Friday, April 20, 2018

Destiny?

While driving to St. Paul's today, I heard a radio ad for a preacher named Joel Osteen. I think his wife--who is also a clergy person--was featured in the ad, too. The tagline of the ad was, "Everything you need to fulfill your destiny is at hand and available to you right now!" The ad went on to invite people to tune in their glitzy TV presentation of this "exciting new teaching series." I've seen the Osteens, and they don't do anything for me. I think these are the people who live in a multi-million dollar mansion and fly in a private jet to their engagements. It's a bit much for people who claim to be calling folk to faith in a carpenter from Nazareth who "had no where to lay his head" when he walked the earth. I have long been a student of great preaching down through the history of the church, and while some sermons I have heard or read were like a fine Merlot or a cup of perfectly-brewed Kona, this Osteen stuff is banana Fizzies. But I digress...

It's the word destiny that caught my attention. Do we really have a destiny? Webster's defines destiny as "the hidden power believed to control what will happen in the future--fate." Some view destiny as a preprogramed path for our life that is our job to discover and be in the right place and the right time to fulfill. (Apparently, the Osteens believe they have a verbal elixir that will make this happen for you.) Many Christian believers hold that God is the "hidden power" that controls what will happen in the future, and that belief is even reduced to where God has a "will" for every element of our personal lives, including what kind of car we should drive and who we should hang out with. I'm not there, friends.

I believe God to be a "big picture" deity when it comes to running the world, and one who calls me to fit into that picture, but more like a chip in a kaleidoscope than a specific piece of a picture puzzle. I know God loves you and me--that is what Jesus was (and certainly IS) all about. But does God have one, singular and "necessary" will for our lives? I don't see it. I love my children more than I can express in thousands of words and in a lifetime of relating to them, and in that love, the last thing I ever wanted to do was control their lives. Oh, I did my job as parent when they were young, providing boundaries to keep them safe, and opportunities to broadly experience life, the universe, and everything so they could decide what they wanted to do with their earthly days, but I never wanted to control them, prescribe their paths, or limit their possibilities, and I happen to believe that God is the greatest parent of them all! When Jesus said he wanted us to have an abundant life, I think he meant a fulfilling, deeply personal, yet respectful of others life, and one fully engaged in all of the pursuits we find interesting, stimulating and meaningful. And this abundant life would be one only complete when we aided in assuring that all of God's children had an equal chance at the same life. The abundant life Jesus talked about was never--ever a "zero-sum game" where, in order for me to "get mine," you couldn't "have yours."

God, like any great parent, doesn't want to steal away the "free will" with which we were created. There is no prescribed destiny or mandated path for any of us--just an incredible, unfolding "big picture" of a "kingdom" or "realm" being born into our world, and we have the freedom to participate in its revealing! That is the message of the Bible and of Jesus, as I see it. Don't waste your time looking for some "blueprint" of "God's will" for your life (destiny). Instead, seek the Spirit's wisdom and guidance as you explore what life is for you, how you may relate lovingly with others, and how together these pursuits may lead to abundance.

I'm a Wesleyan, at heart, meaning I appreciate and try to emulate John Wesley's understanding of the Christian gospel. Wesley was a "free will," not a destiny guy. Wesley developed the biblical and intellectual tools to fully engage life, and then set out to help others do the same. His journey to find his path was not without its potholes and barriers along the way, but he persisted. I think persisting is a good thing. Persisting is a much more biblical understanding of God, spirituality, and redemption than most of the junk I hear coming from TV preachers and "Christian" self-help books today. If I persist in finding my direction, growing in my faith, and in discovering new ways to relate to others on their journey, and not just to appreciate, but to work synergistically alongside them, I will find little time to judge others or to draw boundaries as to who's included and who is not in the coming Realm of God.

However, if I bow to the temptation to believe that there is some prescribed destiny for my life, I think I would become totally self-absorbed. That can't be good. Maybe I'd end up living in a multi-million dollar mansion and flying in my own plane, telling others to send me their money so they can find their destiny, too? No, I'm having such a blast doing this persisting stuff that I have to believe the destiny-seekers are going to find an empty well at the end of their quest. Years ago, an author I was reading said, the journey is our home. I like that. What is prescribed for us is our destination. Our loving God will receive us into our final home. But this life--this is where we get to explore and shine, and make something of our days that any great parent would be proud of! Destiny? Fugetaboutit!

Friday, April 13, 2018

Interfaith..

Ecumenical doesn't mean the same thing as Interfaith. Christians--and Christian clergy--are often happy to be ecumenical, which typically means fellowshipping, strategizing, engaging in study or service with, or otherwise acknowledging Christians of other denominations. Laity are much more natural at doing this than clergy, for they are neighbors, co-workers, friends, and even family to others of different, but usually Christian, faith traditions. I have known clergy who would not fraternize with clergy of what they would consider "radically" different Christian churches or denominations. Fundamentalist pastors, for example, are often not comfortable with "mainline" clergy who interpret the Bible using historical-critical skills in an attempt to discern what passages from the Bible meant when first written versus what they may mean for us today. Charismatic Christians or Pentecostals may make "mainline" clergy uncomfortable, with their belief that through the sign gifts and "conversational" prayer, they have a highly personal and intimate relationship with God, who may even tell them which car to buy. Roman Catholic priests were at one time reticent about joining local clergy associations or ministeriums, but most priests today, who were raised in the post-Vatican II era, are quite engaging of such ecumenical efforts, even participating in ecumenical services, as their time allows.

Interfaith engagements is another matter. Interfaith obviously means some meeting of the minds of persons who may have entirely different views of God, holy writ, and customs or traditions. Interfaith gatherings may include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, Buddhists, Hindus, B'ahi adherents, Sikhs, and/or cultural or geographical manifestations of any of these faith groups. Our N.O.R.T.H. (Neighborhood Organizations Responding Together for Hope) Interfaith group has even had several Mormon friends joining us. Again, there are adherents to any of these faith groups, and ones from others not listed, who eschew Interfaith cooperation, but all of the ones listed have had persons involved in some of N.O.R.T.H.'s activities and justice work.

Speaking as a United Methodist clergy person, I can attest to the fact that not all of my United Methodist colleagues are comfortable with Interfaith relationships, and that is certainly their choice. I have found these Interfaith intersections to be unique and wonderful opportunities to learn about, appreciate, and respect the faith journey of others. While I maintain my Christian witness--and all of the other faith groups strongly affirm my integrity in doing so--I don't try to "convert" others in these encounters, or criticize their belief systems in any way. I happen to believe the "kingdom" (or Realm) of God--what Dr. King called "The Beloved Community"--is much greater and more inclusive than I can wrap my limited Christian mind around. I have to be honest--my Christian faith seems comparatively simple to me, as I believe God does the "heavy lifting," leaving me to mostly try to love others according to the teachings of Jesus, and to work for justice and peace in my world. Some of these other faiths have such respect and reverence for God, and the essentials for them often seem to require such discipline and devotion in practicing various prayers, rituals, and acts of mercy and kindness that I think I would be a mediocre disciple, were I to try. While I may see the love, grace, and redemption of Christ--a free gift to me, and one I cannot earn--as a "selling point" of Christianity, I have learned that it can also create in some of our adherents a licentiousness and apathy that dilutes or oversimplifies the deeper aspects of living out one's Christian life and discipleship. My Muslim friends have five times of required prayer each day, and Five Pillars that all Muslims are challenged to observe throughout their lifetime. There have been times in my Christian ministry that, when I suggested to my congregations that they should have some kind of daily office with God, the response has been, shall we say, less than enthusiastic. Oh, and sometimes my own devotion to it has been, too! And please don't say, Christian reader, that Muslims pray the five prayers and observe the Five Pillars because they have to. Most of my Muslim colleagues and friends do so out of a deep, personal sense of devotion and affection for Allah.

This is not a theological column, though. I don't want to argue the merit of my faith against the others (wouldn't do it, personally), nor make any judgments about the motivations and beliefs of the others that might alienate them from me and me from them. I do want to share, however, that beyond learning from my Interfaith friends, I have loved to serve with them and engage in justice work and peacemaking with them. You see, all of our theologies lead us toward "fixing the world" or "restoring God's benevolent order" to it in such a way that all persons may be accepted, affirmed, and offered equal opportunities in our local communities, and in this nation. Some of my Interfaith friends are immigrants, and it pains me to see them denigrated or harassed in a nation that is founded on the principle that "all [men] are created equal." Beyond friendship, the point of intersection for N.O.R.T.H. is our desire for justice, peace, and safety for all of God's people, and the right for the "pursuit of happiness."

Sometimes this cooperative, Interfaith work means just respecting and understanding each other. However, at other times it means attending public hearings or meetings together to speak with a common voice, or raising funds to help others who are suffering. On a couple of occasions it has meant standing with our Muslim friends when they were being threatened by intolerant neighbors or denied the opportunity to purchase property by prejudiced property owners. We have stood with our local Unitarian Universalist friends when their "Black Lives Matter" signs were being stolen or vandalized right on their own church property.

N.O.R.T.H. began "Friendship Dinners" in January of 2017 where all of our Interfaith friends come together to fellowship around the table, and discuss common concerns. Sometimes we have used these dinners to form Affinity Groups organized around a cause such as dismantling racism, LGBTQIA inclusion, voting rights, gun safety, or immigration. Other times we have held more formal "round table" discussions around a topic, such as the one at our upcoming April 19 dinner, which is around the issues of racism and white privilege. Most of all, these dinners have created a bigger neighborhood for each of us. One table of eight, made up of persons of different ethnic, national, and faith backgrounds, decided to meet together outside of our "Friendship Dinners," and as far as I know, they still do get together in each other's homes in this manner for fellowship and understanding.

Interfaith encounters have been so very enriching to me, personally. The purpose of this column is to encourage you, the reader, to be open to them and to find opportunities to participate in one. However, if this is not your "cup of tea," so to speak, please be respectful of those who have found it a portal into The Beloved Community Dr. King spoke about. And if your pastor, priest, rabbi, imam (or whatever title you give to your faith's "clergy") chooses to participate in cooperative, Interfaith endeavors, please don't trash them for it.

Thanks for listening...Shalom, Yinz.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Stepchild...

What comes after Easter? 50 days. 50 days, then Pentecost. Pentecost is the stepchild of the Christian year, at least for most of us. How excited do you get for Pentecost?

My Charismatic/Pentecostal friends sort of get into it, but honestly, they rather "celebrate" the Holy Spirit through the "sign gifts" all year long. Most of us "mainline" Christians try to get psyched up for it, but it really has little love going for it, culturally. I haven't seen a single Pentecost decoration at Walmart, or any Pentecost candy on the shelves anywhere. When's the last time you bought someone a Pentecost gift or sent a Pentecost card? See what I mean.

Theologically, it is an important event in the Christian faith. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, and on that day in Jerusalem, fifty days after the resurrection, he delivered. Flames, winds, people talking in languages they did not know, although to be fair, unlike the"prayer languages" modern Pentecostals get when someone lays hands on them, these languages reported in Acts chapter 2 were actual languages spoken by the variety of pilgrims having around Jerusalem at that time, and "each heard the Good News in her or his own tongue," as the scriptures say.

The Holy Spirit, Jesus said, would be a comforter, a helper, and would provide believers with the tools and juice to go out and do what they were supposed to go out and do--be witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ. She arrived with a wallop, kind of like March, but for much of the church, has become more of a lamb, like April. Most of the church does not practice the "sign gifts" of speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, and "prophecy," but generally, we don't know what to do with the Holy Spirit, hoping it is some kind of autopilot from God that guides us away from making too many goofs in Jesus' name. Occasionally, the Spirit pops an unusual moment of wisdom into the head of a Christian at an opportune time, and this is much celebrated when it happens.

Oh, I'm sure some of you are freaked at me calling the Holy Spirit a "she." Hear me out. First of all, orthodox Trinitarian doctrine reminds us that the Holy Spirit is a person of the godhead, and not a thing. Even I, a grassroots theologian with seven years of seminary learning occasionally slips and calls her an "it." Hold on to this thought for a moment. So, the Holy Spirit is a person. The Trinitarian formula is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Bible says that God is Spirit. Jesus was clearly male, as he sojourned among us, but if we're all made in the "image" of God, then why can we not view the Holy Spirit as a she? The Hebrew and Greek words for Spirit are both feminine nouns, by the way. I like the female view of the Holy Spirit--a quiet, strong power that transforms and blesses. At the risk of appearing sexist, this would be my description of the influential women in my life--quiet, strong, powerful, and transforming. I'm married to one who has absolutely transformed my life, and continues to do so, lovingly, gracefully, but not without the occasional tag-team match, which she always wins. Sometimes I just have to be wrestled to the mat.

Back to the erroneous "it-ness" of the Holy Spirit. I think we have trouble seeing the Spirit as a person because we have no images of her. The Bible only gives us flames, wind, and at Jesus' baptism, a bird, wafting down from heaven. None of those things are people. If we understand the Holy Spirit as the "femaleness" of God, we can come up with our own images--think of the woman who has had the most profound impact on your life, and fix that image in your head for the Holy Spirit.

Speaking of stepchildren, the Holy Spirit herself is often the stepchild of the Trinity, for the reasons listed above--no "image" that is "person-able," a poor understanding among the majority of Christians as to what her function is, and I would add, the strong paternalistic bent of the faith often leavers her in the lurch. Rarely do you hear a Christian pray beyond "Father God," or "Dear Jesus." When's the last time you heard a prayer that began, "Dear Mother Spirit"?

So, what all does the Holy Spirit do? The Bible tells us in Corinthians that the Spirit gives various gifts to God's people. These gifts are really tools for doing ministry for the up-building of the Body of Christ, and for sharing the Good News of the Christian Gospel. The Holy Spirit as comforter is when God's presence soothes and "hugs" us in times of trial or tragedy. The Holy Spirit empowers us to do what God calls us to do, both as laity and clergy. "Go(ing) into all the world and preaching the Gospel, baptizing in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is beyond our human abilities without the "juice" of the Holy Spirit. Without relying on this empowerment of the Spirit, we are left naked and running away, like the Sons of Sceva in Acts 19.

Here's another image to ponder: medical science recently identified another organ in the body called the "Interstitium. It is the tissue in and around the other organs of our body that cushions them, keeps them "interconnected," and is the medium for important body fluids, feeding cells. "Interstitial" tissue has been understood for a long time, I guess, but the recent classification of it as an organ comes from research that shows it working collectively and "in concert" in the body. So, can we suggest that the Holy Spirit is the Interstitium of the Body of Christ? An interesting "functional" idea, however it breaks down again when trying to visualize the Holy Spirit as a person. Oh well...

So, with Pentecost up next, my challenge to you is to ponder the Holy Spirit as a person of the godhead, and a female one, at that! Then, try to imagine how the Holy Spirit works in your Christian experience, personally. Finally, look around and observe how you see the Spirit working in the church. That's all a pretty tall order for now, so have at it. May the Force be with you. NO, NO, NO, the "Force" is a thing, not a person, and it likes to fight a lot! It's great in the movies, but not in the church--the last thing we need is more fighting! How about we just say Shalom?

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...