Ministry


From my friend Pete Rollins. I wish I could write parables like this.

Actual site and info on Pete’s work and current Insurrection project here.

Discuss.

Just as it was written by those prophets of old, the last days of the Earth overflowed with suffering and pain. In those dark days a huge pale horse rode through the earth with Death upon its back and Hell in its wake. During this great tribulation the Earth was scorched with the fires of war, rivers ran red with blood, the soil withheld its fruit and disease descended like a mist. One by one all the nations of the Earth were brought to their knees.

Far from all the suffering, high up in the heavenly realm, God watched the events unfold with a heavy heart. An ominous silence had descended upon heaven as the angels witnessed the Earth being plunged into darkness and despair. But this could only continue for so long for, at a designated time, God stood upright, breathed deeply and addressed the angels,

“The time has now come for me to separate the sheep from the goats, the healthy wheat from the inedible chaff”

Having spoken these words God slowly turned to face the world and called forth to the church with a booming voice,

“Rise up and ascend to heaven all of you who have who have sought to escape the horrors of this world by sheltering beneath my wing. Come to me all who have turned from this suffering world by calling out ‘Lord, Lord’”.

In an instant millions where caught up in the clouds and ascended into the heavenly realm. Leaving the suffering world behind them.

Once this great rapture had taken place God paused for a moment and then addressed the angels, saying,

“It is done, I have separated the people born of my spirit from those who have turned from me. It is time now for us leave this place and take up residence in the Earth, for it is there that we shall find our people. The ones who would forsake heaven in order to serve the earth. The few who would turn away from eternity itself to serve at the feet of a fragile, broken life that passes from existence in but an instant”.

And so it was that God and the heavenly host left that place to dwell among those who had rooted themselves upon the earth. Quietly supporting the ones who had forsaken God for the world and thus who bore the mark God. The few who had discovered heaven in the very act of forsaking it.

Last night I had a great evening talking with my friend the Ultrarev, and among other topics covered, the idea of Scripture came up. The Ultrarev actually blogged on the topic after he got home (here), and my mind kept turning on the topic too. A lot of the discussion revolved around the old standard evangelical categories on scripture: Is it infallible? Is it inerrant? Is it inspired or God-breathed?

These terms are, as I’ve argued in my classes and in job application letters (eek…) and elsewhere (I think even on this blog), modern terms.  For example:

For Christians, Scripture must be the plumbline, the norming norm that guides each individual and community of faith to the Kingdom. I believe that in the modern world, the technology of the word has contributed to an understanding of Scripture that provides Christians with an effective means of expressing the authority of the Bible for the life of the church and its role in the world. While terms such as “infallible” and “inerrant” are modern terms alien to Scripture, I believe that they are dynamic equivalents to ancient understandings of the power of the written word that permit the force of that power to be understood and appreciated by modern Christians.  Early Christians and the writers of the New Testament understood the Word to be the message and proclamation of the Gospel and the person of Christ, a point that I believe has largely become lost in contemporary fetishization of the Scriptures among many in the Church today. The written word is witness to the Living Word that is Christ, and provides the only model for the church that, through its pages, teaches us the model of Jesus and of living a Christian life within the Church committed to bringing the Kingdom of God among us. Scripture is the pneuma of God that gives life, the essence of the same breath or inspiration that gave life to Adam from the dust of the earth and that animated Christ, the second Adam, from the dust of the grave.

But for many, this isn’t enough; somehow God has to have his hand in it, even if it’s not a mechanical, “hands-on” approach to the formation of Scripture (and I regard “scripture” and “Bible” as two different categories).  Ultrarev and I were talking about Arminianism and evolution and a bit of process theology. Subscribing to the basic elements of each of these, to hold to a mechanical, dictation-model of God’s role in scripture is, to say the least, pretty contradictory. I suggest, then, that we think of God’s hand in scripture not like we think of our hands at a keyboard or with a block of wood and some tools, but as the hand of the priest who touches and blesses the elements of the Eucharist. Like the priest over the ordinary elements of bread and wine, God similarly blessed an ordinary book or, more precisely, a collection of books that advances his Kingdom.

The irony here is that in both the Jewish and Christian cases, the “kingdom” was a literal one; for the Torah, it was the Persian Empire and then the post-Maccabean Hasmonean Dynastic would-be empire; for Christians, while the process took a while, it was the post-Constantinian empire of Rome. I’m in full agreement with Ultrarev here; today’s Christians need to two two things with regard to our Bible and idea of Scripture. First, we have to come to terms with the truly imperial origins of it, and somehow come to terms with all the connotations of empire that have accreted to the Bible over the last 1600 years (specifically colonialism, industrialism, western superiority, and consumer capitalism). This is a daunting task. Secondly, we need to let go of the mechanistic model of inspiration and replace it with something along the idea of God’s blessing of the Bible in much the same way that the priest blesses the bread and wine, or the penitent, or the baptized; in every case, it is the common, the ordinary, and the transformed for God’s Kingdom work that is blessed, not the already holy.

More work needs to be done here. The obvious question is “Why?” I hope some discussion might bring some ideas on this.

So the question is put to me, what’s so wrong with a denomination establishing criteria of doctrinal consent that are required for official ordained ministry within the denomination? It came up during a documentary that included discussion of the 5 fundamentals of early 20th century Presbyterianism and the resulting division in the church (and which paved the way for mid-twentieth century evangelical-liberal fear of each other in general).

My answer is that there’s basically nothing wrong with doing this, so long as it is recognized that this is not a universal absolute that has to be adhered to by everyone. In other words, if the denomination recognizes that this is essentially the “membership standard” in order to be part of the club of Denomination X and not membership requirements for determining who is “Christian” and who isn’t, fine.

More specifically, some denominations (such as the PCUSA) have historically been at the forefront of “updating” the Christian mission to reflect the needs of the age it finds itself in. 100 years ago, it was science and modernity, and the 5 fundamentals reflect the issues the church was faced with in how to do Christian work. In particular, colonialism, Darwinism, historical criticism, “progress,” scientific and psychoanalytic analysis, and so on, all hallmarks of modernity, were the major issues confronting the churches, and the Fundamentals themselves were completely modernist answers to a very modernist slate of issues. Absolute certainty in religion was the mirror image of absolute certainty in science and historical factuality.

As seminaries now are very clear that their mission is no longer “conversion” to Christianity, many conservatives and fundamentalists, I think, misunderstand what is going on with current Christian training. If it is truly Christian, as I’ve written on this blog in the past, there is but one essential, and that is the confession of Christ as Lord and Master. If a church’s work and mission stems from this, it is doing Christian work, Kingdom work, as I call it. Conversion may or may not be a part of this. What is happening with Seminaries and Churches and other institutions that are in the field of Christian vocations is they are cognizant of the fact that “conversion” is virtually synonymous with Colonialism, and specifically western colonialism. It recognizes that doing Kingdom work does not mean “making everyone a Christian.” But many conservatives and fundamentalists think this is exactly what it means to save the world: convert every last person to Christianity.

God save us, no!

The Church should have standards for its own governance, and it needs ways and means and an ethic of not being of the world even while it is in it. And those should be determined through much critical thought and excruciating prayer. But our mission is not to make everyone in the world “like us.” Confessing Christ’s lordship means not turning the world into a planet of Christians, let alone Presbyterians or Baptists or Methodists or Adventists or what-have-yous. Our mission is simply to bring the Kingdom of God to places where it is needed most. And these days, I daresay that the places it is most needed is in the institutional churches themselves. Getting all caught up in absolutes and certainties and doctrines and issues of “who’s in and who’s out” distracts us from our real work: to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love God with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind, to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God; and to preach Christ crucified, using words only when necessary.

Apparently Pat Robertson is a mite jealous over Chuck’s receipt of the JSU! Award; not to be outdone, we get this brilliant piece from the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of The 700 Club on Monday night’s show:

There you have it. “Islam is not a religion. It is a worldwide political movement meant (sic) on domination of the world. And it is meant to subjugate all people under Islamic law.”

Yikes. Not only do we need to present Pat with his own JSU! Award, but we may have to institute the F-Bomb Award for Religious Ignorance (see here, here, and here, all on Aedificium) as well.

There are something like 2.3 million or so Muslims in the US alone. That means that we Christians are more likely to bump into Muslims in the grocery store than we are to bump into Episcopalians. Pat’s, and Chuck’s, comments ought to be as unwelcome to those of us who are Christians as they are to our Muslim friends and neighbors. Neither of these guys speaks for the majority of Christians, but they’re the ones getting the airtime.

It’s not like we can get Pat off the air, I guess, but those of us in the rank-and-file of American Christians can still be active in denouncing this kind of extremism through our relationships with our Muslim friends, neighbors, colleagues, co-workers, and so forth, in pretty much the same way that American Muslims denounce terrorism and extremism. We can blog, we can call in to radio shows, we can write op-ed pieces, and engage in other creative ways of rejecting this kind of influence.

Upshot: Islam is a religion. And it’s a sibling of Christianity and Judaism. Spread the word.

Where the Wind Blows: Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

061213_tree_damage_wind3.jpgI suspect that many people reading this have experienced in one way or another, as I have, the destruction and damage that a sudden, violent wind can cause with the least amount of warning. When I worked for the State Park Service in Ohio, I was often on call on weekends for cleanup of wind and storm damage on our buildings, in the campground, the beach, and the trails and picnic areas. My equipment consisted of a dump truck and a chainsaw, and occasionally an axe and a sledgehammer as well. It was not unusual for the wind to rip out trees that had stood for over a hundred years and drop them onto structures built up by the state or the park service over the years or across roads and trails that could no longer guide travelers from one part of the park to another. I spent hundreds of hours hacking through such trees to clear out roadways and paths and occasionally knocking down various structures that once served an important purpose but which now, through the violence of wind, were now rendered useless; the best I could often do was salvage what I could to be used in another time, and even in another place, while the rest of the structure would be removed completely. Fences erected between private and public land were often mangled, permitting civilized humans and wild animals alike to run free and ignore the divisions between “our” land and “their” properties.

What was also interesting is that it often seemed like these windstorms, whether they were tornadoes or micro-bursts, seemed to us to always hit the same areas, which on the one hand annoyed the heck out of us laborers but on the other hand permitted a certain amount of planning and preparation. If bad weather was forecast for Saturday, I would often get the trucks ready and chainsaws oiled and sharpened on Friday afternoon. On the other hand, though, it seemed like the park administration never figured this out, or else never believed us, and I remember an outhouse that was flattened twice in the same summer, being rebuilt yet a third time that fall, only to be flattened again the following spring. When I left the park service, they were building it yet again in the same spot. I knew, as did most of the laborers, that we weren’t dealing with geniuses in these decisions to simply keep doing things the same way that they’ve always been done, under the same bylaws and regulations that have been in place for 100 years, despite the fact that the wind, obviously, didn’t give a hoot for the rules, regulations, budget constraints, and conventional wisdoms of the board of directors.

The ancient Hebrews knew the Spirit of God as ru’ach elohim as in Genesis 1.2 and dozens of places elsewhere in the Old Testament. The word itself basically means “wind” or “breath”. The Hebrews took this concept a step further in their thinking, as well, and they recognized that God is the source of life; his granting of “spirit” to Adam was an act of unprecedented newness by which adam, “man,” became a living being (Genesis 2.7) with power to create, sustain (Genesis 6.3; Job 27.3; 34.14-15, others), and renew life (as in Ps. 104:29-30; Isaiah 32.15).

The concept of the Spirit of God as the powerful wind of life led to the Hebrews seeing the Spirit as who God sends to accomplish his goals as the divine power at work in the world. Scripture shows us repeatedly that God’s Spirit acts in special ways in the lives of people in order to accomplish special tasks. The Old Testament shows that the presence of God’s Wind, God’s Spirit, provided the recipient with whatever was needed to complete a divinely ordained job. It is God’s spirit, and not solely or even primarily human intellect or ability or committees and so forth that was the indispensable provision for accomplishing God’s program (see Zech. 4.6) against all fears (see Haggai 2.4-5).

Along these lines, the Prophets dreamed of and hoped for a day when the fullness of God’s Spirit, God’s Wind, God’s Life, would rest on an Anointed One (Isaiah 42.2) who would in turn pour out his Spirit on the House of Israel (Ezekiel 39.29) and all of God’s people, which would inaugurate the universal experience of the presence of God (see Joel 2.28-29).

But the prophets, like seamen and those whose livelihoods depend on the seas, also seemed to know instinctively that a massive influx of God’s Wind blowing into this world would radically alter everything we think we know about him and everything we do that we think honors him. The sudden rush of a violent wind threatens to break down barriers and boundaries and destroy some structures while transfiguring others for new uses, of closing old paths and opening new roads. The sudden rush of life would likewise signal an end to old patterns of knowing and doing, an expiration of the old, and the inspiration of the new.

And what newness! The Day of Pentecost has always been a festival of newness and renewal in Jewish tradition; it marked the end of the celebration of the spring harvest as the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot. It was considered in Jesus’ day to be the day of the giving of the Law at Sinai (see Jubilees 1.17). For the church, the 50th day after Passover, when Jews from all over the Mediterranean were on hand to celebrate God’s bounty of life and the giving of the covenant and to renew their covenantal relationship to yhwh, was the Day that signaled the end of the chaos of Babel (Genesis 11.1-9) and the beginning of the Church’s mission, a mission that would accomplish things even greater than Jesus had done, as he promised his disciples in the passage we read from John today. On Pentecost, the sudden rush of Spirit-Wind over the rag-tag gathering of Jews from all over enabled not just a common language to be understood by all men, but a new speech entirely, one that refused the stock answers of all the traditions of their various cultures and politics and religious practices and ideologies. The Jews that day heard the new speech of new prophets, as it were, in the new language of the Gospel of Christ.

We live in a world today that presumes, and even trusts and hopes, that there is no new Wind that will challenge all our trusted structures, even when these structures turn out to be little more than outhouses in a park. We hope that when such a Wind does blow that we can contain and control it by moving it through ordered, legitimated channels and finely engineered and constructed “wind tunnels.” But the threat of Pentecost is exactly that the Wind of the Holy Spirit will not cooperate, and when it comes it is an egalitarian Wind that blows on all present. God’s Wind doesn’t care about our judgments on “who’s in” and “who’s out.” God’s Wind doesn’t care about our finely constructed systematic theologies or our popular versions of conservative and liberal interpretations. The threat of Pentecost is that God’s Wind will blow where it will blow! And, like when a strong wind levels out old, gigantic trees in a forest, a new space for growth, a clearing for new life in an ecosystem perhaps hundreds of years old, begins to emerge.

We in the church are right to be apprehensive, for we know, as I knew in the Park Service, that while the Spirit of God blows where it wants to, when it wants to, it always seems to come back to the same place. The Church is that place; it is the site where the Wind of God returns again and again to dismantle our structures when they become oppressive and unjust or just flat out wrong, no matter how long we have been “doing church” or “thinking Christian” in the way we have. The Spirit of God labors, sometimes with us, and often against us, in bringing out God’s missional activity in the world. We, like the buildings in my old park, are always being challenged by the force of the Spirit of God. Our God, through the mission of the Gospel of Christ, has singled us out to accomplish his ends, to do Kingdom work. And to do that, we as the Church of Jesus the Christ and those called to the Gospel need the Wind of God at our back, not in our face.

As we celebrate the birthday of the Church today, may we speak the new speech of the life of the Gospel; and may we humbly yield to whatever direction the Wind of the Holy Spirit may take us. Oh Lord, ‘Let your wind blow!’

Cover of Davis McCombs, Ultima ThuleI’m sitting here doing a little reading from Davis McCombs’ Ultima Thule, a collection of the author’s poems inspired by Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Told from the vantage point of a slave cavern guide to tourists of Mammoth Cave in the 19th century, these poems are stunning reflections on beauty and provide some pretty awesome metaphors for life, spirituality, the whole bit. As a religionist and student of scriptures who also views the natural world in metaphoric terms for deep spirituality and community ethics, I was particularly taken by the poem “Tours:”

Tours

The services of a guide cannot, as a rule,
be dispensed with; we alone can disentangle
the winding passageways. I will admit
the tours for me grow burdensome.
How long must I endure their need to fill
with talk the natural silence? I have heard
it all before, their proposed improvements:
Widen the trails so that two carriages
may pass abreast … Here, a capacious ballroom.
Mere fancies. And yet beneath their words
I have discerned a kind of rough-hewn fear.
From drawing rooms and formal gardens
they come to me, from sunlit lives they enter
the chill, grand and instantaneous night. (Ultima Thule, p. 17)

This is such a striking metaphor for what we as educators do. It also speaks to me in terms of stewardship; like the poet, we have all heard of proposed improvements to just about everything from Bibles to Bayous. Despite my vocation, I do feel moved to sometimes just turn off the exegesis, turn off the exposition, the discussion, and just let the text/landscape speak for itself, in silence.

And the rough-hewn fear … yeah, for both student and educator, laity and pastor, reader and expositor.

To do this poem justice, I must cease now, and let it speak to you in the silence.

Carnegie Library at Syracuse UniversityJohn Kimbrough of the University of Chicago Library, recently submitted a thoughtful piece to the university’s Divinity School publication “Sightings on the implications of being a librarian of faith who views his job as “library ministry.” As a former (and, God knows, perhaps eventually a future) academic librarian who shares the Christian tradition, this article caught my eye last week.

Kimbrough makes what most of us in the library field would concede as an obvious point, and indeed, most of the teaching faculty would concede it as well. He notes that “Entering undergraduates often do not know how to use our collections effectively.” Absolutely true, although I would stick my neck out just a little further to emend the last phrase to “do not know how to use our collections at all.” It is also my own observation that graduating seniors and, heaven help us, graduate students are only marginally better at effective collection use. And yes, the internet is partly to blame; Kimbrough rightly points out that “the library is just another website among thousands that students have at their disposal.” But this is a smoke-screen for the larger problem, which is that the librarians themselves are promoting this mentality by providing more and more bibliographies that are available on the library’s websites or reference kiosks that give students the impression that all they could possibly need for their study of religion (or whatever) can simply be picked up at their convenience. I have been guilty of this myself, having developed a number of such bibliographies and research guides. As a reference librarian, students would trickle in for reference assistance, but it was exceedingly rare for a researcher to actually ask a serious research question. Librarian (me): Can I help you with something? Student: No, I think I’m all set, I just grabbed this research guide. Thanks, though. Librarians who are better than I was might pursue the student’s interests a little more here, but usually the student was more than happy to take his or her three-page printed list of reference works and websites and go home and write their paper. And then, the library directors and trustees are perplexed by ever-declining reference statistics and bemoan the loss of the library and its budget.

Now, I’m all for using whatever information resources we as scholars, students, researchers, and teachers have at our disposal. But these can only take us so far if we truly seek knowledge and not simply “information.” Knowledge implies being able to separate the sheep from the goats (theological librarians will understand that remark). In the field of religion, this means assisting in imparting knowledge about texts such as the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the Qur’an in the Abrahamic faiths, for example. Library ministry here, as Kimbrough expresses it, would imply the librarian’s ability to sensitively direct students to these texts as well as to sources about them (and there’s no shortage of that). Yet not every student that seeks to read the Hebrew Bible is Jewish, and still less may that student be a religion major, and even less may the student be seeking an academic career in religion. It should be the librarian’s duty, or “ministry,” to grant these students genuine opportunities for authentic textual encounters with the sacred texts and religions of the world.

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