Archive for June, 2014

The Freedom to Be Formed

// June 28th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

We have just passed Juneteenth and we are quickly approaching the Fourth of July, so freedom is on our minds.  Perhaps it is always on our minds as freedom-loving Americans.  And we are a Baptist church (it’s true!), so freedom is at the heart of who we are.  However, Paul did not write in a time of freedom.  Everyone lived within a domination system, a rigid hierarchy.  At the bottom of that system was slavery.

Slavery was simply a part of the way Paul’s world was organized.  It was pervasive, absolutely commonplace.  Slaves were a part of any household of sufficient wealth and size.  They were, sort of, members of the family.  They, sort of, had some legal rights.  They were, sometimes, well educated and, sometimes, had high-level jobs, like accountants and managers.  But they were still slaves.  Property.

When Paul compares the Christian Way to slavery (Romans 6.12-23), it can be awkward for us.  Slavery is a thing of the past.  We now stand on the right side of history.  Our faith is not about enslavement, but about freedom.  But Paul knew then what we still live today: we are all parts of systems of power and influence and we are all formed by those systems.  We are certainly freer than the people of 1st century Palestine, but we are never completely free.

Our greatest freedom comes in our choices to support or resist the systems of power in which we find ourselves.  Where do we buy our clothing?  Who made our electronics?  Which store do we shop at?  Where does our food come from?  What kinds of families do we embrace?  How do our votes change the lives of people who are not us?  We choose what we bind ourselves to and so we choose how we and our world might be formed.  Paul’s prayer for us would be that we bind ourselves to those things that bring life rather than death.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we discuss slavery, grace, and a welcoming spirit.  Also, note that we will have a meeting after church to discuss the space we are looking to lease.  See details below.  Hope to see you!

Grace & Peace,

New Space

At our church planning retreat in May, there was a strong consensus that having full-time space was one of the critical next steps for this church.  We have done “church-in-a-box” for a long time.  It puts a considerable burden on those who set up and tear down every Sunday and limits what we can do with services and any other programming.  It is time to find a home.

We have looked at a few properties that were serviceable, but one has just become available that is far more than we could have hoped.  The building is a beautiful mid-century modern at the intersection of Jefferson, Rosemont, and 10th on the border between Winnetka Heights and Sunset Hill.  It is 2600 square feet, with a large space at the front that has big windows and lots of light, much like Kidd Springs.  There are also 9-10 smaller rooms in the back that will support a kitchen/dining/lounge area, dedicated childcare, and office space, as well as leaving some rooms to sublet to artists as studio space.  Everyone who has seen the space is excited about the possibilities!

Perhaps the best part is that it is affordable.  As you probably know, property in Oak Cliff can be expensive to rent, but we think we can have this space for about what we are paying Kidd Springs right now.  The numbers:

$1375 in rent + $600 in utilities (max) – $800 in studio rentals (4 rooms @ $200 each) = $1175/month.

In theory, this is budget-neutral.  In reality, there are some variables.  First, we’re not sure about the utility costs, but the manager said that $600 seems high.  Second, it does depend on keeping those extra rooms occupied and paying.  We have already talked to a few artists who are interested, but no guarantees. If costs do come in a little high, we would have to increase giving or dip into our savings.  There will also be some initial costs, such as painting and furniture.  Our resourceful designers and architects are already looking out for deals and we have already had people approaching us to contribute to those costs.

There will be a Q&A at the end of church tomorrow.  Please bring any questions or concerns.  If you are not able to attend, please email with any questions or concerns.  We will make our best effort to allow our standard two weeks to vote on a lease, but if there is a strong consensus and we need to lock down the space or lose it, we might have to cut the time short.  So please register your thoughts and opinions as quickly as you can.

What I Meant to Say Was… Hell Edition

// June 26th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I know I talked a lot on Sunday.  I’m sorry.  My hope is that we will continue to unpack a lot of it over the next few weeks.  And, really, I’m clearly not that sorry because I’m about to say some more stuff I didn’t get to on Sunday.

As many of you know, I love to talk about hell.  Our Matthew passage (10.24-39) brought it up, so I had a lot I was prepared to say.  It’s not just my need to say stuff, though that need is strong.  Really, my interest in hell is that it is the ultimate scare card.  Because we think about hell in a particular way, it can trump all other ways we might think about God.

We talked on Sunday about how sin could be thought of as the fears that drive our worst instincts.  And we talked about how Christianity has been spiritualized to the point of caring little for material reality.  Hell functions as the final threat that compels us to act out of fear.  Even when everything else seems fine, when the material circumstances of our lives are good, there is that looming threat of eternal torment.  This might encourage a certain kind of virtue, but it does not form us into mature Christians, the greater and greater incarnation of God because it only invites us into a world of fear rather than love.  So what does Jesus mean when he talks about hell?

Most of the time when Jesus talks about hell, he uses the word Gehenna, as he does here in Matthew.  The word sounds mythical, like something out of Edith Hamilton.  However, it is actually a place: the Valley of Hinnom on the southwest side of Jerusalem.  It has a long, gory history, a place of blood and fire.  It was the place that the Canaanites sacrificed children to Moloch and Baal.  When the Israelites moved in, it became their trash heap, accessed through the Dung Gate.  All manner of human waste and detritus ended up there, including the bodies of the unwanted and unconnected, criminals and the destitute, no family to give them a proper burial.  Fires smoldered perpetually under the surface, noxious smoke billowing out with occasional flames breaking through.  The surface of the heap was the domain of flies and their offspring, worms that never sleep.  The stench was so bad that one might gnash one’s teeth while making a contribution to the pile.  If we’re going to read the Bible literally, this is what Jesus literally meant.

But, obviously, Jesus is talking about Gehenna for some other purpose.  It’s not a Jerusalem travelogue or a PSA for the city dump.  There is a metaphorical meaning that leverages what people know about Hinnom to remind them of something they may have forgotten about God: that God loves us.

Notice that Jesus says to fear, not the one that can kill the body, but the one who can destroy the body and the soul in hell.  It is easy to take this to mean to fear God.  But Jesus immediately follows this with statements of God’s love and care for us.  God looks after a bird that can be bought for a penny.  How much more valuable are we to God?  We should not be afraid.  I submit that Jesus is saying not to fear death, only death without meaning.  The body may die, but the soul is that which gives us life – it is life.  If we live in a hopeless wasteland, have we even lived?  And does death even matter?  Life in God is a life that matters, a life that seeks justice.  The alternative is to live for nothing, to live as though everything is waste, everything forsaken.  That is hell and it is very real.  We should fear – and oppose – anything that puts anyone there.

When we know ourselves to be a part of the life of God, we cannot be disconnected, dispossessed, or devalued.  We cannot be consigned to the trash heap of humanity.  We may suffer and we may die, but not for nothing.  Those who find their lives – those who simply come upon it, who fall into it, without reflection or concern – will lose it, having never really lived at all, but those who throw it all away for God’s sake will fall into something entirely different: true life and love and hope.

Hell is indeed a warning about where we might be headed, but the choice is right in front of us all the time.  If the life we have makes us gnash our teeth and hold our noses, maybe it’s time to consider something else.  If it makes us feel disconnected and devalued, maybe it’s not the life for us.  And if we see anyone else headed toward the Dung Gate, ready for life where the worm never sleeps, maybe we should sound a warning.  More importantly, we should deliver the promise that God has something better, that God counts precious every hair on our heads.  In God, we truly live and so does everyone else.

Come, Ye Sinners

// June 21st, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I lamented in church last Sunday that I miss the altar call.  Certainly, it is damaging in a lot of ways.  However, what I like about it is it puts a person to a decision.  If Jesus is, in the words of theologian Schubert Ogden, the decisive re-presentation of God in that the words and works of Jesus put a person to a decision, then it seems fitting that a church should have a time when we are, in fact, put to a decision.  Perhaps the reason many churches don’t, including ours, is that this decision has become so intertwined in the public consciousness with the problem of sin.  Nobody wants to talk about sin.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but I was at an emergent church conference a few years ago and a man at my table explained that he was there to see what the emergent church was about.  He said that he liked a lot of what he had read, about rethinking the ways that churches are organized and the way that we worship and reflect on our tradition and the way we allow for questioning and hospitality.  What he did not like is that we do not talk about sin.  I was somewhat taken aback, but I realized that he was mostly right.  And it’s not just the emergent church movement; mainline churches don’t often talk about sin, either.  We talk about love and grace and justice, which all sound nicer.

As I talked to this man throughout the day, I learned that he was from Yugoslavia.  He watched family members die in the war.  He saw violence and starvation and rape.  He escaped to teach theology here in the States, but he can never forget what he witnessed.  Seeing such evil in the world, he needs theology – and the church – to account for sin, to deal with it in some way.  It can’t be ignored.

For most Christians today, if you ask about sin and salvation, they will provide some version of what is known as “atonement theology.”  There are different nuances, but the gist is that we are so bad and God is so good that Jesus, an innocent, had to die in our place to pay for our sins.  Most people believe that this is what Christianity is about.  Those who do not like the implications of this theology (violence and blood as necessary conditions of forgiveness; evil as an essential condition of being human; etc.) might reject the faith altogether.  Or remain in the faith and simply not talk about it.  Those who embrace it might make it sound friendlier, focusing on God’s love for us rather than God’s need for blood.  There is a growing number of people who argue against this theology, but it sometimes leaves us without a coherent way to talk about sin and, particularly, the way the Bible talks about sin.

Over the next few weeks, the lectionary brings us Romans and Matthew.  Specifically, we have Paul’s thoughts on sin and Matthew’s ideas about hell and condemnation.  These probably sound like ugly topics because of our history with those notions.  But I believe there is something in the discussion of sin, and even hell, that is liberating.  We read these texts through the eyes of Anselm and Luther and Calvin and uncritically accept that this is the only way, that we are “sinners in the hands of angry God,” dangling over the fires of Hell, begging only for mercy. This is not the God that I know.  This is not the way I understand myself as a human being or the relationship I have with God and others.  Like Paul, I understand any discussion of sin in the Christian context to be a conversation about freedom, reconciliation, and wholeness.

I hope you will join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about sin and the freedom of life in God.  There is a lot to unpack here, but I have every confidence that God will show us the way.  I promise there won’t be an altar call.  Not this time.

Grace & Peace,

Trinity Sunday Sermon

// June 20th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Some folks asked that I post my sermon from last Sunday. So, here it is.


Friday night, Lisa and I attended a modern dance performance by the Bruce Wood Dance Project. Sadly, it was an unexpected memorial for Mr. Wood, who died just a couple of weeks ago of pneumonia and heart failure, the ultimate end of a decades-long battle with HIV. I was honored to be present. I really mean honored because it felt intimate, as if I had been let in to a person’s private life, even in the midst of that large performance hall. Overhearing conversations in the audience, it was clear that many people had not only been long-time fans of Bruce Wood, but that they knew him personally and supported him through the ups and downs of his life and career. But there was also another kind of intimacy.

In his choreography, you can feel the spirit of the man. Every piece felt deeply personal, like his imagination, his intellect, his will – everything that made him, not only human, but made him uniquely him – was embodied on that stage. His heart and mind made flesh. All of this was constructed out of a troupe of dancers, each of whom was unique, bringing his or her own personal gifts and limitations to the movements given them. Out of a community of difference, Bruce Wood created something sublimely harmonious.

The pieces themselves were not the rigid form of ballet. This was not the tall male lead and the slender ballerina, the man a scaffolding for the woman’s leaps and the woman a toy to be flung around. Dancers danced alone or in duets or trios or in groups of six or more. Same-sex pairings were as common as mixed gender pairings. Bodies engaged one another with sensuality and violence and humor. They merged and separated. They rolled around and over one another, falling and grasping, pulling and shoving. At times they moved in unison and at times they conflicted, literally attacking one another. Sometimes dancers sat down and calmly observed another, but even that gaze was engaged, a crucial support to the flurry of activity across the floor. If you want to understand the Trinity, go see modern dance.

The Trinity was a latecomer to the doctrinal party. The first few hundred years were a fight over whether Jesus and God were the same and the language we might use to talk about that. Once that was relatively settled, people began to ask whether the Spirit should also be included and how. One answer that was offered was perichoresis, which translates literally to “dancing around.” The Spirit was said to be the bond of love between the Father and the Son, the very thing that held them together. It was also said to animate the triune God, the very breath and rhythm of the Godhead. The Spirit was the music to which the Trinity danced. The persons of the Trinity engage and separate, they infuse one another, they grasp and pull at one another, they move in harmony and they move on their own. They are entirely separate, distinct persons, but they are also entirely the same, coeternal and consubstantial, which means they have always existed with no priority of one over another and they are made of the same stuff, having always existed together. Most of that boils down to philosophical hair-splitting and, eventually, church-splitting, but it is also the key to connecting the problem of the Trinity to actual human experience.

Underneath all the arguments over who proceeds from who and how, there was the fundamental claim that the three persons of the Trinity were entirely the same and yet utterly distinct. It sounds like a crazy problem. If things are the same, they are the same. If they are different, they are different. A cannot equal B and also not equal B. It’s just a question of logic, not that logic ever stopped a church from having an argument. In any case, this is the quintessential human problem.

There are ways of talking about humanity that recognize our sameness. We have similar concerns for food and water, for love and companionship. We were all born and we will all die. It’s easy to say that we all want the same things, but if you really talk to someone else, you might find that we really don’t want the same things. Or, at least, we don’t understand or talk about those things in the same ways, so much so that they might as well not be the same at all. Reducing humanity to its commonality denies the very particular experience of what it means to be a human being. No one has the same experiences I do. No one can ever stand in my place and see things through my eyes. There are fundamental differences between people and those differences matter.

So there are ways of talking about humanity that recognize our difference. Positively, this is understood as rich diversity. We celebrate this, especially in America – not a melting pot, but a tossed salad of equally valuable parts. We celebrate our diversity, but we don’t really believe in it. Not completely. Noticing our differences is the first step to valuing those differences. Surely, some things are better than others. This culture or that one must be deficient in some way. Some culture, probably mine, is clearly the best. And my experience within that culture is clearly the best, the key to properly understanding all of humanity. We quickly move from celebration to condemnation.

And so we are in this balancing act. It is absolutely essential that we recognize one another’s difference. If we don’t, we co-opt or erase it. Under the guise of understanding, we claim that everyone is just like us. It’s the height of arrogance. It is also absolutely essential that we recognize the ways in which we are the same: our common needs, our common struggles, our common joys. Otherwise, we break down into tribes and nations, eventually at war. Most importantly, how do we relate to one another in our sameness and difference? This is the problem of the Trinity.

The funny thing is that the problem of the Trinity has never been resolved. The official position of the Catholic Church, the keepers of original Christian doctrine, is that the persons of the Trinity are one and the same, indivisible, inseparable, and coeternal and that they are entirely different, not different manifestations of one thing, but entirely distinct persons. How that works is a mystery. They don’t know and any attempt to explain it has been labeled a heresy. It’s not just digging in their heels, either. Any attempt to explain the Trinity is bound to deny or deemphasize either the three persons’ sameness or the three persons’ difference. A minister friend recently bragged that he had written a sermon on the Trinity that is not heretical. Several people noted that he must be planning to announce the title and then sit in silence for twenty minutes. Sometimes “mystery” is a code word for “impossible.” Language simply can’t capture it. Explanation just doesn’t work.

But here’s the thing: the Trinity does not require explanation; it has the dance. Bruce Wood once said of his work: “I don’t do work that’s clever or brainiac. I just don’t find it interesting. I like work that people can feel, and I think that was the thing people missed. People will never remember patterns or structure, or how many turns they did or how high their legs went — nor should they. But they will remember how they felt.” He’s right. I will never forget what I saw on Friday night because it brought me to tears and it made me laugh. And when I think back to my experiences with God that meant the most, it wasn’t a point of theology or biblical exegesis in a sermon. It was how I felt when I walked down that aisle. It was the smile on my youth minister’s face seeing the changes in my life. It was the friends with whom I shared time. Even now, I don’t remember much of what I have written over the past five years. Looking back through my files is like picking through someone else’s desk. But I remember people’s faces when I serve communion. I remember laughing over dinner. I remember a smile, the light in a person’s eyes when they know they are loved, a hug. I remember sharing food hand to hand. I remember the people I have hurt. I remember those who have hurt me. I remember the lost and the found, the pushing away and the pulling toward. I remember the times we worked together, the moments we shared, and I remember the times we sat back and let someone dance their own dance. This is the human dance, the dance of life, the dance of real people living real lives. This is the beautiful example of the Trinity, sharing in one another’s lives in the bond of love.

In its sameness and difference, there is the sublime harmony of the dance. Regardless of the particular image of God – tall or short, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor – we can all move. We can all touch. We can all grasp and fall and jump and rest. We can get in a line and do the Electric Slide or pair up for a waltz or shake it like a hippy-chick or slam dance cosmopolis. And we do. We move in harmony at times. At times we dance to the beat of our own drum. At times we fight. We push people away and draw them near, we hold each other cheek to cheek and sway to the rhythm of life. The Trinity, like life, is not a problem to be solved, but a dance to be danced.

Go Ye Therefore

// June 14th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, so that will be our subject.  There is certainly a lot to be said about it.  However, I want to take this space to touch on another subject that is raised by our lectionary texts.  One of the only places in the Christian Testament that uses a clear Trinitarian formula (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) is in a passage that, in my original context, was most often used for a different purpose.  That text is Matthew 18.16-20, “The Great Commission.”  As a young evangelical, this was given as the guiding principle of my faith.  Let’s just say I’ve moved away from that a bit.

Perhaps part of my issue with the Great Commission is the power language: authority, make, obey, command.  Jesus has authority, so we should do what he says.  More importantly, we should make others like us, so that they do what he says.  Might makes right and right makes disciples.

But maybe we’re reading it wrong.  There are other ways to read these words, other ways to translate and we can choose.  Authority is power.  It is used to describe Jesus’ teaching, that he speaks as one who has authority, who knows what he is talking about.  We have all, hopefully, had powerful teachers in our lives.  It is also used to describe his miraculous healings, which he gives to his disciples.  And when he is questioned about the source of his power in the Temple, he does not claim it only for himself, but says that anyone who has faith can move mountains.  Jesus’ power derives from his faithfulness; the commitment to doing good actually results in good.

We could go through similar exercises for the other power words.  “Obey” could mean to keep in view, take note, or hold onto.  “Command” could mean to commission or direct, as in to set aside for a special purpose, as we do in commissioning services.  Perhaps it’s no accident that we call it the Great Commission and not the Great Command.

What I’m noticing is that these alternative readings point to a purpose beyond themselves that I think I was missing as a young evangelical.  It seemed that the point of making people into Christians was so that there would be more Christians.  (Given the political shift in the SBC at the time, perhaps that was the only point: strength in numbers.)  But Matthew is after something else.

Matthew’s particular concern is righteousness, which, again, is a misleading translation.  When we read it as “righteousness,” we focus on personal piety and it becomes a label.  We use righteousness to separate ourselves from the unrighteous.  It places a hierarchy of value on people’s lives and choices.  We know that we are good and we are God’s because we are not like them.  A better way to read it would be “justice.”  God is not unconcerned with our behavior, but the measure of it is whether or not it brings about justice.

The same is true here.  The purpose of making disciples is to spread the Good News that God’s dreams for the world are finally coming to pass.  Notice Jesus’ eschatological spin: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (v.20).  As Christians, we are set aside and given the power to accomplish a special commission if only we keep that commission close to our hearts.  If we remain faithful to our purpose of bringing about God’s justice in the world, a world without war, without tears, a world where everyone has food to eat and water to drink, a world where people are healthy and whole, and everyone is included.  To be baptized, reborn, into that life does not make us better or more deserving of the good.  Rather, it requires us to ensure that everyone receives the Good News of peace and justice.

One final observation:  Because many of us at Church in the Cliff grew up in these traditions that seek to overpower others, to submit them to our will and our culture and our values, we are leery of the evangelical portions of the Christian Testament, those passages that ask us to spread the Good News.  That sometimes makes us reticent to invite others into what we are doing.  We don’t want to be that kind of Christian.  And maybe we will never be fully comfortable with the Great Commission.  So let me offer an alternative invitation from the Gospel of John: “Come and see!”  I can testify to the difference Church in the Cliff has made in my life.  Seeing my faith with new eyes gave me reason to continue in that faith, to keep it close to my heart.  I don’t know if it will do the same for you, but I hope you will come and see.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we discuss the Trinity, with all its peril and promise.

Grace & Peace,

The Spirit is Moving

// June 7th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

This Sunday is Pentecost, the birth of the Church.  It is characterized as a magical, mysterious event where the Spirit of God comes upon the people with wind and fire.  We often consider it unique, something that happened (or maybe didn’t) long ago.  We commemorate it each year as a memory that is not our own.  But my experience is different; I hope yours is, too.  There may not be wind and fire, but I see the Spirit of God present in the people of Church in the Cliff all the time.

I see the Spirit in the commitments of those who provide coffee and breakfast on Sunday mornings.  I hear the Spirit in the voices of those who sing and play.  I feel it at Wednesday dinners when we share meals and talk about our lives.  I see it in the faces of the beautiful, brilliant, creative children that have grown up in Church in the Cliff.  I see it in a board that dares to take on the mundane tasks of running the church.  I hear it in the rich conversations that we have on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights and whenever we gather.  I see it in the concern we have for one another and the lives we choose to share.  And I see it in the great tradition of ministers and lay leaders that came before us, that built and sustained a place that we can now call home.

Most recently, I saw the Spirit moving at our church planning retreat.  We come from many different worlds and find ourselves in different places on the Way.  Yet, out of our different interests and different ways of speaking, we understood one another and came to a common vision.  A common voice emerged out of a humility and vulnerability in listening to one another, in finding the common ground of concern for one another’s well-being, and in a passion for moving the church a little bit farther down the Path.  Like those present at the first Pentecost, I’m not sure what it all means or what precisely will happen next, but I am assured that all will be well.

The Spirit of God is always present.  Our task is to open ourselves to its movement, to allow ourselves to be moved, to dream dreams and have visions and speak prophetically to a world that longs for justice.  Our task is to breathe the breath of life and light the fire that enlightens the world.

Pentecost is the day that the Church is formed and reformed, birthed and rebirthed, every year.  We will dream dreams together and see visions together and speak prophetically to a world that longs for justice.  We will be constantly born into that life, so that, little by little, all the world will be saved to a life of peace and justice.

If that sounds like something you would like to be a part of, we would love to have you.  We would love to dream with you and add your voice to our chorus.  Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we see the future of Church in the Cliff together.

Grace & Peace,