Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Who is Jesus Christ for us, today?

This week Kirk Smith, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, my bishop, wrote this on his Facebook page.

“Doing some research this afternoon for my convention talk, I came across this great quote from the always thought-provoking theologian Leonard Sweet: ‘Let me say first of all that for me, New Age rhymes with sewage. I have such a low threshold for Gaia worship that in the middle of the movie "Avatar" I had to take a break, so severe was my attack of Gaiarrhea. In fact, I have challenged "new age sensibilities" (which now are known as "integral spirituality" or "Enlightenment," not "New Age") for the way in which they goddify the self and expect others to orbit in a Youniverse that revolves around them as if they were a god. "The Secret" of the universe is not that you can have life your way. "The Secret" is that Jesus is The Way (Colossians 3). Jesus did not come to make us divine. Jesus came to show us how to be authentically what God made us to be--human. Because of the culture in which we live, I have encouraged the daily ritual of starting the day by standing in front of a mirror and saying: "God is God and I am not."

Indeed, Leonard Sweet in thought provoking, however, I think his quote is a sad commentary on the current state of the church universal. His comments of negation, what he is against, are in response to criticism from some evangelical Christians. They say he is a heretic, a “New Age” mystic. The largest amount of arrows being flung at Sweet, are quotes taken from his book, Quantum Spirituality, which he wrote in 1991. In his post, he writes, now twenty years later, he would have not written the book. That is unfortunate. His early books, along with Brian McLaren, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, Matthew Fox, Meister Eckhart, Teillard de Chardin, and others, kept me in the Christian tribe long enough to find the Episcopal Church. Our Church has allowed me to continue my pilgrimage. Traveling with the likes of J.A.T. Robinson, Rowan Williams, Evelyn Underhill, Martin Thornton, William Countryman, Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Carl Jung, Ken Wilber, and many many others. They have shined a light on my path. We are all mystical pilgrims in a new age.

Sweet’s critics accuse him of “New Age mystical heresy” simply because he quoted a few writers they have determined are not orthodox. These same critics have also declared that Sue Monk Kidd, Richard Foster, Rick Warren, and Rob Bell are also heretics. Going to war over what others call you is a losing battle.

Sweet’s response sounds too much like a recantation while standing in the flames of the Inquisitor’s fire licking at his feet. Leonard, my friend, it’s too late. No matter what you say, they will not put out the fire. You are a threat. You made Quantum Spirituality available free on your website. The congregants of your naysayers are reading your books.

My humble advice to you is to walk away. Let it go. We are all someone’s heretic. If you want to repeat something daily in the mirror, try this on for size. “God is God, and I am called to be who God created me to be.” Living into who God calls us to be, can liberate others to be who God has called them to be. You wrote your books to set people like me free. You did. Thank you. Keep writing your heresy.

At the end of Sweet’s post, he quoted an old German (unnamed) schoolmaster, who carved these words over his door. “Dante, Luther, Goethe, Barth, Heiddeger, live here.” Sweet says, “I only want to write one thing over the doorpost to my heart and life, “Jesus Christ lives here.” That’s sweet, Sweet, but doesn’t say much.

We are living in a new age. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who is also not well liked by those in the anti-Sweet crowd, wrote that we are living in the “World Come of Age.” We live in the age when the world is changing so we cannot keep up with the Tsunami Sweet wrote about twenty years ago. Daily, I would prefer to ask Bonhoeffer’s simple yet complex question. “Who is Jesus Christ for me, today?” The emphasis is on, today. My answer to that question, as was Bonhoeffer’s, evolves continually. Because I learn something new every day about my self and about God, Jesus Christ, and the world in which we live, move, and have our being. I learn from scripture, as well as from those who espouse eco-spirituality, feminist spirituality, and Celtic-spirituality, and yes Gaia spirituality, just to name a few.

Dear Bishop, the anti-Sweet crowd would think you are actually a worse heretic than he is. You’ve vocally supported women’s ordination and gay rights. The list could go on, but that’s enough for many to light their fires (including some in our own Church). My Southern Baptist Christology professor, J. Niles Puckett, would say to his critics, “You may believe whatever you like.” I find his words are often my best response. Instead of defending my faith by identifying what I don’t believe in—I continue to do the hard work of learning and trying to communicate, who Jesus Christ is for me, today? Bishop, at the Convention, I would rather hear you lead us into a twenty-first century exploration of Bonhoeffer’s question, much more than hear you quote Leonard Sweet’s desperate confessional attempt to hang onto his readership.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Mainliner's Survival Guide to the Post-denominational World

The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-denominational World
by Derek Penwell at http://derekpenwell.net/
Chalice Press 2014

I had never heard of Derek Penwell until I read his book, The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-denominational World. Now I’m a fan. He has something vitally important to say to the mainline church. Actually, he lays down the gauntlet and challenges its leaders to “embrace (denominational) death as a liberation from having to succeed, and learn how to live,” by “rediscovering the radical Jesus of the Gospels.”

As a seasoned pastor of a Disciples of Christ Church and a lecturer at the University of Louisville, Penwell is well qualified to speak his prophetic word to the mainline Christian church at large. I’m a pastor in the Episcopal Church and I am a part of the community Penwell is addressing. His words are timely.

This book is a response to the overwhelming “vortex of doom” that is consuming the mainline church as it continues to decline towards extension. His ideas will make most denominational leaders cringe. Some will look for a way to dismiss his work. He boldly states that, “Whether mainline churches survive is largely beside the point.”

His point, he writes, is that the church’s constant focus on the problem is feeding the negative downward spiral. Penwell challenges his readers to move their focus beyond an over-reaching desire to save the church and instead to pour their energy into doing God’s work in the world. He says the church should “start celebrating the work of the faithful, and let God worry about the finish line.”

He doesn’t avoid the question of the missing “Nones;” the largest growing segment of young adults who declare they have no faith tradition. Instead, he offers excellent current research as to what the Emerging generation is seeking. He says they have a hunger for a “commitment to theological inclusivity,” that is “suspicious of a universalizing meta-narrative that imposes orthodoxies.” The Emergents have a passion for equality, mission, social justice and a radical distrust of established religious institutions. The younger generations seek community, embrace diversity, and want to explore new spiritual frontiers. Penwell is quick to cite a variety of interfaith sources. He says it is time for the church “to move past ecumenism (and) recognize we live in a pluralistic world.”

His “Survival Guide” challenges the church to create spaces of community by moving beyond their walls and provides practical means to do so. He says, though, it’s less about bars and coffee shops, and more about being authentically present among the people of our towns and cities wherever they hang out. He speaks frankly to church leaders, challenging them to create a theology of inclusivity, embracing the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered, and Queer person. Including them in all aspects of church life. He challenges the church to develop a meaningful theology of creation, which is truly green and relevant. He also questions the notion of certain church leaders who are unwilling to tackle these difficult issues, for fear of losing members by stating, “The church must be more concerned with relinquishing any idea of success that doesn’t begin with death, sacrifices, and laying down. The church must focus on letting go of the need to ensure its future more than on grasping for its survival.”

My only critique of the book is personal. I could have done without the church and American history lesson, harkening the church to the post-American Revolutionary days and the Second Great Awakening. I get it. I understand it. I even enjoy history. But, I doubt it was necessary for him to build his book on the premise that the mainline church has been in this situation before, and confirming God continues to do God’s work despite the climate of the church.

Aside from my own minor pique with Penwell’s book—when I finished it I had a long list of people I hoped would read this excellent work. I wanted “them” to read it because I knew he wrote it for “them.” I didn’t think his book was written to me. I agree with what he wrote. But, by the time I was at the end of writing this review, I realized, indeed, his book was written to me. First, by encouraging me that I am not alone in my thoughts about the church. Second, and more importantly, Derek Penwell has challenged me to dare and be as bold and prophetic. When my resolve gets weak, I’ll need go back and read the book again.