Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Trinity

Jason is not a trinitarian and had some interesting thoughts on the Nicene Creed. While I won't go through the Nicene Creed line by line, as Jason did, I would like to talk about the Trinitarian ideal that is asserted within the creed.

The Trinity is at the core of Christianity and found in the early doctrines of the church. This mystery is central to our faith; but for many in our time, it is embarrassing, hard to explain, and even offensive. I interpret the doctrine as a response by the early Christian church to differentiate from how it perceived Jewish and pagan theologies.

“Classic theology” is the view that God is far away, that there is a gulf between the divine and human and never the twain shall meet. The writers of the Gospels believed that Temple authorities held this view. This idea is also active in some Christian streams today. The early Christians picked up on this and held to the notion that God the creator was not distant, but personal and immediate; not only transcendent.

Many pagan theology takes the view that the gods were completely immediate and could be manipulated by various rituals. The gods depicted in many stories have an adversarial relationship with humanity. The early Christians wanted to say that God was indeed with them, but also wanted to stand the idea that God can be manipulated or bargained with through the use of ritual and idol. Christians believed that God is with us and for us, so much so that God would send God’s only begotten son to live with and die for humanity’s sake.This leads to the culmination of the embodied divine in Christ.

The incarnation for me brings both views of classic theism and paganism into “panentheism” which is central to Christianity. Panentheism implies that God is not just close, but in and through everything. We are a part of God, yet God is still separate. God is with us and daily bears our burdens and yet is transcendent. God is with us and in us, in our midst when we pray alone with the doors shut or when two or more are gathered. There is no line between sacred and secular just like at the end of the Gospel of Mark where the curtain is torn in the temple, and this signifies a God which can’t be boxed, can’t be contained, and in and through all of creation.

Where we often get stuck is on "How can God be human?" We have no problem with God as Spirit but we have a HUGE problem with God as human, namely Jesus. While I can't explain how Jesus is both human and divine, I can say that I best meet God through Jesus. Maybe the ol' creeds are right and Jesus was God... or maybe it's more like Matthew Fox's idea that Jesus was the Christ and it was not Jesus who was God but the Christ aspect. "In whom God was pleased to dwell" and all that... that there is a Cosmic Christ that comes through the ages, that the mind of God can be in a human body, yet not have the rest of the human's functions compromised. I dunno.. those are the extremes, i exist in the middle.

What i can say is that we should never divide up the Trinity into an economical view like God creates, the Son redeems, and the Spirit guides and sustains. God is one and the works of the Trinity are indivisible. So when I stated that I experience God’s love, justice, and forgiveness; I am also experiencing Jesus/Christ and the Holy Spirit’s as well. I picture it as if I were to cut out a triangle from paper to represent the Trinity, lay it on a flat surface and spin it. That is how God, the Spirit, and Christ work.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Part III: My Journey to Ordination

Part III: My Journey Toward Ordination in the UCC
(Part three of the ordination paper is intended to be an integrating statement that invites the
person to relate the faith & practice of the Church to his own pilgrimage of faith and understandings of and intentions for his ministry as a person ordained by the United Church of Christ.)

When asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I answered “Priest” up through the 4th grade in my Catholic elementary school. When I learned in 5th grade that priests could not marry I had to choose between women (marriage) or God (ordination) since I wanted to “collect” all seven sacraments. I picked marriage as women were more tangible, and I could not conceive of being alone. After 5th grade I answered “teacher” or “psychologist” when asked that question, but the same sense of these being the correct answer was missing.

My whole life I have felt different—not different as in better or worse than other people, but just different. I sometimes see and connect things more quickly and naturally than others. I seem to have some esoteric understanding of the universe, a poet’s mind and an artist’s eye. I also have a pragmatic ideal that was taught to me by my blue collar upbringing. I cannot create anything that is just art for art’s sake—it must help and do something. To paraphrase John Dewey, action without thinking is thoughtless and thought without action is meaningless.

I met my wife Kate when I was 17. I was struggling to hold onto my faith in the Catholic Church. It was not working. Kate was a United Methodist, and she invited me to her church. I had never been to a Protestant service before, and I had no idea what to expect. The pastor preached and referenced movies, books and philosophers (that particular day was Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and nonviolent resistance, which I was studying in school). I had no idea church could be this way! I was not used to this method in my Catholic church. I much preferred the Methodist church to the Catholic one, so I started going there.

At Ohio University I explored the world religions, especially Buddhism, which I still study to this day. I even surprised myself in accepting leadership roles in various clubs and working as a Resident Assistant. During this time, I had a falling out with what I understood as Protestant Christianity. I tried to join Campus Crusade for Christ to further learn about the Protestant tradition. Instead I found a rather limited view of Christianity: they were certain that they were correct and saved and all others were going to hell. It was their job to save all the unbelievers and misguided Christians, which included Catholics and liberal Christians. In discussions with people from Campus Crusade, I heard distorted views of Catholic dogma and church history that I tried to correct. During this time, I still had a strong presence of God and a relationship with Christ but I was not so sure about Christians.

Kate and I married in January 2004 after I graduated college. We moved to Virginia that month, where I began selling building supplies. I was happy and the money was good, but for the first time in my life something felt off. It was as if I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing. Something was amiss. I wanted to pursue the American dream and get the car and clothes and material things. Kate was not as into that and wanted to find a church.

We found Emmaus United Church of Christ and became involved very quickly. We felt at home at Emmaus because of its openness and willingness to learn about the world instead of shy away from it: the willingness to love humanity and not label and condemn it. Emmaus is one of the few churches I have encountered that truly preaches grace. Years later Reverend Federici stated that upon seeing me, he and Reverend Memrie Cook both thought that I would be a minister. I did not believe him at the time, but deep down I knew he was right. Into the second year of living in the D.C. area, I found that I was not happy in my job, and I met with Reverend Federici to explore my gifts. He brought up the “minister thing” again and asked me to really consider it. When he asked what my favorite job in the past was, he was not surprised when I answered “Resident Assistant in college,” as it was the closest I had been to being a minister. I was floored and had to work out what it means to be ordained.

I thought ordination meant that pastors serve more of a priestly role and have some special mark on them. This would mean that they are straddling the dimensions with one foot in this world and the other in the next. They are God’s mediators who are in line with the apostles and ordination passes on this apostolic descent and gives the pastor Christ-like powers to confer upon and administer the sacraments. I did not feel I fit that model. I believe in the “priesthood of all believers” and that we do not need mediators. God is Immanuel! With us! As a result of being in seminary though, I have realized that this is not the only model of ministry and I even believe some of it.

Historically in the UCC there have been two major models of ordained ministry. The first would be the Reformed idea stated above that pastors have one foot in this world and the other in the next. They make church a “home” that is filled with mystery and symbol, and the pastor embodies the divine. The second model is found in the Congregationalist idea of the pastor. Namely a pastor is someone who comes out of the community and acts as a motivator who fires people up and sends them out into the world to do God’s work of social justice. Church is not a home but a recharging station and the pastor’s primary role is empowerment. I feel that I am a hybrid of these two models of empowerment and embodiment.

I am part of the embodiment model because I feel as though God has guided me. God has given me the gifts of writing, love of learning and interest in others that a good minister needs. God’s spirit permeates my life. I easily fall into discussions about God with co-workers, family, friends and strangers on the street. People can embody other professions as well, like my brother-in-law and his job in sales or my sister-in-law and her job as a community art coordinator. Others are gifted doctors and lawyers. After much searching, I find that I am a minister at heart. I feel that I cannot be anything but a minister and that if I do something else, it just will not feel right.

I exemplify the Congregationalist empowerment model as well because I do not feel that I am above the congregation but come out of it. I have never seen myself as a leader, but rather more of a guide. I have never been comfortable with the word “leader” because it infers hierarchy. In my mind the only thing that separates people is willingness. I see myself as an enthusiastic guide who infects other people with a willingness to change or learn. I am steeped in the ways of the church and have studied scripture, and I can use both to teach others to use these two for practical, everyday use. Given my gift of being able to see the big picture, this makes me sort of a rallying point, a focus, and a witness to the life of the congregation.

Ordination then becomes a community event where people of a certain congregation see the gifts in a person for this position. The candidate has prayerfully examined his or her call and has had that call examined by others “concerning his or her fitness for ministry.” Constitutional Provision #24 states “An Ordained Minister of the UCC is one of its members who has been called by God and ordained to preach and teach the gospel, to administer the sacraments and rites of the church, and to exercise pastoral care and leadership.” This means that the call comes from outside the would-be pastor and not from his or her own ego. By “prayerful examination” the would-be pastor has trained and studied. He or she has formed a working theory of how to preach and teach the gospel, to administer the sacraments and rites of the church, and to exercise pastoral care and leadership.

This does not mean that God transmits some magical powers upon me during ordination. I do not and cannot believe that only ordained people can administer the sacraments. I can believe that only ordained people can teach and administer the sacraments most clearly as they have spent the most time thinking about their meaning and implication. They are able to make visible and tangible the intangible and invisible grace of God. They would be able to best connect the practicing church to the historic church that has gone before. Pastors are able to reinterpret tradition for today’s world.

There are many ways to ordain someone. One way to be ordained is to simply log onto the Internet and pay for ordination. That is not ordination as no one is affirming your call from God within a community—it is just a convenient way to serve the same role that a justice of the peace could serve, or, at worst, a joke. Another way is the apprenticeship model where a pastor takes a potential pastor under his or her wing and teaches through experience and example. While this may be a Biblically referenced model, it has some holes in it as well. This style gives a potential pastor only one example of ministry with all the biases and world view of one person.

The specific path through academia that is proscribed by the UCC is the ordination route that I find the best. In the academic model, a seminarian is flooded with information. While this is initially overwhelming, it opens the seminarian up to a broader view of God’s work in the world. This enables the pastor to be a non-anxious presence as they have a broad frame of reference from church history, ethics, polity, clinical pastoral education (mine was at Lancaster General Hospital), a cross cultural experience (mine was in Egypt), and many other lenses. They are more able to meet their congregation where they are both corporately and as individuals.

In short, a pastor hears God’s call, studies and focuses on this call for years in an academic setting, and then enters into conversation with his or her congregation to see how it all fits together. Ordination then becomes a communal and visible symbol of the invisible gifts that a person has to offer the community. It is a confirmation that the individual does embody Christ as best he or she is able and that others are inspired and empowered to follow their own calls.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Signs on the Journey

Given at Emmaus UCC, in Vienna, VA, January 17, 2010

I can't believe it's been three years since we moved! When we were preparing to leave for Lancaster, Rev Bill said, "See you in three years, visit when you can!" So here's your visit, three years later! For those of you who don't know me, my name is Luke Lindon, and I am in my last year at Lancaster Theological Seminary. My wife and I joined here in 2004. We thank you for your support, your gifts when Eve was born, and for still sending us the Happenings newsletter. Thank you for keeping me in care, and allowing me to speak today.

I want to start today by quoting that old song… "Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs." For a large part of my life I've been looking for signs. Now I'm training to be a minister and interpret them for a living. All sorts of signs; spiritual, cultural, and more.

The wedding at Cana where Jesus turning water into wine is one of the 7 miracle stories found in John, and it is unique only to John. Before seminary I would have said, it never happened. I would have led with "How did Jesus turn that water into wine?" and then spent the whole sermon talking about how it can't be done. I love science. I like to think of myself as rational. Or what our fellow UCCer Rienhold Niebuhr coined, a "Christian Realist."

That would mean that all miracle stories are just metaphors for something else. Like the calming of the sea and walking on water is just showing how a non-anxious presence can calm people down and how purity of purpose guides a group. Nothing more. I mean, the bible was written by a pre-scientific people. Sure they had their own science and technology, but not like ours. They didn't have germ theory –they thought disease was caused by "demons." They didn't have any concept of gravity or a round earth, or that we orbit the sun and not vice versa. Let's be rational here… right?

So what's the meaning of this story then? Did Jesus spike the punch to appease his nagging mother? Or was Jesus a party animal? Or did he pull a fast one and actually serve water to people who had been drinking for three days… I mean… after all, weddings back in the day were a community event lasting 3 to 5 days. The whole town came out and celebrated and if you ran out of food or drink then you lost status with the community. So what Jesus helping them save face? What type of image of Jesus does this present?

All of this doesn't seem to satisfy. It is missing something. The image of Jesus we get is at best something out of the movie Talladega Nights where a character states that he likes "to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-Shirt because it says I want to be formal, but I'm here to party."

Now, I'm not so much concerned with "how" Jesus did what he did. I'm more interested in "why?" Asking how questions miss the story, obscure the story. The HOW question look for the nugget of truth in the form of facts and verifiable data … this analytical approach loses the story by focusing on the bits and pieces and the narrative disappears.

Let's start with what we're given. There was a wedding, Mary asks Jesus to help out, he states his time has not yet come, Mary gathers up some servants and says "Just do whatever he tells you to" and Jesus tells them to collect water in six stone jars and when tasted by the party planner, he claims that it's the best wine yet. Only a few people know what Jesus did, his disciples and those who got the water. It's also good to note that the word Miracle isn't used for this story… "signs" is.

Signs are what the author of John calls them. Signs… We moderate and progressive Christians tend to shy away from the term miracles. It's too subjective… not rational enough… they are just random and meaningless supernatural violations of the laws of nature. But, the word "miracle" can be reclaimed in terms of our experiences of God's transforming presence in our lives. These unexpected quantum leaps of divine energy can change our bodies, minds, spirits, and even natural processes. Signs can change a life...

Take for example how Kate and I even arrived at Emmaus.

We had moved to VA in the winter of 2004 after I had graduated college early. Kate was working in Gaithersburg, I was in Springfield and we were living by the Capitol One building, about halfway between both. My company had a location here in Vienna as well and I passed Emmaus countless of times. I always noticed the sign. It had messages that were funny… relevant… memorable. But I never stopped in.

It was Kate who had the idea to start going to church. I was content just reading about the various world religions and learning how to sell, emphasis on the sell stuff. I really wanted nothing to do with church because we all know that Christians are anti-evolution, homophobic, "global-warming-is-a-myth" nut jobs. Yet I trudged along checking out various churches, you name it, we tried it. I knew deep-down, we needed a community. A local community to volunteer with and make friends in, and get to know this area better. None of these churches seemed right, something was off at each one.

I was somewhat relieved at this, it confirmed what I thought I knew about church. But Kate is persistent. She somehow found "Flock" and we both answered a survey and it suggested to come here… We took it as a sign that we should visit the church with the Sign. We visited on children's Sunday and they did my favorite parable at the time, the parable of the sower. At the end, we got ice cream sandwiches. They weren't too pushy and seemed happy to have us. On our way out the door, like in every other church we had gone to, someone presumably pressing for membership stopped us. Skip Wolfe asked how we liked the children's play and said that not all Sundays were like this. We thanked him for the ice cream and said we'd enjoyed ourselves, and then we braced for the part where Skip would guilt us into returning or put us in charge of something so we would have to come back. Skip said simply, "We hope you come back. Finding a church is like a relationship, you'll just know when it's right." Then he walked away. We were floored. In the car on the way home Kate said, "That's exactly what my church would say." And we've returned as much as possible after joining in the summer of 2004. We've been hooked ever since.

At that moment, Skip unknowingly performed a sign. He transformed me into a church goer. Emmaus, over the course of the next 3 years performed another sign. You transformed for me what it means to be Christian. You transformed me from a church goer to a church minister who wants to further this type of church. I want to plant other Emmauses.

The signs we saw at Emmaus were like the sign Jesus performed at Cana. It was very low profile. Very few people knew about it. It was at the wedding, in very insignificant town, in front of the servants. Jesus welcomes the outcast, the insignificant. Just as Emmaus welcomed us, newcomers, entry-level folk, people likely to leave the area in 3 to 5 years as is common around these parts. Yet we were welcomed here.

You have renewed my faith and taught me that there are other types of Christians out there. You have taught me that the Christian life is about following this radical spirit-filled person, this Jesus of Nazareth. We now follow with great joy this subversive sage who draws people into an inclusive community where compassion is the key component, not reason, not purity, not entertainment. Compassion is beautiful and you can find it in the poems of Hafiz, Rumi, Mary Oliver, or in the Tibetan Singing bowl, or Jazz music, or in pop culture, or at Starbucks or an Airport waiting line.

While we cannot describe the mechanics of Jesus' transforming water into wine, just as I can't fully articulate what Emmaus has done to and for me and my family. We can, however, let our imaginations wander as we imagine an interdependent world of lively and creative energies. Our task as Christians then is to be "living signs" that enable other people to experience the miracle of their giftedness and empower them to "let their light shine" in blessing the world.

Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs! Can't you read the signs?

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Liberation of Story Truth: Form Criticism When Applied to Genesis 1-11

in a recent conversation, i realized that many readers out there never understand what i mean when i say "truth does not depend on fact. truth and fact are separate things." nor have they heard of Form Criticism and thus they make the mistake of thinking that all Christians read the bible literally. here is a paper on Form Criticism written in my first year of seminary, enjoy!

My favorite nonfiction book of all time never factually happened. The Things They Carried is a book about the Vietnam War written by Tim O’Brien who served as a foot soldier from 1969 to 1970. He states that all the stories are true, even if they are not entirely factual. O’Brien intentionally labels the book as “fiction” for that reason despite the book being about his experiences (O’Brien preface). O’Brien explains this in the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story.” He suggests a second meaning be applied to the readers and listeners of stories: that readers and listeners can discern stories that hold a truth, regardless of whether the events of the story actually occurred. The common denominator for O’Brien is “a gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” (O’Brien 84-91).This gut instinct is true of every story, not just war stories, as all stories have grains of truth. Humans are a story driven species. We spend ridiculous amounts of money and time on books, movies, and other story media. We yearn for good stories to laugh, cry, and ponder over because above all we want to learn from them.
Story truth is powerful, and one does not need facts to teach it. This argument is front and center in The Things They Carried. The book is not factual but shows the truth of the frailty of humanity. In fact, the greatest teachers of human history all taught through non-factual stories. Socrates, Plato, Buddha, The Brothers Grimm, Jesus and many others all used the power of stories to teach truths. Does the parable of the Good Samaritan have to be factual to show that we should show mercy to all those in need? Do Buddhist or Native American stories with talking animals have to be factual to convey those messages of mindfulness? Do we need people in a cave looking at shadows to discern Plato’s meaning? If this is true of all stories, then why can’t it be true of the Bible?
Just a factual reading of the Bible misses the story truth. The best method to discover and analyze these truths is through form criticism. Frank Frick defines the goal of form criticism as seeking to clarify the form, function, and social setting of small units of the Bible that make up the larger stories (31). Thus, form criticism is a means of analyzing the typical features of texts, especially their conventional forms or structures, in order to relate them to their sociological context. Detecting the literary types or genres used in a particular story and relating them to the “when and where” of the audience will help us find the clearest truth of the story.
The best example of the benefits of form criticism is seen in the controversial stories of the first 11 chapters of Genesis. This is the main battleground in the religion versus science debate. This debate has two extremist points of view. On one side, creationists, who read these chapters literally, argue against science by claiming that all we need is the factual truth of Genesis and nothing more (Abramson). The other group, I will call “science” although this is not the most accurate term as there are many religious scientists. By calling it “science” I am using the vocabulary of creationists to define the group they are fighting against. These “scientists” state that there is no God, and creation is here through a random process of natural selection. Therefore, the Bible is nonsense (Dawkins 1, Gassien 4). Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, cites Genesis as his main reason for not believing in the rest of the Bible (31).
I use the extremes of these two groups to prove the point that neither group’s reading of Genesis does any justice to the story truth. This debate is unnecessary and would not exist if these stories were read using form criticism and not literally. I am not saying that the use of form criticism would wipe out atheism or the tension between science and religion; I am claiming that the first 11 chapters of Genesis would not be the primary battleground if form criticism were used.
The story truths of the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the Babel dispersion are truths for religious traditions because they prove that God created the world and has an active role in reality. The truths of these stories would have been significant to the early audience who had no modern scientific means to answer some very important questions. The first 11 chapters of Genesis deal with universals (Frick 139). These stories are simply about everyone and how the world came to be as it is. This general idea is then focused through the rest of Genesis down to the creation of the nation of Israel. By recognizing these stories as myth, we are able to recognize the unique spirit of Israel at work (Gunkel 45). Through form criticism, we are able to see these myths in other cultures that were Israel’s neighbors and how they impacted the Israelites. The Babylonian flood story and traces of other cultures’ myths have made their way into the Torah. The Israelites, influenced by the other cultures, made these myths their own mainly by putting them into a monotheistic context (Gunkel 44). Gunkel claims “that precisely these stories, with their unique combination of sophistication and child-like simplicity, have had the greatest impact among all the stories of the Bible on all biblical peoples” (45). These stories, so vital to the Israeli community, still serve us today.
 The Creation myth, for example, shows that God is behind the creation of the cosmos and that humans are created in the image of God. This is important in explaining the difference between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom. Science can explain the creation of the cosmos in terms of chemistry, carbon dating, and various other methods. It does not attempt to explain the mystery of what or who first brought the raw materials into existence. The Bible holds the truth, but not the facts, while science holds the facts, but not the truth.  Science can explain humanity and our evolution to our current state, but it cannot explain how and why we think and act the way we do. Religion fills in the science’s holes and vice versa. Religion adds the story truth to science and gives a glimpse of the identity of humanity and its purpose. Form criticism melds these two concepts together and shows there is actually no debate when Genesis is read as a myth as it allows us the freedom of getting at the story truth. Frick states, “If we try to extract factual historical information from these chapters, we will be very disappointed (unless we read into them)” (Frick 116). Form criticism can derive the story truth through exegesis and answer the questions of causation and structure that a literal reading simply cannot do.
Form criticism is an excellent tool to help meld science and religion. Form criticism helps humanity as a whole get what Erhard S. Gerstenberger described as “the frame of reference from established genres” to help our communal interaction (99). Form criticism calls us to consider both story truths and factual truths to help us read the world as a whole. I can understand why creationists want to hold onto these stories, as they are powerful and show us the nature of God and humanity. I can also understand why science so easily dismisses these stories as they are not in anyway factual if read literally. The debate between science and religion reminds me of my grandma and grandpa arguing about what they had for dinner the night before. After a few minutes of arguing, my grandpa would say, “The point is we had dinner, let’s not let the facts get in the way.” This sums up what form criticism accomplishes when applied to Genesis 1-11.

Works Cited

Abramson, Paul. "A Defense of Creationism." 1998. 18 Oct 2007 .

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion . 1st ed. London: Bantam Books, 2006: 1-31.

Frick, Frank. A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures. 2nd ed.. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2003.

Gassien, Blair."Reasons for Atheism."The Atheist Agenda in Blog 25, MAY 2005, 18 OCT 2007 .

Gerstenberger, Erhard S. “Social Sciences and Form-Criticism: Towards the Generative Force of Life-Settings” Relating to the Text. Ed. Timothy J. Sandoval and Carleen Mandolfo. New York, T&T Clark International; 1st ed. 2003: 99.

Gunkel, Hermann. "The Literature Of Ancient Israel." Relating to the Text. Ed. Timothy J. Sandoval and Carleen Mandolfo. Trans. Armin Siedlecki. New York, T&T Clark International; 1st ed. 2003: 44-45.

 O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990: preface,84-91.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Part II: The UCC Polity

Part II: UCC Polity

(Part two of the ordination paper is intended to provide an opportunity for the student to demonstrate her knowledge and understanding of the history, theological roots, polity, and practice of the United Church of Christ.)

The purpose of this paper is to explore my relationship and thoughts about the UCC’s paragraph two in the Preamble to the Constitution. IThe purpose of this section is to explore my relationship and thoughts about the UCC’s paragraph two in the Preamble to the Constitution. I feel this is the theological “meat” of the UCC. I am a cross-pollinated member of the UCC as I find myself affirming parts of all four of the streams of the UCC as well as the many hidden histories that make the UCC what it is today. The preamble is a document rich in history, full of theology, and pregnant with opportunities for a wide variety of interpretations. I love it for not only what it says but for what it does not say.

The United Church of Christ acknowledges as its sole head, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior. It acknowledges as kindred in Christ all who share in this confession.

These first two sentences specifically come from the Christian tradition and its goal of uniting all Christianity without need for denominational strife and division. I like this idea as it also comes out of my Catholic tradition. Obviously, I am no longer Catholic as I did not find them very affirming of the first sentence, although I still acknowledge them as kin. It is easy to place a person or tangible thing, like the pope, a charismatic pastor or even the Bible in place of an invisible presence. This can lead to rigid hierarchies, cults, and a generalized idolatry. I like the ecumenical vision this casts that harkens back to Paul’s thought that, “We are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). It frees up the denomination to follow the Spirit and Christ as they interpret it. It acknowledges the priesthood of all believers, yet alludes to the central idea of autonomy and covenant that is central to the UCC.

I would like to speak briefly of autonomy and convent as I feel they are extremely important in my understanding of UCC polity. Here I write what is in my Autonomy and Covenant Post

It looks to the Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, to prosper its creative and redemptive work in the world.

Karl Barth stated that when we read the Bible we aren’t reading the word of God, we’re reading for the word of God. This view of the Bible I can really affirm. It resists making an idol out of the Bible and takes into account the modern critical methods. It affirms that God, not the Bible, is the one in charge that sparks the transformation and redeems the world. This means that we read about God’s work in history through the view of a particular people with all the limitations of culture and contexts.

The ancient theologian Origen taught that every text in the Bible could be read at three levels: the literal, the moral and the spiritual level. The spiritual level was discovered by means of allegory and was the most important. He has been severely criticized for this view, but I affirm it. With the modern criticisms we are able to understand context, language, and form. With hermeneutics we are able to access some practical meaning for our lives. By means of allegory, we can draw out particular instances in our lives to further make the point. We are to risk an interpretation by walking as far as reason and experience will take us, and then to live it out having faith that the Holy Spirit will guide and redeem us. This statement in the preamble does not limit the work of the Spirit nor try to remove the church or God from the world as it states “…work in the world.” There is no direct notion of a sacred/secular divide, and that is very important to me.

It claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers. It affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.

I just cited Origen in the last section, and I do not think I could do that in too many other denominations. I like this as it affirms the historical track the ancestors of the UCC have taken. We are Protestant in historical tradition and action. This part of the preamble affirms how informed people in the 14th century took responsibility and forged a new vision of church and worship. They did so boldly and creatively. That is the key concept of the preamble for me as it shows what we deeply value in the UCC. We value the ability of each generation to make the faith “its own.” We cannot rest on the laurels of those who have gone before us. We may look back to the 14th or even 18th century in our tradition, but we are not supposed to stay there. We must speak to our context and circumstance that we find ourselves in. We must pay attention to history and be guided by it yet not bound to it. That view does not label Catholics as somehow deficient, just different. We have parted honestly in our expressions of piety and faith. However, I feel an openness in the UCC to Catholicism and those who moved beyond the Protestant reformers our tradition claims (like the Brethren, Hussite, and other “radical reformation” movements), as we see in the examples of Mercersburg theology and Reverend Phillip William Otterbein.

In accordance with the teaching of our Lord and the practice prevailing among evangelical Christians, it recognizes two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion.

This can only come from a “sola scriptura” ethic for which Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli argued. The preamble affirms the Protestant view of the sacraments yet it does not outline them. It points to the two sacraments that Jesus specifically started yet does not feel the need to outline them here. I think this is a wise move, as it allows for a variety of interpretations of the sacraments. It starts where the reformers all agreed and builds from there. The spectrum from Zwingli’s “it’s just a symbol” to Calvin’s middle road of “it’s a symbol and more than” to Luther’s “consubstantiation.” I like this as it affirms the history and yet remains open to diverse views of the sacraments.

I affirm the UCC’s preamble in full. It is rare for me to state that, especially in writing, as I often have problems with creeds and religious statements. I usually edit the Nicene Creed to leave out the parts with which I do not agree (the virgin birth, for example). I find I can fully embrace this statement and will attempt to live it out. I view it more as a basis from which the UCC can launch. It is a foundation that each of the streams, hidden histories, and combinations thereof can come back to during times of controversy and conflict. It is good to recognize this affirmation within the preamble to the constitution as it sets up the rest of the document. It is also good to view it as an internal document, meaning it only deals with those within the UCC. It does not mention or refer to atheists, agnostics, or non-Christians, nor should it. It is a great touchstone for our denomination and a reminder of the history and principles upon which we are founded.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Part I: Sacraments and the Good News


I have no use for dual natures of things. I have no knowledge of how God is present in the elements at communion or baptism, nor should I know. That is part of the Divine Mystery. What I do know is that the church marks time for its people while reminding them of the Gospel. Baptism is a symbol of being loved even though we are powerless to do anything to earn this love. Communion is the joy and celebration of gathered friends and family with recognition that the table will change and people will die and yet we hope to one day share the table again with them. There could be more sacraments similar to the Catholic sacramental model, but I affirm the Protestant argument for two sacraments. I do, however, see the need for the church to observe other “markers” of an individual’s passage through a community and life. Events like confirmation (passage into young adulthood), blessing of vocation (an “ordination” if you will), marriage, blessing of the sick, and funeral rites should all be observed and marked for the good of the individual and the community. All things we do in remembrance of the Triune God.

Good News for Today

The early church’s radical inclusivity broke with the social conventions and traditional spirituality of its era but struck a responsive chord within the souls of people who had been marginalized and minimized by the in crowd. The vision and words of Christ are always attractive: Come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden; Come to me all who feel burned out on religion, and I will give you rest in the unforced rhythms of grace.

That means that our words have to look like Jesus: a mother nursing her babes, a father holding the hand of his loved ones and whispering real encouragement, a servant who steps down so that there is room for another to step up. Like Christ, the church should not be judge and jury, gatekeeper or the morals police but rather the incarnated Christ of its age, for without him there is only the stink of arrogance in the room.

Every church has to face challenges and deal with them with clarity and conviction. We know that we will never get it totally right all the time because we are only human. But we cannot pretend that the church’s actions do not cripple us sometimes and violate our best intentions as disciples. And unless we are practicing and proclaiming a Word that lifts the burdens of others with our music, our worship, our liturgy, our organization, and the way we share information as well as in acts of living compassion, then we are living under the judgment of Christ as exposed in scripture.

With this doctrine of the church, the church can do away with its competitive nature and live in celebration of diversity. The church can do away with the fear of change and live in the assurance of God’s grace through Christ as sustained to us by the Holy Spirit. This view honors the vision of Christ that the community brings good news to the economically and spiritually poor, sets captives free, and proclaims the Jubilee that is grace (Luke 4:18-21). This view honors the past traditions and spiritual practices, but does not hold one above the other. Each denomination adds a part to the full understanding of the Gospel. Luther, Calvin, Erasmus, and the other reformers are honored and their spirit of reform is followed, as the church cannot rest upon their answers but adapt their model to time and context.

Most of all the church should be about articulation and interpretation of grace. It is the proclaimer and not the source of grace. The church is a gift from God to the world, but it is not the conduit from which grace comes. What history has taught us about this view is that the church gets power hungry and corrupts the Gospel through dividing people in its definitions, doctrines, and creeds. As Justo L. Gonzalez wrote, “And because we believe, we commit ourselves: to believe for those who do not believe, to love for those who do not love, to dream for those who do not dream, until the day when hope becomes a reality. ” The church can no longer afford to divide people—it must bring them together. The church must honor that many colors and ideas are needed to paint a single landscape. The church will then have many generations with many income levels. The church will affirm diversity and cultivate a “Generous Orthodoxy” that includes all races, sexual preferences, and abilities. It will know its history and have a communal memory and vision not just a pastoral or consistory’s view. It will be a place of divine guidance.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Part I: Sin and Salvation

Sin and Salvation

It is this simple. We are saved through Christ’s life and subsequent death on the cross. Jesus did not die for us—anyone can die for something, but to LIVE for something: WOW! That in and of itself is divine. The death is only meaningful if the life was worth knowing about! There is suffering and evil in the world, and the church should not try to explain how they were created. Suffering and evil just exist, and we must deal with them. We can provide new insights, we can remind people of philosophical and moral ideals, but pastors should not be in the absolute answer business but rather in the questions and insight business.

“The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business… and it has done a fine job of it, all things considered. The history of the world's moral codes is a monument to the labors of many philosophers, and it is a monument of striking unity and beauty. She is not in the business of telling the world what's right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. She is in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice…But the minute she even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of her game, she instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense. Then the church becomes, not Ms. Forgiven Sinner, but Ms. Right and Christianity becomes the good guys in here versus the bad guys out there. Which, of course, is pure garbage for the church is nothing but the world under the sign of baptism.” (Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox 132-133).

If grace is true and to be trusted, we must have faith in it. We cannot worry that this will lead to all sorts of permissiveness and such open minds that our collective brains will fall out. We are to take the example of the parable of the prodigal son. Jesus tells us that the son gets a kiss instead of a lecture, a party instead of probation. By bringing in the elder brother at the end of the story and having him raise objections Jesus gives a great example to the church. The brother is angry about the party. He complains that his father is lowering standards and ignoring virtue—that music, dancing, and a fattened calf are, in effect, just so many permissions to break the law. And to that, Jesus has the father say only one thing: “Cut that out! We’re not playing good boys and bad boys anymore. Your brother was dead and he’s alive again. The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.”

This view renders all saved through Christ period. I view all need for justification as largely a human need of reassurance. The church provides this but keeps this in check by saying to the concerned parishioner “Yes, you’re saved in Christ and given the grace of God, just like everyone else.” The church is to make no distinction or try to step into God’s role and come up with formulas as to figure out who is in heaven and who isn’t. As far as the church is concerned, everyone is getting into heaven because of Christ’s saving life and this is the Good News to be preached to the world. The church is at its best when it’s in a Universalist mindset. What God has done through the incarnation and the death and resurrection of Jesus conquers and saves all (NO Limited Atonement!). However, there is still room for a hell, which would be a disbelief and self-exile from God’s grace. Jesus came for the sick, not for the healthy (Mark 2:17), so it is a mistake to think that everyone will come through the doors of the church. That doesn’t mean the church should keep quiet, but instead proclaim without anxiety and with confidence.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Part I: Historical Church


(The purpose of part I of the ordination paper is to provide a way for the student to share his present grasp and understanding of the teaching and traditions of the Christian Church down through the ages and to relate this to his own theological perspective.)

I always try to go with the simplest answer. When Asked what The Greek word used for “church” in the New Testament, “ekklÄ“sia” just means “assembly, congregation, council.” In other words, a church is a group of people, a community. This entails everything it means to be human—being sinners and yet a little lower than angels. The church, like humanity, is a living paradox, limited and sinful yet hopeful and the continued incarnation of Christ on earth.

I have no need of Nestorian ecclesiology, which is the error dividing the church into two distinct things or states of being: namely the heavenly and invisible and the earthly and temporal. I instead favor a unified view that it is in the church’s best interest to focus on the here and now knowing that grace flows from God and everyone makes it to “the Pearly Gates.”

For too long the church has had no purpose and has been content to rest on its old answers. It felt that if it challenged too much, it would alienate people, lose its members, and die. It has done the opposite, and this has alienated people, lost the children and grandchildren of its members, and started the downfall of the church. The institution as it is cannot stand, and it must be resurrected into something new. The church should become a new institution that is localized and flexible. The church should be controlled by its members and guided by its pastor. This model is a side by side model, not a top down nor a pastor leading and people following. If someone stumbles, the best position to be in to help is at the person’s side. A top down model is not the model Jesus used. He never brandished his power, he led by serving. It has been shown that the pastor out front will focus on the supposed destination and will not check to see if anyone is following his or her lead.

This church I have in mind is not a religious institution. "I want you to set aside the notion of the Christian religion, because it's a contradiction in terms. You won't learn anything positive about religion from Christianity, and if you look for Christianity in religion, you'll never find it. To be sure, Christianity uses the forms of religion, and, to be dismally honest, too many of its adherents act as if it were a religion; but it isn't one, and that's that. The church is not in the religion business; it is in the Gospel-proclaiming business. And the gospel is the good news that all man's fuss and feathers over his relationship with God is unnecessary because God, in the mystery of the Word who is Jesus, has gone and fixed it up Himself. So let that pass" (Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace 163). Instead it is a practical institution. It does not spend time on high theological language and theories because Christ talked in everyday language and images. “When Jesus told his parables to the people, his disciples asked, ‘Why do you talk to them in riddles?’ And his answer was: ‘So they won’t catch on. Because anything they could catch on to would be the wrong thing. As Isaiah said, seeing they don't see and hearing they don't hear, neither do they understand [Matthew 13:10-17]. That’s why I talk to them like this: because I don’t want them to have little lights go on in their heads. I want to put out all the lights they’ve got, so that in the darkness they can listen to me.’” (Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox 78-79).

Above all, the church needs to be relevant and simplistic, giving a new and unexpected light to the world that is both warm and inviting as it is bright and blinding. The church should be practical and full of purpose. Its purpose should not be to prevent people from sinning or to tell people what to do. God in Jesus did not prevent sinners from sinning. He went around forgiving them right and left. If the church wants to represent him, it should not misrepresent his methods. Instead the church should focus on forgiveness and healing.

The church should not rest. It should always seek answers to questions it knows will never be solved completely. The church should know where it comes from but be “theologica reformata et simper reformanda”—reformed and always reforming. It should not seek the answers as much as the correct question for any given situation.

The church should take joy in the gift of the scriptures. It should not place claims that the Bible itself does not claim nor that our Jewish brothers and sisters make (as they have had the TaNaK longer). Thus the scriptures are not inerrant, infallible, or to be taken literally. Gifts are to be loved, celebrated, and used responsibly and with great care.

The church should not be an enclave of refugees from the world; it is the sacrament of God's presence in the world by the mystery of the incarnation. It looks just like the world but with a slant and twist that turn everything upside down. It is at once totally familiar but totally disorienting. The church should exemplify what H. Richard Niebuhr labeled “Christ Transforming Culture.”

The church should not await a “second coming of Christ.” Christ has already come again. He was born into this world (the first time) and then again at Easter (the second time). Christ comes again every time a stranger is fed, a prisoner is visited, and the least of these being cared for (Matthew 25:31-46). The Gospel of Thomas states, “His disciples said to him, ‘When will the rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?’ He said to them, ‘What you are looking forward to has come, but you don’t know it.’” (Gospel of Thomas #34). Nor are we waiting for the kingdom of God, for Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father'’) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you” (Gospel of Thomas #3). We are awaiting the completion of the kingdom of God, which God will finish, but we must seek to do God’s will and do our part.

The ideal plan for the church is best laid out in Matthew 7: 6-12 as reframed in the Message: “Don’t be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don’t reduce holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you’re only being cute and inviting sacrilege. Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn’t a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better? Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.” This view gives a whole new spin on sin and salvation and the sacraments.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Intro Re-Write

I do not know what exactly I believe but I can say that it starts with and is inspired by the life of Jesus Christ. My personal theology, as all theologies, has been shaped by contexts, experiences, and relationships which make up my very identity. As these are all constantly in flux, so is my theology. It is not a static, fixed system but more contextual, adaptable, and fluid. It centers on loving God and my neighbor as myself.

My theology is shaped by my interests, interpretations, gifts and limitations. It is based on a particular style, much like a painting, which is my community, the United Church of Christ. I use my theology, like art, to convey meaning to others. There are many styles in which to paint in the Christian tradition and I am a mix of many. I was raised Catholic. I react against Fundamentalist theologies. I want to be a Liberal Christian as I came to be a Protestant and was trained in seminary in this tradition but find myself more and more thinking and speaking in Neo-Orthodox terms. It has elements of all these streams put together in a new way. My theological style is more interested in imagination, beauty, and mystery; focusing more on questions than answers.

In this paper I hope to explain the areas of my theology. I will start by describing my understanding of the historical Christian Church. I will then describe my view of my denomination and how I intersect with it. I will then describe my faith journey and sense of call. It won’t be in a linear fashion but more integrated as each plays into the other. I will try to separate them as best I am able. I will first speak of my interpretation of the Historical Christian Church.

Thursday, January 07, 2010


how do you write a paper when you have a fluid theology? it's like nailing jello to the wall. i find myself writing too systematically. but Sabio had a good idea and has helped me re-order the paper, more on that later.

when presented with the opportunity to talk about God, Jesus, Humanity and the state of the world, i could type a book that would rival war and peace. i love talking about theological implications, talking about probabilities and exceptions, exploring all aspects and outcomes of a given topic. but i can't do that here... i gotta boil it down and keep it simple as this will be lay people reading the paper. not saying that these people are stupid or anything, but i know i wouldn't wanna read something that wasn't engaging. i don't wanna bore 'em with my ranting and rambling.

so i looked online for tips, and i found this ordination paper by Lynne A. Burmeister McQuown that is absolutely inspired. i just wanna put my name on it and print it out and hand it in.. but that'd be bad... so i'll have to steal from it.. after all, "good artists borrow, great artists steal," Picasso I said that. also looking around for how to explain God, i found Faithful Progressives note on Paul Tillich and the God of the new atheists. fantastic!

What i wanna do is just put:

I dunno what exactly i believe but i can say that it starts with and is inspired by the life of Jesus Christ. I dunno if Jesus was God but I can say that I best meet God through the example of Christ. Grace-filled, compassionate at the core and joyful of existence while noting that there is suffering in the world. Loving thy neighbor as yourself sets up an inclusive ethos that doesn't set aside or supercede other religions but places Christians as servants to others regardless of race, creed, or nationality.
and then i would play them these two songs to explain how i view the UCC:

So what i've decided to do is re-structure under the rubric that Sabio suggested where in his suggestion of the "art paragraph" collapsed community and tradition together. so part one will be my view of transcendent truth (God, as presented by Jesus, in my case) part two will be Community, specifically the UCC and the third will be my personal journey experience. this will streamline the whole paper and won't make it so cumbersome to write. thank God that i have my atheist friend Sabio ;-) this is why i blog. dialogue and relationships are important, in fact vital to existence.

it takes all of us.

i'll post more this coming Tuesday. until then.... thanks for your comments and keep 'em coming!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Introduction: My personal Theology is like Art

My personal theology, as all theologies, has been shaped by contexts, experiences, and relationships which make up my very identity. As these are all constantly in flux, so is my theology. It is not a static, fixed, dogmatic system. Nor is it finished nor ever intended to be. It is also not misty, idealistic, and ethereal, but pragmatic, grounded in practice and experience, and adaptable.

Metaphorically, I see my theology like a painting. It starts and is shaped by my own interesting, interpretation, gifts and limitations (experience), it is based in a particular practice or style of painting (tradition), seeks to convey meaning to others (community) of a greater truth (transcendence).

To focus the picture a little more and describe the traditions I come out of, the Roman Catholic tradition could be viewed as the classical style art, conservative  liberal Protestant tradition would be more impressionist, and what I view my style (and the style of the many theologians I’ve read these past years at seminary) as more surrealist. It has elements of all traditions but put together in a new way. This style (and thus the artists using this style) is more interested in imagination, beauty, and mystery; focusing more on questions than answers.

In this paper I hope to explain the four highlighted areas of my artful theology. It won’t be in a linear fashion, but enmeshed integrated as each plays into the other, but I will try to separate them as best I am able. I will first speak of the experience, particularly the human experience.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Ordination Paper: What is It?

The ordination paper is a three-part paper dealing with the person's theological perspective and grasp of the historic Christian faith; understanding of the history, theological roots, polity and practice of the United Church of Christ; and the person's faith pilgrimage and understanding of ministry. It is written by me (the candidate) and presented to a committee made up of folks from my local congregation. They will all read it and ask and critique it. This is to determine my abilities; reasons for seeking ordained ministry; educational and theological attainments; knowledge of the history, polity and practices of the United Church of Christ; growth in Christian faith and experience; personal qualities; and preparation and fitness for the call I am seeking.

If the committee is satisfied that the person meets the requirements for ordination, it recommends the person to the association.
once again the three parts i will be post will be on:
1. My understanding and theological location in the historic Christian faith. (talking about my "doctrines" of God, Christ, Humanity, Church.. etc... you know all the ologies: Christology, Eccesiology, etc.)
2. My understanding and location within the United Church of Christ. (grasp of polity, history, and vision for my denom).
3. My own personal history and experience (faith journey).
I'll be looking for your help just as i did on my Statement on Ministry which lead to the drastic re-write. It is my goal to have this done by the end of this month. Thank you in advance for your help!!

Friday, January 01, 2010

Year in Review

Holy crap! This year was PACKED full of fun!

first and foremost EVE WAS BORN! and so was I.. born again as a dad.. it's been great to watch Kate mother Eve as well. there's a thoughtfulness, compassion, and planning nurturing that comes out. we love that little girl!

with the help of my compadres here at LTS i filmed a few short films for my church history class. To date Reformation the Sitcom has had around 250 hits on the whole series. that is 245 more than i expected! I knew my mom, wife, and in-laws would view it, but i was surprised to find other ppl did, too! here's the whole YouTube Playlist:

I also went to Egypt, and here's that playlist:

I installed Google Analytics on the site in August and I'm happy to report I've had around 1,000 unique visits and 2,000 page views. that's pretty slick for this little page of rantings and ravings. I've also made new friends like Sabio, Coffee-pastor, Al, and ER. good peoples! hit the "friends" sidebar for their sites.

My sermons are doing well, the biggest would be Start Where You Are.. followed by The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached.

Things are looking up for 2010. it's too bad that we just have two more years to live...

here's what's upcoming in 2010 on the site:
  • A sermon at my home church on 1-17-10. stop on by if you're in the area!
  • Ordination Paper: what i need to write if i want to get a call, i'll need your help, dear reader.
  • A book review of Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.
odds are i have been pretty silent in the blogosphere as it is the holidays (i am writting this on 12-18-09) so i hope your holidays have been kind and that your hangover isn't too bad as you read this. i know mine won't be, as i'll prolly just be watching a movie with the wife on the couch and hitting the hay before 11 p.m. anywho, thanks for all the conversations, debates, agreements, grammatical corrections, speeling error forgivenessesesz, and in general, for reading and considering. looking forward to new topics and discussions in 2010!