Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Monday, November 1, 2010
Here we are – it’s Halloween.
I’ve loved this holiday for as long as I can remember. I love Halloween for its feeling, for its blend of fantasy & festivity, its feasting & fun.
Something in the human imagination loves to tap the ancient & archetypal impulse to mock the mundane of ordinary time & to masquerade &/or mirror aspects of ourselves that are otherwise latent or sleepy or repressed.
Something in our cultural & culinary DNA crafts with creativity the annual costume & ritual & craves with a healthy appetite: pumpkins & pumpkin seeds & pumpkin pie; apples, candied apples, & apple cider; sugar & more sugar & sweet treats of so many varieties.
Sometime, a long time ago, the ancient Celtic, pre-Christian holiday of Samhain blended with the Christian-Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day & All Souls Day as also in North America we remember the Mexican Day of the Dead to ultimately form Halloween, a deeply ecumenical & eclectic interspiritual occasion.
Just as our observance of Christmas is carefully timed to coincide to with the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere or our celebration of Easter arrives around the time of the Spring Equinox, the entire Christian calendar shares wide roots with the changing of the seasons, with the turning of the year, with the natural religious antecedents of the Jesus movements.
More than simple & quiet acknowledgement, just what might be our best understanding of Christianity’s connections with the spiritual & religious practices of our Native European ancestors?
The better aspects of these thematic unities tend to get untied as these threads don’t get talked about very much in Christian circles, but when they do get discussed by certain contemporary Christians, they tend to make folks very uncomfortable, especially around the holiday of Halloween.
Some folks prefer to see Halloween as a non-religious pop-culture observance, not unlike the Super Bowl or the World Series & probably most like Mardi Gras.
Some evangelicals harbor strong suspicions & hostilities towards Halloween & its alleged promotion of Witchcraft & Satanism. Some folks who cannot just ignore this time of year have reclaimed it as a de-fanged & demon-free “harvest festival.” Still others have re-framed the more traditional haunted house as the equally creepy “Hell House,” which, according to a documentary I’ve seen, literally scares the hell out of teenagers & spooks them into submitting to the doctrine of salvation.
While I do not place much stock in Hell Houses or harvest festivals purged of their interspiritual heritage, it’s not because I don’t believe in evil or the devil or monsters or bogeyman or am naïve about the dark side of the contemporary occult.
Rather, I think that the real demons are fear, hate, greed, prejudice, ignorance, and war. And if we are utterly honest – some of our Christian ancestors used fear, hate, greed, prejudice, ignorance, and war to punish & persecute so-called witches in very unchristian ways. These kinds of violent & vile legacies are not something contemporary Jesus-followers need to revive & promote with misguided anti-Halloween propaganda; rather, contemporary Christendom can & might repent from its present problem with some Jesus-followers who still insist on attacking the “other”—whether it’s folks who follow other religious paths to God or folks we deem unacceptable for other reasons, such as our gay/lesbian/bisexual/and transgendered brothers & sisters.
Christian participation in any & many pop-culture phenomenon seems inevitable today—& as long as these gestures are imbued with perspective, with a loving, humble, & gentle attitude, it’s hard for me to stomach the claim that there need be any inherently Satanic or demonic content or bent to pumpkin-carving, costume-wearing, candy-feasting, apple-cider-sipping celebrations.
If celebrating Halloween in the cultural sense brings joy & fosters community & entertains children & unites families, let’s celebrate it!
If we, like our ancestors, take time to honor the harvest & recognize the turning of the year & further the legacy of our loved-ones & ancestors, could this in any way harm our faith in God?
I must confess my sympathy & solidarity with the Catholic-Christian impulse to reclaim & recontextualize this time as sacred remembrance, recalling the death & eternal resurrection of loved ones & lost ones, ancestors & martyrs, parents & grandparents, siblings & children, best friends & spouses.
Friends of the 21st century-Jesus-movement, we need not fear Halloween or any day or any so-called force or spirit of darkness. As Christians, we follow the light that casts out all darkness, the love that casts out all fear, the life that triumphs over all death. Let’s remember today those we’ve lost this year & over the years with an amazing love, an amazing faith, a death-defying, Christ-following ethos of the utterly mysterious majesty of the marvelous: life everlasting & world without end!
In the memories of our friends today, let’s see the defeated cross & the risen Christ. In the New Testament, Paul’s letters percolate with the promise of paradise; his prose pulses with the profound proclamation of life & love’s power! Like the passage we read earlier from Romans, the “O Death Where Is Thy Sting” passage from I Corinthians is likewise comforting & clear:
“I need to emphasize, friends, that our natural, earthy lives don't in themselves lead us by their very nature into the kingdom of God. Their very "nature" is to die, so how could they "naturally" end up in the Life kingdom?
But let me tell you something wonderful, a mystery I'll probably never fully understand. We're not all going to die—but we are all going to be changed. You hear a blast to end all blasts from a trumpet, and in the time that you look up and blink your eyes—it's over. On signal from that trumpet from heaven, the dead will be up and out of their graves, beyond the reach of death, never to die again. At the same moment and in the same way, we'll all be changed. In the resurrection scheme of things, this has to happen: everything perishable taken off the shelves and replaced by the imperishable, this mortal replaced by the immortal. Then the saying will come true:
Death swallowed by triumphant Life!
Who got the last word, oh, Death?
Oh, Death, who's afraid of you now?
It was sin that made death so frightening and law-code guilt that gave sin its leverage, its destructive power. But now in a single victorious stroke of Life, all three—sin, guilt, death—are gone, the gift of our Master, Jesus Christ. Thank God!”
The religion editor at Newsweek, Lisa Miller recently gave the topic of eternal life a journalist’s treatment in her book Heaven. Among many fascinating aspects to the text, Miller discusses the intersection between science & so-called Near Death Experiences, leading her to encounter speculations like the claim “consciousness exists even after normal brain function ceases” or the question as to whether science could actually prove “that upon death people really go to another realm.”
Another tension in Miller’s book concerns the specific nature of the afterlife & diverging views about how we’ll experience it.
One amorphous and oceanic version might go like this: One’s immortal soul communes with the great cosmic life force that is, a mysterious and direct and eternal connectedness with the real and living God, an everlasting peace inside the Lord. Miller describes this as “One continual Sabbath”
Other versions are much more particular about the resurrection of your specific body in heaven. Miller’s journalistic journey to heaven relishes the tension with those that do or don’t believe in an actual body, actually resurrected body.
The appeal is obvious, as Miller wrote, for you the banquets, the gardens, the cities, the learning, and the loving “flow could any of this exist,” Miller asks, without—physical self to enjoy it?”
Do you know? I don’t…
Do you know whether you’ll experience resurrection in the bodily sense or whether eternal life is somehow simultaneously more brilliant and subtle, subsuming all previously known experiences into an extraordinary and ecstatic exhilaration? Could it be both—or even beyond approximation?
Do you know? I don’t….
Do you know whether your resurrected body will look like you? Or feel like you? Or experience sensations like hunger or thirst or soreness or pain or musical pleasure? I’ve heard it said that we’ll be unmarried and without gender in heaven. I’ve also heard that a happy, loving marriage is the closest thing to heaven on earth.
Do you know? I don’t….
Do you know whether your resurrected body, if it is a physical body, will it also have an ego, identity, and personality and whether that eternal personality in a resurrected physical body will meet other eternal personalities from your past in their resurrected bodies? Or whether upon meeting God, in all God’s glories, the physical bodies, egos, & personalities on this earth we’ve so enjoyed until now will suddenly seem inconsequential in resplendent infinity?
Do you know? I don’t…
We know some of our church fathers & theologians & philosophers & poets have imagined & articulated the unfathomable. We know what we know—that’s there’s nothing close to consensus—but can we know what we don’t know?
Do you know? I don’t…
Do you know how to get to heaven?
So much of the Christianity I learned as a youth deflected our attention from Christ’s teaching & onto the question of how to earn your ticket to heaven—the “learn so you don’t burn” school of summer camp theology.
Even if we love God & follow Jesus with all our hearts, souls, & minds, do we really have any business deciding for others the path to eternal life, or even worse, laying the paving stones on the path to hell, paved as it were with our good intentions or our greatest ideologies?
Here, I agree with Christian universalist Carlton Pearson when he warns that too much focus on the devil actually “glorifies the devil” & that too much focus on condemnation rather than salvation takes a “wise, moral, benevolent” God & makes God “weak, immoral, malevolent, even vulgar.”
Perhaps if we focus on the core tenets of Christ’s message, on the radical, unconditional love of our neighbors & on our unquenchable, unflinching love of God, might heaven take care of itself?
I do know that from her inter-religious and cross-cultural study of heaven, Lisa Miller concludes the common notion that heaven’s based on hope, what she calls radical hope—she writes:
“The heaven that will come at the end of the world is a radical reversal of the social & natural order. The first shall be last, the meek shall inherit the earth, the stars will fall from the sky. Heaven is not just love, it’s radical love; it’s not just a return to the perfection of Eden, but a radical return. This is no warm hug, no easy train ride. It’s radical because God is involved & God can do anything. Heaven [is] a radical concept, a place that embodies the best of everything—but beyond the best. A belief in heaven focuses our minds on the radical nature of what’s most beautiful, most loving, most just, & most true.”
I do know that I share Miller’s hope in what’s so good & beautiful that it’s beyond our comprehension, beyond even our belief of good & beautiful.
I do know that in my own brushes with mortality—near tragedies like a physical beating at the hand of anonymous & brutal assailants & terrifying automobile accidents—I’ve experienced an uncommon lightness & levity defiance of traditional gravity and the depths of spiritual gratitude.
I do know that in the dreams & visions I’ve had of a lost friend or grandfather have been strikingly vivid as have been their Christ-like contentions from the dreamspace that death is an illusion, a conspiracy, & that only love & life are real.
I do know that comfort that I take in the words of the apostle Paul:
“If we get included in Christ's sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word. When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God.”
With these words we remember the dead & we remember their lives & an unconditional love & an eternal life that words cannot describe.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
1 Corinthians 4:9-16
It seems to me that God has put us who bear his Message on stage in a theater in which no one wants to buy a ticket. We're something everyone stands around and stares at, like an accident in the street. We're the Messiah's misfits. You might be sure of yourselves, but we live in the midst of frailties and uncertainties. You might be well-thought-of by others, but we're mostly kicked around. Much of the time we don't have enough to eat, we wear patched and threadbare clothes, we get doors slammed in our faces, and we pick up odd jobs anywhere we can to eke out a living. When they call us names, we say, "God bless you." When they spread rumors about us, we put in a good word for them. We're treated like garbage, potato peelings from the culture's kitchen. And it's not getting any better.
I'm not writing all this as a neighborhood scold just to make you feel rotten. I'm writing as a father to you, my children. I love you and want you to grow up well, not spoiled. There are a lot of people around who can't wait to tell you what you've done wrong, but there aren't many fathers willing to take the time and effort to help you grow up. It was as Jesus helped me proclaim God's Message to you that I became your father. I'm not, you know, asking you to do anything I'm not already doing myself.
I discovered that the text from I Corinthians was already the daily reading for today when it became crystal clear just a few days ago that the Come ToGather (C2G) ministry would have to move its home only seven weeks into its history. The stark and radical early-church symbols that Peterson makes even more poetic could not have been more telling & more obvious about the situation of our fledgling little creative worship community.
I take some solace that the early Jesus followers got kicked around, wore patched and threadbare clothes, got doors slammed in our faces, and were only able to eke out a living . Tonight, I am going to get into some of the specifics about what C2G was designed to be, what the criticisms were, and why we needed to move to remain moved by the marvelous spirit of the living God. The scripture says— When they call us names, we say, "God bless you." When they spread rumors about us, we put in a good word for them. —so tonight, I am not going to defend but expand, not complain but explain. I am not angry & only hope this will be an opportunity for C2G to find its fullest calling.
What a fitting scripture for how I am feeling. We’re the messiah’s misfits—not yet a congregation, gently entering the “emergent church” conversation, an itinerant ragamuffin band of Jesus followers & some of our friends just looking, just seeking, & even just looking at the candlelight. We’re the messiah’s misfits, a ministry in exile, that didn’t quite fit in a local church but got welcomed by an atheist thespian and the Jewish house manager. So this is the parable of the Atheist, the Jesus Freak, and the Jew. I’d tell you a story about what happened when the Atheist, the Jesus Freak, and the Jew walked into a bar—except I don’t drink anymore & thus don’t frequent bars.
To put it mildly, my conversion to Christ was cosmic & compelling —after years as a dedicated psychedelic sinner, I felt kinship with the images I saw of rag-tag bands of 1970s Jesus People convening on the Pacific Ocean beach for mass baptisms & convincing the hordes of Haight Asbury addicts that God’s glory had a better injection of insight than the bags of goodies getting peddled by speed freaks & acid casualties.
Drawn like a moth to flame to God’s magnetic love & forgiveness, I might have forgotten for a moment that not every Jesus follower is a Jesus freak—a reborn Christian, I was just so overjoyed & overwhelmed to get my Jesus freak-on. So apparently, this grassroots, organic, all natural Jesus freak ministry was just a little too freaky for my some of my friends at the church down the street, which is why Come ToGather suddenly finds itself worshipping in a small community theater on a college campus.
So what exactly is the emergent church—and why did C2G immediately identify with it? Or attempt to be Presbymergent? And also, why was an attraction to the emergent church something that some of our friends at First Pres so strongly objected to?
Well, frankly, it’s entirely impossible to define the emergent church—but what attracted me to it was how utterly engaged with the real world & excited about cultural innovation these folks were. I would describe it as: A fusion of liturgical flexibility with denominational fluidity played out in a theatrical way by fun-loving fools-for-Christ forever feasting at His table—or, put another way, I noticed right away that these people had it going on with the Holy Spirit, & I wanted in on the reformation & revelation.
It’s said that the emergent church is post-everything: postmodern, postevangelical, postconservative, postliberal. It’s post-everything except posting on the internet—because just about every emergent-type church leader I’ve encountered has a blog. To be Presbymergent—we would have been rooted in the Presbyterian Church-USA, which may or may not be an option for us anymore. We could choose to incorporate or affiliate or we could go the way of many Emergent movement communities & be a non-authoritarian, non-institutional, grassroots body of 21st century gatherers revisiting the first century model.
The emergent tag itself is not nearly as important as the kind of energy it points to: something deeper & more nuanced than just more-of-the-same “church that’s not churchy” contemporary service –which, as good for so many people as some of these services can be—does not yet approach the unguarded, disarmed, & intimate connection with God & our community of God-seeking humans that C2G was born to search for.
As we’ve stated before, we wanted a heart-over-head community, where we could be fearless about feeling our faith, saturated by Grace in what Brennan Manning calls the Christ-soaked universe, feeling God’s magic with feet stuck in the daily struggle, healing the people’s misery, willing to walk in the worldly muck.
We speak the truth that we know—but admit that there’s so much that we don’t know about God because God’s infinite mystery can never be fully known. That’s what makes mystery mysterious. That’s what makes God God.
Truth travels quickly but could get quickly derailed or deranged if God’s delight were not our aim; this is at first a tenuous and tentative theological truth born of study—but then suddenly an innocent & ravenous truth born of wonder, born of the children’s feet dancing in the Cookietown streets.
The idea for Come ToGather (C2G) came together in a spontaneous burst of spirit, over dinner, among friends. A research trip to a Presbymergent congregation in Louisville, Kentucky gave us many of our ideas for how to structure & style our happy little liturgy of candlelight & liberation.
Some of the features that our friends at First Pres found problematic with C2G would have been easy to change—but we realized that each of these features had become central to our imperfect but focused journey after God’s truth. We could have made the changes & stayed at First Pres—but what would have been left would not have been C2G. So here we are.
We choose to begin each meeting with a moment of silence, of breathing in the spirit, of coming-to-gather in candlelight, of sharing the light, of lighting the tiny spark of God that lives within each of us. We worship in an ambient, dimly-lit room illuminated by candlelight.
Why do we start with relative darkness? Why do we need this light? Why do we need the light?
I can think of few greater symbols of God’s unfathomable & fabulous love than of candles illuminating a dark room. Aren’t we, each of us, called to be those candles, burning brightly with God’s unconditional love, a loving-liberating-light for a world rapidly descending towards its own destruction? Haven’t we all on our worst days felt like the dark world—lonely & scared, lost & searching? Isn’t the authentic faith journey a little like spelunking in a cave where we often crave just a little light? Doesn’t it just make you want to sing & shout, “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”?
Another objection to C2G came from our choice of music, from our blending of songs with secular roots & reviving them with a sacred flavor. Choosing the music & working with the musicians—thanks so much to Jesse, Talitha, Nate, Betti, & Kory—has been one of the greatest joys of creating C2G, &on the topic of sacred-versus-secular, I must admit it’s our distinction—not God’s. God’s love claims all of creation & transcends every category.
One of the reasons we had to move C2G resulted from hard questions. Is C2G really Christian? Or is it like Anne Rice recently noted —just into Christ but not His body, called Christians. Or is it some kind of Jesus-Curious, Unitarian Universalist-New Age-Pantheist Hybrid, sort of like the Prius of prophecy?
Now for me—having done more than just dabble in neopaganism & the New Age movement while compiling my walk-on-the-wild-side radical resume in devout heathenism & delirious hedonism, I’m at some liberty to talk about what’s dramatically different between the New Age movement & the 21st century emergent church: we follow Jesus. And if any of you are at all like me—following Jesus was not born of being trendy or cool or joining the “in crowd” in the born-again Bible belt.
Now, I was born-again & there are quite a few notches in this bible-reader’s belt—but come on, really, isn’t faith in Jesus always already less-than-hip, more hot-than-cool, a hopeful retreat from the cliff’s edge, a life-preserver for the drowning man, a ripped piece of bread dipped in juice & fed to the hopeless sinner, a life-or-death decision, a giant leap of faith into the realm of life-over-death?
While all of our stories differ in the details, we follow Jesus for a few basic reasons: for what He did when He walked the earth in the flesh—helping, healing, hoping, & hurling truth at hypocrisy—& for what He did on the cross—crossing the boundary between human & divine, heaven & hell, emancipation & empire—& for what He did when He met us in our hearts: forgiving forever & forgetting why we needed to be forgiven in the first place, making us once again perfect & pure in the imminent & transcendent power of perfect pure grace. For these reasons & so many others we claim Christ & Christianity for ourselves—but we also question what kind of Christ-like habits might best cultivate an authentic community of creative worship.
Perhaps we might see doubt & questioning & critical-thinking & still-seeking as the functions of a healthy faith—we’re willing to admit that we don’t have it all figured out. Another awesome aspect of this ministry is the way in which we want to embrace the mission to be the Messiah’s misfits, to be like Jesus in the company we keep—that is, to have a radically inclusive & inviting “open door” policy as stated in our original call:
More than anything, we want to be inclusive of folks, seekers and sinners, the unchurched and undecided, regardless of their spiritual history and spiritual self-definition. We want to invite Christians whose relationship with Jesus is not diluted by welcoming—and even worshiping and studying with—people from diverse and divergent religious paths.
Some see this tone of interspiritual dialogue & tolerance or interfaith openness at best as a concession to our democratic or secular society; at worst, some see it as a demonic force, even a form of devil worship.
The Jesus I follow already defeated death & the devil & by Good Friday & Easter Sunday accounts—He
isn’t afraid of anyone or anything. Most of all, He’s not afraid to have your back—while others perhaps just want to fact-check what our atheist brothers & sisters already claim to know is just fiction. I don’t know about you, but I have this intense sense that God is bigger, bolder, & brighter than the cozy little boxes that some believers prefer to confine God in.
If you hear someone at C2G call on The Creator instead of God or call on God the Mother as well as God the Father or call on the Spirit as well as the Holy Spirit, you might say, “They’re watering down their Christianity with New Age mumbo jumbo.” Or you might say, “My God doesn’t give vocabulary tests.” Or you might say, “My God’s a visionary jester who always sat at the wrong table with the wrong crowd & overturned tables & got chased out of temples.”
If you hear someone at C2G describe their spirituality as magical, you might say that we’re practicing witchcraft or paganism. Or you might say, “My God healed the sick. My God made the blind to see. My God fed five thousand people with a few loaves & a fish. My God walked on water & turned water into the wine. My God raised the dead & was raised from the dead.” You don’t have to call that magical or supernatural, but I do know that some Christians want to revise the Bibles & take the miracles out. They are obsessed with historicism & like the author John Shelby Spong see the miraculous at best as a “literary device” & at worst as “a distortion.”
I don’t know about you, but I want to keep the miracles in. I want to let go of stiff literalism & literary rationalizations & let the miracles in. I want to tell you about the miracle that’s on my heart every time I confess my sin & admit that I am powerless without my powerful savior. There’s a miracle on my heart every time I call on the name of Jesus.
Now how do you call on God? One reason that C2G had to move is that we do not limit our preaching & teaching ministry to the ordained clergy but are a lay ministry & a people’s ministry. While we have a loose co-leadership structure, we also practice an open pulpit.
A few weeks ago, I quoted Richard Foster on meditation, on the need to “enter the living presence of God for ourselves.” Foster warns against a pious religious professionalism, calling us all to “the universal priesthood of God.”
Years ago in my day-to-day teaching here at Tech, I learned that the best teachers are forever students. We bring that principle to the spiritual practice that is C2G: we are perpetually learning about God, learning to love God, & living our walk with God out loud. So we invite you to walk with us, or like the song said—let’s walk together children.
If C2G speaks to your heart, we want you to grow with us a garden. I don’t know what that garden will look like, but I imagine a fun & funky little family of friends & strangers & Jesus freaks who love a hungry life that forever seeks after God.
Tonight, we open the stage of this secular theater to sacred dance & to sacred art & to sacred poetry & to sacred music & to you—to sing God’s song as you hear it inside your own heart. Maybe you too feel like Paul described, maybe you feel like one of the messiah’s misfits, like the culture’s compost. Let’s take this compost of our lives, then, wherever we’re at tonight, & grow a beautiful new garden by planting again the seeds of God’s grace. Amen.—Andrew William Smith, Cookeville, TN 10/10/10