Looking for a Job: A Sermon Series

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Week One: Jules Winnfield, Dick York, and Buddha Walk into a Bar

William James, in his seminal work The Varieties of Religious Experience, argues that all of religion has as its basis a need to understand death. We humans have tried to control death, forestall death, inflict death, commodify death. We have imagined it as an end, a birth, a portal, an illusion, a mystery, a rite. We organize space and time in relationship to it, as it pertains to others, to ourselves, to our species, to all of creation. It is the constant that drives us all, in some fashion, to do the things we do, to believe the contents of our faiths: that there can be a victory over that which alters everything in its path.

The ancient Jews had a much different relationship to death than did most other religions of which we know much; Hinduism and Buddhism are contingent upon the cessation of samsara, the seemingly endless cycle of birth, life, death, decay; Hinduism offers moksha or release from samsara through the realization that Atman, the true self, is part of Brahman, the source of all things: God. The Atman therefore reunited with God, samsara ceases. Buddhism rejects the notion of atman for annatta, no soul or no-self. Moksha (release) occurs when one sheds the false ego, traverses the dharma river, and encounters nirvana. One then escapes the power of death. To be sure, these overly-simplified descriptions forgo nuance in the pursuit of expediency, but the overall point holds: both systems seek to overcome death in some way.

The Jews were different. They were much more focused on how to live here. Now. How to craft and form a society that was governed by laws, by proscribed roles and duties willed by a God who protected them, disciplined them, loved them, and was furiously disappointed with them. For the Hebrew people, faith was a tool toward living a life in which one would be healthy, blessed with a family, have land handed down from previous generations, and would know a trade or skill that helped define one’s personal and public identity. From Classical Judaism, generally defined as the period before the First Temple period (c. 922-586 BCE) to approximately mid-way into the Second Temple period (c.527 BCE-70 CE), the only concept of an after life was connected to Sheol, a nebulous underworld similar to that protected by Hades (which eventually becomes the name of the place, in no small part because the Septuagint–the LXX, or Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible–renders the Hebrew sheol as Hades). Sheol is used often in the Psalms; see, for example, Psalm 88, the only psalm in the psalter to not contain a doxology; the narrator begins in the Pit and ends in the Pit. In sheol. In despair. Death just wasn’t a major preoccupation for the Hebrews.

So our Christian notions of heaven and hell have more to do with Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Greek polytheism, Dante, and Milton than they do with Judaism. But that doesn’t mean we should not examine more closely Jewish ideas relating to death. However, attitudes toward life and death begin to shift after the split between Judah and Israel (c. 922 BCE) and the writing of the Book of Daniel (c. third century BCE), which features notions of a coming judgment based upon the actions taken in this world. And I believe, in many ways, we can see the beginning of that conversation unfold in the Book of Job.

Next week I will provide an overview of Job’s structure, various scholarly theories regarding its compilation and purpose, and we will examine the theologies embedded in the narrative. But for now, it is important to point out that the Book of Job seems to be a response to a theology that had been central to the survival of the faith amidst continued, violent repression: the Theology of Retribution. One can see examples of this throughout what scholars call the Deuteronomistic History, in which the people turn to other gods; Hashem delivers the people into the hands of an enemy; the people repent and cry out; God sends a shofet (judge) or a prophet; all is well until the judge dies, and the people slide back into apostasy. This corporate understanding of how God works translated to individual lives and cultural mores. People who were stricken with illnesses or skin conditions were regarded as sinful, as deserving of their condition. While to some extent the wealthy believed they were rewarded because of their own virtue, much more prevalent was the belief that one was rewarded because of the virtues of one’s ancestors. Filial piety is a major concern of the Scriptures, even if expected adherence to primogeniture is often challenged (think of how many times the younger brother is favored in the Bible). Sin and status are intimately connected.

And Job challenges this relationship. Consider Job, God brags. The pinnacle of my beautiful creation, no ? God tauntingly offers to Satan. Of course he is! the Adversary retorts. You’ve given him everything. Take it away, and see what happens! So we’re left with a question. A quandary. Is Job rewarded because he is religious? Or is Job religious because he is rewarded? Now we turn the questioning upon ourselves. What are our expectations of God? What is the purpose of our investment? Wealth? Health? Love? What does God offer? What does God expect?

The Book of Job is an indictment on the expectation for justice. The sense that one is deserving of anything. And reading Job now, with what is going on in this country, we must ask: can a system that was never designed to protect and serve non-whites and women ever be sufficiently reformed to provide equal justice? We do we mean when we say the word justice? I know from experience that my friends of color often answer that question with a much different perspective than do I. So do we believe in a uniform, unchanging justice? Do justice and compassion have a relationship? If so, how? What impacts that relationship? Is it the same for everyone? The questions seem endless.

The Book of Job challenges us to confront a God who is so insecure that Satan is able to goad, cajole, one could even say manipulate, to such an extent that Job’s children are slaughtered as a test of faith. A God, who at the end of the story, blithely replaces Job’s family, not through resurrection, but through a new cast of characters. It’s like Dick Sargeant replacing Dick York all over again, and nobody’s supposed to notice? Come on, God!

Are we confronted with a text that shows we of the Abrahamic faiths worship a capricious and even vindictive God? Or might there be something else here? Something bubbling under the surface, beckoning us to investigate, to lay bare our assumptions, and to confront fundamental questions in new ways? With new eyes? Over the next five weekly installments, will be sit on the dung heap with Job and listen. And then, in the words of Jules Winnfield, we’ll say, “Well allow me to retort!”

On Turning Forty 


Chapter Two: Vague, but insistent eccentricities 

My parents both come from hardscrabble backgrounds. Dad in Detroit, Michigan; Mom in Urbana, Ohio. They had been born into a time that came to define “first one to go to college” for more people than ever in the course of American history. My Dad and Uncle Fred, who committed suicide when I was one year old, both earned PhDs. Mom, an MA and distinguished coursework in two doctorates; my maternal uncle, a JD. He is a well-respected lawyer in his hometown. I’ve known money problems, but never like my grandmothers and grandfathers; my parents made a life through the power of their minds. I am one generation removed from the farm. 

I have found that people who live a life of the mind tend to be eccentric. This is a gross generalization, of course, and I don’t want to draw too many distinctions and lines separating myself from others. But as fervently as some people work out their bodies, I work out my brain. I develop my mind. And a lot of people I know and spend time with regularly do so as well. In my experience we’re…a particular, quirky, somewhat esoteric people.

I learned all of this by watching my parents. 

I don’t know how the word “eccentric” first tripped across my transom, but it did. It is possible that it was one of the words that daily my father would require me to look up, write in a notebook, define, and craft a sentence for; he paid me $.25/word and put it into a college account. Years later, after saving my own money throughout high school from working at the Little Art, I bought my first computer: A PowerMac. It cost me $2000. That’s a lot of words. A lot of popcorn sold. A formidable vocabulary for a sassy little bi-boy coming out of the Springs, already well on his way to becoming eccentric. But I learned the word before I became it. It is also entirely possible that it was my brother who first said it, as we huddled together in his room listening to Fishbone and Big Audio Dynamite in-between U2 and AC/DC. Stephen had banished Zeppelin from the house after Melissa moved out and he took the big bedroom. Their stereo wars used to drive our parents crazy. I, sharing a room with Stephen, colluded until he hit me too hard. Then I would run down the hall safely into the confines of Sis’s room, asking to listen to Jethro Tull or Jesus Christ Superstar. 

But I think that “eccentric” becoming part of the vocabulary, a designate that we could brandish upon our parents like a  papal seal on an excommunication decree, most likely came later. After the move to Yellow Springs. In the last good period Stephen had before schizophrenia gripped him. The salad days. I have this vague, but insistent memory of gathering in the room we now call “Mimi’s room” and establishing, through dulcet tones, that Mom and Dad were just so eccentric. They read books all the time; they had “tea time” every Saturday. They liked to have long, boring conversations about things we didn’t care about and they made us stay at the table. Ugh. They were just so…weird, we thought, with family trips planned around museums, or  Bob Dylan concerts.We agreed that it was pretty cool to work in a movie theater the family owned, and getting to see films before they even came out was neat, but Mom and Dad were totally squaresville. 

I know, right?! I want to reach back in history and slap myself on the head and say, “Shut up you little shit and fucking appreciate the incredible exposure to art, literature, culture, and music your parents are giving you!!!”But at the time I remember why. I have often said that I would live through my brother’s suicide; the miscarriage and eventual divorce that occurred in the first marriage; and pretty much anything else on the long list of bad shit that has happened to and around me, before I would ever go back to middle school. It was, without question, fucking hell for me. I wanted a family like The Huxtables. I wanted to live in some idyllic world where my brother and sister did not have a different father; where I did not feel so horribly insecure about myself; where my emotions were not always so topsy-turvy, my heart so ever-on-my-sleeve. A world in which I did not feel like my body was the enemy.

Two years ago, I did not have any tattoos where people could see them unless I removed my shirt. I think I am slipping into the “heavily tattooed” category, at least for my profession. There are more of us, to be sure, than there were in the past, but we are still outside the norm. The locks are a rather new addition, too. While we are broke now, I once had expendable income that I spent on clothes that make me feel comfortable; I like suits. Waistcoats. Ties. Shoes. Hats. And I readily admit that it is born of insecurity. I have spent most of my life hating my body. Wanting out of my head. Wishing that I weren’t so…Yeah. You guessed it. Eccentric. 

It hit me last night when Miriam sent me a text asking how I was doing and I typed out: “Reading an article in The Atlantic Monthly about the necessity of humanities education in a digital world. And watching The Office. You?” I hit send and then thought, You’re an odd bird, Saari. An odd bird, indeed. Later, Mimi would say that she didn’t even bat an eye. “Of course you were,” she quipped this morning. “That’s the kinda stuff you do. I figured there was some documentary on and you were playing Scrabble.” I thought, Huh.  Just a few feet away is  the spot where Stephen and I collaborated, calling Mom and Dad eccentric. If I had only known. 

They heard us. Well, Mom did anyway. I know because it came up a couple weeks later–or a year; time is abtract–during an argument, when my mother hissed at me: “I know you and your brother think we’re eccentric! And that you’re embarrassed about us. Well you know what? I. Don’t Care.”  Which, of course, is the best answer that someone could possibly give, especially a strong, intelligent, loving mother to her sensitive, almost cowering son. I was on my way to letting fear of my peers and deep insecurities totally control my life. If mother isn’t afraid of them, I started to reason, maybe their opinions don’t matter so much. And it has taken me decades to get to a place where I feel like myself. Oh, it’s a shitstorm being me, sometimes. Bipolar is a wild ride, often exhilarating and sometimes exhaustingly terrifying. And I’d like to lose some weight. But in the main, I’m okay being eccentric if it allows me to be loving, compassionate, intentional, understanding, loyal, good, and true. 

So, that’s me.  At forty. A little quirky, a  little weathered. But standing. Surrounded by love and purpose. My life is totally different than how I pictured it when I was 18. And that’s okay.  Even though I scramble to find money, I don’t scramble to find meaning. Significance. Joy. The stuff of life that Jesus told us would lead to our true treasure. 

Or maybe I’m just being eccentric. 

   

Zealotry or Zealousness? 


My first introduction to religious zealotry was through Jesus Christ Superstar, which will surprise exactly no one who has known me longer than 5 five minutes. In our high school production, a female portrayed the part as Simone Zealotes, which was just all kinds of awesome, but to me Simon has been and always will be Larry Marshal. His Black Church vocals and the masterful choreography always communicated to me the depth of passion and belief Simon had for Jesus. Sure, his theology was wrong; Zealots often believe that if they draw enough blood, God will respond. It is like a twisted take on Field of Dreams: “If you spill it, He will come.” But my initial feelings about zealotry were positive. 

Once I got to college and started seriously studied religion, I began to understand the damaging impact zealots can wring; women can lose their autonomy and agency; outsiders can be targeted for persecution and violence; human rights can be abridged or nullified; education can be skewed or denied. Religious zealotry is rarely good, at least as it manifests in public. And this makes sense because religious zealotry draws attention to itself. Religious zealousness draws attention to God and the work that God can do through servants. Servants who work for God without having to push their beliefs on others; servants who give of themselves, even to those they may not like personally, but love because it is what God commands. What God offers. What God is. 

And so I have found myself, since returning from Baltimore, on fucking fire for God. I can’t quite elucidate it proximately, so I resort to that most guttural of words to model the intensity of my faith right now. I am in love with Jesus; I yearn to live into the fullness of who God fashioned me to be, to do so with humility and gratitude, erasing as much as possible the false Aaron that I have constructed through the impermanent things of life. At moments I can feel myself tapping into something almost completely outside of myself, as though I am aligning my energy with that of God, feeling the vastness of incarnation and the smallness of experience. In fleeting whispers, I hear the voice of Creation connecting me with the moment the light burst forth, setting into motion the miraculous birth of all that is, known and unknown, and all who have, do, and will live, until the fullness of time falls in upon itself and what we know is transformed into that which is promised. A cessation of suffering. The elimination of evil. The end that is also the beginning.

This zealousness can become zealotry, if I let it. If I feed my ego and do work for my own glory, the love I feel inside my heart will be a love of ego. It will be a love of what is manufactured. Impermanent. I pray that my zeal remain, and this is self-serving as well. I like how it feels when I am close to God, when I am focused on Jesus. It is like a controlled mania. I feel the energy but not the impetuousness. But I want the zeal to remain because it reminds me of what I am called to do: to serve, just as Jesus served. To preach the gospel at all times, but to only use words when necessary. To be.         

Dying Ego, Living Self


Christianity and Buddhism have many crossovers; Thich Nhat Hahn has explored them well in his twin books Living Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. A growing number of Christians find themselves incorporating Buddhist principles into their own Christian praxis. Purists will find this unacceptable; those on the outside might accuse us of cultural appropriation; but a larger number of people understand that both religious systems aim to orientatate the practitioner away from impermanent, constructed illusions and toward the true source of permanence. While this may not be the most nuanced explanation of both traditions, it holds true: Jesus and Siddhartha both saw the ways in which cultural forces can keep people in cycles of pain, suffering, and despair, whereas a dedicated change in perspective can help one see Truth. 

Both Christianity and Buddhism instruct us on how attachment to impermanence leads to desire that produces suffering. We want to change our circumstances (for a wide variety of reasons), and act without thinking of ramifications; we mistake the part for the whole; we assert a manufactured sense of self (likes, dislikes, desires, fears, hopes) as though it is permanent, and when we feel it is damaged, we lash out to avenge the hurt. The language used in both traditions may be different, but the underlying message is shared: you are not who you think you are, and that false you is the enemy.

This means that the dedicated religious life involves hours of reflection, meditation, study, and prayer. Who am I? The ideas in my head? The desires and aspirations I pursue? The feelings I have or relationships I establish? Why do my emotions arise in such a way that they trigger a desire to act in manners that might be destructive? Counterproductive. Painful. In pursuit of relationships and community, do I do so so that I can be praised? Am I asserting my will on others in ways that decrease their autonomy or impinge upon their personhood? Do I elevate myself, engaging in puffery? The work is real, yo. 

And it continues. Last night in discussing 2 Corinthians with the wonderful Bible study group I lead at the church, we were talking about what it means to be confident in Christ. Paul encourages the people in Corinth to understand that they can undertake any sufferings (for those sufferings connect us to the sufferings of Jesus) and be filled with confidence (not because of their own deeds but rather as a result of grace through faith) because they know that all things come from God. But Paul also understood that such wisdom is not achieved by simply declaring Jesus Christ as Savior. It is not magic. Paul wrote about the Christian life as requiring maturity; in order for us to grow up spiritually and to put away childish things, we have to think about what it means to be clothed in Christ. Jesus told us that we cannot serve God and Mammon; Paul tells us we cannot serve ourselves and Jesus. As Jesus declared himself a slave to humanity, so we must declare ourselves slaves for God. And what does God want us to do? To serve others. To love justice. To walk humbly on the path.

I find it hard to quell my ego sometimes. I’ll be specific: I think credentials matter. Education matters. There are reasons for why I underwent the training I did, and will continue to further my knowledge and skills. I find myself citing credentials with a startling regularity, and I often wonder if it arises from ego. I feel disrespected, especially when people with little to no formal training begin espousing opinions which are not based in any real understanding of the issues at hand, or act as though an unlearned opinion is equally valid simply because it is arrived upon earnestly. I feel pulled between a desire to affirm people where they are and a desire to stop the perpetuation of a culture that no longer recognizes expertise. It is especially tricky being a person responsible for spiritual life; disagreements that might occur in another context take on extra weight when spirituality and faith are involved. This is a real struggle for me.

Trying to eliminate ego does not mean that feelings are no longer hurt, or disappointment is no longer experienced. It means that the emotions can be experienced and understood differently, but the sting and discomfort remain. I have no desire to remove myself from human experience, but I do want to increase my patience and compassion, slow down my reactions, consider situations from different perspectives, and always to have compassion and love as motivators. Dying ego, living self. 

Consolidated Forgiveness


I have lots of student loan debt. I’m an Xer, so that is not a surprise. Our generation has the distinct honor of being the first to face total financial ruin because of how much it costs to go to school and gain certifications. Millennials seem to just assume that their lives will be defined by debt. It is a brave new world. 

Periodically, I get letters about consolidating loans or even applying for loan forgiveness. The language of this is striking. Consolidating our debts; seeking out ways of forgiveness. I don’t know if Great Lakes is in the business of sparking theological thought, but they did with me. 

I have decided to move to the Narrative Lectionary, and the summer begins with a six-week series on 2 Corinthians. For any Trump supporters who might read this, it’s pronounced second Corinthians. The opening chapter is about consolation.  Paul is dealing with a complicated relationship with the church in Corinth. The last time he was there, a member said something that really pissed him off. The congregation disciplined him, but when Paul canceled a trip to return it appears that all hell broke loose. Scholars have spent a long time trying to piece together the myriad letters (and allusion to letters) that are contained in 2 Corinthians, which is actually the fourth letter that Paul wrote to Corinth. He writes because of a previous letter. WHich was harsh. Very harsh. And people did not receive it well. I know how that goes.  To address it, Paul begins by essentially saying, I know that there are hurt feelings. And I know that I played a role in that. Paul offers words of consolation, not necessarily of apology.  He thanks God for God’s comfort. 

Consolation is different from forgiveness. Consolation is tending to a person’s emotions, trying to soothe and assure them that distress is temporary. No matter how devastating the blow, time will lessen the acuteness of pain. I hesitate to use a word such as recover, so perhaps adjust is better. Consolation is the promise that circumstances will once again change, and things will adjust. 

Forgiveness is investing oneself in the process of adjustment, either as the person who receives it or as the one who administers it. Forgiveness means taking responsibility for your actions, and owning your mistakes; forgiveness means working through your pain and recommitting to a relationship with a person who has hurt you. 

Sometimes we make the mistake of asking for forgiveness when we should be in the process of consoling. Sometimes the person seeking forgiveness needs consolation, too, even if the aggrieved are not ready to extend absolution.  Sometimes we can be so blinded by our own pain that we do not recognize the pain we are causing to others. Acknowledging that yours is not the only pain can go a long way in repairing relationships. 

Today, I set for myself a prayer project. I do these every now and again. I am praying on knowing how to separate who I am as a pastor and who I am as a follower of Jesus Christ. This may seem odd, but I am learning that it is vital if I am to be effective as a minister. To be fulfilled as a Christian. And as I was praying and reflecting, I realized that I need to be able to console even if I am not forgiven. Even if I have not forgiven. Consolation is essential to relationships and community. Consolation allows us to step outside of ourselves and even to gain perspective. God consoles us before God forgives us. Because the journey is the destination. . 

I think I sometimes seek consolidated forgiveness. I want to stack up all my sins and put them in a package, setting them before God–before others?–and say, “Here. Forgive this, please!”  Paul, in his letter, lets know that there needs to be some pain before forgiveness. God will console, and we should as well, but forgiveness without full investment in the process is not a forgiveness that will feel complete or livable. If we are too quick to forgive, or too quick to seek forgiveness, we might just be setting ourselves up for continued strife. Regardless, we should aim not to hurt people’s feelings purposefully, and remember that despite continued tensions, we still care for one another. We are still able to console.

Today, I am thankful for God’s consolation in the midst of being unforgiven. Unforgiving. Today I am thankful for the friends and colleagues who have reached out to console, to forgive, to express solidarity. I am thankful to the people who reached out to me for ministry help, still trusting me to be of service to them and providing the opportunity to offer consolation myself. Today I am thankful for a person who so powerfully empathized with me that she took on physical pain. 

All things in love, love in all things.    

What If They’re Right? A Progressive Pastor’s Fears Laid Bare

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I was not raised in the Church. I came to faith via a long and winding road and a tremendous amount of study. Like most highly educated pastors, I have thought through my theology. Deeply. And I do not separate my faith from any area of my life. It is all-encompassing. Grace is a wonderful thing, as I am broken. Wonderfully made and radically love, yes, but broken nonetheless.

I have made decisions about my understanding of community. I can give biblical justifications for why I support women’s ordination, the full inclusion of GLBT persons into community and religious life, and do not think that Jesus is the only way to God. Some fundamentalists stick around to hear my explanations, some do not. Some are fine with agreeing to disagree, and finding areas in which we have crossover to use that shared belief to propel us into relationship and meaningful collaboration to do God’s work. Some refuse to acknowledge my ordination and believe that I am leading a congregation to hell. In fact, the two denominations with whom I am intimately tied, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are two of the most liberal denominations. Add onto that the fact that the congregation I serve aligns with the More Light Presbyterian movement, and I am about as “Progressive” (meant in the categorical sense) a Christian as you can get.

To me, though, the most important word in that descriptor is Christian. I take the gospel seriously. I emphasize the things I believe Jesus told us humans to emphasize: compassion, justice, mercy, solidarity, and love. I leave to God the task of judgment and the state of a person’s soul. I take the bible seriously, but not necessarily literally. I have deep, abiding respect for the long tradition of our faith, but I think there have been many, many mistakes. I find that too often I have to spend a lot of time explaining those mistakes to people who are not necessarily resistant to the view of God my faith espouses, but who are so damaged, so wary, so weary of the Christianity that judges and casts stones, they are hesitant to even think about trying church.

But here’s the rub. Mainline, liberal congregations across the country are struggling. There are myriad reasons for this and if you want to learn more, just pick up any issue of The Christian Century from the past ten years and you are likely to find at least one article about it. Our detractors say it is because we have polluted the gospel. We have acceded to the culture and abandoned Christ. I have written many times about my view of the gospel and I feel absolutely fine claiming that I follow Jesus. However, non-denominational mega churches, which often have a blood atonement theology, a charismatic preacher at the helm who dispenses advice masked as scripture, and a financial statement that can rival those of entire denominations, are thriving. Growth may be slowing down, but the communities are sticking. People are leaving traditional denominations and are going to these churches. For years, we educated and discerning Christians (to our own minds) joked that offering designer coffee and house bands would not be enough to keep people. We misjudged what it was that sent people to churches such as these. The truth is, non-denominational mega churches might be the future of Protestant Christianity. And while they are not for me, for a wide variety of reasons, I am not interested in badmouthing another part of the Body of Christ. Not for addressing what certain people want and need. I know I couldn’t do it, but I don’t deny that there is serious commitment to Christ that emerges in these communities. I don’t agree with their vision of Christ, oftentimes, but the discipleship is real. That’s important.

So, here’s the deal. All the people who said that they’d come back to church if denominations were open to the GLBT community; people who said they would be part of a thinking church, a church that allows for questions; people who said that they want to be able to be in a space where their experiences and even admiration of other religious traditions would be respected; all of those people who motivated so many of us to push within our denominations, to be vocal and visible in social justice fights, we need you. Now. We need you in order to help congregations that are aging, that are struggling financially because they are trying to upkeep ancient buildings. We need you–even if you don’t come to worship proper–to offer to work with us, to help us staff committees, throw community events, create spiritual spaces that are utilized and respected.

Because we could die. And maybe that needs to happen. Maybe our vision of the Gospel is not correct. I reject that claim with every fiber of my being, but I need people to understand the stakes. I have so many passionate, talented, spirit-filled friends who went to seminary, accrued major debt, and are tasked with leading aging and financially-challenged communities and we’re frightened about what we face. Most of us will never be full-time pastors.  For me, the fear is not monetary; it is the prospect that a community that has been continuous since 1860, that has pushed the boundaries and been vital to village life, might end. On my watch. It would be a loss, not just to the Church but to the community as well. I imagine that many of you reading this who do not live in Yellow Springs probably have a few churches in your area that fit this description.

This will be my last doom and gloom blog. I am focused on solutions. I am focused on community. But I wanted to be clear about what drives and motivates me, and what is at stake. I’m looking to try new things and to gather people together in ways that are authentic and meaningful, but also in line with the gospel that is at the center of my heart, sinner that I am.

Community Concerns

 

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When Dr. King graduated from Boston University, he had opportunities to pastor churches or even teach up North. He and Coretta prayed on it fervently, and concluded that they were called to return to their native Southland. History would have been much different had they not gone first to Montgomery, and then Atlanta.

Lewis V. Baldwin, in his seminal work There is a Balm in Gilead, traces the intellectual and cultural influences of Dr. King’s life, from the South to the Black Church. King’s father and mother were both educated and deeply rooted in the church, so he knew no other life than one centered in Christianity, community, solidarity, and suffering. He knew the language and the rhythms, the traditions and the concerns. He was invested in the larger community because he understood the connection between secular systems and the ability to follow God; if laws or culture keeps you oppressed, your religion of justice cannot be practiced. King was a disciple of Jesus Christ first, a civil rights activist second. The two just happened to overlap quite a bit. We often forget that in our watering-down of King’s radical work.

It is always dangerous whenever a minister, especially a White one, starts talking about Dr. King. I’m not comparing my own path to his; that would be asinine. But I do understand what it means to be so closely attached to the place where you serve. Yellow Springs has been my home for nearly all my life. There were years in which I lived elsewhere, but my family home has been here for 30 years. I grew up playing in Glen Helen. I am a product of the schools. A big part of my sense of self is wrapped up in this place.

But the center of my life is my identity as a Christian. As a Jesus follower. As a servant. As a person committed to being in relationship with anyone who seeks me. A person who is not that concerned with rules regarding who gets Communion and I don’t believe I have the ability to save a soul. Frankly, that doesn’t even make my list of top 500 things I think being a pastor is about.

This village, historically, has been intimately concerned about justice. I think that is still there, but it is being pushed to the periphery. Our demographics have changed and our median income has risen, pushing out some of the weird, creative, passionate people that once found refuge here. I look around and I think that there is a need for a spiritual place that provides sanctuary and freedom simultaneously; a place that is safe but encouraging of questions. Of skepticism. Of a desire to push deeper to bring our words in line with our actions. A place that is hospitable and invitational, but is also radical and on fire. A place where art, theater, music, and spirituality find expression inside and outside of worship. A community that comes together in commitment and trust, exploration and sharing; a community that dares to believe that God is too big for labels, but that traditions can give us purpose, direction, power, and peace.

But people have to want it. They have to see the need and feel that this place is worth the risk. The time. The vulnerability. The messiness of relationships and community. I will do everything I can to continue the invitation; the congregation will continue to be welcoming; we will try to show our love in the things we do and the words we say. We hold on to the prayer, If you love them, they will come. 

I love this village, and I love the Church. I fear for both. I fear that if we do not pay attention to the needs and concerns of people we will fail in our charge to pass on the legacies to a new generation. If we do not commit ourselves to taking risks, to allowing for the possibility that change can bring about new life, to caring enough to reach out to our neighbors and invite them along on the journey, we may see something beautiful slip away. If we do not remember who and what we have been in the past, but strive toward the future, we will see our opportunity slip away. If we don’t talk seriously about our declining non-White population and our growing economic divide, we could see the chance for authentic diversity die. If we don’t listen to the concerns that people have about the practice of Christianity, if we don’t affirm the hurt of those who have been pushed away by organized religion, if we don’t stop to think that maybe God is calling us to a new form of ministry we’ll be staring at a corpse that cannot be raised.

Luckily for us, we have a resurrection hope.

 

Practicing Resurrection: Hearing the Unspoken No

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

In Jewish tradition, a rabbi is required to refuse the request for conversion three times before answering in the affirmative. Each time, the potential convert has to face rejection, doubt, introspection. Only through perseverance, it is thought, can one understand what it really means to be a Jew.

The structure of this pericope is rather genius. Gathered together–whether by swimming or by boat–a simple charcoal fire organizes the make-shift community. A familiar scene. Jesus producing a miracle and then demanding that all be fed. There is no absence. Nothing is bereft. Bread in abundance; fishy aplenty. All has been prepared by God. And like they have during the feeding of the 5,000 (reported by all the gospels) and the 4,000 (reported by Mark and Matthew, but not Luke and John), and the last supper (not reported by John), they gather again. The author of John notes that Jesus’ grab and gab is the third resurrection visit.

Reclining after the meal, Jesus turns to Simon Peter. Do you love me? he asks. No matter how many times I read it, Jesus’ voice will always be that of Tevya (preferably voiced by Topol) from Fiddler on the Roof; do you love me?  When Peter says yes, Jesus responds: “Feed my lambs.” No explanation. No qualifications. “Feed my lambs.” One can imagine Peter’s thoughts: What does it mean to feed? Who are lambs? How often am I to feed them? Before he can muster a question, Peter is faced with Jesus doubling down: “Do you love me?” Now I hear Golde from Fiddler: “Do I what!?” With the second question, one imagines what might be going on in Peter’s mind. Do I love you?  Of course. Of course I do, but why do you keep asking? Peter assents, and Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” Again, the questions: What does it mean to tend? So am I to only tend to the sheep and feed the lambs? Do the lambs not need tending and the sheep not need feeding? What’s going on here?

“Simon son of John, do you love me?” Each time. Each time Simon Peter is forbidden to forget the face of his father. Each time he is challenged to bring his whole self. Do you really understand what it means to love? Do you understand what it means to love God through Jesus Christ? Because this love is not just about you. It is about others. It is about the sheep and the lambs. It is about feeding and tending.  

Sometimes we have to hear the unspoken “no.” Sometimes we have to be asked the same question several times to assure others we really mean what we say. The movement of this passage is beautiful. They all know who Jesus is as they eat with him on the beach, but none of them dare ask. They don’t give voice to their questions. They shovel pieces of fish and bread into their mouths, looking awkwardly from face to face. Do we talk about the fact that we’re eating with a dead man? Or at least a man who was dead but now is not? And what does this mean for us? We can imagine that all of these issues are racing through their minds, but Jesus is not concerned about that. He wants to make sure that Peter (and here we could go into a whole discussion of apostolic succession and how this passage parallels Matthew 16:19, but let’s not and say that we didn’t) understands the depths and requirements of love. Like rabbis who will follow for centuries, he wants to make certain that those who wish to follow in the ways of the Jewish God fully understand what is required.

 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”  After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

I cut out that line about death. That is the author of John speaking to us, and with all due respect John gets it wrong. This is not about Jesus’ death. I mean, maybe it is but I think it is about so much more. This is about the requirements of love. Love does take us where we don’t wish to go. At least the love Jesus teaches us. But the promise is that we won’t be alone. God will be with us. And others whom God animates will be there, too.

We have to hear the “no.” The no to doing what is easy or comfortable. The no that comes with realizing that we most likely will not be the persons we hoped we would be, but if we follow God we will be the persons we are meant to be. We have to hear the “no” that God gives to shallow or empty love. We have to hear the “no” to certain questions that God simply will not answer, because God is more concerned with how we are loving. How do we practice this love, this resurrection?

Follow me.

Well, fiddlesticks. Yeah. I will. I’ll tend and feed and eat and love and follow and swim and take boats and be confused. Keep asking, though God. Because eventually I’ll hear the unspoken nos as a final “yes.”

But Wait, There’s More: The Three-In-One God

 

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Twenty-first century pastorates are a bit different; many of us find ourselves serving as ministers to people via Facebook or IM. I know that I have at least half a dozen people who consider me their pastor, but for various reasons cannot or do not want to attend the church where I hold the pulpit. I cherish these relationships, but they also require me to function slightly differently than I would if I could refer them to a bible study or class I lead. This leads us to today’s post: Is Jesus God? Is God Jesus? If so, how?

I imagine that my fellow pastor/professor/theologian/biblical scholar friends are laughing right now, as these questions are literally the stuff of dissertations and careers. Looking at my not insubstantial book collection, I can see no fewer than fifteen titles on the unorganized shelves that directly relate to Christology. So please know that my musings are not meant to be, nor are they, definitive. But if we pastors cannot elucidate such basic concepts in simple language, we really should not be calling ourselves preachers and teachers of the Church.

The Council(s) and the Controversies

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After the death of Jesus, the Apostle’s Creed emerged seemingly out of nowhere. Tradition holds that each of the Twelve Disciples (we assume not Judas Iscariot, but rather his replacement Matthias) contributed to the creed (or its forerunner), and Patristics note that it is mentioned throughout the writings of Church Fathers. While we are uncertain of how it emerged, it is an attempt to set forth the basics of what one needs to believe in order to be a card-carrying member of Team Jesus.*

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Let me say that I ascribe to the Apostle’s Creed with very little nuance needed. This pretty much summarizes my faith. But let’s break it down. Notice, the divinity of Jesus (or the Holy Spirit) is not set forth in the creed; this, according to some historians, opened the door for later controversies, most especially Arianism. Also notice that this seems to be saying that we believe in one God, one person, and one spirit. So, are we pantheists? Are we polytheists? Are we Jewish plus? Questioned abound.

The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed

Arianism arises from the ideas of Arius, a Libyan theologian who was dead set against emerging Trinitarianism (discussed below). The foundation of his ideas was threefold: God the Father and the Logos (John’s term for the second person of the Trinity; “Word” that becomes flesh as Jesus Christ) were not of the same substance or essence (ousia); that the Son (Logos) was a created being; and as a created being, there was a time in which the Logos did not exist. Arius referred to the Logos as a “creature,” a being that was divine in that it was created ex nihilo, and was a participant in the creation of the universes, but a being that is not coequal with God. Seem complicated? It kinda is. But it boils down to this question: Are Jesus and God the same thing? Arius said no. And he was excommunicated.

In fact, when the Council of Nicaea met in 325 C.E. to address the divinity of Christ, they formed a creed that many people think they know. But most don’t. Why? Because there is an entire section dedicated to refuting Arianism that was later pulled out in the Council of Constantinople (381). Imagine hearing this recited in St. Peter’s Basilica each week:

But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Arianism has never fully been put down in Christian circles–Unitarians by and large accept the Apostle’s Creed and agree with Arius, but have issues with subsequent creeds–but it has been a heresy since the 4th century, for whatever that is worth. Needless to say, the issue of Jesus’ divinity was not settled in 381 C.E., with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. (And, again, apologies to all my friends who are early Church historians for glossing over so many details that it is just simpler for me to say that there is much, much more to the story.)

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, True God of True God, Begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; And ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father; And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets; And I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the Resurrection of the dead, And the Life of the age to come. Amen.

Those who are interested in minutia should research the filoque controversy  or how the statement “not one iota’s difference” emerged from the Council of Nicaea. What we can say, though, is that there were early and very violent disagreements among followers of Christ regarding his divinity and relationship with the Trinity. In fact, there is no explicit biblical statement supporting a Trinitarian view of God. The term first emerged through the writings of Tertullian , a second century theologian who wrote about three persons (tres personae) united in one substance (substantia); the unity he called tri-unity, or Trinitas. While Tertullian’s particular vision of the Trinity was adapted and altered over the years, his contribution became the foundation for orthodox thinking regarding the relationship of the persons within the Godhead.

The Councils of Constantinople and Chalcedon

But controversies continued. At the Council of Constantinople, the bishops rejected Apollinarianism, the idea that the divine Logos overtook the mind and soul of the human Jesus. In other words, Jesus was more divine than human. This was rejected because, according to atonement theology, Jesus must be fully human and fully divine to achieve the salvation of humankind. This gave way to what is known as Hypostatic Union, the two natures (human and divine) united perfectly in one person. A few decades later, in response to Hypostatic Union, another controversy, this one called Nestorianism, which argued that Christ has two natures, but that there is no union. He would go from “mode to mode.” Again, problems with needing to adhere to atonement theology prevented Nestorianism from being a viable, orthodox Christology.

All of this came to a head with the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E., and the resulting creed, which again solidified the dual nature of Christ united in one person, and present in tri-unity within the Godhead.

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.    

We describe this as “fully human, fully divine.” If you push most theologians to his or her limit, we would have to defer to the divine mysterium. Somehow, Jesus is fully God but also fully like us, except for the sin part. This is the view that won out. At least until the Protestant Reformation.

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So what does all of this mean? That the question is not simple and is not without controversy. Orthodox theology would say, “Yes. Jesus is God. Jesus is human. Jesus is both fully and completely, and is so because his death on the cross must atone for original sin.” If you don’t believe in original sin or if you do not accept atonement theology, the nature of Christ becomes more difficult. Or easier, depending on your viewpoint.

I always tell congregants that I don’t necessarily think that I am correct, but I will always explain how I have alighted upon my own decisions regarding central issues in our faith tradition. I have spent a goodly amount of time assembling a quick journey through the history regarding Christ’s nature, and I affirm that this is what we historically have believed regarding Jesus. He is unlike anyone or anything else; he is truly God, truly human, truly the Messiah, and truly perfect. And if that works for you, awesome. Great.

But if it doesn’t, does that mean you are out in the cold? Not at all. The truth is, what we have within the canonical scriptures are a selection of ideas about Jesus, but not the full picture. Texts such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Judas, the Sayings Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy of James, and a whole host of other gospels were written at the same time that Church Fathers were wrestling with these questions. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, sets forth the idea that salvation is achieved through Wisdom, and that the divine nature is within human beings other than Jesus. We see from the earliest levels until today the notion of the “moral influence” of Jesus’ life on followers; the notion that Jesus is the finger pointing toward the moon, but is not the moon itself. Scores of scholars and theologians have argued that the greatest mistake Christianity made was worshiping Jesus rather than following him. Luckily, we do not burn people at the stake anymore for daring to question orthodoxy.

I find that there are generally two types of people who seriously consider religion: those who want certainty and those who want direction. Those who want certainty are very comfortable in orthodoxy. Questions are answered clearly and definitively. There is a right way and a wrong way. There does not need to be debate because the debates have already occurred and the Holy Spirit has spoken. The other type of people–and here is where I place myself–are those who like that religion gives direction, but want the autonomy and ability to puzzle things out for themselves.

I do not believe that Jesus had to die in order for God to be satisfied for the debt we owe as a result of original sin. I do believe that Jesus died as a result of sins, but the sins of arrogance, fear, greed, indifference, and the need for power. I believe that through his life, Jesus definitively (yet not exclusively) revealed the mind of God, providing human beings a template on how to lead an existence that brings forth love, peace, justice, compassion, and joy. I attest to the resurrection of Christ–this will need to be another post unto itself–and believe that the Holy Spirit is God’s gift to human persons, but the Holy Spirit has been called countless names throughout time. I attest completely to the existence of a creator God, to whom Jesus was intimately connected and for whose sake Jesus gave his life in order to bring hope to those cast aside by humankind.

Is Jesus God? Well, let me ask you a question. What do you mean by God?

*Credit for “Team Jesus” must be given to Deacon Gilah Pomeranz.

On behalf of my people…

I am a white male. Ten years ago, I added Christian to that self-description. While not wealthy, my family is financially stable; my parents grew up in working class homes and, because of the availability of state-funded scholarships and the low price of tuition, both secured excellent educations. As a result, I grew up with food on the table and a roof over my head. To be sure, I have had a job since I was thirteen years old, but I have never known true poverty. For most of my life, I have lived paycheck to paycheck, but when the bottom has dropped out, my family has been able to swoop in with a safety net. I tell you all of this because I want to make one point crystal clear: I have never known what it is like to be in an economic, racial, or gender minority. As a white, Christian, American male, I’ve most often walked into a room and seen people who look like me; turned on the television and seen people who look like me; and, on the whole, I grew up idolizing musicians, actors, and other celebrities that look like me. I have never known that it is like to “represent” my gender, race, or faith tradition. I’ve never had the pressure of being the only white, Christian male in a classroom, or been the first white, Christian male to perform a specific job or join a particular group. And while in primary and secondary school I was bullied and teased about as much as anyone else, I was able to slink into the background because, well, there were plenty of other white males around me.

So this is new for me: I would like to apologize for my people.

This has nothing to do with liberal white male guilt. It really doesn’t. But it does have to do with the fact that white, Christian males have really been stinking up the place lately. From Representative Darrell Issa’s sham of a “hearing” on women’s health to Rush Limbaugh’s disgusting attacks on Sandra Fluke (the Georgetown law student charged with being a “slut” and a “prostitute” by El Rushbo because she had the audacity to point out that birth control pills can help prevent the development of ovarian cysts), I have found myself wanting to go up to every woman I meet and explain that not all of us are Neanderthals with no understanding of the female reproductive system. While Issa argues for smaller government, he and other white males in legislatures both State and Federal want to insert (literally) Uncle Sam’s influence into the vaginas of women across the country. Yet, many of these males—I return to his rotundity, Rush Limbaugh—seem to have a basic ignorance about the inner workings of the female anatomy. Rush and Bill O’Reilly think that a woman has to take a birth control pill every single time she has sex, as though it operates like a tablet of Viagra. To wit, Rush has screamed repeatedly into his microphone of hate: “Did it ever occur to you [women who find it difficult to pay for necessary contraceptive care] to stop having so much sex?!” Every time I hear this sound bite, I want to run up to a random woman and say, “I’m so sorry for my people. But I can assure you, I understand the difference between a Fallopian tube and a drinking straw. I paid attention in my government-funded health class, and I work hard at my church to make sure that boys are able to say vagina without giggling and that they don’t regard menstruation as ‘Satan’s doing.’”

I fight the urge to really do this, of course, because , once started, it would be impossible to stop. If I apologize for the trans-vaginal probe bills and my people’s basic ignorance of the female anatomy, I most certainly will need to apologize for the nonsense coming out the mouths of Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney. Only white men who have never really known persecution can, with a straight face, accuse the first African-American president (who, in the spirit of full disclosure, is a member of my Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ) of oppressing Christians. Only men who each have multiple graduate degrees can accuse a self-made man like President Obama of “being out of touch” and call him a “snob.” I can see myself, depleted of fluids, hallucinating from the sheer exertion required to continue my apologies, crawling from household to household, crying and gnashing my teeth, assuring the good people of this country that not all of us are so ridiculous. That we not only pay attention to history, but that we place it in its proper context. Assuring all who will listen that there are not vomitoriums across the country filled to overflowing because we just now read President Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the separation of Church and State.

So I apologize, America. I know a good number of white Christian males who are solid, reasonable people. And I am not trying to assume the mantel of a “minority.” I understand that I am still a white Christian male. But I do, in some way, feel like I am surrounded by a bunch of people who are so different from myself. Suddenly, individuals of the same gender and who are covered by skin of the same hue don’t look like me. I have a hard time finding myself in the Congress and on the airwaves.

So the next time you see me or one of my ilk, and our behavior is different from those other white, Christian males you see on television, I totally understand if you turn to your friends and say, Well, he’s not REALLY a white, Christian male.