Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Serve God, Save the Planet: an Hour of Work, a Day of Rest

How Do We Get Our Sabbath Skills Back?

'We confuse working with living' Matthew Sleeth pg 99.

In this chapter Matthew Sleeth writes about both the importance of physical labor and of actually observing Sabbath.

In my limited experience the American Church is terrible at Sabbath. I've suggested that the church I serve observe Sabbath by not shopping on Sunday's for a month. There were many baffled looks, quizzical looks, and some open verbal skepticism as to the practicality of such a thing. (to be honest, I too am so used to thinking about sabbath as 'day to go to church' and not 'day to be at rest and refrain from producing and even being a consumer' that the very next week I went home and ordered a pizza. What a great 'lead-by-example' guy I am!

Sabbath came up again in a recent Sermon Talk-back Session on John 5 in which Jesus asks a paralyzed man, lying by the pool of Siloam if he would like to be well. after telling the man to pick up his mat and walk, (it is Sabbath) a Sabbath controversy erupts.

So we started talking about Sabbath. The discussion was a combination longing for the rest and simplicity of a real Sabbath, tail-chasing about what we could and couldn't do if we actually were to try to observe sabbath, some confusion about Saturday Sabbath and Sunday Sabbath, and some 'spiritualizing' of sabbath, (an internal practice that doesn't necessarily connect to skills or practices put to use externally.) The sharing was honest and open and real and we learned a lot but what I learned was how confused we are about sabbath as honestly and earnestly as we want to obey God.

It seems to me that we have in a few short years since Sunday Commerce laws were relaxed, we have lost the skills to observe Sabbath. We don't even know how to begin to think about it.

I think that Matthew Sleeth begins to approach the re-establishment of Sabbath skills by putting both work and sabbath together. I sometimes wonder if on some level we have a hard time conceptualizing Sabbath because we aren't quite convinced of the value of our work. Yes, we are getting a pay-check, but what are we creating?
Perhaps we would be more clear about how to do Sabbath is we were more clear about the purpose of our labor beyond getting the bills paid and the retirement fund safely nestled for the future.

Which, by the way, is seems to be suggested by Jesus own answer to those who are angry about the healing on the sabbath. Jn 5:19 the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. I hear Jesus saying, 'God, my Father is still working, creating life, and so am I.' Perhaps if we were clearer about how our vocation fit into the on-going creating and redeeming that God is still doing, we would also be clearer about how to practice sabbath. If our vocation doesn't give us a clear connection, perhaps an avocation will.

Which is what makes the Christian's engagement in Creation Care seem absolutely vital to me. As I read Genesis 2, God created us to serve and protect the rest of creation. We were made to be engaged in the rest of creation and not alienated from it as we so obviously are. I have begun learning about, preaching about and practicing creation care, not only because of the damage I see humanity doing to God's glorious creation, but also because I think the Bible tells us that unless we are engaged in caring for creation, we are not quite fully human the way God created us to be.

So what am I gonna do with all this mental wandering and pondering?

1. As a Pastor, physical labor isn't commonly demanded of me so; come spring, we are going to do some gardening in our back-yard.
2. We are going to do some gardening in the form of trash pick-up in our neighborhood.
3. I have already stopped shopping on sundays. Instead we invite friends over for dinner or gather with extended family for dinner and game night.

How do we get our Sabbath skills back?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Will Our Children Have Faith Part 3: A More Dynamic Theology

One of my continuing concerns is not being clear on what we desire to achieve through our catechetical (educational) efforts. Our aim, I suggest, is to form Christ-like communal persons and communities. This implies for me clarity of faith, of how we are to perceive God. Many people have unhealthy images of God that need to be healed. (46)

One of Westerhoff's concerns is not only the 'school paradigm' in the church's catechesis,but also the wide variety of theological options offered to church-goers today. We need 'Theological Essentials' according to Westerhoff.

Westerhoff seems to suggest a level of biblical and theological engagement on the part of every disciple (not just us 'professionals') that is rare in my experience and difficult to cultivate. To make it plain (and I say this with much love) very few adults have time or inclination to devote to study and discussion of the bible and theology. I've been a pastor for 11 years (in New England) and adult bible study/discussion opportunities have been poorly attended whenever and wherever I've been a pastor (which may say more about me than anything).

In practical terms what I think is more confusing for the average church-goer is not the wide variety of theological options that come from theological institutions; liberation, neo-orthodoxy, post-liberal, etc, but the wide variety of theological options that come from popular culture. For example,take a peek at this partial list from Brueggemann that I found here:

1. Everybody lives by a script. The script may be implicit or explicit. It may be recognized or unrecognized, but everybody has a script.

2. We get scripted. All of us get scripted through the process of nurture and formation and socialization, and it happens to us without our knowing it.

3. The dominant scripting in our society is a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socializes us all, liberal and conservative.

4. That script (technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism) enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe and to make us happy.

5. That script has failed. That script of military consumerism cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy. We may be the unhappiest society in the world.

Brueggemann's 'script' equals my interpretation of Westerhoff's 'theology'.

A church that is not actively engaged in learning, teaching and practicing the faith will not only be unable to 'flip the script' that is, discern its theological script in opposition to the social script, but it will also be unable to recognize the cultural idols, religions, faiths and spiritual scripts that Brueggemann suggests are forming us at every moment of every day.

In other words, we are failing to be church because we are allowing ourselves to be formed more in the image of popular culture than we are being formed by faith in God.

What to do in order to encourage a more dynamic faith?

1. Longer Sermons. Yup, I said it. 15-20 minutes a sunday will not offer enough of a script to undermine the cultural script, especially since there is little to no participation in other study/worship opportunities throughout the week.

2. sermon's as dialogue. So I am not suggesting longer lectures, I am suggesting more time spent engaging together in the Word of God. I begin with questions, open ended, and simple... What three things would you tell someone who doesn't know anything about Jesus? What five things would you say about God? What struck you as strange or curious about our scripture reading today? Did you feel challenged or threatened by the reading? What about the reading made you feel that way?

3. Devotions. I write devotions for most of my sermons. They most often follow up on the major themes or points of every sermon.

4. Action. Every sermon leads to action. Every lesson leads to action. Every Bible discussion leads to mission, ministry, action. What are we going to do with what we have discussed? What would the belief that we have discussed today look like in action?

5. Mentoring. Folks who want to join the church enter a One year mentorship that involves bible study, participation in ministries, a mission project, and classes with the pastor.

What would you do to encourage a more dynamic theology that 'flips the script?'

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

On My Way to a Sermon on Deuteronomy 30: God's Gonna Cut You Down

'What three things would you say about God?' I asked my 9 and 7 year old sons.
He's cool,He's nice, He's loving...
I just want to say right off the bat that I try really hard to use gender non-specific language in reference to God. I refer to God as Heavenly Father AND Mother, and really try not to say 'He' too much. We even sing an inclusive language Doxology in church. So where all this 'HE' stuff is coming from I don't know.

But for today, it's the adjectives; cool, nice, loving that I'm thinking about. I'm glad they've got the idea of God as 'loving.' But 'cool' and 'nice'? Especially when we get these edgy descriptions of God, like in Deuteronomy 30 where God offers both blessing and threatens destruction. God watching and waiting to either be our best friend or our worst enemy. I knew guys like that in high school. Since I was a small guy, I liked having them on my side, and occasionally one of them would befriend and protect me in gym class. But you never knew when they were going to change their minds from the friend to the enemy. That isn't a good feeling. So you had to watch yourself around them. And you could never really relax, even when they were on your side.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners will sometimes mention the Bible he had in seminary (I think) that he cut all of the verses and stories about money out of, to show people what was left in the bible when we ignored them. What would happen if I cut out all the angry, threatening, dangerous God stories?

And don't give me that, 'That is the Old Testament God' stuff.
Mt 13:49-50 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

It's in the New Testament too. So we've got to deal with it.

I think that if we smooth off the rough edges of the Threatening God, we are left without justice, righteousness, even resurrection, which is the vindication of the wrongfully murdered faithful (at least, initially as I understand it). Without a serious and slightly menacing God, we are left with God as a grandfatherly butler therapist, waiting behind the scenes for us to need a favor, but not capable of demanding our allegiance or obedience. God without some menace is a God who we just don't need to take that seriously, and if the research reflected in Kenda Creasy Dean's Almost Christian is accurate, that is the God too many Christians worship and most American's like to think about.

So I'm gonna preach in favor of an angry God (very carefully I might add).
The questions to consider; What is dangerous about preaching a Threatening and sometimes Angry God? What is missing in our faith if we skip over these stories of God's anger, destructive power, and menacing presence?

And somehow I'm gonna work some Johnny Cash into it, because as I was reading Deut 30, this song came to mind.

"God's Gonna Cut You Down"

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God'll cut you down
Sooner or later God'll cut you down

Well you may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin' in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What's done in the dark will be brought to the light

Go tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler, the gambler, the back biter
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut you down
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut you down
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut you down

Serve God Save the Planet Part 4 Chapter 6

This time chapter 6 'Too Much Stuff'

On no subject is Jesus more clear than on materialism: a life focused on possessions is a poor and misguided life. Over and again, he urges us to seek a spiritual path and a life of loving one another... Real treasures do not rust, run low on power, become obsolete, clutter up closets and garages, or rack up credit card debt.

Consumer Therapy is the default faith of a good many folks who call themselves Christians. We find more solace in shopping and purchasing, and devote more time and energy to it, than to prayer, devotion, study and worship. If we were to total up hours spent in a practice of faith compared to a practice of consumerism I bet we would be shocked.

I don't say this from a position of moral superiority. I struggle with it too.

I think that what Matthew Sleeth does here is get right to the heart of true Stewardship. In the mainline church tradition we tend to think that stewardship is giving money to the church.

What I have struggled to do in year after year of ministry and sermon after sermon on money and material possessions is to suggest that the simplest stewardship decision is giving money. The challenge is re-shaping our desires so that we are not wasting money on constant consumer actions that affect the environment in production, transportation and then disposal. Our desires will not be reshaped if we are spending more time in devotion to the mall gods by listening to their television advertisements and little to no time in prayer or bible study.

I would further recommend for those interested in this a book by Luke Timothy Johnson 'Sharing Possessions'

Although I disagreed with Johnson's initial argument that Christianity was not an ethic, his exploration of the importance of material goods and biblical survey on the topic was excellent.

I would also recommend William Cavanaugh's 'Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire'

Sleeth challenges the American Consumer Creed which tells us that we have the right to purchase whatever we want and use our money however we desire with this simple and direct statement:

The Christian is not at liberty to do whatever he likes. Christians are constrained by conviction to think about their lives, their actions, and their responsibilities...

How much we have, how we spend, how much we spend, all of these bear greater testimony to our true faith than the God-talk we utter.

So I'm going to do three things

1. Clean out the clutter, getting rid of the stuff I just don't need (in as environmentally responsible way as possible.)
2. Learn to live with less by filling my time with things that last; reading, music, family, service to the community and Creation
3. Observe a sabbath, on consumerism, not shopping on Sundays. Instead, we are inviting folks over for a Sabbath meal, focusing the support of relationships instead of the quick satisfaction of consumerism.

What can you do you pry yourself from the hold of consumerism?

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Almost Christian Review Part 3 or 3 Ways to Live Faith with our Children

If teenagers lack an articulate faith, maybe it is because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way conversation. Maybe teenager' inability to talk about religion is not because the church inspires a faith too deep for words, but because the God-story that we tell is too vapid to merit more than a superficial vocabulary...

If the God of Jesus Christ is a missionary God who crosses every boundary -- life and death and space and time -- to win us, then following Jesus is bound to be anything but convenient. Jesus Christ doesn't tinker; he tears down walls, draws up new plans, makes demands... (Dean 36-7)

Jn 5:2-3
Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda…Here a great number of disabled people used to lie — the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.

Charles Campbell, in his outstanding book, The Word Before the Powers, wonders that if one of the ways the Principalities and Powers, the Systems of Domination, keep us under their thumb is by keeping us busy, tired, and diverted. Kyle Childress

My poor kids go to church every sunday (that they are with me.)
They have learned John 3:16 and 17, the 23rd Psalm, The Beatitudes in Matthew and are working on the 10 Commandments.
But aside from going to church I don't think they see me put what I believe into action enough.
How does knowing the verses and the prayers invade my normal life, make me different and challenge me to follow Christ and share the gospel.

This is one of the growing edges for my church. We have lots of outreach ministries; clothes closet, oil program that provides heating for struggling families, food closet, Summer Lunch Program, lots of really good things. But most of these things are ministries of a few. We need to find ministries for many. But it is not just a matter of participation. It is a matter, I think, of getting out of our normal routines and comfortable lives to be immersed in ministry that serves others and allows us to gain a new perspective on our own lives, ethical and spiritual.

In order to lead my church there, I've got to accept the challenge myself, so here are three challenges for me:

First a simple daily practice (outside our devotions)

We wash the dishes by hand. This gives us an opportunity to talk about conserving water, caring for creation, and pray together to the God who created all things...

Second, an occasional practice

Go through all the toys and cut them in half (at least). We will sell these in a yard sale and use the money for a ministry. Throughout we will talk about what Jesus said about possessions, being satisfied with less, the effects of the production and shipping of all these toys on the environment, a local or global ministry we want to be a part of, whether the local food closet or Kiva.org which others in our church highly recommend. The point is to interrupt the process by which my children and I are being transformed in Consumers and intentionally open ourselves to be Christians, who are transformed by a giving and sacrificing Christ.

Third, Direct Action

The boys are 9 and 7 there aren't a lot of ministries they can volunteer at. I can't take them to Rhode Island Food Bank, they can't have volunteers that young for insurance reasons. The same with many other such local missions.
But we will start, with others in our church, to clean the trash from a piece of public land in our neighborhood. Again, we can talk about caring for the earth as God's creation. We will also research some volunteer projects for the family that are fairly close to home. Although someday we might plan a 'volunteer vacation'.

Any suggestions?

Monday, February 07, 2011

Will Our Children Have Faith Part 2 No More Sunday School

'There is a great difference between learning about the Bible and living as a disciple of Jesus Christ...Faith cannot be taught by any method of instruction; we can only teach religion. We can know about religion, but we can only expand in faith, act in faith, live in faith. Faith can be inspired within a community of faith, but it cannot be given to one person by another. Faith is expressed, transformed, and made meaningful by persons sharing their faith in an historical, tradition-bearing community of faith.' (Westerhoff 19)

Reading this book sometimes frustrates me. Westerhoff suggests, as noted earlier, that the current 'schooling-instructional paradigm' is simply not effective for nurturing faith in children and youth. But exactly what the alternative is, Westerhoff doesn't really explain. Except to suggest that it is the church. The church is the place not sunday school.

So I have this idea that we should completely disband the Christian Education Committee and have every other committee carefully consider and intentionally plan how its duties and responsibilities teach the Christian faith.

So Finance would start with; what do Christians believe about money? House would discuss; How do we create a hospitable space? Deacon's would talk about what communion means. And then they would discuss how what they do nurtures faith in children, youth, and new adult Christians. Everyone would do Christian Ed instead of a committee and a team of teachers.

'tradition bearing community' that is the phrase that interests me.
Sunday School leave the tradition bearing to one committee. But as Christians we believe that every member is given by the Holy Spirit gifts that make the church the body of Christ, gifts for the good of all. It takes every member for the church to be, it must take every member for the church to nurture the faith.

Now, I'm not actually disbanding Christian Ed. I can't do that.
But I am thinking that the church needs to see 'Christian Nurture' as everyone's responsibility and not the duty of one committee. Perhaps my frustration is part of the churches frustration. We just want some new answer, when what Westerhoff is trying to tell us is that there are no easy answers. Sunday School is not the easy answer to passing the faith on to our children, because there is no one easy way to do that.

So, in trying to make sense of what Westerhoff suggests about a tradition-bearing community as opposed to a sunday school:

1. Be clear about our Christian beliefs and the Christian Practices that follow from them.
2. Find the connections between these beliefs/practices and the duties and responsibilities of the committees. Which may mean that duties need to change if they don't reflect beliefs/practices.
3. Intentionally plan projects, activities, actions, that embody beliefs/practices and achieve the responsibilities of each committee, and that include children, youth, and families in a meaningful way.

What do you think?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Serve God Save the Planet Part 3 Chapter 8

Television: More Real Than Real

...the average American watches 1,700 hours of television annually, while the average shcool-age child attends only nine hundred hours fo classes a year. by the time the typical person in our country reaches age seventy-one, he will have spent a solid ten waking years sitting in front of a television.

Imagine meeting God and answering the question, 'What did you do with your time on earth?' You are handed a time sheet that details the seconds and decades of this precious gift called life. (109)

Sleeth's point in devoting a chapter on television is three-fold.

First he points out that the purpose of television is to sell us things.
The more things we buy, the more impact on the environment; from the energy to produce and ship the product to the trash that goes in the land-fill, consumerism has an adverse effect on the environment.

Second he points out the amount of electricity we use in sitting in front of the television

Third he points out the spiritual damage. The time we spend watching television is time that could be spent nurturing family relationships, enjoying creation, and serving others.

We watch way to much tv in our house. We have started to turn it off more often. Instead we play games, read, and we have family devotion time that includes discussion and sharing.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Faith in God is NOT a massage: Almost Christian Review Part 2

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism makes no pretense at changing lives, it is a low commitment, compartmentalized set of attitudes aimed at 'meeting my needs' and 'making me happy' rather than bending my life into a pattern of love and obedience to God. (30)

Which reminds me of a song recorded by a folk trio called Cry, Cry, Cry featuring Dar Williams called Lord I Have Made You A Place in My Heart by Greg Brown

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart
Among the rags and the bones and the dirt.
There's piles of lies, the love gone from her eyes,
And old moving boxes full of hurt.
Pull up a chair by the trouble and care.
I got whiskey, you're welcome to some.
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,
But I don't reckon you're gonna come.

I've tried to fix up the place, I know it's a disgrace,
You get used to it after a while -
With the flood and the drought and old pals hanging out
With their IOU's and their smiles.
Bare naked women keep coming in
And they dance like you wouldn't believe.
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,
So take a good look - and then leave.

Oh Lord, why does the Fall get colder each year?
Lord, why can't I learn to love?
Lord, if you made me, it's easy to see
That you all make mistakes up above.
But if I open the door, you will know I'm poor
And my secrets are all that I own.
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart
And I hope that you leave it alone.

I believe Almost Christian to be a dangerous book, not just for youth ministers, but for churches. It suggests that many of us who would call ourselves 'disciples' are more interested in 'feeling better' than in allowing our lives to be bent, which means we aren't really disciples at all. At best we are like Peter, hanging around for the reward and running when the following Christ costs us something. Or, as the song suggests, we will make a little guest room for Christ, but want him to leave it alone. What Christ wants to do is Extreme Home Makeover, not hanging new curtains.

In The Peaceable Kingdom, Stanley Hauerwas comments that one of central duties of the church is to teach us that we are sinners.

Almost Christian causes me to wonder if the mainline church in an effort to remain 'relevant' or at least 'successful' or well, open, has lowered significantly the bar of discipleship. There are easier and less costly ways for folks to feel better about themselves, the shelves are full of self-help books and Oprah is incredibly popular. Talking about sin and suggesting that folks are twisted out of the shape God intended for them, and that church is about bending them back into the image of God, that is dangerous. People might not come if that is what they will hear.

Almost Christian suggests to me that we aren't being the disciples Christ calls us to be and that the church has lost is mission and focus, serving the god 'feel better' instead of the living God who burns away the chaff.

I found a quote from Walter Brueggemann
'Israel (the church) under threat is never an easy 'therapeutic' community, and faith in Yahweh is not a massage. It is the embrace and practice of a destiny that make costly demands in the name of Yahweh.

(Essay: Always in the Shadow of Empire. Book: The Church as Counterculture)

What do you think