Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advent and Apathy: What Millenials May Be Waiting for This December

They say 95 percent of the world's oceans have yet to be explored. They remain mysterious and uncharted waters inhabited by the unknown.

You could say we mostly have a surface level understanding of aquatic life. We can make guesses and develop hypotheses, but in order to make new discoveries marine biologists must dive deeper.

Their real challenge is to plunge into the darkness of the 95 percent and remain open to the mystery before them. If researchers want to enhance their work, they must be willing to risk going places others have either previously hesitated or failed to explore.

But these waters are dark and mysterious, able to challenge most of what has been considered sure and certain for so long. It is far easier to cling to the five percent up top, where we have more of a history and control.

This past Monday at Lutheran Theological Seminary, theologian Andrew Root posited some rather poignant observations about the slow currants of younger generations in the church. Root suggested the demographic between ages 18-35 don't hate the church. "They can't," Root said. "You can't hate something you aren't connected to or involved in." Instead of the misconception that younger generations hate the church, Root exposed a much more challenging response: apathy.

Why such pervasive apathy?

The church* has demonstrated an unwillingness to swim in the same waters as millenials. Religious communities have hesitated to dive into the depths of curiosity and wonder that make up the lived experiences and raw questions of younger generations. In a sense, Root suggested the church and related preaching, teaching, and ministry programs, have copped out and merely hovered on the surface while generations continue to come and go, longing for a community to explore the complex mysteries and issues of the day.

The church has not adjusted the religious rhetoric or fostered environments where millenials can wrestle with God and find solidarity as they ponder...

....questions of faith and an suspicion about absolutes.

...ambiguities and insecurities related to identity and self-worth.

...inclusion of LGBTQ persons and others who frequently feel unheard and devalued.

...fresh takes on old biblical stories and Christian theology aimed at a way of being versus thinking.

...interfaith dialogue and a religiously plural world.

...angst about long-term commitments and intimacy.

...a nation and world far too eager to wage war and expecting citizens to pay for it.

...increased pressures forced upon us by consumer culture.

...pervasive racism underscored by the deaths of and responses to Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

...unjust systems that protect the rich and powerful at the expense of minority groups and those on the margins of our communities.

...a financial future that will never again look like it did for generations right before us.

This begs the question, will the church snorkel in shallow waters of the five percent while millenials suit up in SCUBA gear and plunge into the darker and deeper waters of the 95 percent yet to be defined?

It's time for the church to join the youthful crowd, maybe even follow their lead, as they push us further. After all, they don't hate us. Actually, studies suggest they'd appreciate our company.

Advent is a popular time for millenials to show up at church. Despite misconceptions, many young people like the liturgy of seasons like Advent and Christmas. The challenge for the church, are we narrating the Jesus story in such a way that makes space for their honest questions and demonstrates we are wrestling with God in the same ways they are?

Karl Barth once wrote, "In the crib of Bethlehem and at the cross of Golgotha the event takes place in which God gives Himself to them to be known and and in which they know God."**

The God we proclaim at both Christmas and Easter, times when more than just millenials return to church, must be celebrated as One who entered as a child into the dark waters of real history. Our real obligation as communities of faith is to proclaim Immanuel as the One unafraid of a deep and mysterious world of pain, suffering, complexity, and various manifestations of despair and death.

We must make space for questions this time of year, too.

And many are waiting this Advent for exactly that. In light of the pressing issues of racism and unjust political systems, imbalanced economics, increased pressures of consumer culture, an increasingly violent world, uncertainties about financial futures and mounting debt, concerns about local and global poverty, and ever-shifting self-understandings and individualized identities- Advent is a chance not only to proclaim, but also embody all we believe to be true about who God is and where God may be calling us next. We echo the grace of a God who is as concerned about the mysteries and darkness of first-century Bethlehem as those of today's Ferguson, Coatesville, West Chester, Liberia, Honduras, and Washington, D.C..

Advent is a chance to validate the musings of younger generations who may be walking in the church doors once again or for the first time after prolonged seasons of apathy and avoidance.

Advent is when we dare to suggest the church is eager to hang out with younger generations in the deep waters of their lived experiences, unafraid of uncertainty and ambiguity, darkness and mystery.

Maybe then they will come back after the holidays.

I pray they do. The church needs them.


*When I say the "church" I am speaking mostly about the Main Line Protestant church I call my tradition and context.

**See Church Dogmatics Volume II.1



Tuesday, December 2, 2014

St. Nicholas Would Sandal Slap Santa: Ancient Bishop as Advocate for Children, Victims of Human Trafficking, and Wrongly Accused on Death Row

There's a legend about St. Nicholas that many fanatics of Early Christians desperately want to be true.

The story goes that Nicholas and Arius were among many at the Council of Nicaea in the midst of a heated theological debate about the nature of God. That's when Nicholas grabbed a brick, lifted it up, and declared that as the brick was one substance in three parts, i.e. earth, fire, and water, so also was God one substance (homoousios) made up of three parts. Father. Son. Holy Spirit. The brick then burst into flames, vanished from their site, and left only water to drip from Nicholas' hands and onto the floor.

Arius, on the other hand, was a gifted orator* and began to spit rhymes about how Jesus was not fully divine. Christ was actually not of the same substance as God the Father but had a created beginning. I like to think that after his rhythmic rhetoric, Arius dropped his mic, shook the dust from his shoulders, winked at his counterparts, and stepped aside in challenge.

St. Nicholas wanted nothing to do with this blasphemous, albeit popular and catchy, theological beat. So the Bishop of Myra stood up, took off his crusty sandal, and slapped the would-be heretic across the face.

That's right, St. Nick sandal slapped his theological opponent. So much for being jolly.

It's not known whether St. Nicholas was even at the Council of Nicaea and unlikely that his nemesis Arius was even invited, as he was not a bishop and would have had to send representation. Still, the story gives hints and guesses to the pure passion of the man who would be morphed into a Coca-Cola ad campaign of the 1930's and the foundation for consumer-driven Christmas, long lists that keep places like Macy's, Walmart, and in business, and the parental threat that runs a muck this time of year- better be good, Santa's watching.

Needless to say, anytime I pass by a makeshift North Pole in a shopping mall I pause and think, would St. Nicholas sandal slap the bearded icon and all nine of his reindeer? I wonder if Nicholas would do the same to Santa Claus as he supposedly did to Arius, counting Claus as some sort of blasphemous and offensive distortion of who he was and all he aspired to be as a disciple of Jesus and leader in Christ's church.

Sure, there is much to like about Santa. Maybe the old fella encourages the imaginations of children and playful generosity of parents. It's possible that Santa is a fun folklore to hand down to each generation, fostering a spirit of mystery and anticipation common to the season.

It's also possible that Santa has overshadowed the more brilliant stories that were told for generations before soda companies and capitalism got hold of him.

Stories like the time when St. Nicholas rescued three women about to be sold by their father into an ancient human trafficking ring.

The family had run out of money and found themselves uncertain about how to live another day. The only option the father felt he had was to sell off his young girls into prostitution. Bishop Nicholas got word and on two separate occasions anonymously tossed bags of money into an open window. The money, which came from Nicholas' inheritance, was enough to pay the dowry needed to be wed and prevent them from captivity and the horrors of prostitution.

But there was still one more daughter. And the father was determined to find out the identity of this mysterious donor. As the father camped out on the roof of his home he saw Nicholas dropping a bag of money down their chimney and into a sock hung out to dry.




Anyway, caught red-handed, Nicholas made the man promise to protect his identity and refrain from revealing who had provided such elaborate funds. Thus the beginning of the mystery behind the man with a beard and red mitre.

Yet the story was too good not to be told. The prophetic and radical generosity of those who benefited from and followed behind the secret graces of Nicholas even birthed new legends.

There's the story of those wrongly accused of a crime and sentenced to death by beheading. Just as the sword was about to come down, Nicholas intervened, seized the downward thrusting sword in his calloused hand, halted their execution, and played a pivotal role in accusations being expunged.

There's the tale of two parents whose enslaved child was lifted by his hair out of the courts of an oppressive ruler and returned to his mother and father by the spirit of the deceased Saint Nicholas.

It can be said that Nicholas was one of the earliest advocates of victims of child labor and slavery, human trafficking, and those wrongly accused who sit on death row.

A far cry from what has become to be known as Santa Claus.

As we approach December 6th and the Feast of St. Nicholas, may we pay homage to the faithful witness and man behind the myth. May we tell our children these sacred stories of justice, advocacy, intervention, concern for the poor, and desire to give mysteriously more than receive abundantly.

Maybe then we will begin to tap into the true Spirit of Christmas, which neither involves sandal slapping our theological opponents nor trampling those in front of us in the lines at your local retail store.

Happy Feast of St. Nicholas.

*"Arius' views were all the more popular because he combined an eloquent preaching style with a flair for public relations. In the opening stages of the conflict, he put ideas into jingles, which set to simple tunes like a radio commercial, were being sung by the dock-workers, the street-hawkers, and the school children of the city" (Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language 100-101).

See Pete Enns Post, St. Nicholas: What Can I Say, He Was a Beast

The Man Who Would Be Santa Claus by Adam C. English

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving, Privilege, and #Ferguson: What We Can Learn from 10 Lepers in Luke

I watched the unfolding of the Ferguson Grand Jury's decision in the comfort of my home with a newborn baby resting peacefully on my chest. I was able to lament in luxury and from a position of privilege.

That's because I am not Michael Brown. I also am not Trayvon Martin. I am white. I am male. I am privileged.

But I am not shocked. While it is rare for a Grand Jury not to return an indictment to the prosecuting attorney, which simply would allow for this case to go to trial, I was not surprised the group selected chose to be one of the few to do so.

We would like to think the walls of division all around us are crumbling, but the reality is bricks are being added vertically and horizontally every single day. Whether it's race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or political affiliation, segregation continues to plague our nation, world, and even sanctuaries. We are a divided people and neither the setting fire to local businesses and police cars nor the refusal to take this case to court will further progress our communities towards the reconciliation and peace we all long to be the fabric of our future.

We can do better.

It's interesting that the decision not to indict Darren Wilson came on the Monday of Thanksgiving week. The temptation, as a white male situated in the suburbs of two Pennsylvania cities, is to watch the events unfold and hang my hat on gratitude and be thankful.

I could give thanks that when I get pulled over for speeding, which happens at least annually, other assumptions and suspicions are not cast upon me based upon the pigment of my skin.

I could give thanks that when I walk my dog late at night or in a parking garage after shopping, those who pass by me in my hoodie don't assume I am an aggressor.

I could give thanks that I have never had difficulty finding a job because of my skin color or gender.

I could give thanks that I do not know the pain of Michael Brown's parents that lead them towards both longings for four-and-a-half minutes of silence en memorium or to seek vengeance on those a part of an egregious decision by the Grand Jury.

I could give thanks that I have never experienced something in my life that has tested my commitment to nonviolent resistance or even to want to act out on deep-seeded rage.

I could give thanks for all the privileges I have not earned but simply assumed, thanking God I was neither born black, gay, middle eastern, Muslim, or even female, but then I would simply widen the gap and add to the piles of bricks that continue to work against any and all forms of reconciliation.

That's because we give thanks not in contrast to the circumstances and experiences of others, we give thanks as a means to link arms with the God who made all of us. Our gratitude is cruciform and moves us towards solidarity with all of those who suffer in silence, long for justice, work for peace, and protest the many manifestations of corruption and oppression near and far.

Thanksgiving is not about feasting on our privilege but leveraging it for the sake of the other.

I wonder if that is the real punch of Luke 17:11-19 and Jesus' healing of ten lepers.

All ten were reconciled and made whole. All ten were set free from their identity as a marginalized people group. All ten were made new by the One who was in the process of making all things new and right again.

But only one, a foreigner from Samaria, returned to the source of reconciliation and gave thanks. Only one fell facedown in worship and identified with the One who could use this healed leper to extend the same sort of healing towards others. Only one was thankful and chose to link arms with the mission and movement of the Messiah.

Only the man from the margins understood and so was charged by Jesus, "Get up, rise, be on your way. Your faith has saved you. Resurrection has happened in you. Practice resurrection all around you. No longer keep your distance from me but draw near to the kingdom and those like you who are invited into it."

The other nine kept their distance. They were set free from their marginalization and chose to cling to their new privileges. It's quite possible they even returned to the temple priests, declared their gratitude from afar, and returned to full participation in the religious community. How quickly they forgot their Master and Teacher who healed them and those on the fray and a part of their leper colony.

Are we the same? Do we merely give thanks from a privileged distance versus living out of our gratitude as we link arms with Jesus and those to whom he identified? Do we respond to embarrassing dismissals by Grand Juries with acts of violence and vandalism so distant from the teachings and witness of Jesus and wreak havoc on small business owners part of the same marginalized groups seeking justice? Do our faith communities even talk about what is taking place in our country this week or do we give thanks from afar, grateful we do not live in Ferguson, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Coatesville or other parts of the world torn by violence and injustice?

Do I keep my distance because now is not the time and there are others more capable, whose life circumstance more susceptible, to truly work towards change?

If we believe in the resurrection and long to have any part in it, our discipleship and life as those who follow Jesus begins with gratitude to God; it's what we do when we worship. When we give thanks and worship, like Luke's Samaritan, we no longer keep our distance rather link arms in faith with the God who made us in the beginning, reconciles us in the person of Jesus, and sends us by the Spirit on our way to use all we have and all we are to be God’s generous, gracious, and just people in and for the world. We live graciously out of our thankfulness, which moves us out of our privilege and towards those all too familiar with exclusion, injustice, prejudice, discrimination, and systems bent against them and others in their communities.

This Thanksgiving I am grateful for those who are on the front lines of God's kingdom, which is justice, peace, and joy in the Spirit. I am grateful for lawyers, advocates, preachers, teachers, and protesters who will peacefully work towards change. I am grateful for those who will not tire despite the opposition but will use their privilege to link arms with those on the margins longing for a voice.

This Thanksgiving I pray I would do the same.

Only then will I truly demonstrate my gratitude, even within the comfort of my home with a new baby yet to be discouraged by the despair of yesterday.


Related Links

Statement by Stated Clerk of General Assembly (PCUSA)

Call to Prayer by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

Christian Leaders Respond to Ferguson Grand Jury

A Sad Night in America by Jim Wallis

White Privielge and Male Privilege by Peggy McIntosh

Photo above is a peaceful demonstration by varied persons of faith, including Cornel West and Jim Wallis.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Prayer as Graffiti of the Soul and Melody of Mission

As parents of three little ones, it's a rare thing to find quiet and solitude in our home. When I covet devotional time for prayer and meditation, I often feel like the Psalmist: Where can I go? If I take the wings of the morning, you are there asking me to go potty. If I descend into the depths of the basement, you are there planting a mine field of Legos. If I turn out the lights and hide in the darkness, you turn on the flash of my iPhone and claim we've constructed a fort. For even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is as bright as the day so you find joy in pushing your bedtime later and later (Psalm 139, Parent Remix).

These aren't complaints. They also are not confessions of a parent who hides from his children, for nothing could be farther from the truth. Instead, it's an honest embrace of reality. Real life is not crafted for variations of monastic prayer. But prayer is most definitely intended for real life and the chaos that comes with it.

Which brings a whole new meaning to Karl Barth's well-known statement, "to clasp our hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorders of the world."

Prayer is one of faith's greatest mysteries. Prayer cannot be defined, explained, comprehended, defended, or perfectly performed. Yet, whether while we pace with a fussy newborn in the middle of the night, wash dishes that have piled up during the day (or week), walk the streets of Philadelphia or the market of Tegucigalpa, huddle together with forty teenagers on retreat, or sit in the silence of an empty chapel, we are invited to pray.

Prayer is a lot like graffiti, we are not always certain about the how or the why or even the who and when of our prayers. Prayer pops up all over the place, not limited by convention or sacred galleries we call sanctuaries. Prayer, much like graffiti, is beautiful because it's honest and scribbled over both the ordinary and complexity of everyday life. You could even say prayer is a secret movement of the Spirit whose petitioners and practioners do not look for public recognition rather express what is frequently buried deep within the human soul.

Jan Milič Lochman says it well, "Prayer as this inner dimension embraces and accompanies the whole polyphony of human life. In this sense all thoughts and actions that respect God and his creation are acts of prayer" (The Lord's Prayer 6).

PolyphonIc prayer includes all of the following and more:















Prayer as encompassing all the varied sounds of human experience may be why the writer of First Thessalonians challenged the faithful to "pray without ceasing" (5:16). Prayer, in the midst of life's ebbs and flows, is the on-going, steady, and centered posture of trust in the God who made us, redeems us, and sends us into the world. When we doubt, lose trust, and stray from our sacred center, prayer is the Spirit's metronome that gently tugs at the heart and draws us back again.

It could be said that prayer is the never ending melody that shapes our whole life and interaction in and for the world. So when we pray without ceasing to a God who has promised always to hear our prayers we begin to see ourselves, others, and the world around us through the same lens of the God who made all things and the Jesus who suffered, died, and rose again for the whole world, including you and I.

Prayer must also ultimately push us towards action. We don't pray passively. We pray expectantly. We pray for healing, justice, forgiveness, comfort, generosity, peace, and for all the wrongs, even our worst of enemies, to be made right and good again. And when we pray these kind of prayers, we begin to shape our lives so they echo the sounds and move in rhythm with what we have prayed for and to whom we have prayed.

"Christians pray to God that he will cause his righteousness to appear and dwell on a new earth under a new heaven. Meanwhile they act in accordance with their prayer as people who are responsible for the rule of human righteousness, that is, for the preservation and renewal, the deepening and extending, of the divinely ordained human safeguards of human rights, human freedom, and human peace on earth" (Karl Barth, The Christian Life 205).

We confess this because prayer is not only about asking for things from God. Prayer is also about God asking for a response from us. Prayer reminds us we are God's partners and co-laborers in ushering in the kingdom, God's dreams for a new and transformed world.

There's a whole lot more that can be said about prayer. But prayer is meant to be engaged not by a talking (read: blogging) head, but by the collection of the faithful called the church.

Actually, prayer is meant to be humbly and mysteriously sprayed with quiet utterances all over the disordered world. These are the very beginnings of subtle uprisings that draw others towards the love, justice, generosity, and peace characteristic of the new heaven and new earth already here and still to come.

So may our prayers never cease, even when we cannot find quiet or solitude. Actually, may we pray all the more in the midst of life's chaos and confusion. That's what God intended anyway.


*Image above is street art in London by the mysterious Banksy. The boy is praying in front of what is supposed to be a stained glass window crafted over graffiti on a building. The irony is awesome.