I met new brother in the Lord today. A delightful passionate Scotsman living and ministering in Australia. His blog reveals an intense devotion that should stir your soul, so I encourage you to stop by and listen afresh to power of the Good News.
When I was in graduate school, Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart profoundly affected my understanding of church in America. Bellah and his team of researchers suggestion that individualism is at the heart of American worship. And unfortanately, this individualism precedes community and often overwhelms any movement toward community.
I just finished reading a fascinating talk he delivered to the Unitarian Universalists in 1998: Unitarian Universalism in Societal Perspective. He argues that social dissent is at the heart of American religion, making Baptists and Unitarian Universalists both seperate strains in the grand untradition of dissent. His talk is challenging and critizuing the UU for tendencies to devalue notiions that provide a framework for developing true community. I think all churches could benefit from reading his lecture. Along the way, he references Mark Lilla who makes the case that the sixties social sexual revolution and the eighties economic boon are both sides of the same coin.
The revolution of the sixties did not come from nowhere. I would argue that it was another stage in the unfolding of what I have already described as our deepest common value, respect for the individual conscience, the individual person, a respect that is rooted in our dominant religious tradition of dissenting Protestantism
I called to mind the dissenting tradition. What was so important about the Baptists, and other sectarians such as the Quakers, was the absolute centrality of religious freedom, of the sacredness of individual conscience in matters of religious belief. We generally think of religious freedom as one of many kinds of freedom, many kinds of human rights, first voiced in the European Enlightenment, and echoing around the world ever since. But Georg Jellinek, Max Weber’s friend, and, on these matters, his teacher, published a book in 1895 called Die Erklärung der Menschen- und Bürgerrechte, translated into English in 1901 as The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, which argued that the ultimate source of all modern notions of human rights is to be found in the radical sects of the Protestant Reformation, particularly the Quakers and Baptists. Of this development Weber writes, “Thus the consistent sect gives rise to an inalienable personal right of the governed as against any power, whether political, hierocratic or patriarchal. Such freedom of conscience may be the oldest Right of Man—as Jellinek has argued convincingly, at any rate it is the most basic Right of Man because it comprises all ethically conditioned action and guarantees freedom from compulsion, especially from the power of the state. In this sense the concept was as unknown to antiquity and the Middle Ages as it was to Rousseau. . . ” Weber then goes on to say that the other Rights of Man were later joined to this basic right, “especially the right to pursue one’s own economic interests, which includes the inviolability of individual property, the freedom of contract, and vocational choice.” (1978:1209) So, almost from the beginning the sacredness of conscience, of the individual person was linked to “the right to pursue one’s own economic interests.” Remember that Weber locates the famous “Protestant ethic” in the intersection of Calvinism and sectarianism out of which our own dissenting tradition comes. Freedom of conscience and freedom of enterprise are more closely, even genealogically, linked than many of us would like to believe. As I hope to show, they are both expressions of an underlying ontological individualism.
For those willing to wrestle with Bellah’s ideas, I think he raises many valid challenges that face the contemporary church and society. We must seriously consider how our actions (praxis) is derived from ideas or dotrines (doxis) that may lead to unrestrained individualism–even when we are proclaiming the value of community. For Bellah, he finds hope of connecting with the sacraments, the communion of the saints and in a social ontology rooted in Trinitarian theology.
Chronic illness can crush the human spirit and yet in the mystery of grace it can also make it flower. Some people who have endured unbearable anguish still blossom in radiant beauty. If you want to listen to the struggles of those facing chronic hep C or interact with them or even connect them with others facing chronic illness, here are two blogs worth visiting: Buzz Trexler and Debbie .
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
From The Stolen Child by WB Yeats
The world is weary of weeping and war: nation against nation and even brother against brother. Our news baptizes us in the causalities of multiple wars in multiple lands. From the violent birth of a nation in Iraq to the ongoing genocide of a people in Dafur: death and destruction are the only life many people know. And in some strange irony, we Americans complete the cycle by entertaining ourselves through an endless parade of murder mysteries.
Yeats seems to be right, “the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” Some would escape to fairylands and beyond, hoping to enjoy some tiny bit of happiness in this evil infested planet.
Pain, suffering, war and death characterize life for many people in this world. We may protest wars and we may voice our opposition to tyrant leaders (either at home or abroad) but that does not change the reality for millions of mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers who will lay down tonight in terror and grief over the unending real pain in this world.
How can we ever really face the magnitude of suffering and evil in this world? Some may choose to ignore it for as long as possible, living a life of hedonistic delight as the world burns around them. Others may deny any ultimate significance to the material world, suggesting it is all an illusion or all subject to destruction anyway. One popular approach is to suggest that everything is some part of divine life: of course, this carries with it the disturbing notion that evil and good are equally divine.
Is it possible things are not the way they are supposed to be? Is it possible the longing we have in our hearts for goodness and truth and beauty are intuitive longings for a world that might have been or might still be?
Today is the beginning of the second great cycle in the Christian year known as Lent-Easter-Pentecost. It is a time of honestly facing the evil in our world but it is also about facing the possibility of becoming humans who know the reality of giving and receiving love.
In the Lenten journey, we face the disturbing truth that the problem of evil in this world is a human problem. When we despair over the tyranny of evil in faraway places, we must not ignore the reality of that evil within. Think of the anger we have felt at times to other people in the workplace, on the highway, or in the community. Someone might say, “But my anger is justified. Did you see what they did to me?” Do not all perpetrators of evil feel justified in their actions?
“Of course, some innocents will die, but this is the only way to maintain peace and order.”
“They deserved to die for what they did to me!”
And on and on the excuses for evil continue. During Lent, we honestly face this propensity toward evil within.
The strange and often misunderstood story of Jesus, suggests that God does not ignore evil but takes the pain and power of it onto Himself. Jesus comes to tell Israel that their God has come to dwell among them in a way they never could have imagined. He will become the suffering servant. He will take the pain and hurt and very real anguish of this evil world onto Himself. In so doing, He will make a way for humans to become truly human: truly beings shaped and fully revealed in the beauty of perfect love.
The Lenten journey is about facing the real hope offering in this action and message of Jesus.
I invite you to take this Lenten journey with me: this means facing and confronting our own personal failings and attitudes of anger and violence and unforgiveness. And yet at the same time, it means looking with hope to Jesus whose life makes that stunning proclamation that God has taken the pain and evil in this world including my life onto Himself, freeing me to become a lover. This amazing good news frees me to embrace the suffering persons around me—even if that means I may suffer in the process.
Blessings on your journey.
I recently posted a story on Cain and Abel. Working backward, here is a retelling of Adam and Eve. For churches following a Western liturgical calendar, Lent begins next week. This story is helpful for reflection as we will begin completating the reversing of this tragic tale. Note: Scriptures references intertwine this story and they are from THE MESSAGE: The Bible in Contemporary Language © 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson. All rights reserved.
The story begins in a garden. This is appropriate because gardens are the place of beginnings.
In the middle of the place of beginnings, is adama literally “ruddy man.” We call him Adam.
And he is facing a dilemma. Who can he trust? Abba or the snake?
Can he rely on Abba’s Word? Can he rest in Abba’s kindness and goodness and love?
Ah the walks. The walks in the cool of the evening. As long as he can remember, Adam has spent his evenings walking alongside Abba, discussing his day and listening to Abba’s stories. Abba loves to tell stories. In fact, Abba’s stories that Adam has learned all that he knows.
Abba taught him about the animals. Abba told him funny animal stories. Abba told him how know and guide and watch the animals. Through Abba’s kindness, Adam named all the animals—rightly proclaiming the essence of who they were created to be.
Abba gave him Eve. It had been so long, and so glorious, and so fulfilling. She was his companion, his friend, his lover. She was his second set of eyes. Adam could not even imagine what life was like before Eve.
He tried and all he could remember were the stories. The stories from before the garden. Before the animals. Before the trees and flowers. Before the land and water. Before. Before. Before.
Adam remembers the stories before anything existed—only love within the Godhead. Abba dwelled in loving communion with the Father and Spirit. This loving, joyful, beautiful communion of persons is known as God. From the superabundance of this love, a decision was made to create someone who could share in the wonder of this unquenchable, unending love: but first a place for the new one.
Today when parents are expecting a newborn, they prepare a place, a nursery. Everything has to be just perfect. Colors of the room. Bed. Music. Story books. And everything a baby will need to grow and develop and become what they are. God creates such a place.
1:1 Heaven and Earth
First this: God created the Heavens and Earth — all you see, all you don’t see. 2 Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.
3 God spoke: “Light!”And light appeared. 4 God saw that light was good and separated light from dark. 5 God named the light Day,he named the dark Night.It was evening, it was morning — Day One.
6 God spoke: “Sky! In the middle of the waters;separate water from water!” 7 God made sky. He separated the water under sky from the water above sky.And there it was: 8 he named sky the Heavens;It was evening, it was morning — Day Two.
9 God spoke: “Separate!Water-beneath-Heaven, gather into one place;Land, appear!”And there it was. 10 God named the land Earth.He named the pooled water Ocean.God saw that it was good.
11 God spoke: “Earth, green up! Grow all varieties of seed-bearing plants,Every sort of fruit-bearing tree.”And there it was. 12 Earth produced green seed-bearing plants,all varieties,And fruit-bearing trees of all sorts.God saw that it was good. 13 It was evening, it was morning — Day Three.
14 God spoke: “Lights! Come out!Shine in Heaven’s sky!Separate Day from Night.Mark seasons and days and years, 15 Lights in Heaven’s sky to give light to Earth.”And there it was.
16 God made two big lights, the larger to take charge of Day, The smaller to be in charge of Night;and he made the stars. 17 God placed them in the heavenly sky to light up Earth 18 And oversee Day and Night,to separate light and dark. God saw that it was good. 19 It was evening, it was morning — Day Four.
20 God spoke: “Swarm, Ocean, with fish and all sea life!Birds, fly through the sky over Earth!” 21 God created the huge whales,all the swarm of life in the waters,And every kind and species of flying birds.God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Ocean!Birds, reproduce on Earth!” 23 It was evening, it was morning — Day Five.
24 God spoke: “Earth, generate life! Every sort and kind:cattle and reptiles and wild animals — all kinds.” And there it was: 25 wild animals of every kind,Cattle of all kinds, every sort of reptile and bug. God saw that it was good.
26 God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea,the birds in the air, the cattle,And, yes, Earth itself,and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.” 27 God created human beings;he created them godlike,Reflecting God’s nature.He created them male and female. 28 God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air,for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”
29 Then God said, “I’ve given you every sort of seed-bearing plant on Earth And every kind of fruit-bearing tree,given them to you for food. 30 To all animals and all birds,everything that moves and breathes, I give whatever grows out of the ground for food.”And there it was.
31 God looked over everything he had made; it was so good, so very good! It was evening, it was morning — Day Six.
(from THE MESSAGE: The Bible in Contemporary Language © 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson. All rights reserved.)
Adam rests in the expectation of the seventh day, contemplating the endless rest of this loving God. In their nightly talks, Abba spoke often of this loving communion, revealing to Adam his destiny to live and move and rest in the embrace of such love. Oh the stories Abba told. They were more than Adam could ever recount. Yet each story filled Adam with wonder and delight and anticipation. Everything Adam knew, his knew through the gentle guidance of Abba.
Now the question. Can Abba be trusted? The snake says otherwise. Pointing to Adam’s gleaming countenance, the snake reminds Adam of his own glory. He reveals secrets and mysteries Adam did not know. He invites Adam to enjoy a feast like he never tasted, power beyond his wildest imaginations and a court of angels to protect and praise Adam all day long. The snake questioned Abbas reliability. Abbas stories are only stories. Stories meant to control Adam: to keep him from his real destiny, his real throne, his proper place beside Abba.
The more Adam thought about the snakes’ song, the foggier his thoughts became. Abbas stories faded. And Adam grew angry. This deception cannot last one moment longer!
Adam takes what Abba did not give. He eats what Abba forbade. He believes what Abba denied.
Instantly, the skies darkened and shriek entered into the very fiber of creation. All things trembled in pain. All things began to die. Everything goes black and Adam dies. What seems like an eternity passes and Adam opens his eyes, the light is gone. Eve’s glory has departed. She no longer shimmers with the radiant light. Her body looks different. Odd. Almost like an animals’ hide. Adam looks down and realizes he looks like an animal as well.
In his very core, Adam feels something he has never known before–fear. Unbridled terror. And shame. Adam and Eve began running and running and running. In a moment, they’ve destroyed Abba’s glorious creation. In an act of pride, they sought to replace Abba and know realize the grotesque results of their impudence, their selfishness, their rebellion.
As they run in terror, they cry out in shame and bathe the wounded earth in their tears. Everything seems to cry with them. The world it coming undone. In the midst of the chaos, they hear him coming. Abba is here.
9 GOD called to the Man: “Where are you?”
10 He said, “I heard you in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked. And I hid.”
11 GOD said, “Who told you you were naked? Did you eat from that tree I told you not to eat from?”
12 The Man said, “The Woman you gave me as a companion, she gave me fruit from the tree, and, yes, I ate it.”
13 GOD said to the Woman, “What is this that you’ve done?”
“The serpent seduced me,” she said, “and I ate.”
14 GOD told the serpent:
“Because you’ve done this, you’re cursed,cursed beyond all cattle and wild animals,Cursed to slink on your belly and eat dirt all your life. 15 I’m declaring war between you and the Woman,between your offspring and hers.He’ll wound your head,you’ll wound his heel.”
16 He told the Woman:
“I’ll multiply your pains in childbirth;you’ll give birth to your babies in pain.You’ll want to please your husband,but he’ll lord it over you.”
17 He told the Man:
“Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree That I commanded you not to eat from,’Don’t eat from this tree,’The very ground is cursed because of you;getting food from the ground Will be as painful as having babies is for your wife;you’ll be working in pain all your life long. 18 The ground will sprout thorns and weeds,you’ll get your food the hard way, Planting and tilling and harvesting, 19 sweating in the fields from dawn to dusk,Until you return to that ground yourself, dead and buried;you started out as dirt, you’ll end up dirt.”
(from THE MESSAGE: The Bible in Contemporary Language © 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson. All rights reserved.)
In the mystery of his relentless love, Abba offers hope. Evil will be vanquished. The serpent will be crushed. And the very curse that now inhabits Adam and Eve will become the means of drawing them back to him. And God covers these animal bodies: these darkened bodies that no longer shine with the light of a pure soul. He covers them with shed blood and offers life in their death.
21 GOD made leather clothing for Adam and his wife and dressed them.
22 GOD said, “The Man has become like one of us, capable of knowing everything, ranging from good to evil. What if he now should reach out and take fruit from the Tree-of-Life and eat, and live forever? Never — this cannot happen!”
23 So GOD expelled them from the Garden of Eden and sent them to work the ground, the same dirt out of which they’d been made. 24 He threw them out of the garden and stationed angel-cherubim and a revolving sword of fire east of it, guarding the path to the Tree-of-Life.
(from THE MESSAGE: The Bible in Contemporary Language © 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson. All rights reserved.)
My friends Milton Stanley and Buzz Trexler have been discussing the nature of the church community, and how our evangelism is more than just hurling invectives at the “lost” outside the community of Christ. Good word brothers! Thanks!
Some writers like Ian Bradley have suggested, we are building outposts of heaven. Our churches gather in good times and bad. We gather in birth and death; in joy and sadness; and sometimes in fear and trembling. We gather to eat, to argue, to pray, to cry, to hope, to yearn, to love. We may do other things but one thing we are compelled to do is gather.
And in gathering we become, as Robert Bellah has reminded us, a “community of memory.” But not simply a sentimental common memory like the “good old days.” This memory is a real and living Presence. We gather in the living and present memory of our Lord. By His gentle and sometimes fiery grace, the rhythms of our lives harmonize in a symphony of love shining heaven’s light into this darkened world.
Augustine puts it differently. He says that we are a community of friends. This community is ever expanding transforming society into a world a friends who gather in the presence of the ever living Savior, Redeemer and Friend, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The inward outward movement of community is sometimes difficult to manage. We may become too inward losing sight of those outside the community, or we may become to outword focusing on the lost and dying world but losing sight of the called out community. This tension between building a loving community and reaching out beyond loving community is a dynamic tension that is always moving.
And as Chesterton points out that is one more beauty of our faith built on a cross of two planes: the horizontal and vertical. These intersecting planes remind us again and again of the wondrous paradoxical tensions of walking and living by faith.