Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Mission is Love

A small group of parishioners and I have been working our way through this year's Lenten study titled "The Five Marks of Love."  Like last year's it is designed and supported by the members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.  The Cowley brothers take turns with short videos to reflect on their own lives in community but for the world.  That is, they acknowledge and celebrate their monastic vocation but understand it as a prayerful effort for all that God has made not just those monastically secluded with them.

That sectioning away from the world can be done all kinds of ways.  It can be an easy retreat, a hidden militant encampment, a sanctuary from danger, an elitist ivory tower, or an exclusive club.

There are even more ways for people to group themselves in distinction from the masses of everyday life.  The ones the church has chosen throughout its history are always at risk.  Even generous coffee shop fronted evangelistic mega-churches will quickly enforce "us and them" thinking.  We all do it. No matter how we gather there is an outside to our inside, a there to our here, a whole to our sect(ion).

Maybe its because -- no matter what my Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher claimed -- none of us have eyes in the backs of our heads.  We can only look at one side of things at a time.  So I like it that the brothers have redefined the historic "5 Marks of Mission" to be a reality based on God's love of the world and not just a sect(ion) being well intended to project it's brand further into that world. By reframing the conversation so that we understand our efforts as a response to first being loved by God the brothers have undone much of that tendency.

Humbly we should admit that simply by gathering as a function of our lives at the Episcopal Church of the Advent we are already significantly branded.  There is already an "us" at work.  So instead of our focus being on some sort of institutional maintenance or brand loyalty it has been more about becoming aware of God's love and representing that love with God back into the world.  We should understand our part as more like breathing than holding our breath or being "blowhards."

But it is marvelously confessional and cathartic when we talk about about how we struggle to practice the "5 Marks of Love" to Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform, Treasure. Even as we hope to recognize God's starting with love we squirm at things like the e-word: evangelism. Even as we open to each other's sharing there is still a charming awkwardness that says something about how we are "in" a church community and "from" a world other than the church itself.

I love this study and I love that God's love is the starter for all this consideration and hope.  I love it that a "bunch of monks" understand their place in the world so well and can call us "in God's love" to recreate that love in so many ways.  Well at least 5 of them.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

First Amendment Christians

A couple of years ago we held a meeting under the title "Civil Religion."  Parishioner Ellen Warren, then a county commissioner was first to talk about her life as a person of faith in public service.  It was a good evening and some troublesome topics were addressed with good manners around the room.  It was the only episode in what I had hoped would be a series.

The title was a play on words.  Usually "civil religion" means that way of being religious in public that allows moments like our Presidents ending their speeches with "God bless America."  It is the anchored in mottos and phrases like "In God we trust" and "One nation, under God."

"Civil religion" informs the hosting of prayer breakfasts and declarations of national days of prayer. It also informed our talking about the interface between faith and governance and trying to be civil about religion at the same time.  Crazy, I know!

My intent was not to reinforce any sense that America is God's chosen nation or that we were founded as a Christian nation.  I instead wanted to push through the idea that the first amendment intends for the church -- in all its disguises -- to be party to the larger discourse of the whole nation, a discourse meant "to form a more perfect union."

That discourse is assumed in the protecting the rights of freedom of assembly, of freedom of speech, and of freedom of the press.  By protecting freedom of religion AND preventing a state church we are being named in the first amendment as having a particular role in that discourse.  We are not prevented from the conversation but are meant to be included for exactly what a church ought to bring to the table: moral and ethical input not serving those in power and a respect for the "dignity of every human being."

For me "civil religion" also means that we are to demonstrate how to have that "union perfecting" conversation with each other and for the sake of a government of, by and for the people.

So I'm OK with much of even my comments about politics and governance.  It's not my fault those terms are confused of conflated with each other.  It is my fault when I don't play fair with the confusion and help the people I love to read what I write or even more so what I post that has been written by others.

Last week's borrowing from John Pavlovitz is a perfect example.  I pretty much agree with what he said.  I do think that we are nearing the end of the life of much gets to call itself Christian in this nation.

Demographics galore will back this up.  But JP wasn't just talking numbers, he was talking about the loss of civil religion.  We have lost that first amendment intent for the practice of religion in America and replaced it with something that too often isn't civil and isn't religious.

I don't agree with everything he wrote or with all of HOW Pavlovitz wrote what he wrote.  So . . .

I'll take more care in the future to be civil and to promote civility but I intend to say more about this "First Amendment Christian" that I hope to model. I'll also continue to include others' voices and writings in describing and navigating that space that is ours as members of the Church of the Advent and citizens of this nation.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

From John Pavlovitz

This is from John Pavlovitz's blog entry titled "The Welcome Extinction of a Dinosaur Church"
There is plenty about who we are in Madison as the Church of the Advent that is so not near extinction.  But the challenge to be renewed is always before us no matter our history and antiques.  I hope this use of Pavlovitz's work encourages a lively conversation without fear or anxiety.

Extinction happens. 
All creatures eventually die out. No matter how much they temporarily flourish, over time they all become nothing but memories preserved in photos and fossils. 
The Church in America as we know it is on such borrowed time. It recently managed to buy a four-year stay of execution from the Electoral Collage, but the writing has been on the wall for a long time: the Religious Right here is in its last days—and thank God for that. 
This Bible Belt-dwelling dinosaur has long known that its demise was coming. While outwardly it appeared to be thriving over the past few decades, the attrition below the surface was and is undeniable: weekly attendance has steadily declined, favorable population demographics are shifting, cultural values are outpacing it, Science is continually challenging it. Its once seemingly endless territory is eroding, with now discarded buildings filling the landscape; dusty museums to what once ruled the land. 
And as with all animals backed into a corner and facing destruction, it has become fully desperate trying to save itself. It has ratcheted up its rhetoric, doubled down on damnation, and gone all in on fear in the hopes of rallying its own for one last frantic effort at staving off extinction. 
This is why it’s made its bed with a President without morals, why it has sold its soul for a Supreme Court seat, why it is frantically overreaching right now with its political advantage, why it is in perpetual attack mode—because it knows that these things are all that it has left. It is flailing wildly trying to postpone what it inevitable, but it cannot. 
Like all doomed species, this white, vicious, myopic dinosaur church will surely die because evolution is killing it— the evolution of a humanity that recognizes:

  • that diversity is not the enemy,
  • that spirituality is bigger than a single religious tradition,
  • that redemptive faith cannot be the author of hatred for its brother,
  • that Whoever or Whatever God is, it must be more compassionate than what this thing has become. 
In these last of its days, the dinosaur will make a grand, horrifying display. It will scream and lash out violently. It will thrash itself about and it will attempt to appear ferocious—but on the inside it is terrified. Its preachers will boldly speak of God giving them the victory, they will spit Scriptures and forecast alternative endings, but these things will not matter. The massive meteor of time and progress is hurling toward them and their eyes are widening. 
And for those of us who truly love Humanity, whether in the name of God or simply in that name of that humanity itself, this is all beautiful news. Because every thing that dies allows something new to be born—and something is being born in these moments: compassion is being birthed in our midst. We are moving into a golden age of empathy, where people will not allow religion to become a barrier any longer; where color and orientation and nation of origin are not deal breakers or justifications for separation—they are worth celebrating. 
And so yes, let the dinosaur posture and screech, but know that its end is surely near.
This is the twilight of one day and the dawn of another— and we are a people waking up to who we are together. 
The sun is rising and we are the caretakers of the coming day. 
Be encouraged.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Saved to Worship Only God

“The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.”  Matthew 4:11 CEB

Its hard to read any portion of the gospels and not feel the implication of Calvary's cross and the empty tomb.  Even this ending to last Sunday's gospel has the hint of Christ's last temptation and final hope.

The task we have in our season of "self examination and repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial, reading and meditating on God's holy Word," is not simply to fight off our temptor's invitations for "their own sake.”

In order for that hopeful casting to be current to our striving we'll need to remember this:
It's not about us! It's about God. Just before what is described in verse 11, we hear Jesus say, "Go away Satan, as it is written, you will worship the Lord your God and serve only him."

Even this wilderness education and testing of Jesus is not just so that we can admire him as tougher than the devil or simply imitate him and expect similar results.  It is also so that we can see ahead to the effect of his obedience to God and hope to be as obedient ourselves.

Matthew will do this again and help us to look ahead to the glory in and beyond Jesus’ dying in hope and utter surrender.  All sorts of human structures built in the confusion that our salvation is always the point eventually and even cataclysmically fall.

Beyond Matthew's rending of the temple's veil, the crumbling of the tombs and hopeful bright Sunday morning there is another 40 days.  Both are periods of paradigmatic change!  Both are hard work.  Both have surrender to something bigger than our own interests.  Both have temptations.  Both end with angels. Both are about serving only the Lord our God.

Our first 40 days are still largely ahead of us. The closer we approach the end our tendencies will be to get lost in the structures and only rehearse a surrender. We’re prone to get caught by the busy-ness of things like Madison’s Palm Procession, or night after night of Holy Week observances, or our larger society's own usurpation of the holiday with bunnies and eggs.

The 40 days after Easter we get to spend with Jesus, who as the one raised from the dead is even better than an angel.  Both periods work to help us honestly, hopefully, obediently “worship the Lord our God and serve only him.”