In the tradition that I serve, the PCUSA, our regimented system of church governance is both a blessing and a burden. Our democratic and frankly “presbyterian” structure was created to allow for all voices to be heard and to minimize dissension because of that. I’m grateful for this system. In general this system is excellent at allowing for theological freedom and church-wide stability. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But our unexamined execution of that process has left us without a creative vision for our future.
Part 1:What is the bible and how does God continue to speak to use today? I think that is the actually issue at hand. How we answer that question will answer almost any other theological question we might have from women in ministry, GLBT issues, to whether or not a Christian can drink alcohol. I minister in a church that comes from the Reformed tradition meaning that is traces it’s roots back to John Calvin, John Knox, and Karl Barth; along with folks like Martin Luther and John Wesley. Their reformations all we a response to the Roman Catholic church’s inappropriate use of scripture. The church taught that sins could be permitted if you could simply afford them. Cheat on your wife that will cost you 30 pieces of silver to be forgiven. It was called the selling of indulgences. The Reformers response was to say that “God alone had the power to forgive sins” not the church, not any bishop. That was the essence of Luther’s Thesis’ when he nailed them to the Wittenburg door. They called for the church to get back to the sources of scripture and base their lives and church systems on the bible not on the whims of a bishop.
Thank you for life, energy, imagination
For questions be remain unanswered even in your presence
Thank you for long stories and conclusions that can change
For beginnings that remain and can be retold
Your absence give space to desire you more
Even if it is only an illusion
Thank you for doubt and frustration
Give to us the reward of resolution only when it is time
Grant us the energy and discipline to go on even when riddled with doubt.
Faith in what matters… Questions in all else
A few months ago my Small group was studying our way through Richards Foster’s classic “Celebration of Discipline”. Midway through the book he mentions the Christian concept of the Dark Night of the Soul, originally described by the great mystic St. John of the Cross. Our group had a hard time grasping this concept. It seemed so bleak and devoid of joy, unlike the Christian life we feel pressured to expect by popular Christianity. The models of faith before us are often marked with an almost excessive sense of joy that boarders on lunacy. We can feel as though we are not truly being faithful unless we feel the same way. But then we learn that great people of faith like Mother Theresa endured the Dark Night for years on end. Their acts of charity and piety brought no reward. There was no quid pro quo relationship between working for justice and a spiritual high. Daily devotion to prayer, meditation, and fasting were no guarantee that one would have this fanatical Joy that I described earlier. But St John of the Cross did not see the Dark Night of the Soul as being punitive, rather he saw it as a blessing. This dryness of faith strips us our of pretense that union with God can be formulaic. Feel dry… Take these 3 spiritual practices and call me in 2 weeks. God cannot be manipulated like that. When the Dark Night strips us of pretense and moves us to brokenness and desperation we can finally be in a position to see it as St John did… A mysterious blessing. I would describe my last few months to be a Dark Night for me. God has given me moments of ecstasy and moments of fullness in Him, but I have experienced a disconnect and emptiness in acts of piety and service. Any reward is short-lived and carries no lasting impact. Here this evening I feel God thinly and deeply moving me to desperation and brokenness. It isn’t fun or pleasing or quick or predictable. But it’s real. I pray my Dark Night is ending, but if God requires more to further break me and mold me so be it.
God be near me
May I feel your presence
Make me desire you alone
Purify my and make me whole
Whether my days are filled with ecstasy or dryness…
Still I will seek you. Amen
In an economy as scarred at ours, in a political system as ineffectual as ours, and in a corporate environment as hubristic as ours one has to wonder can sanity be found.
I find myself desiring not solutions to problems or wanting captivating visions of a healthy future, but rather seeking above all things “sensible conversation”. Oh, how I long for an honest discussion of real issues devoid of labels, hyperbole, false certainties, and placing words in each others’ mouths. But I must admit my own inability to hold up my end of that desire. When I honestly ask myself if I can participate in a conversation where honest exploration supplants labels, when fair speech replaces hyperbole, when honest doubt holds in check certainty, and where I listen first….. Sadly the only conclusion I can find is that I firmly feel that I can abstain from those things better than most others; and in that conclusion I realize that my own hubris is near at hand.
For us to pursue sensible conversation we must set the stage for it with time and honesty. That is one thing I’ve learned in recent years. Most of the difficult decisions I’ve made both personally and theologically are not decisions that I’ve arrived at lightly or quickly, and therefore cannot be explained in a short while. Time and honesty. Honesty, the second part, is not merely the honesty required to adequately explain who you are and where you’re coming from with out deception. The type of honesty required means being transparent with yourself and your conversational partner(s) about our inability to speak without unfair labels, emotionally charged hyperbole, false certainties, and prejudices. Perhaps only then “sensible conversation” can happen.
Over the past few months I have been struggling to make sense of how much my understanding of the church and Christianity has changed. I can, on one hand, look at the church traditions of my youth and appreciate much about them. But on the other hand I also look upon that same tradition now with great skepticism. When I say tradition I do not mean a “denomination” or even a “brotherhood” of churches. I am speaking more broadly than those terms. I am referring to the traditions that tell us what the bible is, what God is asking of us, and tell us how God saves. An even broader way of looking at this would be for one to say that they moved from mainline protestantism to evangelicalism, or in my case, the other direction.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” My struggle with the competing ideologies of evangelicalism and mainline theology have made me realize that I shouldn’t define myself as having a first rate mind. I attempt to hold opposing ideas in mind, and then attempt to function. Instead of feeling liberation and an abundance of new options before me I feel as though I must choice one or the other. Then upon choosing I must toss the other away as outdated and obsolete. I feel this pull because I know that’s the comfortable answer. That’s the territory I can inhabit with confidence, peace of mind, and a whole lot of hubris.
But while feeling that pull I also realize that neither side of this coin represents the entirety of that truth. I’m also tempted to casually say “well neither one has it totally correct, the answer must be in the middle”. This assumes that the logical conclusion of neither side being totally correct is that both sides must then be 50% correct. I remain uncomfortable with that conclusion as well. That explanation is just a lazy and weak-minded as the first one that told me to discard the past. So maybe the answer doesn’t lie a the middle of the two competing ideologies, and it probably doesn’t lie at the middle of the two methodologies used to sort out the two competing ideologies. It’s somewhere else. That’s the place I’m hoping to find.
Fitzgerald’s statement focuses not on the ability to conceive of the competing ideas, but rather to know them and still be able to function. I think we all can be paralyzed by indecision in our lives. We all construct false paradoxes for ourselves. That’s the major source of stress for all of humanity, false paradoxes. Lately, I have turned this into an art form because of the ease and great intricacy I construct paralyzing problems for myself theologically. I would like to think that all of us are able to reach seasons or, more likely, moments in our lives where we can be first rate minds. Hopefully there are moments when Fitzgerald’s quote can be said of us. I just doubt it will apply very often to most of us.
Maybe it’s simply about acting. The quote says nothing about being correct or the functioning being particularly earth shattering. Maybe it’s simply about the will to make a decision and to move on with some integrity. So move, Shane. Move!
“We’ve (the PCUSA) responded in too many ways to this idea that we have to grow numerically. … The conservatives say we’re too liberal and that’s why we’re losing people; the liberals say we’re too conservative. I would say to those who want to continue that fight, that’s the reason we’ve lost so many folks.”—Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow from “Something’s Going On”: The Future Denomination Church by Deborah Arca Mooney on Patheos.com