Children of an (un)known God

The debacle surrounding a Wheaton College professor’s conviction that Christians and Muslims worship the same God has again raised the invidious compulsions of Christian exclusivism. To be sure, this is far from representative of the broad umbrella of Christian traditions. Dr. Larycia Hawkins’ offending statement invoked Pope Francis, who has unapologetically stated that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Wheaton, an evangelical institution, alleges Dr. Hawkins’ belief contravenes its statement of faith.

I can sympathize with the Wheaton administration’s need to protect a brand based on religious belief and identity. The free practice of religion is rightly protected by law. But freedom of speech is, too, and Dr. Hawkins has every right to voice her beliefs. As tenured faculty she is surely entitled to the privileges and protections she has earned.

It’s unlikely that Hawkins’ statement is the only cause of offense given her spiritual practice in Advent of donning a hijab in solidarity with Muslims, who are increasingly targets of noxious right-wing political rhetoric in the United States. In this climate of a radicalizing right, Wheaton’s administration must surely be under tremendous political pressure not to alienate its conservative-leaning evangelical support base.

It would appear the administration’s condemnation of Hawkins, based on an interpretation of the school’s statement of faith, has more to do with contemporary political trends than a sober reading of theology centered on the teachings of Christ. There’s an apparent failure of recognizing the radical nature of the love Christ taught and demonstrated, especially for the marginalized and outcast. His ethic of loving God and loving neighbor seems to be lost amidst the clamor of vote-seeking fearmongers.

Nowhere in Wheaton’s statement of faith is there mention of other faiths and whether or not they worship the same God. There’s certainly no condemnation of other religions. It’s a positive statement of the evangelical faith the school aspires to and is clearly predicated on the particularity of Jesus Christ. While the statement is open to an exclusivist viewpoint, it also encourages proclamation of “God’s redemptive love to the ends of the earth by word and deed; by caring for all of God’s creation and actively seeking the good of everyone, especially the poor and needy.”

The statement of faith does not condemn Muslims or cast aspersions on their religion. It is merely a statement of beliefs about God that form the underpinnings of evangelical faith.

To in any way imply that it captures fully the essence of the imminent and transcendent Holy One is to build a tower of Babel with the feeble blocks of language. To limit God to a statement of faith or creed would be to lose in an instant the very nature of God, who is uncontainable, wildly free to be whatever God will be. Remember Moses before the burning bush?

It’s no wonder so many people are losing faith in religion. The “dones” and the “nones” are tired of grasping at castles in the sky. An increasing number of active religious across the faiths and traditions are too. Beyond even a generous orthodoxy, the immanence and transcendence of that which is Holy and wholly beyond comprehension is being sought through authentic relationship with the other and in relationship with the world around.

I would encourage anyone who doubts whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God to engage in meaningful conversation with someone of the other faith – not about politics or the Middle East, but about the qualities of God and the spiritual practices that bring the other more truly into relationship with God. Come into the presence of the Divine with such a deep love and respect for the other that for a moment one’s most dearly held beliefs may be suspended in favor of listening deeply and openly to the other. To listen is to love.

In my experience, engaging in interfaith and ecumenical conversations has helped develop my own sense of who I am in relation to the (Un)Knowable One I worship. It has not weakened my belief in the particularity of Jesus the Christ or my Christian faith, but it has opened my heart and spirit to new experiences of the Divine.

Surely in a world as fragmented and violent as ours is the path to peace is through compassionate respect for people who approach and articulate their faith in ways that differ from our own. Let’s not limit God through narrow interpretations of creeds or statements, but strive to love more deeply, live more generously, and counteract fear by engaging the other.

Challenging the Metaphysics of Violence

IMG_3477This is the first time in eight years that I will not be leading worship services on Christmas Eve or ending my Christmas homily just as the minute and hour hands converge on midnight. Our decision to move to Ohio so that Nanette can pursue her calling as Senior Minister of a large urban congregation meant that I took my leave from the wonderful folks of First Church in Farmington at the end of September. Our parting was sooner than we had imagined and tinged with sadness. Yet this move was a continuation of my preaching on love, mutuality, and equality as I now follow and support my wife and her ministry while preparing myself for new possibilities. I believe it was Saint Francis who said, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

Words. I’ve been thinking about the words I would have preached this Christmas Eve were I back in the elevated pulpit of First Church. As I think over the texts that give rise to pretty Christmas card scenes, what stands out to me this year is the potential of a single person to challenge and overcome the metaphysics of violence.

The metaphysics of violence speaks to the apparent ontological claim of violence to absolute authority and being. It gives rise to a theodicy that confines horizons of imagination and agency to an action-reaction framework where the end goal is always victory over an enemy. An enemy is the person who threatens to take away what I have or who I am. Engaging the enemy, real or imagined, binds the hope and destiny of nations to materialist gain rather than the lofty ideals of peace through mutuality, equality, and liberty.

It’s a snare into which political leaders and news agencies perpetually lead all-too-willing populations. It appeals to the lowest common denominator in consumerist societies where rationality and agency are sacrificed on the altar of democratic process to ratify the hegemonic power of the state, thereby ordaining the state to do whatever it takes to protect the interests of citizens and businesses from the terrors that lurk in the darkness of chaos and otherness.

Terror, chaos, and suspicion of the other are the currency of the metaphysics of violence. Terrorism is its most sinister embodiment. Those who employ terrorist methodologies aim to inflict not just sporadic physical harm to victims of attacks, but more comprehensively to spark terror so stark and so pervasive that the imaginative horizons of people and societies are curtailed by existential minutia. In the spiritual quagmire that results anyone and anything that is opposed to or different from me and mine is a threat that needs to be dealt with immediately, decisively, violently.

How easy it is to exploit people in this atmosphere of fear. Shoot to kill. Build a wall. Turn away Muslims. Make the sands of the Middle East glow. Go to war. Shock and awe. Terrorize.

Into the dark night of this terror glows a feint star heralding an alternative spirituality grounded in the metaphysics of self-giving love. From a religious perspective, the Christian narrative of the birth of Jesus and his subsequent life, ministry, death and resurrection offers an antidote to the metaphysics of violence. True to its nature violence threatens always in the shadows of this story. Violence underscores its climax and lies in tatters in its denouement.

At the center of this story is the single personage of Jesus, who stands opposed to empire and oppression, fear and loathing of the other, and violence in all of its many forms.

Jesus taught that peacemakers would be blessed, enemies should be loved, persecutors prayed for, disputes amicably settled, and that vengeance should be left to God alone. In keeping with his Jewish tradition of praying the Shema he advocated absolute love for God and love for neighbor. He gave a new commandment that his disciples love one another as he had loved them – on his knees washing their feet and sacrificing his very life as a scapegoat for the political and theological sins of a world exhausted by the metaphysics of violence.

The term “sacrifice” should be understood with its Latin roots in mind: sacer (meaning sacred or holy) and facio (meaning to do or to make). By sacrificing his life, the babe of Bethlehem grown to be a man sanctified not just himself but a world opened to the possibility of definitive stands against the metaphysics of violence.

IMG_3911Standing against spiritualities that are predicated on violence does not depend on status or vocation. One need not feel like an imposter or eminence grise. It merely takes courage to wage peace by exhibiting self-sacrificing love. The illustrious work of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malala Yousefzai started with a decision to take a stand against fear, terror, and violence. One could argue that the actions of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are in this vain, though Snowden’s case would be more compelling were he to return to the United States and justify his actions in a court of law, presuming a fair trial is possible.

The high profile of theese examples notwithstanding, opposing the metaphysics of violence starts simply with a decision to take a stand.

As I ponder the words I might have preached this Christmas were I back in the warm Meetinghouse in Farmington, I think I would point to the story of the babe born in a stable in Bethlehem and encourage my hearers to give serious consideration to the change he heralded. I would ask them to imagine the change they might usher into the world by taking a stand, just as he did, against the metaphysics of violence, a stand based in the metaphysics of God’s self-sacrificing love for all the world.

A Wildly Inclusive Welcome

Ever since I first visited Hope Church Boston in the summer of 2003 I’ve nurtured a dream for the church: a dream of extravagant welcome and non-judgmental inclusivity. The seeds of this dream were planted at the Sunday evening Jazz service at First Church in Cambridge where I first encountered a truly open Communion table. I found it expressed at Hope in the welcome statement read each Sunday at the beginning of the service. It’s a welcome message I’ve adapted and continue to proclaim at the beginning of worship each week, both as a tip of the hat to the community that ordained me and as a statement of my belief that no one should be excluded from meaningful experiences of the Divine. I recently had the chance to sit down and record it with the help of Nick DiLullo, who is a member of First Church in Farmington and a fabulous videographer.

Overcoming Mental Short-cuts

In recent days I’ve been taken with FBI director James Comey’s statement about lazy mental short-cuts that law enforcement officers sometimes make. Don’t we all just with less-lethal consequences? It gave me a great springboard for a program at the church to challenge assumptions of race, xenophobia, homophobia, and suspicion of people of other religions – especially in our tumultuous world. So here’s my March newsletter article. Feel free to join in, if you are able to.

Beloved friends,

One of the greatest strengths of our congregation is our ability to maintain diverse perspectives while working toward a common goal. This goal is nothing short of mirroring the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth by living ever more deeply into the extravagant love of God we have come to know through Christ Jesus.

Living into this love comes with great joys and, admittedly, great costs.

In recent months, given events at home and abroad, I have been prayerfully mulling how First Church can respond to the racism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious violence that characterize so much of life today. In our own beautiful country we have to face what FBI director James Comey recently called “lazy mental short-cuts” that lead to the killings by law enforcement of unarmed black men. The chokehold and shooting deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown respectively are two high-profile examples.

We need to acknowledge that these lazy mental short-cuts are made all the time by many, if not all, of us when it comes to race. The same is true of our encounters with people of different religions, economic brackets, national origins or immigration status, and people of non-heteronormative sexual orientations.

The primary question we face is how we can combat these lazy mental short-cuts and the attitudes and actions that flow from them?

Our task in combatting these mental short-cuts is compounded by the horrendous killings of Jews, Christians, Kurds, and Muslims in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa by supporters of ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda. I believe they have raised the specter of the greatest evil the world has faced since the holocaust. It’s awfully tempting, as a result, to make lazy mental short-cuts.

We need to be on guard. We can’t afford to remain mentally lazy and lump all Muslims or brown skinned Middle Easterners in the same camp. We can’t lump all of Africa in the same basket. We have to break the cycle of superiority that keeps us from valuing people who are different from us.

I therefore invite you to join me in the following activities:
1.) A reading of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree this Lent.
2.) A series of sacred conversations on race this Eastertide through Pentecost.
3.) A panel discussion by representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths on the questions: i) what is the character of your God and ii) what is the highest religious end you wish to achieve.
4.) Participating in the Moral Monday movement being started in Hartford by our friend Bishop John Selders.
5.) Honest and earnest prayerful searching about diversity and how God is calling us to respond to violence.
(Dates for discussions will be determined.)

This is not always going to be easy. We may come into conflict. The mere suggestion of this course of action may well be distressing you. But it’s something we need to do in a spirit of living more fully into God’s extravagant love. How else will we and the world be transformed? How else will First Church truly live into our great mission of mirroring the Kingdom of God here on earth.

I believe we can do this and invite you to participate with me.

Grace and Peace,

Steven

Losing Faith in Religion

So here’s my dilemma: given the rash of religiously inspired violence over the past few months (not to mention, decades and centuries), I’m increasingly suspicious of religion. My vocation as a Christian minister in the progressive theological tradition of the United Church of Christ values deeply other faiths and traditions and those schools of thought and meaning-making that shun religious faith altogether. I am able to hold a/theism without feeling threatened. Science I see as complimentary to religion. Literary criticism and socio-historical readings add to the experience of holy texts. I carry an awareness of the ways religious leaders and institutions have snuffed out the Holy One they hold at their core, and also the ways they’ve responded in marvelous life-giving ways.

There can be little doubt that religion has the capacity to inspire great good in the world. We see it all the time in acts of kindness, justice, peace, love, compassion, and sacrifice that are inspired by religious belief. Such acts aren’t unique to religion, but they’re often inspired by the intuition that lies at the heart of religion: that holiness or divinity exists beyond the human self that seems to call out the very best in the believer.

Sadly, the opposite is horrifyingly true as well.

There can be little doubt that religion has the capacity to inspire great evil in the world. We see it all the time in acts of terror, injustice, violence, hatred, abuse, and self-aggrandizement. Such acts aren’t unique to religion, but they’re often inspired by the intuition that lies at the heart of religion: that holiness or divinity exists beyond the human self that seems to call out the very worst in the believer.

The outcome of religious belief depends on a broad range of individual and communal interpretations of religious traditions and on theological notions pertaining to the character of the deity at the center of the faith, the reason for the religious community’s existence (its ultimate purpose), and the specific ends it is encouraged to seek. Interpretations of religion no doubt stem from a combination of factors, including culture, socio-political dynamics, economic class, education, geographical location, social pressures, and perceptions of history.

Given the increasing intensity of religious violence in the world and the heinous acts being committed in the name of religion – the horrendous evils committed by ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al Shabaab; the attacks in Sydney, Paris, and Denmark; the Anders Behring Breivik attack in Sweden; the killing last week of three Muslim students in North Carolina (though no confirmed as religiously motivated crime); sectarian violence in nations around the world; the war in Gaza last summer; and so many small attacks that barely or never make the news – I am led to question the usefulness of religion. I can see why many people today (comedian Bill Maher comes to mind) completely recoil from and often attack religion. People who claim to be religious have a lot to answer for. No religious tradition is off the hook.

I don’t know what the answer is to religion, and I fear a world without religion. Perhaps the only way forward is for religious people of goodwill and good conscience to stand up more vocally and with greater fervor against the violence and harm being done in the name of their religions. The great challenge in this would have to be that the means of protest would of necessity have to be consistent with the desired end. The only problem is that I don’t think religious people can ever truly agree on the desired end. It’s impossible within traditions, let alone across religions.

To God Alone be the Glory

At the end of each of his compositions the great Johann Sebastian Bach would write Soli Deo Gloria – Latin for “to God alone be the glory.” Playing with this notion in my sermon last Sunday I charged the congregation to work toward giving glory to God and to God alone in everything we do this week. Whether it’s reflecting on the deadlock in Washington, navigating the routines of the day, considering our giving to the church (it is our Season of Generosity after all), or spending time with family and friends, all we do should be underwritten by the postscript Soli Deo Gloria.

Now I can’t claim to be successful to any great measure, but I certainly can testify that my week has been so much richer with this in mind. My focus on blessing others has been more acute and my willingness to celebrate God’s presence more intentionally has held many blessings for me. My prayers seem richer.

It is with this in mind that I offer this beautiful reminder of Christ’s transforming presence found at theworkofthepeople.com

Soli Deo Gloria!

UCC Synod: First Reflections

Call me a breath of stale air, but a large gathering of church people isn’t exactly my idea of a fun way to spend a few days. There are the church nerds, the Jesus freaks, the wannabe famous preachers, dozens vying to be noticed, the do-gooders, the networkers, and the white men in suits who seem always to gravitate to offices of power. Is it any wonder churches are closing and denominations are shrinking?

Yet here I am, in Long Beach, California for the United Church of Christ’s 29th Synod. I would be a hypocrite if I did not admit there’s a bit of each of those annoying church people in me and that is, in part, why I’m at Synod. But there’s more — much more — that brings me all this way.

Synod is a poignant reminder that the Church (notice the capitalization) is an ark in which a broad range of peoples with varying beliefs, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, gender expressions, abilities, socio-economic backgrounds, and motivations are adrift on the waters of mystery and uncertainty hoping to settle on something resembling terra firma. In theological terms this may be related to soteriological ends. Practically it resembles a sense of place and purpose and a deep-seated hope that together we are more powerful than we are divided – a dictum increasingly under attack by societal pressures that value the individual over the collective.

It’s no wonderer that an intergenerational service of healing last night was so powerful for me. Yes, the church nerds, the Jesus freaks, the wannabe famous preachers, the folks who need to be recognized, the do-gooders, the networkers, and the suits were there. The category defying ones were there, too.

Setting aside my judgments (which say more about me than others), in the end we were all simply seekers wishing to encounter God and praise God and celebrate God’s vision of love, justice, peace, hope, inclusion, healing and _________. We were open to being moved, to sing loud praises and raise our prayers, to receive the Word, to have healing hands laid on us and to share in the simple supper that has echoed down the ages in imitation of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples.

Herein lies the power of Synod, the power of the Church, for me: it is an intentional gathering of individuals with a wide range of motives and personal idiosyncrasies who are responding in varying measure to the call of the Holy Spirit on their lives. It’s a beautiful tapestry in living flesh of love, justice, peace, hope, inclusion, and healing. However imperfectly, it is a reflection of the Kingdom of God on earth where each and all can be held as a beloved child of the Most High and from where the love of Christ can beam into the world.

On Being Green

It was Kermit the Frog who once sang, “It’s not that easy being green.” I quite agree. The bright red stoles of Pentecost have been neatly folded away. The white and gold of the 50 days of Eastertide deserve good rest after adorning the sanctuary since replacing the dark shadows of the Paschal Triduum. The purples that guided our imaginations in Lent won’t be seen again until the first Sunday of Advent.

Liturgically we’re on the cusp of the long season after Pentecost known as Ordinary Time. It’s the second and longest period of Ordinary Time in the church year. The stoles on the lectern or draped over the preacher’s shoulders will be green for the 24 weeks that follow the white of this week’s Trinity Sunday service. It’s a long season that encompasses the bright greens of June, the lush dog days of summer, the first cool nights, and the glorious tapestry of fall. It can seem like a long, unexciting season for those of us who don’t celebrate minor feasts for saints or other commemorations. Ordinary Time can come to seem a little, well, ordinary. Yet it is in the ordinary where the extraordinary can come to light.

Kermit reminds us that while it’s not that easy being green, “Green’s the color of spring, and green can be cool and friendly-like, and green can be big like an ocean, or important like a mountain, or tall like a tree. When green is all there is to be, it could make you wonder why. But why wonder? I’m green. And it will do fine. It’s beautiful.”

Joan Chittister frames the essence of Ordinary Time this way: “Like an echo off a mountain that ripples and repeats itself down the valleys of life, the Sundays of Ordinary Time stand as a stark and repeating reminder of the center of the faith. Each Sunday, remember, is a feast, a little Easter, in its own right. Unencumbered by the overlay of any other feast, they carry within themselves, stark and unadorned, the essence of the Lord’s Day. Each of them is Easter, a return to the core of the faith, the center of the church, the call of the Christian community that ‘Jesus is risen.'” (The Liturgical Year, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009, p 185.)

Imagine what the church will become if we used Ordinary Time as an opportunity to return to the core of the faith, to get back to the basics of what we have come to believe. Imagine how much more meaningful Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany will be. Imagine what Lent, Easter, and Pentecost will come to mean. Imagine, if you dare, how your life will be transformed when you more fully live the commitment that Christ is risen.

So let’s heed the wisdom of Kermit and Chittister and live into what’s special about being green. Let’s celebrate Ordinary Time in a way that opens our hearts and minds to the extraordinary presence of God in the world. What a tremendous gift Ordinary Time promises to be!

On The Eve of Lent

In worship last Sunday, when I asked in the children’s message what we do in Lent, someone said, “You give up your favorite things.” I, however, heard “You give up your favorite sins,” much to the delight of many in the congregation if the laughter was any indication. There’s certainly a measure of truth in both, yet the child’s actual definition was by far the more useful. After all, we should be giving up our sins all the time, including our favorite ones!

The more orthodox notion of giving something up in Lent is not so much related to one’s favorite things, but rather to fasting. This means eating only one full meal a day and, in many cases, abstaining from eating meat. One can also abstain from certain activities or behaviors, like giving up chocolate or those expensive coffees from Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts. Some choose to take the money they save by not buying luxury items and give it to the church at Easter to distribute to those in need.

Abstaining can be an extremely valuable practice. Adding something can be too, depending on whether or not it feeds one’s soul. Adopting a new spiritual practice can be a rich experience. It could be as simple as reading the Bible daily for ten minutes or spending five minutes at night writing in a gratitude journal. There are many spiritual practices (ways of communing with the Divine) and in the next few weeks I’ll explain some of them here, starting tomorrow with Lectio Divina (Sacred Reading).

I invite you on this journey and encourage you to earnestly consider the Lenten practice or practices that will be most meaningful for you. Remember that grace abounds and it’s OK to build up to a discipline rather than attempting too much all at once and feeling you’re failing when lapses occur, as they inevitably do. I’m not in favor of cookie-cutter approaches and feel it’s important for each of us to create space to learn about and adopt practices that work uniquely for us and our individual quests to draw closer to the Divine.

As Ash Wednesday approaches, I offer you this Lenten blessing from the Roman Catholic tradition:

Merciful God, you called us forth from the dust of the earth;
you claimed us for Christ in the waters of baptism.
Look upon us as we enter these Forty Days bearing the mark of ashes, and bless our journey through the desert of Lent to the font of rebirth.
May our fasting be hunger for justice;
our alms, a making of peace;
our prayer, the chant of humble and grateful hearts.
All that we do and pray is in the name of Jesus.
For in his cross you proclaim your love for ever and ever.
Amen.