Sunday, August 30, 2020

Different Denominations from a Different Angle

Among Christians, our divisions have caused problems. Tonight I am going to mention another angle that I sometimes use to view the problem. This does not look directly yet at questions of faithfulness to God and spiritual vitality, of charity and blessing, of love of God or neighbor. Those are key questions -- in many ways more so than these. Yet I think these other questions deserve a moment since they are so much a part of lived experience, so long as we have the perspective that these are, after all, side-effects of deeper issues. 

Some groups are fragmented to the point that they cannot provide a connection to the joy of life, much less effective cultural leadership. They struggle to provide their people with meaning and guidance. Regardless of a group's persistence, there are other ways to discern if a group is self-sustaining and mature. Here are some criteria that help me gauge a group's viability: 

Standing on its own two feet

A viable group has its own identity: it can explain its own views without the need to oppose others. A viable group seeks to add value to the world and enrich peoples' lives as a servant of God's blessings. A splinter group expresses itself in terms of finding fault with their opponent without seeing a need to present a fully-formed alternative. A splinter group exists to be another's nemesis, and expresses its reason for existing in terms of finding fault, or of being a living critique rather than an independent voice. 

Love of life

A religious group, by its nature, produces a culture. A thriving culture will produce worthy art as a natural expression of love of life. We can see or hear how well a culture is doing by its art, by paying attention to things such as paintings, literature, music, and architecture. A group that produces no art, produces intentionally low-quality works, or produces only what promotes itself or attacks its opponents -- that is a sign of a group that lacks the joy of life that is part of Christianity's legitimate heritage. 

Community and Fellowship

Love of life will also express itself in practices that bring people together, whether through songs or holidays, commemorations or celebrations. An enduring group puts a priority on building connections between people, and on maintaining harmonious relationships. It is a healthy sign when the group teaches people to live well in relationship with others. A less healthy sign is pursuing the outside appearance of harmony by hiding problems, or addressing problems without gentleness and respect. 

Wisdom and scholarship

A mature culture seeks wisdom and pursues it, values it and treasures it. Here it is useful to distinguish between wisdom and its imitations such as quarreling or intellectual sparring. 

Government and leadership

A religious group forms a culture; the most fully-developed faiths have led nations and have given birth to civilizations. Peaceful growth in a flourishing culture requires both stability and meaningful justice. Does the current religious climate produce equitable laws that guide the nation and endure across generations? Does the group have the maturity of thought and character to produce capable leaders? Many of the newer religious denominations have never led a nation, and lack the experience that would bring more breadth and depth to their views. 

There are other criteria that I have also considered, though in our current environment those are seen as on the border between politics and religion. So these are a simplified set of criteria that are on my mind, and I will admit that if a religious group does not meet a certain threshold then I do not see it as fully viable. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Was God sending a subtle message with the location of an event?

Of the events recorded in the Bible, sometimes it looks like God coordinated the time or place of events to reinforce his message. Our lectionary reading for today seems to be one of those times.

When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"

And they said, "Some say John the Baptist. Others say Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:13-20)

This was a teaching moment where Jesus was leading his disciples to the next stage of understanding him. He had chosen his moment; did he also have any particular reason for the place? Our pastor today shared pictures from the ancient site of Caesarea Philippi: particularly, pictures of the headwaters of the Jordan river.

It turns out that Caesarea Philippi was near at least one major source of the Jordan river. The Jordan is where Jesus' cousin John baptized the people, and later had also baptized Jesus. And so Jesus chooses the headwaters of the Jordan river when the disciples are ready for the next step. As Jesus' identity is recognized by the disciples, the water flowing from that spot is baptized in Jesus' identity and carries the healing and forgiveness that only come from him. It leads to an understanding of baptism as rooted in Christ's identity: the cleansing waters that restore us flow from Christ, more than from a particular earthly spot. He is the true origin of the baptismal waters.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The spiritual foundation of the Ten Commandments

"I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." (Exodus 20:2)

Depending on which tradition you follow, that is either the prologue to the Ten Commandments or the first commandment itself. For present purposes, either way it is the foundation on which the others rest. What does that say about God's intentions and the law's purpose? 

In our days we hear a lot of prejudice against religious commandments and following them, with sneers about "blind obedience" or "mindless rule-following", usually complete with God's character being defamed as violent or selfish. Here we see that loyalty to God has a completely different origin. He has already established his benevolence, has already worked to free his people, has already shown his compassion toward them. The Lord is not their oppressor but their liberator. As they stand at Sinai, what he has asked them to do before then has led to freedom and blessing. 

The spiritual foundation of keeping God's commandments is his love and compassion for us, the trust that these laws do not bring chains but blessings. He has shown his faithfulness across the generations that separate them from their centuries-gone ancestors who first trusted him, and he will see their descendants through the centuries to come. 

Sunday, August 09, 2020

COVID as a window to a pre-modern world, and what they valued

In some ways, the COVID world makes the pre-industrial world more relatable. There is more insecurity now than before. Scarcity is something that is far more relatable after seeing months of shortages and empty shelves at poorly-stocked grocers. It is now more heartfelt to be grateful for simply having food, as the steady supply that I took for granted last year now seems a luxury. Even now, with supplies much improved over a few months ago, the stores still lack things that I used to take for granted.

And yet most of human history has been lived with uncertainty about these things. Every vaccine on our vaccination list was probably once an epidemic or an otherwise feared disease. And life went on. Instead of life being defined by possessions or security, it was defined by heart and soul, family, beauty, and a host of spiritual things that were held to be of greater value than food. Having had more experience of scarcity now, I begin to appreciate their point more deeply. I found this to be moving:

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
who gains understanding

For wisdom is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold

She [wisdom] is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare to her.

Long life is in her right hand;
in her left are riches and honor. 

Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peaceful. 

She is a tree of life to those who embrace her,
those who lay hold of her will be blessed.  ... 

When you lie down you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. 

Have no fear of sudden disaster
or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked.

(Proverbs 3:13-18; 24-25)

In comparison, I think our pop culture is not even a parody of what it should be. 

Wisdom and kindness can give our lives a kind of value that a well-stocked pantry cannot: one with honor. The return-on-investment of wisdom is quality of life, depth of life, beauty of life, even (often enough) length of life. It sweetens sleep as it does waking life, deepens friendships, makes the rough places smooth. It is life-giving. Wisdom is the world's foundation; anything built without it will not last, and anything without it will not continue -- and will not be a blessing, and will not give life, and cannot attain to peace. When the rubble of our current mess is cleared away -- however deep the rubble may be -- it will take wisdom to lay the foundation again, and a respect for what is solid and upright and true.


Sunday, August 02, 2020

How to love our neighbors during COVID?

This may seem basic -- and yet I see reason to believe it would still be good to think about. It's easy to lose focus. So as the lockdown continues into another month I've been searching for ways, either as individuals or in community, to love our neighbors during COVID.

  • Take care of our own health and theirs: Do not endanger a life. Here, love of our neighbor legitimately requires love of self as well. Someone who is infected will almost inevitably put others at risk. 
  • Do not judge: This virus is new. We're navigating in uncharted waters. None of us will make the right call 100% of the time; neither will my neighbor. 
  • Kindness and patience: I can skip a chance to be angry at someone. We all have extra struggles now. 
  • Listening and staying connected: I can make a phone call, send a message, have a quick video chat. When we're isolated there are all kinds of problems, and fewer solutions. Left alone, it's easy to slide into self-doubt or low spirits. It's easier to fall into fear or anger. The act of connecting to another person can re-set our minds. 
  • Visit the sick: This can be done on-line or by phone or by a card; no one needs to risk personal health in order to visit the sick. 
  • Feed the hungry: The lock-down has been economically devastating for millions of families. Now more than ever, there's a chance to feed the hungry. 

I'd be glad to hear of other things that haven't made the list yet.