Posts Tagged ‘church’

Welcome to the New Life

// April 18th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

We had a great time at Oak Cliff Earth Day handing out free cookies.  Thanks to everyone who baked and helped prepare and set up and tear down and everyone who just came and hung out at the booth.  I love that we have such meaningful (and not so meaningful) conversation no matter where we are and have so much fun in the process!

This week we move back inside as we continue the season of Eastertide.  This is the lectionary year of the Gospel of Mark, which throws the lectionary deciders for a loop during Eastertide.  This is supposed to be the season of tales of the resurrection leading up to the formation of the Church at Pentecost.  But Mark doesn’t have any resurrection stories.  Instead, the lectionary fills in with other stuff, primarily from Acts and the Johannine corpus – in this case, the Gospel of John and 1 John.

This material does not specifically concern the resurrection, either, but it does say something about the resurrection life.  Jesus’ resurrection was supposed to be the “first fruits,” the first and paradigmatic sign of the new life to come.  Most Jews of the time had anticipated the raising of the dead for centuries as God’s final victory over the suffering of God’s people.  The Christian claim was that Jesus was, somehow, that victory.  This, of course, only led to more anticipation, waiting for that promise of new life to be fulfilled.  Welcome to the new life; it’s a lot like the old life.  However, the nearness of this new beginning in the person of Jesus inspired the early Christians to endeavor to live into that new life.  They didn’t just wait around for something to happen.

Each collection of Jesus followers tried to do that in a different way.  We see this in the varied concerns of Paul’s letters to the churches he founded.  We see it in Paul’s conflicts with Peter.  We see one story in Acts and quite a different story reflected in the John material.  In a way, each one is trying to enact its own form of a utopian community.  I can’t wait to see how that works out!

Please join us this week, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we discuss the promise and peril of trying to live in this world as we hope to live in the next.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Sunday School

We will begin offering Sunday School for children, every Sunday starting May 3rd at 10am.  We are blessed to have Catalina Murcia as a part of our community.  Catalina is the founder and director of Art of Peace Community, a Montessori program here in Oak Cliff.  She is heading up our efforts to provide progressive, creative Bible education for our young ones using Godly Play materials.  It has been a long time since we have been able to provide this for our children and we couldn’t be more excited!  If you would like to volunteer to help teach, please email board@churchinthecliff.org.  Also, we are still getting some materials together, so look for a list soon of things you could help provide.

Undone by Love: The Redoing

// August 2nd, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Before I moved to Dallas, I was a manager in the Information Systems department of a medium-sized company that owned funeral homes and cemeteries.  Yes, even funeral homes have information systems.  And, yes, I was a nerd.  The part of my job that I liked the most was facilitating groups of people in a software design process.  I got to use lots of office supplies: sticky notes, flip chart pads, dry-erase boards.  But the thing I liked the most was that, in the process of designing software, you inevitably had to design a business.  In trying to narrow down a business function to the point that it could be accurately captured in software, we had to pick the business apart, find and resolve conflicts, create a unified mission.

Now I’m a different kind of nerd.  I love the Bible.  I love theology.  I love church.  But what I still really love is picking things apart, finding the common threads, and weaving them into something new.  Maybe I’m the same nerd, just aimed in a different direction.

We’ve spent the last five weeks picking things apart.  We’ve been talking about an ethic of love that deconstructs systems of power.  We’ve covered a lot of ground: the earth, the alien, neighbors of different races and classes, the others within our own families.  We’ve even talked a little about how and why we define the other as the other.  Now it’s time to pick up those threads and weave them into the dreams of God.  With sticky notes and flip charts and prayer!  Nerds FTW!

Elvis was right: there’s not much point to all this conversation, if there’s not some action.  So this week we’re going to move a little closer to action.  In prayer and reflection, we’ll break into small groups and, with some guiding questions, we’ll talk about which pieces mean the most to us as individuals and as a group.  What challenges us?  What is obvious?  Where do we agree or disagree?  Where do we want to move forward?

Obviously, this does not get us quite to the action part, so the conversation must continue.  In a couple of weeks, we will convene our Social Action Team to try to put together a portfolio of social justice concerns that makes the best possible use of our limited resources and allows us to develop ongoing relationships around those issues.  I hope that everyone will continue to participate in that conversation.

Please join us on Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, as we dream together with God to make it on earth as it is in heaven.

Grace and Peace,

Scott

Undone by Love (Program and Sermon)

// July 1st, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Program

Sermon

Every so often, someone comes forward with proclamations of doom for America.  Whether it’s Carle Zimmerman in 1947, Francis Schaeffer in 1975, or William Bennett in 2003, they see themselves as prophets pointing us back to an ideal time that has passed us by, an ideal place we seem unable to still find.  We have lost our way, our moral compass.  The problem, as Schaeffer puts it, is that we have placed value in the ephemeral, the impermanent, instead of the absolute.  They look back to something that never existed.  Any claim to an absolute is just the claimant making themselves into the absolute.  Of course, they never say, “You know who has really made a mess of things?  Men.  The rich.  White people.  The straights.”  No, the threat always comes from somewhere else.  It’s the feminists who desperately want more teen mothers.  All the non-white people are lazy and breeding at an alarming rate.  The greedy poor are jealous of what others have achieved through hard work.  I’m not sure what the gays are doing, but I’m sure it’s icky – and dangerous!  Any perspective from the margins threatens these moralists’ world.  These postmodern approaches destabilize a society that works very well for some people.

We have been accused of being a deconstructive church and that has produced some anxiety about the possibility of building something.  What do we have to offer other than critique?  What is our bottom line?  Do the questions ever end?  But we have suffered from the same misunderstanding, often self-inflicted, that has plagued Derrida and other postmodern thinkers.  It is commonly thought that deconstruction is nihilistic, Nietzsche’s horrific abyss left in the wake of God’s death.  I would suggest to those critics that they should actually read Derrida.  I haven’t read much, but it doesn’t take much to realize that is not the objective.

All deconstruction suggests is that the things we take for granted about the way the world is organized – race, class, gender, disability, etc. – are all constructed.  That is, things like race don’t really exist except as ways to categorize people.  That’s why Wanda Sykes jokes about how Tiger Woods got less black the more success he had.  It’s not that people don’t have different skin color or different biology or different amounts of wealth.  It’s just that we have decided that those things matter in particular ways.  They matter because of the value we attach to them.  And because we attach value to them, some people benefit and some people are harmed merely by being on the wrong side of an arbitrary line.

What deconstruction suggests is that, because these things are constructed, they can be deconstructed.  We can take them apart and see how they work.  We can ask who wins and who loses by constructing things the way we do.  Thus, contrary to the claims of the naysayers looking for absolutes, deconstruction is primarily ethical.  As Grace Jantzen says of the abyss as represented in Hadewijch’s writings, if the abyss is the site of all possibility, a natal space, “then we could hardly imagine that all attitudes and actions are equally relative, that nourishment and care do not count for more than contempt or cruelty.”  Deconstruction is certainly a playful adventure and one without a clear end, but it is far from immoral.  Good is always good for, and deconstruction asks, “Who is this good for?”

I submit that we see the same deconstructive posture in the law.  Our passage from Deuteronomy is an account of the time just before the Israelites enter the Promised Land, though written very much after the fact, a retelling of the Exodus narrative from the perspective of the exiles.  As the Deuteronomist tells it, they had not had a ruler up to then, but God knows that they will ask for one.  So God says, “Sure you can have a ruler, but only with some conditions.”  First, the ruler cannot acquire horses, which means there will be no army.  Second, the ruler cannot acquire a lot of wives.  Wives of rulers at that time were essentially treaties, so this ruler cannot negotiate relationships with other nations.  And finally, the ruler cannot hoard money.  This is really everything a ruler did at that time: make war, make treaties, and rake in the cash.  The Israelite ruler would have none of it.  Instead, the ruler was to read the law all the time and keep its statutes, never placing him- or herself above the rest of the people.  If the ruler can rule in this way, he or she would rule for a long time.  To properly rule is not to rule.  To properly rule is to be equal to everyone else, struggling to live with one another.  To properly rule is to be powerless.  The purpose of the law, then, is not to give power, but to construct a society around an ethic of love, a society of justice.

Just before Jesus came on the scene, the chief religious leader in Jerusalem was Rabbi Hillel.  Hillel had frequent disagreements with Rabbi Shammai, which are recorded in the Talmud.  Their disagreements were over interpretations of the law.  Hillel’s were typically more liberal, looking at the law as grounded in a principle, whereas Shammai was more conservative, demanding strict adherence to the statutes.  There is a story, often told, of a Gentile who wanted to understand the Jewish law, so he posed the same challenge to Shammai and Hillel: “Explain the Torah to me while I stand on one foot.”  Shammai told him to go away and slammed the door in his face.  Hillel said, “Certainly!  That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah.  All the rest is commentary.”  It’s not that the Torah and its statutes didn’t matter – he advised the Gentile to study the commentary if he really wanted to understand – but without a principle of concern for your neighbor, it is meaningless, useless.

As static statute, the law becomes a system of power that oppresses.  At the time of Hillel, the temple cult held the most power within Jewish society and it was oriented entirely around strict adherence to the law and the sacrificial system of atonement.  Though history has not been kind to Shammai, always playing the foil for Hillel, he seemed to be winning in the year 0.  If you’re poor, you must have sinned and need a sacrifice.  But if you’re poor, you have no money to buy a sacrifice.  And if you take a day off work to travel to Jerusalem, you get even poorer.  You can go into debt.  There are people at the temple who will loan you money, but you can probably never pay it back.  So then you become a debt slave and lose whatever meager property you had.  It’s not that different today, by the way, but we’ll talk more about that in a couple of weeks.  The promise of a just society is not only not fulfilled, but it is turned on its head.  This is the world in which Jesus finds himself.

The law is a system of oppression that Jesus sets out to deconstruct.  Jesus’ words reported by Matthew curiously echo those of Hillel: “’You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ That is the greatest and first commandment.  The second is like it: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments, the whole Law is based – and the Prophets as well.”  Everything the law is intended to be is expressed by love of God and love of neighbor.  If the law or its application does not do either of those things, it is not the law.  Feeding and healing people on the Sabbath is not a violation of the law.  As Jesus says in Matthew 5:17: “I have come not to abolish (the law), but to fulfill (it)!”

Love deconstructs power.  Love asks, “Who is this good for?”  If you’re a privileged, straight, white male, you can bet your absolute will be good for privileged, straight, white men.  We – and I say “we” because I certainly have benefited from this – built a system of slavery and segregation; of monogamous, heterosexual marriage with clearly defined gender roles; of hyper-masculinity; and we made sure that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.  Who is this good for?  Jesus announces in Luke that he is bringing good news for the poor.  Would Jesus even recognize those who claim his name today?  Matthew 25, the story of the sheep and the goats, makes me think otherwise.

Conversation

Would Jesus recognize us?  Who do we have good news for?  Who do we love?  Ourselves?  Each other?  What systems of power are we willing to take apart?  And how do we go about doing that?

Closing

In our series on John’s church, we learned about how love, friendship and oneness require equality and mutuality to reveal ourselves to each other.  It is often thought that, in the real world, such relationships are impossible.  Derrida says that deconstruction is “the experience of the impossible.”  I would argue that’s a pretty good definition of life in God and life in love.  As my professor, Dr. Theo Walker is fond of pointing out, there was a time when people thought that the abolition of slavery was impossible, that it simply was the way the world functioned. It’s just crazy to think otherwise.  And it was, for thousands of years.  But then someone – a Christian, in fact – thought otherwise. Bartolome de las Casas, the author of the phrase “human rights,” saw the Indians of the New World as friends and knew he could not hold power over them.  It took about 300 years, but now no one can imagine a world in which slavery would be okay.  Out of love, de las Casas deconstructed the way of the world.

Now our struggles are different, but somehow the same.  Slavery has ended, but discrimination, poverty, sexism, homophobia – evils too numerous to mention – are thought to be the way the world works.  We must have poor people.  Men and women are just inherently different.  There just isn’t enough in the world.  We are told that the things that plague our world are impossible to fix, a part of the nature of reality.  But love asks us – God asks us – to experience the impossible.  In the remainder of this series, we will talk about what that means for us as individuals and as a church.

Undone by Love

// June 29th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

The series we just finished examined John’s ethic of love as a guide for how our church might understand itself.  John’s ethic of love is aimed largely in toward the community from which the Gospel arose.  Although John’s scope is the world (“so that the world may believe,” John 17:21), it intends to draw the world in (“come and see,” John 4:29) rather than pushing outward as Matthew (“make disciples of all nations,” Matthew 28:19) would have us do.  And, although I believe we are a Johannine church, both John and we are a part of a much larger tradition.  We also live in the world, a world that God loves so much (John 3:16).  Our next series, then, continues with the proposal that John is our canon within a canon, the filter through which we might understand the rest of our text and tradition.  We will begin to reacquaint ourselves with the broader canon, read through John’s ethic of love.

This may seem easy.  “God is love” is a cliché.  Interestingly, people tend to say it only when they move away from the Church.  When people are asked what they think of Christians, they overwhelmingly see us as judgmental and bigoted.  In order to believe that “God is love,” it seems they must get away from Christians, become “spiritual, but not religious.”  It breaks my heart.

It breaks my heart because, in part, they are right.  The loudest voices, the squeakiest wheels in the Church are voices of fear and judgment.  And, as we look at our text and tradition, it is not hard to find support for all manner of evil, from domestic violence and homophobia, to slavery and genocide.  But it also breaks my heart because there is also, always, a counter-tradition, a thread of love that runs through it all.  We’re going to pull that thread and see what comes apart.

I think it’s time for Church in the Cliff to speak up.  To get loud. So, while this series will be an examination of our text and tradition, I also want it to have results.  What are we going to do?  How do we reveal God to the world?  The world cries out for love and those cries are louder than the squeaky wheels of judgment and fear.  We can respond to those cries.  We can harmonize with the world’s longing.  We are few and our resources are limited, but, if we find the right resonance, we can tear down the structures of power that feed on fear.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, as we talk about power and how it might be undone by love.

Grace and Peace,
Scott

John’s Church, Our Church: Oneness (Program and Sermon)

// June 24th, 2012 // No Comments » // Uncategorized

Program

Sermon

At the beginning of this series, I made an apology.  Normally, we use the inclusive text for our Scripture readings, but I chose to use the NRSV for this series.  The reasoning was that John is very careful about language and the inclusive text sometimes obscures it.  The downside is that we hear God constantly referred to in the masculine, as Father.  So this week we’re going to push back on that, try to break down the masculine framework that we assume in John.

John leverages the father-son relationship for power and authority.  Jesus has authority because he is from the Father.  Jesus has power because he is from the Father.  In 3:35, “The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands.”  In 5:19, “for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.”  In 5:23, “Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.”  In 12:50, “What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.”  I could go on an on.  This was the way that fatherhood and sonship was understood in John’s world.  The son has the authority and power of the father and therefore merits the honor given to the father.  The father commands and the son obeys and, therefore, they can be said to be one in authority and power.

I think this is the most common way that Christians understand our relationship with God.  God is God because God has power over us.  We submit to God’s power instead of rebelling against it, and so we are saved.  I can see the attraction of this.  For those who are disempowered and marginalized, it’s good to think that, ultimately, power is on your side.  But it’s also good for those who have power because they can claim God as the source of their power.  The Southern Baptist Convention just appointed its first black president and they are touting it as a victory for racial reconciliation.  Congratulations.  In 2012, you finally accept African Americans as fully included under God’s power and authority, you finally grant one group access to your God.  How long to women have to wait?  What about my LGBTQ friends?  When do they become acceptable?  They say, “We don’t hate women, but God says that men are to be the head of the household and the head of the church.”  And, “We don’t hate gay people, but God says they are an abomination.”  God says…  God says… God says…  We are helpless in the face of God’s command.

Framing our relationship with God as one of power is a dangerous game.  It has consequences.  In the world, injustice continues as people see themselves as being ordained with God’s power.  From ordination of women to equal pay to reproductive health.  Bullying, teen suicides, marriage equality.  At one time, it was slavery and interracial marriage, but it’s all the same.  Whether it’s Loving v. Virginia or Proposition 8, Roe v. Wade or the Defense of Marriage Act, there’s always someone advocating for injustice in the name of God.

It also affects our theology.  If our relationship with God is one of power, how can we really be one?  We talked about this last week, that friends don’t have power over one another.  How can there be mutual self-giving in a non-mutual relationship?  If it’s about power, our real relationship with God, like God’s justice, must be pushed off into the future.  Eternal life only projects forward.  Heaven – and God, for that matter – is that which is forever beyond the limits of our power.  We exert our power in this world until we run out of time.  Then we find God.  It doesn’t even make sense, if you think about it.  Eternal means “without beginning or end.”  Thinking of eternal life as that which begins after our death is a depressingly narrow view.  Eternal life must be something more.  Something infinitely more.

There are a couple of ways to attack this power-centered, androcentric structure.  The first is to question the way we divvy things up, what is masculine and what is feminine.  Not all men are aggressive; not all women are nurturing.  We can certainly make room for a messier sense of gender.  I think this is a fruitful line of questioning, but one I’d like to come back to later.  The second option is to examine how we value the things we organize by gender.  Perhaps power, logic, and aggression should not be valued above all else.  Perhaps those things we characterize as feminine – nurturing, emotion, receptivity – can also be valued.  There is good evidence that John takes just such an approach, which we see in a few of his word choices.

First, John portrays God and Jesus in nurturing relationships.  In John 1:18, John the Baptizer says of Jesus: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  Only, it doesn’t say heart; it says bosom.  The word in Greek is kolpon.  When referring to a person, it usually means bosom or breast, as a nursing child.  It could also mean embrace, as two lovers.  Early Christians, such as Augustine and Clement, translated it as womb because it often refers to a cavity of some kind, an enclosed space.  It might be the fold of a garment or a bowl of food, but for a person, there is a sense of intimacy, of safe enclosure, the embrace of the beloved.  Interestingly, the only other place it is used is in John 13:23, “One of his disciples – the one whom Jesus loved – was reclining next to him.”  Only it doesn’t say “next to him;” it says, “reclining in the bosom of Jesus.”  Whatever oneness might mean to John, it would appear to involve physical closeness, nurturing, and intimacy, even with God.

Second, John talks a lot about birth.  John uses the word “beget” eighteen times, even though there is no genealogy as we find in Matthew and Luke.  “Beget” can refer to generation through the father or it can refer to birth.  The tendency is to assume it refers to fatherhood and sonship because of the constant use of the title “Father” and probably to harmonize with Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies.  It is also fair to note that in the ancient world it was believed that only the man contributes to the child – the woman is merely a vessel – and so the father-son relationship is the critical one.  Power in the ancient world certainly rested on this.  But John frequently refers to the act of birth itself.

Starting in John 1:12-13: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”  Then there is his conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3: “Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”’”  One could – and feminist scholars have – criticized this as devaluing the physical birth from the mother in favor of a spiritual birth from a masculine God.  It’s a fair critique, but it assumes that God’s masculinity is unquestioned.  Perhaps John means for God to be imagined as a woman in this case, complicating God’s fatherhood.

This is not unprecedented.  We’ve talked about feminine names for God, such as Shaddai, but there is something else so common that it gets overlooked.  It is always obscured in translation, but the Hebrew and Aramaic word for compassion is an adjectival form of the noun womb.  When Jesus says in Luke 6:36, “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate,” he is making a gender-bending pun in Aramaic.  “Be a Mother just as your Father is a Mother.”  In Jeremiah 31:20, God says of Ephraim, “Therefore my womb trembles for him; I will truly show motherly compassion upon him.”  There is a long tradition of God as Mother.

Finally, when John talks of oneness, he speaks of being in one another.  In 17:21: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”  Continuing in vv. 22-23: “so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.”  Unless you are caught in a blizzard while riding a tauntaun on the icy planet of Hoth, there are only a couple of ways that you want to be in another being.

One possibility is sexual intimacy.  I can’t rule this out.  In my opinion, it is not a reach to think that, in the author of John’s understanding, there was physical intimacy among some of the disciples and even Jesus.  There are betrothal type-scenes with the Samaritan woman at the well and with Mary Magdalene in the garden.  No one is alarmed when Jesus strips down to a towel during dinner to wash everyone’s feet.  Peter apparently likes to fish naked with the boys.  And there is always that Beloved Disciple, resting in Jesus’ safe embrace.  The problem, of course, is with the way that we understand sexuality.  It’s tawdry, prurient.  It must be contained within strict boundaries.  In particular, gender difference must be maintained.  The active masculine acts on the passive feminine.  Women’s bodies become places for men to exert power.  We too often regard our intimates as servants rather than friends. It’s hard to see God in that.

The other possibility, of course, is the womb.  We’ve already talked about the biblical tradition behind this, but I’d like to mention one other key word in John: become.  In the Greek, it is ginomai, which is extremely common, so common that it’s hard to make something of it.  It just means “to be.”  Think of all the times we use “be.”  Be brave.  Be calm.  I will be there.  But in John, it is frequently used in a sense of creation, as something coming into being.  In 1:3, the Word is said to have created everything: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  In 1:12, we are given the “power to become children of God.”  In 1:14, “the Word became flesh.”  Water becomes wine at the wedding and a spring in the hearts of believers.  People become well.  People become blind.  People become disciples.  And when they become disciples, they abide in God’s love and pain becomes joy.

The French feminist Luce Irigaray says that woman is place. This could be thought of as woman as place for the use of men.  That’s what leads to our distorted view of sexuality and our distorted view of God.  Woman is not space to be conquered, but place to become.  The womb is our primal source where all possibility exists, where all things become.  The mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp says it like this: “I was in a very depressed frame of mind one Christmas night, when I was taken up in the spirit. There I saw a very deep whirlpool, wide and exceedingly dark; in this abyss all beings were included, crowded together, and compressed.  The darkness illuminated and penetrated everything. The unfathomable depth of the abyss was so high that no one could reach it . . . It was the entire omnipotence of the Beloved . . .”  This abyss is terrifying for man because it can’t be conquered.  Except by an all-powerful masculine God.  Man turns away from the primal, natal source and toward a different unknown, the unknown of the future beyond death.  He erases the memory of his becoming and erases woman.  Woman is left without a place for herself to be herself, to become herself.

But Irigaray makes another move.  While woman has always been the place of becoming for man, man is not usually the place of becoming for woman.  That, in her mind, is the key to an ethics of sexual difference in which all have a horizon of becoming, a place to become.  Man must be a place for woman to become.  I think John had a similar gender-bending strategy in mind.  Beget can refer to fatherly generation or motherly birth.  The bosom can be the nurturing breast of the mother or the comforting embrace of the lover.  The Father must be the Mother.  We become because we have a place to do so.  In turn, we are the place for the other to become.  And that place is the eternal, that from which we come and that to which we will return.  The mystery of the ineffable Godhead is identical with the unfathomable natal abyss.  It is without beginning and without end.  All that we have ever been and all that we might become is contained in the One.

There is one more move to make.  If God is the place of our becoming because we are in God and if we are the place for one another to become because we are one, then what does it mean for God to be in us?  It can only mean that we are the place of becoming for God.  Hadewijch encourages the young female Beguines to whom she writes to carry their pregnancy with God to term, each month a step on the mystical journey to the birth of Love.  God is imagined as a baby girl to which they will give birth.  Irigaray is more forceful.  She imagines the coming of an ethical God, a God in which man and woman have a place to become, as a new birth, “not waiting passively for the god to come, but by conjuring him up among us, within us, as resurrection and transfiguration of blood, of flesh, through a language and an ethics that is ours.”

Closing

As Christians and as a church, we have an obligation to one another to be a place of becoming.  Nurturing.  A safe embrace.  An unfathomable abyss of love.  In that abyss of all possibility, of everything that has ever been and everything that ever could be, swims the one person you are.  This is the place to become that person, to be born again.  But it is also the place for God to become, to be conjured up among us in flesh and blood, in the language we use and the ethics we live by.  This is the place for God to be born anew.  And it’s the same place.  As we become, so does God; as God becomes, so do we.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

John’s Church, Our Church: Oneness

// June 21st, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I have to admit, I’ve been nervous about this week ever since we decided to do this series.  Talking about oneness is hard.  John is very clear that being one with God and one with each other is the task of being a Christian.  Much of Paul’s writings show a similar concern.  And so it should not be surprising that there has always been a strong mystical thread in the Christian tradition.  However, mysticism is often misunderstood, so, while I’m not yet sure what I will say on Sunday, I am certain about what I won’t say.

First, one could interpret John’s talk of oneness as simple unity of purpose or direction.  I think this is too easy and not representative of what goes on in any church, especially Church in the Cliff.  We have all come here from different places and we’re not entirely sure where our journeys will end.  If love and friendship are ongoing mutual self-giving and self-revelation, it’s hard to say where that will take each of us.  While it is reasonable to assume some commonality between us, there must be something more going on.

Second, it is easy for mysticism to disintegrate into some vague kind of empathy.  We let it float into the clouds and, as a result, the meaning of being a Christian is pushed off into the indefinite future.  In heaven, we will know God.  But that defies one of John’s central concerns: that the world will know who God is.  Such a soft understanding makes no claim on us at all.  Again, there must be something more going on.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, as we discuss a mysticism embodied in the real world that tells us who we and God might become together.

Grace and Peace,
Scott

Community Meeting, July 1

At the last community meeting, we decided to have regular monthly meetings to help us move forward.  They will be the first Sunday of each month at 10am wherever we are meeting for services.

I say “wherever we are meeting for services” because one of the agenda items for the July 1 meeting is to discuss moving back to Kidd Springs Rec Center.  We would like to vote at this meeting because Edwin has requested 60 days notice, which would keep us committed until the beginning of September if we make a decision July 1.  If you cannot attend, please email your vote to board@churchinthecliff.org.

Sarah Kitto, Valen Chavez, and I visited the rec center on Monday and the renovations are great.  The kitchen was overhauled.  The troublesome sliding doors were replaced with a glass wall and sets of double doors, which should help with noise from the hallway.  There is also a meeting room added on that would be perfect for meetings or Sunday School, if there is interest.  It may cost extra, but not much.  Otherwise, the rent is the same as before and roughly equal to what we pay for the Kessler.  On a personal note, I have to say that walking into that sunlit room with life dancing by outside, it felt like home.  While I appreciate what Edwin and the Kessler have done for us and I’ve enjoyed our time there, I will be voting to move.

Another item to be discussed is membership.  We have not had membership at Church in the Cliff for several years.  As I understand it, the feeling was that it made church into a club with insiders and outsiders.  However, some of us wonder if we lose something by not having a way for people to claim a commitment to what we’re doing.  We’ll talk through it and see if we can come up with something that fits who we are as a church.

Finally, we will discuss our budget.  The budget that went into effect in January was based on assumptions about our income that probably are no longer valid.  Also, it was predicated on the idea that teams would be responsible for deciding how the money allocated to them would be spent.  Many of those teams did not emerge and, as a result, that money was not spent.  We need to look at our current income and at what teams are active and have financial needs.  From there, we can make a new budget.

The details of running a church are rarely fun, but I hope people will attend the monthly meetings and share their ideas.  The best way to have a church we want to be a part of is by building it together.

John’s Church, Our Church: Friends (Program and Sermon)

// June 21st, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Program

Sermon

Opening

This week, Lisa and I celebrated our 19th anniversary.  Over the years, people have occasionally asked me how a marriage lasts, why ours works.  Sometimes people assume that there is some trick, like never going to bed angry or saying “I love you” at least once a day.  That may be good advice that we follow more often than not.  But tricks don’t make relationships.  Perhaps we just got lucky and found “the one” on our first try.  That may be true.  From my perspective, at least, there was some kind of magic, definitely love at first sight.  But the first sight is just the first sight.  It doesn’t last.  It can never be had again.  And if you spend your life focused on that one moment, you’ll miss a lot of new moments.  No, I think that the one thing that has held constant between Lisa and I, the one thing that keeps us together, is that we are friends.  In a world where “friend” is defined as a mutually beneficial or mutually entertaining relationship that can be had with a couple of mouse-clicks, this may not seem like much.  But friendship, according to John, is the pinnacle of life in God.  If we can be friends, we can see ourselves and see God clearly and we can become what God has for us to be.  Any relationship that we allow to do that will endure, perhaps eternally.

Discussion

How is it different?

How does it relate to love?  How does it relate to revelation?

Main points:

1. revelatory

Sandra Schneiders: “Friendship is essentially mutual knowledge, which is why one way of saying we are close to someone is that we know each other very well.  This knowledge is not primarily intellectual.  It is a kind of union by sharing of selfhood.  As Jesus shares in the very being of God and can therefore say that he knows the Father and the Father knows him (10:15), so Jesus wants his followers to know him as he knows them, to share in his very being and life.  As Jesus knows God through God’s self-revelation to him of the divine works, so Jesus’ disciples will come to know Jesus through contemplation of what he does and says.”

2. self-giving

Sandra Schneiders: “union by sharing of selfhood”

15:13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

3. mutual and equal

Carter Heyward: “a way of being connected with one another in such a way that both, or all, of us are empowered – that is, spiritually called forth; emotionally feel able; politically are able to be ourselves at our best, as we can be when we are not blocked by structures and acts of violence and injustice or attitudes and feelings of fear and hatred.”

15:15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

4. bears fruit

15:1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

5. joyful

16:20 Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. 22 So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

Closing

I promised in the weekly email I would reveal what gays and lesbians have to teach us about God.  In her book Just Good Friends: Towards a Lesbian and Gay Theology of Relationships – what my good friend Teri lovingly calls “the magic book” – Elizabeth Stuart takes friendship as a model for understanding our relationship to God and to each other.  Like other queer theorists, Stuart asks that we, rather than assuming the normative view, examine our faith from the margins.  Assume that those on the fringes can speak to the center.  If we take seriously the character of Jesus, this seems like a valuable strategy.  In this case, instead of assuming that marriage, particularly heterosexual couplings, defines the ideal relationship, what happens if we let same-sex couples, non-married partners, and committed singles define the ideal relationship?  What is the promise and the peril of those relationships?  She discovers that the most common way that gays and lesbians understand their relationships is as friendships.

There are many reasons for this.  Because same-sex couples have been denied the possibility of marriage, they have constructed alternatives.  And, rather than a pale imitation of “real” relationships, they find that friendships have their own value.  In a somewhat closed niche community, it is likely that those who have been intimate will remain in the same social group after intimacy ceases.  It pays to remain friends because this is a place of survival.  In a world where non-normative desires and attractions are suspect, this is the space where one can be oneself, where one can truly reveal the self – in fact, become the self.  Rather than adherence to a set of gender and sexual norms, the ideal here is one of mutual self-giving and self-revelation.  By now, this should sound familiar to you, my dear friends.

Friendship, as seen in the Gospel of John and in our lives, must be mutual, equal, and revelatory.  Friends do not use one another.  Friends do not exploit one another.  Friends do not – cannot – have power over one another.  Otherwise, it cannot be a safe space to be who you are, to reveal yourself truly to the other, to become truly who God has made you to be.  Father Richard Rohr says that marriage is learning to love just one other person and moving outward from there.  I think this is true, but the same can be said of any relationship if we first choose to be friends.

Every moment of every day, we can choose to reveal ourselves to the other, to be who we truly are.  We can choose to be the place for the other to become who he or she truly is.  When we do, we know the other and we know God.  We participate in an ongoing revelation.  This, according to John, is why Jesus came to us: to show us who God is and what life with God is like.  When we know that, when we choose to turn toward God, to walk with God, to see God and know God, we are called friends and our pain will turn to joy.

John’s Church, Our Church: Friends

// June 14th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

In a world of social networks, the word “friend” gets thrown around a little too easily.  With a simple mouse-click, we can become “friends.”  We’ve even made it into a verb, an action that only exists in virtual space.  But we weren’t the first to do this.  Many languages, including Greek, have strong semantic relationships between verbs and nouns.  Jesus and his disciples would have “friended” people a lot, especially according the John.

As we talked about last week, John uses agape and phileo to talk about love.  He uses them as equals, synonyms.  Well, the noun form of phileo, is philos, or “friend.”  You could say, as in 5:20, that “the Father friends the Son.”  Or Jesus might say in 16:27: “the Father himself friends you, because you have friended me.”  But if we really meant by this what John’s Jesus meant, Facebook would be a very different place.  And probably not quite so popular.

Love and friendship are not just semantically related.  For John, they are in fact the same thing.  So, this week, as we talk about friendship, remember what we have said about love, about giving one’s life for one another.  And remember, too, what we have said about revelation.  Friendship is the relationship in which we experience mutual self-giving and self-revelation.  Friendship is the space in which we find out who God is and who we are.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, as we talk about friendship, church, and what the gays might have to teach us about God.

Grace and Peace,
Scott

What’s Next?

Our next series will be on social justice issues and I’m soliciting input.  What issues matter to you?  What are churches not addressing or addressing badly?  What would you like to see a church doing to make the world better?  Ideally, these won’t just be ideas for a series, but will shape the way we think about ourselves as a church and help us use our limited resources well.  So please email ideas to sshirley999@yahoo.com.

What I Meant to Say Was…

// June 13th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

On Sunday, I was highly critical of Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas, as well as others of his ilk that are famous for their criticism of homosexuality.  You can read my comments here, but the main point was that any ethical stance must risk something.  This follows from Jesus’ claim in John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  My claim was that, in saying that “gay is not okay,” Mr. Jeffress risks nothing and, therefore, finds nothing and gives nothing.  Mind you, this is not an apology; I stand by that statement.  However, my intention was to hold myself and our church to the same standard and I think I failed in that.

I did ask the question in our conversation, but, being a conversation, it didn’t go exactly where I thought it would.  As we used to say about software design: This is not a bug, but a feature.  Some tremendous insights were given, as well as some difficult and important questions.  However, I don’t want to let the questions I started with slip by: What do we risk as a church?  What are we willing to risk?

Valen suggested that we risk a certain kind of alienation.  Because we hold certain positions on social issues, such as being open and affirming of all kinds of queerness, and because we take practices to be more important than beliefs, we often find ourselves on the margins of the dominant Christian tradition.  (I say “dominant,” not because that tradition is necessarily the largest, but because it is currently the loudest.)  I agree that we risk this kind of alienation, whether that means outright rejection by family and friends, criticism by other Christians, or just the awkwardness of trying to explain what the hell we are doing.  However, I wonder if that is enough.  It strikes me that Robert Jeffress and others often claim, not just alienation, but victimization by a larger culture that is hostile to their values, values that they take to be from God.  It also strikes me that some of us enjoy alienation; it feeds my need to be special.  So, while our alienation is very real and, at times, uncomfortable – painful even – I want more, for myself and for our church.

I’m not sure what I’m asking.  Often, the greatest risks are surprises.  (Thanks, God!)  But I want to continue pushing this question as a church.  We often struggle with issues of identity, but often that question is focused around beliefs, how we understand ourselves as Christians and as a church.  What if, instead, we focused our identity around action?

Our next series, starting in July, will be on social justice issues.  My hope is to lift up the things we are already doing and to ask what more we can do.  Do our actions match our values?  Is there an identity we can claim?  What would anyone outside our church recognize as Church in the Cliff?  If we disappeared, would it make a difference to anyone but us?

I also wanted to address some of the questions highlighted by a visitor.  Like many of us, it seemed that she is moving away from a more conservative tradition, but is unsure of what faith looks like outside of that.  She was looking for a bottom line, a set of beliefs on which to ground herself.  As many expressed in the conversation, our faith tends to be organized around practices more than beliefs.  Although the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus appear to be important to all of us, we probably all understand those things a little differently.  Our task is to love one another as we negotiate their meaning.  However, I would like to provide my version of what those things might mean as succinctly as I can.

In the traditional view, Jesus was both human and divine and his death on the cross is payment for our sin.  In the church of my youth, and probably what is now the dominant view in American Protestantism, the critical thing is to accept this fact in order to be saved.  I can say clearly that I no longer understand things this way.

I do think Jesus is both human and divine, but not in a way that is substantially different from any of us.  In a difference of degree, Jesus was so clear about the task of his life and so faithful in pursuing it, that the divine part was in complete control.  He was not under the sway of fear, controlled by the limitations of being human in a finite world.  And he did die for our sins.  That is, he died because of the sins of those who were – and are; as Pope John Paul II suggested, Christ is crucified all day every day – controlled by fear.  Fear of loss, of death, of rejection, of pain, all drive us to control others, to isolate ourselves, to insulate ourselves.  Jesus stood up to that fear and lived through it unto death.  Our task as Christians is to live into that story, stand with those who suffer even unto death.

This means that salvation is not one moment.  Yes, a big decision is helpful as a milestone, a marker of the day we decided to turn toward God and live into that story.  But we must make that decision every day, every moment we are beset by fear and loss and death.  We must look for salvation every day because sin persists every day.

This also means that salvation is not for us; it is for the world.  If walking in the Way of Christ and the Wisdom of Sophia is just entering heaven and avoiding hell, you’re missing the point.  In fact, it lives into precisely the fear that drives the world into sin.  Instead, we as Christians can live into God’s dreams for the world, a world beyond fear of loss and limitation and death, a world of faith, love, and hope.

This, to me, is the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Others in Church in the Cliff may see it differently.  I look forward to continuing to discuss it and to sharing life together through it all.

Scott

John’s Church, Our Church: Love (Program and Sermon)

// June 12th, 2012 // 1 Comment » // Church in The Cliff

Program

Sermon

Opening

In Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, John Boswell explains the problem with translation: “Only a naïve and ill-informed optimism assumes that any word or expression in one language can be accurately rendered in another.”  This is the prelude to Boswell’s discussion of love.  He makes the profound point that it’s not just the language that is confusing.  In translation, one is trying to decipher the feelings and desires of a person who no longer exists to help navigate.  But even worse, “the feelings themselves are often jumbled, shifting, and imprecise.”

This stands in contrast to the Biblical wisdom I received as a youth.  I was told that the Greeks recognized different kinds of love and had different words for all of them.  They were clearly differentiated and clearly labeled.  Some loves were better than others.  Eros, I was told, is lust, something with which God does not concern Godself.  It is base and dirty.  Then there is affection and friendship and, finally, agape.  Agape, I was told, is the best love, the love that God has for us.  We are mostly incapable of this kind of love, so it is good that God is not.  Agape is self-giving, all-encompassing, and unconditional.  If only we could do that, have that, all the time.  If only we could treat each other that way.

In the limited amount of translation I have done, I can assure you that Boswell is right: it’s never that simple.  It may even be impossible.  And I’m sure that in the living you have done, you have discovered that Boswell is also right about love.  It’s messy.  It’s confusing.  It may even be impossible.  One might argue that this is the problem of life, constantly negotiating the gap between one person and another.

So, when we talk about a church built on love, and John’s church in particular, we have to admit that it lacks specificity.  As we mentioned last week, John does not tell us what to do about divorce or wealth or prisons.  This would seem to vacate the ethical ground.  One can easily ask, when asked to love, “But what do I do?”  While John does not lay this out in detail, there is one very clear statement to guide us.  In John 15:13, Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

First, the nerdy part.  John uses two words for love: agape and phileo.  Agape is unconditional, divine love and phileo is human friendship. Much has been made of chapter 21, wherein Jesus asks Peter three times whether Peter loves him. The first two times, he uses the word agape, but the third, the time Jesus seems satisfied to let Peter off the hook, he uses phileo.  As I heard it growing up, this meant that Peter was unable to love the way God loves, so Jesus settles for friendship, a very human kind of love.  But John does not make such distinctions: “No one has greater agape than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s philon.”  The greatest love is to be a friend.  In John 5:20, Jesus describes God’s love for him, the love that is the model for all love, as phileo.  Jesus also uses phileo to describe God’s love for us, Jesus’ love for Lazarus, and the disciples’ love for Jesus.  Agape is used in a similarly broad and complex fashion.  John collapses agape and phileo, making them equal.  When Jesus shifts vocabulary in talking to Peter, he is not settling for a lesser love, but acknowledging that they are the same.  He raises up friendship into the realm of the divine and brings the divine love of agape down into the world in which we live. The physical and the spiritual are inextricably bound.  The life of humanity and the life of God are the same.  Love requires our whole being.

The second implication of the “greater love” is that, whatever love is, it requires risk.  You give something up.  You take responsibility for the other – ultimate responsibility.  As the existentialists have taught us, we are beings for whom our own being matters.  Generally speaking, we care if we exist.  Individually, I care if I die and you care if you die.  My own existence matters to me.  Ultimately.  There’s probably nothing I care about more.  But living in love requires me to be concerned about you and your existence.  Your existence must matter to me.  Ultimately.  And not just your existence, your life.  All those things of which your life consists, whatever they may be: house, car, job, money, family, church, ego.  Love asks us to lay those down, to put them on the line, for one another.

More importantly, love asks what those things are to us.  What does my job give me and what does it take away?  How are my friendships constructed around money?  How does church form me?  How is my identity constructed around these things?  And where is love in that?  In asking these questions, love reveals who we are to ourselves and to one another.  In losing our lives, in laying them down for one another, in deconstructing the identity and ego we have built around possessions and institutions, we find ourselves and have true life. Love is the necessary condition of revelation, of knowing God and knowing ourselves.

Discussion

In making ethical decisions, what are you risking of yourself?  What are you giving up?

As a church, what are we risking?  What are we willing to risk?

Closing

John is not alone in extolling the value of love.  In Matthew, when Jesus is asked: “What is the greatest commandment?”  He responds: “Love God; love your neighbor.  On these hang all the law and the prophets.”  Everything his culture knew about God and what it meant to live life with God was put to the test: “Is it loving?”  Some read this and presume that whatever they take God to be about, whatever they take the law to be about, it must be loving.  But it’s the reverse.  If it is loving, it is what God is about.  If it isn’t loving, it is not from God and it is not the law.  In John, Jesus only needs one commandment – love one another – because without that, you have nothing.

Love is the ground of Christian ethics.  Love says to systems of power, to oppression, to rules, to morality: “Where am I?  Have you forgotten my name?”  Love tears down walls and builds up people.  When I hear Robert Jeffress and others condemn queers, I ask, Where is the love?  They of course claim that they are preventing people from going to hell and nothing could be more loving.  But that’s not what John’s Jesus tells us.  John’s Jesus tells us that the greatest love is to lay down one’s life, to risk something, to risk ourselves.  So, when Robert Jeffress says with a smile that “gay is not okay,” when he says hateful things to a church that pays him handsomely to do so, what is he risking?  When he attempts to destroy whatever peace and love a person has managed to find in the world, what is he putting on the line?  Nothing.  He risks nothing and he loses nothing.  And so he finds nothing and has nothing to give.  Love tears down that hatred.

Love looks at the stranger, the alien, the queer and says, “You have a home here.”  Not if you become less strange, less alien, less queer, but precisely because you are those things.  Because love requires the other.  Love is not a mirror, a glass into which we see ourselves darkly, but an encounter, face to face.  Only in love can we go out to the other and return to ourselves, whole but transformed.  Love is fecund, it’s creative, it’s generative.  It is a vast abyss in which we all swim and from which all things rise.  It is the possibility of all things, the strength and support of all things.  If we live in love, we live in God, in that confusing, tumultuous abyss of not knowing, but creating love.  Figuring out.  Having things revealed.  Risking the uncertain for what might be.  That is church.