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Archive for the ‘Church Life’ Category

Tucson, Arizona is about an eight hour drive from my home in southern California, but the long weekend of the Thanksgiving holiday afforded me the time to make the trek. While visiting good friends there, I had the pleasure of attending St. Francis in the Foothills Methodist church on Sunday. David Wilkinson is the pastor there, and we share a love of process theology though he was a student of John Cobb long before I became aware of Claremont and process thought.

Pastor David drew his sermon from the New Testament story of Paul addressing a gathering  – including Epicurean and Stoic philosophers – in the Areapagus where he claims that the “unknown god” Athenians honored was the same as the creator God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:16-28). One of the main points David made in his commentary was that the term “God” was better understood as a verb than as a noun, and that the God who could never be fully known would not be pinned down or boxed in but must be followed into an unknown future.

In their book Tending to the Holy, Bruce and Katherine Epperly write that by “invoking Stoic philosophy to undergird the life-changing wisdom of Christ’s message and resurrection, Paul affirms that divine revelation is universal despite its variability from culture to culture. Paul recognizes that God is truly present in the pluralistic theological and spiritual environment of the Areopagus.” (25) In this text on preaching and teaching, the Epperlys assert the need for public ministries to affirm the “ever-present, dynamic, and intimate reality” of divine inspiration. (24) Oddly enough, such an awareness of divine presence seems hardly to be spoken of in many churches today where politics and sexual morality take precedence.  

Back home here in California, you can find me most afternoons at one of the local dog parks with Cotton, and today we met a woman with an Australian Shepherd named Benji (we humans never learn each other’s’ names!) After sharing where I was attending school, our conversation quickly moved to a deeper level, and Benji’s “mom” told me she was a “recovering Catholic” who had little patience for a church who saw women and other faiths as “less than.” She described herself as “spiritual” and as someone hungry for a community of faith, but she wondered what the church could offer to skeptical people who reject exclusivist and misogynistic doctrine.

The Epperlys describe the responsibilities of a Christian pastor in this way:

To share the gospel so that congregants may experience the fullness of God in their lives, discover the life-transforming presence of Christ, discern the guidance of the Spirit, find comfort in times of uncertainty and pain, and commit themselves to becoming God’s companions in the quest for shalom in their local and global communities. (28)

I think if more churches did just this, we wouldn’t be bleeding out membership and headed toward irrelevancy.

 

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There’s a memorable scene in the movie “City Slickers” where the grizzled cow hand Curly played by Jack Palance passes on his wisdom to Mitch, played by Billy Crystal. It goes like this:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean [bleep].
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles] That’s what you have to find out.

There’s an only slightly less opaque conversation between Jesus and Martha that appears in the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42). In that story, Jesus and his disciples are welcomed at the home of sisters Martha and Mary. While Jesus is sharing his message with the assembled guests, Mary is plopped down at his feet, listening attentively while Martha is “preoccupied” with getting everything ready for dinner. Martha’s not too happy about this arrangement and takes it up directly with Jesus.

Martha came to him and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.’

Most biblical scholars pit Mary and Martha’s tasks against each other, either asserting that clearly contemplation and study are of higher value than domestic work, or, in the case of feminist scholars, pointing out that everyone would have gone hungry if Martha hadn’t been in the kitchen doing work that men have typically negated or taken for granted. I’m not so sure Jesus was dismissing domestic work in favor of contemplation so much as he was urging Martha to focus on the “one thing” that was important to her in that moment rather than being “worried and distracted by many things.” My suspicion is that if Martha had been peaceful in her meal preparation, doing what she could do by herself without succumbing to the pressure of time while allowing Mary to do what was important to her in the moment, Jesus would have honored her choice as much as Mary’s.

In his text Four Seasons of Ministry, Bruce Epperly notes the need for healthy balance in ministry and quotes Charles Hummel on the importance of finding “freedom from the tyranny of the urgent.” (62) Our Buddhist sisters and brothers teach the freedom that comes from doing even mundane tasks mindfully, as this mindfulness brings a sense of inner quiet. In Holy Adventure, Epperly notes that “the church as the body of Christ exists to join seamlessly the inner journey of contemplation and the outer journey of action in its vocation as God’s partner in bringing healing and wholeness to all creation.” (123)

Maybe if we can learn to do just the one thing that is necessary in every moment, we’ll bring more healing and wholeness to our lives and the lives of those around us.

I think even Curly and Mitch might agree.

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Wikipedia quotes Isaac Newton as saying about “non-locality” or “action at a distance” that it is “so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical Matters a competent Faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.” On the other hand, Albert Einstein, certainly someone with quite a well-developed “Faculty of thinking” called the exhibited “non-locality” of quantum entanglement “spooky action at a distance.” Meanwhile, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) program, which ran from 1979 until 2007, was established so as to “to pursue rigorous scientific study of the interaction of human consciousness with physical devices, systems, and processes common to contemporary engineering practice.” PEAR showed up on the public’s radar screen some years back in relation to its experiments in “remote viewing,” heavily discussed in Lynne McTaggart’s book The Field.

While many of us have experienced the power of prayer, the majority of people in the Western world with its post-Enlightenment worldview grounded in scientific materialism dismiss such ideas as distant healing and the efficacy of prayer as so much gobbled-gook and supernatural mumbo jumbo.

Even modern theologians and religious scholars, heavily wedded to rationalism, focus on a “historical Jesus,” and wave away any notions of healings and seemingly miraculous events. In his book, Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church, Bruce Epperly puts his finger on the unsatisfying nature of such dismissals when he writes that,

Totally deconstructionist or one-dimensional naturalistic visions of the gospel narratives fail to address the life-transforming experiences of first-century followers of Jesus as well as the profound interdependence of mind, body, and spirit: they also neglect God’s activity within every ‘natural’ process. (75)

Though I have been a fan of such writers as John Shelby Spong and John Dominic Crossan for a long time, I’ve often noted – as Dr. Epperly does – that they seem not to take into account the insights of “process theology, quantum physics, recent medical research, and global complementary and energy medicine, all of which allow for surprising acts of God and lively releases of divine energy arising from the interplay of ‘natural’ causes.” (75)

Years ago, while a student at the Atlanta School of Massage, I learned various healing modalities – alongside Swedish and deep tissue massage – that focused on the energy fields of the body. Though I could not explain why they worked, I knew that I experienced a greater sense of peace and wholeness after such treatments. Later, while supporting a fellow church member and her family as she died of cancer, I witnessed firsthand the calming effects of therapeutic touch and prayer. As well, I’ve known for a long time that “healing” doesn’t always mean “curing.”

There were times when I’d run into a more conservative Christian who would claim that any such healing work not done directly in the name of Jesus was of the devil.  Jesus ran into the same kind of narrow thinking when he healed a demon-possessed man and was accused of doing so through the power of “Beelzebul.” Jesus set them straight with the illustration that Satan cannot throw out Satan, for a house divided in such a way cannot stand. He went on to point out a tree is known by its fruit and anyone who insults the Holy Spirit is in serious trouble. (Matthew 12:22-33)

I agree with Dr. Epperly that we “must somehow redefine our understanding of the natural world to include non-local causation (action at a distance), paranormal phenomena, and healing energy.” (74)

 

 

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In Christ in a Pluralistic Age, process theologian John B. Cobb, Jr. builds a strong case for understanding the Logos as “creative transformation” and using the term “Christ” to indicate the incarnation of the Logos in creation. In popular usage, “Christ” seems to be understood merely as Jesus’ last name rather than as a descriptor of either his role or his impact on his followers. But Cobb asserts that “’Christ’ does not designate Jesus as such but refers to Jesus in a particular way, namely as the incarnation of the divine. It does not designate deity as such but refers to deity experienced as graciously incarnate in the world.” (66)

He draws from the artistic world to illustrate how Christ can dynamically move from a strictly external image to an internalized force, but insists that it cannot only be in art that this is true. “If creative transformation is Christ,” he writes, “it must be discernible in all life.” (63) In discussing creative transformation and novelty, Cobb talks about a “continuing restlessness in the human race” that leads us toward “spontaneity, growth, and self-transcendence.” (69-70)

Most of my adult life has been characterized by this “continuing restlessness,” and over the last several years, my process of discerning God’s call for me in that restlessness has been through a Jungian practice of dream work and examination of synchronicities, or meaningful coincidences.

There is a vibrant movement of Christian dream work that has developed through the work of Joyce Rockwood Hudson (author of Natural Spirituality: Recovering the Wisdom Tradition in Christianity) and Rev. Bob Haden (an Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst), both of whom are primary organizers for the annual Haden Institute Summer Dream Conference in North Carolina. This movement stresses the role of Divine Wisdom as the voice of God speaking to us in our dreams and through waking life synchronicities.

And so when Cobb describes Christ as incarnating the “cosmic principle of order, the ground of meaning, and the source of purpose,” (71) identifying this power only as “Logos,” I must disagree somewhat. In the Christian New Testament tradition, the word Logos is used primarily in the Gospel of John. In the Prologue to that Gospel especially – but generally in the New Testament – everything that is said about the Logos was already said in the Jewish tradition about Sophia (in Greek, Hochma in Hebrew), or Divine Wisdom, typically personified as feminine.

In her groundbreaking text She Who Is, Elizabeth A. Johnson summarizes the connection between Jesus and Wisdom in this way:

The Prologue to [John’s] Gospel, which more than any other scriptural text influences the subsequent development of Christology, actually presents the prehistory of Jesus as the story of Sophia: present ‘in the beginning,’ an active agent in creation, descending from heaven to pitch a tent among the people, rejected by some, giving life to those who seek, a radiant light that darkness cannot overcome (Jn 1:1-18). (Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is.  10th Anniversary Edition. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002, 96-7)

According to Johnson, Christians in the first century, in trying to communicate “the saving significance of Jesus, ransacked the Jewish religious tradition and the surrounding Hellenistic culture for interpretive elements. Along with Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah, and Logos, the tradition of personified Wisdom was ready to hand.” (95) She continues,

What Judaism said of Sophia, Christian hymn makers and epistle writers now came to say of Jesus: he is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15); the radiant light of God’s glory (Heb 1:3); the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15); the one through whom all things were made (1 Cor 8:6).  Likewise, the way in which Judaism characterized Sophia in her dealings with human beings, Gospel writers now came to portray Jesus: he calls out to the heavy burdened to come to him and find rest (Mt 11:28-30); he makes people friends of God (Jn 15:15), and gifts those who love him with life (Jn 17:2).  As the trajectory of wisdom Christology shows, Jesus was so closely associated with Sophia that by the end of the first century he is presented not only as a wisdom teacher, not only as a child and envoy of Sophia, but ultimately even as an embodiment of Sophia herself. (95)

I think it’s crucial that we not lose this rich tradition when we speak of Christ and the Logos.

 

 

 

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There’s nothing like a good magic show. Whether it’s rabbits pulled out of hats or the beautiful woman being sawed in half, we love to see the magic. Even though we know it’s all illusion, we get caught up in the mood created by the dark theater, the dramatic lighting, the smell of the smoke, and the intense concentration of our fellow audience members. We know that the woman’s torso isn’t really disconnected from her legs that have now been wheeled to the other side of the stage, but it’s all so convincing, isn’t it? We can’t really see what’s behind that curtain, so our minds play a little trick on us, letting us think that the staged image is reality.

The human mind is a powerful thing.

In her book Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism, Marjorie Suchocki writes about the idea of “radical incarnation” that exists in Christianity versus the “abstractions and conceptions of God” with which Christians are often more familiar. She points to American philosopher William James and notes that in his text A Pluralistic Universe,

[James] argues that the power of the intellect is its ability to control reality through defining it. But definitions are not reality. They are useful abstractions from the messiness of lived experience that leave the fullness of that experience behind. The power gained over the world through these abstracted concepts is so beguiling as to lead one to think that what is really real is precisely those abstractions: the rational, in pure, unchanging, controllable form. (Suchocki, Divinity & Diversity, 41)

We then make matters worse by deciding that the intellect is “the prime model of reality,” and conclude that “there must be an absolute intellect that embraces all concepts. This projected Absolute Reality, often named ‘God,’ becomes the substitute for the more unmanageable sensible reality of everyday life.” (42)

Who wants to stay in everyday life – where babies cry, adults get sick, jobs get boring or lost, parents die, and pain is an ever-present reality – when we can sit in the darkened theater and watch the magician wave his hand to make it all disappear?

When we sit in church where we might smell the incense, stare at intricately stunning stained glass, taste the Eucharist on our tongue, and sing and sway to hymns that transport us to a larger Reality, isn’t it often tempting to want to make that Reality absolutely pure, absolutely clear, absolutely powerful, absolutely wise, and absolutely untouched by the darkness and despair we see all around us, the messy stuff that lies behind the curtain?

But maybe that seduction is a danger.

“As James pushes the notion of absolutism to its extreme,” Suchocki writes, “he shows how it yields the notion of a God totally disconnected from the world…” Once we define God with attributes “so foreign to finite experience” we end up with a God who cannot meet human experience.

James argued that the conceptual God of Absolutes belied the intimacy and reciprocal relation that appears to happen between God and human beings in religious experience…If we take mystical experience seriously, James said, it witnesses to a possibility within the human spirit for an openness to that which is more than the self, and yet which empowers the self: God. The witness is not to a remote deity, but to an immanent deity at the very edges of the self. Such experience suggests that the God constructed through absolutes is hardly more than an invention of the human mind, whereas the God at the edges of the self confronts us in the midst of our reality. (42)

In the midst of our reality. Right here. Right now. In this very darkness.

 

 

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I’ll never forget the day that in a class on “Jesus and the Gospels” at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Dr. Ray Pickett made this comment: “Crucifixion was the Roman Empire’s response to Jesus; resurrection was God’s response to the Roman Empire.” I loved the power and simplicity of that statement.

In Proverbs of Ashes authors Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker make a compelling case against both traditional and contemporary Christian interpretations of Jesus’ death, but the greatest power of the book lies not in its theological arguments – though they are very strong – but in the vulnerability displayed in the telling of their personal stories involving violence, childhood sexual abuse, and other forms of victimization experienced both in their own lives and in those of others they encountered.  Parts of the book are emotionally devastating.  Ultimately they question whether anything remotely like salvation can ever come from violence.

Had he desired to do so, Jesus could have wrought the reign of God through power and might – some of his followers may have even expected or hoped for that kind of outcome – but Jesus went the opposite route; he became completely vulnerable to his tormentors. It’s typically taught that his sacrifice is what saves us.  

Many years ago, I went through a wrenching heartbreak when a man I was dating chose to date someone else. Up to that point, both of us only had a tentative toe in the dating waters, keeping much of our hearts behind a curtain – or wall – of fear. We both feared rejection and I feared vulnerability, and so we confronted an impasse rather than relationship. But a day or so after he broke the news, we opened up to each other in a way we’d not yet done, disclosing our innermost thoughts and fears. As I drove in tears the next day to visit friends in another state, I thought about our hearts broken open, at the freedom that brought, about Christ on the cross, and about how it seemed when we were at our most vulnerable, we were really at our most powerful.

And in that moment, I felt the presence of God in the car with me.

In the book, Rebecca Ann Parker writes of her repeated sexual abuse as a five year old at the hands of her next door neighbor. She describes one especially horrific episode this way:

When I was raped as a child, there was a moment that I have been able to remember in which I was quite sure I was going to die – and perhaps I was, in fact, close to being killed…In that moment I knew that there was a Presence with me that was ‘stronger’ than the rapist and that could encompass my terror. This Presence had a quality of unbounded compassion for me and unbreakable connection to me, an encompassing embrace of me and for that matter, of the man raping me. I understood that if I died, I would somehow still be with this Presence, this Presence would ‘take me up,’ this Presence was ‘greater than’ death, and ‘greater than’ the power of the man who was raping me. This Presence could not stop the man from killing me, if he chose to. And, at the same time, it could stop him. Because, I knew, if he noticed it he would be stopped. You couldn’t be aware of this Presence and do what the man was doing to me. He only could do it by not noticing, not knowing. So, this Presence did have the power to save me from death and there is a way in which I believe it did. (p. 211-212)

Parker recognizes that our awareness of the Presence of God is sometimes made keener in such moments as when we are near death or in crisis, but she’s equally adamant that the Presence is with us – and available to us – all the time and everywhere.

But we have to be open to it to see it, to feel it, to recognize it. We have to be a little bit vulnerable.

 

Note: One of the best talks I’ve heard about vulnerability is the TED talk Brene Brown delivered a few years ago (that has now been viewed over 6 million times). It’s well worth a watch.

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Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Mark 1:9 (NRSV)

Some years back, I was teaching an adult education class at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Marietta, GA, and the topic was healing. I’d become interested in healing and healing ministries while exploring the mind-body-spirit connection and aspects of alternative medicine. Early in the class, I wanted to show the biblical basis for our study, and pointed the people gathered there to many scriptural texts that touched on healing. One of these texts described how Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs with these instructions:

 

Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment…
Matthew 10:5-8 (NRSV)

After I read this passage, one of the men in the class interrupted me, saying “Wait a minute. There was ‘good news’ before Jesus’ death and resurrection?” We all had to stop and think about that question for quite a few minutes. We had all been raised on the Gospels, we knew the stories, we knew that the core of Christianity as it’s always been taught is Jesus’ death and resurrection. So how could there have been “good news” before these events even happened?

It is clear in both of the passages above that Jesus believed there was good news to share – right then and right there – seemingly unrelated to whatever might occur in the future.

What if the “good news” of Jesus has nothing to do with what happens to you after you die?

What if the “good news” of God is more about your present life than it is about your after life?

In Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Dr. Bruce Epperly gives us the process perspective:

Process theology asserts that God’s aim for the universe and human life is toward beauty and complexity of experience and, as Bernard Loomer would assert, greater stature in our embrace and transformation of diversity, novelty, suffering, and beauty…I believe that process theology embraces Jesus’ sense of vocation…Living out his vocation as God’s beloved messenger, fully open to God’s wisdom and power in his life, Jesus saw teaching, healing, and transforming at the heart of his mission. Although deeply rooted in the Jewish faith of his parents, Jesus nevertheless challenged his tradition to reflect God’s all-embracing realm of Shalom, that included oppressed and oppressor, outcast and righteous, and foreigner and neighbor. Jesus’ message and mission, process theologians assert, was not supernaturally-oriented toward life beyond the grave, but a call to embody God’s vision for this life and this world. [italics mine] (p. 70-71)

If we ask, with John Cobb, “Can Christ become good news again?”, I believe the answer is yes, but only if we share the real good news with our neighbors.

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