Cause and Effect

Drouais Cristo e la Cananea

Jean Germain Drouais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When something happens…anything…we have a tendency to make a mad dash to uncover causality and assign blame. Some times we do so only in order to reinforce our own beliefs and life decisions. Comedian Jim Gaffigan characterizes this well when he says, “I think I might be lactose intolerant because I had four milkshakes last night, and today I feel terrible.”

Too often this tendency pops up around some uncomfortable topics:

  • She died of lung cancer, but she smoked and I don’t, so I’ll be fine.
  • He committed suicide, but he must have just given up trying. I’ll be fine.
  • They got divorced, but I never liked them together anyway. My marriage will be fine.

We hurry to uncover causality and assign blame in an almost instinctive way to protect ourselves from similar fates; in doing so, we often alienate those who would often be greatly helped by human connection and support.

Jesus is traveling with his disciples when a Canaanite woman confronts them somewhat abruptly, screaming, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” To maintain social norms, Jesus ignores the woman—the disciples want her sent away as she keeps shouting. Not only is she a Canaanite and a woman, but she is shouting at this group of respectable men. Continue reading

Can you study the Bible by reading the Qur’an?

In Genesis…

Jacob_blesses_Joseph_and_gives_him_the_coat (2)

Illustration by Owen Jones from “The History of Joseph and His Brethren” (Day & Son, 1869). Scanned and archived at http://www.OldBookArt.com where it was marked as Public Domain. Text from Book: Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age, and he made him a coat of many colours. Genesis, C.XXXVII. V. 3.

Joseph is Jacob’s youngest son to his fourth baby-mama Rachel, who followed Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah…

…got to love that biblical and traditional view of marriage!

Parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, but Jacob really adores Joseph and makes him a fabulous coat. There seems to be a pattern of spoiled, youngest child behavior from Joseph because he brags to his brothers about a dream he had wherein they were all working for him! To top his own dream, Joseph has another where not only do his older brothers bow to him, but also the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Jacob tells Joseph to keep it down, but the damage is done. One day Jacob sends Joseph out into the fields to get his brothers, but upon seeing him prancing through the meadow in his Technicolor princess dress,[1] they plot to kill him.

Don’t worry, they don’t actually kill him, they just tear off his coat, sell him as a slave to some passersby, and pretend that a wild animal devoured him.

They’re not the greatest big brothers, nor are they very good sons; Jacob is totally destroyed by the news.

Continue reading

Ken’s on Vacation (but there’ll be others posting)

vacation

 

 

I will be away until mid-August for vacation. But I will not leave you postless. Curtis Farr will continue his weekly midrash, and you may see others as well.

See you in a couple weeks!
Ken+

Why I Think the Word “Heretic” Should Take an Extended Vacation

by Ken Howard

you-were-a-believer-yes

 

Lord Sandwich: 

“I have heard frequent use of the words Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: but I confess myself at a loss know precisely what they mean.”

Lord Warburton: 

“It’s very simple old chap. Orthodoxy is my doxy. Heterodoxy is anyone else’s doxy.”

 

An exchange between John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, and William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, in the House of Lords in the mid-18th century debates on the “Test Laws.”

 

I am writing today’s post to explain my thoughts to a long time friend and associate. Brad and I go way back. We share great respect and affection for one another despite the fact that sometimes it seems we agree on little beyond the acknowledgement that we are brothers in Christ.  I am writing to explain why I believe that the way many of my brothers and sisters in Christ are using the term “heretic” is not only wrong, but very injurious to the body of Christ.  I am not writing as a conservative Christian or a liberal Christian.  I reject those terms as a false dichotomy. For me, following Jesus Christ is enough.  And so in this post I do not speak for or against either “side,” but as one Christ-follower to another, and to any who want to listen in (and even comment) as fellow Christ-follower. I speak only for myself, and only to explain humbly what is at the heart of the matter for me, as my understanding of Scripture, the love of Christ, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the grace of God have led me thus far.

I should say at the outset that is topic of heresy is personal to me.  As a Jewish-Christian, I have had a great interest and have done a great deal of research on Jewish Christianity in the early Church, including an extensive research thesis on the topic during seminary. What I discovered in my research has shaped my thinking on orthodoxy and heresy ever since. From at least the 4th Century on, my Jewish Christian forebears have borne the brunt of the organized Church’s misuse of the terms. Some, like the Nazarene Jewish Christians, were declared heretical at Nicaea and excommunicated as a group not long thereafter on the virulent anti-Jewish insistence of Emperor Constantine. During the Spanish Inquisition, hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish Christian “Conversos” were labeled as heretics, interrogated/tortured, and executed because the Church didn’t trust their conversions. Even in my seminary days, a respected professor of liturgics argued that combining Jewish and Christian worship elements was “heterodox.” To which I replied, “Christ our Passover?”

So what follows, is my argument against the use of the term, “heretic.”

Continue reading

Nothing Separates Us

Pictured Above: That which separates us from the love of God.

Pictured: That which separates us from the love of God.

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

“…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rules, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

Sometimes Paul gets it so right that there is absolutely nothing more one can say.

Click here to see a full list of the things that separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

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Amen?

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.

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

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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