Friday, March 22, 2013

Joel Who?

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            This past Wednesday I was privileged to be one of the speakers for the Lenten series at Community ChristianChurch.  Each week during Lent, a Christian minister and a Rabbi have spoken at a Wednesday luncheon about a particular Hebrew prophet.  It was an honor to learn from Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz from Temple Kehilath Israel and to share the stage with him. 
I love the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible and draw great inspiration from their visions of peace and commitment to justice for the poor.  I am inspired by the fiery calls for justice in Amos (MLK often quoted from Amos such as in his “I Have a Dream Speech”) or Micah’s declaration that we are “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” or Isaiah’s visions of peace where “swords shall be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.”   That being said, however, I prefer some prophets over others.  When Community’s minister, Bob Hill, told me I would be speaking on the prophet Joel, I groaned.  There’s not a whole lot in Joel which has ever inspired me.  I’m glad to report, however, that I did gain appreciation for this writing by preparing to speak on it.   
Part of the problem with interpreting this small prophetic book is that scholars—both ancient and modern—do not agree about much when it comes to Joel.  The prophet has been dated to anywhere from the ninth to the second century B.C.E.  There are several men named Joel in the Hebrew Bible and the writing has been variously associated with each of them.  Some scholars think the writing is a carefully crafted piece of literature, while others think it is merely a collection of random oracles.  Much of the writing concerns a devastating ecological disaster brought about by a plague of locusts, but scholars don’t even agree as to whether the locusts are literal insects or merely an elaborate metaphor for the plight of ancient Judah.  This lack of coherent thought on the book is why I have usually skipped over it when talking about the prophets.
This week I read Joel again, and two things struck me: its emphasis upon communal lament and its emphasis upon all people receiving the life-giving Spirit of God.  According to Joel, the proper response God’s people should make in the face of disaster is lamentation.  Lamentations, as found in the book of Psalms, some prophets and the writing we call Lamentations, are expressions of grief, dismay and pain to God.  They are shocking in their honesty—the Gospels portray Jesus quoting a lament Psalm on the cross when he cries out, “Why, God, have you forsaken me?”  Laments offer no easy answers nor do they offer vapid platitudes (e.g. “everything happens for a reason,” “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” etc.).  Instead they acknowledge pain and take time for reflection upon the experience.  Laments are not acts of wallowing in pain or looking for sympathy, rather they are honest expressions of grief, doubt, anger and sadness. 
I have been a part of a lot of Christian funerals.  Too often, those grieving rush through the busyness of the funeral and assume that when it ends so does their grief.  Others seem to expect the same and wonder why a person hasn’t “gotten over it” when someone continues to feel grief at a loved one’s death.  The Jewish religion offers the ritual of “Sitting Shiva” where there is a proscribed time to mourn (seven days or longer in some cases) and rituals to carry out (e.g. tearing one’s clothes) for those grieving and expectations of care from their religious community.  It seems that Christians could learn a lot from our Jewish brothers and sisters about what it means to face our grief honestly. 
Many lamentations in the Hebrew Bible are for individuals, but Joel asks for communal lamentation.  Furthermore, Joel declares that God does not want our struggles to provoke empty ritual but rather a true change in our consciousness.  He declares, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”  I couldn’t help but wonder what would have been different had our society taken time to live with its pain after 9-11 and reflect upon what response we should make in the face of it.  Scenes of the president and political leaders praying before going to war in search of vengeance and expanding the American empire seem like just the sort of empty rituals Joel spoke against.  Would our response to Katrina, Sandy, and Newtown be different if we took time to grieve with those directly affected?  Would our response to gun violence in Kansas City be different if we took time to lament with the families of victims?  As we observe the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War and stop to consider that combat continues not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan, what would our thoughts about these conflicts be if we chose to lament with the families of our soldiers killed, to lament with veterans wounded in mind and body, to lament with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan?
Joel also includes verses that were important to the early Christians.  The second chapter of Acts describes the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first Christians at Pentecost enabling them to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in all the languages of the world.  Peter quotes from Joel and says, “. . .  this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. . . Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”  Of course, “the Lord” Joel spoke of was Yahweh not Jesus Christ, but the point is similar—a day will come when people of all nations will experience the life-giving Spirit of God directly enabling them to see visions of reality the way God wishes reality to be.  John Barton notes that this passage’s description  of “all flesh” or “all people” receiving God’s visions may be the most universalistic passage in the Hebrew Bible.
Obviously, the world is still filled with suffering, violence and pain.  The day Joel dreamed of and the first Christians hoped for has not come, at least in terms of all people sharing God’s vision for our world.  Yet, I have a new understanding—thanks to Joel—regarding how we can get to the point of experiencing God’s vision.  Joel seems to say that a necessary prerequisite for us experiencing a new vision for ourselves and our world can only come after we have taken time to honestly experience the pain and suffering of our world.  This is not an easy thing to do in a society which emphasizes entertainment and comfort over thoughtful reflection about the problems of our planet.  We are all too busy to take time for such reflection unless we are forced to do so—even then we hurry back to our overbooked schedules so we don’t have to think about such things too long. 
Prior to this week, I had no idea the prophet Joel held such wisdom.
Grace and Peace,

The Institutionalized Church

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

    On Sunday, March 3, I preached a sermon on understanding Jesus' death as something other than the dominant Christian understanding of substitutionary atonement (i.e. Jesus-God's Son or God's self-dies a horrible death for our sins in order to appease a holy God).  Such a view supports a church that divides the world into "us and them" with "them" being everyone who does not accept Jesus' violent death on their behalf.  Since "them" won't accept Jesus dying in their stead, "them" gets to suffer the righteous punishment of God for eternity-maybe even starting in this life.  Instead, I offered the idea that Jesus' death was really meant to teach us the opposite way of viewing humanity.  There is no "us and them;" there is only "us."  Jesus' death demonstrates for us once and for all that God values and loves those who have been rejected.  The church therefore is not supposed to be in the business of rejecting others in God's name, but rather its purpose is to embrace those who have been rejected.
    In my sermon I was working not only out of the Gospel of Luke but also out of a book by theologian Wendy Farley, titled Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation.  Farley offers an articulate critique of the institution of the church.  Yet, what I appreciate about her writing is that she does not stop with the critique but offers also a counter-narrative to the story of religious authoritarianism which dominates much of Christian history.  As I said in my sermon on Sunday, it is not enough for us to define ourselves in negative terms (e.g. We are not like those churches who are judgmental and hateful.).  At some point we must offer a credible alternative.
    The common declaration about religion in our culture is "I'm spiritual but not religious."  In its best form, this phrase means a person is looking for a way of encountering the divine that is flexible, fluid and open to contrary points of view.  In its worst form, this phrase is a thinly disguised excuse for not committing to much of anything.  I identify with the statement even as I acknowledge its inadequacy. 
    This week the world's eyes are on Rome and the selection of a new pope.  It's easy from a Protestant perspective to throw stones at the institution of the Vatican-it's inability to reform itself or even prevent the abuse of the most vulnerable under its care.  Yet, as Wendy Farley reminds us, "The Protestant churches have been just as likely as Catholic ones to deploy religious authority to preserve patriarchal and heterosexist power and to justify cruelty and violence."  All forms of the institutionalized church have much to answer for.  That being a given, is the only option left to us to reject the church in all its forms?  I hope not.
    Farley is honest enough in her critique of the church as institution to admit that like it or not we need structure and organization.  We can't get along without it.  Yet, the institution must be continually challenged to guard against abuse.  We must continually hold before us the "prophets' savage assault on religious practices that cloak indifference to the poor" and "Jesus' challenges to religious authorities."  This tension between institution and iconoclasm must remain if we are to do church any justice at all.  To let go of one end of this tension results in oppression, but to let go of the other end results in the loss of community. 
   In every church I have been in the hardest part of the year is nominating time.  The folks on the nominating committee struggle to find people who will commit to serving in church leadership for the coming year.  Sometimes this resistance to commitment is valid-antiquated structures and do-nothing committees, stressed out and over-committed members, etc.  Other times the lack of commitment is not valid and people are simply selfish and too willing to let others do the hard work of keeping a faith community alive.  Some structure is necessary and even vital, but that work often falls to a few members who bear the load for the rest. 
     We live in a culture that does not wish to commit to organized religion, and such a cultural perspective permeates our churches.  It does so often for good reasons.  There is much about the history of Christianity not to like and much about the work of the local church that is irrelevant.  Yet, if we truly wish to offer a different vision of Christianity and a different vision of God-one that is inclusive and loving rather than hateful and cruel-we must be willing to commit to our particular congregation. 
   This Lenten season what will your commitment to CCCUCC be?
Grace and Peace,

What Can an Internet Entrepreneur Tell Us About Our Church?

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            You've heard me confess in sermons to being a public radio junkie.  I listen to public radio all the time.  This week I had blown through all my usual podcasts and was hunting for a fix.  I ended up landing on an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett.  (I liked this show better when it was called Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett, because there is so little intelligent discussion of religion in the media.  Now its topics are broader and  not exclusively on religion.)  This episode was an interview with Seth Godin, a marketing guru for the networked economy, bestselling author and internet entrepreneur.  None of these things on the surface particularly interested me, but I needed a public radio fix, so I listened.  Quickly, however, I found myself listening to Godin and feeling like he was speaking about our church.
            One of Godin's ideas is that the mass market is dead having been replaced by hundreds of thousands of micro markets.  In a world where anyone can make something and work out its worldwide distribution to the few people in the world who want it, success is no longer measured by making something for the masses.  Godin notes that the mass market was a voting machine where "the goal is to see how many people are going to vote for you. How many people are going to raise their hand and say, 'I like that.'"  Now the mass market is divided into micro markets and so now the market is a weighing machine measuring how much impact you have.  Impacting everyone is essentially impossible anymore.  People have too many other choices.
            From the perspective of the church-both at the local church level and the denominational level-the goal has long been a mass market approach.  How can we make our message attractive to the masses?  I'm thinking of Billy Graham Crusades, megachurches, televangelists, evangelizing the whole world, etc.  Such approaches have many negative byproducts, such as a shallow message, exclusion of diversity, emphasis upon institutions over people, and even corruption and abuse.  Yet, now in a world where people can get their religion in any form they want just by clicking to a particular web site, this mass market kind of church appears more and more like a relic of the past.  I know there are still megachurches out there, but NBC, CBS and ABC still exist too.   Cable, Netflix, and the internet have demolished the days when everyone watched the series finale of M.A.S.H. together.  The same can be said of the big churches.
            I actually think this is good news for a church like ours.  Most people are not interested in a LGBT-loving, peace and justice promoting, commitment oriented, free thinking, singing from a hymnal and listening to the organ sort of church.  Our church is not designed for mass appeal.  We are like a prize winning novel by a lightly read author which has to be special ordered on-line rather than a paperback novel sold in an airport gift shop.  So our efforts should not be wasted trying to offer our kind of church to the majority of people who aren't interested in it, but rather reaching the few people who want and need what our church offers.  Don't get me wrong, I still believe in welcoming everyone who comes our way, but I think we should be realistic about who will actually do so.
            Godin's words should give us hope, because he says that success today is measured in impact rather than numbers.  A small company can have a great impact culturally if it has a story based on integrity.  If so, why can't a small church with a dedicated membership and a story of God's extravagant welcome also make a large impact in its community?  The goal of this type of business, marketing or church is relevance rather than numbers.  Of course, if your product or message has no integrity and is merely self-serving or profit-based, then you failed before you began.
            Godin uses the idea of "tribe" to describe what is happening today.  Once upon a time, "tribe" was defined by geography and blood line, but today it is described by shared interest and belief.  He explains that by the time of say, Mark Twain, this shift had already occurred.  "Mark Twain would show up in a city and a thousand people would come to hear him speak. And everyone who came was in his tribe. They were in the tribe of, you know, slightly satirical, slightly jaundiced people who were also intellectuals who could engage with him. And he had never met them before, but within minutes, they were part of a congruent group who understood each other. And so if we fast-forward to today - you can take someone who hangs out in the East Village or Manhattan who has 27 tattoos - they go to Amsterdam, they can find someone in Amsterdam who talks their language and acts like them, because they've chosen the same set of things that excite them, and that they believe in."  The question facing our church is who is in our tribe and how do we connect with them?
               Let's face it; if people are looking for a church with a rock band, a church that doesn't challenge anyone on justice issues, or a church where they can be a spectator, then we are not the church for them.  There are plenty of other options out there.  We need to connect with people who want the kind of church we are.  This does not mean we form our own clique or club, but rather we are expanding our cultural impact among those who share our values.  If we really believe God loves and welcomes all people; diversity of belief is a gift not a threat, and people of faith can make the world better for hurting people everywhere, then we will only make an impact in these areas by connecting with people who share those values.  According to Godin, we don't need large numbers to change the world; we only need a story with integrity.
            I believe Jesus had something to say about a small group of faithful people with a powerful story changing the world too.
            Grace and Peace,