Thursday, September 28, 2006

Christianity for the Rest of Us

Have you ever thought that the media seems to have only one idea of what exists in our religious world? Here in the United States the media portrays Christianity and the church from a single perspective it often feels: the Christian Right or the mega-church movement. And often those two seem to be joined in the public mind.

This past Tuesday evening I heard a fresh and encouraging take on "Christianity for the Rest of Us" by Dr. Diana Butler Bass, who was reporting on her three year Lilly Endowment research project of vital, mainline churches. In a somewhat ironic and humorous remark, Dr. Bass commented that research grants have usually been directed toward how we mainline churches have failed. Her study, by contrast, focuses on how vital churches in the mainline are discovering renewed energy and purpose.

Her summary observation is as follows. "I can say with great confidence that something new is happening in American religion; all across the country, people with a similar vision of practicing faith in community, of re-engaging tradition, and seeking wisdom is coming into focus. This kind of Christianity stands outside that old "right-left" divide of American religion and is trying to create a new theological language, new structures of leadership and community, and a responsible, peace-filled, and just global Christian (and Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist, etc.) vision...."

Dr. Bass observes that three major themes seem to be emerging in this movement of vital mainline churches, alongside 10 practices of faith. The three major themes are:

1. Renewed interest in Tradition with a capital "T" and not lower case tradition, that often only goes back a generation or two. This hunger for a deeper Tradition goes back to the ancient faith and practices of the church, often abandoned in our modern world. It's fascinating Dr. Bass observes to learn that many younger generations are drawn to an ancient faith. Ironically, some churches who claim to be "traditional" just aren't "Traditional" enough says Bass.
Reclaiming practices of reading Scripture like lectio divina are an example of this hunger for the ancient roots and practices of faith.

2. A second theme of these vital mainline churches emerges in a growing attraction to "Practices of Faith". Often, said Dr. Bass, the church has been known only for negative practices, things we aren't supposed to do. She laughingly commented that as a young girl growing up in a conservative church, this meant not associating with boys who "chewed", danced, or drank. What's positive about that?

These positive practices include: Hospitality (a genuine welcoming of all into the faith community), Discernment (people wondering about how to make wise choices for their lives), Healing, Testimony (being able to speak about the impact of one's faith), Diversity, Justice (the realization that our world can be unfair and asking what can be done about that), Worship, Theological Reflection, and Beauty.

This emphasis on "Practices" stands in contrast and sometimes in tension with the typical focus on "Programs" in the church's ministry. Programs may or may not focus on practice or personal transformation. In her research study, Dr. Bass reports that the word "program" generally had a negative connotation for respondents. In a follow-up question, I stated that this appears to be a real paradigm shift, which Dr. Bass confirmed.

3) The third theme Dr. Bass and her research colleagues observed among these vital mainline churches was a desire to learn how to live "Wisely". As Dr. Bass commented, "There's almost no place for wisdom today to be found" in our culture. Faith communities are one of the few places where this hunger for wisdom in learning how to have a well-lived life can be pursued in an intentional way with others.

As Dr. Bass shared with us, this movement of vital mainline (moderate to liberal)
congregations doesn't really have a name yet- but it is for those who are tired, bored, dissatisfied with business-as-usual faith and are doing- or want to do- something about it. It's Christianity for the Rest of Us.

One possible term for these churches may be to speak of them as "Pilgrim" churches, who know that Christian faith is not an accomplished act, but a life-long journey."

I came away from Dr. Bass' presentation feeling hopeful about this fresh movement of
the Spirit. In my next blog, I'll do some reflection on contextual issues that are calling forth the "Practices" of faith that Dr. Bass has been studying.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Healing a Fractured World: in the Shadows of 9/11

Reading: Jeremiah 9: 23-24
O God, we are your people…
Bring your best to our worst,
Bring your peace to our pain,
God of love, heal your people.

Last week-end, Cheryl and I visited with our sons Jason and Scott over Labor Day week-end, where they are both enrolled at the Univ. of Missouri.
It was one of their last long week-ends of the semester, and we wanted to be together as a family, all five of us.

While barbecuing on the grill outside his apartment, one evening,
I enjoyed talking with our son Jason about the start of his 3rd year of medical school.

What kind of doctor do you want to be, Jason? I asked.
Both Cheryl and I have been discussing this question with him.

For a time it was being an orthopedic surgeon, and he’s considered oncology,
and other specialties such as cardiology.
And now he’s thinking about opthamology.
And I thought after successful recent cataract surgery for Cheryl’s father,
how wonderful it would be to help improve or correct a person’s vision.
As Cheryl’s dad said recently, “I haven’t seen colors like this in years.”

But what really made this discussion most interesting, was hearing Jason talk about
helping a patient recently during his Internal Medicine 8 week rotation.
After prescribing some treatment and planning for a follow-up appointment,
the woman in question said, “Mr. Edmonds, Can I see you when I return?”

In that moment, our son began to feel like a doctor and a healer.
I felt pride. I experienced delight in seeing his growth and development.
I sensed his own joy in working to bring health and healing to another human being.

And I thought, this is what we human beings are meant to offer each other.
The healing part of me encounters the need for healing in you.
The healing power in you, meets the hurting need in me.
Together we experience the healing power of God’s Spirit.

Imagine God looking down on us and saying, in the words of Jeremiah we read:
“I am the Lord who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth;
for in these I delight,” declares the Lord.

God takes delight, God experiences enjoyment with us, when we live and act with deeds of kindness, justice and righteousness.
We give God great pleasure when our lives are lived that way, and when we do;
we offer Healing for others.

Our opening hymn portrays the delight of the worshiping community in how this is a vital part of the character of God.
“O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation.”

It is God’s desire to heal us and to use a Jewish phrase- Tikkun Olam,
mend or heal the whole Creation.

The Bible speaks of this desire of God to mend or heal the whole Creation in various ways.

There is that beautiful phrase in Psalm 126.
‘Restore our fortunes, O Lord…
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy.”

In the presence and experience of God,
there is a deeper healing,
and the promise that seeds of hope can be planted, through eyes of tears,
that will eventually yield a harvest of joy.

And yet for many, the healing promise and power of religious faith itself
seems suspect in our world today.

Following the attacks on 9/11 five years ago, one commentator remarked:
“We’re told that the attackers were zealots fueled by religious fervor.

Said this commentator:
“Religious fervor?
And if you lived to be a thousand years old,
will that make any sense to you?”

In the aftermath of 9/11, Charles Kimball, a professor at Wake Forest University,
a Baptist university in the best tradition of the ideals of that denomination
wrote a book titled, When Religion Becomes Evil. He writes:
“Religion is arguably the most powerful and pervasive force on earth.
Throughout history religious ideas and commitments
have inspired individuals and communities of faith to transcend narrow self-interest
in pursuit of higher values and truths.
As Charles Kimball observes:
..history shows that noble acts of love, self-sacrifice, and service to others
are frequently rooted in deeply held religious worldviews.

At the same time, history clearly shows that religion has often been linked
directly to the worst examples of human behavior…
That includes all of the world’s great religions, including Christianity.

For a long time in the course of my life as a Christian and as a minister,
I’ve had people say to me, “My faith is a private matter between me and God.”
I’ve been baffled as to where that belief comes from, since it runs totally
counter to biblical faith, from the prophets to Jesus,
who said “let your light shine before others.”

Or, I’ve had people say, in different ways, it’s just not possible or polite
to talk about religion and politics in public.
Those topics are too divisive. We can’t talk about them.
And I would now say, we can’t afford not to talk about them in today’s world.

As I commented to the men’s spirituality group I belong to over lunch the other day; the
three most important topics of life are: Religion, Politics, and Sex.
What else do you talk about if not those concerns? The weather?

The solution is not to ignore religion, to pretend that it can’t be talked about;
in fact, we must share with each a growing understanding of how
Religion should not just do harm in the world, but how
Religion should make a healing difference.

That passage from Jeremiah we read for today speaks of the healing, mending ways
of God in a variety of ways.

“He (who) understands and knows Me, (knows)
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice, and righteousness on earth,
for it is in these I delight, declares the Lord.

In that list, kindness comes first. The Hebrew word is Hesed.
It also means “steadfast love”

As one great Jewish OT writer and rabbi observes:
More than anything else, hesed (kindness) humanizes the world.”
(Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, “To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility”, p.46)

Kindness is intensely personal.
Justice, by contrast, is impersonal and impartial.

We say that Justice is Blind.

Kindness looks at people with open eyes of compassion, sees them for who they are,
and acts to humanize and heal.

Just as my son, the young doctor, met a woman patient in his teaching hospital,
who knew this young medical student cared about her.
She asked to see him again, because she knew she had been treated personally.

Jeremiah held up this exalted view of God’s desire for us,
that we act with Kindness, Justice and Righteousness.

We live at a critical moment in the world’s history. These are difficult times
for us as a nation and a people. I firmly believe that.

But, if the world only knows us for our demand for justice, in the aftermath
Of 9/11; it will never know kindness in us.

And if the world does not see and know our kindness,
the people of the world will never come to love the things we love,
the freedom we celebrate, the gifts of God we treasure.

In the city of Washington D.C., where one of the attacks of 9/11 took place,
There comes a story that I was reminded of recently.
(“To Heal a Fractured World”, Rabbi Sacks, pp 44-45)

It was the year 1966, and an 11 year old black boy moved with his parents
And family to a white neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

Sitting with his two brothers and sisters on the front step of the house,
he waited to see how they would be greeted.

They were not.

Passers-by turned to look at them but no one gave them a smile
or even a glance of recognition.

All the fearful stories this young boy had heard about how whites
treated blacks seemed to be coming true.

Years later, writing about those first days in their new home, he wrote,
“I knew we were not welcome here.
I knew we would not be liked here.
I knew we would have no friends here.
I knew we should not have moved here….

As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work
passed by on the other side of the road.

She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, ‘Welcome!”

Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden
with drinks and cream cheese and jelly sandwiches which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home.

That moment- the young man later wrote- changed his life.

It gave him a sense of belonging where there was none before.

It made him realize, at a time when race relations in the United States
were still tense and conflicted,
that a black family could feel at home in a white area
and that there could be relationships that were colour-blind.

This greeting, this welcome, broke down a wall of separation
and turned strangers into friends.

The young man in this story, Steven Carter, is now a law professor at Yale,
And he eventually wrote a book about what he learned that day.
He called it Civility.

The name of the woman, he tells us, was Sara Kestenbaum,
And he adds that she was a religious Jews.

In the Jewish tradition, such civility is called “hesed”-
which in turn comes from the understanding that human beings
are made in the image of God.

“I learned that truth in 1966,” writes Carter
“and to this day, I can close my eyes and feel on my tongue
the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches
that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of (kindness) can change a life for ever.”

Religion should not just do harm in the world;
Religion should make a healing difference.

What we need is not less religion, as Jim Wallis writes in his wonderful book
God’s Politics.

What we need is better religion.
We need a religion that knows and understands God,

the God who says, if you want to know me,
know that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight.

It’s a hard thing to say, but the world does not currently look upon the
United States in this way.

As a nation and a people of faith, with a vital healing religious experience,
we need to be seen as people who promote kindness.

A central teaching in most spiritual traditions is this:
what you wish to experience, provide for another.

Look to see, now, what it is you wish to experience- in your own life and world.

Then, see if there is another for whom you may be the source of that.

If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another.

If you wish to know that you are safe, cause another to know that they are safe.

If you wish to heal your own sadness, or anger, seek to heal the sadness
or anger of another.

Some 8-9 years ago, 2 young Sudanese boys moved to Omaha, NE
after the great civil war and terrorisim in their own native land began.

One of these boys witnessed the murder of his father.
His mother remains in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

The two boys have remained friends.

And they have been welcomed with kindness by many here in Omaha,
including a number of Presbyterian friends.

One Presbyterian, Dr. Lynn Graves, started a Scout Troup for Sudanese boys
and both these young boys joined and each became an Eagle Scout.

They graduated from high school and a couple of years ago began college.
Other Presbyterian friends helped each of them apply to college
and find scholarships, when they had no idea how to accomplish that.

One friend in particular, Don Royer, took it upon himself to guide these two young men through the college and financial aid process. Without his wise guidance, a wonderful opportunity may have been lost.

Our former church purchased clothing and a computer for these two young men.

And now just a few weeks ago, one of them Buey Ruey, was noted in
the Omaha World Herald for a summer internship he did with Congressman Lee Terry in Washington.

Buey and Jacob want to return to Sudan one day
to lead and help heal their country.

And they have a vision. They have started a group called Aqua Africa.
It’s mission is to organize efforts to drill for water in the Southern Sudan.
So that the people of their tribe and others in Sudan can plant crops and water livestock.

They have suffered, both of these young men. But they have also been loved
and have received kindness.

The psalmist said it well.
“May those who sow in tears,
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing
shall come home with shouts of joy.”

What seeds of hope and healing do you feel called to plant?