Archives For October 2012

I have often said on this blog that maybe we should give up our stained glass churches and move them to strip malls, abandoned buildings, or other less costly surroundings. For many churches today paying the mortgage and utilities is a the second biggest drain on a small congregation (the biggest drain is usually the pastor’s salary).  That is why there is some validity to the claim that churches are more like clubhouses than anything else. Many spend the vast majority of their money on themselves.

For small churches, and most churches are small, these two areas of expense take up the lion’s share of congregational giving. There is usually very little money left for any other activity. If we could somehow reduce those major expenses we could get back to practicing “hospitality” as they did in the early Christian church. Hospitality basically meant “being your brother’s keeper” to the early Christians.

This article in Sojourner November issue is about Rev. Deborah Little who is doing just that. She should be an example to all of us Christians in how to “be” a Christian instead of a litany of proclaimed “beliefs”.

Source:  Sojourners November 1012 —Word on the Street by Charles Howard

This is Common Cathedral, an outdoor “street church”. Each Sunday at 1 p.m., in sunshine, rain, or snow people gather, 50 to 100 strong, next to Brewer Fountain on Boston Common. There, they witness love in a church without walls….

Reverend Little had a very unique history in fulfilling her calling. Here are the words from the above article relaying her story:

“the living bread appeared to me as a homeless woman. She was sitting on the steps of my apartment building. In an instant, I knew I was to make my home with her and others who lived on the streets”. It took Little around six years to answer that call, but finally she quit her job as the director of communications for Harvard Law School, went to the seminary, and got ordained. “I did this so I could take the church outdoors to the people who cannot or are not welcome to come inside”….

Over time Common Cathedral has grown from just a weekly service to a broad-reaching ministry with Bible studies, an arts program, a film screen program, legal and medical counsel, a hospital visitation program and more. 

It is hard for any of us to imagine giving up a lucrative job at Harvard Law School to go to the seminary and eventually making your life calling making  a church without walls for the homeless! Wow!! If her example is not an inspiration for all of us I don’t think anything could be.

It turns out that the Common Cathedral was an inspiration for others. In fact there are several other outdoor churches in major cities in the U.S. and the world.  Rev. Little’s simple idea grew beyond expectations. That is usually what happens when you get God’s attention 🙂 .

I am so glad to celebrate this success story.

Toward the end of his life, while in a Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a well known Lutheran theologian, wrote some tantalizing letters to his friend Eberhad Bethage where he wrestles with what he calls “religionless Christianity.”The letters in question were written in 1944 not long before he was executed by the Nazi’s. What did Bohhoeffer mean by Religionless Christianity?

Here are some of the words from those letters:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience–and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by “religious.”….

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man–not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.

I realize that I have picked but a few of Bonhoeffer’s words in his letters but I believe these are at the heart of his dilemma.  To me these words mean that what we do is more important than what we claim membership to.  It seems that Bonhoeffer was looking over seventy years in the future when he said there “even those who honestly describe themselves as religious do not in the least act up to it”.  Bonhoeffer seems to be saying that the word “religious” has taken up a different meaning than when it was originally defined.

Unfortunately the words “Christian” and “Religion” are almost just too entwined to be separated but that is indeed what B0nhoeffer seems to propose and I agree with him in that regard. Religion seems to be more closely linked to a club membership than to the teachings of Jesus. So to be a Christian does not necessarily mean being religious.

In closing I want to paraphrase his last words. It is not a passive religious act that makes a Christian, but the participation in the work Christ left us to do.  Someday the words Christian and religion may come to mean the same thing but that will take work on our part. When we as “religious” people quit insisting on strict adherence to man-made set of  “beliefs” but instead act on the words of Jesus then “religious” will once again come to mean something to the world. Until then I am happy to practice “Religionless Christianity”.

No this post is not about anything in today’s world. There are some Christians who are on evangelism missions abroad who are doing risky things but for the most part Christians are pretty well settled down in their safe lives much like everyone else in this country.  But that definitely was not the case for many in the early church.

Here are some words about early Christians doing very risky things to show that they were followers of Jesus and were intent on following his examples.  This quote is from  A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story by Diana Butler Bass.

During the second century’s great epidemic, known as the Plague of Galen (165–180), in which hundreds of thousands of people died in the streets, Christians proved their spiritual mettle by tending to the sick. As Bishop Cyprian of Carthage would later claim, that plague was a winnowing process, in which God’s justice was shown by “whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsfolk as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted.” Because they did not fear death, Christians stayed behind in plague-ravaged cities while others fled. Their acts of mercy extended to all the suffering regardless of class, tribe, or religion and created the conditions in which others accepted their faith. Christianity succeeded because it “prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations.” Translated from sociologist-speak, that means Christians did risky, compelling, and good things that helped people.

The basis of this story is centered around the early Christian concept of hospitality.  Hospitality is defined as the practice of welcoming those whom Jesus calls “the least of these” into the heart of community.  It was a central theme in the early church. Lets review those Bible verses about the least of these.

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matt. 25:34–36)

This testimony represents Jesus’s notion of hospitality. It seems that so many Christian congregations put up walls against the “least of these” instead of welcoming them. From personal experiences I know churches do occasionally have a project usually around Christmas or Thanksgiving where they collect canned goods and such and some even buy small gifts for a needy family. While this is a good first small step it does little to satisfy the actual overall need.  It is estimated that church giving accounts for about 3% of the overall need of the poor and homeless. The other 97% is usually met by our government.

If only today’s churches took to heart the words of Jesus to even a small degree of the early Christians our government would not have to do as much in our place.

I Believe……

October 24, 2012 — Leave a comment

The phrase “I believe” seems to have a lot of weight in today’s world but to me it is a cautionary phrase. We have to distinguish between “I believe” and “I am”. Let me give you an example of that:

“I believe that Jesus told us to take care of the poor.” This seems to be a powerful declaration but is it really?  What if I asked the person making the statement “What are you doing to take care of the poor?” and he said “well really nothing but I do believe that we should.”  I’m sure you can see how the second statement deflates any meaning to the first one. I think that is why so many call Christians hypocrites.

This to me is what is happening in the current day church. Our clergy leaders love to tell us in their weekly sermons that Jesus says this or that. But what seems to be critically missing is the call to actually do anything.  I sat in a pew week after week and heard what Jesus did for us but almost nothing about what we can do for Jesus’ kingdom on earth.  Instead I was told that according to Saint Paul I was nothing but a worthless miserable person who God expects nothing from.

I must admit that it has been more than two years since I sat in that pew but I have gotten on the website I created for that church to read some of the pastor’s recent sermons and they continue to be of the same old thing. “Jesus did it all and nothing is expected of you”. To me that is another way of saying that Christianity is a something-for-nothing religion.  To counteract this type of mentality I go to the red letters in the Bible to see what Jesus said and his message is quite different from those weekly sermons. We have set the bar so low for Christian actions that almost no one fails to get over it.

I do miss the fellowship of those Sundays spent in the pew, there were certainly some good and well-meaning people in that congregation.  But I don’t miss the constant mantra that I am a miserable sinner and Jesus expects nothing from me.  I have come to know Jesus expects a lot from me.  He expects me to give my life to doing what he told me to do. I know that he also gives me the talents and power to carry out his wishes to help bring his kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. I am not a worthless person because God has given me the gifts to make me otherwise.

Now when I hear someone say “I believe….” I almost always say “but what do you do with that belief?? It is easy to say you believe this or that, but it is hard to act on those belief.  James, the brother of Jesus, told us that faith/belief without action/works is dead and therefore meaningless. Don’t say I believe but instead put your energy into actually doing something. I have almost come to think that we should sell all our church buildings and move out into our communities in living out Christ’s words. That is what he really intends….

In 1997 Richard Carlson wrote a very popular book entitled Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff…. and it’s all small stuff. In that book he listed one hundred things to make our lives more peaceful. Some of those topics that I took to heart included:

  • Let Others Be “Right” Most of the Time
  • Learn to Live in the Present Moment
  • Surrender to the Fact that Life Isn’t Fair

Most of the things we worry about the most have little real impact on our lives.  They are just clutter that gets in the way of having a happier life.  As I have come to “not sweat the small stuff” I also come to realize that most of what I was told I must believe as a Christian is also small stuff!

I know this sounds like a rather shocking statement to hear that many of the things of the present day church are just small stuff. But, the more I studied the more I found that to simply be the case. It seems that Christianity has become a recitation of creeds about Jesus rather than taking to heart the actual messages he gave us.  There have been literally hundreds, if not thousands, of creeds put out by various leaders and councils of Christian churches and all believers were then expected to automatically pledge allegiance to each of them. In studying them they almost all include things to believe instead of things to do.

The creed that is recited weekly in most liturgical churches today is the Nicene Creed (click on this link to see the words).  If you take the time to actually look at the content of this creed you will see that they are all about what to believe instead of what to do. The messages of Jesus were actually the reverse of that. He spent much of his ministry teaching us how to live together and how to please God.  Almost nothing from the text above actually came from Jesus.

When I started studying the practices of the Quaker faith is when this realization came to me. Quakers are very creed averse and I came to find for a very good reason. They believe in acting out faith instead of proclaiming beliefs.  When we realize that what we do matter more than what we believe it changes everything. It was an epiphany for me personally to finally realize that fact.

The Christianity of belief in creeds is small stuff compared to actually acting on the words Jesus spoke. Where did we lose this critical understanding? When did Christianity become a “sit back and wait” instead of “acting out our faith” religion? It certainly wasn’t that way in the early church.

Lets get our attention off the small stuff and back to the true messages of Jesus. One of the emergent movement’s focuses is to get back to the true meaning of the Bible as a whole and the gospels in particular. That true meaning is enveloped in the words of Jesus.   They must take front and center over absolutely everything else.

From A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith  by Brian D. McLaren:

We’re following the best Christian tradition of going back to Jesus and the Scriptures, so our quest for a new kind of Christianity is, in fact, a most conservative quest. In our return to our roots, however, we’re not writing off all the great sages, scholars, and saints of church history. We’re simply going back to the original Evangelists, apostles, and especially Jesus and making sure we’re as in sync with them as possible from this point forward. We’re not trying to explain away anything in the Bible. We’re simply trying to take seriously the central elements of the canonical texts that have been studiously marginalized for too long—the good news of the kingdom of God and the biblical narratives that it consummates, integrates, celebrates, and opens to all people everywhere.

From time to time on this blog I get comments from people who seem threatened by my words. They say “why are you so down on the church” or “what do you have against the church”.  When I answer them I try to assure them that I am not down of the teachings of Jesus Christ. They are very much a part of my daily life. But we have come to see Jesus more through a lens of other men and have fallen away from the words themselves.

What is happening via the emergent movement today is kind of like renovating an old house. You often must strip down layer after layer of paint that has been put on the house by many previous owners in order to see what the house originally looked like. By going back to the original words our quest for a new kind of Christianity is actually a conservative one. You might say that we are trying to restore the old kind of Christianity but with meaning to today’s world.

I know that these words will not calm many in those churches who seem fixated on reciting a man-made list of beliefs about Jesus as proof of their faith in him. They seem to think that reciting beliefs  that others have formulated about Jesus is what is expected of us.

The central elements of the text which are the words of Jesus seem to be but a shadow in many churches of this day.  The good news of the kingdom of God has been lost to recent generations.  The emergent movement that is taking place in the church today will eventually free us to understand the words of Jesus  outside of this archaic literal foundation. Origen had is right almost 1800 years ago that there is just too much inconsistencies to say all in the bible is literally true without exception.

As we have learned in several of my recent posts Origen was one of the most influential theologians in the early church who was later deemed a heretic and then after that a saint again.  He spent quite a bit of time reading the “scripture” of his day. I put scripture in parens here because there was no Bible as we know it today in existence.

Today Origen is definitely not one of the more popular early Christian figures with some in our establishment churches. That is particularly true of those that believe all of the Bible comes from God’s lips and is totally factual and inerrant. That belief has never been as universal as some would have us believe. Here is another quote from A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story  by Diana Butler Bass.

Origen pointed out scriptural contradictions from Genesis through the Gospels. Not intending to ridicule God’s Word, Origen claimed, The object of all these statements on our part, is to show that it was the design of the Holy Spirit, who deigned to bestow upon us the sacred Scriptures, to show that we were not to be edified by the letter alone, or by everything in it—a thing which we see to be frequently impossible and inconsistent; for in that way not only absurdities, but impossibilities, would be the result; but that we are to understand that certain occurrences were interwoven in this “visible” history which, when considered and understood in the inner meaning, give forth a law which is advantageous to men and worthy of God.

Origen believed that scripture was much like Jesus’ teaching in that he used parables which are fictional stories to relay a message and so to do the other writers of ancient script.   Origen was not an infrequent visitor to the scripture. In fact he spent twenty years on his Hexaple which was a massive work of Old Testament analysis. There was probably no one in his day that had more knowledge of the ancient writings than him.

This will probably conclude our study of Origen. As I have said before he definitely shows that the earliest versions of Christianity were very diverse. It was not until the power struggles that frequently occurred within the church establishment did this willingness to accept a diversity of belief become stifled. I celebrate the fact that the current emergent movement is willing, in fact they actually celebrate diversity in their midst.  They accept that there is more than one “right” way to being a follower of Jesus Christ and that gives me confidence that the church of Jesus Christ just might live to see a bright future.

There are many today who believe that all of the Bible must be taken as absolutely happening and the stories are without the possibility of error. But this is not the case with many of us follower of Jesus.. Several of the early fathers of the church warned against taking things literally. One of those was Origen.

Here is a quote from People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story by Diane Butler Bass from him:

The problem with literalism began, according to Origen, in Genesis: Who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it.

It is clear that Origen was saying that the Genesis story is simply a story to relay a message and should be taken figuratively only.  For those who might want more info about Origen you can see that at my post From Saint to Heretic to Saint Again .  Origen tells us that it is just too simplistic to believe that eating an apple gives one the knowledge of good and evil.

One of the problems with many churches today is that they have boxed themselves into such a corner by their literal interpretations that the only way thing they can do is to deny established science or just plain common sense when it contradicts biblical stories.

Here is another quote from the book cited above to explain what is happening today:

Jesus fascinates millions, but Christianity, the religion that began with Jesus, leaves countless people cold. What happened after Jesus—oppression, heresy trials, schisms, inquisitions, witch hunts, pogroms, and religious wars—witnesses to much human ambition and cruelty. The things people do in Jesus’s name often contradict his teachings. From Constantine to Christendom to the Christian Right, “after Jesus” can be remarkably depressing for thoughtful and sensitive souls. This dismal historical record surely was not what Jesus intended as he preached a merciful kingdom based on the transformative power of God’s love. 

This “dismal historical record” as the author mentions is man-made often as a result of personal power struggles. It is definitely not what Jesus intended. We need to wrestle back the true messages of Jesus so that those who are still fascinated with him can hear the true story about him.

That is what the emergent church is all about.

Of course all Christians recognize the phrase the kingdom of God from the Lord’s prayer. But the interpretation of that phrase seems to vary considerably depending on what version of Christianity you follow. Here is what Martin Luther said about it in his small catechism:

Your Kingdom Come on earth as it is in heaven:

What does this mean? 
The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.

How does God’s kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.

Luther being a firm believer in a passive form of Christianity stripped any reference to our responsibilities in helping kingdom come to earth. I believe this comes from his belief in the  total worthlessness of all humans.  This epiphany  came when he discovered one particular verse in Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians: It is by grace that you are saved not be works…. Luther gave this one sentence in the Bible total priority over all the others, including even Jesus’ words and many have continued to do that since that time.

There are many today that take these words very differently. They believe that the Kingdom will come by the hands of those faithful who work for a better world. That Jesus’ commands to feed the hungry and clothe the needy are the kingdom to which he was referring. In other words they take these words as a call to action and not something to sit back and wait for. This interpretation is not new, some of the early church fathers believed it and to one degree the Catholic church still aligns with it.

The emergent movement that is now experiencing exponential growth is another of those groups. They firmly believe that Jesus’ commands are to be taken literally and as he said and I am paraphrasing here: Becoming a follower of Jesus changes everything.  Here is a quote from his book entitled A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren about the kingdom of God and its significance to the emergent movement.

Similarly, we’re discovering that the more we let Jesus’s message of the kingdom of God sink in, the more it begins to unsettle all our existing understandings and categories. It changes everything. Before this realization, we are like lawyers trying to save an old contract, adding more and more fine print on page after page, until the provisos are weightier than the original contract. (This is good work, I suppose, and must be done for a generation or two, but it is not the work to which I feel called.) At some point, though, more and more of us will finally decide that it would make more sense to go back and revise the contract from scratch. And that process has begun. It is nowhere near complete, but the cat is out of the bag; imaginations are sizzling, and exciting theological work is being done—by theologians, yes, but, equally important, by pastors, preachers, songwriters, screenwriters, producers, poets, dramatists, sculptors, photographers, painters, architects, youth leaders, community organizers, moms and dads, and thoughtful readers like you.

In the coming years all those who are currently disheartened by the legalistic and creed based versions of Christianity will discover that there is a movement emerging that takes the kingdom of God to a whole new level and gives it back its literal meaning. It changes Christianity from a “sit back and wait” religion to a an action oriented one  based on Jesus’ words.

My study of the early church leaders is to show that there was much diversity in the early church that was later driven out. Many, if not most of the “church fathers” believed things that are now considered heretical. Ignatius was certainly no exception.

Ignatius and Irenaeus had definite ideas of how the young Christian congregations should be governed. Both authoritarians, they were hardly advocates of participatory democracy. Still, they respected the remarkable diversity of the churches and did not try to enforce any standardization. — The Future of Faith (Cox, Harvey)

As indicated by the above quote for The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox, Ignatius was a contemporary of Irenaeus. Even though they were powerful men in the early church they did not get into micro-managing the various congregations they were involved with. Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch after Saint Peter and St. Evodius. There are seven letters, commonly known as epistles today, attributed to him.  One of his major beliefs was the value of the Eucharist He called it a “medicine of immortality”. He, strangely to us today, had very strong desire for bloody martyrdom in the arena. He I expresses rather graphically in places.

An examination of his theology of salvation, technically called soteriology, shows that he regarded salvation as one being free from the powerful fear of death and thus to bravely face martyrdom. The idea of original sin was not part of his agenda for salvation but instead was to free us of our personal sins committed in our lifetime.

One of the interesting things about Ignatius is that there is now swirling doubt as to the authenticity of the seven letters attributed to him. Some evidence seems to point to one person who later modified the content to meet his view of theology. Without being able to find much about Ignatius I will leave the quote in The Future of Faith of respecting the diversity of the church as the main focus of this post.