The living and the dead


Death is a topic I'm pretty familiar with. I've done almost fifty funerals and in almost every case I have personally talked with and comforted the bereaved. On the one hand these help pay the bills (I usually receive some sort of honorarium), on the other hand I'm one of a few ministers who don't have a set fee, because I believe that everybody deserves a proper burial even if they can't afford it. There was one funeral however where the attendance consisted of  the Funeral Director, The Cemetery worker, and Myself. I've been to funerals where some family members weren't allowed to attend, and one where an inappropriate "eulogy" was shared. 

I've always maintained that Funerals are for the living, not the dead. Even in the case of the non-attended funeral, there was someone living who wanted to know that their relative was buried "properly."

The news that Fred Phelps of Westboro B*****t C****h  passed away has been met by mixed reactions even before it occurred. While I can understand so many emotions regarding a controversial figure such as Phelps, I also read about how some of his family have been cut off and not allowed to say goodbye. Every person is a son or daughter to someone, maybe a dad or mom, a cousin, uncle or aunt. Our sins, no matter how grievous we judge them don't dilute our humanity but reinforce it.

Love and Divorce


One of the most troubling verses in the Bible for me comes from the prophet Malachi, chapter 2:16. 
"I hate divorce," says the LORD God of Israel, "and I hate a man's covering himself with violence as well as with his garment," says the LORD Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith. (Pasted from http://www.biblestudytools.com/malachi/2.html)

So as not to take the verse out of its context, Malachi is talking about the sons of Israel who have  married the "daughters of foreign gods".  Whether they have divorced other wives in order to do so, or divorced the foreign wives is unclear from the context here, but contemporary writing in Ezra indicates that there was a mass move to divorce the foreign wives in the post-exilic period as a means of "repenting" in order to inherit God's favor.  If this is the case here, Malachi is essentially telling the returning exiles that two wrongs don't make a right. Again this makes sense in the statement that a man is covering himself with violence (the divorce) and breaking faith not just with God by marrying the foreign wife, but then also with the wife.

Hate is a pretty strong word, and it merits a the question; why does God hate divorce?

In Genesis 1:26+27 we read:
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Pasted from http://www.biblestudytools.com/genesis/1.html)

This is the sixth day of creation, God creates man (plural: let them) in our (plural) image. Verse 27 more succinctly puts it "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."  There is something then about this plural relationship which is illustrative of God, for it is his image. Scholars have long debated the "Imago Dei" as it's known deducing many probable attributes of man that seem distinct from the other of God's creatures. Rationality, Consciousness, the combined nature of spirit mind and body, even the place of man as ruler or steward of creation. It is not however necessary that the Imago Dei must be a distinct characteristic unique to human beings. If God indeed created all that is "Ex Nihilo" as Augustine posits, then the "Ex Nihilo" from which the cosmos came into being is the substance of God himself, namely his spoken word (God said let there be light, and there was light).

Consequently, many aspects of creation may bear aspects of the creator, indeed all should, and yet the "Imago Dei" is in fact mentioned uniquely about mankind. This may indicate that God intended to reveal his character, his nature, his being through mankind more fully than through any of the other created things. God is love, we read in first John, and the plurality of a God who refers to himself as "our" indicates a God of relationship. Is it possible that the Imago Dei is at least partially found in our capacity to love, indeed our desire and need to love? Tangentially, someone may mention the fact that animals display love, but this does not diminish the intention of God's image in man; we simply point to the passage that says if we fail to glorify God, even the rocks will cry out.

If "Love" is the "Image" then we find that image distorted through the fall. The choice of self in being the judges of good and evil causes us to misapprehend the image because of the ever present lens of self. Philosophers and Judeo Christian Scholars have wrestled with a hierarchy of the various types of love that we encounter in life ranking eros at the bottom followed by phileo, and above all the selfless agape.  We romanticize about the unrequited nature of agape but the distortion of this image can be seen in the foolishness of tragic fictional characters such as Cyrano DE Bergerac. What we can witness from life, about the nature of love itself, is a progression from the dependent obedient love of children whose parents give of themselves, to a brotherly love that exists as we make friends and start to understand the mutual nature of relationship, on to the creation and possible mutual intimacy and benefit experienced in the marital relationship.

To love costs something. We’ve all heard that to have a friend, you have to be a friend. If we flip the western Judeo Christian construct over we find that Agape is the beginning, and opening for love to become possible. The Gospel stories of Jesus demonstrate this, indeed Paul says that Christ made peace with us on the cross opening the door to love; initially through dependence and obedience. When Christ says no longer do I call you servants, but I call you friends; we are witnessing the progression as in our own experience of life to a mutuality of love. And just as the Christian and the Church are referred to as the Bride of Christ, there is an expectant mutual intimacy into which God's love for us and our love for God is supposed to build.

As in our experience, often intimacy is short circuited, self demands obedience, submission, crimes and misdemeanors against love leave us distant and hurt. We allow ourselves to become distant from others and divorce takes place. Divorce then isn't merely the social crime of leaving a spouse in the cold, but the severing of relationship in direct opposition to the image of love which God desires to reveal himself through. This is why God hates divorce it would seem.

This is not to say that Divorce is not at times necessary because we indeed live in a world where love is broken. Abandonment, Abuse, Opportunism, all are valid reasons to realize that true intimacy is impossible, but Christianity seems too comfortable with divorce. Not only do we tolerate divorce in the marital relationship, but we divorce ourselves on such a regular basis from others who have differing political perspectives, theological opinions, styles of worship, ethnic origin, socio-economic status, and sometimes merely because we don't like someone.

If we are called as Christians to be salt and light, are we not called to be part of God's revelation of his character, and especially of his love? What violence are we covering ourselves in if in our search for personal purity and convenience we destroy the opportunity for God to reveal himself through us?

Where is the third wave?

The language of business and marketing are not the answer to the problem of reaching the world for Jesus, but they do provide alternatives to some of the worn out nomenclature that we have become so accustomed to. Indeed all of life provides us with insight into the ways of the God who created life itself. Some people such as Phyllis Tickle have pointed out that  there is a reformation ongoing in the church today, and others have pointed out that there is a reformation progression since the early church from sacrament, to sermonics, to social involvement (or community).

It's unfortunate that the phrase "third-wave Christianity" is associated C. Peter Wagner and Pentecostalism in America, because there is something far bigger going on. In business, the first wave is all about creating demand for a product; drink coffee, eat bacon, drive a car. The second wave is all about branding and loyalty, we don't just consume the product, we consume Maxwell House, or Folgers, we only drive Chrysler cars, or Ford trucks. This is similar to the movement of the Church throughout both history, and the experience each person has with the person of Jesus Christ. Billy Graham and Campus Crusade for Christ, most traditional evangelistic efforts are geared around getting individuals to accept a need for Jesus in their lives. Historically the Roman Church built demand for itself by offering salvation through the sacraments. The reformers however offered something new. Not only could you have the experience of the church, but you could have it as a Lutheran, or a Calvinist, or a Catholic. All of our modern denominations are a result of this brand creation, and most church efforts are aimed at achieving brand loyalty, with a little bit of first wave evangelism in order to have brand growth.

So what is a third wave Christian? In other areas, the third wave  is recognized as the point at which the product is no longer merely the product, but rather it is appreciated by connoisseurs for it's nuance and subtlety. Few people who appreciate gourmet coffee will ever go back to drinking branded mass market coffee, and for some the third wave indicates a way of life. Third wave products are boutique products, they are acquired tastes. Third wave consumers want to be respected as knowledgeable and discerning. Yet this third wave is a threat to the  bottom line of the second wave brands. Here the loyalty is to the product, rather than a brand - Third wavers are looking for something that is authentic and good. If they cannot find it within the establishment, they look elsewhere.

This spells tragedy for the modern church, with it's emphasis on growth models and and branding. The continual attempts to reach the third wavers with first wave marketing is also doomed to fail. Largely, the new generation hasn't denied the need for Jesus, but are on an unguided quest to find authenticity and quality apart from the institutions which fail to lead them forward to growth. A third wave Christian understands that Faith impacts all of reality, that worship is in how they live their lives, they do not subscribe to the creeds or doctrines of the branded church, but appreciate nuance, subtlety they choose ambiguity over hypocrisy. They want to work out their salvation, and wrestle with the mystery of godliness, and they take God seriously for who he is, not who we've made him out to be. 

Times and Dates


If one does the math, based on Keplers calculation that Christ was born in 7bc, and not the year 0, then (or any other number of calculations) we find that Jesus was crucified in the year 26AD. This is significant for us in understanding and proving the resurrection because it is indeed on that year that April 1 falls on the first day of the week, or Sunday. The other significant fact about that year is that Passsover was to start on March 14, but because of the way in which it interfered with two Sabbaths, the date was bumped so that it started ten days before the last sabbath of the month (which means it began on March 18th at Sundown, ending with the Passover meal on Thursday March 28th).

This is the same Thursday on which we as Christians celebrate Maundy Thursday or the last supper. The Crucifixion took place then on Friday March 29. Jesus was in the tomb for 40 hours according to the church tradition, which has him rising again on Sunday April 1. Quite the April fools joke if you ask me: Hey I'm not really dead!

Throughout history Jesus institution of April fools day has been diminished by hostile forces within the church, in favor of the old pagan tradition of fertility and "Easter." But even Paul says those who are Perishing find  the gospel to be "foolishness" and "The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man."

Oh, and YouTube  is deleting all our videos at midnight tonight!

Babylon and the desert of Sin

1 Peter 5:13 13
She [your sister church here] in Babylon, [who is] elect with [yourselves], sends you greetings, and [so does] my son Mark.

 As I ponder the current state of the Roman Church, I think: If Peters Babylon was Rome, he sees those there as being in exile... If that is so he would never have intended to establish the central headquarters of the church "he was to build" there.

 If however Peter meant something like "the persecuted church" or some kind of "realized eschatology" in his statement about Babylon, then Peter probably never went to Rome to establish any church...

context to tragedy

Death doesn't bother me; sure loss isn't a picnic mourning represents a change within us, how will we go on? how will we survive? how will we fill that empty place in our lives that we had filled with the love both from  and for the departed.

But when you think about it, mourning is more about us than it is about the departed. Few if any of us would express sorrow about where we believe our loved ones end up - sure we'll callously do it about someone else's loved ones, but when it comes down to our own, even the most hell-firey and brim-stoney among us lean universalist in praxis. Don't believe me? go to more funerals. The command to love your neighbor as yourself gets a real test when facing scenes of grief stricken loved ones searching for their own way to find meaning to their loss.*

Often when I do funerals, my own meditation drives me to ontological query. What does it mean to exist? Is existence real? Is existence merely a physical thing? Why do we who exist, spend the bulk of our "nows" re-living the past, and pre-living our futures? Is existence possible in either the past or future? Is existence limited to now? If we speak of now in this sense, it is really the "eternal now". If I exist now, then I exist in the eternal now. Neither death nor life then are of consequence to existence. How do I become fully present as an existent being in the eternal now?

When Jesus asked the question about the tower of Siloam in Luke 13, this seems to have been his point. We get caught up in words like "repent" and their connotation today; but what if repent is a call to live in the eternal now? Wasn't this the kind of "life" that Jesus offered; living water; abundant life; truth; light? The past is dim and dark, the future is cloudy, but right now we can be in the light, as he is in the light.

How then do you place context around tragedies? Is not the tragedy itself a chance for us to be present?
Why is it that two tragedies inspire him to talk about a fruit tree that has not yielded fruit in three years? Why does the vineyard keeper appeal for one more year on behalf of the tree, to prune and fertilize it so as to see it bear fruit? We look for someone or something to blame in a tragedy, but Jesus said that there was no point in that. We can spend lots of effort in pointless pursuits lobbying for or against gun control, stricter rules for schools, legislation mandating medications on the mentally ill, or making it easier to place them in institutions - none of which will prevent another tragedy.

When we can distance ourselves from the emotional fury caused by the scenes on the news, and when we can free our selves from fear of death, I can tell you the best way to prevent the next tragedy: When was the last time you reached out to someone who was troubled or emotionally unstable, or unlovely? When was the last time you asked; Who is my neighbor?

*[For those who would like to argue doctrine; watch your practice. For the few who are bold enough to condemn someone at a funeral it probably wouldn't help anyway to point to the doctrine of the keys.]

Windows 8 Start Button; aspects of change

Windows 8 is an interesting parallel/analogy in how we humans can dislike change. Seemingly minor things often get us out of sorts - maybe not upset, but it can confuse us. Perhaps I don't need a start menu? But my mind isn't ready to stop clicking on the lower left corner of the screen and opening whatever program is pinned to the task bar there.

Tactics of change are quite important. We often use logic like this: "It's just a small change, it's minor, why does it matter?" which isn't very empathetic, and sets us up for logic like this: "well if it's so small and minor, why can't I have it my way?" Maybe this is why the apocryphal story of Coca-Cola comes to mind. When they wanted to switch from cane sugar to corn syrup, they removed the product from the shelves completely, introducing "New Coke" only to bring back the slightly reformulated "Coca-Cola Classic" once we'd all had our taste adjusted to a different flavor. It was a major gamble to take; and in the end it paid off

At Church we often fall into the trap of the former logic. Somebody thinks the Pulpit should stay in the center  of the platform, it's not a big thing why does it matter. Somebody else thinks the announcements should go in the middle of the service, it's not a big thing, why does it matter. Children in the service, Types of music, How the coffee is made, how much heat we use, whether we use a microphone... all little things, so why do they matter.

The fact is that for those affected they aren't little things - that's why downloads of "start button programs" for windows 8 are leading people to speculate that even Microsoft might bring them back (especially after firing their top man).

All this leaves me to ponder: Should I put a start button program on my computer? or should I adapt to the change?


History

History is replete with examples we could learn from, if we didn't simply chose to accept the easy explanation. Does Occam's razor apply to history? maybe so, but certainly there is a difference between the simplest path between two points, and the simplest way to understand the path between two points - and so we trip ourselves up on cosmetically altered notions of history.

One example: Why and where did the first modern universities spring up? Our cosmetically altered answer has something to do with the thirst for knowledge and the altruistic spirit of generous benefactors in renaissance Europe. The less cosmetically attractive history reads a long brutal history of crusades, which sent the land into economic hardship. The papal answer to this, was to no longer send armies but inquisitors to hunt heretics... but when the people revolted from even this heavy handed approach, it was figured that institutes of higher learning, if opened to laity could provide a uniformity of opinion and scholarship which served to prevent such heresies from arising in the first place. In a way Universities, and especially Seminaries are the bastard children of the Inquisition and Crusades.

Take such incestuous scholarship forward a few centuries, and people no longer remember nor take seriously major historical figures and their work, the blood of saints and martyrs, chalking such histories that survive as old wives tales. We call these times the "dark ages" without consideration for their cause. One clear cause is the attempt to impose a unifying faith on the masses as a means of subjecting them - with the corresponding emphasis on "orthodox" purity and brutal suppression of heterodoxy.

America has mastered this cosmetic alteration of history. The Boston Tea party was a respectable protest, George Washington was god like, The native Americans were small tribes of isolated peoples before Europeans came, and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. It is possible to go on and on with this civic nonsense, or we could just witness the retelling of "facts" on the current campaign trail. Given some recent comments however about the importance of deciding the future of our country on the ground of deciding for or against free markets, I'd like to examine some of the glossed over history.

We think of the 1800's as a time of upheaval and conflict over the issue of slavery. We see the racial prejudice and brutality suffered by black people as rightly reprehensible. Toward the end of the war, they were set free by proclamation of the president - not due to his moral or ethical stance, but rather as a means to cause a further blow in this case to the economy of the rebellious south in order to ensure the surrender and unity of the nation. The Great Debate, as we have called it in our history books was all about the morality of holding people as slaves because of the color of their skin; but we never read the writings of southern scholars who posited that the confederacy, the war, the debate was really about the competition of two economic systems.

The truth is, as ugly as it may seem; it was. While abolitionists fought for the end to maltreatment of humans who are our brothers, many of their northern neighbors did just that, even worshiping together with a clear conscience absolved of guilt - for they held no slaves. And yet we do not see the dormitories in Lowell or the twelve and a half hour days worked by women and children with no safety equipment or protection or benefit in the event of injury or sickness or days off (except for Sunday which was strictly regulated as to what was permissible, church attendance was a term of employment). You see: in exchange for a paycheck, the owners of these factories were absolved of having any ethical obligation for their employees; Whereas in the south that ethical obligation stood, however compromised by the notion of property ownership.

Now the Republican party of the 1960's has changed it's tune. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who will openly accept the southern form of economics (and discrimination) but we do find politicians openly embracing the northern approach through their cunning use of phrases like "free markets" and "fair trade." We avoid this comparison due to respect for the many people of color who suffered under the repugnant economic system of the south - but we cannot afford to avert our eyes as Mitt Romney and the like advocate for neo-feudalism saying that it's somehow our fault that we, the 47% who supposedly don't pay taxes, don't earn enough money for the government to see it ethical or worthwhile to dip into our pockets and take what little money the working poor have earned; the sacrifice of the rich to cleanse their conscience from any sense of ethics. I could go on and on about the cult of money... but what about civic responsibility?

Do you know what the Magna Carta is Mr. Romney? Do you understand that the purpose of modern common law government is to restrain the "divine right" of a monarch who owned everything, and could take it away or give it wherever he pleased without any sense of obligation to a fellow man? Because if you do, you'll see that the right of a people to food and shelter as you so malign, is precisely the underpinnings of what we like to tout around the world as "the rule of law."

Saint Leo Tolstoy

Banned in Russia, ignored by the West: Leo Tolstoy wrote what could be called a dissertation on the “An Introduction to a Criticism of Dogmatic Theology” where in he lays out a stunning critique of the post Nicene church, its theology, and its appropriation of Christ’s teaching. In “What I believe” he lays down what he believes to be the foundational doctrine of Christ (and God) “Do not resist evil.” It is a fascinating take, even if you disagree with his ultimate conclusion because he asks many of the same questions we ask today: Why has the church in such a concerted way refused to acknowledge any alternate interpretations of Christ teaching? Why are we so eager to participate in the sacraments, build edifices, and proselytize, and yet refuse to keep the command to turn the other cheek?

He adopts the word Anarchy, and yet his form of Anarchy is nothing like our current understanding: His idea is that by resisting evil, we are making judgments as to what is evil and what is good - thus participating in evil ourselves and perpetuating it. By refusing to participate in evil, by not resisting it, the world is changed.... He describes a world that looks much like what the early church looked like as a result of this. You can listen to the audio book for free from Librivox... good for in the car:
http://archive.org/details/whatibelieve_1101_librivox  its about 230MB