Trying to explain the kingdom

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

“Illustration Lolium temulentum” is public domain and licensed by CC BY 2.0

Proper 11

I feel really bad for Jesus sometimes. He spent so much energy delivering clever, practical, wonderful illustrations in order to describe the kingdom of heaven. Somehow, somewhere along the way, a huge amount of the population decided to settle on a “pie in the sky” approach in which you die and your soul floats up into the clouds to a gated community guarded by Saint Peter…

…and that’s about it.

Put that interpretation safely on a shelf for a second and really look at the Parable of the Weeds, which begins, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

It’s a parable of the kingdom…remember that.

In the parable, a sower sows good seed in his field. All of the seed is good. Remember that too. He and his workers do their jobs and go home to sleep–like you do. In the middle of the night, an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat seeds. Specifically, the enemy sows a grass called “darnel” that’s seedlings look like wheat. Some times goes by, the wheat comes up, and so do the weeds. The workers rush to tell the sower about the weed problem, asking if he planted good seeds, where could the weeds have come from? The sower responds that an enemy must have done it (probably bird poop though, right?). The workers, eager to make the field perfect, suggest that they go and pick out the weeds. (Of course we all know that the worker who suggested this is like the kid who asks for homework at the end of the school day.)

The sower declines the offer–he’d have to pay them overtime after all. Plus, they’d probably just destroy the wheat in the process of getting rid of the weeds. When harvest time comes, those workers will separate the bundles of wheat and weeds, saving the wheat and burning the weeds.

The parable ends here.

Now I know you’re thinking about the good, moral, baptized people and how they’re the wheat and all the wicked people are the weeds and how this stupid story is antiquated and irrelevant and the product of stupid people trying to make themselves feel better blah blah blah. Stop it. Step back. Take a breath, and think about what is really going on in this parable because that allegorization is not the point; it may be important to understanding the point, but the allegorization alone is not the point. Stopping at that easy interpretation robs you of the difficult conversation Jesus is trying to have here. Continue reading

Tricksters

Rensig, Everhard - Esau Gives up his Birthright; Jacob and Esau with the Bowl of Pottage - Google Art Project

By Rensig, Everhard (maker, Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

Proper 10

What do you do if you don’t hold the power in a given situation. If you’re on the receiving end of oppression, bullying, or anything in between, how do you respond in a way that is neither passive nor brutally forceful?

Trickery is at least one option, and it is trickery that seems to ultimately be valued in many stories in the Bible, including the one about brothers Jacob and Esau that we read this week.

Abraham’s grandchildren (Isaac’s boys) Jacob and Esau are twins. In their mother Rebekah’s womb, the two struggled together. Esau came out first, red and covered in hair. Jacob came out second, gripping his brother’s heel. As they grew, Esau became a skillful hunter, and his father loved him for it. Jacob was the quieter one with a bit of trickster in his blood (he got it from his mother).

After a long day of work, Esau came in to find Jacob cooking some chili. He must have been starving because when Jacob offered him chili for his inheritance, Esau accepted.

You probably know the rest of the story. Later, Isaac was blind and dying, so Jacob put some fur on himself, pretended to be Esau, and stepped in to take Isaac’s blessing that was meant for his firstborn. Rebekah orchestrated the whole charade.

Long story short, Jacob changed his name to Israel and a people was born…

…originating with a trickster who lied and stole to get what he wanted.

It’s easy to say that his actions were immoral or sinful, but is that the only message we can glean from this complicated tale?

What does it say about God that the unexpected, underdog, tricksters often become the objects of divine blessing? What does it say about us that we and the Bible seem to value cleverness and trickery?

If you’re interested in reading further into this issue, I recommend this blog post to get you started and this book to take you deeper.

When domination systems/systems of power constantly give advantage to some and great disadvantage to others, could trickery be a viable way to seek justice?

 

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut. He offers reflections on the lectionary readings for the upcoming Sunday. He keeps a blog at FatherFarr.com.

ECFvp July Issue features “Zombie Parish” quiz

Is your church one in which individual members are alive, but the church as a whole is undead?

The July 2014 Leading Change issue of the Episcopal Church Foundation Vital Parishes (ECFvp) newsletter features our “Are You Leading a Zombie Parish?” quiz, including an expanded ending.

Here’s what ECFvp editor Nancy Davidge had to say about their reasons for posting the quiz on the Vital Posts Blog section of the newsletter:

July feels like the right time for Vestry Papers to share Ken Howard’s “Are You Leading a Zombie Parish?” This ‘tongue firmly in cheek’ piece is Ken’s way of slipping a serious issue past the defenses that often may keep us from some critical self evaluation.

Readers may click here to read the article at the ECFvp website (or scroll down to read it re-posted below.


Are You Leading a Zombie Parish?

By Ken Howard, part of the Vestry Papers issue on Leading Change (July 2014)

Leadership teams are invited to take this ten-item quiz to discover whether your church is undead.

In case you haven’t noticed, zombies are becoming more popular these days. Gone are the old-time zombie movies with their slack-jawed, shuffling zombies. Nowadays the undead are appearing in zombie action movies, zombie romantic comedies, and zombie Bollywood flicks.

Zombies have even made their way into business literature. Companies and non-profit organizations that are operating but not growing have come to be called Zombies, because they are in a state of limbo – not dead, yet not exactly alive either – and because they maintain their undead existence by draining resources away from healthy organizations.

So what about zombie churches? Could there be congregations in which the individual members were alive, but the congregation as a whole was undead, having lost both the desire and the capacity to grow? It’s not just possible but true. By the standard just articulated, a significant portion of our churches (perhaps even a plurality) could be classified as zombies. In fact, churches may be more at risk of becoming zombies than other kinds of organizations, because they can blind themselves to their condition by convincing themselves that their lack of change and adaptation to new contexts is due to the strength of their traditions. And they can often maintain their undead existence for decades by consuming their own endowments and/or denominational resources that might otherwise go to healthier congregations.

Are you leading a zombie church? Take this ten-question quiz and find out…

1. Your typical congregant thinks the purpose of your church is to minister to the congregation.
a. True. The typical member of our congregation thinks the purpose of the church is to minister to them.
b. Uncertain. I have no idea how the average congregant thinks about the purpose of our church.
c. False. Most members of our congregation believe that our church exists not only to minister to them, but to the community and the world around us.

2. Your church’s growth rate is lower than that of the zip code in which it is located.
a. True. The community in which we are located is growing faster than our congregation.
b. Uncertain. I do not know the growth rate of my congregation or the community.
c. False. Our congregation is growing faster than the surrounding community.

3. Your congregation’s social-cultural-demographic makeup roughly reflects that of the zip code in which it is located.
a. True. The makeup of our congregation is similar to the makeup of the neighborhood.
b. Uncertain. I don’t know how to answer this question.
c. False. Our congregation is less diverse than the surrounding community.

4. The makeup of your church’s zip code is changing and your congregation is growing.
a. True. Our neighborhood is in flux and our numbers are growing.
b. Uncertain. I’m not at all sure how the two compare.
c. False. Our neighborhood is changing and numbers are declining as long-time members leave (or die).

5. Your congregation has an endowment.
a. True. Our church has an unrestricted endowment.
b. True. Our church has a restricted endowment.
c. False. Our church has no endowment.

6. The vestry (or board) has done a demographic study of the church’s zip code in the last five years.
a. True. Our vestry has conducted a demographic study and verified it “on foot.”
b. True. Our vestry has conducted a demographic study but has not verified it.
c. False. Our vestry has not conducted a demographic study.

7. The vestry (or board) has asked itself why your church exists at least once in the last three years.
a. True. Yup. I’ve heard that asked…answered, too.
b. Uncertain. I don’t really know.
c. False. I don’t think so. Why would they do that?

8. The vestry (or board) has asked why a ministry or program exists at least once in the last year.
a. True. Indeed, the vestry regularly asks that question.
b. Uncertain. I don’t recall. Maybe it was at one of the Vestry meetings I missed.
c. False. Wow! That would be awkward. I think not.

9. The vestry (or board) has purposefully allowed at least one program or ministry to end and reported to the congregation what they have learned from the experience within the last three years.
a. True. Yes. I remember when they “retired” the [insert name here] program.
b. Uncertain. I couldn’t tell you.
c. False. Not on my watch!

10.The average active participant in the congregation can describe in one or two sentences the congregation’s vision/mission.
a. True. Yes. I hear it every Sunday.
b. Uncertain. I’m not sure.
c. False. Nope. Don’t think I’ve ever heard it spoken. What was that slogan?

Click here for the Zombie Quiz scoring guide. 

Okay. You’ve taken the quiz and found out you’re leading a zombie church or a church that’s at risk for becoming undead. What do you do now?
Neither condition is easy to deal with. But stretching our zombie metaphor just a little further, clearly a church that is at risk for going zombie would be a lot easier to deal with than a church that has already become Undead. After all, a church that is “merely” at risk still has a mind capable of critical thought. But by “definition,” a church that has actually gone zombie no longer has a functioning mind and has therefore lost the capacity for independent thought and with that the capacity for self-critical reflection. 

If your church is merely at risk of becoming infected with undeadness, you may be able to engage the congregation’s critical faculties by having the members of your vestry or board take the same quiz you just did, then engaging them in a discussion of what they make of their scores. While the quiz is admittedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, engaging your leadership playfully on issues such as these may gain a lot more traction than a more somber approach. After all, while it may really piss you off first, knowing the truth will ultimately make you free (John 8:32). 

Dealing a church that has already joined the ranks of the undead is an infinitely greater challenge. Just as Hollywood zombies do pretty good jobs of emulating many activities of the living, a zombie church can also do a more than halfway-decent job of imitating healthy church life: often good enough to lure in the occasional non-member, and generally good enough to convince its own leadership and membership that a healthy, friendly, welcoming congregation. They may have even convinced themselves that they want to grow (but just can’t seem to figure out why they don’t). More often, however, they may be found employing rationalizations like, “Growing in number is not the only kind of growth: growing in depth is valid, too.” Not that there’s anything wrong with growing deeper. It’s just that actually deepening one’s relationship with Christ usually translates into a deeper encounter with Christ’s transforming love, which is usually marked by a natural desire to share that love with others. 

When a church becomes so thoroughly convinced by its own rationalizations that it no longer retains the capacity for self-criticism, the only recourse may the proverbial “bullet to the head.”Once in a while, a zombie church, as it grows closer to actual death, may benefit from the salutary effect of staring death in the face. Occasionally, this insight, combined with new leadership at the helm, may be capable of beginning the long road back to health. I’ve seen it happen, but it is rare. Unfortunately, many zombie churches would rather die than change. And if this is the case, the only options left are either: (a) let it “live” until it depletes the last of its own (a perhaps other’s) resources of time, talent, and treasure, or (b) put it out of its misery now while sufficient resources remain to start a new church or invest in the living in some other way. 

Daunting, right? Yet I can offer two rays of hope: Question #7 and a lot of prayer. If you can help your church remember WHY it exists – its reason for being – its first love – the Truth that can make it free – there may be a chance to come back from the brink. And prayer because, as Jesus said, “This kind can come out only through prayer” (Mark 9:29).

Try This: Take the quiz! I wrote it with tongue firmly in cheek, striving mightily to emulate the elegant Cosmo Quiz style. My intent was to use humor in a healthily subversive way, to slip a serious issue past the defenses we church leaders always seem to have in great quantity. I freely admit that this issue is more complex than a 10-question quiz could ever hope to explicate. I mean, it would take another 20 questions just to address the role dioceses and other adjudicatories play in the creation, care, and feeding of zombie churches, for heaven’s sake. Still, if I have given you even a little something to think about, I will be content. Even in small doses, critical thinking prevents zombie brains.

Ken Howard is the author of Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them(Orleans, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), the founder and director of The Paradoxy Center for Incarnational Christianity at St. Nicholas Church, and the rector of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Germantown, Maryland. St. Nicholas Church was the first successful church plant in its diocese in nearly forty years. Growing steadily since its start in 1995, it is in the top third of diocesan congregations in size and the top 5% in per capita giving. Ken’s blog, Paradoxical Thoughts may be found at PracticingParadoxy.com.

Resources

 

Hinene

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

Proper 7

In Hebrew Scripture classes in seminary, we would occasionally take attendance responding with the Hebrew word for “here,” “הִנֵּֽנִי׃” or “hinene.”

“Hinene” doesn’t exactly mean “here” in the same, casual way that we often use it. “Hinene” implies that not only am I physically present, but I’m mentally and emotionally present and at your disposal.

You say “jump,” and I ask “how high?”

When God reaches out to Abraham, Abraham responds “hinene.” God, somewhat sadistically, orders him to sacrifice his son Isaac—his promise fulfilled of a future for his bloodline and security for his family. Abraham has already sent off his other son Ismael into the wilderness with mom, Hagar, and now God seems to want to devastate Abraham again.

“Hinene,” Abraham says, ready to do whatever God commands, much to his family’s dismay.

Continue reading

Jesus and Violence

2607516312_895f89ea5e

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

Proper 7

I’m going to use the summer months to pose questions and more brief reflections connecting to the lectionary. The immediate reason for this is that I have a lot on my plate with a wedding to drive to in Ohio this weekend, a mission trip/pilgrimage to the Dominican Republic in a week and a half, and a wedding to plan. Another reason is that in the summer months I find that I have less motivation to do significant writing and reading, or rather, I read more for pleasure during the summer. If you’re the same way, you may enjoy these questions and reflections. My hope is that they will set your mind on a particular topic as you do whatever it is that you do during the summer.

So here we go:

In Matthew 10:24-39, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

This is one of those uncomfortable images of Jesus that sound violent, and it doesn’t stop there.

“For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

I think the last part of that is the most violent suggestion—could you even imagine? We don’t even keep those foes as friends on Facebook!

I saw a quote this morning by Preston Sprinkle, in which he writes,

“In a world swimming in violence, in a land where “messiah” meant militancy, Jesus never acts violently. Whenever violence is addressed, Jesus condemns it. Whenever His followers try to act violently, they are confronted. Whenever Jesus encounters people who deserve a violent punishment, Jesus loves them. And in doing so, He leaves His followers with a nonviolent example to follow.”

Sprinkle’s point only goes so far for me. No, Jesus did not abuse his political influence to overthrow Jerusalem, but he did speak violently (as in the case of this week’s passage from Matthew), and he did throw that holy tantrum in the Temple when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables. But that isn’t even the problem I have with statements like this about Jesus and nonviolence.

The problem is who tells who to be nonviolent.

One could argue that the kinds of racial and economic oppression embedded in complex systems in the United States and across the globe are violent. This violence doesn’t usually look like guns being fired or punches being thrown, but it sure seems like violence to me. Yet we hardly speak of it as violence—some among us even congratulate the abilities of a select few to find so much success at the expense of so many others.

Yet we hardly ever talk about these daily occurrences as being violent. In fact we’re more likely to point the finger of justice at those who are disadvantaged by such systems and react with what could be considered an appropriate response.

When Jesus says that he comes not to bring peace, but a sword, could he mean that violence has its place in uprooted systemic oppression? Is God on the side of the oppressed? Whether or not you think violence has a place, what kind of violence is a more pressing issue?

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut. He offers reflections on the lectionary readings for the upcoming Sunday. His website is FatherFarr.com, and his Tumblr blog is BowingToMystery.com.

Image: “NZXT Sword” by Lemsipmatt is licensed by CC BY 2.0

The Sight of the Church Tower: ++Justin’s Speech on the 21st Century Church (Part 3)

Image

By Wendy Dackson

. . . the sight of a Church tower, wherever it is met with, is an assurance that every thing has not been bought up for private convenience or enjoyment;–that there is some provision made for public purposes, and for the welfare of the poorest and most destitute human being who lives within the hearing of its bells. (Thomas ArnoldPrinciples of Church Reform, p. 94)

Of course, ++Justin did not quote Thomas Arnold in his speech at the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, which has given me cause to think and write today.  But he may as well have done.  Except now, it is not just England, or foreign missions of the Church of England, to which Arnold’s words apply.  Since 1833, when Principles of Church Reform was written, the Anglican Communion has evolved from colonial outposts and a few churches (such as the Episcopal Church) not governed by the Church of England, to a global affiliation of interdependent provinces, each with their own systems of canon law, but held together, if only tenuously at times, by the Instruments of Communion.

Perhaps more importantly, informal bonds of affection between Anglicans of different nationalities helps us to share a common set of ecclesiological commitments, while still honoring cultural differences in theological interpretations.  Archbishop Welby speaks of the range of cultural, national, and linguistic variety encompassed by the Anglican Communion:

The Anglican Communion by itself – and it’s only one small part of the global Church – is in 165 countries, one of which, Nigeria, has 407 language groups by itself. We deal in thousands of cultures.

At least one member province exists on every continent except Antarctica.  Physically, there may not be a parish church for miles, but Anglican pastoral care is available in almost every corner of the inhabited world.  Metaphorically, there is barely a human soul that cannot be considered outside the “hearing of the bells” of this communion of churches.  While that may not be unique (Roman Catholicism, at least, can make a very similar claim), ++Justin has outlined some of the things that have been gifts of Anglican Christianity to the places it has reached.

Any church is, at best, a mixed blessing to the cultures it has colonized.  We are more sensitive about that then we were even when Arnold was writing.  The Archbishop is right in saying that we are a “failing church”–not in the sense of numerical decline in the West, but in the sense that we haven’t always been good news in our effort to preach good news. But we realize that we are also a “forgiven church”, and do our best to learn from our mistakes and get on with it.

And what is it with which Anglican Christianity must get on?  Archbishop Welby has made a stunning commitment to visit every member province of the Anglican Communion early on in his primacy.  He has enumerated a few areas where the church has had a significant positive impact–not just on those who accept the Christian message, but on all who are “within the hearing of its bells.”  International aid to care for the poor, and education that will help lift people out of poverty (and the associated scandals of disease and hunger), are things which the church does energetically and well. This is not just for those who “accept Christ”–that is a nice byproduct if it happens.  But it is not the aim. It is the duty of the Christian Church, both corporately and as individuals, to care for those who have less.  What one does for the least of these…

We stand for human dignity–not just that of Christians, but, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayerevery human being.  Those we agree with, those we like–and most importantly, those with whom we differ.  We claim to be a hospitable, welcoming, inclusive church.  We don’t always get it right, but that’s our aspiration.

Arnold was right that the Church is a symbol that not everything–every building, every parcel of land–should be for private convenience, but there should be some set aside for public good.  For Anglicans, at our best, that means our churches should not just be places where like-minded Anglicans can go to enjoy one another’s cozy company.  They should be places where everyone–Christian or otherwise–can expect help, respect, and care.

click here to read this article in its original context

Suffering: ++Justin’s Speech on the 21st Century Church (Part 2)

Image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Wendy Dackson

Archbishop Justin’s speech to the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast is one of the richer pieces of somewhat public theology I’ve encountered in quite a while, and I’ve already picked up on one minor theme I wanted to expand. Another theme, one that he spent more on, is suffering.  He speaks of the suffering of the Church in parts of the world where there is systemic violence, and where Christianity is indeed a persecuted religion.  He tells of a visit to Pakistan where he has seen the Church suffer and grow:

“The Church, though, is a suffering church in this century. It is growing and in growing it suffers. It carries a cross. That is as true today as ever, and the last few years have demonstrated the truth and cost of that reality. A couple of weeks ago, Caroline and I were in Lahore in Pakistan. Just incidentally. . . just remember in your prayers our diplomatic service around the world. We’ve seen a lot of them in the last year; they are unbelievably good and they get absolutely no credit, anywhere, for the extraordinary work they do [applause]. . . But in Lahore two weeks ago we met some of the clergy and the Bishop of Peshawar who were involved in the bomb explosion last September at All Saints Church, an Anglican church, in which over 200 people were killed. And you ask them: “How are things recovering? Are people still going to church?” “Oh,” they said. “The congregation has tripled.” It is a suffering church and a church of courage.”

 

The Church grows when it suffers, even dies or risks death, to witness to the love of God as manifest in the life and work of the person of Jesus Christ.  This is nothing new. Even Tertullian, in the second century CE (while Christianity was undoubtedly a persecuted religion) claimed that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. And to a certain extent, the bravery of men and women under threat because they wish to practice Christian faith–or any tradition in which wisdom and compassion are the guiding precepts–are rightly people to admire and emulate.  The Church often grows when circumstances are genuinely difficult. As ++Justin tells us, growth cannot come from suffering.  Genuine growth, personal or corporate, does not happen without cost, without loss, without discomfort and risk.

I think we know this instinctively.  But I sometimes think the Western churches–in North America and Britain (really the only places where I have experience of church)–want to claim suffering in the hopes that growth will follow.  And rather than really risk doing new things, really trying costly efforts constructively to be in the world (and taking the chance that not everything that gets attempted will succeed–with success generally being measured in attendance and monetary giving), wemanufacture a culture of “persecution”. This is probably more prevalent in the United States, where the First Amendment to the Constitution forbids Congress to make an “establishment of religion” or to “prohibit the free exercise thereof”.  That was a stunning experiment on the part of the Founders.  When the colonies which eventually became the United States were first settled, one of the major reasons was to escape religious persecution in various parts of Europe.  That didn’t mean that any of those formerly persecuted groups would not, in their turn, suppress the spiritual freedoms of those who disagreed with them.

Christians–especially in America–need to realize that being one of many religious/spiritual/philosophical possibilities in a society, and not being the dominant one, is not equal to being persecuted, and decline measured in terms of monetary income and attendance is not the same thing as suffering. “Competition” from other Sunday morning activities, such as team sports, shopping, or even spending time in one’s bathrobe reading the newspaper, are not really evil attacks on the church.  People spend their increasingly-limited free time doing what matters to them.  If the church is not one of those things, it is really the fault of the church, not the fault of these other activities. If the church does not inflame spiritual passion, if it is the Laodicean church of Revelation 3:15-16, it is the church’s fault that the Angel of the Lord spits out the disgusting lukewarm whatever-it-is.  The Angel only responds appropriately to the stimulus.  It is the responsibility of the church to provide a better one.

As Rowan Williams said so brilliantly to the self-described “persecuted” Western churches:  grow up.

Growing up will involve some suffering, some risk.  It will mean doing what isn’t comfortable (another thing that Rowan criticized:  the confusion between mild discomfort and truly being “persecuted”).  But growing up–feeling awkward, taking chances, risking failure–is exactly what the comfortable-but-declining Western churches need to do if they are to experience any kind of revivification.

By confusing our mild discomfort with the kind of suffering that ++Justin describes, placing the blame where it doesn’t belong rather than taking our share of the responsibility for decline, and refusing to take the kind of bold risks that are called for, we are poor stewards of our heritage of the riches of Christ.  We also dishonor the real martyrs whose blood was, and continues to be, the seed of the church.

click here to read this article in its original context

Good Disagreement: ++Justin’s Speech on the 21st Century Church (Part 1)

Image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Wendy Dackson

Yesterday on FacebookLay Anglicana shared the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech at Britain’s National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast. I’m sure that there will be a lot of commentary on the finer points of global Christianity from people with much more official authority than I have.  But a few things stood out for me, and I want to write a bit on them.

The first (not in order of where it falls in ++Justin’s speech, but in what captured my  attention) is the idea of good disagreement. The Archbishop used the phrase in the context of how the Anglican Communion holds together, and his words were as follows:

We deal in thousands of cultures. The struggle, the achievement, of holding together in good disagreement sets a pattern in which truth is not a club with which to strike others, but a light freely offered for a path of joy and flourishing.

Good disagreement.I have a bunch of former students, distributed across a number of institutions and two countries, who must be breaking out in rashes at that phrase. Because disagreement between Christians is never good, is it?  Some of the problems with the idea of disagreement were in the context of a group discussion where the complaint was “we could not come to agreement”.  Others were complaints about a grade that was “unfair” just because the student and I did not “agree” on certain aspects of religion.  (No, that wasn’t the problem.  More often than not, a failure to meet the standards set out in writing for the assignment was why your mark was disappointing.) The most egregious was a student presenting me with the official form to drop my class because s/he “could not agree with (me), and therefore couldn’t learn from (me).”

There is a silly idea about–not just among Christians, but in secular society as well–that anyone we disagree with is somehow not as good a person as we are.  We have nothing to learn from those who do not confirm our most dearly held preconceived notions.  If someone does not think as I do, s/he must somehow be my enemy, or at the very least, removed from the social and spiritual world in which I move.

And so I was very glad to see ++Justin Welby use the phrase good disagreement. It is a beautiful pairing of words, of which I think Jesus would heartily approve. Because, good disagreement was exactly the method Jesus and his coreligionists used to discuss their sacred writings.  It’s called midrash, and Ken Howard’s blog Paradoxical Thoughts brings the method to bear on contemporary western Christianity.  I get the method in broad strokes, Ken is much more nuanced than I am, and I heartily suggest following his blog to get an idea of how it might be used for the life of the church in the 21st century.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was the very first way I observed people studying Holy Scripture.  I was maybe seven or eight, and we were visiting a cousin of my mother’s, a rabbi with five sons who were all a few years older than me.  One of them was preparing for Bar Mitzvah, and my “uncle” (that’s what we called him) was discussing the passage of the Torah which he would be called to read and interpret.  My uncle, with much more obvious expertise, did not demand that his son memorize or agree with his interpretation, but kept introducing other, seemingly contradictory ways of viewing the passage.  The boy on the cusp of religious adulthood was to look at all of these, decide on an interpretation most convincing to him and why (often blending the ideas of several commentators, and holding in tension views that seemed on the surface to be in opposition to each other), but was never encouraged or instructed to dismiss other interpretations. Settling one’s opinion, when further evidence or insight might be brought to light at a later time by other people, was not the goal.  The goal was to include as wide a range of viewpoints as possible.  Only by looking at a passage of scripture this way, bringing to bear as many opinions as possible–even those that seemed irreconcilable–held the possibility of moving toward a truthful interpretation.

This is a pretty sophisticated mental exercise for a 13 year old, but it happens somewhere in the world on probably most Saturdays throughout the year.  It saddens me that Christians who have lived several times that number of years are not only often unable to perform it, but refuse to even attempt it or to see the value of doing so.

Part of the value is the move toward a bigger version of ‘truth’ than any one person (or group) can possess.  Another part of the value is that all viewpoints are discussed seriously, taking account of both their merits and their deficiencies, and good reason is given before an interpretation is adopted or dismissed.  Minority views can be upheld, and there is much less danger of a tyranny of numbers.

Good disagreement must be nurtured in both church and society.  We still have a responsibility to set limits, condemn evil, expose corruption when we see it.  There will always be lines which cannot be crossed (although what those lines are will be a topic for discussion).  But within a more generously bounded area than we often find acceptable, there is room for healthy, life-giving difference of opinion.

The old saying is that when two people hold exactly the same opinion, one of them isn’t necessary.  Human endeavor relies on bringing differences together, not keeping things separate.  A beautiful painting contains a variety of , brush strokes, curves and lines.  A mosaic is only interesting if there are tiles of varying materials to give it color and texture.  A garden needs more than one kind of plant if it is to be pleasing to the eye or useful for food or medicine.  A symphony needs a range of instruments playing different notes or remaining silent over the course of the music, creating harmony (and sometimes dissonance) to reach a satisfying conclusion.

Christians should not demand absolute agreement as the gold standard of life together–whether globally, as in the context of ++Justin’s speech, or within a weekday morning coffee-and-Bible Study group.   Good disagreement–taking into account the merits of opinions we have never heard, or may not like, but recognizing them as potentially leading us to greater beauty, truth, and goodness–should be the aim of our life together under the gaze of God.

click here to read this article in its original context

A Prayer for Fathers

 

father-and-son
Our Father in heaven,
we thank you for our earthly fathers,
and for all who have been as fathers to us,
for all they mean or have meant to us,
and for what our fathers are meant to give us:
strength when we need comforting,
tenderness when we are wounded,
patience when we’re difficult,
wisdom when we can’t see the way,
and love at all times,
so that, through them, we get a glimpse
of how you, our heavenly Father, care about us.

 

Loving God,
bless with your fatherly love
those for whom this day is bittersweet:
those whose fathers have died or who have never known their fathers,
those fathers who have lost children but still treasure them in their hearts,
those who desired to have children of their own to treasure but could not,
those whose relationship with their children or their fathers is difficult,
those who lacked good fatherly role models, yet work to become good fathers,
those who recognize their shortcomings as fathers and seek to make amends,
those who seek to be a presence in their children’s lives despite broken marriages.
Strengthen them by your love that they may become
the loving, caring persons they are meant to be,
through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

 

Is the Church Dying? Or Not? (and the answer is…)

Dead Church 1By the Rev. Ken Howard

this article was published on Episcopal Church Foundation’s Vital Posts blog on 6/11/14

The church blogosphere is heating up.  The topic is death… the death of the Church.  Or to be more accurate, the issue is a question:  “Is the Church dying? Or not?”

Of course, everyone has an opinion (including me), and as a colleague of mine once said, “not a thought goes unpublished.”  I must have read a half-dozen blog posts (at least) on the topic in the last several weeks alone…even tossed in a couple of my own. Opinions run the gamut. Some of my friends say, “Yes.” Some of my friends say, “No.” Some of my friends say, “Maybe so.”

The latest one I read, moments ago, by the Rev. Jason Cox of St. Columba’s, D.C., was entitled, “The Church Isn’t Dying, Christendom Is.”  He makes some good points, among them that (a) we are way too anxious about this “dying church” business and (b) good riddance to Christendom, which never was about the kingdom of God anyway but rather about the institutional Church getting into bed with the Powers That Be.

I come down a bit differently on this. (I know…you wouldn’t have it any other way.)

As usual, in large part I agree with my friends…on both sides. I say “The Church is ALWAYS Dying” and “The Church will NEVER die.”

Here are a few facts:

  • Fact:  Churches die. About 3,500 churches die each year in the U.S. alone. If it wasn’t for the 4,000 new churches that are born each year, we’d be in deep trouble.
  • Fact:  Denominations die. Actually, they split and the two parts die to each other. Worldwide, such schisms are creating new denominations faster than the rate at which we baptize new Christians.
  • Fact:  Ways of doing church die. Christendom is dead. It’s just that we haven’t gotten around to burying it, because sometimes we wish we still had that kind of power and influence.
  • Fact:  Change is death. Yes, the Church is changing, but change often feels like death…because it is death: the death of a way of life. That’s why change is so hard:  it reminds us of our mortality.
  • Fact:  Some churches would rather die than change. Many of the churches that have closed didn’t have to die. They might have lived on if they had been able to adapt to their changing context, but they could not bring themselves to face that kind of change.
  • Fact: Some churches die but pretend to be alive. Often, this happens because they are cursed with wealth. But churches do not live by endowments alone, but by hearing and acting on the word of God.

And here are a few truths:

  • Truth: Death is not failure (and failure is not death).  Unfortunately, both tend to be taboos in the institutional church:  uncomfortable topics about which about which we do not speak, perhaps because we view them with guilt or shame. But closing a church can be a healthy and even a courageous thing to do, if done well. No dishonor in serving a life worth celebrating, then dying. Meanwhile, failure can be a source of great learning and even a road to great success, but only if we talk about it. And if we avoid failure as way of life, we also avoid taking the risks that might lead us to greater life. To put a different spin on Apollo 13, “Failure is not an option…It’s a prerequisite.”
  • Truth:  Death is nothing to be afraid of.  If the Church believes its own teaching that death is the gate to eternal life, what do we as congregations and leaders of congregations have to fear? We are in the death-and-resurrection business for God’s sake (literally). Death ought to hold no power over our God-gifted capacity to live.
  • Truth:  Churches may die but the Church cannot die.  It is the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit that gives life to the Church.  Our individual churches are temporal communities but the Body of Christ is eternal.  It is not the job of churches not to die…only to be faithful.

So, is the Church dying?  Or not?

The answer, of course, is “Yes.”

But the real question is, “How can we help our churches continually die in such a way as to be continually reborn?”

Related Articles

Related Books