Category Archives: Church

Is Sin Our Problem – or Is It Shame?

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I’ve been thinking a lot about shame lately. For many people – myself included – shame is a much more insidious problem than our guilt over our sins. Make no mistake – I’m not denying the reality of sin or of our need to confess and repent. Though I would like to see us pay at least as much attention to our systemic sins (such as racism) as we do to our individual wrong-doings.

As Lent approaches, I’m wondering if the attention we give to sin is the best way to go. In his book The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg asks whether ‘sin’ is the best way to name what is wrong and why we are lost. Not that he denies the reality of sin either. Borg doesn’t dispute that sin is a primary image within the Bible. But there are other images of our human predicament as well, each requiring a kind of healing. He writes:

To list some but not all of them: we are blind, in exile or in bondage; we have closed hearts; we hunger and first; we are lost. Each of these images for our problem has a correlative image; that is, each implies a remedy, a solution.  If we are blind, we need to see. If we are in exile, we need to return. If we are in bondage, we need liberation. If we have closed hearts, we need to have our hearts opened. If we hunger and thirst, we need food and drink. If we are lost, we need to be found.

But what do we need to help us heal when we feel shame? And just to be clear: I’m not equating shame with guilt. Guilt is about what we ‘ve done; shame is about who we are. Some use the phrase “toxic shame” to describe the feeling that we are somehow inherently defective, that something is wrong with our very being. Toxic shame can come about for all kinds of reasons: being bullied as a child, being sexually assaulted, for example. Veterans diagnosed with PTSD often experience shame. Unhealthy family dynamics can bring about shame in children.

Unfortunately, the church has often been guilty of shaming its members – usually for sexual “sins”. And while the church does offer a path to confession and forgiveness for our actions, it’s much less equipped to offer healing for the shame that affects our being.

So how can we in the church promote this kind healing?  As Borg would put it: If we have been shamed, then we need . . . what?

I suggest that the first step is acknowledging this as a human condition from which many of us suffer. Maybe instead of focusing exclusively on our sinfulness this Lent, we lift up all the ways we can be broken and out of sync with our true humanity. And instead of offering only confession and forgiveness, we also offer a listening ear and compassion.

For some, especially those who have suffered severe trauma, psychological therapy is also needed. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church could also participate in what author John Bradshaw called Healing the Shame that Binds You?

Marcus Borg used to tell of  the Buddhist who once said , “You Christians must be very bad people—you’re always confessing your sins.” Maybe we could learn from that critique.

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Lent from an INTRAfaith Perspective

she likes itWe’re going to use my book, The  INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Mattersfor our mid-week Lent discussion group this year. You might be thinking that it’s an odd choice for a Lent study.

I agree that some seasons of the church year lend themselves better than others to delving into interfaith education/discussion/relationship-building. Epiphany, for instance, with its Zoroastrian Magi crossing over into Judaism to pay homage to Jesus, then going back to their own country and religion “by another way,” is a wonderful example of what John S. Dunne calls “passing over and coming back” in his book, The Way of All the Earth.

Lent, however, might seem to be more problematic. The cross looms over us, and questions about the identity, mission, purpose of Jesus also loom large. But I suggest that it is, in fact, the perfect time for intrafaith education and discussion. At the very least, worship planners can take a new look at some of the anti-Semitic texts that will come up. I address this in more detail in Chapter 23 of my book, but here are a few examples.

The Gospel of John especially gets into rants against “the Jews.” While some people know that this reflected the growing split between Judaism and the followers of Jesus, not all will understand the context. In The Passion According to John, which is often read on Good Friday, the phrase “the Jews” appears nineteen times in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). We don’t have to look very far for evidence of the damage done by anti-Jewish rhetoric. Language matters. Repetition nineteen times only reinforces hateful stereotypes.

In The Inclusive Bible (TIB), “the Jews” appears only six times, when the reference is to the title “King of the Jews.” In seven places, “Temple authorities” is used to convey the part played by Jewish leadership is the crucifixion of Jesus. In other places “the Jews” is omitted entirely. For example, in contrast to John 19:20 in the NRSV, which reads “Many of the Jews read this inscription,” TIB has “Many of the people read this inscription.” And in verse 21, where the NRSV reads: “the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews . . . ”, TIB has: The chief priests said to Pilate, “Don’t write ‘King of the Jews . . . ’”.

And another: changing John 20:19 from “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews . . .” (NRSV) to “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Temple authorities . . .” (TIB)

A helpful resource here is Sermons without Prejudice. Its stated purpose is “to counter this anti-Semitism by addressing the anti-Judaism that some New Testament readings may convey.” Another is Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary by Ronald J Allen and Clark M. Williamson. These would be excellent places to start.

But the questions do go much deeper and raise issues within Christianity and among members of our churches. In Chapter 8 of my book I ask: “Is a professed belief in Jesus Christ the only way to salvation?” What do we mean by salvation? What do we believe about Jesus that effects this salvation?

If you read Chapter 8, you’ll discover – as I did –  that things start to get complicated and scholars debate this from every which way. But as a parish pastor, I wanted to know how to bring these issues to bear on the beliefs and questions of our church members and the educational and liturgical practices of our congregation.

So we’ll be delving into topics, such as:

  • The Intrafaith Landscape: A New Reformation
  • New Voices: Spiritual Independents and Hybrid Spirituality
  • Faces of God and Jesus: “Who Do You Say I Am?”
  • Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism
  • Heresy, Syncretism and Relativism – Oh, My!
  • The Mystic Heart
  • Evolutionary Christianity

It will be a mix of intra and inter faith work. Once you begin, there’s no way to separate them. Shameless promotion alert: there are reflection questions at the end of each chapter and suggestions for further reading. So  if you haven’t chosen your Lent study book yet, might I suggest . . .

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Pluralism and Election Politics

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How different might this election cycle have been had more voters been willing to be curious about, understand, accept, or even embrace a pluralist nation, rather than panic in the face of “the other? – Kate Blanchard

Kate Blanchard, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Alma College, asks a very important question. If we think that engaging in interfaith activities and education is just a nice “add-on” to the more important work of ministry in our churches, we are sadly mistaken.

And if part of our hesitancy of doing  it is that people within our congregations might disagree on some of the issues that will be raised, we need to buckle up and prepare for the ride.

It would be strange if there were not differences of opinions and beliefs within a group of people – even in our credal, doctrinal churches. Trust me; if you allow people to express themselves and ask questions without fear of being branded heretics, you’ll discover a wealth of theological perspectives. Maybe that’s why so many leaders don’t want to ask!

But the truth is that people do have minds of their own, they do think about spiritual and theological matters, and they do form opinions about other belief (and non-belief) systems.

A wise leader would be willing to enter into the experience of interfaith and intrafaith discussions, not in order to tell people what to think and believe, but to facilitate the process of discovery.

As Professor Blanchard’s question articulates so well, this isn’t an abstract matter. There are concrete consequences to our avoidance of the challenges of pluralism. 

 

Christmas, Hanukkha, and the Qur’an

479113_gallery_5644449997087_jpg_fa_rszdIf you’re looking for an excellent time to introduce something interfaith-y in your church, that time is NOW!

On Christmas Eve, Christians will celebrate the birth of Jesus. And while Christmas isn’t a holy day in Islam, the birth of Jesus is a very big deal. Surah 3:45 in the Qur’an tells the story of the Annunciation this way: [And mention] when the angels said, “O Mary, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – disting180px-virgin_mary_and_jesus_old_persian_miniatureuished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to Allah].

There are some 71 verses in the Quran that refer to Jesus. And Mary (Maryam‎) is revered as one of he most righteous and greatest women in Islam. She’s actually mentioned more times in the Qur’an than in the New Testament. Here’s an interesting video of the Nativity story. You’ll definitely see some differences from our versions. But what a great topic for discussion! Especially if you invite some Muslim friends to join in.

Also on December 24th is the first night of Hanukkah, the eight-day “festival of lights.” As Christians celebrate the Light that has come into the world, Jews will light the first candle on the llmc9237606menorah. Again, differences between our religions – but similarities too.

If these differences raise questions among the people in your church, hallelujah! Now it’s time to enter the intrafaith conversation.

You can check out my website for more information on how to go about doing that. Or simply buy the book and get a group together to explore what it means to be a faithful Christian and to be in respectful relationship with those of other religious traditions.

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If God Is an Authoritarian Bully . . .

unnamedWow! I just read a blog post equating the evangelical Christian version of God with He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (HWSNBN) and describing them both as authoritarian bullies.

Thankfully I don’t believe in a God who, according to some mysterious criteria, chooses to grant some people their wishes and not others, who saves some and not others, who allows some to live and not others , who favors some people over others, and demands our groveling adoration. Sign me up for #notmygod!

But a lot of people evidently still do believe in this kind of God . And according to the blogger, the president-elect is a mirror image of the evangelical community – which explains why 81% of white evangelical voters chose HWSNBN as their leader.

If this isn’t a good reason to keep on putting forth a progressive alternative, I don’t know what is. Not that I think all evangelicals are alike. And there is certainly a movement within evangelical circles that is less judgmental and more social justice oriented. Read, for example, The Evangelicalism of Old White Men Is Dead bNot Normal, Not Now, Not to Come by Sojourners’ Jim Wallis.

But even there, I’m aware of the lack of women’s voices or awareness of the misogyny rampant in much of conservative Christianity. In the article by Wallis (who I do admire greatly), he states that an “explicit message of the Incarnation is that Jesus the Christ’s arrival will mean ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.'”And he closes with the gloriously prophetic Magnificat, a proclamation marred for me by the plethora of ‘he,’ ‘his,’ and ‘him.’

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

But try this – from The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation (with one little substitution from The Message:

Mary said,
“My soul proclaims your greatness O God, and my spirit rejoices in you my Savior.
For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant,
and from this day forward all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the  Almighty, have done great things for me, and holy is your Name.
Your mercy reaches from age to age for those who are in awe before you.
You have shown strength with your arm; you have scattered the proud in their conceit.
You have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.
You have come to the aid of Israel, your servant, mindful of your mercy virgin-mary-stylized1
the promise you made to our ancestors – to Sarah and Abraham and to their descendants forever.”

This is no Mary, meek and mild. This is an authoritative prophet, speaking for a God of compassion and justice. This is the God I love and in whose name I will resist the authoritarian bullies of the world.

If our recent election has brought to the fore the differences in what Christians believe about the Holy One, that is all to the good. People need to know that there’s an alternative to the great cosmic bully.

Can We Cross INTRAfaith Boundaries?

divisionsI happened to see a question submitted to answers.yahoo.com: “What is the difference between interfaith and intrafaith boundaries?”

Someone replied: “There is no such thing as intrafaith boundary.”

I was relieved to see that of the six responses to that reply, all were thumbs-down.

If we didn’t know that Christianity has intrafaith boundaries, we certainly know it now that election polling results are in.

According to The Washington Post, 80% of white evangelical Christians voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named (HWSNBN), even though a group of 100 evangelical leaders posted a declaration before the election stating that they would “not tolerate the racial, religious, and gender bigotry that (HWSNBN) has consistently and deliberately fueled . . .” Divisions within evangelical Christianity continue to widen, as Jim Wallis, evangelical author and founder of  Sojourners, said he felt Christians who voted for Trump “ought to be embarrassed.”

Progressive Christianity, of course, is used to being out of the mainstream. But now, many are declaring a new area in American Christianity. In What Progressive Christians Need To Do To Take Back Their Faith, Pastor Jacqueline Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan declares, “Maybe what’s happening is progressive people of faith are finding ways to connect around our shared beliefs that all people are children of God. All of those people are joining together right now, we’re crying together, plotting and planning how to resist together. That to me is the new religion, the new Christianity.”

Emerging Church leader Benjamin Corey suggests that progressive Christians should start evangelizing  among other Christians: “We need to continue converting Christians to following Jesus. We need to create disciples, and reach evangelical Christian Americans with the gospel of Jesus.”

piocs_-00_without-background_christian-cross-special-design-pin-with-usa-flagSome are even calling for a new “confessing church” like that in Germany, when pastors and churches banded together to resist the Nazi regime. For example, Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent in the Wesleyan Church, said “I wonder if we may be heading toward a confessing church as opposed to a nationalistic church.”

The question is: will Christians of differing stripes be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with one another?

sg_dividedMany are advising that we must reach out across the boundaries and listen to those with whom we disagree. I can’t argue with this; it’s what I advocate in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation. But most of what I’ve been hearing is “not yet.” The shock and anger are too raw.

What shape will Christianity take in this new era? Will we be able to cross our intrafaith boundaries? It was difficult before the election; it’s even more so now.

Time will tell.

Why Not an Interfaith Advent?!

In my  book, The INTRAfaith Conversation, I suggest times of the church year when doing something with an interfaith flavor might be appropriate. In this month’s issue of The Interfaith Observer, Vicki Garlock gives us another wonderful option.

LIGHT, BIRTH STORIES, AND FEASTS

Interfaith Options for Christians at Advent

By Vicki Garlock

For Christians, another Advent season will soon be upon us. As one of the quintessential periods in the liturgical calendar, it might seem like the wrong time to be thinking about interfaith efforts. It’s a feeling further heightened by the encroachment of numerous secular obligations. Who has time for “the other” right now? I tend to view things from a slightly different perspective, though, and I think Advent offers a great opportunity to bring a bit of interfaith into your household. Here are a few ideas to get started.

Light to the World

An Advent wreath – Photo: VG

An Advent wreath – Photo: VG

For Christians, Advent is a time of anticipation. Many churches mark that time by lighting candles on an Advent wreath for each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas/Jesus’ birth. With all four candles lit by Christmas Eve, the wreath burns brightest just when the nights are at their longest (at least in the Northern hemisphere).

The Advent wreath therefore serves as a visual reminder that Jesus, for many, is a light to the world. This is most clearly stated in the first few verses of the Gospel of John.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1:1-5, NRSV translation]

Interestingly, the Qur’an also refers to the message of Jesus as a light.

And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him. We sent him the Gospel. Therein was guidance and light, and confirmation of the Law that had come before him, a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah. [Surah 5 (al-Maida), verse 46, Yusuf Ali translation]

So an easy way to make your Advent more interfaith is simply to use “Light” as your theme. It’s no accident that Christmas falls around the same time as the winter solstice, and many Advent/Christmas practices are derived from the ancient pagan traditions of Northern Europe. Teaching your kids about the winter solstice through books, recipes, and crafts is a good place to begin.

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The Winter Solstice (written by Ellen Jackson and illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis) and The Shortest Day (written by Wendy Pfeffer and illustrated by Jesse Reisch) are both good book options. And even though Circle Round (by Starhawk, Diane Baker, and Anne Hill) was published in 2000, it’s still a great go-to book for crafts and activities. Because pagan traditions are grounded in our relationship with the earth, focus your activities on plants currently available in your geographical area. Create a small home altar and decorate it with winter fruits and greenery. Bake some pumpkin seeds or flavored nuts. You could even teach older kids how to can/freeze food to last through the winter.

Hanukkah is another one of those light-related holidays that happens at this time of the year. Start with one of the many books available. There are board books, like the Hanukkah “touch and feel” book by Roger Priddy and My First Chanukkah by Tomie dePaola, for toddlers. For slightly older kids, you’ll find pop-up books covering the various Hanukkah traditions, like lighting a menorah or spinning a dreidel. One book, Maccabee! (written by Tilda Balsley and illustrated by David Harrington), even portrays the legendary brothers who took the temple back from the Seleucids, as super heroes. Hanukkah books are found in most local libraries, and many craft/discount stores now sell Hanukkah-related products. You can also find resources at your local synagogue, which offers a great excuse to visit with your kids!

Advent Stories from the Islamic Perspective
Another way to make your Advent more interfaith is to read Islamic versions of typical Advent stories. For example, many Muslims are familiar with the story of Mary/Maryam being told she is pregnant with Jesus/Isa (sometimes spelled Eesa). In that account, Hannah, Maryam’s mother, promised to dedicate her unborn child to God/Allah. Years later, as a young woman serving in the temple, Maryam was visited by the angel Gabriel who told her that she would give birth to a son. Some of the story can be found in Surah 19 (called Maryam) of the Qur’an.

He said: I am but a messenger from your Lord that I may bestow on you a pure boy. She said: How shall I have a boy, when no mortal has touched me, nor am I an unchaste woman?” He said: Thus it shall be; your Lord said: It is insignificant for Me; and: We shall assign him as a Sign to humanity, and as a mercy from Us. It was a decreed command. [Surah 19 (Maryam), Verses 19-21, Laleh Bakhtiar translation]

The Qur’an is non-narrative, for the most part, but Muslims do read stories to their kids based on Qur’anic passages. A good, kid-friendly version of Gabriel’s announcement to Maryam, the subsequent birth of Isa, and Isa’s first days can found here. Note how in the Islamic narrative, Isa is able to talk at birth. On the right is a kid-friendly video of the birth story. The video is seven minutes long, but the narrative about Zachariah, Mary, the birth of Jesus, and Jesus’ first words are in the first 5 minutes (before the quiz). For interested adults, a more complete version of the story, with specific excerpts from the Qur’an, can be found here.

Birth Stories from Other Faith Traditions

You can also make your Advent more interfaith by focusing on amazing birth stories from other traditions, several of which include the idea of a virgin birth. One of the most popular comes from the Buddhist tradition. According to that narrative, an elephant with a lotus flower was responsible for Queen Maya’s pregnancy of Gautama Buddha. In most versions, the Buddha takes seven steps as a newborn infant. In some versions, angels appear and the baby Buddha speaks (much like Isa does in the Islamic narrative). The Life of the Buddha site has kid-friendly narratives of Queen Maya’s elephant dream and the Buddha’s birth. Finally, the 8-minute video above, in English, tells the story.

Add an Intrafaith Twist
If an interfaith Advent seems too far removed from the spirit of the season, you might want to focus on various Advent practices within the Christian tradition. One of the most notable is the Nativity Fast observed in the Orthodox tradition from mid-November until Christmas Eve. Here the word “fast” does not mean a total absence of food. Instead, Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and oil, except on certain days of the week. The specifics, if you’re interested, are complex but fascinating and can be found here.

As many Orthodox moms have discovered, the Nativity Fast diet is closely related to a vegan diet, which means many families break out their vegan recipes for the holiday season. One post offering great Orthodox Advent recipes can be found here, but you can also simply search the internet for vegan recipes that you and your kids might enjoy. Just make sure they don’t require any oil if you really want to stick with the rules!

In Short…
It’s easy to assume that Advent offers few or no opportunities to interact with other faith traditions. After all, the entire focus is on preparing for the arrival of Jesus. However, a little creative thinking reveals several possibilities. During this unsettling time of the year – when the pendulum swings wildly between “traditional Christianity” and “rampant commercialism” – consider a move away from both ends of the continuum, and bring a bit of interfaith into your holiday season.

Life Among the Ruins

screen480x480I will admit that the past few days have left me with a mix of emotions from depression to anger and back again. Yesterday, it was anger mixed with just plain grouchiness. Plus I was stressed because I wasn’t getting enough work done due to (see above).

Then a wondrous thing happened. About forty young people arrived at church along with their teacher to learn about Lutherans. The  group was from the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution. The class is “What Is Catholicism?” and is a requirement for all students. So it was a pretty mixed bag of Catholics and Protestants (no Lutherans, though). They were visiting various Christian churches and our place on the schedule followed a field trip to an Eastern Orthodox church.

Their teacher had emailed me earlier to confirm and had warned me that his class was feeling pretty upset by the election results, so we might want to deal somehow with that. So my colleague, Anders Peterson from Middle Circle, and I set up a space with a few candles and planned some songs and readings that we could use, depending on the needs of the group.

The students arrived with the kind of energy that only young college students have. Once we got them all settled in, we read a statement and call to action from The Charter for Compassion:

the invitation has arrived
to step into our courage
and our full humanitycharter_brand_transp_orange_medium
from this day forward
the harm can only unfold
and multiply and spread
with our silence
with our consent
with our participation
we will not be silent
we do not consent and
we will not participate
in legitimating violence, lies and division
the love that we are
the love that connects us all
the love that bends history
even in this dark moment 
towards liberation 
We are one 
we are many and
we are one
it is time 
dear friends 
the revolution of love
must be completed 
And it is only possible 
if on this day
we commit our lives 
to walking the hard road 
because there is now only one way forward 
So it was a good time of camaraderie and healing. But then it also became a real example of  how intrafaith conversations can work. I told my Lutheran faith story; Anders told his. Then we asked if the students had any questions. And they did.
For example, they wanted to know:
  • the process used in Christian-Jewish dialogues that led to repudiation of anti-Semitic writings of Martin Luther and expressions of sorrow and repentance
  • the differences in Communion practices between Lutherans and other Christian churches – what kind of bread, for example
  • who was allowed to receive Communion
  • our understanding of baptism
  • why we don’t use the Nicene Creed (which is a First United decision, not a pan-Lutheran one)
  • could Lutheran ministers get married

There were many nods of agreement, but there were also a few exchanges of differences, for instance in the use of the Creed.

But it was all done with good will, curiosity, and respect. A real intrafaith encounter! It warmed my heart on an otherwise bleak day. People of differing backgrounds and practices coming together to learn about one another can only contribute to peace in the world.

A revolution of love! Yes!

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Is Religious Diversity Making Us Less Religious?

imagesAccording to a recent article in the Christian Century (Sept. 28, 2016), one reason America has become less religious is our religious diversity.  It goes on to say:
Although religious pluralism is not necessarily the cause of declining religiosity, it does expose people to ideas and prices that challenge their faith. 

All I have to say is, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

The story of Elsie (see blog post from December, 2015) is a perfect illustration of the above quote – and further rationale for engaging in the intrafaith conversation.

This is not simply an interesting add-on to the work of ministry today. It is integral to the message we preach and preach, the mission we promote, and the church we want to become.

A big thanks to all of you who are reading the book in your churches and passing it along to friends.  Keep the movement going!

The Intrafaith Landscape: A New Reformation

semper-reformanda1About every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. –
                                                            Bishop Mark Dyer

Change is happening within American Christianity. New ways of being church are springing up all around. Unlike the “worship wars” of previous decades, which pitted traditional and contemporary proponents against one another, the movement today is not so easy to classify. Terms such as “emergent,” “post-denominational,” “post-modern” and “progressive” attempt to describe the Christian scene and the movements going on within it. Each of these categorizations contains within itself a wide variety of interpretations of what it really means.

All of these are taking part in a “giant rummage sale,” as Bishop Dyer so brilliantly describes it. However, it’s clear that we’re not all in agreement about what we should keep and what we should give away. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we’re in the process of getting ready for the sale. If you’ve ever held a yard, garage or rummage sale, you know the work that goes into putting it together. The first thing you have to do is look over all of your stuff with a critical eye. As you look at each cherished possession, you ask: Do I want to keep this? Is it still useful? Does it still fit? Does it still work? If the answer is ‘yes,’ the decision is easy; it’s a keeper. And if ‘no,’ to the sale it goes.

It gets a bit more complicated when you have an item that is tarnished, worn or outdated but you think there just might be some life left in it. You have to ask yourself if maybe, if it were cleaned up, restored or reworked, it could still be of value to you. A dusty old heirloom might just turn out to be a new treasure.

So it is in present-day Christianity. We’re looking with critical eyes at social issues, liturgical forms, biblical interpretations, theological teachings and the use of language. However not all churches necessarily deal with all of these, nor would they all agree. For example, a few years ago I attended, along with some members of my current congregation, a conference on the emerging church. First United considers itself to be a progressive congregation, committed to the use of inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God. At First United’s rummage sale, we had examined patriarchal language and decided that it had to go. So we were quite surprised by the lack of inclusive language used at the conference. We realized that we are all making different value judgment about our treasures. This is the reformation that is happening all around us. Old ideas are being reexamined, transformed or rejected; new ones are emerging.

Why is all this change happening now? Taking her cue from Bishop Dyer, the late Phyllis Tickle posited that we are in this current “giant rummage sale” simply because it’s time for one. In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, she outlined the upheaval that has occurred every five hundred years since the time of Jesus.

The Protestant Reformation began in the 16th century. The 11th century saw the Great Schism, which split the Eastern and Western Churches. In the 6th century, the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe entered the Dark Ages. All of these upheavals included  both societal shifts and theological issues, just like we are experiencing now in the 21st century.

What I find most helpful about Tickle’s theory is that what we’re going through is normal. That means we can go about being creative and hopeful, rather than hidebound and anxious. This is good news because the church has been anxiety-driven for quite a while. Our outreach efforts have been fueled by the decline in membership in Christian congregations. Pundits have been writing ad nauseam about the reasons for this. The latest trend is expounding on the characteristics of the Millennial generation and how the church can reach out and reel them in. Some of these same “experts” also tell us how to appeal to those who are “spiritually independent” (a more positive way of saying “spiritual but not religious” or “none”) all around us.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m all in favor of doing outreach to those searching for a way to explore their spirituality and to those with no church home. However, as a veteran of the church growth movement of the 1990s, I know the pitfalls of easy characterizations and easy solutions. The experts told us then that we had to adapt to the needs of Gen X and  if we’d just follow their instructions to the letter, our churches would grow. We actually bought a program like this in my former congregation.

We received a big binder of step-by-step instructions – and a church growth consultant! We envisioned our little congregation in a Northeast rustbelt city grow1381770_10201458045106340_670873635_ning by 200-400%. Looking back, the idea was ludicrous. We were a mainline church in a city itself in decline. But even more ludicrous was the advice of our “expert” consultant. He took one look at our building, sitting on the corner in the middle of two lovely lawns with large shade trees, and declared that we needed to rip out the trees and the laws and put in parking lots. Rule #1 of church growth: you have to have a parking lot. Needless to say, we did not tear up the lawns. They provided play space for our preschool and summer program. They were places of hospitality for neighborhood gatherings, such as the annual National Night Out. The trees provided shade and beauty, as well as nesting places for birds. We were a green space in a city neighborhood. Should we really have “paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.?”

I’m happy to report that the congregation is still there, some twenty years after our venture into church growth. The congregation is still small, but they’ve partnered with a congregation in the suburbs and are doing vibrant, creative ministry together. When I returned for their 90th anniversary celebration last year, one of the things I enjoyed most was the cookout held out on the back lawn under that big beautiful tree. Despite my obvious feelings about the experience, I learned an important lesson: there are no one-size-fits-all answers to the questions of doing ministry in different settings.

Issues may change. Culture may change. The task of the church is to live out “ecclesia semper reformanda est” (“the church is always to be reformed”). In reaching out to Millenials, spiritual independents, the “church alumni society*,” we must take up the challenge in our own time. The inclusion of interfaith and intrafaith is an essential part of living out this challenge.

Imagine my delight in arriving at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley to work on my doctorate in this area and discovering a course called “Martin Luther and Buddhism”! In the class I became immersed in a fascinating convergence of Lutheran and Buddhist teaching. I was mainly interested in learning about a tradition other than mine. After all, I knew about Lutheranism. But to my surprise, the primary benefit of the course for me was an invigorating renewal of Luther’s theology of the cross. Through study of the Buddhist concept of dukka (suffering), I was able to reimagine the central symbol of Christianity that I had not been sure I could espouse any longer. My rummage sale item could still be a keeper.

• What is an aspect of the Church that you would like to give away?

• What do you definitely want to keep?

• What are some components that you think might be redeemable with some work?

 

*Phrase coined by Bishop John Shelby Spong to describe those who have left the church

 

(excerpted from The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?_