Saturday, March 29, 2008

culture bound: spring 2008

my earlier culture bound blog.

introductory thoughts

As Pastor Martin [Luther] insisted, worship and hymn-singing in the vernacular is a mark of the true Church. We've been praying and talking, studying and working together to contextualize, cast into our local vernacular (but there's not just one!), not only our worship and preaching but especially our evangelism and outreach to our nearby neighbors. I really am in the process of writing a short proposal that'll lead to an outline that in turn will lead to actual course material related to multicultural and other decidedly relevant neighborhood ministry...slow as the process has been, and a few questions we'll be asking include: according to us, who are we? According to scripture - and especially according to Jesus - who are we? What do we consider our calling? According to scripture - and especially according to Jesus - what is God's call to us as individuals, as a local church and as the ecumenical church?

Models for [especially local church] Ministry

resurrection witnessesHere's the mission statement I wrote for the church I served in City of History; I'm quoting it again [because the deployed staff guy from the national church declared it "a model" and asked permission to show it to other congregations? - no, not] because all these years time later I agree it is finely succinct and every bit as relevant to the congregations I'm involved with on this coast as it was to that one on the other coast.
We are the people of God, forgiven and set free by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; by the power of the Holy Spirit we are called together and sent into the world as witnesses to his resurrection. God calls us, a servant people, to proclaim in word and action the presence of the risen Lord to all those whom our lives touch, especially in this community.

past ecclesiastical blasts include...

basic business model

Up until a few decades ago the now recently departed dad of a friend worked for the UCC's national church; the family lived in New Jersey, and the dad took the commuter train into New York City, to 475 Riverside Drive by Riverside Church, where in those days the national offices of most mainline church bodies hung out. Due to financial and other constraints, the UCC eventually moved to Cleveland, the PC(USA) to Louisville and the ELCA to Cleveland, though those cities' names still more than suggest Basic North American style and sensibilities, diverse as this continent has become—but at least they're geographically and otherwise a little decentralized. Even as theologians and pastors, we often casually call ourselves and our churches the "mainline" that in the beginning was more of a sociological designation than an ecclesiastical one. Given that at its start during the 1880s the Main Line railroad relocated the city of Philadelphia's social, political and business elite, effectively creating some extremely affluent new sub-urbs, is that what we in today's protestant mainline aspire to be and seek to live? It's only terminology? Words can carry so very much power and impact! Words can create worlds! Words do create worlds and words destroy worlds (as well as people and communities).

During my tenure at the above-referenced congregation, I was attending seminary and serving in the very inner city, so in the cold winter months I typically wore corduroy levis and sweaters to work and school; denim and khaki skirts with polo shirts were my usual summer attire. At least once senior pastor said, "The Church must emulate business, and business...wears dark and formal suits and shoes, etc." Talk about non-vernacular! In that ultra-urban setting (not all that different from where I currently live) as in others, already each one of us is unique though not immediately apparently so, but why attempt to make unnecessary distinctions that can lead to further divisions rather than essential unity? In real life, I definitely wasn't dressing or behaving all that much like most of my neighbors, but I attempted a semblance of approachability, and given the results, I believe I succeeded.

European model

Riverside Church in New York City is far from the only church building in this country designed after a western or northern European cathedral model. Built by financial and railway tycoon John D. Rockefeller, Riverside physically presents as a Gothic cathedral, but taking history into consideration, we need to remember the Christianity first experienced by colonial America and later on by the new republic featured imported doctrine and liturgy, with protestantisms from continental Europe and the British Isles, Roman Catholicism from Germany, Italy and central Europe. Gradually church structures imitating local rather than foreign architecture came about—Spanish Mission adobe being a still prevalent popular style.

biblical model
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47, NRSV

current contemporary

Again I'm agonizingly wondering if we've been designing our worship, modifying the bible's theology and editing our lifestyles to appear non-threateningly culturally congruent; do we present the gospel of Jesus Christ as another slick spiritual smörgåsbord (browser spell check added the diacriticals) selection rather than a tremendous offense, a scandal, a stumbling block in almost every sense? Mercy driven, grace given, world-transforming? Is it even possible to tamely articulate the reality of the cross and resurrection? Or maybe worse, do we offend humanity and blaspheme God with some kind of unbiblical folk religion? Is Jesus basically another guy like us or is Jesus of Nazareth The Wildest of the Wild? It seems as if I talk and write and blog the same stuff over and over again, but far too much of what I've been seeing and hearing and feeling sure ain't nothing I can imagine living for, let alone dying for.

It looks as if right alongside the mega- and related churches those of us in the mainline who really really need to discover all kinds of newer models for ministry and to recover a sense of our own worth have become just as similar to popular culture and society as the earlier European and business models. But the gospel is not an extension or an expression of popular culture, not a separate compartment of some folks' existence, hardly an optional selection in God's solution to all creation's quest for the fullness of redemption, for dwelling within the milk and honey of the sovereignty of heaven. God calls and by grace enables us to live baptized into Christ each moment every day; we are the community that in Jesus Christ, in baptism, already has experienced its first death and its second birth!

In subtle and insidious ways, artifacts and habits of consumerism and overall general superfluity make inroads into the lives of people who never intended it, just as political, economic and religious imperialisms often far exceed the sum of their discrete parts. You know Colossians specifically describes powers and principalities, while other biblical writers more than hint at them. In one of his sermons Paul Tillich says most of us insist they don't do the really big sins, but rather fall prey to smaller ones; in exactly the same manner, we often claim we don't subscribe to super bling, ultra sex or super-excessive consumerism (though of course we like nice things and lovely clothes...) Besides, "a little can't do any harm." Do we appear, talk and act just like our nearby neighbors who have no conscious knowledge or awareness of Jesus or do we live and walk with Christ in ways our neighbors can see, touch, hear, taste and hope for more of?

Neil Brown

Saturday of Bright Week. The Seventh Day of Easter.

On behalf of the Presbytery of North Central Iowa, today we celebrated a Witness to the Resurrection for Neil Brown, who in 2003 had returned to live in this place we often call Paradise before crossing into the next phase of eternal life to meet Jesus Christ face-to-face in the Heavenly Realms—also known as "Paradise." Pentecost DoveAfter his ordination to ministry of Word and Sacrament Neil pastored two local churches, and then served the larger church on judicatory staffs. When he left this earth Neil was a member of the Presbytery of North Central Iowa, where he'd served as Executive Presbyter.

Due to various events I had the privilege of serving as organist for the service! Each of us got to take home a red flower to symbolize the Coming of the Spirit, so my illustration is from the bulletin cover I designed almost a year ago for Pentecost 2007. In the narthex the family had arranged a wonderful group of Neil memorabilia; the San Diego Padres shirt, a mostly red Hawaiian shirt (seems as if whenever I saw Neil he was wearing Hawaiian...), along with his alb and a Pentecostal red stole were my favorites and seemed most characteristically Neil.

As I considered whether to post this here on desert spirit's fire, my more formally theological blog or on my more informal testimony and related blog, This Is The Place that won—I've been writing a lot about the Spirit and this blog title references desert, spirit and fire.

Just last Sunday on Easter Day we heard from the first part of Jeremiah 31, the same chapter that later reveals God's New Covenant promise:
1At that time, says the LORD, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. 2Thus says the LORD: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, 3the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
grace in the wilderness and everlasting love!

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Psalm 116:7 | Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
Today is Maundy Thursday—and my first post on this blog this month, though I've done a few things on "this far by faith" and posted some recent design on "sun country living."

These days the church generally schedules the rite of confirmation, affirmation of baptism for a majorly resplendent festival day like Pentecost, Reformation or Easter; we also welcome kids to Holy Communion way younger than in days of yore, when youth were not routinely admitted to the Lord's Supper until around 13 (bat/bar mitzvah age) or older. Post-the ordinance of confirmation they were ready to take their place as adults within the community of worship, witness and service, in some cases even serving on council, vestry or session and on committees other than youth. This week in his pastoral letter, United Church of Christ [now former, as i edited this for a new image fourtenn years after original post] President and General Minister John Thomas told about his own confirmation on a Maundy Thursday in New England, where "owning the covenant" was a long-standing practice.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
Jeremiah New Covenant
It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 | For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
The idea of living in covenant partnership with the Servant God of Israel is at least overwhelming, but as I reminded one of the classes I facilitated during Advent "This is not a covenant between equals!" Remember the classic Lent 1 pericope…"turn stones into bread?" But Jesus himself is bread, not the ordinary kind but the bread of life that never rots, molds or decays. And by the way, Jesus is the stony, solid rock of redemption.

"Here we will take the wine and the water, here we will take the bread of new birth, here you shall call your sons and your daughters, call us anew to be salt for the earth. Give us to drink the wine of compassion, give us to eat the bread that is you; nourish us well, and teach us to fashion lives that are holy and hearts that are true. Marty Haugen, Here in This Place, © 1982 GIA Publications.

I love the idea of receiving the sacrament for the first time on Maundy Thursday, but since that can't happen for most of us, we can take the Bread of Life and Cup of Salvation again as if for the very first time each Holy Thursday and at every other opportunity. Somewhere I read, "Without Thursday, Jesus' disciples wouldn't have understood Friday; without Friday, they wouldn't have believed Thursday." Exactly. At your right and at your left? … "You do not know what you are asking." Yes, we know the rest of the story, but do we dare trust God enough to live the whole story? During the Lenten DVD series, Left Right in the City's Senior Pastor told me the guy who was pianist for the morning series privately suggested to SP maybe in the Reformation tradition we emphasize God's gracfe and mercy too much, possibly to the near-exclusion of human agency and responsibility. Do we dare trust the Spirit of Life enough to do whatever we can to uphold our side of the covenant? In his famous explanation of the 3rd article of the creed in his Small Catechism, Martin Luther reminds us,

"…the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ…"

Psalm 22:2-3 | O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.