a slave girl whose masters relied upon her divination skill for income.  As a result, Paul and his companions wind up on prison.  And, it is there, in the inner most cell of the prison, that the vulnerable message of the gospel finds a hospitable new home in the seemingly inhospitable confines of a prison guard’s heart. 

 

In this way, the story of Lydia serves a microcosmic role in exemplifying the macrocosmic character of the gospel.  That is, for the gospel to be the gospel, it must stop being the possession of the small few who struggle to keep it contained.  The gospel must be opened, exposed, put out there, and made vulnerable.  Equally, for the gospel to be the gospel, it will find hospitality in the lives and communities of the very ones those responsible for the gospel’s wellbeing thought unready, unable, or inappropriate hosts.

 

Counter intuitively, the greater risk, it seems, is not exposure but protection; its greatest reception is not found in the familiar but in the unfamiliar.

 

For me, this Lydia story is the essence of the good news that is the gospel.  This story is that essence because it discloses the very central character of the gospel of Jesus Christ by pointing us toward the divine virtues of vulnerability and hospitality emblematic of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  If the story of the incarnation is anything, it is the story of God’s risk at going outside comfortable expectations to seek hospitality in presumably inhospitable places. (The irony of this notion is not lost on me as we enter the week in the life of the church that we commemorate the vulnerable Christ’s inhospitable dispatch by a less than welcoming humanity.)

 

Yet, we, the caretakers of this message of good news about a vulnerable loosening of control and an unexpected welcome, all too often forget Lydia’s story of going outside to come in, of risking vulnerable exposure to find innovative hospitality. 

 

On the one hand, how often do we refrain from seeking justice or providing mercy or speaking truth to power because these acts demand us moving beyond what is predictable or comfortable or judged acceptable?  How often do we choose to hold onto the reassurance of what has worked at the risk of denying the possibility of what might work?  How often have we found ourselves called out to a new land or place or people or idea or method or medium or movement only to retreat behind our own walls of conformity and comfort, security and certainty, rigidity and righteousness? 

 

Or, on the other hand, how often have we assumed that the good news of God’s loving presence that we have to offer is not wanted or not deserved or not needed or not appropriate?  How often have we assumed that those people are not our people, that those people in that place believe and practice and live in such a way that we  and our God’s love cannot possibility find a home, share a life, experience hospitality, or become friends?  How often have we chosen not to risk loving others or assumed that others do not wish to be loved? 

 

Importantly, what I am talking about here is not some simple repackaging of (neo)evangelical theology.  Rather, what I think the Book of Acts is suggesting is something much more incarnational, intentional, material, and practical than the plain, predictable verbal declaration of Jesus.  Paul and Lydia seem to be suggesting a complex risking of a new kind of life together.

 

I could go on and on, but I think the point is made:  the gospel described in Lydia’s story is a good news that demands not to be contained in a box of our expectations but demands the liberating and dynamic freedom inherent in a message embodied in a man that was all about risking vulnerability for the sake of sharing hospitality in some of the least expected places.   

 

May we be such people.  May our lives be lives of uncontainable love that regularly risk reaching outside the wall when our walls seem so seductively useful and that chance entering into places where we presume love to be conspicuously absent or unwelcomed.

 

I return to my starting conclusion, scripture is amazing.