Friday, December 13, 2013


     Despite the popularity of Reza Aslan’s current book (soon to be a major motion picture), Jesus wasn’t a Zealot. (Zealots were the insurrectionist movement that instigated the failed armed uprising against Rome in 66 CE). That idea has been trotted out ever so often since it was first espoused by the German Deist Hermann Samuel Reimarus in 1774, The last serious argument for it was S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus And The Zealots (1967) It is always drubbed into the dust by credible New Testament scholars. For a partial recap of the history of this half-baked idea, see

     A rebel yes. A revolutionary. Yes, albeit a radically different kind of “revolutionary” than what we usually mean by that word. But a 1st Century nationalistic insurrectionist -- no. I won’t make the case here other than to note that there is almost no evidence either in the New Testament or other 1st Century writings to support the Reimarus/Brandon/Aslan hypothesis, virtually every word of the New Testament repudiates it, and respectable New Testament scholars along the continuum from conservative (Wright) to moderate (Wink/ Vermes) to liberal (Borg) all portray a very different Jesus.

     I wouldn’t be kicking this dead horse that will probably have the good grace to lie back down before the movie goes on Netflix. But here’s the thing: It actually matters. It matters because Jesus’ mission of ushering in the Kingdom of God is about both the process and the outcome. There is no way to God’s Peaceable Kingdom except through God’s Peaceable Process. Methodist scholar Walter Wink’s seminal trilogy on non-violence in the Gospels (The Powers That Be, Unmasking The Powers, Engaging The Powers) and our own Episcopal lawyer-theologian William Stringfellow (Conscience and Obedience) expounded the process Jesus taught and saints like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela implemented in modern times. Jesus’ way was far more revolutionary than the violence of any first century jihadist. His way was what we need now and is quite the opposite of pitting the violence of dominating power against the counter violence of someone else’s dominating power.

     Today, in the United States, the necessity of a different process to produce a different social structure is more critical than ever before. The reason is simple: the kind of change we desperately need cannot be forced through the usual model of power. It takes a totally different kind of power to accomplish what we must accomplish for the sake of God and all God’s people.

     Let’s start by examining (albeit briefly) our context. One of the best summaries is by the late University of Chicago political philosopher, Jean Bethke Elshtain in Democracy On Trial (1995). She wrote that a democratic society depends on laws, constitutions, and institutions, but also on “democratic dispositions”:

          These include a preparedness to work with those different
          from oneself toward shared ends; a combination of strong
          convictions with a readiness to compromise . . . . ; and a sense
          of individuality and commitment to civic goods that are not
          the possession of one person or one small group alone. But
          what do we see . . . ? We see deepening cynicism, a corrosive
          isolation, boredom, and despair; the weakening . . . of that world
          known as democratic civil society, a world of groups, associations
          and ties that bind.

A few years ago, we all learned the African adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, it takes a village to accomplish much of anything. People using that adage were proposing getting our villages engaged in various worthy projects. But our basic problem is the disintegration of our villages themselves. There ain’t no village. Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), demonstrated with devastatingly hard numbers the decline of participation in civic organizations in recent decades. All kinds of voluntary associations for a shared goal – ranging from bowling to collective bargaining to breaking down racial barriers to teaching kids agricultural skills – have declined dramatically. The Church is in good company. Parker Palmer, in Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage To Create A Politics Worthy Of The Human Spirit (2011), draws the inevitable conclusion that we are not learning the “democratic dispositions” (Christians would call them “virtues” – perhaps “civic virtues”) that are essential to our functioning as a democratic society. In the absence of those civic organizations, we are not forming the social capital (trust and camaraderie) without which neither business nor government can function smoothly. We are desperately low on oil in our social crankcase.

     Sociologists, since the conservative theorist, Robert Nisbet, in the 1960s, have called these voluntary civic associations (churches, book clubs, Shriners, labor unions, etc.) “intermediate institutions” because they occupy a social space between the small social unit of the family and the large units of the state and the market. Functionally, they support families in two ways: 1. They buffer the family from pressures coming from the state and the market (like advertising directed at children); and 2. They reinforce the values and norms that sustain family life. During the decades in which the state and the market have grown, intermediate institutions have withered. So it is not surprising that the first victim of the decline of civil society is the family. We do not need to recite the sociological data on the decline of family stability. It has increased markedly over the past two decades since Elshtain noted the dangers posed to children who do not have the protection of a stable family.

          The strongest predictors of domestic situations in which
          which children are likely to be physically abused are stressed
         out single-parent households with a teenaged mother,
         often of several children, and households consisting
         of a biological mother and her children living with a man
         who is not related to those children or who does not accept
         legal responsibility for their well being.

70% of juveniles in reform institutions came from families with a severe parental deficit. 79% of children whose parents were unmarried did not finish high school. On the other side of the equation, where the parents were married, had finished high school, and did not have children before the age of 20, such children had only an 8% chance of ending up in poverty. Numbers like these led Elshstain to conclude:

         (S)temming the tide of family collapse is the best protection
         we can offer a child against becoming either the victim or
         the perpetrator of violence – or, as it turns out, of poverty.

But, since Elshtain wrote those words, we have not stemmed that tide – not yet. Quite the opposite.

     In this context, the Church sets out to overturn the world’s ways with God’s ways, to open the door to the Peaceable Kingdom. That takes the assertion of a lot of power – but not the power of political force. We can’t form civil society by force. We can’t instill democratic dispositions by the imposition of undemocratic force. The Zealot response to a broken world doesn’t heal it. History has proved that all too well. The French Revolution overturned the bumbling old monarchy only to replace it with the Reign of Terror. The Russian Revolution overthrew the totalitarian Tsar only to replace him with the totalitarian Bolsheviks and then Stalin. The Apostles taught “Do not confront evil with evil.” 1 Peter 3: 9; Roman 12: 17. Their actual words were a military metaphor: the tactic of one army matching the strategy of the other with mirror formations. Jesus said, “Don’t do that. It doesn’t work. Don’t use thuggery to replace one gang of thugs with another.“ (paraphrase)

     Religious efforts to use political force to reshape the culture along religious lines either have turned out horrifically oppressive as in Iran or utterly ineffectual as in the United States. Think of the failed efforts of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition who have succeeded mostly in alienating a whole generation from faith. In To Change The World: The Irony, Possibility And Tragedy of Christianity In The Late Modern World (2011), James Davison Hunter parses out why, as a matter of sociology and political science, the efforts of the Christian right and the Christian left are equally ineffectual because cultural change cannot be forced. The Zealots engage in an exercise in futility.

     The important changes, the deep changes, happen through relationships, through personal engagement. If you strip the word of its connotations of sentimentality, you might call it “love.” The Church cannot change the world through force, bluster, or intimidation. We don’t have enough tanks or missiles. Besides tanks and missiles don’t overthrow the world’s ways with God’s ways. It takes kindness, compassion, truth telling, and mutual support to do that.

     Ironically, it does not take “moral stances” and “prophetic voices” shouting at the culture from either stage left or stage right to “shape up or ship out.” It takes what Hunter calls “faithful engagement,” participating in the culture while remaining distinctively and explicitly Christian – not insisting that others be Christian but refusing to be anything other or less than Christian ourselves. Many voices in the Church today propose adapting to recent social trends by replacing congregations with de-institutionalized casual gatherings of the spiritual but not religious for interested but not committed relationships. That would be conceding the battle. It would be the Church taking on the world’s ways rather than presenting a hopeful alternative to “corrosive isolation, boredom, and despair.”

     But the first step in our efforts “to change the world” must be “to change ourselves.” The first step is to take the plank out of our own eye. Matthew 7: 5. The Church doesn’t have its act together in such a way that we can say to secular society, “look at us and do what we do.” Our capacity for civility is, if anything, worse than that of secular institutions, worse even than government, almost as bad as business. The big controversies of past decades, though unavoidable if we were to move forward, have not presented us to the world as models of diversity living together in appreciation and curiosity. We have been as Fox News vs. MSNBC as anyone. We have been as apt to say “my way or the highway” as the political parties. But those big controversies are not half so destructive to our mission as our inability to negotiate smaller differences in day-to-day Church life. In Gilbert Rendle’s Behavioral Covenants In Congregations (1999), he traces the modern history of how congregations have lost the capacity for civil discourse. He says this disintegration is part of a recurring cycle in history and that it will be turning eventually. Our job is to be on the cutting edge of that change, not dragging along behind, if Christianity is to have any credibility whatsoever in the eyes of the next generation.

      So, what was and is Jesus’ project and what does that tell us about our mission and how to go about it? Jesus was overturning the ways of the world with the ways of God. Oppression and insurrection are both ways of the world. He showed us something quite different – something of grace and wonder, something of healing and reconciliation, something of mercy and compassion. He showed us how to conquer death by going through it into life, how to conquer sin by forgiving it. Jesus’ way was and is paradoxical, full of serendipity and surprise. It is far more subversive than reflexively resorting to violence to combat violence, “fighting for peace.”

     Jesus’ way is much bigger than social utility. The Kingdom is much bigger than a civil society that makes democracy possible. It’s cosmic. But it breaks into our 21st Century post Cold War context just as Jesus began his mission the 1st Century Roman Empire context. He meets us where we are, in the mix and muddle of our present situation, which for us is the socially disintegrated era of cynical division and isolation. Being cosmic and eternal doesn’t make the Kingdom Mission irrelevant to life here and now. Quite the opposite. The challenges of life today cannot be addressed by force or coercion. They call for grace mediated through gracious people. That makes it urgently incumbent on Christians to grow in grace so that we may become gracious to each other and the suffering world.

Monday, November 25, 2013


     At the heart of Christian faith is the word charis. It means gift. Because charis is associated with charity in the New Testament, it has the special meaning of a love-gift, a gift that has value added because of the spirit in which it is given. So what is God’s gift to us? The answer culminates in Jesus (For God so loved the world that he gave . . .. _) but it begins with Genesis. God made it all, saying of each created thing, “That’s good,” and saying of the whole “That’s very good.” God is the Source of all good things. Because creation was not a one-time act but rather what God is doing all the time, God is the Source of each moment of blessing, each instance of grace. The basic gift that contains them all is Reality itself.

     Our central act of worship is eu-charis-t. It means "thanksgiving," a particular act of thanksgiving, a gift back as an expression of gratitude. For the gift which we have received, we give something back as a sign of gratitude. Of all that God has given us, we have only one thing we can give God in return -- ourselves. Ignatius of Loyola prayed, “Accept O God my memory, my will, my understanding, my imagination. All that I am and all that I have, you have given me. I give it all back to be disposed of according to your good pleasure. I ask only the comfort of your presence and the joy of your love. With these I shall be more than rich and shall ask for nothing more.” Our pledges and alms are symbols of that gift of self.  That is why pledges and alms are essential to our own spiritual health.

     What good is God’s gift to us, if we must give it back? Giving it back is not a grim duty but a joy. God gives us our lives that we may give them back to him to be blessed and returned to us yet again, with all the more value added, that we may return them again in a perpetual gift exchange. Breathe in. Breathe out. The giving and the receiving are reciprocal, part of one great movement of grace (charis), which is the rhythm of Reality, the Spirit of Life.

     In Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer, Brother David Stendl-Rast ( observes that a gift is not fully received, not completely appreciated appreciate, not properly swallowed, not truly enjoyed until we have said “thank you” – for in saying “thank you” we appreciate the quality of gift, the graciousness of gift, the fact that what we have received flows out of love (charis) as distinguished from a wage we have earned. A gift is better than a wage because a wage is contingent upon our own continuing struggle. A gift is contingent only upon the generosity of the giver. Since God’s generosity is infinite and eternal, it is non-contingent. We cannot lose it. We may, if we choose, worry over whether the sun will come up tomorrow, but not over whether God will still be God, limitless in generosity and mercy.

     Sometimes we lose sight of grace. Our troubles, fears, sorrows, and ambitions ensnare our consciousness. Sometimes even trivial things can block our view of the light. Other times our troubles really are deep and consuming. Think of the devastated lives of people in the Philippines this month. Perhaps you know someone who is having difficulty right now fully receiving grace because they are lost in the hardship of life.

     The best way to give yourself to God is to be God’s messenger of grace. That does not mean to deliver some platitude like “Smile, God loves you.” It means to a genuine bearer of grace, to be present in the most authentically helpful way you can. And you can be more authentically helpful than you know. “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

     In this Thanksgiving week, do take a moment to acknowledge the goodness you have tasted, and to thank God for it by an act of kindness and generosity to someone else God also loves, for they are part of God’s gift to you and you are part of God’s gift to them. One of the greatest gifts is to be a gift. That is what God makes you when you give yourself to him.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


      “Mission” is the watchword of the day in church circles. Bishop Katharine says, “The heartbeat of the church is mission, mission, mission.” Ok, but what is it? Who made it up? And why does it matter?

      The word “mission” has a lot of associations for church folks. It conjures up little Spanish buildings like the Alamo. It reminds us of mission churches on Native reservations. We think of mission trips to Africa. Mission has meant providing life saving health care and economic development. Mission has spread the good news of God’s love. “Publish glad tidings.” It has also been (usually unwittingly) a stalking horse for exploitation and oppression. The saintly Albert Schweitzer was followed by the colonial profiteer Cecil Rhodes. When some speak of the “missional church” these days, they are likely to mean loose associations of spiritual but not religious people meeting in secular locations to engage in spiritual discourses and rituals that are intentionally and emphatically “not Church, not religious, not institutional” etc. So when someone says “mission,” I listen closely to sniff out what – if anything – they mean.

     That said, I believe the word is vitally important. So what does it really mean? It may help to put all our churchy associations with “mission” and on the shelf for a few minutes and start instead with a military association (sorry pacifists). In the military, the mission is what the team (unit, platoon, squadron, battalion, regiment, etc.) exists to do. The mission holds them together. They aren’t together as social friends. They share a common mission. Each member is willing to sacrifice himself to accomplish it. The mission is a group goal that is more important than anyone’s individual agenda. It is what must be done, no matter what. Mission has urgency about it. We lay down our preferences for it. We work with people we don’t necessarily even like for the sake of the mission.

      When the Church speaks of Christ’s mission, it means God is up to something in the world and has entrusted the job to us. We are God’s agents. Right away, this challenges some common assumptions about Christianity. A lot of folks think it’s about individuals holding the right doctrinal opinions or experiencing the right religious feelings, and as a reward they go to heaven instead of hell. That is a very common view of Christianity. But it is surprising how little evidence you can find for that brand of religion in the Gospels, the Creeds, or the teachings of the Early Church. Instead we find a wealth of evidence that Jesus lived, died, and rose again to usher in something he called the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is a radical reversal of the ways of the world, so that love instead of money makes the world go round, the first becomes last and the last first, the lion lays down with the lamb, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent empty away. The Kingdom is so different from our ordinary experience that Jesus can only point toward it with provocative surprise ending zinger stories (parables, “The Kingdom of God is like . . . ..” Even Jesus could not say what the Kingdom is, only that it is like this or like that. But it is like something surprising and joyful and utterly new. Being the vanguard for a new way of living is a tall task. “If anyone is in Christ, look! A new creation!” It’s a big, big deal.

      When congregations fall into a moldy habit of meeting regularly, just trying to keep the doors open, offering each other spiritual support, but not engaging the world outside their walls, they are apt to do little harm in the world – but they are not engaged in the mission. They may be Christians in their beliefs but they are deserters in their common life. As a result, not much happens in their souls. The mission changes people’s lives by giving them a whole new purpose “to live not for self alone but for him who lived and died for us.”

       So just what is the mission? My way of finding it is to take the Gospels and stack them up against the on-the-ground situation in which we live. What does the Gospel tell us about human trafficking, domestic violence, pandemics, poverty, environmental degradation, the threat of genocide in the Central African Republic? We are the Body of Christ. What does the Body of Christ do in the face of such things? Karl Barth began each day reading the Bible and the newspaper – together. Not a bad way to find the Kingdom mission.

      For those who want to have the answer spelled out a bit clearer in advance, we have some guides from the Church. We might start with the Catechism. The mission of the Church is “to reconcile all people to God and each other in Christ.” The world is spiritually bleeding to death from the wounds of broken relationships. We have been given the job of healing those wounds. Who is at odds in the world today? The Church’s job is to bring them together and make peace. If we don’t know how to do that, it’s our job to learn.

      Another helpful guide is the Five Marks of Mission adopted by the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion:

1. Proclaim the gospel (evangelism)
2. Baptize and nurture new beliers (sacraments & education)
3. Merciful service to those in need (charity)
4. Transform unjust structures (advocacy)
5.  Care for the earth (environmental care)

It makes for a good checklist. A congregational meeting or a vestry might have a good World Café style discussion asking two questions:

1. What are we doing on each of the marks of mission?
2. What could we do on each of the marks of mission that we are not     doing now?

I suspect most churches would find that they are already doing more on each of the marks than they know. I am positive any church that dares ask these questions would find interesting, even fun, new ways to go about making the path straight for Christ and his Kingdom.

        This may be a heresy to the dogmas of modern management. But I don’t put that much stock in “mission statements.” I don’t put that much stock in any strategic plan if it was made over four months ago. But I believe everything depends on our asking earnestly and often what we are doing and what we intend to do in the immediate future to overturn the ways of the world with the ways of God. What are we doing to connect people with Jesus? What are we doing now, this month, to teach people authentic Christianity as distinguished from the imposter religion that has stolen our identity and wrecked our reputation? Who is hurting that needs our tangible material kindness? What injustice is hiding in the shadows needing to be exposed and reversed? What part can we play in restoring balance to our God-given eco-system? We may not come up with the right answers. We may not be able to act on the answers we come up with. But we can at least ask the right questions – ask them often and ask them seriously.

Monday, November 18, 2013


God Of Our Silent Tears explores who God is in light of our experience of suffering, and it asks, "What good is God in such times?"The answers aren't simple because neither life nor God is simple. In Chapter 7, we began working with the ancient Christian koan of the Trinity. There are two different meanings of the Trinity. We call the first one "The Family Trinity." That meaning doesn't tell us what God does in the world. It tells us who God is, was, and every shall be. Could God's very nature be a source of hope? Chapter 8 examines that question and offers a piece of the answer to God's response to suffering. This is an excerpt. God Of Our Silent Tears is available for order on line through Amazon or The Cathedral Bookstore (fine folks who could use your patronage to support the survival of Episcopal bookstores.)

           What then can we actually expect God to do for us? From the spiritual vantage point of St. John of the Cross, or the lofty philosophical perspective of D. Z. Phillips, we must truthfully say that we are called to love God for being God – not for anything God can do for us. However, we are human and all too often in desperate need. Then the question of what God can and will do for us cannot be brushed aside by either mysticism or philosophy. We need to know what we can expect of God.

            Moreover, our longing for God to be a Savior and Redeemer is not inherently selfish.[i] Leave our personal needs out of the equation. A child dies of poverty or a preventable disease every three seconds. We expect God to do something about that, or at least want to do something about that. If God is not responsive to the suffering of creation, then is this God loveable? Setting our own needs aside, we still insist that God must be a Savior and Redeemer in order to evoke our love. Indeed being a Savior and Redeemer is part of the definition of divinity, a criterion of what we worship, a key element of what we mean by the word “God.” God, in order to live up to the name of God, must be willing and able to offer us hope.

            Our Family Trinity view of God gives rise to two distinct forms of hope – short-run hope for good to prevail here and now in the affairs of this world and long-run hope that in a future beyond our view all will be well. The short-run or immediate hope is this: There is no situation in which God is not active, working for peace, justice, and healing.[ii] That is part of what we mean by the doctrine that God is everywhere, including right here with us. Because God is present in every situation, there is always hope. Expecting miracles, as Robert Schuller prescribed, is naive. Miracles are by definition what usually do not happen. You cannot expect them.  Hoping for miracles, however, is a natural expression of a reasonable faith. We acknowledge that there are limits to what God can do in our affairs, but we do not know what they are. Scripture and experience abound with God’s surprises of saving and healing grace.  There is always hope for something good. Indeed, good things often happen. Sometimes glorious things happen, occasionally miracles.

            Our ultimate hope, however, is in the long run. Christianity is a faith that offers healing and reconciliation now, but on a partial and temporary basis. Everyone Jesus healed eventually died. Our real hope is resurrection hope. Our ultimate hope lies in a world to come.

            What is the ground of that hope? Although the universe has freedom to defy God, that freedom does not put the universe and God on equal footing. God is still creator and we are still creature. The difference between the Creator and the creature is that God’s persistent love lasts for eternity. All that resists God is mortal, and therefore ultimately futile. Human souls created in God’s image are neither useless nor futile, but eternal and blessed. The forces that resist God’s love, however, are futile. Those forces are such things as death, disease, cruelty, injustice, and prejudice. God wins, not by force but by persistence through eternity. That’s the meaning of God’s unchanging faithfulness. Because God’s persistent love lasts for eternity, our ultimate hope is assured. All God has to do in order to redeem the whole creation is simply to remain God and wait.

            Ocean waters are swept along temporarily by waves, swells, and tides. But deeper currents, like the Gulf Stream, determine the water's long-run course. God’s faithful love for creation is the deep current in reality, the current which will eventually carry us home. When we arrive home, we finally see God. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.”[iii] Marilyn McCord Adams defends this hope in her argument that the beatific vision of God’s beauty will in eternity redeem even the horrendous evils that can never be justified or explained.[iv]

            If our ultimate hope lies in God’s eternal persistence and in the final futility of all that resists God, does this lead to universalism, the claim that God’s salvation is not for a chosen group, but for all? Gregory of Nyssa’s answer was “yes.”[v] While much Christian tradition insists on a final division between good and evil, theologians such as Origen as far back as the 3rd Century insisted that the nature of God assured us of the final redemption of the entire creation.

            The Family Trinity is an image of the basic nature of God’s creating and redeeming

love for us. However, when we have said God is present in all situations, that God is working 

for our good, we have been rather vague. In the coming chapters, we will try to clarify how

 God acts in the midst of our hardships. We will see that God reaches out to us in three

 distinct ways to help us with suffering. The Job Description Trinity represents these three

 fundamental ways in which God touches us and responds to human affliction.

[i] I am flatly disagreeing with D. Z. Phillips here. My fundamental argument with D. Z. Phillips (the reason I side with Marilyn McCord Adams instead) is this: Phillips is right that determining God’s connection with evil depends on what we mean by “God.” But Phillips’ definition, limited by Wittgensteinian linguistic analysis, is of a God who creates the universe but is  indifferent to it’s well-being. Phillips’ God sits back waiting to be loved for who he is in his sublime indifference. His is not the Triune God of the Christian tradition, not the God manifest in Jesus, not the Holy Spirit moving with power in our midst. It is not even clear that such a God is lovable.

[ii] Theologians differ as to the means by which God acts in the world. Some emphasize God’s involvement through the action of natural law, which is usually beneficent. Others, such as Thomas Aquinas, have spoken of God’s action through “secondary causes.” Certainly when people do God’s will, acting kindly and justly, we can be such secondary causes. Process theologians emphasize God’s influence or persuasion. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described God as a goal toward which evolutionary processes advanced. Alister McGrath, pp. 186-291. Gordon Kaufman adds the  more mysterious factor of creative serendipity.  Gordon Kaufman, God In The Face Of Mystery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993) pp. 264-280.
[iii] 1st Corinthians 13: 12.
[iv] Adams, p. 147.
[v] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty Of The Infinite, pp. 408-411.