Archive for August, 2014

Rest from Our Labors

// August 29th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

You may have noticed, even through the haze of a beer-soaked, three-day weekend, that this is Labor Day Weekend.  We all know this is the unofficial end of summer and, therefore, the day I have to stop wearing my fancy white suits, but it’s also a day that we celebrate labor by taking a break from it.  What you may also not remember, as you eat that fifth hot dog, is that God invented taking a break.

When the Earth was but six days old, God thought, Yeah, that’s good.  The work was done.  Everything that was needed was complete, so God decided to rest.  Not only did God rest, but God decreed that the seventh day of the week was holy, which means that we should set it aside as well to see anew the providence and beauty of God’s creation.  Unfortunately, that is almost impossible now.

Ours is a culture that demands constant production, which means constant labor.  The average American works almost nine hours in a day.  Many white collar workers are constantly on call with email and cell phones, so they are never really not working.  Service workers (and increasingly white collar workers in the “sharing economy”) often string together multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet.  Because dual-earning households are now the norm, household work is commonly shared (we hope!), so there is little down time.  Even our kids are expected to do more and more, excelling in school while building their resumes with extracurriculars.  School admissions staff and future employers will want to see that they can be hyper-productive, too.

That hyper-productivity both facilitates and justifies hyper-consumption.  After 9/11, with its tragic loss of life and complex implications ranging from the political to the theological, we were told to shop.  Keep shopping, so that the economy continues to churn along.  Keep shopping, or the terrorists have won.  Keep shopping, or you’re a traitor.  We work to buy and we buy to work.

When I read of the Sabbath, I see a God that is known in rest.  A God that is understood in rest.  A God that is constituted in rest.  Our God rests.  And our God wants us to rest, too.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Park, for a Labor Day Weekend picnic service.  Watch our Facebook page for a precise location; we’ll have to see what we can stake out on a holiday weekend.  Bring a dish to share if you like, or just show up and receive the bounty of God’s table – or blanket.

Grace & Peace,

Building Update

There is a hold-up on getting our Certificate of Occupancy for the new building.  We are confident that it can be worked out, but it will take a little more time.  Until it is resolved, we can’t get electricity, so this weekend’s workday is cancelled.  We will shoot for next Saturday, September 6th, and we will let you know as soon as we know via our Facebook page.

Jesus is a Jerk

// August 23rd, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

One of this week’s Scriptures has always troubled me.  In Matthew 15.21-28 Jesus is a jerk – kind of a racist jerk.  This raises a lot of questions.

First, we have to wonder if it really happened.  Jesus first ignores the Canaanite woman’s needs and then calls her a dog.  That’s not nice.  Jesus is nice.  We know that from Sunday School as children.  A couple of weeks ago, we talked about Jesus feeding five thousand people.  That’s nice.  That’s the Jesus we like, the one we want to tell others about.  Not racist Jesus.  This passage reminds us that our ideas about who Jesus are constructed.  We have an idea of who he should be and we tend to filter out the things that do not match up with that idea.  Everyone does this, even Matthew.

Matthew chose to include this story in his narrative.  It also appears in Mark 7.24-30.  Mark, the first gospel, is source material for both Matthew and Luke, but Luke omits this story.  Matthew also edits it slightly, adding the details that Jesus first ignored the woman and then told her explicitly that his mission did not include her.  It is impossible to think that Matthew did not have a theological agenda in the way he presents this story.  That is, there is something he intends to tell us about Jesus by giving us this story in this way.  Why does Matthew want us to see racist Jesus?

I’m honestly not sure I have an answer to that question, but I do notice something: Jesus changed his mind.  One of the core doctrinal understandings of God’s nature is that God does not change.  God cannot change because that implies that God is deficient in some way that necessitates change.  God is perfect.  If we hold that Jesus is entirely God with all the properties that we attribute to God, Jesus must also be perfect.  That probably means Jesus shouldn’t say racist things, but it also means that Jesus shouldn’t change.

One way of dealing with this problem is to say that Jesus knew what the Canaanite woman would say and do and knew how he would respond.  So, he didn’t really change his mind.  (We see similar explanations of God bargaining with Abraham over the fate of Sodom and Gomorra in Genesis 18.)  Jesus was just playing with her, challenging her to assert her own humanity.  Besides being cruel, this also reads some things into Matthew’s text, possibly borrowing from John’s Jesus, who knows everything.  Matthew’s Jesus changes his mind.

The fear of admitting that God changes is that there is nothing stable, nothing holding things together.  In terms of salvation, it is said that the only thing that can redeem the imperfect is that which is absolutely, unquestionably perfect, that which never needs redemption.  But maybe only that which has experience of redemption can properly deliver redemption.  What if God, present in Jesus as a finite human being, must experience change, like all human beings?  Jesus, like all human beings, has a limited point of view that is constructed by a particular time and place.  When he began his ministry, he had an idea of its scope, an idea of who was excluded.  But in this encounter with a stranger, a woman with whom he has nothing in common, he learns.  He transcends the boundary lines that had been drawn for him.  Perhaps that tells us something about who God is and what life in God is like: boundary-crossing; ever-expanding kindness; vulnerability; and willingness to change for the sake of love and justice.

Please join us this Sunday at 11am.  Because of a snafu with the city, we don’t have Kidd Springs this week.  Instead, Ashley and Fred Pena have generously offered their home (410 E. 5th St. by Lake Cliff Park) for our Sunday service.  We’ll talk about the politics of boundary-breaking and the ability to change our minds and we’ll wrap it all in some familiar music.  Hope to see you there!

Grace & Peace,

Building Update

As you know, Church in the Cliff signed a 1-year lease for the building at 1719 W. 10th to be our new home.  The board is working on the details to get us moved in right now and we will need your help.  Assuming we have electricity, we are going to have a church work day on August 30th.  We need to move some furniture, so we’ll need a truck.  We will also repaint and clean and decorate a little.  If we don’t have electricity by the 30th, we will reschedule for September 6th.  If you are interested in helping, email board@churchinthecliff.  Also, the move is requiring some additional expenditures, as we knew it would, so if you can help out with a special donation, we would appreciate it.  You can mail checks to P.O. Box 5072, Dallas, TX 75208 or bring them to church with you on Sunday.

Depression and Suicide: Beyond Buzzfeed

// August 15th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

The death of Robin Williams this week has brought a ton of information about depression and suicide bubbling to the top of social networks and message boards and content aggregators.  That’s probably a good thing.  Much of the power that drives a person to that point and keeps one from asking for help is the feeling that one is alone, that no one understands.  So it is good that people are at least talking about it.  We might experience a brief moment of understanding and compassion before we revert to charges of selfishness or cowardice.  (Too late?  Oh, well.)  However, there are still a thousand reasons I shouldn’t talk about my own experience of depression and suicidal thoughts this Sunday.

As a true example of selfishness, it can hurt me professionally.  Even though ministers are more likely to suffer depression or consider suicide than most other people, it is not exactly a plus on a resume.  Churches don’t want someone who might tank; they want a steady hand.  Worse, it can erode a minister’s authority in the pulpit as well as in providing pastoral care.  Many people don’t want a message of hope from someone who experiences such hopelessness.  I am grateful for a church where I believe I can be honest about such things.

My bigger concern is that it becomes a sideshow.  As a minister, my job is to inspire and educate others to faith, hope, and love, to care for them in times of struggle and celebrate with them in times of joy.  The church exists for others, not for its leadership.  In short, it’s not about me.

However, in spite of these concerns, I think it is the right thing to do.  Part of the problem is that we don’t see people talking about these things from positions of leadership.  Sure, the hoi polloi is plagued with depression.  Their lives are terrible.  Of course they are depressed.  But those who have succeeded, the people in pulpits or in executive’s chairs or wearing the doctor’s white coat or the judge’s robe, they don’t feel these things.  That is both why they are successful and the reward of success.  Again, fortunately, the people at Church in the Cliff know that I certainly do not have it all together.  They may not know how bad things have gotten at times, but they do know me and they love me, just as I love them.  If there is a church that can handle this discussion, this is it.

I want to put a human face on the endless, well-intentioned lists and pithy quotes and even substantial articles that tell us “what depressed/suicidal people think/feel.”  I read those and I recognize myself in some of it, but a lot of it is alien to me.  Some of it is downright insulting.  Such lists give the impression that there is a formula for this and there is a checklist for dealing with it: say this; don’t say that.  If we can just generate the right cliché at the right moment, we can lick this thing!  So I will try not to make any general statements or present myself as the exemplar of what depression looks like.  I can only speak for myself, of my own experience.

My hope is that others will feel free to do the same.  Perhaps in an honest conversation, we can get beyond the caricature and into a more nuanced and human picture of what depression looks like.  Then, perhaps, we can find healing.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about the depths of despair and the things that might pull us out.  I know this is a heavy topic, but I promise there is a hopeful conclusion.  After all, I’m still here.

Grace & Peace,

The Cleanse

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

Some of you might know that I started a 21-day cleanse diet on Monday.  This is probably not “church news,” but I wanted to explain some of my thinking because I am looking at it as a spiritual practice.

I should start by explaining what it is.  It is vegan, but that’s not all.  It also eschews alcohol, caffeine, carbs, gluten, and anything processed.  No fake meats or cheeses, no eating out.  It’s basically fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, all organic.  It’s also a lot more meals, though small.

This was not my idea.  Y’all know I like to eat all the things.  Lisa wanted to do this for her own reasons and I was skeptical.  I don’t really believe in a “cleanse.”  As WebMD says, your liver does that.  Sure, you can overload your liver and feel crappy – that’s what a hangover is – but that is a temporary condition that is “cleansed” by drinking water instead of wine.  That is, whatever the temporary physical benefits of eating clean, they will disappear as soon as you stop eating clean.  So I’m not doing this for any physical benefits, though I expect there will be some.

Instead, I’m doing this for two reasons.  First, relational.  Those who know Lisa know that she is unlikely to be dissuaded from this project.  I could fight her, but that will make the next 21 days absolutely miserable for everyone.  I figure it will add about three hours of food prep labor to her day, which she just does not have.  We never see each other as it is due to radically different schedules and her demanding job.  So I decided to join her.  I figure we can help each other with food prep – she makes smoothies in the morning and leaves it for me, I prepare her lunch and snacks for the following day – and, at worst, we are in this together.

Second, the essence of any spiritual practice is time and attention.  As with dietary changes during Lent, it can shake up your routine and force you to pay attention to what you are doing.  I mindlessly eat a lot of things, especially at night after Lisa has gone to bed.  Even when I’m not hungry, I will make a bowl of guacamole and pour a bowl of salsa and eat an entire bag of chips with whatever is left of the wine from dinner.  This reinforces my crazy schedule; I’d rather eat and drink than go to bed.  Of course, that means I’m unlikely to exercise when I get up, which also feeds into the cycle.  I need a change.  I need to pay attention to what I’m doing and break some habits that are wearing me down.  I need a spiritual cleanse in the guise of food.

It’s only been a few days, but I feel pretty good.  My schedule is still off, but I’m trying.  I notice that I’m tired when it gets late, so I go to bed earlier, but I’m sleeping a lot, so I’m still getting up late.  Because I’m supposed to eat five meals a day, plus a couple of special drinks, I’m having trouble fitting it all in.  That means I’ve probably cut my caloric intake by about half to two-thirds, which is not good.  I do feel more focused and alert, except in the afternoons about an hour before dinner when I get a little foggy.

I’m really enjoying the food.  One of my other ruts has been in my cooking.  I make the same meals every week, primarily for efficiency.  I know what to buy at the store.  I know exactly how to prepare it and how long it will take.  They taste good and are pretty healthy.  Part of wanting to do this plan was to remind myself of some flavors, textures, and techniques that I have neglected.  Fresh fruits and vegetables, often raw.  Nuts and seeds blended into a fascinating array of milks and creams and dressings.  I’ve added a little salt to some of the recipes, but far less than I thought I would.  I think some of these recipes will stick around.  Maybe some of the habits will, too.

I’ll post an occasional update as this process brings things to mind.  Food is a big thing in this church, so I would like to be thoughtful about it.

We would appreciate your prayers.


It’s a Miracle. Or Not.

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

As promised, we’re done with the Apostle Paul for a bit.  I hope that we have gained a more generous view of Paul that acknowledges his deep love for a gospel of justice and peace even where his writing can, at times, be problematic.  Now we’re going back to the Gospels, so more stories and less jibber-jabber.  Specifically, we are going to follow along with Matthew for a few weeks until we begin beatifying some dead people in anticipation of All Saints Day.  We’re still a little bit off the lectionary, so I’d like to step back to last week’s Gospel passage, Matthew 14.13-21, the story of the feeding of the five thousand.

When we step back into the stories of Jesus, we are confronted with incredible tales, so incredible that they are hard for the modern mind to believe.  In this week’s story, Jesus feeds five thousand men, plus women and children, with five loaves of bread and two fish.  We know this is not possible.

This leaves us with a few options.  We can accept the impossible and call it faith.  We can dismiss it entirely and write off the whole Christian project as a lie.  We can posit a story behind the story, wherein everyone shared or sacrificed or added to what was provided to make sure everyone got what they really needed.  Or we can look to the meaning behind the story without worrying about whether it is literally-factually true.

Even if we assume, as many modern readers in the wake of Joseph Campbell do, that the meaning is the critical point, we still have to decipher what the meaning is.  The common understanding is that these stories show us Jesus’ divinity; that is their purpose.  Only God could do such things.  That may be true of the author’s agenda.  If we study the Gospel of John, that is certainly the point; Matthew may hold that as well.  However, if we focus on that point, we have a single item to which we must assent, requiring little commitment or transformation.  More importantly, we miss the very content of these acts of power that should define our lives as Christians: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, freeing people from the bondage of the fearful voices in their heads.  These are works of power, truly.  We may not be able to speak a word and have it done, but that does not absolve us from the task.

Too often, we assume that, because we do not have the miraculous, mind-bending power portrayed in the stories of Jesus, we have no power at all.  It seems to me that it is far better to refuse to believe in miracles than to refuse to believe that we can change the world.  Indeed, if we have faith like a mustard seed, we can move mountains; we can change the very landscape of our world.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, for a conversation about works of power.  Where is our power as Christians centered?  What is our response to that power?  See you there!

Grace & Peace,

The Eternal Becoming

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

One of my developing theses in this section on the Apostle Paul is that his hopes were bigger than he was.  His view of the possibilities for his world and his faith was constrained.  For example, we have seen how his understanding of physiology shaped his views of what it means to live a spiritual life.  For Paul, equality operates by everyone moving toward masculinity, which was viewed as more spiritual and rational, less emotional and bound to the demands of the flesh.  So he works with women, considers them equals in Christ, and commends them for their service, but the way he gets there is distasteful to modern readers.  My suggestion has been to let go of the obviously wrong medical “knowledge” and hold on to the ideal of equality.

We can also see some of Paul’s limitations in the way that he casts the spiritual life as a battle.  The Flesh and the Spirit are at war in our bodies and in our world.  This is understandable because Paul lived and worked in an occupied land.  It was tense; it seemed as though a violent uprising – and a violent response – were always on the horizon.  Framing that conflict as the same conflict that humans experience in their own psyches is clever and wise.  However, it limits the story of our faith to a struggle for power – power over ourselves and power over our world.  It is socially and politically divisive and spiritually and psychologically fragmenting.  It ends up drawing lines and building walls rather than expressing Paul’s great hope that lines will be erased, that God can overcome any division.

This week’s lectionary passage, Romans 8.26-39, brings us another example, perhaps driven by Paul’s expectation of a rapid Second Coming.  A great deal of theologians’ ink has been spilled over the question of “the elect.”  Paul’s language indicates that God preselected certain people to be included in this new household, this large family.  There is an inevitability to it, what we might now call God’s irresistible will.  Yet, in the face of a ticking clock counting down to what has been preordained, Paul is writing to the Romans to ask for money to begin a mission to Spain to set up new churches.  He is not shutting down, sitting around waiting.

There is great hope in Paul’s actions that betray his language.  Perhaps he did think that God chose only a few, but he behaved as if there could always be more.  The only thing limiting him was his ability to reach out and the time constraints he thought he was under.  But after two thousand years of waiting for a Second Coming that never comes, we find that we have all kinds of time.  We continue to reach out, to call as we have been called.  Perhaps, as a Calvinist friend of mine once said, we are all the elect.  God has chosen who is in and who is out, but the secret is that we are all in.

But there’s another trick.  Usually, the conversation about the elect is about who gets in.  Specifically, who gets into heaven; it is concerned with who is saved.  However, I notice that Paul’s elect have a lot of work to do.  They are not just bringing people in, putting butts in seats and filling out the membership rolls. They work and share meals and pray together.  They are living the life of justice and peace that they expect to arrive in the Second Coming.  So maybe after two thousand years of waiting for the Second Coming that never comes, Paul would say that the project of Christianity is to live that life of justice and peace so that God’s presence in the world is revealed.  Rather than waiting for the event, rather than focusing on the moment of our salvation, the task is to participate in the process of God coming into the world.  Maybe after two thousand years of waiting for the Second Coming that never comes, Paul would realize that there is no Second Coming;  there is only the Eternal Becoming.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about love that never fails.  See you there!

Grace & Peace,