Monday, January 26, 2015

The Feast Day of Timothy, Titus, and Silas

Today we celebrate the lives of Timothy, Titus, and Silas, missionaries and friends of Paul. Imagine having Paul as your mentor. Imagine that your work together is so fulfilling that you become friends. Imagine that you are one of the organizers of the early church.

In many ways, those men lived in a time as tumultuous as our own time. The Christian church of their time faced just as much chaos and confusion as our own time. Many of us look back and imagine the time period of Paul as a golden age of Christianity, but in truth, it was one of those time periods of competing directions, and it wasn't always sure which way Christianity would go. Would it stay a denomination within Judaism? Would it be persecuted out of existence? Would it continue to embrace its egalitarian beginnings? Would it be adopted and co-opted by local governments? How far-flung could the faith become and stay faithful?

We face similar questions, against a different set of canvases. It's worth pondering today, on this day that we celebrate the lives of missionaries and Church fathers, what roles we might play in the next emergence of our Christian faith.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Fishers of People

Today many of us will hear the invitation stories of Jesus.  It's early in his career, and he's inviting people to come and see what he's all about.  He'll make them fishers of people!  And some of them drop their nets and leave everything behind.

Later in one of the Gospels, Jesus will heal Peter's mother-in-law.  I remember the first time that idea sunk in.  Mother-in-law?  Does that mean that Peter had a wife?  What happened to her?

I always thought of these early disciples as very young.  But in a recent post, a friend of mine who's recently been to the Holy Land, dispels that idea.  While he was there, the group went to an archaeological site, and he considers the implication of these recent finds:  "This archaeological discovery is important because it dispels the myth that Peter and Andrew, James and John, were peasant fishermen. In fact, they were middle class business men who most likely had a fleet of fishing boats and lived a comfortable lifestyle."

In some ways, it's easy to give up everything for Jesus when one is young and hasn't made commitments yet.  When one is middle-aged and has a mother-in-law--with all the commitments that relationship implies--it's harder.

But maybe the reality is that it's hard, no matter at what age the invitation comes.  My friend has an interesting take on this question of what it means to follow Jesus.  He approaches the question from the standpoint of what it means to leave everything behind to follow Jesus.  He asks what we need to leave behind--and it's not necessarily our in-laws or our mortgages: 

"Some of us will need to leave behind our need to simply make more money and feather our nests, and learn the values of service and generosity. Others will need to leave behind our need to be in charge our our own destiny and trust Jesus to be in control of our lives. Some will need to leave behind our fears of what the future will bring and venture into the great unknown. Others will have to leave behind our need to control or manipulate other people, and ask how we can best serve our neighbors."

It's a question that we should never have too far away from our consciousnesses.  It's hard to stay focused on the triune God.  So many things pull our attention away from God.  What do we need to leave behind to be better followers?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

God Calls Us to Communion

How do we experience the call of God?  Is it as clear as the tolling of a bell?

Do we understand the steps involved?

Perhaps we experience the call as a walk through a corridor, surrounded by stone, struck by sunlight.

Maybe the call is partially hidden, only glimpsed if we learn to see in a new way.

Or maybe the call is a clear sign.

Whatever the nature of the individual call, we know that we will not walk the path alone--it's a call to live in communion.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Remembering Marcus Borg

One of my favorite theologians, Marcus Borg, has died.  I grew up Lutheran, stayed a Lutheran (of the campus ministry variety) through undergraduate and graduate school, drifted away, and then came back to church 5 years later when I was 33 or so. 

I remember the first time I read one of his books.  In 1999, I was writing an academic essay in which I compared the character of Lauren in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower to Jesus.  I had the kind of knowledge about the historical Jesus that English majors have and that people who have grown up in the church have--but I knew that I might be wrong about some of the details. 

So, I did what every good academic does, and I headed to the library.  I read book after book by Jesus Seminar people.  I read all sorts of interesting history, especially in light of recent archaological discoveries.  And I haven't stopped reading, although my reading has broadened.

It wasn't Borg's writing that made me want to go to church--that would be Kathleen Norris.  But he was one of the scholars who convinced me that I could go to church and not have to leave my brain at the house.  And that aspect of modern Christianity has become increasingly important to me. 

I love Borg's willingness to express doubt.  He admits that he's not sure of how prayer works, or if it works, but he does it the way that he practices other good manners. And he does it because he's willing to admit that he doesn't know everything: "I myself have no clue what the explanatory mechanism is, and I am content not to. And this leads to my final reason for continuing to do prayers of petition and intercession. To refuse to do them because I can't imagine how prayer works would be an act of intellectual pride: if I can't imagine how something words, then it can't work. To think thus involves more than a bit of hubris" (The Heart of Christianity: Discovering a Life of Faith, page 197).

Marcus Borg, in The Heart of Christianity, says "We become what we do" (192).  That has been my rallying cry whenever I want to moan in the words of Samuel Beckett, "I can't go on like this!"  I would take this idea one step further.  We don't even have to believe in what we're doing.  We can fake the emotions, until the spring of faith renews.

Jesus comes to show us what a God-drenched life would look like. I recently rediscovered this quote by Marcus Borg (from a lecture that he gave in 2006) in my notebook: "Jesus is the epiphany of God. He shows us what can be seen of God in a human life. There's much of God that can't be shown in a human life, but Jesus shows what can be seen."

I love Borg's insistence that Christ's execution was not about atoning for the sins of the world.  It was Borg who first taught me that crucifixion was a punishment reserved for people who were a threat to the state.  It was Borg who made me think long and hard about this, when he notes:  "We should wonder what it was about Jesus and his movement that so provoked the authorities at the top of the domination systems of their time" (Jesus:  Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, p. 273).

Borg is not a believer in atonement theology, but his beliefs make sense, especially in light of his thorough examination of the domination systems that rule our world; Borg's primary focus is the political systems.  This quote sums up his view:  "According to the gospels, Jesus did not die for the sins of the world. The language of sacrificial substitution is absent from their stories.  But in an important sense, he was killed because of the sins of the world" (Jesus:  Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, p. 274).

But Borg doesn't leave us stranded back in Roman times.  He does a great job of showing us how this long-ago life of Jesus can transform the way we live.  My favorite book of his is The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.  In this book, he talks about his own life as a Christian, in ways that surprised me.  I would have thought he would find it difficult to find a modern church where he could live within the mysteries.  But he insists on the importance of finding a good church, one that makes us happy at the thought of attending.  For those of us who say we're spiritual but not religious, Borg develops an idea that he credits Huston Smith for initiating:  ". . . religion is to spirituality as institutions of learning are to education" (The Heart of Christianity p. 219).  You could do it all yourself in the arena of religion/spirituality or learning/education.  You could read books and pray and teach yourself all kinds of things.  But why deny yourself the resources and community of the institution?
The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith is a wonderful book, full of experiences from regular life.  Here's one of my favorites:  "When I stand in a supermarket checkout line and all the people I see look kind of ugly, I know that my heart is closed" (page 154). We are called to have soft, open hearts.  Borg never moved far away from that concept in all of his theology. 

Marcus Borg may not have believed in the bodily Resurrection in the way that the church of my childhood taught it.  But when I read his books, he gets to the heart of what the Christ's resurrection should mean for us in a way that so many theologians don't.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Prodigals Returning

How are you doing on your New Year's Resolutions?  Here we are in the 3rd week of the new year.  It's a good time to assess.

Or maybe not.  Perhaps you're feeling a bit of despair over how shallow your commitment was.  But you could still get on track.

I've written a post for the Living Lutheran site that considers what we can learn spiritually from our failed new year's resolutions.  Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Now is the time of year when many of us return to regular life. We put away the excesses that often come with December. We return to jobs, exercise, regular bedtimes, housework and moderate eating. We might also be struggling with a smidge of depression – December was so much fun, so lovely, so festive!"

"Psychologists remind us that failure is often necessary before we fully adopt the positive habits we want or before we fully discard the habits that aren’t serving us. So now is a good time to reframe our efforts. We’ve been learning what doesn’t work. We’ve been experimenting to find what our souls need."

"We need to start where we are, not where we think we should be. Far better to be the person who goes out for a gentle jog for 10 minutes, and then next week runs for 15 minutes, and throughout the year, adding five minutes each week. In horse training terms, we need to keep the jumps small and achievable. But we also need to keep challenging ourselves so that we grow spiritually."

Go here to read the whole essay.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 25, 2015:

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Psalm: Psalm 62:6-14 (Psalm 62:5-12 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20

On Monday, I celebrated the life of Martin Luther King by going to see the movie Selma.  It is interesting to read this Gospel with scenes from that movie in my head, the different ways that the characters responded to the call to help craft a better society. And then, I read this week's Gospel, and again, I'm thinking of this idea of a call.

I'm interested that in this Gospel (as well as other stories we've had recently, like Mary's call in Advent), people don't seem to hesitate. They don't weigh the cost of discipleship. They don't create a spreadsheet that compares the pros and the cons.

No, God beckons, and in this week's Gospel story, these men leave their normal lives immediately.

Likewise, in the stories of the Civil Rights Movement, we see people living fairly ordinary lives when they are called to be more and to do more. It made me wonder about my own life, what calls I've received, what calls I've neglected, what calls I've followed. It has made me wonder about other people's lives and the surprising turns they've taken.

Our culture seems to love these stories of the call that cannot be ignored, the call that launches people on to great things. But often, a call is a niggling feeling that one has for years. Maybe we take little baby steps towards that call. Or maybe we try to ignore it until we can't anymore, and we explode into interesting new directions. Or maybe we decided we'd rather have a life of comfort and familiarity, and we turn away from our call.

The good news is that God continues to call us anyway. No matter how many times we reject God and God's hopes for us, God comes back to see if we're interested.

God has great visions for us. But even if we can't rise to those grand plans, God will entice us with smaller parts of the larger vision. And then, years later, we look up, amazed at how our lives' trajectories have changed.

What is God calling you to do? And if you're not comfortable with the larger plan, are there smaller bits you can do right now?

Maybe you're not ready to go back to school, but you could take a class or two. Maybe you can't leave your job, but you could try something different through volunteer work. Maybe you can't solve the larger social justice issue that keeps you up at night, but you could write a letter or educate your fellow citizens.

We are all so much greater than we know. Christ came to us to show us what is possible in a human life--and so much is possible. What part in this great human drama were you born to play?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"Selma": A Call to Be Our Better Selves

I have seen the movie Selma.  For a more nuanced review, see this post on my creativity blog.

Because this is my theology blog, I want to think about the spiritual aspects of the movie.  I was oddly surprised at how deeply spiritual the movie felt.  Much of the music came out of African-American spirituality, many of the scenes were set in and near churches, and at key moments in the plot, we see people pray.

The movie also does a great job of showing the mixed motives of the leadership, especially the younger SNCC leaders, who aren't necessarily as committed to non-violence.  I particularly liked seeing that the way wasn't necessarily clear--it seems clear from a distance, but it wasn't.

One of the stories that the movie didn't tell, but hinted at, was the role of white churches.  We see some white church leaders come down for the second march at Selma, and we see their numbers grow by the third march.  I was inordinately happy to see the nuns appear, although they don't play much of a role.

My grandfather was a white, Lutheran pastor in Greenwood, South Carolina at the time.  My mom remembers much conversation about how the white churches in Greenwood would react if anyone tried to integrate the churches.  I wish I could say that my grandfather was on the side of history and justice, but he wasn't.  He planned to call the police.  I need to check with my mom, to make sure I'm remembering the story correctly.

I want to make excuses for my grandfather.  I know that part of his desire to call the police would have been because he saw integrators as outside agitators.  I want to believe that if a young black family came to church with a sincere desire to be Lutheran and enter the life of the church, he would have made sure that they were welcome.  I want to believe that, but I'm fairly sure it's not true.

I now go to one of the more integrated Lutheran churches I've ever been to--I wouldn't be surprised if it's one of the most integrated churches in the U.S.  We have black members who are descended from slaves, in addition to black members who come from the Caribbean.  We have a wide variety of white people, people descended from Northern Europeans as well as a wide variety of Hispanics.  We have at least a third of the church who can fluently speak at least one other language.  We have some native Floridians, a rare species.  At one point, we had a transgendered member, and we were fairly welcoming; she changed churches when her work schedule changed, but I also suspect it's because it became exhausting to be the only transgendered person, no matter how welcoming we were.

I realize that my church is rare, that the average church is still as segregated as it was during the 1950's and 1960's.  But at least many of us understand why that segregated state is less than optimal.

I want to believe that now, more churches would stand with Martin Luther King, but again, I know that is likely not true.  We are a fearful people, and just because a prophet has powerful words, it doesn't mean we will be courageous.

It is good to have a movie like Selma to remind us of what we are called to be and of why it is important.  It is good to have a movie like Selma that calls us to be our better selves.