Archive for January, 2014

(re)Bless

Posted in Uncategorized on January 27, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

sermon-on-mount

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

—Matthew 5:1-12

This week’s reading from the gospel of Matthew holds that famous, oft-cited, oft-printed listing of blessings from Jesus’ inaugural sermon to his disciples, outlining the character and expectations of the kingdom his ministry launches.  Seen hung on walls of restaurants and printed on countless bookmarks given to me during Sunday School from my youth, these words from Matthew’s gospel possess a degree of familiarity that can be diminishing, the kind of devalued meaning accompanying those ideas and expressions that are ever-present.  Here, I want to pause for a moment to consider these words from Matthew’s gospel with fresh eyes, lingering over them long enough and from a different perspective to gain something new from the reading.

Up on a mountain as Jesus gather’s his first followers, a sermon is delivered.  Highlighted in that sermon is the recitation of a series of blessings, blessings that have come to be known as the “beatitudes.”  The word “beatitudes” is a vestige of Latin loitering in our theological language.  The term comes from a Latin word that means “blessed” or “happy.”  Early Latin theologians often used that term to summarize this scriptural section of Jesus’ teaching.  Significantly, the uplifting energy emerging from this sermon and the ebullient attitude and perception it creates suggests that the substance of discipleship is captured in the positive tenor of these passages as much as the actual teachings themselves.

To understand how discipleship and life in the Jesus’ new kingdom is encapsulated in the Beatitudes, looking at the context for Jesus’ sermon is useful.

Recall that when this passage appears in Matthew’s gospel, we are still near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and just after he has called a specific set people, called disciples, to follow him.  Having been identified from amongst the many in a crowd who were following, Jesus breaks from his wanderings to instruct these twelve and others who find themselves within earshot.

The fact that 12 individuals were called to make this initial cohort of disciples is significant as it suggests that Jesus is looking to identify a group to serve as a representative body for the entirety of Israel, a nation composed of 12 tribes.  In so doing, Jesus’ selection of the 12 disciples repeats the earlier selection of Israel as a representative people, a people we learned from the book of Genesis who were representative of all peoples.  In other words, Jesus calls a group of disciples to serve as a reminder that a larger community of people was called to represent all people called into existence and relationship with the Creator of all peoples.  This means that what makes the disciples (and all people) “blessed” is not this specific event but the simple fact that they have been called into existence at all and that such a calling includes a connection with the God of existence.  It is this call into existing-connection that produces a blessed or happy state, a state belonging to everyone.

This state of blessedness that belongs to all people by virtue of existence means that what Jesus is doing in the Beatitudes is not so much an offering of specific benefits to a specific group of people that will be available should they take him up his offer.  Rather, what Jesus is doing through his issuing of these statements is reminding the disciples (and us) what is already theirs (and ours) as the condition of connection to the Creator.  They (and we) simply are blessed.  The Beatitudes are meant to remind us of what is and not to suggest what might be.  (Note how the verb tense used throughout the Beatitudes is in the present tense, not the future.)

Using a rhetorical rhythm, each of Jesus’ eight declarations of blessing is meant to act like the hammer on the bell of our theological alarm clocks, awakening us from the drowsy slumber of our distracted lives and, one by one, systematically removing the layers of night from our eyes.  This awakening removal opens our eyes to our real existence, more a calling to a new consciousness of our already real existence with God and not the formation of some new, previously nonexistent connection.  Said another way, it seems that Jesus’ call in the Beatitudes is an awakening to life as it is and not into life as it will or could be.

Such an interpretation of the text seems consistent with that opening of sight that accompanies a life of discipleship.  In the fifth chapter of Second Corinthians, the writer connects being with Christ and the coming of something new.  The Greek text carries that lovely ambiguity of suggesting both or either that the person connected to God through Christ is a new creation or that the person sees creation anew.  If this reading of this passage from Matthew’s gospel and from Paul’s letter is plausible, then we may conclude that we come to see differently because of our relationship with God, a new sight granting insight into how we are.  Such an insight is (1) a claim to the truth of who we are rather than (2) a claim as to what we must become.  The first interpretation demands an ownership of who we are while the second suggests an abandonment of who we are to become someone new.  As is often the case, both traditions of interpretation and theology exist in scripture.

I am inclined to follow this former reading of the passage from Matthew and Second Corinthians, placing me in a theological tradition more interested in affirming the essential and insoluble image of God and the inherent “goodness” of God’s good creation in us all.  The alternative, latter interpretation represents a theology more interested in naming our brokenness and alienation, a brokenness and alienation that requires complete rejection of one life to obtain another.  The first interpretation seems fundamentally optimistic while the second seems more pessimistic.  (I tend to be a glass half-full kind of person, anyway.  And, as I often say, our theology is rarely systematic but more autobiographic.)

Yet my commitment to seeing our existence in inherently positive terms has practical and fundamental consequences for how we see the world, others, and ourselves.

For instance, if my understanding of discipleship means an abandoning of the world in favor of a new one, then I am less inclined to work on making this one better because such work would be futile and possibly unfaithful.  Such a mindset of material abandonment would lead me to see the world as a place to be avoided, carrying in it potential contagions that might infect my new life with the same disease endemic to the old.

On the other hand, if my understanding of discipleship means an abandoning of how I see the world in favor of seeing the world anew, then I am less inclined to detach from the world because it is the only world for me, making me more disposed to engage the world in transformative and awakening love.  Such a mindset of imaginative transformation of me and my vision to see the world as God sees it leads me to see the world as a place filled with hope, supplying a passion to discover, highlight, and strengthen the latent image of God permeating this good creation.

To me, if the call of discipleship carries any sort of consequential choice, that call is a call to choose between how we see the world and ourselves and, resultantly, how we choose to embrace that world and accept ourselves.

In a world where the prevailing rhetoric seems to teach our children to hate their gender or another’s because it belongs to an inferior or essentially different state rather than an equal one . . . where we see others as fundamentally alien and foreign rather than children of the same Father . . . where we see resources as scarce and to be horded more than abundant and to be shared . . . where the past seems more golden than the promise of the future . . . and where we tell some that they have been created just as God wants them to be while we tell others that they are created by God as an abomination . . . in such a world it seems that we—or many of us—have chosen abandonment rather than embrace, the negative over the positive, pessimism over optimism.  Such a choice might be a legitimate theological way forward, faithful to one strain of the Christian tradition.

Yet, for me, such a choice moves against the grain of “good news” lying at the heart of the gospel.  How can news be classified as “good” that assumes that the default state of God is rejection and abandonment rather than love and embrace?  Given the choice between that trajectory of the Christian tradition that leads away from the world and who we are or one that leads toward the world and who we are, I choose to follow the one that walks in paths leading to material, real, and incarnational embrace and connection with the world, God’s properly created people, and the lingering image of God waiting to be found and celebrated.

That sounds like not just good new but great news to me.  And, that sounds like a world worth loving, not one worth leaving.

Have a great week and see you along the way.

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Dreams (re)Imagined

Posted in Uncategorized on January 20, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

king

For obvious reasons, this week our minds drift to the words and thoughts of Martin Luther King, Jr.  While sifting through King’s reflections, I was reminded of his inspiring words, eloquent prose, and sharp insights.  To understate the obvious, he had a way with words.  In compiling a set of excerpts from King’s speeches and writings, I discovered little if no room for my own reflections.

King’s works and words stand sufficiently on their own.  So, the best reflection on King is simply to present one of his speeches in its entirety.  Below are both text and audio versions of his “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963.  I chose this speech because of its familiarity and its almost prophetic reach into our own time.  On this holiday, we often hear the ending of this speech, but the beginning is as powerful and perceptive as the end is aspirational and hopeful.

Drawing upon powerful King legacy, we will hold our second annual Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired lecture on Faith, Politics, and Civil Rights is part of an initiative by IRC and SGA to raise the level of conversations on campus around topics essential to engaging society as a critically informed member of the global community.   Join us on Tuesday at 7:30pm in the chapel.  The entire campus is invited to come.

Until then, here, in its entirety, is King’s August 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech:

(If you wish to listen to the speech while reading the text, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRIF4_WzU1w.)

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”¹ I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest — quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”2 This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

iResolve

Posted in Uncategorized on January 9, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

I am no longer my own but yours.  Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours.

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–A prayer from the Wesley Covenant Service

From top songs of the year to most important newsmakers or influential citizens to efforts at identifying the year’s best athletes, recording artists, or actors, it is virtually impossible to avoid lists and discussions attempting to assess and quantify the past year.  Equally, once the New Year has begun newscasts and newspapers, sermons and state governments not only review the past year but also imagine the possibilities for the year now underway.  Often, these imagined possibilities include a cataloging of resolutions.

Among the countless other promises, we pledge to lose weight, to save more, to spend more time with our families, to volunteer, to finish those projects perpetually left undone.  Whatever the items crowding our personal and corporate “to do lists,” the start of a new year seems an appropriate time to construct such hopeful catalogues. 

Much like us, John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement, was no different. 

However, more than generally assessing what we did last year and what we must do in the year begun, Wesley was specifically interested in encouraging the members of his Methodist societies to identify those intentional actions done in the previous year that moved his people toward perfection—i.e., toward being and loving like God—and in fostering an environment where members would find such a pursuit of perfection successful in the year to come.  One means Wesley contrived to facilitate this pursuit was an annual Covenant Service.  

This idea of covenant was basic to Wesley’s understanding of Christian discipleship. He saw the relationship with God in covenant as being like a marriage between human beings (both as a community and as individuals) on the one side and God on the other.  His original Covenant Prayer involved taking Christ as “my Head and Husband, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions, to love, honour and obey thee before all others, and this to the death.”  Wesley recognized that people needed not simply to enter but also to grow in relationship with God.  He, therefore, emphasized that God’s grace and love constantly prompts and seeks to transform us, and so we should continually seek and pray to grow in holiness and love.  Importantly, the covenant is not a contract in which God and human beings agree to provide particular goods and services to each other.  It is not something that we have to do to create a relationship with God.  In Wesley’s understanding of grace, God has freely and graciously done that.  Rather, the covenant is the means of grace by which we accept the relationship and then seek to sustain it.

Since, covenant is about connecting and choosing intentional acts that maintain that connection, the Covenant Service serves as an annual recognition that God regularly chooses us.  In light of this recognition, it is no accident that Wesley referred to the societies as the “Connexion.”  The Connexion functioned as a material embodiment of our intended destiny to share life with God, each other, and all of creation. 

This week, as we start another semester and calendar year together, the need to remind us of our shared life and to affirm that shared life could not be greater.  The timeliness of Wesley’s Covenant Prayer supplies a counterweight to any inclinations at the solo engagement in the arduous task of maintaining our newly minted resolutions and embarking on a new semester’s academic venture.  As this prayer reminds, Wesley held—as do I—that we have been created to share life with each other and that shared life must be relied upon at this very moment.  

Have a wonderful, shared week together and see you along the way.yer reminds, Wesley held—as do I—that we have been created to share life with each other and that shared life must be relied upon at this very moment.