To pretend that our histories are absolute or inerrant is a mistake, but to ignore the power of our fallible traditions to inform, enrich, criticize, and transform the present is a grave mistake, too. In fact, we are historically formed. . . .
To live today - knowledgeably, reflectively, self-critically - bringing into our time the redemptive resources of biblical reflection and practice
is to be a progressive Christian.
~Delwin Brown

Alpha-Omega

A New Year’s Prayer

I prayer I wrote some years ago for use in worship at First United Methodist in Wichita Falls, Texas.  The closing part of the prayer includes John Wesley’s covenant prayer:


O God of our hope, in which we live,
where can we go where You are not with us?
Where can we go to escape Your love and grace?
The answer, O God, is of course, nowhere.
Every step of life that we make,
we make with You –
even if we don’t acknowledge Your presence.
Why, then, do we live as if You were not here?
Why do we live in the fear of the unknown,
thinking that we are all alone?
Why do we ignore Your being with us?

Maybe, O God, it is fear of the unknown.
So, help us to know You better.
In this New Year we have before us,
help us to actively pursue our relationship with You
as You pursue a relationship with us.
Inspire us to grow in
our knowledge, love, and commitment to You.
Then, Lord, with stronger understanding, passion, and service to You and others,
we will be less afraid to face the new joys and challenges of life.
We won’t be afraid of the unknown
as we will better know You, even as You know us.

We are no longer our own, but Yours.
Put us to what You will, rank us with whom You will.
Put us to doing, put us to suffering.
Let us be employed for You or laid aside for You,
exalted for You or brought low for You.
Let us be full, let us be empty.
Let us have all things, let us have nothing.
We freely and heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
You are Ours, and we are Yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which we have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

Amen.


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Pooled Ignorance?

I winced (kind of like I just winced as I typed the title). My shock was apparently obvious as he followed up his comment. “I know it’s kind of crude, but it’s true. Most lay-led Bible studies are pooled ignorance: a lot of people saying what they think something means without having any real theological basis for backing up what they say.”

My new senior pastor was explaining why he wanted me to focus on teaching a lot of classes myself at my new appointment instead of just empowering lay people to lead various classes. His goal was for me to teach, making a concerted effort to invite and include various lay leaders / teachers to take part to get a more firm theological basis for what they themselves taught.

He was right (though I’ve struggled with trying to find a less-offensive phrase to name it). I remember when I took Disciple I Bible Study how frustrated I was to not have real questions answered by someone who was at least a relative expert on the passages we read. Our lay leader was highly skilled at facilitating discussion but not at giving real historical or theological insight into our readings. Her most common response to our questions was, “Well, what do you think?” – an important and worthwhile question but a question that has led to many misinterpretations, less than Christ-like actions, and splits throughout the history of Christianity.

On the other side of the spectrum are those pastors who don’t think that people in the pews can handle or understand the things that we learned in seminary. Really?! A lot of these folks are doctors, lawyers, and engineers who understand things that may be more complex than intricacies of theology and biblical interpretation. On top of that, people who are “just” farmers, plumbers, carpenters, or electricians are highly intelligent people, which shows that some of our preconceived notions about their vocations can be a bit snobbish.

Frankly, many (maybe most) people in the pews are smarter than me. The difference is our calling. I am called to a vocation of ordained ministry within the day-to-day life of the local church. They are called to a different day-to-day vocation while still being extremely (maybe even more) important to the life of the local church. Because they are so important to the life of the local church, they, too, are capable and worthy of receiving a similar Christian education.  So, as a part of my calling, I teach much of what I learned in seminary.

For sure, some aren’t ready for some of the things we learned in seminary, but at the same time, there are some who are tired of hearing the same old trite, pious “Sunday School” answers that get tossed around in so much of Christian education. They long for something more. On top of that are the folks who don’t think they are ready, but stick with it despite the rational, emotional, and spiritual challenges they encounter in new ways of looking at things. Even if their basic beliefs don’t change, they often find the other side transformational.


I remember clearly a conversation with a preschool teacher. “I just don’t think I can continue with this study, Troy. I don’t think I’m supposed to believe this way. I think it’s wrong. Do you believe this?”

“Actually, yes, I agree with most of it,” we were using Marcus Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time for a small group study. “This is really a good summary of what we were taught in seminary about the Scriptures.”

“Really? That’s not at all what I’ve heard in the church through the years,” said the life-long Methodist. “I’m not sure I should even consider it, much less believe it. It’s just so different.”

“Oh gosh, I’m not saying you should believe it. I am asking you to hear this different viewpoint. Even if you don’t agree with it, surely it can help you better understand and articulate what you do believe – even if it is clearly saying you don’t believe this,” as I pointed to the book in question.

“Well, I guess.”

“I really hope you’ll stay with the study for the community as much as anything. We need to hear your point of view since it is different than what the book is saying.”

“Well, I’ll think about it,” she said with trepidation in her voice.

She came back. She finished the book. Her perceptions were changed. She decided it was okay to believe some of those things, and she was saddened that she didn’t remember ever hearing that perspective before. So, she started teaching some of those concepts to the senior high girls she taught in Sunday school, and those girls ate it up!

Another lay person (and college professor – later to be seminary student) seriously disagreed with me on some things I was sharing as a part of the Jesus in the Gospels Disciple Bible Study. One night our disagreement escalated to a blow up (a situation that I did not handle very pastorally, much to my chagrin).

Yet, she stayed at the table. She came back week after week, and at the end, she noted in a very cordial conversation that much of what she believed had not changed. Nonetheless, she said she had an expanded vocabulary for expressing her beliefs. She had a new appreciation for the fact that people can believe differently and still serve together. She had been stretched, and that was okay – no, actually good. I, too, had grown in how I approach teaching. I was reminded that I need to leave more space for differing beliefs in my leadership.

+++++++++++++++

Surely you’ve been near a swimming pool that has not been cleaned in a long while. Can’t you see the yellowish, greeny, brown slime beginning to coat the sides? The rancid smell is one that kind of sticks in your nose even after you walk away, right? And don’t breathe through your mouth, because that smell is one you can taste if you’re not careful. You can add more water, but it’ll just evaporate, leaving behind the mildew.

I think the same can happen in our individual lives of faith and in our communities of faith. No matter how much we stir around the same old thoughts and opinions, the water remains stagnant. The water that brings life becomes so dirty that we no longer get sustenance from us, and if we are not careful, it evaporates, leaving us dry.

We need new, moving, and living water (new ideas) – water (ideas) flowing in AND out to keep our lives of faith fresh. Water comes (new ideas come) to replenish us and leave us to take away that which is stagnant. We don’t have to retain all the water (ideas) coming through. Sometimes we need to let them pass on by, but attaching that which no longer works or is superfluous so that it leaves us, too.

We need to be careful to not simply become pools of ignorance. We need to be able to hear (and share) new and different ideas, not because they are necessarily right (or wrong), but because they can help us approach our lives of faith in fresh or cleansed ways.

 


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Hope Against Darkness: A Book Review

I was working for Pep Boy in Irving, Texas while going to college, and the radio was always on in the store. The station was usually chosen by the manager on duty, and more often than not, a country station or a soft rock station was chosen (unless, of course, the Cowboys were playing). So, more than likely, it was there, amidst the smell of motor oil and tires, that I first heard Billy Ray Cyrus and the soon-to-become annoying song “Achy, Breaky Heart.”

I remember on several occasions that the DJ (or critics on TV) would label Cyrus the “Elvis of Country Music.” That was when labels really began to annoy me.

Even though Elvis was labeled the “King of Rock and Roll,” he had 31 top ten Country hits during his career – eleven of which went to number 1 (compare that to Cyrus’ 8 top ten hits). So, upon hearing the label given to Cyrus, I’d often mutter under my breath, “No, Elvis was the Elvis of Country music!” (Full disclosure, I’m a huge Elvis fan).

And yet, that’s what we do as humans, don’t we? We label people. We put people in boxes. When we pick sides, we build walls around us to shield us from the ideas of others. We assume that we or others can only align with similar people and that each group is homogeneous. We assume that those people can only do what we think (read know) they can do. We become so attuned to “our group” that we can’t see our own hypocrisy or the value of another group’s ideals.


It was personally painful at times (in a good way), but one of the things I most appreciated about Richard Rohr’s book, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety, was the fact that he clearly showed how neither left nor right, liberal or conservative has all the answers or is completely wrong. He showed how each extreme is often hypocritical.

As one who tends to more align myself with the left / liberal viewpoints, I often felt Rohr jabbing at me, personally. As much as I wanted to stand up and defend my tribe and my ideals, more often than not, I could see that he was right.

Even though the book was published in 2001, it speaks so clearly to the greatly divided world of religion and politics that seems so prevalent today in 2014 (of course, it was likely that way then, too, but my eyes were not opened to it – a blessing and a curse of social media). His call, echoing that of Jesus and St. Francis, is to drop the tribalism – to quit with trying to decide who is in and who is out.

I have said at times through the years as I have led various studies that we in the mainline church need to become very black and white about one thing, and only thing only: the world is full of gray. My theory has been that real transformation can come by being clear from the get-go that there are few if any absolutes. I continue to think that is valid, but this book helped me to see a slightly different perspective.

Rohr writes on page 163:

Spiritual transformation is often thought of as movement from darkness to light. In once sense that is true, but in another sense it is totally false. We forget that darkness is always present alongside the light. Pure light blinds, only the mixture of darkness and light allows us to see. Shadows are required for our seeing.

Here, we are reminded that light and darkness is not an either / or but a both / and. And throughout the book, he reminds us that the dark times of life are not bad (unless we choose to stay there); rather, these are a new telling of the sad yet hopeful story of the cross. They are the reminder of “the lamb who is simultaneously slaughtered and standing.” (pg. 23)

So, as I’ve reflected on these writings, I began to think about “white” and “black” in terms of science. “In the visible spectrum, white reflects light and is a presence of all colors, but black absorbs light and is an absence of color.” (from Wikipedia, June 28, 2014) To put it another way, white is the presence of all colors, but black absorbs light that contains all colors (you can even make black paint by mixing all colors). Interestingly, it is through the cuts made in the glass of a prism or the results of rain that show the full spectrum of color that is always present. And as Rohr reiterates poignantly throughout the book, it is the often painful cuts and rains of life that truly bring transformation and new life. And though these are painful, they are not bad but a place to experience grace.

Now, I think that the church needs to be black and white about the fact that there is a full spectrum of colors (and ideas), and it’s the full spectrum that brings real beauty, not the plainness of black OR white or the drabness of grays. To claim that all the world should be only blue OR red OR yellow is to deny the fullness of God’s creation. This should serve as a reminder for us to keep going back to examine ourselves and determine whether we are, in fact, promoting only one color of the spectrum. In that examination, we must ask, “What can we learn from another color of the spectrum?”

If I have one complaint with this book, it has to do with the subtitle: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety. I have recently become interested in Saint Francis of Assisi thanks to the inspiring example of Pope Francis and thanks to reading Matthew Fox’s book, Letters to Pope Francis. Plus, I’ve relatively recently become a fan of Richard Rohr. Therefore, I thought, this will be a great book! I can learn more from and about each. However, other than an occasional mention here and there and one chapter (Chapter 7: Francis of Assisi: Showing the Way Toward Reconstruction), I didn’t get much about St. Francis. I’m sure that many of his ideals and theology guide and inform the book, but I’m no more clear about what comes directly from him.

And yet, I see that I’m falling into the old trap of labeling. This book was for me a positive challenge to and for my life of faith, no matter the label on the front. Thus, I hope you’ll consider reading this book.


Fr. Richard Rohr is a globally recognized ecumenical teacher bearing witness to the universal awakening within Christian mysticism and the Perennial Tradition. He is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fr. Richard’s teaching is grounded in the Franciscan alternative orthodoxy—practices of contemplation and lived kenosis(self-emptying), expressing itself in radical compassion, particularly for the socially marginalized.

Fr. Richard is the author of numerous books, including Everything Belongs, Adam’s Return, The Naked Now, Breathing Under Water, Falling Upward, and Immortal Diamond, as well as the devotionals, Yes, And… and  Preparing for Christmas.

CAC is home to the Rohr Institute where Fr. Richard is academic Dean of the Living School for Action and Contemplation. Drawing upon Christianity’s place within the Perennial Tradition, the mission of the Rohr Institute is to produce compassionate and powerfully learned individuals who will work for positive change in the world based on awareness of our common union with God and all beings.


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Growing Into New Life

When I was about 4, we had just moved “out to the country,” and my parents wanted to grow a garden. The problem was that the soil there at our “new” house was hard white clay that even grass and weeds had a hard time growing in, so my parents went to work to make it more fertile.

First, Dad had the area plowed, and then he tilled it by hand. Then we took our food scraps, week after week, to spread out on the garden-to-be. Man, did it stink! I hated when it was my turn to take the scraps out, wishing I had a 10-foot pole to hold the bucket on far away from my nose! On top of that, we spread the ashes from our fireplace all over the garden, too.

We did this for years, but it made this less than fertile ground a place of abundant growth – not to mention tasty veggies! The once hard, white clay became rich, brown soil. Out of death (non-fertile ground & food scraps) and ashes, new life burst forth.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Lent is a time of preparation for new life on Easter, so a Lenten practice I encouraged the families of the church I serve to take part in was to plant something together and care for it with water and sunlight (noting that they didn’t have to use the stinky food scraps unless they  just wanted to). “Together,” I encouraged, “you can watch new life burst forth from the dead ground (or dirt in a pot) in anticipation of the new life of Christ that burst forth from the grave on Easter.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Honestly, even though I encouraged our church families to take part in this activity, we did not do this this year.  However, as I reflected on what these families might have been experiencing, I remembered that my son, Micah, and I did this last year.

I remember well the excitement Micah had because he had been given a “kit” that included dirt, a cup, and a lima bean.  We planted it, and EVERY morning, one of the first things Micah wanted to look at was to see if his plant had grown yet.  We kept it watered and made sure it got lots of sunlight.  It seemed to take forever, but eventually something green began to protrude from the lifeless dirt making Micah all the more excited.

It didn’t take long before it began to have more form, and though it had been years since I’d seen a lima bean plant, I couldn’t help but think that this did not at all look like a lima bean plant.  The more it grew the more clear it became that it was not a lima bean but a stalk of Johnson grass – a prominent weed in Texas (maybe in Maryland / DC, too).  Fueled by Micah’s excitement, though, we continued to check on it, water it, and make sure it got plenty of sunlight.  Before you knew it, we had a 1 1/2 foot tall Johnson grass plant.  The lima bean never grew.

As I think about the life of faith, it takes a lot of practice and effort to make it fruitful, and how often are we disappointed that what grows is not what we expected or wanted?I was certainly disappointed as I wanted Micah to get a chance to eat lima beans that he had grown himself like I did as a child (even though I really disliked lima beans).  And yet, Micah was not disappointed at all.  He had grown something.  Maybe that is all that was needed.

I wonder what that tells us about having a child-like faith.

I wonder what that tells us about giving up something for Lent.

I wonder what that tells us about resurrection and new life.


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Letters to Pope Francis – A Book Review

Imagine a “saw-horse” oil well pump looking first to the ground, then to the sky, and back again – over and over. That’s about how Dr. Machado looked as she lectured to us on the History of Christianity. She seemed to always look first at her notes, then to the same spot on the ceiling, and back to her notes – over and over.

Her speed of lecturing was the fastest I have ever experienced, and there was no way I could keep up with writing notes. So, in a world that was working on Pentium 3 computers with the Pentium 4 about to be launched, I resurrected on old 386 laptop that someone had given me years before. It was so slow it wouldn’t even run Windows 3.1, so I took notes in WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS. I could almost keep up then.

Yet, occasionally, she’d pause long enough to step from behind the podium to go into more detail (or maybe even give some additional off-the-cuff insights not in her notes). One day, though I don’t remember the exact context, I remember her pausing to say something along the lines of, “Just because someone was labeled a heretic doesn’t mean they were wrong. It just means they lost.”

That was mind blowing to a guy like me who just a few months before used to listen to the likes of Chuck Swindoll, J. Vernon McGee, R.C. Sproul, and even James Dobson on the way home from work. They didn’t necessarily use the word “heretic” much, but the thought was definitely there. Despite where I had been, those two sentences opened me to be able to “hear” folks who were considered heretics – who may have thought differently than me or were not necessarily traditional or orthodox in their thinking. It helped make some of that “required” seminary reading seem more worthwhile.

Eventually, I found myself leading a Living the Questions study called Saving Jesus where I was introduced to Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, a former Roman Catholic priest of the Dominican Order who was silenced by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later elected Pope Benedict XVI) in 1989. When one of the members of that class recommended that we study one of his books, Original Blessing, I didn’t bat an eye. I was like, “Sure. Sounds like a great idea!” That book was a bit wordy, but it was extremely thought-provoking and inspiring in giving me a new vocabulary for understanding life, faith, and God – and the relation of all three! And it was certainly not orthodox or traditional.

I found Letters to Pope Francis to be similarly thought-provoking and inspiring. Much less wordy than Original Blessing, it was much easier to read (though obviously not going nearly as in depth but also having a different purpose).

On one level, I felt a bit disconnected from the book, but that mainly stems from the fact that I’m a United Methodist Protestant Christian, and much of the book (as should be expected) deals directly with the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), examples being the lack of ordination of women and married priest as well as sexual misconduct of priests and the associated cover ups. These parts were somewhat interesting but had little bearing on me personally.

Where I felt most connected, though, was when Fox helped show similarities between the time of St. Francis of Assisi and our own and how Francis’ approach to his time can inform our approach to our own time. I came away wanting to study Francis more in depth as I learned much more than I knew before from this small volume.

Not only did Fox draw parallels between Francis’ time an ours, he also encouraged Pope Francis to live up to his namesake by employing some of the methods St. Francis used. In doing so, he was certainly critical of the RCC and the two previous Popes (not to mention the lack of effort to enact the reforms of Vatican II), but by and large, he was affirming of Pope Francis in what he has already done and said in his short tenure as Pope as well as his ministry prior to his election. Yet, Fox was not just handing out “attaboys.” He was encouraging the Pope to continue the work he has been doing and to go even further. Occasionally, he also gave some constructive criticism, but he did so gently (yet firmly) without being overly negative to the current Pope (a favor not afforded to the previous two Popes).

Many books like this speak of platitudes – high ideals – but wind up being simply rants with no plan of action. Thankfully, the book provides the beginning of what I think are practical steps for reforming the RCC and even Christianity as a whole. Drawing on his own experience of teaching and seeing Christianity being lived out in smaller communities, Fox offers real world examples of how things can be different. I really appreciate the fact that he allows most of Chapter 6, “Small Communities,” to be quotes (obviously chosen by Fox) from various small group participants giving insight into how they have seen grassroots reform taking place and working.

As one who is familiar with Fox might expect, his concern for social rights (especially those of the poor, women, and LGBTQ folk), social justice, lived faith vs. stale doctrine, and ecology shined through brightly. Likewise, his love of the laity and his desire to empower them for ministry (even in living out their daily jobs) was a beacon of hope. He rightly expands the call of the ministry of the laity beyond the typical understanding of “church work” to be the work people perform as “Doctors and business people, artists and teachers, therapists and social workers, carpenters and car repair specialists, farmers and journalists, inventors and policemen and women, nurses and builders and engineers and bankers. . . .” (pgs. 85-86) All of these add to the overall support of society and should be affirmed even if the task is not explicitly “Christian” – at least in a traditional understanding.

So, I heartily recommend this book to Pope Francis and all Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant. I also let Rev. Dr. Fox have the last word (including a quote from Pope Francis himself):

With all my heart I hope your papacy is one of compassion in it fullest and richest meanings and an example to other institutions of our world that compassion matters. And justice matters. You have said so yourself in the following words: “In the fact of grave forms of social and economic injustice, of political corruption, of ethnic cleansing, of demographic extermination, and destruction of the environment . . . surges the need for a radical personal and social renewal that is capable of ensuring justice, solidarity, and transparency.” pg. 41


About the Author:
Matthew Fox holds a Ph.D. in spirituality, summa cum laude, from the Institut Catholique de Paris. His long career of teaching ministry includes founding the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality, which was shut down after 19 years under pressure from then-Cardinal Ratzinger whose pursuit of him and other theologians led to Fox’s “silencing” in 1989 and ultimate expulsion from the Dominican Order in 1993. He started the University of Creation Spirituality and is author of 31 books on spirituality and culture including Original Blessing, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, A Spirituality Named Compassion, and Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times.

He has been active as a priest in the Anglican community since being expelled from the Dominicans, teaching and working with youth to create a more just and compassionate world—one in keeping with the spirit of St. Francis. Fox is visiting scholar with the Academy for the Love of Learning in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Learn more at www.matthewfox.org.

 


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through theSpeakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.


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Employed & Gifted to Unite – A Sermon

I was blessed with the opportunity to wrap up a sermon series entitled Employed by the Spirit on spiritual gifts at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church on Sunday, June 23, 2013.  It was inspired by Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16:

1I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (NRSV)

You can listen to it here:

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Listen to the other sermons in the series from Rev. Alisa Lasater Wailoo here:


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