Archives For Way Out There

Painting by Julius Hubner of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses.

 

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has been on my mind for weeks now. It was a turning point in Christian history and in the history of Western Europe. What should we make of it?

It is a legacy of growing up Lutheran that I continue to admire Luther’s willingness to stand up on principle. He was willing to challenge a massive institution and religious empire – the Roman Catholic Church – on points of principle about God. He was a rebel with a cause.

But was the Reformation’s legacy all good?

What I have struggled with is the battleground on which Luther largely fought the Reformation – theology.

My sense is that the zealous pursuit of a science-like, all-encompassing theology of God and Jesus has been given too much weight in Christian history. It is deeply ironic and shameful, for example, that Luther and other Protestant leaders went from being persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church to advocating for the persecution of others, like the Anabaptists.

When people are so consumed by a zeal for theological correctness that they lose the ability to love one’s neighbor as oneself, something has gone very wrong.

This is not to say that theology is not an important and valuable tool. It is. We are called to love God with our minds. Theology is one way to do that. And the diversity of the 66 books of the Bible calls out for some unifying ideas and ethics that will translate into how we live and think.

But speaking and reading theology about God can replace actual experience of God. It can, in its very form, make the Christian life too abstract and too left-brained.

I have had one profoundly spiritual experience in my life. It was an experience without words. I cannot describe it with any degree of accuracy using words. All of the theology and preaching I heard from the pulpit throughout my life did not prepare me for that experience. In fact, all of the theology and preaching I had heard had lulled me into believing I knew God through the words about God I had been taught.

We casually use words like grace, faith, forgiveness, resurrection, and salvation like they are distinct and quantifiable elements from a periodic table. They are, in fact, ineffable phenomena.

Interestingly enough, the humility with which we should approach words and names for the actions and essence of God is exemplified in the name of God that appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. As this well-written article by Rabbi Louis Jacob explains, we actually don’t know how to correctly pronounce the four-letter Hebrew name for God. It appears in the Hebrew Scriptures 6,823 times. But Jewish tradition long discouraged the actual speaking of the name and instead substituted “Adonai”, the Hebrew word for Lord.

In extreme theologizing we have too often lost the fear and awe of God and all that God is. We make God safe through theology. In some ways, theological constructs can even become an assertion of human power over God.

So how do we know if theologies and even church practices are on the right track?

Here is one of my suggestions – we should pay attention to their fruit. Jesus spoke often about good fruit being a natural product of a living faith in Him and of a good heart. Theologies and church practices can best be judged by their fruit. How do their believers and followers live out their faith in the following four areas?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

Do you sense God’s love for you even as you are in awe of God and aware of God’s unwillingness to accept what is wrong in this world?

Is Jesus at the center of your faith and heart?

Do you seek out knowledge and experience of God like a person in a desert seeks out water?

When you pray do you not only seek out help from God open your heart to what God desires of you?

Do you approach God and Jesus with humility and mystery?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH PEOPLE

Are you forgiving and full of loving kindness for others?

Do you make the effort with the help of God’s Spirit to see and perceive other people the way God sees them?

Do you love your neighbor as you love yourself?

Do you have strong integrity, honesty, and a clear sense of what is right and wrong?

Do you struggle against evil and people consumed with evil without losing yourself to hate and blind anger?

Do you care about justice for the poor and vulnerable around you, individually and collectively?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD’S EARTH

Do you see the earth as God’s and act appropriately respectful and compassionate towards it?

Do you and your community of faith balance the use of God’s earth with enabling it to thrive and prosper even when this requires sacrifices that others around you are not wiling to make?

Do you and your church pay attention to Creation?

Is being thoughtful stewards of God’s earth part of the fabric of your faith and life, including your civic life?

In your faith and life, do pigs, oak trees, and mussels matter?

 

ONE’S OWN LIFE

Do you love yourself at the same time you love others?

Are you honest about and aware of your failings and seek not only forgiveness but also seek to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit every day?

Do you seek to have your heart and your will reformed on a regular basis so that how you live is an eloquent statement about your faith?

Do you listen for God’s calling for your life? Do you do hard and challenging things when you sense that is God’s call?

Do you know your talents, enjoy using them, and use them creatively and energetically for God’s Kingdom?

 

If these are the widespread fruits of the theology and practices of your faith community, then God is a whole and living presence there.

Of course, all of us, individually and collectively, will fall short of what God offers us and wants from us. This is why God’s forgiveness is always needed.

This is why we will always need reformation that goes beyond words.

There once was a king and a queen who ruled a small kingdom in a beautiful country.

They took great pleasure in their castle and in the art they had made which filled the castle’s rooms. They delighted in the gardens they had planted and the large trees around which they had built the castle. The ravens they had rescued from a nearby mountain when the ravens were young were now tame and flew about the castle and its grounds.

River Scene with Castle (by Gilbert Munger)

The king took special pride in his master servants. He had chosen them from many walks of life, and he trained them carefully to manage the activities of the castle and the kingdom. He patiently educated them, taught them, and encouraged their creativity.

“I cherish all that I have, my dear servants, but you are my greatest joy,” he told them.

One day he gathered his servants together. He told them that he and the queen needed to leave them for some time. While he was gone, they were to be in charge of his castle.

“I trust you to rule as you have seen us rule,” he told them.

Several years later, when the servants had begun to doubt whether the king and queen would ever return, they were awakened on a bright cold blue morning by trumpets and soldiers they recognized to be of the king and queen’s personal guard.

“You are to appear immediately at the front gate,” the soldiers said.

The servants hurried to an assembly of nobles and guards surrounding the king and queen who sat on thrones the servants had not seem before. The servants noticed the king and queen did not seem to have aged and in some ways looked even more vigourous and wise than ever. The servants also noticed that the muscles of the king’s jaw were tight and his expression stern. Tears ran down the cheeks of the queen.

“What have you done while we were gone?” the king demanded.

“We have built new mansions for ourselves,” they said, “and created new tools that make our lives easier and new toys that give us pleasure.”

“And what about our castle?”

The servants looked around and saw what they had done. To make their own mansions and machines, they had neglected the castle. In fact, they had dismantled much of it and used the salvaged materials for their own mansions. What remained of it was turning to rubble. The trees of the grounds had been felled for lumber. The gardens uprooted. The servants had sold off the art they could get good prices for and used other pieces of art for sport. At least one piece, they had noticed, had gone missing early on.

The servants were silent in shame and fear.

Except for one.

He met the lord’s gaze directly as he spoke.

“We knew you would come again, great king, and make everything new. So we used the power you gave us for our pleasure. We are, you said, what you are most proud of. You can fix all this, can you not?”

The king did not acknowledge this statement but asked the assertive servant, “And where are our ravens? I do not hear their cries. They did not come to us when we called for them.”

“They were very messy, very noisy, and had minds of their own,” the servant said. “Nor were they good to eat. Keeping them alive and happy  was too much for us. We used our time and the resources we had for more important things. Instead, we have made mechanical pets that are much more orderly and much more useful. Would you like to see –“

“NO!”

The king roared in pain and fury. He ordered for his soldiers to take the servants to the borders of the kingdom and to never let the servants return.

The servants, with the exception of the proud and assertive one, were shocked and dismayed. They pleaded with the king to be allowed to stay. They promised to do better. They promised to fix everything.

The king said, “The castle was ours and yet you destroyed it for your own satisfaction. The art was ours, and it is no more. We treasured the beauty of the garden and the food that was harvested from it. The ravens were birds we took great pleasure in, and they will not give us company again. It is clear that your hearts have not not been shaped by what I taught you and showed you. You will never be happy with me nor will I be happy with you. What is best for you and the queen and I is for you to be gone forever.”

The assertive servant stepped forward with his head held high and did not bow. He looked his king in the eye

“My king,” he started, and it seemed to some that he put particular emphasis on the first of those two words. “You gave us your kingdom and told us we were your greatest pride and joy. You chose us and gave us power. You created. We have created. You cannot do this to us. If what we did was wrong, it was your fault.”

The king’s eyes narrowed. He stood, and the fearful power in him seemed to fill the air.

“Your words and your actions have shown who you really are,” said the king. “You knew in your heart the pleasure we took in everything in the castle. It was ours. You were our servants. Yet you diminished and destroyed it. Did you not see that we took pleasure in seeing the castle, the people, and the kingdom prosper? Did you not see how we ruled?”

“And you are the worst of all,” the king said to the assertive servant. “With intelligence enslaved by your twisted heart, you have twisted my words and my intentions. A child would know in an instant that what you have done is wrong.”

The king commanded that the assertive servant be led off in chains to the prison.

At that moment a large black bird suddenly flew toward the thrones and came to perch on the queen’s shoulder.

“Night!” the queen exclaimed in surprise and delight.

“Where did our raven come from?” demanded the king.

A guard pointed to a poor man standing on the outer circle of the assembly next to a battered cart.

“Come forward,” the king commanded.

The poor man came into the king’s presence and knelt deeply before him. He brought the large cart with him.

“Where did you get my raven?”

“Your highness, I heard what your servants were doing so I snuck into the castle to try to save your ravens. I was only able to save this one. He was nearly dead. I am sorry I could not save more. But I did save one other thing.”

He pulled away old blankets and hides that covered something large in his cart. It was their favorite piece of art. It was a painting they had made that depicted their kingdom and all of its life and its beautiful country.

The king and queen arose quickly from their thrones and went to examine the painting and talked excitedly again of the days when they had painted it together and of their favorite parts of their kingdom. They laughed and tears again ran down the queen’s cheeks.

“How were you able to save this?” asked the king.

“My friends and I snuck in again one night, and when I heard of your art being sold. I knew that this was your favorite. After that I was unable to save more. Please forgive me, my lord. Your…your castle had been so beautiful.”

It was the poor man’s turn to shed tears.

To the great surprise of the assembly, the king and queen embraced the poor man.

When the king and queen could finally speak, the queen asked, “How can we thank you? What can we give you? You have done so much for us.”

“Let me have a simple room with simple meals. Let me help rebuild your castle and the country of your kingdom. I do not know very much. I am no longer as strong as I once was. But I love your goodness and what you have done for us. Nothing would gladden my heart more than to see your castle restored.”

“That is all?” the queen asked.

The poor man hesitated and then spoke, “Your highness, if my friends could sometimes join me for good food and tasty ale, my heart might have a bit more gladness.”

The king, the queen, and the assembly laughed.

“Your wish is granted.”

The king, the queen, and the poor man spent many good years together restoring the castle and its grounds. New art was made. Young trees were planted to take the place of those that had been felled. In time, the restored garden again produced fruit, herbs, and vegetables. The poor man and his friends and family lived in one of the mansions built by the servants.

Of the king and the queen and the poor man It was hard to tell who was happier. It was hard to tell, too, what gave all of them the most pleasure – renewing the castle and the country or being together while doing so.

Christians will not consistently reveal the abundant life God offers nor act as if God’s Creation mattered unless churches weave a whole faith into their worship, theology, and culture. I’m exploring what that would look like in what I call the “whole faith church.” This is another post in that series.

Few things communicate as much about a church body’s faith and how that faith defines our relationship with God’s earth as the manner in which a church buries its loved ones who have passed away.

This is a defining moment in a church’s common life. It is a defining moment in the culture of one’s faith. And culture, of course, is typically something that is invisible to us. We do things within a culture just because that’s the way they are done.

So in the comforting rituals of our visitations, funerals, and internments it is easy to miss elements that are not in synch with a whole Christian faith. The elements that revolve around how the body is treated and how we treat the land in which the body is buried are particularly out of synch.

For that reason, the whole faith church will handle funerals and burials in some ways that are different from mainstream practices.

These ways, I believe, are actually more consistent with key messages of the Bible. These ways would also contribute to a church culture that more fully commits itself to stewarding the physical elements of God’s earth (including our bodies) with respect and honor.

These would be the key burial practice principles of a whole faith church:

Unless there are unusual circumstances, the loved one’s body will not be embalmed.

The loved one’s body will be buried in such a way that the return of the body to dust will not be hindered. Coffins, if necessary, will be biodegradable and vaults will not be used.

The land in which loved ones are buried will be stewarded in ways that make it possible for as much natural life to prosper as possible and will, simultaneously, have creative human design and art that set those places apart for special meaning.

The whole faith church will minimally gather once a year as a community at that place to remember the dead, to celebrate their eventual resurrection, and to tend to the landscape there.

What will these practices affirm?

That indeed we are made of dust and to dust we will return.

That the death of a loved one is a momentous event for which the rest of our lives should stop.

That we come into this world with nothing and leave it with nothing.

That we are all equal before God.

That we are both made in the image of God and also part of Creation.

That it is right to treat every place on God’s earth, especially those with deep spiritual meaning, with deep respect and with the intention of promoting the life of God’s earth as much as possible.

That we as a community are committed to remembering our dead and the land in which they have been buried actively and incarnationally with times of togetherness, remembrance, and hands-on work.

That the resurrection will be miraculous beyond all measure.

For some readers this will all sound whacked-out radical and completely impractical.

Ironically, this approach to funerals and burial is actually far more the norm historically. And it’s being done in increasing numbers of places today.

It is called green burial.

Green burial has its own certification organization – the Green Burial Council – that defines what counts as green burial (and there are a spectrum of types) and what doesn’t. There are also examples of green burial grounds that demonstrate how green burial can be done in combination with the ongoing stewardship of a beautiful natural area. Here are a few examples: Honey Creek Woodlands in Georgia, Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, Green Meadow in Pennsylvania, and at Kokosing Nature Preserve at Kenyon College in Ohio.

My favorite story about this kind of burial comes from Dr. Billy Campbell, the founder of Memorial Ecosystems which launched the green burial movement here in the United States by opening Ramsey Creek Preserve.

Some of the rural neighbors of the property that became Ramsey Creek Preserve weren’t initially thrilled about having this “new” approach to burial close by. And one of the most vociferous opponents was a cantankerous older man known for his red suspenders. But as the years went by, he saw how Ramsey Creek Preserve’s approach to burial preserved the woods he loved and was a deeply meaningful way for people to bury their dead. He was won over.

A number of years later when his health was declining, he dictated that he wanted to be buried at the Ramsey Creek Preserve. And he was, wearing his signature red suspenders.

I’ll be writing more about this in posts to come. If you’re looking for one book to read to better understand how embalming works and to introduce you to diverse green burial options being practiced, then check out Grave Matters by Mark Harris. He also has a good website of the same name that includes this excerpt from the book describing a burial at the Ramsey Creek Preserve.

The title of this blog is, admittedly, a shameless attempt to grab your attention and, perhaps, cause you to smile at a time when the country’s mood is in turmoil. I believe there are lessons to be gained from the Cubs’ first World Series championship in 108 years that bear on our effort to live out a whole Christian faith as communities of believers. You’ll find ten below.

A vision and a plan are needed: The Cubs’ World Series victory did not happen by accident. Theo Epstein was hired as president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs in 2011. In 2012, the Cubs lost 101 games out of 162. In 2013, they were barely better as they lost 96 while winning just 66. But Epstein had a plan for getting the Cubs to the championship level just as he had taken the Boston Red Sox to two World Series victories. It unfolded over time. It involved change in almost every aspect of the Cubs’ organization. And it worked. What vision and plan are you part of for God’s desires for this world? Do you know what your gifts are? Have you figured out how to use them for maximum impact?

Recognize needs and seize opportunities: Plans can only go so far. There are times when you must adapt, recognize critical moments, and act decisively to pursue opportunities you didn’t expect. Recognizing their need for better relief pitching in middle of this season, the Cubs acquired pitcher Mike Montgomery (and another pitcher) from Seattle on July 20 this year. Five days later the Cubs traded four good prospects to the Yankees for the hardest throwing pitcher in baseball – relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman. Both Montgomery and Chapman played key roles in their regular season and playoff success. In fact, Montgomery secured the final out in Game 7. God gives us agency and free will to make smart choices and to adjust to changes in life. We should be on our toes and not on autopilot with the assumption that God will take care of everything.

Work collaboratively and joyfully: Epstein is brilliant. But he hired people into the organization who were also smart and good at their particular functions, whether that be scouting or marketing. And from all accounts, he let them do their jobs, working with them in collaborative ways. One of the reasons the Cubs were so fun to watch, too, was the genuine fun and friendly bonds the players seemed to enjoy together. Maddon encouraged them to keep loose. You and I need each other and other Christians in whatever circumstances we’re in to be most effective for God. These should be relationships of mutual respect and cooperation. And there should be some lightness and joy.

Expect a crooked path to success: The Cubs didn’t go 162-0 in the regular season this year. At one point in the season, they actually began to sputter. During the National League Championship Series, they fell behind the Dodgers. They were down 3-1 in the World Series to the Indians. They lost their 6-3 lead in Game 7 in the bottom of the eighth inning. Their spirits were nearly crushed. Some players were even crying during the rain delay before the 10th inning bregan. Life dishes out pain and exposes one’s failings. Expect it. Persevere through it.

Failure both teaches and must be forgotten: By the time Cubs’ second baseman Javier Baez came up in the 5th inning of Game 7, my son and I were sure he was going to make another out swinging at pitches miles from the strike zone. He had been 4-for-26 at that point and was, uncharacteristically, making errors in the field. He was facing Corey Kluber, the Indians’ best pitcher. What did he do? He rocked a pitch to center field for a home run. Kluber was then removed from the game. From what the broadcasters said, Cubs coaches had been working with Baez on hitting technique and encouraging him to not try to pull every pitch. It worked. Baez evidently listened. And he had the strength of mind to put his failures behind him, stay composed, and perform at the peak of his abilities in the moment he was in.

Use strengths, work around weaknesses: From about 2012, John Lester, the Cubs’ premier starting pitcher, for some psychological reason, began to lose all ability to throw the ball to any of the bases whether to hold a runner on or to throw a runner out on a ground ball or bunt. This is a fundamental part of being a pitcher, much less a baseball player, and yet he couldn’t do it. Jason Heyward was signed to a huge $184 million, eight-year contract with the expectation that he would be a foundational, complete player for the Cubs. But during the regular season, he ended up batting an anemic .230. And when crunch time came in the World Series he managed only a miserable .150. Yet, both Lester and Heyward made huge impacts as the Cubs found ways to use them. Lester pitched crucial innings. Heyward played great defense in the outfield and gave a talk during the rain delay after the ninth inning that calmed his teammates and helped them come out and win in the seventh game in the 10th inning under tremendous pressure. People around you don’t have to be perfect to be valuable in their role. Neither do you.

Leaders will make mistakes: By the seventh game of the World Series, Joe Maddon’s calm demeanor and relaxed approach to his leadership that we had seen throughout the season had frayed. You could see him grimacing when players made mistakes. He made some pitching moves that were questioned at the time they were made and proved to be bad ones. But in baseball and in the life of a church, even the best of leaders are not perfect. And we shouldn’t expect them to be.

Money helps: According to Spotrac, the Cubs had the fifth highest payroll in Major League Baseball at just over $186 million. Cleveland was at 21st with almost $115 million. Adequate and even generous funding of a church or ministry by people or organizations which have been blessed financially is, similarly, very important.

Cherish shared bonds over time: A friend of mine passed away far too early in his life a few years ago. He was a huge Cubs fan, even when he moved to New Mexico. I remember us having heated (but friendly) arguments about the relative strengths of the Cubs versus the White Sox when we were kids on the sidewalk of our Chicago neighborhood sidewalk on summer days. I found myself thinking often of him during the World Series. I know his family cried upon the Cubs’ victory in large part because they wished they could have shared it with him. I heard of a Cubs’ fan listening to Game 7 at the side of his father’s grave to honor their common connection to the Cubs. All of this is a small taste of what bonds between Christian family members and even between just members should be and can be. Does your church have that shared bond? Do you and others you know have that shared excitement and passion around your mission that is in continuity with past centuries of disciples?

Being lovable isn’t the point: For decades there was an aura of security and comfort around the Cubs. Wrigley Field was a great place to go and enjoy the sunshine and the company of friends. The baseball being played was like background music and was, to many, of no real consequence. People still showed up. There was even a certain comfort in their perennial problems. But playing baseball, like any sport, is ultimately about striving to win. Only if you’re doing everything possible to do so are you really playing the game. Likewise, a Christian life shouldn’t be defined only by being lovable and comforting and looking forward to peace and heaven when we die. Our eternal lives are already under way. The way of life we are part of is about taking on challenges in this world. There is a call to action inherent in being a follower of Jesus. Like the Cubs of 2016, we should be a goodhearted group of people who also are committed down to our very bones to win at the game we’re in. For Christians that means using our energy and abilities to live out God’s goodness and to struggle against evil in this world.

In the last blog post, I asked this question – when will preserving and renewing God’s earth be part and parcel of what it means to live a Christian life?

Here’s my answer – that will happen when churches have a whole faith woven into their worship, theology, and culture.

This is a radical thing to propose.

Many Christians would flatly deny that caring for God’s earth is an essential part of being Christian. Others would give lip service to that ideal while recoiling from any call to tangible action that might inconvenience them, much less challenge them.

You will find Christians, of course, who care deeply for God’s earth. You are likely one of those already. You live in thoughtful, self-sacrificing ways outside of church. You may even lead or support activities in your church – like recycling or improving energy efficiency – that move the church toward collectively being more responsible in its stewardship of God’s earth.

These are all good and worthy of honor. That has probably not always been easy in your church community.

But if we look with eyes wide open at the state of God’s earth around the world and the lack of concerted action by churches and Christians in addressing the earth’s desecration, then it is painfully clear that what is being done is not enough.

Earth stewardship too often is one of a number of activities that are in orbit around the core life and culture of a church. In no fundamental way is a loving concern for the life of God’s earth integrated into a church’s DNA.

It is like a mother and father who take their family on a two-week summer vacation trip each year but otherwise neglect their children and rely on nannies and school activities for engaging their kids. For years the parents are able to pursue their professions, interests, and hobbies unhindered. They are dramatically successful and accomplished in every way. But they eventually reap what they have sown. Their kids have troubled adolescent years. Later, to the parents’ surprise, the children turn out to be selfish and uninterested in visiting the nursing home where the parents end up, alone and full of regrets.

What those parents needed to do was not plan even more special vacations or even better birthday parties. They needed a whole different value system that permeated the way they lived and the way they interacted with their children every day and every moment.

Similarly, what church communities need is an awareness deep in their culture and worship that the salvation God ultimately offers is the healing of all Creation. They also need an urgent, church-wide commitment to protecting and healing God’s earth as part of their membership’s united efforts to help make God’s will be done.

Can this completely happen in existing churches? I’d like to think so, but I don’t know.

Established institutions have a hard time changing. It is difficult for all of us imbedded in our culture to distinguish what about our values is cultural and what is the fruit of hearts and minds fixed on God. It will be much easier and instinctive for denominations, theologians, pastors, and long-time believers to dismiss these concerns as secondary or even heretical based on long-standing theologies.

For those reasons, I can’t help but believe it is time for new wineskins.

It is time for new whole faith churches.

These wouldn’t be churches for everyone. They would be, however, cherished church homes for people who have been spiritual nomads to this point. They would be homes for people who love God so much they find it hard to worship when they can hear the cries of people and the non-human life of this world who are falling, metaphorically, into a pit that we ourselves have helped dig. They would be seeds of larger change as well.

I write all this with trepidation. Yet, I see no other way.