Archive for May, 2014

Keep at it

// May 31st, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I’ve been rewatching HBO’s The Wire lately.  It’s a great show that humanizes the various kinds of systemic injustice we see around us so much that we no longer see it.  Almost everyone is trapped in his or her particular role in “the game.”  This, and his huge ego, inspires Tommy Carcetti to run for mayor of Baltimore.  When he first takes office, he wants to show that his administration is different, that he can change things, get things done where others have failed.

His first day, he begins a barn-storming tour of the city departments.  In each stop, he storms in with urgency yelling about some specific problem germane to that department’s business, but without any specific information to act on.  He tells Public Works of an abandoned car that needs to be towed; Wastewater Management hears of an open hydrant; and Parks and Recreation learns of a park in disrepair that is unsafe.  He does not tell them where any of these things are, just that they better take care of them immediately.  To please the new boss, they rush around fixing every problem they can find.

At their meeting later that day, the department heads are proud to report their progress.  Public Works has towed 52 abandoned vehicles from the streets of Baltimore, but Carcetti informs him that they missed the one he brought to their attention.  Parks and Recreation has installed new equipment at three schools, but Carcetti didn’t get a call about any of those – “Keep at it, though.  You’ll get there I’m sure.”  Wastewater is a brown-noser, getting all hydrants capped and pulling 32 tons of trash from alleyways, a single-day record.  Carcetti is pleased and thanks everyone for their good work.

In our passage from Acts this week (1.6-14), the disciples ask the post-resurrection Jesus if this is the time when he will restore the kingdom of Israel.  He tells them that it is not for them to know, but that they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and be witnesses to his life and work.  Then he flies up into the sky.

The man in whom they had invested the last three years of their lives was killed.  Then, improbably, he came back.  The resurrection is surely the vindication of their movement over against the powers of the world.  Surely, it is the victory for which they had waited.  But then he leaves again.  It’s a short-lived victory if Jesus is its focal point.  Sure, there is the promise that Jesus will return, but we’ve been waiting a while.  We’re on our own.

The Good News is that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to do great things.  Maybe, if we keep doing them, we will find that we have made earth as it is in heaven.  Maybe, if we tow the cars and cap the hydrants and make the playgrounds safe, we will find that Jesus has indeed returned in glory.  And we will be witnesses!  We just have to keep at it.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about living in the time between – between God’s going and coming, between the already and the not-yet, between the beginning and the end of the game.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

The Best Defense is Love

// May 24th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Christianity has always been a defensive faith, even from birth.  Our lectionary texts this week bear witness to this.  In Acts 17.22-31, we find Paul in Athens making an argument.  He is trying to convince the Athenians that they had been worshiping his God all along and that, if they did not soon recognize, they would be condemned.  In 1 Peter 3.13-22, Peter exhorts Christians to always be ready to defend themselves.  And in John 14.15-21, we get an Advocate, a defense attorney to stand by us in the trials to come.  It should be no surprise that the history of the faith is one of heresies and excommunications and denominational splits.

And it should be no surprise that the current environment is so toxic.  Christians often understand themselves to be under threat from a variety of sources.  Despite retaining far and away the majority in this country, Christians understand themselves as victims with diminishing freedom to practice their faith.  Whether pernicious holiday greetings or enforced gay cake baking or science classes that teach science, the world is out to get Christians.  Clearly.

Perhaps we should pay a little attention to the context in which the Christian Testament was written.  Christianity was in a formative process.  The first followers of Jesus were Jews.  They didn’t think of themselves as Christians, but Jews who had witnessed the coming of the promised Messiah.  They were ejected from the synagogues as their own self-identity developed in contrast to the dominant group.  So the Christian Testament is a testament of antagonism and strife.  It is the minority view over against the majority view.  Christians must recognize that this is no longer our context.

More importantly, Christians must look past the defensiveness to see what is being defended.  In Acts, Paul speaks of a God that transcends all boundaries so that we will, too.  Peter asks us to defend, not our hatred, but our hope, to account for that which drives us to gentleness, reverence, and a good conscience.  And John’s Advocate faithfully stands by our side in love so that we might bear witness to the presence of God.  The defense that Christianity requires is the steadfast conviction that we are all children of God, deserving of love and all good things.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we speak of the unknown that God that calls to us from beyond our own bounds.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Mansions in the Sky

// May 18th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

There have been a lot of images of the afterlife offered over the course of human history.   Billy Collins wrote a poem about it, appropriately titled, “The Afterlife,” in which he imagines the fate of different people according to each person’s own beliefs.  Some are reincarnated as animals, some become bits of energy, some await judgment.  It’s an interesting thought experiment, the idea that we each get exactly what we want, for better or worse.  In some ways, it is similar to the way that we sometimes imagine heaven and it might be just as problematic.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples that God’s house has many rooms, but I think most of us cling to the King James version that tells us that God’s house has many mansions.  We like mansions.  Not only that, but because English translations obscure the plural you we imagine that Jesus is talking directly to each of us.  There are many mansions because we all get a big house.  God is like Oprah, but even moreso!
Since heaven is the place where there are no more tears, each mansion is exactly what the recipient wants.  After all, it makes us sad when we don’t get what we want.  So I imagine each mansion to be what a drawing of a kid’s dream house looks like, with water slides and free candy and no bedtime.  Or maybe it looks like a Pottery Barn catalog.  Or a hobbit hole.  Or a deluxe apartment in the sky of the sky.  Whatever.  Literally, whatever.
The best part is that, because every mansion is exactly what we want it to be, fulfilling every need we have, we never have to leave.  Why go to your neighbor’s hobbit hole?  He doesn’t have a waterslide.  And why would he come over to your place filled with sugar-fueled, sleep-deprived children?  As an introvert experienced in cocoon-building, I can certainly see the beauty of having everything I want in one place, not needing to leave for anything.
But even I think this would be hell.  I wonder what the streets of heaven, the famous “streets of gold,” look like.  What is life like?  With everyone holed up in their mansions, there’s no need to talk to anyone or be with each other.  There’s no reason to care for one another.  There’s nothing to want and nothing to need because everything is there for you all the time.
The thing that I like most about Billy Collins’s poem is the end, where the dead reflect on the living and wish they could try again.  The truth that Collins tells us, and that too many Christians have forgotten, is that our image of heaven is our image of ourselves and our world. I don’t know if there is an afterlife, but I do know that the way we talk about it shapes who we are.  If we want mansions in the sky that hold our every desire, we will want that here as well.  We will do everything we can to avoid needing someone else or having someone else need us.  We will build our wealth and hoard our possessions and never see one another.  Somehow, I think that God has something else in mind.
If you’d like to talk about what that might be, please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center.   We’ll talk houses, households, the way, the truth, and the life.  Hope to see you!
Grace & Peace,
Scott

The Sheepgate

// May 9th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Most of what I know about sheep, which is very little, comes from the Bible.  I know that many people to whom Jesus spoke were shepherds.  Talk of sheep was a vital and timely metaphor for them; for us, not so much.  Jesus didn’t use dog metaphors or car metaphors or computer metaphors, which means that we have to do some translating when we read the Bible, not just of language, but of whole ways of thinking and imaging our world.  More importantly, we have to be aware of the ways in which our history of interpretation impacts the way that we read.  That is, when we read in John 10.1-10, that Jesus is the sheepgate, there are 2000 years of tradition and cultural developments that inform what we think that means.

Unfortunately, the history of Christianity is a long series of gatekeeping operations.  The Apostolic Church fought over whether to let in Gentiles and whether to let women participate.  The Eastern Church and the Western Church fought over whether to include one another.  The Catholic Church excludes Protestants from the communion table.  The African Methodist Episcopal Church was born when Richard Allen grew weary of being kept out of full participation.  Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week in America.  And we still debate whether we should let women participate and whether queer people should be allowed, not to mention the many subtle ways we exclude the disabled, divorced, dis-eased, and disadvantaged.  Over time, we have moved the boundary line out a little farther, let in these, but not those.  I suppose, given an infinite time horizon, we’ll finally let everyone in.

All this wrangling over who is in and who is out has taken its toll on the poor sheepgate.  As I heard it growing up, the meaning of this story is that Jesus is the only way to heaven.  We have to get in through Jesus.  A quick scan of the interwebz tells me that view is still well represented.  However, I think that misses some of the story.  First, the sheep go in and go out (v.9); it’s not just letting in.  In fact, the bulk of the narrative is about going out (vv. 3-5).  More importantly, the purpose of going out is to find pasture (v. 9), i.e., food, nourishment.  It’s not about separating the good from the bad, but about paying attention to the one who cares for you.  Further, if we are to be like Jesus, it seems our task is to nourish people and provide safe rest, to be the voice that leads people to their salvation.  When we reduce the sheepgate to boundary maintenance, we impoverish the text, the church, and ourselves.  We diminish the power of God to deliver us from the evils of this world.

This Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, we will continue a discussion of boundaries and inclusion, but also discuss what it means to be saved.  What are saved from?  What are we saved for?  We hope you’ll join us.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Traveling with Strangers

// May 1st, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

After Jesus was crucified, Luke (24.13-35) tells us that two disciples were walking to Emmaus when a stranger began to walk alongside them.  They looked sad as they spoke about all that had happened: Jesus’ ministry and judgment, the crucifixion and the resurrection.  The stranger inquired about their conversation, perhaps wondering why they looked sad when their story appeared to say that their friend was alive.  The stranger chided them for their lack of faith and interpreted the prophets as speaking of the Messiah.  Because it was late, the disciples invited the stranger to stay with them before continuing his journey.  As he broke bread and blessed it, their eyes were opened and they saw that this stranger was in fact their friend, Jesus.  They were so astonished that they immediately returned to Jerusalem to tell the others that Jesus lives.

We never know who will walk with us on our journey.  When I went to the Holy Land, I wasn’t sure who any of my travel companions were.  Though we had been meeting sporadically for a year, I still felt like I didn’t know them very well.  Strangers.  For an introvert, that is difficult space.

However, on that trip we travelled and talked and shared a lot of meals together.  Each night at dinner and every morning at breakfast and all day long as we travelled around the countryside, they taught me things about church and faith and life that I sometimes have trouble believing.  Each night at dinner, as we broke bread, God’s presence was revealed.

One of my companions on this trip was Danielle Shroyer, the former pastor of Journey, another emergent church in Dallas.  Though younger than me, she has been at this for a long time and was on the forefront of the emergent conversation.  I learned so much from her and gained a true and faithful friend.  She’s also pretty damn smart.  And funny.  She is passionate about church and faith and justice.  Being around Danielle makes it seem like this little old world might have a chance.

You can see for yourself this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, because I will be out of town at the Alliance of Baptists Annual Gathering.  I am sad that I will miss this conversation with Danielle, but I’m also glad for a rare chance to connect with other progressive Baptists.  The Annual Gathering is also a spot where it seems like this little old world has a chance.  Please pray for me on my journey as I will pray for you this week.  May we all meet some strangers that we come to know as the presence of God in our lives.

Grace & Peace,
Scott