Saturday, April 22, 2017

The struggle is real | What is my role?

"He is risen is also He is not here. I think sometimes we experience the absence of Jesus in the Resurrection as much as we experience the joy of unexpected, too ambiguous glimpses. Too little attention is paid in our theology to that period of time in which he appears and vanishes while we are grieving, angry, and struggling to understand. The Easter season is a time of liminality. The Holy Spirit with its gifts of liturgy and comprehension and preaching is still a ways down the road. Maybe, just maybe, this Sunday [the Sunday after Easter] really is about being in a locked room having PTSD from witnessing the torture and execution of someone we really love, and knowing there's probably more torture and execution to come." (Kristen Mebust)
A meditation on passionate preaching in a critical moment, offered here with as much vulnerability as I can muster, because I have been agonizing and sweating and exhilarating and weeping over a sermon I had to preach two weeks ago (against the death penalty, interweaving sermon commentary into a dramatic reading of the Passion narrative, Matthew 26-27).

Like a shout in the mountains, the echoes of that sermon are still reverberating, both in my own heart, and in the life of our congregation.

After the sermon, multiple members of my congregation set up coffee meetings or walks with me, because they wanted to process their reaction to the sermon (and really, process their reactions to preaching and messages from much of 2017).

Here are some of the reactions:
1) I agree with you that the gospel speaks strongly to our moment, but I just don't know if I can participate in all the public advocacy it seems to call for. I'm focused more on inner spiritual work right now, and I wonder if that's okay? 
2) Your vocation as a pastor gives you time and space to get out and do public church a lot. I just can't, my daily work takes all my time, and is my primary calling. Is it okay if I'm contributing by doing that work well, with integrity and love? 
3) I just feel a lot of guilt, and I wonder if there is hope, and I want to hear more of that. 
4) I often agree with you, but even I feel like some of what you've said or are communicating in your sermons is too strong, too activist. Others have said: You're wrong and you shouldn't have preached that way.  
5) Thank you for speaking out. I appreciate that you try to do what you say even when it's not popular. Most of my disgust for religious institutions is based on the hypocrisy I saw growing up. I have few problems with Jesus, but churches are another story. Thank you for your persistent forthright integrity.
Stress and anxiety are definitely up post-election. It's not a surprise then that many people in our congregations, many folks in my parish, are looking for resources to deal with that stress. As a pastor, I have to consider: Am I offering Christian resources that help people appropriately deal with their stress and anxiety, or am I contributing to their distress?

To be honest, I don't know if I'm doing this well. I'm certain I'm contributing to my hearer's and reader's stress, because I'm of the opinion that we are in a moment of crisis, requiring a response from us appropriate to such crisis. Thing is, I'm designed psychologically to kind of like a crisis. It gives me a sense of purpose. Not everyone responds that way, so as a pastor I have to be careful to not preach and teach in such a way as to assume that everyone's response is like my response. It's hard work, but pastors are called to provide different kinds of resources for different folks.

I think one contribution is likely a better and greater focus on the stages of the spiritual life, and the relationship between inner spirituality and public advocacy. It's worth remembering that some of the greatest voices in Christian history spent as much or more time in prayer as they did out active in the world.

The many vocations of the baptized. It really is true that my vocation as pastor, and my role as a public church faith leader, offers unique opportunities to participate in activist, public ministry. I need to make sure I'm not throwing off, either directly or by implication, the message that everyone in my congregation has to imitate this same kind of public messaging. 

So to be clear: Not everyone has to go to protests, not everyone has to write letters to their politicians, not everyone has to or should re-share concerning news articles on Facebook. There are many ways to live out the Christian vocation of love and service, even resistance and protest. My way is just one way. I invite others to such public advocacy, because it does make a difference, but I fully understand that only some will feel called, and only some will have the capacity and opportunity.

That's fine. Remember that Paul argued that the Christian church is like a body with many members--head, heart, hands, feet (1 Corinthians 12). We need all the parts of the body to make a fully functioning organism. Discern your place in the body, then play your role. Maybe you pray. Maybe you sing. Maybe you work behind the scenes arranging the chairs, creating the art, giving back-rubs, washing feet. All these are essential the body.

As just one example, I tend to go to protests by myself. My family stays home. It's not that they don't support the groups protesting. I'm thankful to them for their support and love, and I fully understand that their responsibilities are different than mine right now, and am so thankful for their love and support while we go play our part. 

Real disagreement. But what if you genuinely disagree with a sermon I preach? This one is hard. I am just one pastor, just one voice. I believe it's my responsibility to proclaim the gospel as clearly as possible, which frequently includes lifting up the challenge Scripture (and Jesus) presents. I try not to let my personal opinions trump the clear proclamation of the gospel. Sometimes I fail. 

But frankly if I don't preach as honestly as I know how, if I temper what I say, moderate what I post, then I feel a lack of integrity. And if I preach honestly, forthrightly, even if you disagree with me, it creates a space for all our mutual discernment. Hard sermons result in the best conversations, they open up space for dialogue. So if you've been challenged by a sermon I preach, if it makes you angry, if it bothers, I really wish you'd bother me back. We'll both grow.

Lately, I'm really taken with this insight from Brené Brown, that we should in congregations create a "simple and honest process of letting people how that discomfort is normal, it's going to happen, why it happens, and why it's important, reduces anxiety, fear, and shame."

Brown calls leaders to get their heads and hearts "around the fact that we need to cultivate the courage to be uncomfortable and so teach the people around us how to accept discomfort as a part of growth."


In a culture that assumes it is a Christian, among a vast people all of whom believe their Jesus is the real Jesus, it takes much, a kind of shock and awe, real risk, to dig deeply enough to encounter the rising Christ. As Kristen Mebust writes above, in some moments the basic challenge requires us to remember that "he is risen means he isn't there." 

In other words, Jesus is not where we expected him to be. This means he is risen, sure, but it also means there will continue this real feeling of absence as we wait for Christ and expect him, and in the meantime live like him as his body in the world.

I guess this is a very long way of saying I love you, my reader, and I love my parishioners. I'm trying to love everyone enough, myself included, in authentic ways, which means being my true self in the face of the Scriptures, and in the face of Jesus, in ways that help us push away some of the shadows and bring greater light.

I'm sure I'm guilty of throwing off a good bit of heat in the process. My feelings get the best of me, and I'm nothing if not tenacious and strong-willed. That's the preacher you have, warts and all. 

But I keep hoping God can use even those attributes for the building up of the kingdom, and then thank God, our congregation has been gifted with diverse people, many spirits, so that together we can be a non-fragile presence that indicates God really is showing up in and through us as an outpost of the kingdom.




Monday, April 17, 2017

On apocalyptic theology in a William Gibson world

 Christian Understandings of the Future: The Historical Trajectory, by Amy Frykholm.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016.  Pp. 366.

In 1984 William Gibson published Neuromancer, the futuristic novel that established cyberpunk as a legit sub-genre of science fiction. It won the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award. In it, he coined the term cyberspace, and a few years after its publication, uttered that most felicitous of lines: "The future is already here, it isjust not evenly distributed.



Published in the year George Orwell had described in his dystopian satire (itself published in 1949), Gibson left precise dating on the fictional future context of the novels out of the series. Most readers thus speculated the novel took place in the late 21st century. But then Gibson himself weighed in, claiming when he wrote the book he was imagining some time around 2035.  The book's legions of attentive readers (and of the wider series in which it is set--The Sprawl) speculate that Gibson has in fact "accelerated the timeline, perhaps subconsciously, because he feels our prsent moment being pulled inexorably toward Neuromancer's by Fancy Bear, Oculus Rift and Trump's Twitter feed... he's trying to warn us that we too are close to summoning demons" (https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/when-did-neuromancer-actually-take-place).

Intriguingly, Gibson's later novels have drawn ever closer to the near future--that is, to the present. He has found the more the present is changing, the more difficult it is to imagine the future. Here we see the resonance with Amy Frykhom's work on the historical trajectory of Christian eschatology, for in order to speak of our present understandings of the future, she must by necessity excavate the history of its articulation.

Frykholm's book is simple in construction if fathoms deep in execution. She simply describes the origins of apocalyptic in Part 1, outlines its historical development in Part II, and then describes the contemporary challenges in Part III. Part II takes up the bulk of the text, as the history of Christian thinking about the future is the history of Christian thinking, full-stop. Every generation of Christians has had to ask themselves the question: "Is the end now or not yet?" (5)

Late in her book, in a chapter on contemporary eschatological theories from Schweizer to Rahner, she summarizes Karl Rahner's view, "The apocalyptic can really only unveil a deeper reality of the present. It cannot, as has so many times been attempted in the Christian tradition, tell us the future" (304-305).  Rahner took much criticism for such a view, wrestling as he was at attempting to reconcile ancient forms of apocalyptic with contemporary visions of the created world and its working (305).

Frykholm works a basic thesis throughout the book. She argues for two essential forms of eschatology, apocalyptic and prophetic. Apocalyptic eschatology happens because of God, largely out of human control... angels, beasts, trials, signs, wonders. Prophetic eschatology, on the other hand, "describes things that will happen on earth with a mixture of divine and human action" (13). This form of eschatology is focused on the earthly, and is found more in the judgments and prophecies of folks like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. This kind of eschatology focuses on the healing of the world, tikkun olam.

We see prophetic eschatology at work in many figure, perhaps pre-eminently in Martin Luther King Jr. For MLK Jr.,"Christ comes in our words and deeds, in our actions toward our fellow human beings. This was the relevant coming, not an abstract future one. Likewise, judgment was not a later event but something that was happening at this moment. This perhaps explains King's frequent impatience with white theology, whihc was always delaying the moment of justice until some later time, just as whites were always telling African-Americans to be patient in their struggle for justice, that now was not the right time" (311).

Frykholm is especially sympathetic to this prophetic strand of eschatology. It appears, in fact, that strengthening the reader's attention to such a strand stands as the energizing core of the work. She remarks, "To whatever degree Christian eschatology leads us to neglect our neighbors and our communities and the care of our fragile planet, it is a failed eschatology" (334). She concludes the book with an emphasis on attention to the forms of eschatology that attend to the world we make combined with the creative work of God, the very definition of prophetic eschatology she lifts early in the book (347).

Frykholm also raises our awareness of the increasingly complex situation we find ourselves in vis-a-vis the scientific worldview. First, there is the problem of time, for all the previous eschatologies (prior to Einstein) were predicated on an understanding of time as separate from space. But in our quantum physical reality, we must deal as theologians with the concept of space-time. So Frykholm reminds us, "Time is an inherently bendable reality tied up with space" (339).

But inasmuch as some theologians have done the work of engaging quantum descriptions of reality, the task of eschatology in the twenty-first century is much like that of Gibson's. Although we can no longer cast our vision as far forward perhaps as we could have in more stable eras, nevertheless we can weave our theological work into the scientific convesation in ways that mutually inform everyone. Frykholm writes, "Because theology has an emphasis on the particular, the strange and the unexpected, it can introduce a concept like Isaiah's 'new heavens and new earth' (Isa 65:17). This, Polkinghorne says, 'is what distinguishes theological eschatology from a secular futurology.' Theology may have a new vocation: to disturb the certainties of science and scientists, as it was once and continues to be thorougly disturbed by science... Maybe the eschatology of the twenty-first century is best understood not as a comprehensive form of knowledge but as a comprehensive form of questioning" (342).

Forthcoming as a review in Word & World.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wednesday of Holy Week

It is now mid-week of Holy Week, and still the church has hosted no liturgies since Sunday. They begin tomorrow. Once begun, they continue daily until Easter Sunday, as if the three days--Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil--were not three separate services of worship, but one worship service spread out over three days.

The liturgies of Holy Week are exclusively focused on Christ's passion, so much so that it puts into practice the famous observation of Martin Kähler, that "it is clear from the internal structure of the gospels, as from their place in the context of the preaching of the primitive Church, that the gospels are indeed 'passion stories preceded by a developed introduction" (in Mysterium Paschale by von Balthasar).

It's intriguing, paying attention to what Jesus actually does while in Jerusalem after his triumphal entry. Remarkably, although he rides into the city with great acclaim, his first act is to enter the temple and turn over all the money-changers tables (Matthew 21:12). He spends his first night there not comfortably in a bed, but outside the city near Bethany, perhaps homeless for the night. When he re-enters Jerusalem the next day, he still has not eaten, is hungry, and curses a fig tree that bears no fruit (Matthew 21:19). 

Throughout these final chapters, the religious leaders are conspiring to arrest Jesus, but do not do so because they are fearful of the crowds, who consider him a prophet. Like politicians of every age, the religious leaders act not out of conviction, but out of political expediency, reading the crowds in order to act in ways that help them maintain their power.

Jesus does a few more things during these final days in Jerusalem. He teaches a number of parables. He preaches a series of woes against the scribes and Pharisees, like an inverted form of the Beatitudes (Matthew 23:16ff). 

He weeps over Jerusalem, and announces apocalyptically that the temple will be torn down. Of course, this prophetic word comes true inasmuch as Jesus himself IS the temple, and it also comes true around the time the gospels are written, when the actual temple in Jerusalem is torn down (70 AD). 

Finally, Jesus teaches that great parable of Matthew 25, indicating that whenever anyone does something "for the least of these," they do it for Christ. Christ hands himself over before his crucifixion to all the least of these, and becomes them, literally. Christ is already found, even before his death and resurrection, in all the least of the world.

But there is a hiddenness, because just as the world does not recognize Christ as Lord and so executes him, so too the world does not recognize Christ in the neighbor, and so either does or does not feed, clothe, and care for Christ, unwittingly either way.

There is this great prayer for Wednesday: 

Creator of the universe,
you made the world in beauty,
and restore all things in glory
through the victory of Jesus Christ.
We pray that, wherever your image is still disfigured
by poverty, sickness, selfishness, war, and greed,
the new creation in Jesus Christ may appear in justice, love, and peace,
to the glory of your name. Amen.

That's a good prayer. It's the image I carry of how God works through Christ. God doesn't demand we believe in Christ in order to be saved. Instead, God is a restorer who having made the world in beauty restores that beauty through the Son. God saves us by appearing in us. Recapitulation. Divinization. Theosis.

Because God is like this, God calls us to be like God. Thus, the other prayer:

Troubled God,
in every generation
you call your people to contend
against the brutality of sin and betrayal.
Keep us steadfast even in our fear and uncertainty,
that we may follow where Jesus has led the way. Amen.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Tuesday of Holy Week

Yesterday I mentioned that John's gospel dates the crucifixion differently than the other gospels. In John, the crucifixion takes place before the Passover. In the other gospels, it takes place after. Of the two, John's account is actually more likely. It would have been against Jewish law for capital punishment to have been carried out on a "high" religious day. It is more likely that Jesus hosted the last supper with his disciples on a Wednesday, then dies on the Day of Preparation, the day on which lambs would have been ritually slaughtered in preparation for the Passover meal.

It's all rather complicated, but there's one point on which all accounts agree. Jesus died on a Friday before the Sabbath at the time of the Passover.  

So if there is a discrepancy in the dating, this is likely due to the varying purposes of the gospels. Mark's crucifixion takes place on the Passover, at the full moon, to represent a connection to Creation, whereas John's gospel has Christ crucified on the ritual day of slaughter, emphasizing Jesus as the paschal lamb.

I find this tension between the gospels inspiring. It deepens Scripture both in its semantic richness and its historical verisimilitude. It gives the sense of Scripture really coming to us as itself. So too, on this Tuesday of Holy Week, we commit to showing up as we are. Consider this prayer for the day:

Almighty God,
Your name is glorified
even in the anguish of your Son's death.
Grant us the courage
to receive your anointed servant
who embodies a wisdom and love
that is foolishness to the world.
empower us in witness
so that all the world may recognize
in the scandal of the cross the mystery of reconciliation. Amen.


The Lord we meet in the gospels is foolish love and scandalous wisdom. 

Sometimes church feels like this also. Those preparing for baptism at the Vigil Saturday know this especially well, because they are anticipating making commitments that evening.

We ask of them, do you promise to "“...live among God’s faithful people; hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; serve all people following the example of Jesus; and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

So on Maundy Thursday, the first service of Holy Week, we make sure to serve each other by washing one another's feet, and we absolve one another of sin, confessing our sin to God and one another and announcing the strong word of absolution, forgiveness of sin in the name of Christ.

The Christian sense of "come as you are" includes both an affirmation: We love you as you are, even though the world sometimes rejects you for who you are. It also includes absolution: We forgive you for the ways in which you have fallen short of the image of God established in you through Christ. 

We learn the freedom of this combination of affirmation and absolution through Christ himself, initiated in that meal with his disciples in the upper room and spoken daily the world over.