Nurturing Good Work

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

– St. Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi (Phil 1:3-6)

What a year this has been. I am so thankful as I consider the great blessing that God has given to us in our worship and our fellowship, in our learning and growing and ministry together. It’s been close to five years since we began this adventure together.

It was a really hard year. Losing SB this past May was one of the most painful experiences of our congregation’s life together. My heart swelled with gratitude as I witnessed the outpouring of support and care that the congregation gave to B and to one another in those days that followed. I am especially grateful for KW’s compassionate care for the congregation during her pulpit supply the Sunday after. Anyone who watches the video of that service witnesses the depth of community that is here in our midst. Healing takes time – but it always involves leaning on one another and trusting in the one who is always near to the brokenhearted, who heals those crushed in spirit (Ps 34:18). With sadness we also said goodbye to MN in January and JN in December, two beautiful Acworth souls who are sorely missed.

One of the things I most appreciate about our worship is the practice of giving space to both joys and concerns. I have been to services where joys and concerns are invited all at once and so often the concerns drown out the joys. The truth of our life together as a congregation and as individual people is that we are simultaneously joyful and grieving. To not give voice to joy is as damaging to our spirits as it is when we deny all grief. St. Paul’s admonition to the church in Rome is as simple as it is profound: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). To do so is to open ourselves to the fullness of our embodied lives before God and others. This is freedom, to love and be loved, all in the openhearted presence Christ who makes all things new.

It was the day before J’s Memorial Service after a full Sunday of worship, Youth Group, and Holden Evening Prayer, that R and I stood in the parsonage watching the pregnancy test turn positive. The next morning, before we gathered to say goodbye to J, I walked around the Common, the Library, and the Acworth School ground, welling up with tears as I remembered and imagined this place again as it was for me as a child. Life has a way of coming to us in profound “boths.” Both sorrow and joy. Both death and new life. And it is at the heart of our faith to hold these both as truths at the core of our life in Christ. It has been a year of loss, it has been a year of new life.

It has been a joy to welcome new friends into our community and experience the gift of their presence with us. It was wonderful to witness the congregation’s openhearted reception of baby GG’s presence in our Sunday morning gathering. LG remarked to me last fall, “It’s good being at a church that not only doesn’t mind a noisy, busy baby, but rejoices in her being there.” It makes me happy to know that I can expect a similar delight and care for our son this coming year. It’s been a blessing to welcome L, KW, F, and DS and their many and various contributions to our community have been a blessing to our life together.

I had a blast leading the Youth Group with a number of new volunteer helpers. Between our kick-off at the Captain Woodbury Guesthouse, collecting apples, making, and drinking cider, to our last session of the year hiking Gates Mtn. and making pizzas together in the kitchen of the Church on the Hill, we had lots of fun, leaf-raking, caroling, hanging out and playing games, and talking together about important issues of faith and life. We explored issues of the relationships between religions, of the importance of the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and its basis in deep spiritual conviction, and the importance of Pentecost for teaching us the global and intercultural scope of God’s love, singing songs together from many languages, and putting on a Pentecost potluck to mark that feast and the birthday of the church.

Last summer, I invited MLH to play her ukulele with me on Sunday mornings and over the course of this past year, the band has grown and grown. We still play one song every Sunday, usually at the end of the service, and we have been joined by JL singing and playing the djembe, KW on guitar and vocals, JG on harmonica and djembe, RE on vocals and fiddle, DS on flute, vocals, and piano, and BD on vocals, various percussion instruments, and a train whistle! It has been a joy to practice every week with a group of spirited musicians and as I write this we’re planning to perform this Friday at the Community Potluck Supper.

One of the requirements of the Master of Divinity degree at Andover-Newton Theological School is a ministry internship. And so beginning in September R served as Assistant Pastor at the North Springfield Baptist Church in Vermont. She enjoyed to opportunity to preach once a month, to visit and provide pastoral care to members in their homes and at nursing homes, assisting Pastor George Keeler in officiating funerals, baptisms, and the communion. She also volunteered once a month at the warming shelter that operates out of their church building and was impressed by the great care that the community and pastor there had for the most vulnerable in their midst. Her presence in leadership and support of the church’s ministry was sorely missed, but it was a joy to receive her back again in May when her internship was completed. R is a woman of deep wisdom and compassion, her care for the work of ministry and her intelligent understanding of both theology and practical church life has been a real gift to the life of our church. It is no exaggeration to say that I could not have done my pastoral work without R. And her work with Christian Education helped to strengthen what we offer for young and old.   She has been and will continue to be a real blessing to the communities she serves.

I continue to delight in the opportunities to visit with people from church and community whether at the counter in Village Store, at the Friendly Meals table, at Out to Lunch, in hospital, home, or nursing home. These conversations also help direct me as I consider prayers and sermon for Sunday. It was also a joy to read Brian McLaren’s book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?” with the book study group during Lent. We had some very meaningful and engaging conversations about faith and identity and how we might live more authentically in the way of Jesus.

I completed my tenth semester of study at Yale Divinity School (YDS) this past May and my fourth unit of Clinical Pastoral Education this past June. I was granted paternity leave for this coming Fall semester from YDS and look forward to being present in Acworth even though I will be certainly kept quite busy with Fatherhood 101. I am grateful that the church voted to give me four weeks of leave after the baby is born so that I can bond with my son and be supportive to R in those first weeks of recovery and adjustment.

Expecting a newborn transforms your experience of time. It’s not that the future matters more to me, but it matters in a different way, through different eyes. Seeing the Acworth playground as a place where my son might play transformed my experience of walking the dog up around the common. Seeing this church as a place where my son will be nurtured in the faith, transforms my experience of leading worship. My hope for the church, for a community of care in Acworth and the surrounding towns, is a hope now imagined with my son in the picture. The future will never be an abstraction because now for me personally the future has a face, and tiny hands and little kicking legs.

Jesus taught his disciples that we must enter the kingdom as a little child and that it is in the welcoming of children that we welcome him, and the Father who sent him (Matt 18:3, Mk 9:37). When we relate to time as children and through the eyes of children, we can be gentler, more hopeful, and more open to the wonder of the grace of God as we encounter it in the world around us and in one another. We might laugh and delight in the small wonders and not so easily enslave ourselves to the fears and coercions of those who imagine that they can control the world. Moreover when we tune our hearts to the laughter of children we find new energy for mission, to imagine and create and practice life together where gentleness and grace, compassion and mutual care, are the norm – not fear and shame or blame. We can relate to the future with hope as we practice our hope in the present, being peace with one another, welcoming God’s grace into our conversations, our relationships, our cooperative efforts.

None of us regain the innocence of children when we relate to the world, but we can move through our adult fears and anxieties and learn again the openhearted love, the compassionate engagement with a scary world, trusting that we were made for open hearts, this is a truer and more human way. And when we choose openhearted engagement with ourselves and the world, through self-compassion and service, we teach our children a more human way to be in the world than the wall-building, hate-spewing, defensive rhetoric so prevalent in our society right now. So much energy is being mobilized right now under the banner of making America great again. I don’t believe Jesus wants to make anyone or any community great again, I think he wants to encourage us to love again, and again, and again. To welcome children and refugees and strangers and disabled and weak and vulnerable again. To welcome the Spirit’s prompting in our hearts again that we might have heart transplants as God removes hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh (Ezek 36:26). Because Jesus’s heart has always beat with the hearts of the most vulnerable of society. And Jesus’s longing was for people to see themselves again as children of their heavenly Father, whose generosity knows no boundaries.

We take stock of the great work of our ancestors in cultivating spiritual community, focusing a sense of purpose in mission, and maintaining our historic buildings, not for the sake of hearkening back to a time when they lived, but in appreciation for their contribution to the present time in which we live, and the resource that they are to our shared life and ministry and our ability to be a blessing to those among whom we live. The past is not master, but servant of the future hope that we walk into with the good news on our lips, the spirit of Christ in our hearts, and the work of reconciliation in our hands. We recognize that our ancestors gave us these investments for the sake of something much bigger than buildings and constitutions and pews and hymnals, for a hope founded in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a hope that all people might know the love of God in Christ Jesus, that all people might find healing in forgiveness and peace in the knowledge of God’s everlasting care. We don’t seek to recreate the past, but to receive the past as a gift in the building of a more loving future. We become friends of time as we become able to receive the past, the present, and the future as guests with compassion and hospitality and hope.

This is what I see happening in the Acworth church. As we grow in our community, we grow in our mission and imagination of God’s healing work in our own lives and how we might be a part of that work in the community in which we live. I see a people oriented toward the present time with compassion and dedication and hearts longing to pray and help and bring healing to a hurting world as well as those who hurt in our midst. I see lovers of God’s beautiful earth, planting gardens, caring for flowers, and bringing beauty into our worship space. I hear the sound of joyful singing and bright-eyed laughter. I see a grateful and generous community of faith.

When we keep our eyes on the one who calls us into a future of hope and of healing, we can trust in the present and become a friend of the time that is given to us, seeing ourselves again as children, and preparing a space in our hearts for the childlike spirit of God to make all things new in us.

A big thank you this year to AG who stepped down after years of service as president of the Female Charitable Society. To list her accomplishments in that role and the blessing she has been to her community through her service would require more ink and pages than this pastor is allowed. I think it’s a testament to A’s leadership that the Female Charitable Society numbers around twenty now and span many generations in their membership.

I am grateful for the energy of BD and SE in organizing a team to represent the church at the Turning Points Network Steppin’ Up to End Violence walk in Claremont this past April. As we connect to other regional helping organizations like Turning Points, the Fall Mountain Foodshelf and Friendly Meals, it helps remind us of the mission always at our doorstep. I am grateful for RL who heard through her work with 4-H about an activity called Text, Talk, Act a guided conversation about mental and emotional health. At our Text, Talk, Act conversation at the Hill Church in June, we were blessed by meaningful sharing from the participants, breaking the silence that often surrounds mental health and realizing that all of us suffer in some ways and know those who suffer and can do so much good just by learning to be compassionate with ourselves, listen to others, and not be afraid. It was time of really meaningful connection.

I am grateful BY’s coffee hours, for EG’s and BM’s faithful snow removal down at the Valley Church, for BD’s custodial work and for LG’s work as her successor. I am grateful for the weekly diligence of EL in counting and keeping track of the offerings. I am grateful for plant-waterers, flower pickers, and Bible dedicators. For S’s volunteering to put together the church bulletins and record the service. For S, D, and LB for their diligent efforts in creating a church webpage. For BD for organizing the effort to make a Memorial Garden on the Common and for CI’s card ministry which has been a blessing to so many within and outside our community. For JL and his leadership with the deacon’s ministry and SE and BB’s leadership this year in the trustees. As CP and C go off Deacons this year, I want to express my deep appreciation for their service and care for the church especially for their help during the service on Sunday mornings, reading and praying and preparing the space for worship. As BM and CW go off Trustees this year, I am grateful for their hard work and dedicated service for good stewardship of the church’s resources. For all of you who give so much of your time, talents, and treasures to build up our life together – thank you so much!

I could go on and on with who and what I am grateful for when I consider this past year. I look forward to this coming year and the grace and blessing God will provide. I look forward to growing with you in the depth of our worship and mutual care and to seeking out new ways to become the hands and feet of Christ in Acworth and beyond. I feel the joy of an expectant hope as I consider the good work that Christ is nurturing here in our midst and look forward to continuing with you in the good work of caring for the family of God.

Respectfully submitted,

Pastor Joel Eaton

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True Witness

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

What does this mean?–Answer.

We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

-Martin Luther, The Small Catechism

I was talking to a friend the other day about the local controversy over the Fall Mountain Foodshelf and how so many people seemed to imagine the worst possible motivations not only of those who seek aid (they’re greedy, they’re entitled, they’re reselling it for drug money, etc.) but also those who give aid (they’re weak spirited and enabling addiction, laziness, they have a need to be needed, they are enabling waste, fraud, and abuse). And having volunteered at the Foodshelf for over a year now (albeit in a very limited capacity), I am really perplexed at this response to what I have experienced as a valuable safety net for the most vulnerable in our community.

I don’t want to argue the accusations here – but rather to draw attention to the persistent need in our society to imagine the worst possible construction on everything.

How does this propensity arise? Why are we so quick to imagine the worst intent?

What happened to Hanlon’s razor? (Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness)

After I shared the harsh words I had heard leveled against the Foodshelf and the volunteers who organize it, my friend shared with me Martin Luther’s definition of false witness that she had learned from the Small Catechism.

Luther takes seriously that this commandment is given in a context of the relationship with one’s neighbor. This is not a deontic command to always say the objectively correct thing and never say the objectively incorrect thing (keep google on hand to know the difference). Rather it is a command about the true way of seeing and hearing one’s neighbor. If Jesus and Paul summarized the law in the twofold command to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, how does this command teach us to love our neighbor?

  • By not representing our neighbor in a dishonest way,
  • by not betraying our neighbor’s trust,
  • by resisting the urge to slander or defame a neighbor (or a community of neighbors).

and he adds that we not only love our neighbor by not doing harm, but by seeking the good for our neighbor and the way they are seen and heard and understood by ourselves and others. We love our neighbor

  • by defending our neighbor
  • by thinking and speaking well of our neighbor
  • and by putting the best construction on everything relating to our neighbor

I don’t join the contrarian chorus decrying social media for lowering the standards of civil discourse. I do recognize that social media enables an amplification of the discourse that already exists in our society. We see most magnified on Facebook the divisions and dysfunction already present within ourselves and our communities. And because of that, it can be an explosively emotional place — because when you add GIFS and memes and videos and pictures and ALL CAPS, you get an arena most suitable for shouting and least suitable for attentive listening. I believe that it doesn’t have to be that way because I have partaken in spaces online where people remain respectful and loving in their engagement with one another. But there is such a pull towards mutual retaliation — a kind of retrenchment of thoughts and beliefs against the other.

And this is, I think, not an exception to, but a reflection of the real divide and broken relationships in our society at large. Communities not hearing one another, not understanding one another, assuming malicious intent, assuming hatred, assuming a competitive struggle where there is no need for one.

This past week Alton Sterling and then Philando Castile were murdered at the hands of state law enforcement.  And then at a peaceful protest where protesters were joined by supportive law enforcement, four police were killed by a man with a sniper rifle. In the standoff that followed the African-American veteran shooter was killed by a bomb robot. In this climate it is understandable that social media is filled with outrage. I watched with pride the way that my African-American friends and their friends courageously called out racial injustice and violence and as my Facebook friends publicly mourned the senseless and monstrous murders of seven beautiful human beings. I watched in dismay as yet again my white friends brought out their antagonizing hashtags, saying #alllivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter to combat (and for no other reason) the hashtag of the movement for Black lives #blacklivesmatter.  This hashtag struggle and its related shouting matches on comment threads laid bear the deep brokenness of our society, the deep dysfunction and division as people fell into roles of mutually assured derision.

There are two things that are too important to lose sight of in light of all of the grief and pain and anger and lament.

  1. Truth is not a scarce commodity
  2. To affirm the value of some lives does not in itself negate the value of other lives.

Those who combated the #blacklivesmatter hashtag did so, it seems, with an added premise in their minds. 1) Black lives matter, 2)all other lives (especially law enforcement) matter less, 3) therefore, Black lives (only) matter

That kind of thinking is so so so toxic to conversation about these critical issues. Leave out the facts and statistics that show the disproportionate amount of state violence towards Black and Brown people. At the very least we can get our thinking straight and frame conversation in a way that is not just another way to retaliate, attack/blame, or defend.

Conversation (a kind of mutual witnessing between neighbors) can and should be an example of true and not false witness.

If Luther can help us, and I think he can, then we can ask certain questions of our reactions to claims of others and ourselves.

At the base, what is this person saying and what am I hearing? Are they two different things? (the answer is invariably yes to this)

If what they are saying is very likely different from what I’m hearing, how might I better understand their viewpoint? What information do I need to gain to better bear witness to this neighbor’s claim? How might I best construct what they are saying in order to understand them in the best light?

Trolling is by definition doing the very opposite of this — assuming the worst, refusing to listen, and engaging in a conversation only to win or hear oneself talk.

This does not need to be the default way of engaging tough political and social issues across lines of difference.

We can choose to bear true witness by taking the more difficult road and seeking to understand rather than putting all our energy into making ourselves heard.

And I speak as a white person to other white people when I say we are the ones most guilty of this kind of engagement.  Our antagonistic hashtags and refusal to hear and bear witness to the depths of the pain of our African American sisters and brothers before offering critique or (at worst) slander and defamation is the epitome of what Luther calls false witness.

To practice true witness is to read African-American writers, to hear their truth and better understand their experience (Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an excellent place to start). We can do this.  We can choose the way of loving our neighbors, of learning from those who are in pain and who are understandably angry.  Valuing their story is not a devaluing of my story — rather, my story becomes richer, and my moral development becomes much deeper the more I am able to attempt to experience the world from a perspective foreign to me. This is what it means when Harper Lee famously wrote: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

We need not treat truth like its a competitive struggle.  All truth can be heard because all of it is real — from any perspective.  That does not mean that whatever I or another say on a matter is truth, but it can be received in a spirit of generosity knowing that if a safe space is created and trust is established, we can walk together towards truth, towards true witnessing of one another and of the world we inhabit together.

The best way forward for the more powerful is to learn how to listen to those with least power. The best way forward for whites is to learn how to listen. To African-Americans, to Native Americans, to seek to become true witnesses to those who have been deeply hurt by the actions of our ancestors (broadly speaking) in the past.

To assume a defensive posture is to not love our neighbor.

To love we must be willing to put away all malice and be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry — seeking to put the best construction on who our neighbor is, what our neighbor says, and what our neighbor’s intentions are.

If the officer who stopped Philando Castile had put this in practice, what a different story might have circulated in Falcon Heights that day.

Ultimately much more than good listening will be needed to ensure greater justice and peace, but it starts with learning and listening and paying attention with compassion. And any societal false-witness-dysfunction is a malady residing in our hearts as well as systemically in our interactions and technologies and medias.  We can at least become aware of Luther’s insight, and practice this very tangible way of loving our neighbor by bearing true witness.

Christ and Courageous Criticism

Even though the question “where from?” presents no problems, the question “where to?” is a rich source of confusion. Not only has universal anarchy broken out among the reformers, but also every individual must admit to himself that he has no precise idea about what ought to happen. However, this very defect turns to the advantage of the new movement, for it means that we do not anticipate the world with our dogmas but instead attempt to discover the new world through the critique of the old. Hitherto philosophers have left the keys to all riddles in their desks, and the stupid, uninitiated world had only to wait around for the roasted pigeons of absolute science to fly into its open mouth…. If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.                                                               – Letter from Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge, 1843

After reading Matt Miller’s Church Again I was again appreciative of his articulation of the problems facing evangelical churches in northern New England and this evoked in me some questions:
Where do we go from here?
How do we flesh it out and how do we thoroughly criticize and remind and reimagine together?
In short, what is the hope and how do we flesh it out in practice together?

As I was considering my own response to these questions I remembered young Marx’s enthusiastic expression that what was called for what the ruthless criticism of the existing order. 

Marx was talking about the social and political order of his day.  But I think the same impulse is applicable for the religious and theological order of our day.  A ruthless criticism of the existing church.  Ruthless not in the sense of violent or abusive, but in the sense of thoroughgoing – leaving no stone unturned, no assumption unexamined. This is ultimately an eschatological project – and one that might be characterized in the words of Christ: “repent and believe for the kingdom is near.” 

Criticism can be an obnoxious destructive thing.  It can be done by those who have no skin in the game and just take a kind of aesthetic pleasure from sitting back and taking apart what others are attempting to do. Criticism can be a manifestation of a self-destructive perfectionism, bent on pleasing some invention of the superego of what others or some idolatrous god demands or exacts from eager-to-please servants.  We have not known Christ in that way.  Christ is not a taskmaster, but one whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.  This is not one who wills for us to self-flagellate and live in a constant judgment of our sisters and brothers and their attempts to manifest love for God and neighbor.  But Christ does call us to live out repentance, a constant willingness to reimagine, reorient, reform our lives according to the call of the kingdom. 

And that then becomes a call to ruthless criticism of the the existing order.  Criticism of the order and the things constructed for the sake of that order must be separated from the people involved in that order and the creators of the constructions.  God is the judge of human hearts and we are called to love, to understand, to bend over backwards in “hoping all things, believing all things.”  Our criticism is necessary, but must never devolve into ad hominem.  It must always be made clear that our ruthless criticism is not to the man, but to the system.  We judge human creations, God judges humans.  And God as we have come to know God in our Savior Jesus Christ, has already judged humanity in the cross and resurrection – and proclaimed God’s unbounded love.  Our criticism is not against humans but their idols, their institutionalized unfaithfulness.

And so I respond to Matt’s call to “Repent, Regroup, Remind, and Reimagine”

Let us have an intentional conversation in order to engage in a holy criticism of the existing order — all for love’s sake. Courageous criticism for the sake of Christ.

I’m reminded of Wendell Berry’s clarification of the term patriotism here and elsewhere:

FOR A NATION TO BE, in the truest sense, patriotic, its citizens must love their land with a knowing, intelligent, sustaining, and protective love. They must not, for any price, destroy its health, its beauty, or its productivity. And they must not allow their patriotism to be degraded to a mere loyalty to symbols or any present set of officials.

Loyalty to Christ entails a love for Christ’s beloved community that does not allow itself to be degraded by dogmatic loyalty to symbols or status quo formulations which amounts to idolatry.

It is a willingness to repent of every injustice, unjust systemic formulation, teaching, institutionalized mission that through ruthless criticism becomes seen as destroying the health, beauty, or productivity of the ecclesial terrain.

Ruthless criticism is not ad hominem and it is not ad deum.  We criticize not the God worshipped, but the prayers by which God is addressed.  We criticize not Christ, but the way that Christ is depicted.  Ours is a kind of critical iconoclasm not for the sake of no icons, no new formulations, but for the sake of better more godly and just ones.

The white Christ, the homophobic Christ, the androcentric Christ, the American nationalistic jingoistic Christ, the middle class Christ, the moralistic Christ, the self-help Christ, the Islamophobic Christ, are all conceptions that must ruthlessly criticized and exposed for the idols that they are.  Tested against scripture and the wisdom of the church past and present (tradition as the democracy of the dead, as Chesterton puts it).  And all that fail to meet the test, all dogmas and systems that are unhealthy, must be left behind.  Let the dead bury the dead.

These conversations will be local conversations.  People in relationship with one another with a commitment to Christ and to a community of people in place will come together in cyber and real space in order to ruthlessly criticize and imagine together a more beautiful and faithful expression of the Christian faith.

These conversations will require confrontation and difference because the people involved will be as limited by sin and ignorance as the existing order that they bring under their critique.

The whole enterprise must be grounded in a humble awareness of our limitations and never lose sight of the trailblazer of our faith whose beauty and whose kingdom vision is the source of the love and longing that energizes our critique of all that holds us back.

We must move slow because relationships are slow, because community building is slow, because haste not only breeds waste but in many instances violence against the very ones we long to love more fully, including ourselves.

We gather for conversation, we gather for sacramental fellowship, we gather to worship the one who transcends our limited conceptions and whose community of grace is already among us even as it is infected with sinful intentions and institutions.  We gather to remember that the point is the beloved community, that the critical venture is for the sake of love and not the other way around.

We will read together, learn together, love together, become curious together, and we will leave no stone unturned in our longing to see more clearly, love more deeply, and rest more fully in the love of Christ.

There is the need for courage in confronting in ourselves all our mistakes, ignorance, limitations, complicity in injustice —

There is need for compassion for ourselves for all these things.

It’s only through that confrontation and through our shared compassion that we will see the connections that can lead us forward through criticism into courageous community.

Action points?

Let’s not be afraid to read and discuss, to learn and grow.

Let’s not be impatient because such learning takes time.

Let’s not hold on to anything but Christ and allow Christ to tune our hearts to the love of the Creator who holds past, present, future, in the gentle and everlasting arms.

  • Slow conversations in community – willing to ruthlessly criticize everything (not person) in the way of the kingdom. Lots of reading, sharing our understandings and allowing them to be held in the questions and curiosities of others and always open to transformation by the vision of Christ communicated by the Spirit through the gathered community.
  • Create beautiful expressions of the kingdom: music, artwork, community expressions of worship and cooperative work and protest and mutual giving and loving.
  • Keep no standards of inclusion in the conversation but commitment to Christ above all else.
  • Cultivate community “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” For “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:1b-5)

Thoughts on Beatitude

What we have in the Beatitudes is Jesus’ expression of who the people are who will welcome God’s reign in their hearts and in their midst.

“All are called to be what in the reality of God they are already” – Bonhoeffer

It’s important to understand that Jesus says nothing new, but renews what has been said by saying it differently.

This is the law of Moses presented in spirit and truth.

This is the identity of the people of faith presented in refreshingly new language.

The law of God was and is and will always be interpreted by humans
And the point of the prophets is always to renew by the Spirit how we understand the letters.
The Spirit breaks into our systems and letters and words and shakes them up.

The prophet is not opposed to the law,
The prophet is opposed to the legalist.

The one who makes the law’s interpretation static and resists reevaluation

Because,
Truth is not private property.
Truth is a gift to all and shared by all.

Truth for some is like studying insects pinned and labeled, studying in a lab, in a museum.
Truth for others is running and jumping after butterflies

I was reminded recently of Walt Whitman’s words:

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I don’t think books and systems and museums and charts and catechisms and theologies and encyclopedias are pointless.

I wouldn’t be in graduate school if that were true of me.

But I think we are put into a dangerous temptation when we make encyclopedic knowledge the point and miss altogether the point of religion.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

We don’t need to abolish law and system and organized thought.
But woe to the community that holds the letter without the spirit.

And that’s what I think Jesus’s sermon is all about.
He says some crazy things like, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
And some might share that quote from Jesus and say – see?
Jesus wants us to measure up .
Jesus is calling us to be perfect people – to have all our ducks in a row.

And I disagree.

For righteousness to exceed the Pharisees is not to play better at their same game of defining religion and practicing it perfectly, with the inevitable result that those who don’t measure up are excluded even if not intentionally

For righteousness to exceed the Pharisees is for us to not so tightly hold our doctrines and ways of being good that love is stifled, mercy neglected, justice sidelined.

And I think that’s one of the great gifts of Jesus beginning his teaching with a picture of the blessed.

This picture is out of place on Madison Avenue.
This picture is not one that we find idealized in movies and TV
In fashion magazines, whole page advertisements,
Super bowl pregame, half-time, present-game, and post-game commentary commercial or concert

You don’t find the beatific beats described in Jesus’ sermon
In the best-foot-forward expressions of religious or secular culture.

What Jesus shows us is that it is in the cracks of the pavement that the grass can grow and new life can come.

Those who have nothing to lose or those who have nothing to prove are those who can be fully open to the renewing work of God in their lives and their world.

Those who are with it, for whom everything is going great,
Cannot sing with the late Pete Seeger,
“We shall overcome,”

because they truly do not want anything to be overcome

Jesus is calling us to the prophetic way which has always renewed the law of every generation.
Not abolished the law, but fulfilled it.

And for us to inhabit the prophetic way, to be open to God’s initiative
Is for us to be neither dogmatic conservative, holding to what has been said,
Nor to be dogmatic progressive – forgetting the past for the future and change and new.

We must embrace the God who is eternally present and who is Spirit calling each one of us forward to the Beauty ever ancient ever new — the reign of God

The grass growing through the pavement cracks.

And so we can’t read the Beatitudes as a call to be a certain way – as if we are all only going to be doing spirituality right if we’re mourning, discouraged, hungry-thirsty, persecuted.

But those who find themselves in those marginal places in society.
They are blessed because they are able to see from the perspective of the grass and not from the perspective of the pavement. They are able to welcome the new life breaking into the old, because they long for it like they long for their own healing and comfort.

Anxiety and Advent

“Tempests are calm to thee; they know thy hand,
And hold it fast, as children do their fathers,
Which crie and follow. Thou hast made poore sand
Check the proud sea, ev’n when it swells and gathers.”
George Herbert, “Providence”

It has been a week of study.  I have spent the week composing two nine page papers on two separate topics, all but capping off my fifth semester at Yale Divinity.

Late night paper writing at the Day Missions Room at Yale Divinity School.

The anticipation of this study, of these assignments, as with so much anticipation in my life as a student, produced considerable anxiety and a sense of being overwhelmed.  The world begins to appear in the form of the imaginary taskmasters which plague the mind as you begin to feel more and more inadequate to the task the closer you get to the due date.  The preaching task becomes shadowed in the anxiety of the writing task.

It certainly does not help matters to come down to Connecticut to a community of peers who are even more overwhelmed.  Anxiety becomes mingled in the molecules of air alongside oxygen and carbon dioxide.  Various expressions of frustration and panic can be seen zipping up and down the halls of the campus.  And brief moments of relief after handing in a paper or finishing an assignment become abundantly celebrated as if it were graduation itself.  The human mind and heart are capable of curious extremes.

It’s no wonder that school produces such anxiety in the student.  It is a deeply ingrained part of our emotional selves and bound up in many ways to our sense of worth or worthlessness.  This is why I worry about the students in today’s school system.  They are inheriting a system which is beset by perfectionistic standards and fears of failure or not reaching the top.  It is a system which breeds, in theological terms, a works-based righteousness.  “Teach for the test” becomes the implicit modus operandi if not the explicitly understood one.  Efforts of teachers to fight free of these constraints and teach from the heart, teach for the person, are met with bureaucratic backlash.  I fear that we will create works-righteous and works-failed students and fail to nourish their human flourishing, the natural wonder, the curiosity, the divine instinct to search after the beautiful and the good.

And higher institutions of learning are not exempt from this.  More and more the liberal arts ideal of the well-formed human being is being replaced by the person who will be profitable.

Isn’t this the great error of our day, that human beings are so easily formed into abstractions and as abstractions put into formulas of x=$.  Isn’t this the reason that people are poorly paid for their labor?

This Advent, let us not wait in the shadow of the anxiety which the market breeds.  I think the most important way this can be resisted is through meaningful engagement in community.  And I don’t think this means talk more.  I think it means listen more, sing more, dream more, work together, offer to help one another, pay attention to the redness in another’s eyes and the unnatural tension exhibited in the cheek bone when someone smiles.  Attend to relationships, to other persons, practice the art of human community.  Because everything in our economy trains us to consume for ourselves and to satisfy number one.

I don’t think it’s possible for me to find peace of mind and heart on my own.  I think when I experience unrest, it is in large part a result of feeling utterly alone.  It is when I receive words from a friend that attend to fear in my eyes.  “You seem like you are having a hard time.”  Peace is built in community by people who are willing to resist the forces of atomization ingrained in us through market propaganda.  We have to practice solidarity with one another and with those who are suffering in our midst.

It takes a village to raise a child, and a teenager, and a young adult, and a middle aged adult, and an elderly person.  It’s not that we should attend to relationship because that is the good thing to do, we need to care for our relationships because that is who we are, part of a whole, part of a community, an ecosystem, from which we cannot and should not be abstracted.

It is in abstraction that we violate the created design.  It is in attending to the particular person, the local place, it is when we are attended to by another in all compassion and sincerity with no cheap or false motives, that we realize that we were made for this.  We were made to be with one another and in those small moments of community honestly shared and peacefully redeemed, we rebel against the forces which wreak such destruction through equating human persons with numbers.  And we practice being human.  We practice awareness of the world in its wholeness, the design built into it by our creator whose attention to the particular has no bounds, and whose revulsion at abstractions litters the pages of the prophets and the apostles.

This Advent I want to resist the abstractions of the market.  This Advent I want to attend to human persons in my life and in my community.  And I want to reclaim my own humanness even as I begin to realize theirs.  This Advent as we continue to remember the incompleteness of God’s healing of the world, I want to seek first that healing and remember always that to be anxious is to believe in a false reality which is not the world which issues forth from the abundance of God’s love.

For “in him we live and move and have our being.”

Words to Plowshares

I wrote a post for my friend Harold Vance III’s blog RuralChurchVT.

It’s possibly the beginning of a series of posts in which I will engage Wendell Berry’s essays from a theological/ecclesiological viewpoint. I say possibly, because I’ve learned well enough by now that I need to be modest with my projects and expectations. So this might just be a one post deal. Who knows? But here it is, it is my reflection on what kind of Christianity is needed in our rural New Hampshire and Vermont places.

http://ruralchurchvt.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/beating-our-words-into-plowshares/

Behaving

On the last Thursday of classes, April 25, I went to Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School to hear Ross Douthat and Diana Butler Bass discuss the topic for the event, “The Future of Faith.” While I enjoyed the thoughtfulness with which both writers engaged the subject of the rise of “the nones” and the declining number of people affiliated with mainline Christian denominations, and while it was not intended to be a debate or a competitive event of any stripe, I nonetheless declared by my own subjective criteria that Diana Butler Bass had won.  And consequently I purchased her 2012 book, Christianity After Religion:  The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.

The book is not flawless, and neither was her presentation in Marquand.  But what I appreciate about Bass is her willingness to take seriously the cultural moment that many are calling “the rise of the nones,” or those who identified in polls during this most recent election cycle as “none of the above” on the question concerning religious affiliation.  Bass approaches this subject not from a reactionary position, but from a desire to learn.  Sure there are shallow and narcissistic reasons why some are abandoning institutional forms of religion, but aren’t there plenty of shallow and narcissistic reasons that many remain?  She doesn’t uncritically acclaim the new way of seeing faith and spirituality, but she doesn’t dismiss it either.  And that’s a refreshing voice — a voice of empathy.

“I suggest that those who care about that their churches survive to the future try something new: Listen to the new voices, hear what is being said about conventional religiosity and church life, and change thoughtfully and wisely.” (Bass in an article for the Huffington Post entitled “The Future of Faith” anticipating the upcoming event of the same name)

So I’ve been reading her book and trying to integrate insights into my sermons.  Since the three major topics she examines are the changing approach to believing, behaving, and belonging, I have been taking these last three Sundays before my summer away from the pulpit to spend a Sunday with each.  Last Sunday the lectionary selection from Acts, the story of Paul’s encounter with a spiritual but not religious Lydia and the kind of boundary-transgressive spirituality that led Paul to go to Europe, attend a prayer meeting down by the river, and sit in the grass with a group of women, talking about faith.  The how of Paul’s belief validated the what of Paul’s belief. And it’s this need for a reclamation of the how of belief — that belief is embedded in relations, human and divine — that Bass points out in her chapter “Believing.”  And my thoughts from that sermon are posted here.

This week I’ve been studying her chapter “Behaving.”

The central problem facing the church is a failure in transmitting the tradition across generations.  There are a lot of factors involved in this failure.  And it’s not any one person’s fault.  Rather it is part of a broader shift in American culture which the church has fallen victim to.  The church was not prepared for the rapid changes of the past century and so decline.

“In the post-World War II period, Western societies underwent what philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘an expressivist revolution,’ whereby obligatory group identity — whether of nation, family, or church — was replaced with a new sense of individual authenticity and the ‘right of choice’ based in personal fulfillment.  External authorities gave way to internal ones, as we moved away from conformity to social structures toward authentic self in society.”  (141)

Many lament this cultural change.  Bass seems ambivalent:  “whether the switch is good or bad is beside the point.”  The change has happened and we are in a world where everything “from clothes and career to loves and faith [is] a matter of choice.”  Perhaps ambivalent isn’t the right word.  There’s a kind of pragmatism in her take on this shift which seems to say, whether it’s good or bad, it’s there and we need to figure out what do in light of it.

I know plenty of people who bemoan this shift and see it as an insidious triumph of the modern capitalistic construction of the consumeristic individual.  And I’m inclined to follow in the direction of that critique.  But I appreciate, once again, Bass’s willingness to listen and learn how this new spiritual emphasis might help renew the faith.

So she points out how in the new world of choice, when we’ve become detached from the communities and traditions of our upbringing or heritage, the how question which used to be so important (e.g. how do live as a Methodist or Baptist) becomes suspended and the what question comes to the fore (what tradition do I want to be a part of, what spiritual practices will be most fulfilling, healthful, etc.) along with the why question.

“Our grandparents and parents may have been very good at the doing of religion, the how of faith, but, in their world, there was no need to engage the interior questions of meaning, the what and why of faith.” (141)

Now here is where I think Bass overgeneralizes.  Certainly there was enough of an atmosphere of choice across the U.S. that these questions were entertained and it was not just a matter of how we do our particular religion well.  One needs only to look at the circumstances in the early spiritual journey of Joseph Smith to realize that the crisis of choice has been alive in America for some time.

But however long the dilemma of choice has been around in American, Bass is certainly right to see that it has become the dominant reality of the 21st century religio-spiritual landscape.

The “practice gap” leads to the following consequences.

“When how became an end in itself, people began to ask what.  If I am not going to [follow in the family trade], what now?  If I no longer embrace Methodism, what faith will I embrace?  When it comes to behavior (in contrast to belief), what emerges as the driving spiritual question.  What always leads to why — the compelling reason to choose a particular path of what….  After a choice is made, then we craft a new way of faith, the how follows the what and why.  Choice, meaning, and practice interlace to open us to purposeful ways of being in the world. (142)

The way forward that Bass sees lies in addressing the questions what and why given the irrelevance of how for those who have become disconnected from traditional religious communities.

First, she tackles the what.

Her one word answer to what is “practices” which she defines as “things we do that shape who we are as they awaken us to God and others” (145).

Practices create habits which in turn affect who we become — our character.  What we spend our time doing, where we put our energy and attention will naturally shape the kind of people we become.  And this has been understood by religious communities since time immemorial.  So the various denominations within the Christian religion, and the various religions besides all have practices that can be engaged in.  Beyond that, we now have modern practices from yoga and meditation to spiritual retreats and twelve-step groups that are available options for the spiritually hungry.  Psychotherapy has probably become as common as confession once was.

The catalog of contemporary spiritual practices is large indeed.

The spiritual practices of Christianity have always fallen in two groups:  1) practices of devotion and 2) practices of ethics.  These correspond to the two greatest commandments cited by Jesus:  Love God and love your neighbor.

Devotional practices have included prayer, silence, praise, reading and meditating on sacred texts, Bible study, scripture memorization, fasting, keeping Sabbath, public worship on Sunday. (148)

Ethical practices have included “serving the poor; caring for the sick, oppressed, and needy; humility; peacemaking; forgiveness and reconciliation; giving freely from one’s resources; honoring the body; truthfulness; hospitality; healing; and discernment.” (148)

These ethical practices flow from the devotional practices.  Prayer for the world shapes one to become the fulfillment in some small way of that prayer — thus charity fostered in prayer becomes charity lived out in service.

Ethics have been considered as separate from beliefs in the modern world, but as Bass points out, the early church saw an essential continuity between their beliefs and their way of life.  “Early Christianity was not called ‘Christianity’ at all.  Rather it was called ‘the Way,’ and its followers were called ‘the People of the Way.'” (149)

The Way consists of belief infused practices and practice-shaped beliefs.

I think one of the more interesting points that Bass makes in this chapter is that what contemporary seekers are doing when they are creating a bricolage out of the various practices and beliefs of various religions and spiritualities is very similar to what early Christians did out of the established religions of their time:  Judaism and the Roman and Greek religions.

She writes:  “The new adherents found the old ways moribund, somehow lacking the energy and inspiration to meet the challenges of the world around them.  Yet they did not reject the old completely.  Instead, the early Christians wove together their new way of life and the new stories of Jesus with practices they borrowed from other religions.”

Now I don’t think this completely explains why Christians began changing their practices — certainly there were other theological reasons less experientially and more rationally considered.  But nonetheless it is true that early Christian faith drew on the cultural forms of its time and there was great diversity in the expression of the new spirituality.

Discernment was needed in considering with wisdom and due caution what practices to add to the emerging faith.  “Discernment…. entails praying for guidance, asking questions, listening to the insights of others, and making considered choices.”  Discernment is the “practice behind the practices.” (152)

An openness to reviving this process in the current cultural moment will help the church better understand the why behind the what of the practices that they do include in their community life.

After considering the what of Christian practice she considers the why.

“Christians do things because Jesus did them first.  As he said to his disciples in the Gospel of John, ‘For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ (13:15).  The primary why for any Christian practice is that the action, in some way, imitates Jesus.” (154)

Christians not only imitate Jesus, but they also seek to imitate the “cloud of witnesses” that have gone before.  “The witness and practices of those who went before are called tradition” (155).  The word “tradition” often sounds like a dull “we’ve always done it this way” conservative faith.  But it is different when tradition is embodied in the lives, the biographies of ancestors.  Tradition is embodied faith over time.  It is imitative and inspired.

The why imitation involves encountering the same God that was encountered by these trailblazers — through spiritual practices.

Imitation is how the most significant learning and development happens.  “Imitation connects us to others as it opens the door to self-awareness and mastery.  We are part of a great guild of human activity, apprentices to the art of being truly human” (156).

Imitation has to be intentionally done.  Who one imitates makes all the difference in the world.

This leads us back to the consideration of spiritual leaders and communities.  Who are we going to follow.  Christians choose denominations because there’s no way of being in the church except making such a choice (C. Taylor in Bass 157).

And what follows the intentional choice of spiritual leader or community is “imitating the practices of others already on the same path — whether that is the imitation of the founder or those who have, in some measure, mastered the craft of living faith.  What leads to participation is a community of people who know how to do it.” (157)

Spiritual practices are connected to the cosmic scope of the Christian vision of redemption.  The prayer “Thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven” embodies this. What we pray shapes how we view the world, ourselves, and God — and when we pray concerning the kingdom, we anticipate its presence in our midst and we find ourselves drawn into manifesting it in our own lives.

“Practices are the connective tissue between what is, what can be, and what will be.  Spiritual practices are living pictures of God’s intentions for a world of love and justice” (160).

Many are concerned about the individualism that seems inherent in affirming the modern seeker’s quest.  But Bass points out that if spiritual practices are crafts, they are necessarily learned in community.  One learns Yoga very difficultly without an instructor helping form the right postures.

Her overall take on “behaving” is that we need to be more open to varieties of spiritual practice — remembering that much variety exists in the historic Christian tradition.  We should be guided by the two pillars of love of God and neighbor.  But more than openness we need to reclaim an authenticity and intentionality to what we do as a community of Christians.

“To be spiritual and religious when it comes to behavior means to be deliberate in choosing what we do, to do those things that imitate Jesus, and to act justly in the world.  It is intentional Christian practice.  We are to be learners on the way, then initiates, apprentices, skilled practitioners, and masters.  Not just members of a church.” (168)

We must look at our church and ask important questions of why we do what we do.  And if it is just out of a sense of obligation than we need to let it go and allow to rise to life a new spiritual practice which comes from an authentic love of God and neighbor embodied in the local spiritual community.  Discernment is what is needed not criticism.  Hospitality to the “nones” that we might learn from them and they might learn from Christ.