For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Bible

I haven’t written much in awhile, due to a flurry of other writing and speaking engagements that have demanded my attention. One of them occurred last week, when I was invited to present at Distilled Spirit, a conversation about God and life modeled after Theology on Tap. The event was sponsored by a neighboring UCC congregation and held at Epicenter’s Moonshine University, the nation’s only institution dedicated to teaching the art of distilling spirits.

I had a great time presenting about “How My Mind Has Changed about the Bible,” while people sipped bourbon and giant distilling equipment sparkled in the background. Talk about a cool venue! It’s not every pastor who can say that she spoke at Moonshine University. Like the geek I am, I pulled out my camera and took pictures of the whole experience. Explaining myself to the gathered audience, I said, “I have to have proof I did this. Nothing is real until it’s up on Facebook.”

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The distillery at Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky.

The words came lightly at the time, but I have been contemplating them ever since.  Where did that idea come from? Did I really mean to suggest that my experience didn’t count unless it had been shared on Facebook? What does that imply about reality and our relationships through social media?

I traced the root of my comment back to something I had heard (and believed) about the church’s presence in social media. I heard someone remark that the world of the next generation existed online, and if the church wasn’t there, it was as if we didn’t actually exist. Just as the physical building of the church makes its presence real in a neighborhood, its web and social media presence make it real in the online world.

I also remembered hearing an expert in the Millenial Generation, most well known for being digital natives, talk about the way the presence of smartphones in our lives had changed social reality. Through the device, one’s entire network of friends and family and schoolmates and extended acquaintances travels with you everywhere you go. You can share life’s experiences with them in real time, even if they are a continent away. You expect them to be present with you everywhere, and to share in everything.

That’s what I was feeling with my compulsion to share pictures from Distilled Spirit. Through Facebook, I have an extended network of family, friends, and clergy colleagues with whom I share my life. The once-in-a-lifetime experience of speaking at Moonshine University was incomplete until I was able to share it with them.

This is an essential part of the human experience, with a new technological twist. We have always sought new and creative experiences, and we have always turned those experiences into stories and memories to be shared with others. Whether it’s swapping hunting and fishing tales around a campfire, writing letters home, or posting on Facebook, our best experiences are incomplete until they have been transformed from experience into story and shared with others.

News–whether it’s good news, bad news, or Gospel–doesn’t become real until it is shared with others, no matter the means of communication. A soldier at war is alive until the telegram arrives at his or her parents’ home. A relationship is real when it becomes “Facebook official” and you change your online profile. A marriage appears intact until you announce to friends and family that you’re separating.  A pregnancy takes on new dimensions when you start to share the ultrasound pictures. A new job is finally certain when you’re allowed to tell your friends–and your current boss–that you start next week. Even the reality of a loved one’s death only begins to sink in when we have to tell others he or she is gone.

Social media just adds new dimensions to that same reality. You experience something in the world, and then you re-experience it when you share it with others. Just like we can’t wait to see the look on someone’s face when we tell them about a terrific experience, we can’t wait to read our friends comments and replies online.

That’s why I have begun encouraging my congregation to make use of their smartphones in worship. Rather than seeing their desire to take pictures, tweet my sermon or check Facebook during worship as a distraction, I see it as a way of making the experience real and memorable, owning it as a part of their life story. I see it as part of spreading the Gospel good news. Borrowing an idea from Michael Piazza at the Center for Progressive Renewal, I now invite the congregation to “check in on Facebook and then check in with God” as they listen to the opening prelude. Sharing the experience of worship at our church with their online community–even if it means looking down at their smartphone during my sermon–makes it more real, not less. It’s not a blanket call for people to be playing with their smartphones during church, but it is a recognition that reaching over to grab the iPhone might be a way to go deeper with the message, not to ignore it.

Even more, it can be a great opportunity for evangelism. If an experience is only memorable and meaningful when we tell the story to others, by all means, we should be using every means at our disposal to facilitate that telling about God. Let us cement the Gospel story in the story of our lives by placing the church’s events alongside the first day of school, lunch at a fancy restaurant, feet at the beach, family at the holidays and funny cat photos in our Instagram, Facebook or Twitter feed. While there are limits to be sure, perhaps we should encourage our gathered congregations to integrate their spiritual and social lives by “checking in” at church and tweeting lines from songs and sermons. Our online lives enhance and expand our real-life experiences because we can share them with friends.

So, look everybody! Here’s me talking about the Bible at Moonshine University. How cool is that? You never know where Jesus is going to send you.

Here's me at Moonshine University!

Here’s me at Moonshine University!

A child-safe version of the Bible features a cartoon Jesus on the cover. But a faith based on this two-dimensional caricature won’t hold up in a grown-up world.

At church on Sunday, B got a giveaway bible, just a little pocket New Testament that had been left over from a previous event. He is a budding reader, so he came home that day and sat down to start reading it. J and I were both intrigued with what he might possibly grasp, and wondered how to interpret the gospels with him.

Ever the ardent atheist, J chuckled and remarked, “You know, it always cracks me up that your faith, that the Bible, is not age appropriate. Your God is not safe for children.”

He’s right, of course. From Cain and Abel to the mass slaughter of Canaanites to the stoning of an adulteress to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Bible is loaded with the kind of violence that we would ban from video games and television programs for children.  Biblical clans generally set bad examples for the “traditional family values” that we want to instill in our children—Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, sisters Leah and Rachel try to destroy each other over a man, Paul says it’s better not to get married to focus on the Gospel.  Even Jesus disses his family when they try to get in the way of his ministry. Hardships like poverty, disease, natural disaster and corrupt rulers fill every page.

“Last Supper,” by Fritz Eichenberg, shows that Jesus came to dine among the poor, not the pretty.

Then there’s all the sex stuff—and not just the beautiful erotic poetry in Song of Solomon. Abraham tells his wife Sarah to pretend she is his sister and become the king’s mistress. Visitors are threatened with rape in Sodom and Gomorrah. Onan is struck down for “spilling his seed on the ground.” (Yes, that means what you think it means.) Tamar dresses up as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into getting her pregnant. And we haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet.

God’s story is clearly rated R. When we introduce children to God, we carefully select the stories of Jesus welcoming children and multiplying loaves and fishes, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the lions, Moses and the ten commandments, Abraham and Sarah laughing at the impossible promise of a baby. We carefully omit the content that is inappropriate for young children, and avoid the parts that would be considered NSFW* as a Youtube video.

While J intended his remark as a gentle taunt, I am proud to claim an R-rated God and an R-rated faith. My life and my world have no need of a squeaky-clean God with a scripture full of nice and pleasant stories. Violence, sex, poverty, broken families, twisted relationships abound in the world we live in. They weigh heavy on the lives of people everywhere and threaten to drown them in despair.  We need a God who can enter that kind of world and still find a way for the divine light of hope, love and peace shine through. I do not need the Divine Disney to create a magic kingdom insulated from poverty, violence, sex and oppression. I need a God who comes to dwell among the grit, the grime and the graphic and somehow finds a way to redeem it all in the end.

“Pieta” by Paul Fryer, a graphic reminder that Christ came to show love to the worst people in the worst circumstances.

The R-rated story of God in the Bible makes possible a mature faith for an adult world. Stories of violence show me that God can go with us into the valley of the shadow of death. Broken families help us to know that we are not alone in our imperfect relationships, and God knows our struggles to love and be loved. Sex in the Bible reveals that intimacy is a gift from God, and sin only enters sexuality with power, violence, deception and manipulation. The prominence of the poor, the ill and the outcast in the Bible teach us that hardship and oppression cannot separate us from God’s love, nor should it separate us from loving one another. The prominence of sinful biblical heroes reminds us that God loves us and God can use even our messed-up lives for good and holy purposes.

The world is not rated G, so neither is our God. The R-rated God comes to R-related people in an R-rated world, to change the “R” from restricted to redeemed, by the power of love. I’ll claim that rating for my faith any day.

*NSFW is code for “not safe for work,” and usually applied to videos or online materials with graphic content.

Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, by Marcus J. Borg, HarperOne, 2006, 343 pp.

As I prepared to travel in the Holy Land, I thought I would want a historical resource book (or two, but I never even opened Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography) to accompany the places and Gospel readings in the experience. I didn’t dig into it until the final few hours of the airplane ride home, so it became more of a way to assimilate all the information. Much to my surprise and delight, Borg also offered a way to process the faith experiences and God-moments that I experienced on the journey. As he has consistently done in recent years, Borg writes about both the historical Jesus and the living Christ with faith and insight.

Much of the content of the book was familiar to me, having read many of Borg’s other books such as Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, The Heart of Christianity, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and The Last Week. Borg covers his familiar territory about the pre-Easter versus the post-Easter Jesus, the earlier paradigm versus the emerging paradigm of Christianity, basic Gospel source theory and the difference between John and the synoptics. After this familiar territory, he draws on his lifetime of study of the Gospels, their history and social context to draw a portrait of Jesus in his world.

Borg begins with the factors that influenced Jesus, including the domination system of imperial Rome and the Jewish practices of his day. He then draws out how Jesus experienced God, and portrays him as a Jewish mystic. Only then does he enter the synoptic vision of who Jesus was and what his ministry was about, giving a summary of the pre-Easter Jesus as a Jewish mystic, healer and exorcist, wisdom teacher, prophet and movement initiator. Examining the parables and aphorisms of Jesus, Borg then details what Jesus taught and believed about God. I appreciated the way Borg separated Jesus from God in this way. Christian doctrine claims (and I affirm) that Jesus was God incarnate, and so we often look at Jesus without looking as closely at the one to whom he pointed. Borg pulls out and clarifies what Jesus taught us about what God loves—God loves justice, and yearns for shalom in this world.

Borg summarizes Jesus’ message and mission as an invitation into a way of life, a way that centers on God, dies to self, repents and sees with new eyes, and loves what God loves, which is the world. Christ’s crucifixion was a culmination of following that way, confronting the domination system and overturning conventional wisdom. The stories of the resurrection have a two-fold purpose: they vindicate Jesus’ death, and they continue the movement. His followers realized that the way of Jesus did not die with him, that they still felt his presence among them, and continued the work he had begun.

What I appreciate about Borg, as always, is his ability to hold both the scholarly conclusions about the historical Jesus and the faithful conclusions about the living Christ. As he says about the Easter stories specifically:

The factual question is left open. A parabolic reading affirms: believe what you want to about whether the story happened this way—now let’s talk about what the story means. (280)

That was exactly the perspective I needed upon my return from the Holy Land. As I was reading Borg’s book, I was able to understand and interpret the scenes in the Gospel in new and deeper ways, having seen the land and the ruins with my own eyes. He helped me sort out, from all I had seen and heard, what were likely claims of the pre-Easter Jesus and what were the church’s claims about the post-Easter Jesus. Yet he does not dismiss the post-Easter Jesus as less-than or unimportant. The post-Easter Jesus, the living Christ of the church, is the ongoing experience of the mystical presence of God, like Jesus himself experienced.

As I said many times on my pilgrimage, I came looking for the Jesus of history, but I discovered instead the living Christ of faith. Borg describes it this way, specifically describing the story of Emmaus:

The risen Jesus opens up the meaning of scripture. The risen Jesus is known in the breaking of bread. The risen Jesus journeys with his followers, even when they don’t know it. (286)

This book was a great way for me to relive my pilgrimage experiences and the Gospel readings. Instead of just reminding me of the limits of historical knowledge, Borg gave me language to describe my experiences of the post-Easter Jesus while in the Holy Land.

His writing is a great gift to those of us who accept and appreciate the work of historical-critical biblical scholarship, who incorporate its wisdom and insights into our theology and understandings of scripture, yet still nurture a living faith that believes encounters with the living Christ are still possible, and strive to follow the way of Jesus even now.

Provoking the Gospel: Methods to Embody Biblical Storytelling through Drama by Richard W. Swanson, Pilgrim Press, 2004, 136 pp.

I purchased this book at the UCC General Synod this summer, and I had no idea how timely and helpful it would be. During the months of August and September, I preached a sermon series entitled “Living in Tents,” focused on the Hebrew Bible stories from Genesis and Exodus, loosely staying with the cycle of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. Rather than attempt to read a large amount of text from the Bible, I used the children’s sermon time to engage in biblical storytelling about the narratives. I called it a “story for all ages,” and took 10-15 minutes to give a good, thorough telling of the biblical story, beginning with Joseph and moving on through the death of Moses this Sunday.

I took some storytelling workshops way back in college, but I don’t really know much about the art of storytelling. Swanson’s book was a great way to engage me, as a beginner, in thinking about how to tell the scripture story in a new way, even though I did not follow his precise method (or even use the New Testament texts he highlights).

Swanson makes a case for the embodiment of the Gospel stories:

Biblical interpretation must concern itself first of all with bodies, not ideas. The characters in these stories are not symbolic ciphers; they are bodies, they are people, and their interactions take place in the physical and ethical space of the real world… In biblical stories people look each other in the eye and act. These acts sometimes heal and sometimes betray, sometimes protect and sometimes abuse. (viii)

He continues: “We need to poke these old stories, to poke them and provoke them a little. And nothing does that textual poking and provoking like public, physical performance.” (viii) This was definitely my experience in preparing to tell the story each week. Reading over the familiar stories with the intent to tell them drew my attention to the physical aspects in a new way. I had to imagine Pharoah’s stance and voice, put myself in the midst of each plague, respond to the burning bush. Learning to tell the story (instead of read it) put both me and the congregation in a different relationship to the characters in it.

Provoking the Gospel is both a “why-to” and a “how-to” book—both making the case for biblical storytelling, and teaching the reader how to get started. Swanson’s method uses a group process, with an ensemble experimenting and engaging the story together. He incorporates theater exercises, body movement, experimentation and script-writing into his process. He encourages making mistakes, taking risks and getting it wrong along the path to provoking the surprising presence of God in these familiar Gospel stories. Each chapter contains a well-informed theoretical exploration for the “why-to,” followed by a list of exercises and steps for the “how-to.” Although I did not follow these instructions, I still found the exercises helpful in beginning the process as a solo storyteller.

Both Swanson and the process of doing storytelling in my congregation have convinced me that we should be making this a part of our worship and teaching on a regular basis. If we want an embodied, vital life of faith, we need to share with people an embodied, vital version of the Gospel. Storytelling is what God’s people have always done to share the good news. It’s what Jesus did to share his message. We need to follow their example and tell the stories over and over again in new ways.

Sometimes, I need to take time early in the week to express my disagreements and resentments toward a passage of scripture. It is my hope that, by Sunday, these frustrations can be transformed into a helpful, insightful struggle to share with others, or at least be set aside to make way for the Gospel. This is definitely one of those venting kind of reflections.

The Visitation, Juan Correa De Vivar

I am trying to be loving toward Matthew and Joseph this year, but I have always felt resentful about this passage. We get so little in the Bible about women and their faithful leadership in answering God’s call. Luke gives us the very best in his story of Mary—her friendship with Elizabeth, the image of babes leaping in their wombs, the revolutionary Magnificat that turns social order on its head, the humble birth in a stable in the company of shepherds. (I read a great post this week about women shepherds that you should not miss—and make sure to read the first comment too.) In spite of the problems with equating women’s faithfulness with eschewing sexuality, Luke’s Mary is a powerful woman who negotiates her own faith and her own relationship with God.

Matthew’s Mary, on the other hand, is a nobody. She doesn’t act or speak at all, nor does God speak to her. Her betrothal to Joseph sounds like a traditional arranged marriage in which she did not exercise choice. Matthew’s “his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph” sounds like someone else did the engaging. Even her pregnancy happens in passive voice: “she was found to be with child,” as though someone else even did the finding for her. Ugh.

This year, the first line really irritated me: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” The passage then goes on to tell about a discovered pregnancy, a plan for quiet dismissal, angel-filled dreams and a sexless marriage. No matter what you may say about the uniqueness of Jesus or virginity of Mary, no baby comes into this world solely through dreaming and angels and quiet calm. Babies come with sweat and blood and agony and mess, with crying and cringing and backaches and pain. No, St. Matthew, the birth of Jesus most certainly did NOT take place in that way. No matter how idyllic it was, Mary still carried that child, she labored and pushed and held that messy infant to her breast.

So my complaint here is clearly with Matthew, not with Joseph. Joseph behaves with complete decorum in the first half of the story. He discovers his fiancée is carrying someone else’s baby. He could have let pride and pain get the best of him, and sought revenge against her. His revelation of her pregnancy could have ruined her life and the life of her child, condemning them to a life of public disgrace and chronic poverty. Joseph is not so cruel or selfish, and makes plans to quietly release Mary and himself from the previous marriage contract. He wishes her no ill-will, and demonstrates nothing but kindness.

The Dream of St. Joseph, Rembrandt

In the dream from God, however, Joseph is asked to do better than kindness and an absence of ill will. Joseph is asked to love Mary and love her baby as though they were his own. God challenges Joseph to move beyond being a kind and decent person, and asks him to become an obedient servant to God’s will. Joseph rises to the challenge. He proceeds with the wedding, and raises the child as his own, participating in naming the child Jesus.

Kindness, niceness and decency are good things, but they are not all God asks of us. God asked Joseph to move beyond decency and into love, faithfulness and obedience. The kind of love God demands from Joseph is not rooted in feelings (which can be fickle) or sentimentality (which can be shallow). God is asking Joseph to care for this woman and her child, to share his money and his life with them, to make sacrifices for their security, to be there for them in good times and bad ones, to be unrelenting in his care and concern for their well-being. That is the kind of love God demands from Joseph.

When that child Jesus grows up, he repeatedly challenges his followers to love in the same way. Jesus is always telling us that the kind and decent thing is not enough—God wants us to love one another. To go the extra mile, to hand over our cloak as well as our coat, to tend to the poor and sick, to love even our enemies. We often look at those challenges from Jesus as though they were impossible, as though that kind of love is beyond our human reach. But Jesus knew better. He knew we humans had the capacity to live out that kind of faithful, obedient love—he had seen his father Joseph give that kind of love to him for his whole life. (Put Matthew’s Joseph together with Luke’s strong portrayal of Mary, and you get two amazingly faithful and courageous parents.)

No wonder Jesus called God “Abba, Father.” The love of that Heavenly Father and the love of his earthly father must have been forever linked in his mind and heart. May we also hear God’s challenge to love—and respond with faithfulness, courage and obedience in loving one another.

Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 35:1-10

I am struck in my initial reading by the audience for this passage from Isaiah. The prophet is declaring joy and courage and gladness, but for whom? For the wilderness, the dry lands, the weak hands, the feeble knees, the fearful hearts. Those are the places and peoples that probably need joy the most, but they also seem the least likely to find it, at least in their current condition. Usually, we believe that joy is something that comes after—after we have powerful hands and strong knees and courageous hearts, after we have overcome our fears. Then we have joy.

But Isaiah here, at least at the beginning, seems to point to something else. He declares: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (Isaiah 35:1) I think Isaiah might be describing the possibility of joy before all those things happen, while we are still weak, feeble and fearful. If that’s what he’s talking about, then I’m definitely listening—because weak, feeble and fearful feels a lot more like my life most of the time than strong, powerful and courageous does.

It’s the image of the crocus that speaks to me of joy “before and during,” rather than only the joy that comes “after. “ I don’t know much about flowers, but I do know what a crocus is, and when it blooms. The crocus is a tiny stump of a flower, just a few inches off the ground, and it comes in all kinds of colors—purple, yellow, lavendar, white. This ferocious little flower is most renown because it blooms when nothing else does. Before the snow has even melted away, before the trees show the smallest bud or the grass hints at green, you can find crocuses poking their heads out and displaying their colors for the world. And after the fall has taken its toll, when leaves have fallen and trees are bare and grass is withered, the crocus appears again, defiantly spring-like with its colorful petals and green stems amidst the grays and browns on the landscape.

The second half of the passage speaks of more traditional rejoicing. Of course we rejoice when the blind can see and the deaf can hear and the lame can walk. Of course we rejoice when the drought is ended and the green growth returns. When we have security from lions and beasts, when we are on the right path and nothing can deter us, when we get to go home again—of course the sorrow and sighing flee away when that happens. The second half of this passage from Isaiah reassures us that that day of rejoicing will come, that God’s promises are true and God will make those things happen, and we will rejoice when they do someday.

While that is an important reminder, what’s far more compelling to me is that crocus, which seems to tell us that we don’t need to wait for all that stuff to happen to find joy. A joy that, like a crocus, blooms when it is illogical, impossible, inconceivable—that’s the joy I need. A joy that doesn’t wait for me to get myself together, to clear away the icy relationships or nurture the fallen prayer practices back into life or fix the withered courage in my heart. A joy that comes before we are healed and fixed and organized and prepared and reconciled and righteous and whole and holy. That kind of joy could only come from God.

I have to think that our God of Christmas incarnation is a God of that crocus-like joy. After all, God did not wait for the world to get its act together before sending Christ. Mary and Joseph didn’t have their lives arranged just right to welcome a baby. They didn’t even have a proper place to stay in Bethlehem. The shepherds were terrified of the good news, and certainly did not prepare themselves for the holy. Yet God came anyway, the tiny babe was born, and everyone rejoiced. A crocus in the snow, a spring of water in the desert, joy in spite of fear and doubt. Feeble knees and weak hands and fearful hearts, there is joy for you as well.  Flowers bloom even in the desert. Joy is possible even amid doubt and fear and struggle. God comes to us just as we are, right now.

Thank God, because I don’t think I’d find joy any other way.

Highlighted passage: Romans 15:4-13

This week is all about hope, a word that has endured a lot of attention in recent years. When the Obama campaign used “Hope” as its campaign theme in 2008, those who supported the campaign rallied around hope as our solution and salvation—even when the campaign never clearly defined what we were hoping for. Of course, as is natural in a political struggle, opponents of the Obama campaign attacked not only the candidate, but the campaign theme. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and others began to mock the concept of hope as a way of mocking the Obama campaign. Hope, they said, was “an excuse for not trying,” a flimsy, lazy concept that replaces the real work of improving the world.

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, as Christians, the concept of hope remains critical to our faith. We are a people of hope. Especially in this Advent season, we talk about hope in God’s coming into our midst with love and new life and salvation in the form of a tiny baby in Bethlehem.

The kind of hope we Christians practice does not resemble the hope of politics, whether from the right or the left. It is not some vague sentiment that things will get better, that everyone will be happier, that life will be easier. The passage from Romans tells us what we are hoping for: “grant you to live in harmony with one another … that together you may with one voice glorify God.” We are hoping for unity among human beings, so that all creation might praise God with one voice.

Neither is hope an excuse for inaction or laziness, believing that things will get better without your help or involvement. It is not a wish that we toss half-heartedly into a fountain with little faith in its eventual fruition. Again from Romans: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” Hope is instructive, it shapes us and encourages us to undertake the challenging work of living in unity for the praise of God.

One of my favorite articulations of Christian hope is from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He delivered those words on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol to a foot-weary crowd at the end of a five-day march to Montgomery. They had endured great suffering and made great sacrifices for the cause of civil rights.  His speech was entitled, “Our God is Marching On!” King was inspiring hope in answer to the rhetorical question, “how long?” How long must we wait for justice? Not long, he said, because God is in charge, and God will not let hate rule forever. That’s what Christian hope is.

Christian hope is the quiet, determined confidence that God’s promises will prevail, that God is in charge of the universe and God’s love will not end in failure. Christian hope is what inspires and sustains real action to help build God’s kingdom here on earth. Like praying for peace, praying with hope moves the one praying into deeper commitment to a life of love.

Ours is not an unfounded hope. It rests on a firm foundation—the legacy of God’s saving action and fulfilled promises throughout history. We hope in God for the future because we have known God’s faithfulness in the past. In Romans, Paul points to “the promises to the patriarchs.” God promised Noah that the earth would never again be destroyed, and God delivered on that promise. God promised Abraham offspring and land, and God delivered on that promise. God promised the Hebrew people deliverance from Egypt, and God delivered on that promise. God promised sustenance in the wilderness, and God delivered on that promise. God promised that Jesus would be raised from the dead, and God delivered on that promise.

We can look to the past and see God’s faithfulness because God’s promises come true over and over again. Our hope is founded in a God who acts to save us time and time again, and we therefore believe God will act to save us again now and in the future. That’s what hope is–determined confidence that the same God that answered the prayers of our ancestors will answer our prayers as well. God promised that we will have new life, and God will deliver. God promised that the end of this world will be with God, and God will deliver. God promised that peace and justice will reign, and God will deliver.

Daniel Burnham, the late 19th century architect responsible for the design of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that inspired the City Beautiful movement, said the following:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.

Advent reminds us of God’s biggest promises: that peace and justice will prevail, that human beings will live in unity, that new and eternal life are possible, that we will be saved from sin and destruction. It is a season for robust hope, and for letting that hope inspire big plans that provoke and inspire action now and in the future, for the future. After all, our hope rests in a great God, who fulfills promises and leads us in the path of unity, peace and justice. We worship an all-powerful, all-loving God. We need to make plans and dream dreams and set hopes that are worthy of God’s greatness. Any less than abundant hope is not worthy of the greatness of our God.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Part III: Moving toward Holistic Faith Formation

This is part III of a discussion of adult Christian education, particularly the problem of low attendance. It originates in response to this post from Jan Edmiston at A Church for Starving Artists. It begins with Part I: Is Christian Education a Cultural Thing? and continues with Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and Imagining a Different Way

We need to move away from a school-based model of Christian education and toward a holistic faith formation. How do we do that? What does it look like?

A holistic approach to faith formation takes everything we do in the life of the church—worship, mission, meeting, meals, service, fellowship, and (of course) classes and bible studies—and sees it as an environment for experiential learning about the Christian life and the content of the Christian faith. Christianity was originally called “The Way,” because our faith is about a way of life in community. Whenever we gather as a church, we are instructing people in The Way of Jesus Christ.

Faith is more than an intellectual assent, an idea we believe in. Faith is a commitment to a way of life. Our instruction in the life of the faith is not solely an exercise in cognitive understanding. It is a discipleship, a disciplining of the body, mind and spirit into the shape of Christ. Hence the term “faith formation,” because we are not educating people with knowledge, we are forming them as a certain kind of person called Christian, one who practices generosity, compassion, worship, prayer, service, study, community, and hope.

What does that look like, in real terms in the life of the church?

At my church, we are working to understand everything we do as an act of faith formation. Our meetings, our worship, our mission activities, our prayer groups—everything we do is a chance to form all who gather in the shape of Christ. We are also working to take the Bible and faith formation to them, rather than expecting people to come to us. Here are several examples:

  • The meetings of our governing body, the Council, begin with at least 30 minutes of bible study and checking in. We take time to build community by listening to what’s going on in people’s lives. We understand this meeting as a time of learning and discernment, and we study together in preparation to lead and decide on behalf of the church. Many of those who serve on Council would never attend a traditional Bible study, but look forward to the learning and conversation at the Council table.
  • The Rite of Confirmation is an important milestone in faith formation for our young people, usually of middle-school age. In the past, preparation for confirmation was a class taught by the pastor that included bible lessons and catechism. Three years ago, we changed our understanding of the purpose of confirmation instruction. Instead of teaching our youth about Christianity, we wanted to help them experience the Christian way of life. We still had a class to study the Bible and the United Church of Christ, but we also required that they attend worship regularly, help lead worship occasionally, participate in service projects and experience all the major events in the church’s life. Each youth was assigned their own mentor, with whom they met regularly over the course of 18 months to talk about what it was like to live as a Christian. Of the ten youth we confirmed in that class, seven can be found in church almost every week, two years later. The remaining three still participate regularly, but not as often as they did during the confirmation preparation period.
  • We are still working on how to incorporate more reflection into our acts of service. The church hosts a weekly soup kitchen, and various neighborhood churches take turns preparing and serving the meal. There is always a practice of saying grace before the meal is served, and there is a custom among some groups to dine with the guests. When it is our church’s turn, we also invite one of the founders to gather the work team to say a few words about why this ministry is important, why it is grounded in our faith and how it impacts us and those we serve. It’s not complicated or lengthy, but it centers our actions in Christ. I would like to grow this kind of reflection, so that the team gathers for a brief (5-10 minute) scripture reflection before serving the meal. I hope to use this model in other service projects as well.

How about your church? In what ways to you practice holistic faith formation? What ideas do you have for engaging the task of forming disciples in the way of Christ?

There will be one more part to this series: Part IV: Engaging Scripture Reflection with Creative Delivery Methods

Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and a Imagining a Different Way

This is part II of a discussion of adult Christian education, particularly the problem of low attendance. It originates in response to this post from Jan Edmiston at A Church for Starving Artists, and begins with Part I: Is Christian Education a Cultural Thing?

A Church for Starving Artists started a great list of reasons people do not come to adult Christian education activities:

  • People like the idea of adult education but they don’t necessarily want to participate. They believe the church should offer such spiritual enrichment but they don’t want to attend themselves. Any church worth its salt offers Bible studies and book discussion groups. But they’re for someone else.
  • People are too busy (and although they’d like to attend, they are simply too tired/overscheduled.)
  • Parents don’t want to disrupt their children’s schedules (even though free childcare is offered.)
  • They simply don’t want to attend because the classes sound boring/are led by someone who annoys them.

I think those are the biggest ones, and well-stated. I would add the following:

  • No supporting culture of education, as I explained in my previous post.
  • People believe they don’t know enough to participate in Bible study, and/or fear their ignorance will be exposed. (I hear this one a lot in my context.)
  • People don’t think the Bible or the classes relate to their daily lives in real or meaningful ways. (This is a variation on “boring,” but a little more precise.)

Here is the problem: no matter what the reason people don’t attend, we clergy generally think that they should. Most churchgoers think they should too. And we all generally agree that churches should offer Bible study and clergy should be involved in teaching. When no one comes, we all feel guilty and discouraged that we are not doing what we should.

In general, we are right: Christians should study the Bible, and we should all be learning more about the scriptures throughout our lives. We Protestants, whether we trace our roots to Luther, Calvin, Wesley or another reformer, share a commitment to meeting God directly through the scriptures. We are people of the Book.

Where we go wrong is in limiting our conceptions of what that means and how it can happen. In most congregations, the only way people intentionally engage with scriptures outside of worship is in a classroom setting. Whether it’s a traditional bible class, workshop, seminar, lecture or study, everything we offer fits within a paradigm that looks something like school. We even refer to this work of engaging the scriptures as “Christian education.”

To borrow from Paulo Friere, we continue to practice a banking model of education when it comes to faith. Whether a lecture or a group-led bible study, Christian education seems to be designed to help people acquire and store more information about Christianity and the Bible, its contents and history (or theology, or church history, or denominational identity, or spiritual practices, or anything). Even if the class itself helps people engage a spiritual practice of connecting with God, there is still an emphasis on providing them information or tools to store in their memory banks and draw out for later use in prayer, decision-making or evangelism.

Instead of Christian education, I propose the church needs to engage in holistic faith formation. Our task as clergy (and as the church) is to teach, but we are not simply responsible for teaching people about the Bible. We are supposed to be nurturing disciples in the Christian life, which includes prayer, service, study, leadership, worship, generosity and much more. That kind of formation is not ideally suited to the classroom setting, yet too often churches rely on Christian education to accomplish formation. When no one comes to classes, we get (understandably) anxious that they are not growing in their faith or increasing their discipleship. We want people to come to classes for formation, then go forth to practice service, leadership, prayer and generosity after they have been educated in them. When people do not participate in Christian education classes, for any or all of the reasons above, we still send them out as leaders, evangelists and servants, but rely on their secular training in the work world and try to steer them toward biblical principles as best we can.

I believe that the time has come to engage in a practice of ministry and faith formation that attends to the whole life of discipleship, and sees every aspect of our church life as a time of faith formation—which includes biblical teaching, reflection and discipleship coaching. The educational model is inadequate for the task, especially when people do not come for so many reasons.

I’ll share some ideas about what holistic faith formation might look like in Part III, coming soon.

What are your thoughts?

Last week, Jan Edmiston, over on her wonderful blog A Church for Starving Artists, wrote about the challenge of low attendance at worship and other church events. She discussed adult Christian education as one of the chief places where church’s struggle with low attendance, and speculates about why.  I have been thinking a lot about this issue myself, and appreciate her post prompting me to think some more. I have a lot to say, so I’m going to divide it into a few shorter posts.

Part I: Is Adult Christian Education a Cultural Thing?

I struggle mightily with what to do about adult Christian education in my current setting. In my last church, as an associate pastor I taught a Sunday morning Bible study that grew from 10-15 participants to 25-30 participants every week. I started a reading group that tackled Borg, Bonhoeffer, Brueggemann, Pagels and more, and attracted 10-20 people every week. I created short-term workshops and evening programs that were popular and well attended. There was a culture of Christian education there, and people craved opportunities to read, study, reflect and discuss. The church worshiped with an average of 300 people every Sunday.

When I arrived in my current position, I tried similar strategies. The church itself is smaller, worshiping with only 80 on Sundays, but our general level of participation in activities is high. Sunday morning classes started out with 5-6 people, and dwindled to 2-3 within a month. Evening programs, workshops and short-term studies suffered the same fate. Those who attended gave high praise for the class, but other interests always pulled them away. I decided that it was not a good use of my time to prepare and teach for less than 5 people week in and week out, especially after those who were attending felt disappointed that our numbers were so small. It was often just me and one other couple.

Having spent a lot of time considering why it worked so well in growing one church and not in another, I believe it is as simple as a cultural difference. My first church was downtown in a large, northeastern city where education was everything. The members of the church placed a high value on education as an intrinsic good. They were avid readers and took classes in all sorts of topics, including faith. My current church is in a small town on the line between the south and the midwest. The members of the church are hard-working doers. While they value education, they see it as a means for future advancement, rather than a good in itself. While people read the newspaper or an occasional novel,  they prefer to spend their free time with family rather than taking classes in something.

I think this dichotomy is not unique to me and my particular churches. I know many churches that have grown by offering in-depth Christian education programming for adults, and many other churches that are quite vital and thriving, but cannot get adult Bible study programs off the ground. I suspect that these wider cultural influences may be a factor. These cultural differences do not necessarily reflect people’s educational background, wealth, class or race. Rural congregations with few college educated members often have thriving Sunday school programs, and suburban churches full of professionals may have none.

It’s about the cultural and community support for education. If the people in our communities are not invested in learning for the sake of learning, it is a special challenge to engage them in learning for the sake of faith. In people’s busy lives, our Christian education programs are competing with many other interests. If the environment does not encourage time spent in study at all, how much more challenging is it to value and prioritize Christian study?

What are your thoughts?

Next up:

Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and Why All These Reasons Demand a Cultural Change in Christian Education

Part III: Moving toward Wholistic Faith Formation, and New Delivery Methods for Bible Teaching


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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