Posts Tagged ‘passion’

Song of Songs: NSFW

// August 29th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Well, I said we were going to start talking about wisdom literature, but it turns out that’s not quite right.  It would have been more accurate to say we are going to talk about the Solomonic corpus, books that are attributed to Solomon.  Of course, it is likely that little to none of these books was actually written by Solomon, but the tradition gives these books some gravitas.  That may be the only reason they are included in our canon or our deutero-canon.  The books have a vague constellation of traits in common, but are mostly dissimilar.  However, the one thing they do share is a concern with the things of this world, perhaps none more than the Song of Songs.

The first question one must ask about the Song of Songs is: Why?  Why is it in here?  Why is it Scripture?  It does not mention God at all.  Much of the material is euphemisms for sex and poetic, imaginative descriptions of male and female anatomy.  It contains the story of a very human pursuit, the erotic longing between two (or possibly three) lovers.  Even the structure and genre of the text is unclear.  That is, some see a collection of love poems ranging in number from six to thirty, while others see the remnants of a fertility cult.  It may be an ancient pop song or even softcore pornography.  It might be the Skinemax of the ancient world.  And yet, one ancient rabbi called it “the Holy of Holies.”

Its inclusion in Scripture has always been a concern for both Jews and Christians.  Consequently, both groups have tried to construe it as a metaphor of God’s love.  For Jews it is God’s love for Israel; for Christians it is Christ’s love for the Church.  This interpretation constrains the text to be about marriage because God’s love must rest in absolute fidelity.  God is the groom and Israel or the Church is the bride.  This ignores the fact that the characters in the book are not married, sneaking off to have sex away from prying eyes.  It is not so much about constructing an appropriate, society-approved coupling, but sheer passion for one another, the bliss of pure desire and its fulfillment.

However, because it is in Scripture, it is assumed to have some spiritual purpose.  Aside from the metaphors mentioned, it has been a touchstone for erotic Christian mysticism.  Yes, that is a thing.  When nuns say they are “brides of Christ,” some of them mean that in all ways.  That is, they understand their love for Christ as erotic just as much as the more tame kinds of love we often associate with God.  Spirituality, it turns out, is embedded in the reality of bodies and expressed in the meetings of those bodies, even if one of those bodies is God’s.  The Song of Songs, if it is about God, speaks to a passionate desire for the Divine that is experienced in one’s body.  Perhaps even more so, it is experienced in the bodies of people together without regard for what other people might think of those assignations.  Desire, as we all know, overcomes good judgment.

Maybe that is how the Song of Songs ties back to wisdom literature.  The paradigmatic piece of wisdom literature is Proverbs, which we might see as a nag, full of pithy sayings that do not come close to coping with lived reality.  But Job and Ecclesiastes call that rigid cause-effect morality into question.  Proverbs is like the Highlights Magazine series, “Goofus and Gallant,” read in elementary school, but Job and Ecclesiastes are like Camus and Nietzsche in first-year philosophy.  Maybe the Songs of Songs functions that way, too, but gives some detail and inspiration – some va-va-voom! – to Ecclesiastes’ “eat, drink, and be merry” philosophy.  If we’re all going to die anyway, perhaps desire for one another, even when frowned upon by the culture war wags, is the best way to spend the time we have.  And maybe in that bodily experience of mutual desire, in being passionately drawn to one another, we are drawn closer to God and the world of God’s dreams.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we talk about embodiment, eroticism, and God.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Looking For a Miracle

// April 4th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Tomorrow is Easter, the day that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the day that, for many, defines what the faith is entirely about.  I have to admit, I always have a little trouble making the shift from Lent to Eastertide, the season between Easter and Pentecost.  Maybe I’m just a Lent kind of guy with a dark turn of mind.  Whatever it is, it is hard to think about the resurrection and still fully experience Holy Week, the memory of the Passion.

As I was brought into the faith, it seemed that the death and resurrection were always spoken of in one breath.  The death was my fault, but the resurrection was my hope.  Put in that context, it is hard to want to focus on the death part.  My church did not observe Holy Week at all; suddenly it was Easter.  However, it is really important to take the death part for what it is, to fully embrace the reality of our limitations, to grieve loss and injustice.

Easter will come, but it is not today.  Today is a day spent in the tomb, hoping for a miracle.  I have every confidence that the miracle will come and I look forward to celebrating it with you.  Tomorrow.

Please join us in that celebration, tomorrow morning at 11am at Church in the Cliff.  After our Easter Sunday Service, we will have a potluck brunch – if you know anything about this church, you know you should not miss that! – and an egg hunt for kids of all ages.  I hope to see you on the other side!

Grace & Peace,
Scott

The Prophetic Act

// March 28th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Last Sunday, we talked about the prophet, Jeremiah, and the circumstances under which the book that bears his name was produced.  I read a lot of history, which means that my mind was packed with a lot of details, which rarely serves me well.  I got into the weeds a bit, so let me see if I can narrow this down a little.

Like most of the prophets whose names are remembered, Jeremiah’s life was marked by conflict.  He was the one who dared to speak the truth, even if it hurt him.  Others spoke only of good times, so they became the favorites of royalty and Jeremiah’s chief targets.  He, along with the prophetess Hulda, predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the line of King David.  He even acted out his prophecies, taking on a yoke to symbolize the coming power of Babylon, so they attacked him and marginalized him.  He stayed true to his pronouncements, no matter the cost.

This week is Palm Sunday, the commemoration of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem.  Jesus stood in this long prophetic tradition with Jeremiah.  After time in Galilee ministering to the needs of his people, he came to understand that there were larger systems of power in place to keep people impoverished and dispossessed.  He began to speak out, knowing how it would end.  He went into the belly of the beast, he confronted the powers and principalities of his world, and he demanded justice.  He marked his arrival in Jerusalem with a prophetic act, a provocation that would end the week with his death.

Please join us this Holy Week, beginning with our Palm Sunday service tomorrow at 11am at Church in the Cliff.  See the sidebar for other events or follow us on Facebook for more details.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

My Understanding of Sin

// February 28th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Because Lent is a time when we tend to talk a lot about sin, I endeavored on Sunday to explain my framework for thinking about sin.  It differs from things we might have heard growing up in a modern American Christian context, whether Catholic or Evangelical.  In the spirit of this church’s emphasis on questioning and conversation, I am not stating that this is the only or right or best way to think about sin.  I am only setting it forward as a starting point that frees us up from some of the issues that plague other frameworks and to try to shift the conversation away from personal piety and guilt.

There are traditionally three ways that sin is considered.  First, behavior.  Sin is doing the wrong thing.  Second, as a condition.  When Eve ate the apple, it stained our nature so that we are evil from birth.  Finally, relationally, socially, and cosmically as systems that sustain injustice.  Not only are humans flawed, but the world is fallen, incapable on its own to produce the Good.  Each of these ways of thinking about sin generates a different response to sin and those ways are not always compatible.

We can see examples of this in the early Christian writers wrestling with the question of salvation: By grace?  Through faith?  By works?  Is it our behavior or God’s that matters?  And what are we saved from?  Our own condition or the injustice of the world?  In my opinion and in my experience as a pastor talking through issues of suffering and evil with people, our explanations of sin lead only to confusion and frustration, rather than the experience of freedom promised by the gospel.  So, here is my understanding of sin, which I hope will serve as the backdrop for our conversations throughout Lent.

It is a fact that we live in a finite world.  Existence is marked by scarcity, limits, loss, and ends.  To exist at all requires the possibility of non-existence.  To be, to have a point of view, is to understand that there are things that are not us.

These limits create fear.  We fear scarcity.  We fear death.  We fear the powerlessness of confronting all the not-us that is beyond our control.  Our psyche is structured to deal with this, to defend us against the threat of the world.  Our fears pile up to become delusions, doubts, and desires that help us cope with our finitude.  In themselves, they are not bad.  We hunger, so we know to feed ourselves.  We tell ourselves we are capable even when we are not sure.  We question things to find truth.  However, those good things can swallow us up and become our whole identity, so that each of us is nothing but a monad of fear colliding with other fearful bits of isolation in the world.  We no longer see the world clearly and become convinced that we are not enough and the world is not enough to bring about wholeness, peace, or justice.  The reality of the world and the formation of our psyche in response to its limitations is the condition of sin.

Out of that condition, we make choices.  You can see how a failure to see the world clearly might result in some bad choices.  We often choose to live into that fear rather than overcome it.  We fear scarcity, so we hoard.  We could trust that there is enough if we trusted one another to share.  We fear judgment, so we isolate ourselves or compulsively pursue perfection.  We could accept grace.  We fear loss and failure, so we disengage from the world, keep everything in our bountiful imagination.  We could have some beautiful failures and invest our hope in the next thing.  All of these choices to live into fear rather than hope are sin.  Note that this is not so much something to feel guilty about, but something to endure, overcome, and redeem.

Of course, our choices produce results.  The trick is that these results do not directly correlate to either our intentions or our calculations.  Sometimes, things simply don’t work out as we had hoped or planned.  Sometimes, things work out far better than we had hoped or planned.  But, either way, those results tend to inform our future choices.  If we take that risk and live into hope instead of fear and it ends badly, we’re less likely to try it again.  Fear is reinforced; we are cast further down into the condition of sin, our escape seems even more impossible, and our choices become more distorted.

The terrible reality is that fear has a lot of power in a finite world and we tend to structure our world in response to fear rather than hope.  Politics, economics, even ethics, are designed to cope with scarcity and limits.  We quantify, manipulate, and exploit our world and even one another.  This is what Martin Buber calls the It-world.  It, like the defense mechanisms in our psyche, is necessary.  We must design systems to distribute goods.  We must, at times, regard one another as objects to be used.  But, also like the defense mechanisms in our psyche, we can allow this to become our full understanding of reality.  We live entirely into the It-world and forget that there is a You-world out there, full of people to be related to with compassion and vulnerability.  Worse, the structures of the It-world become entrenched systems of power that exploit and oppress.  They become so pervasive that they seem to be the nature of things.  Gender, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, age – all manner of ways of dividing and labeling one another – are assumed to be embedded in the fabric of reality, each person occupying a predetermined place in a predetermined order.  In such a system, there is no room for the story of the individual, no room for vulnerability or variation, and no room for transformation.  This, too, is sin.

In this framework of sin, the tensions between the different ways of talking about sin are eased.  There is no conflict between the condition of sin, sinful behaviors, and the injustice and evil of the world.  The nature of the world forces us to make choices that have outcomes and those outcomes either support or resist injustice.  It is a self-sustaining loop.

The good news is that the remedy also consists of overlapping, intersecting constructs.  Those walls of fear that we use to keep the finite world from harming us can be taken down.  Instead of focusing on loss and limits, we can turn around – repent – to see promise and possibility.  But that is not enough.  We also must break the systems of power that capitalize on fear to oppress and exploit.  It is not a question of whether faith, grace, or works is operative, or even primary, in the work of salvation.  They work in concert, each bringing its own potential for transformation that feeds the others:  trust and faith in God and God’s children; the vulnerability and humility in accepting grace; and the courage to work against the oppressor.  This is salvation.

It is worth noting that this is not radically different from a lot of traditional Christian theology.  Augustine is more nuanced than contemporary interpreters give credit.  Evagrius Ponticus’s demonology is almost a perfect analogue of modern psychology.  These authors and others were wrestling with the weighty issues of human experience.  Unfortunately, we have whittled them down to frightening caricatures, using fear to drive membership, and we have largely failed in Christian education to teach people to think critically or take their own experience and reason seriously.  We are left with only guilt and fear to transform people’s lives.  I think we can do better.

The Gospel According to Buffy

// July 11th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I am a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I have watched the entire series, including the Angel spin-off, about six times.  I’m watching it again now.  Part of that is comfort; I know the show and know that I will enjoy it, so it’s easy to put on when I just want to relax.  However, when I want to pay attention, the show is very perceptive of the human condition.

For those who don’t follow the show – I’m not sure why such a person would exist, but I will try to have compassion for you – Buffy is a former cheerleader who is set apart by destiny to battle vampires and other monsters for the safety of humankind.  Or, as the intro explains: “In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.”  This, of course, is typical hero genre rhetoric wherein there are good people and bad people and the job of the good people is to destroy the bad people.  While fun, that is not what makes the show great.

Rather, the show is great precisely because it proceeds, over the course of seven television seasons, to deconstruct that very premise.  It turns out the vampires and demons aren’t all bad.  Not only are there good demons, but all the characters, demon and Slayer alike, are a mix of good and bad.  Through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old, coming to terms with her identity and her place in the world, we find that our easy labels don’t really tell the whole story.  Perhaps they don’t even tell a very interesting story.  Perhaps the more interesting story is that struggle for identity and meaning, for morality and integrity, that does not take place out in the world, but inside ourselves.

In Romans 7.15-25, this is precisely what Paul describes.  Sometimes, if we are lucky, we know the good, but often, if we are honest, we are unable to do it.  Whether we call it demons or passions or id or sin, there is something that compels us to act in ways that are contrary to our own will.  This something can grow into, not merely a collection of unwanted behaviors, but the very way that we understand ourselves.  This is the thing that Paul – and Buffy – truly want to save us from.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we place Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Paul the Apostle in dialog with special guest stars Evagrius Ponticus and Sigmond Freud.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

P.S. If you haven’t voted yet, and want to, please email board@churchinthecliff.org or vote in person on Sunday when the vote will close.

Celebration and Mourning (Plus: Holy Week, Easter, and a Vote

// March 23rd, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Holy Week
Easter
Vote on Pastoral Resident

This Sunday, Palm Sunday, is the beginning of Holy Week.  The liturgical year began with Advent and the birth of Jesus.  One would think that its culmination would be in the death of Jesus after a full year.  However, our tradition places that event in the middle of the year signifying that death is not the end.  I’m not suggesting that we skip the Passion and jump to Easter.  Rather, as with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry, death and heartbreak can come at any time, even in the midst of victory.  Perhaps it must.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a bittersweet affair.  There is adulation and celebration from the huge crowds that gather around.  Jesus feels it.  He understands what is happening as a part of the nature of things, even the stones of the earth cry out.  But he also knows the other part of nature: his must die because of the sin in the world.

This is an act of defiance against the power of his world.  It fulfills Jewish understanding of Scriptures about the Messiah, the Anointed One of God.  It mocks the procession of Roman military might taking place at the same time on the other side of town.  This is the beginning of a series of provocations that can end in no other way than his death.

If there is to be more of a story, we have to deal with this part.  Suffering and death will come.  We can’t avoid it; we can’t run away; we can’t buy it off.  What we can do is celebrate what should be celebrated and mourn what should be mourned.  Suffering and death are redeemed by being present, seeing them for what they are, and by trying, whenever we can, to make them for something.  The Christian story is a long one that stretches beyond the grave because it is a story of redemption.  It is a story that ultimately ends in justice, health, and peace.  Like Jesus, we are anointed by God to a particular destiny: to work toward that end, no matter the cost.  Redemption does not take away this part of the story, but suffering and death is not the whole story.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we celebrate and mourn.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Holy Week

There will be no Wednesday dinner this week.  Instead, we will have a brief Maundy Thursday service and meal and then watch Jesus of Montreal.  We’ll start at 7pm at the Shirleys’, 221 S. Edgefield Ave.  For Good Friday, we are not doing anything formal.  However, there are many, many opportunities in Dallas, including the Dallas Area Christian Progressive Alliance’s Good Friday Walk.  This year, the walk is dedicated to all the children who have been lost to gun violence.  It will begin at 10am at Young and Harwood in front of First Presbyterian Church.

Easter

After our Easter service, we will have a picnic at Kidd Springs as well as an Easter egg hunt.  If you would like to help out, please email Lisa at lisawhiteshirley@hotmail.com.  It is also a fifth Sunday, which means we will be serving at Oak Lawn UMC in the afternoon.  If you would like to help out there, please let Lisa know.

Vote on Pastoral Resident

We announced this last week in church, but, for those who were unable to attend, there is currently a vote underway to hire Genny Rowley as a pastoral resident through December.  Genny would share responsibilities with Scott, allowing the team to add more activities, such as increased pastoral care and counseling, Bible study, events, and service work.  The proposal is revenue-neutral as the pastoral staff budget ($1500/month through May; $1000/month after May) would be divided equally.  The board approved this change pending a community vote to call Genny to this position.  Please register your vote by emailing board@churchinthecliff.org or by speaking to a board member in person before March 30th.

Mark: The End (Program and Sermon)

// November 22nd, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Program

Sermon Outline (loosely followed)

I.        Transfiguration

a.       Elijah, Moses, Jesus

b.      Making tents

c.       Beloved Son

II.     The Way to Jerusalem

a.       Argument of James and John

b.      Bartimaeus

III.   Jerusalem

a.       Triumphal Entry

b.      Curse of the fig tree

c.       Cleansing the temple

d.      Teaching

e.       Anointing at Bethany

f.        Passover

g.       Betrayal

h.       Arrest

i.         Trial

j.        Crucifixion

IV.  What is the meaning of Jesus death?

a.       Atonement

b.      Tragedy

c.       Ransom

1.      To whom is one ransomed?

2.      From what is one ransomed?

V.     Irony

Irony tells a truth, but suggests that it is not the whole truth and that the whole truth is something entirely unexpected and unsaid.

a.       Humor

1.      Witness
Witnesses are told not to witness, yet the story is being told.

2.      Disciples
The exemplars for following Jesus are bumblers and fools.

b.      Tragedy of crucifixion
Irony takes a dark turn in the Passion narrative of Mark.  Jesus’ kingship, sonship, and Messiahship are correctly named by his opponents, but they use these titles as accusations.  And so the Messiah is crucified.  Mark’s story is being told to people who know the story and his original audience may have contained people who knew Jesus and participated in his ministry while he was alive.  So they know the truth and they know the irony.  They know the grief and disappointment of losing their beloved, their savior.  And yet they continue on.

VI.  Suffering
Because they know the story, because they continue on, they know the crucifixion is not the end.  They face persecution, but they know their suffering is not the end.  The whole truth is something entirely unexpected.  This is not the end.

Mark: The End

// November 17th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

We know how this ends, right?  After an auspicious beginning, Jesus travels to Jerusalem, stirs up trouble, gets arrested, and is crucified.  And for those of us who grew up in the church, we probably know the meaning of this as well.  Allowing some variation in the way it is formulated, the bottom line is that Jesus’ death is our fault.  By some mysterious alchemy stretched out across space and time, our sin put Jesus on the cross.  The unkind word, the impure thought, the drink to start the day, the little white lie.  Worst of all, it’s something in our DNA, something hopelessly broken, the very essence of what it means to be human, that put Jesus on that cross.

The crucifixion looms large in the Christian canon.  What makes perfect, obvious sense to us today – that there is a clear reason for Jesus’ death that is in keeping with the long story of God’s action in the world – was once a scandal to those who followed Jesus.  Jesus was not simply in some trouble, not simply arrested or executed, but executed in a way that was reserved for the worst of the worst.  It was humiliating to the victim and anyone connected to him.  It was a threat and a promise to those who might defy the powers that be.  For the first Christians, then, this was the fundamental question that must be answered, the very purpose of this new genre, the gospel: if Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, why did he die?  Why did he fail?  He clearly had power to do great things; he taught with authority; he was a good and just person; he courageously stood up to the powers of this world and steadfastly stood with the poor and rejected.  But, in the end, he died.

Now, bear in mind that when Mark penned this text, his community had been making sense of these events for forty years.  For forty years, people continued to follow this man who died.  He promised salvation, healing, peace, but things just seemed to get worse.  He died, they were scattered and persecuted, and finally the Romans came in and destroyed everything.  And so the Christian question turns out to be a localized version of an enduring human question: why do we suffer?  What mechanisms in the nature of reality make suffering not only possible, but seemingly inevitable?  And why should we suffer?  Is there a purpose to it?  Perhaps most importantly, how do we suffer?  If it is inevitable and its meaning is inscrutable, how do we live through it?  Who do we become in suffering?

Please join us on Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about how Mark frames these issues in his passion story.

Grace and Peace,
Scott