MILLENNIALS, THE CREATIVE CLASS AND THE CHURCH

A new television series aired this week.  Adding to the plethora of shows about saving and fixing restaurants and bars,  ‘Church Rescue’ features three church consultants who help local congregations improve their mission, build their flock, resurrect their mission and market, and find ways to improve their offering.

From Episode 1 of ‘Church Rescue’
Mondays at 10pm on the National Geographic Channel

Congregations and faith-based organizations are facing a storm of issues, not the least of which are the new economic realities of this 21st century.  These changes feel scary and there’ll be a greater deal of turbulence to come, but the reality is pretty simple: the old, established world and worldview and, add to that, economy – an economy in many ways created with no small amount of blood, sweat and tears by visionaries like Henry Ford; the economy which led to the birth of an American middle class – is coming to an end.[1]

The world as we know it has shifted.  And we are shifting with it.  But we’re not alone.  Take the Millenials, for instance, the generation of young adults who were born in the late 1980s and 90s.  This first generation to come of age in the new millennium – hence their name – will also be the first generation in modern times to make less money than their parents.  They’re not lazy or narcissistic, and it’s not that they’re ineffectual, having been coddled by their so-called ‘helicopter parents.’  It’s that what the institutional Christian church is dealing with now, as a first-world, not-for-profit, somewhat secularized institution, the members of this generation been dealing with their entire adult life.  Ever since the early 1970s, since just before they were born, there’s been an increasing and encroaching wealth gap in America along with a fundamental stagnation, if not regression in the economy.  Around that time, the mainline institutional church had already measured its high-water mark, being aware because their numbers were sliding downward.

Here’s a thought: why don’t we, the church, learn from the members of the first generation that is, already, living into that new world, a situation, for them, that isn’t better or worse or changed but is pretty much reality?

The Millenials know, firsthand, what economic stagnation and regression feels like.  On the whole, they’re incredibly well-educated; after all, their parents told them that college and graduate degrees were key to success.  But “the price of attending a public four-year college rose 54% from 1998 to 2008 while the typical American household earned less in 2008 than it did a decade earlier, adjusted for inflation [sources: College Board, Leonhardt]. Therefore, to pay for the education touted by parents, teachers and the government as critical to future success, millennials took on massive debt, a record-breaking $35,200 on average for each 2013 U.S. college graduate.”[2]  These young adults have also been hit hardest by the nation’s worse economic collapse since the Great Depression.  Because those Baby Boomers who were thinking about retiring sometime in the first decade of the new millennium held on to their positions, being suddenly faced with diminishing nest-eggs, the debt-laden Millienials, who thought they could get a good job to pay off their student loans,  found themselves facing huge unemployment or under-employment.

What the American economy has realized – the 2010 census revealed that overall household income, across the board, has stagnated  – Millenials have been dealing with their entire adult lives and most middle-class Americans have faced for at least a generation.  According to The Economist, “Current incomes are at roughly the level of the late 1970s. [But] the cost of everything from housing to education has risen steadily in recent decades. From a real income perspective [for] the median household, the picture is one of a generation of stagnation.”[3]  “From 2000 to 2010, when many millennials entered the workforce, median household incomes fell for the first time since World War II,” Dave Roos adds, continuing: “It’s hard to make more money than your parents when jobs are paying less for the same work.  The wealth gap between older and younger people has also widened significantly over the past 30 years. A 30-year-old in 2013 is worth 21 percent less than a 30-year-old in 1983. Meanwhile, the net worth of the average 60-year-old today is more than twice as high as 1983. In other words, young people keep getting poorer, while old folks get richer.”[4]

But there’s hope and I’d say it’s real, Christian hope.  When polled, the Millenials report astonishingly high degrees of happiness, contentment and optimism.  According to the Pew Research Center, “a whopping 88% of people ages 18 to 34 said they had enough money or would have enough in the future to meet their long-term financial goals. …Even among those who said they were unemployed and financially strapped, 75% said they would someday have enough money. Overall, nearly three out of four believed they would achieve their goals in life — or already had — which was slightly more than among older adults,” the Los Angeles Times reported, quoting Kim Parker, associate director of the Pew project: “It’s hard to imagine a time when there was this level of optimism among a group so hard hit by economic conditions,” Parker said.[5]  To find out why their optimism is so high, look at the way the Pew survey question was worded, Roos cautioned: ‘Do you now earn enough money to lead the kind of life you want, or not?’ “The Pew survey found that the youngest generation is surprisingly old-school in its life priorities,” Roos wrote; “Millennials chiefly want to be good parents, raise happy children and give back to society. How much money is ‘enough’ to meet those admirable, but not necessarily expensive goals? That amount will likely be different for everybody.”

The Millenials will earn less than their parents, according to the old economic model, but they are also the first generation in a long time to be engaged in creating a wholly new, substantially different world and, as a result, a newly ordered economy.  That explains why, according to Roos, “their elders are less hopeful for them. Fifty-four percent of Americans over the age of 55 thought young people today were unlikely to have a better life than their parents, compared with 42% of those ages 18 to 34.  Over the last two decades, people in their 50s and 60s have tended to be less upbeat about the chances of their children living as well as they do, according to data from the General Social Survey.”[6]  What the Millenials’ Baby Boom parents name pessimistically as loss is really just something they fundamentally cannot see.  They can’t see that the old, ‘Fordian’ economy has passed away.  They can’t see that, perhaps, such an economy is not the be-all and end-all of the world, itself, and they can’t see that something else, something creative, may very well be emerging out of the rubble heap of the old order.  They can’t see that that something new is, in fact, emerging.[7]

The world as we know it has shifted.  And I want to step out here and say, in fact, God is in this change.  The excitement embedded in the new ‘creative economy’, to borrow the compelling phrase from economist Richard Florida, and the ways in which social media is just the tip of the iceberg of these emergent voices is reason enough, for me, why their optimism holds real hope – real Christian hope – for our planet and society and, yes, for Christ’s church.  For the first time in a long time, there are adults who know how to cross-pollinate ideas, how to truly collaborate without fear of ownership or sabotage, how to interact and ‘friend’ others – regardless of whether they work for the same company, went to the same school or share the same politics – and how to find a greater, common good and enter freely into relationships with people of different backgrounds, races, religions, traditions, and sexual orientations.

You better believe this is going to change the church, the way the institution we created in modern memory and beefed up in very recent years operates and functions.  You better believe that this will feel, to many, like unsteady turbulence.  With those, we will be patient; for them, we will make space.  But you’d be wise to believe that God is also in this: that the Creator actually intends to reconcile it all, one with another; that Christ who lived and loved as one of us actually wants the vast human family at His expansive table; that the Spirit which has been moving in our midst for this long actually meant to light this fire.  It is hard, so very, very hard, to resurrect a worldview and, with it, to rebuild an economy.  But what’s so hard is also so good, so very, very good because it takes the holy risk of vulnerability – risking to share, risking to believe that God is in the future, just as He’s been in the past, risking to be set free from all that once weighed you down.

 

Adapted from a sermon at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, 10 November 2013; click here for the link to the full sermon.


[1] Insights shared from Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class; see footnote below.

[2] Dave Roos, “Are Millenials Really the First Generation to do worse than their Parents?” http://money.howstuffworks.com/personal-finance/financial-planning/millennials-first-worse-parents1.htm

[3] The Economist Online, “Cutting the Cake,” http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/09/us-household-income

[4] Roos, “Are Millenials Really the First Generation to do worse than their Parents?”

[5] Emily Alpert, “Millenial generation is persistently optimistic,” Los Angeles Times, 7 July 2013  http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jul/07/local/la-me-millennial-optimism-20130708

[6] Roos, “Are Millenials Really the First Generation to do worse than their Parents?”

[7] Attributed to Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative ClassRevisited (Basic Books, 2012)

NEED NOT WAIT TO SEE WHAT OTHERS DO

RAMI ELHANAN

Rami Elhanan is an Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem.  While serving in the army, during one battle in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, his unit set out with 11 tanks and returned with only 3.  He lost friends and, even worse, lost his innocence.  He was broken, angry, bitter – and filled with hatred.  In time, he got married, started a career and a family.  On the evening of Yom Kippur 1983, he held in his hands his beautiful baby daughter, Smadar.  But on the afternoon of September 4, 1997, Smadar was killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers who took the lives of five innocent people in browing the shelves in a Jerusalem bookstore — one of them Rami’s beautiful 14 year old daughter.

Bassam Aramin grew up in the West Bank city of Hebron.  At the age of 12, Bassam saw one of his friends fatally shot by an Israeli soldier.  For him, revenge was a palpable, dark force.  He joined a group who called themselves freedom fighters, but those in power called them terrorists.  They threw stones, at first, and empty bottles but one day in 1985 he found several discarded hand-grenades in a cave.  With his friends, they threw them at Israeli jeeps.  Two went off; no one was injured.  Bassam was sentenced to seven years in prison.

BASSAM ARAMIN

After his release, Bassam began to build a life for himself, which included a family.  Sadly, however, on January 16, 2007, Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot in the head with a rubber bullet by an Israel soldier.  She was standing outside her school.  She died two days later.

Following such unspeakable tragedy, both men chose to do remarkable things.  Both men chose to stop the strife and warfare and anger and bitterness.  Both chose peace.

For Rami, Smadar’s death brought back his old, unprocessed anger.  But he couldn’t stir up enough even to reignite revenge.  A group called the ‘Parent’s Circle’ invited him to a session.  ‘Parent’s Circle’ brings together families who’ve lost children and loved ones in the conflict and yet still want peace.  From that session on, Rami’s world, he says, was turned upside down.  Those whom he once hated embraced him and loved him.  Former enemies were the source of his greatest consolation.

In 2005, Bassam founded ‘Combatants for Peace’ – an organization which brings together those who fought on opposite sides.  ‘Combatants for Peace’ evolved into a movement of individuals who yearned to simply talk with those whom their states told them were enemies.  As Bassam once remarked, “Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and non-violence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.”

We don’t do so very well in resolving conflict and finding peace with our enemies.  Even our best attempts fall flat.  Oscar Wilde famously instructed: “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.”  Godfather Michael Corleone gave what is, to many, sound advice:  “Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.”  Abraham Lincoln once offered a poignant line about making friends out of enemies but it, still, carries notes and scars of battle: “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends,” Lincoln remarked.  Even when we try to make nice, we are often our own worst enemy.

That’s why Rami’s and Bassam’s stories are so unique.  It didn’t take decades and increasing maturity. It didn’t require the passing of years to realize that what once tore apart their souls with bitterness and revenge is now just water under the bridge.  Within moments – moments not years – of unspeakable tragedy, they responded with peace, dialogue, empathy and understanding.  Immediately: peace.

That’s what’s truly remarkable about the earliest Christian movement, as well.  In Acts chapter 10, there’s a famous story about Peter and a Gentile named Cornelius.  God tells Cornelius his prayers have been heard and that he should send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, a nearby village.  In Joppa, meanwhile, God presents a rather strange vision to Peter – a large sheet comes down from the sky with all kinds of animals.  In the vision, a voice says “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”  But Peter’s a good law-abiding Jew.  Understandably, he says, “By no means, Lord!  I’ve never eaten anything profane in all my life.”  “What God has made clean,” the voice says, “you must not call profane.”  Peter comes to just as a knock comes on the door.  It’s the men whom Cornelius sent.  Peter goes with them to Cornelius, they have a wonderful heart-to-heart and the Holy Spirit immediately descends upon the room.  Peter feels it and baptizes the whole household, right then and there.

What happened in that moment for Peter and Cornelius, like that which followed Rami’s and Bassam’s tragic losses, was immediate.  No study period, no checking with the elders, no consulting scripture or thinking about what’s been done before.  God swept in and peace happened.  And it happened immediately.

But that’s not exactly our situation.  Flip to Acts chapter 11 and you see the after-effects, the angry backlash.  The leaders of the Christian movement – a still Jewish movement – heard that a Gentile was baptized without first having to become circumcised.  They’re angry.  They call Peter to headquarters.  There, he tells the whole story: the sheet, the animals, the voice, the trip to Caesarea, the presence of the Holy Spirit.  What else could I do? Peter says.  It was so very clear, so very immediate, and I responded.

Like Peter, we don’t live in communities which quickly and altogether respond to immediacy of any kind, let alone an immediate turn from revenge to love, from being enemies to friends, from separation to unity.  In fact, I learned of the story of Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin from a 2012 documentary entitled, Within the Eye of the Storm.  It tells the story I told you, about their lives and the processes they both undertook to find peace.  They became friends.  But the film is also about the experience of introducing one another to their communities – communities which were not prepared and did not necessarily, automatically, immediately respond with the same kind of love and forgiveness and peace.  Imagine it.  An Israeli sitting with Arabs who quite literally – and, you might say, for good reason – hated him simply because of who he was.  An Arab sitting with Israelis who literally and, again, you might say, for good reason, saw him as a terrorist.  Forgiveness doesn’t come easily in this world.  Peace is not won swiftly.  None of this is ever immediate.

REINHOLD NEIBUHR
“Men must strive to realize their individual ideals in their common life but they will learn in the end that society remains man’s great fulfillment and his great frustration.”

The world in which we live is not geared towards wholeness and healing; it’s not designed for love and forgiveness.  American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr outlined in his now-classic 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, what’s called “Christian realism.”  Power and positioning and pride lurks everywhere in this world, at least this side of heaven, Neibuhr argued: sin is at the bedrock of the foundation of this world.  That’s why even our attempts to play nice sometimes turn out so rotten.

Being a person of faith, in general, and a Chrisian, specifically, involves the hard work of scrutinizing that which comes from within.  It may be of God; Jesus said the kingdom is near you.  It may not be of God.  Israelis and Palestinians are trained to hate.  That’s their base reaction.  A good law-abiding Jew like Peter was formed to avoid, at least, and by no means accept a Gentile like Cornelius.  That’s Peter’s gut reaction, in spite of the fact that he lived with Jesus all those years.  Even the apostles and elders of the Christian movement had a resistant gut reaction, a frankly reactive, bitter resistance.  What kind of person do you dislike, and for what reason?  What do you abhor and on what scriptural or political reasons do you base your opinion?  In it may be God, and it may very well be not of God.

It’s a certain truth that when God shows up he keeps shattering the boxes we make, blurring the lines we draw.  But when we take the risk to love and live as God so clearly does, the world says you’re unrealistic, naïve, and at the very least that you’ve gone about it all too immediately.

And yet ours is a faith that makes us try, still. No doubt you’ve seen a bumper sticker with a quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Problem is, he didn’t say that.  Not exactly.  It sounds like a self-help magazine, and awfully, well, like a bumper sticker.  What Gandhi actually wrote was this:  “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in this world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature so does the attitude of the world change towards him.  We need not wait to see what others do.”

We need not see what others do.  Rami and Bassam, early in their lives, did what others did and they paid for it.  In time, they chose to live differently.  When tragedy struck, again, they did not wait to see what others did.  Peter didn’t wait to see what others did, either.  And that community, the church, which called him to task – they, too, were a little bit odd, a little bit strange, a whole lot spontaneous. The moment in that room was hardly silent after Peter recounted his story, for the Holy Spirit was moving and sweeping in her delightfully spunky and, you might say, radically upsetting way.  Immediately, they praised the God who shattered their prejudices and destroyed their small-mindedness.  Immediately, they rejoiced that theirs was a kingdom not of this world.  Immediately, they did a bold thing and were given the grace of God to do it with courage.  They may have looked back, they may have been afraid, but immediately they were also transformed.

……….

From a sermon preached at St. George’s Church on Sunday, 28 April 2013.

BENEDICTO!

Anyone who’s ever served on a church search committee knows what I’m talking about.  There’s such a gulf between our hopes, our expectations and the real qualities of real people who put their names forward.  As Americans, we deal with the swell of expectation and inevitable dissapointment regularly — every four years, in fact.  But we know in another four years we get to make a choice again.  Churches are harder places for leadership shifts.   In the church, we know we’ll be living with the consequence of our choice and, to be honest, living with what we didn’t know or expect at the time for a long, long time.

We don’t like to feel powerless.  That’s why search committees worry about things which are so far beyond anyone’s capacity or comprehension, unless they actually have a crystal ball.  It’s impossible to know how in the particular person of the Rev’d Mrs. Right or the Rev’d Mr. Wonderful (or, in the conclave, Cardinal So-and-so) our future hopes, past experience, and projected expectations will merge and find meaning.  And which I should quickly add “…find meaning, for me.”

That’s just it.  We like to be in control.  We are in control of a whole lot of things: what words we use, whether we tell our children we love them, what groceries we buy, whether we go the gym, how we spend our money, and who we associate with.

And yet we are decidedly not in control of a number of other things: why bad things happen or, for that matter, why good things happen, why other people act the way they do, whatever happens in the stock market, and why we are unable to resist impulse buys in a checkout line.

The question is how we deal.  Some among us, the Type A’s, exert such profound control over the things they can manage they never have to deal with the things they can’t.  Others write poetry or songs.  Some drink, others buy things.  Still others, most notably youngest children such as myself, don’t really give a hoot because we actually suspect someone else is in charge.  And still others are brilliant conspiracy theorists, and here I’m thinking not only of Oliver Stone but the folks who produce FoxNews and MSNBC.

We want to be in control and yet we know we’re not.  We want to manage the big things and, to add insult to injury, we’re afraid we don’t know who’s in the back office and, even if we knew, we still couldn’t trust them.  We are walking, talking contradictions.  Our Lutheran friends have a great phrase for this: paradox, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.”  That concept doesn’t solve anything (not for the Type A’s, at least) but it makes the conflict feel a bit more palatably holy.  To me, it’s always seemed the healthiest, least dysfunctional, most honest stance to do what 12-steppers call Step One: admit it.  Admit your human-ness, your frailty, powerlessness, lack of imagination, inability to control the future, and general anxiety about what’s coming next.

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that most of those who work in the institutional church, by and large, get this.  Over the past several decades, we’ve started becoming honest.  We’ve started to be unafraid of claiming our numerical decline, brokenness and powerlessness and laying that mess before God.  A seminary professor once pointed out the irony that most churches house AA groups but treat them like tenants or, in some cases, nuisances.  Too many churches, he remarked, fail to connect the transformative potential of 12-step spirituality to their actual functioning.  Too many fail to see AA as a mission partner, maybe mission builder, not just a renter.  (To be honest, the second “A” does have something to do with this.)  Fortunately, over time, the institutional Christian church has become increasingly comfortable with admitting our powerlessness.  Maybe being honest about, say, numerical decline is the first step towards actually seeking wisdom from a Higher Power.

Bad news: this still comes as a shock to lots of people.  It vexes search committees and stymies personnel decisions in too many churches.  Too often, we call institutional managers instead of pastors or, at least, expect those we call to be patient managers even though we might actually need what William Willimon called in a recent Christian Century article “impatient instigators”.  The 2005 papal transition highlighted this gulf, as well.  When the veritable definition of “institutional-manager”, Cardinal Ratzinger, became Benedict XVI, taking over after John Paul II, he not only followed a genuinely gregarious leader but — and this is no small point — took the reigns after his predecessor’s 27-year reign, over which time most of the world either became so comfortable with the ways J.P.2 filled the red shoes or, rather, never knew another Supreme Pontiff.

That’s why Benedict is, today, Benedicto!, a true blessing not only to the church but to the world.  He’s handing off leadership in a public way without the, um, advantage of dying in office — a quick trip to sainthood for anyone in the church.  It is a blessing — benedicto! — to finally be honest, and not only that but publicly so.

So let’s keep the spirit alive. Here’s the honest truth made public, church: most of those whom you call to lead these institutions have, through a long process of discernment, had to undergo fairly intense spiritual, emotional, psychological and, add to that, physical inspection and introspection, and we’re really serious about working on the inner life.  We think there’s real value to doing that, and we also think it’s a blessing that people aren’t joining churches to get a job connection or “see and be seen”.  Rather, we actually expect people who come to church to also want or at least want to want some intense spiritual and emotional introspection and hear a message about changing the way we live our lives.

Now that we’re being honest, we also want to admit we’ve been afraid of a lot of you who want us to act as managers and fit your prototypes and expectations.  We’re afraid of rocking the boat too much because (a) we don’t want to come across as meanies — though we have spiritual directors who help us deal with that — and (b) we’re all too painfully aware that no small number of folks think of church as nothing more than a voluntary organization, no different than the Elks Lodge, so if things change too much too quickly a number of you might just revoke your pledge.  We’ve been unsteadily trying to re-frame the conversation and talk more about God’s mission.  We’ve been afraid and sheepish.

We haven’t been as clear as we need to be, but I think it’s time.  I sense that it’s time.

In my experience, I’m touched by the ways in which the yearning for honesty spills across generational lines.  I’ve been pleased that most people genuinely come to church for spiritual, life-changing reasons.  I also think we’ve sold ourselves short.  For me, it’s been argued too often that Baby Boomers have an inability to talk about the stuff of real life — stuff which may involve brokenness or powerlessness — because they remember with fondness the stable institutions of their youth, and they’re trying to recreate their childhood.  That’s just not true.  Most members of the Baby Boom generation I know have watched their children and, now, grandchildren grow up in an changed world and they’ve come to terms with uncertainty, disorder, and suffering.   It’s also the case that the Boomers who wish for the 1950s all over again have already left churches because they sense we’re serious about steering into the wind, and those who’ve remained in our congregations are already doing that profound inner work.   It’s also been said too much that young people, today, don’t have a moral bone in their body or they’ve just put their faith in Apple products — not Jesus like previous generations did.  Youth and young adults have quite penetrating faith in God, and they also have a great ability to see what’s really there.  Many young adults are looking for congregations to take that Lord who turned over tables in the Temple quite seriously, and act in their lives and in our society as a voice of change — a voice which gets its power because it comes from the margins, not the center.  They just don’t find as much meaning in potlucks and old-fashioned dinners as did previous generations.  This gulf is being bridged day after day in most parish churches across our nation.  It’s refreshing to see someone in her 80s sit down over coffee with someone in his 20s and talk openly, truthfully, and meaningfully about life’s ups and downs, a conversation in which neither party is offering advice or trying to fix anything, both there as companions on the way.

This is good news, church.  And it’s time to be honest, publicly honest, and celebrate the work we’ve been doing and which previous leaders have envisioned.  It’s time to be a lot more bold about it, in fact, for if the Christian church can’t be the place in society in which people come from all walks of life and form community grounded in honesty and truth-telling, who will be?

Benedicto!, Benedict XVI or Pope Emeritus or Cardinal Ratzinger or whatever we’re supposed to call you these days.  Maybe, in the spirit of all this refreshing honesty, we’ll just get back to basics, and remember the only name God knows you by – Joseph.  Well done.

QUANTUM INCARNATION

One of my favorite classes in high school was physics.  To be honest, I didn’t do well in the class; I earned a lowly C-.  Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by the ideas of physics, principally the idea that this world is not a random, thrown-together mass of stuff but an orderly, systematic and profoundly amazing creation, a created order.

For me, it’s a spiritual interest.  According to classical physics, Aquinas and Aristotle and Newton among them, this world is not only orderly but that order can be uncovered, deduced.  And, once unveiled, it points to a greater force.  People of faith call that force God.  Seeing the order of the universe unveils something beyond, something greater, something which has somehow imparted meaning.  Classical physics affirms spiritual truths.

But classical physics seemed to suggest a break where there is, in the deepest levels of reality, fundamental union.  In classical physics, you come away with the perception that there’s something like two worlds:  one, a world of stuff (atoms and mass and energy) and, two, a world of intelligible order.  Most of the time those two worlds are united into one, sensory universe.  Which is precisely what enabled Newton, for instance, to posit laws of motion.  And which, at the same time, enabled him to humbly and faithfully claim: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

Over the last century, however, the established, prove-able laws which guided Newton’s classical universe were challenged by what is now called quantum physics: a subatomic world, a world within the stuff of the universe itself.  And it’s not as easily, universally, and scientifically observable, let alone ‘prove-able’.  Where there, once, seemed an orderly world, established by intrinsic, predictable forces and proved, so to speak, by exterior principles or laws, now there is, following quantum theory, seeming random-ness, subatomic entities spinning about and unable to be completely observed or detected or, let alone, studied and reduced to man-made principles.  Even though this quantum world seems fuzzier than proving gravity by sitting under an apple tree, it also points to a certain order and truth and a “plan”, if you will, albeit perhaps several plans and perhaps competing ones and never one plan which can be fully deduced and turned into a Theory of Everything.

I don’t understand quantum theory, and I’m still intrigued by it.  (I’m in good company. The 20th century Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, is himself rumored to have said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”)

What I find so fascinating, even though I understand so little, is that these new vistas in modern physics seem to confirm what we Christians know about reality, that deeper level of reality, in particular.  This is the kind of reality we celebrate during Christmas.  Christmas is not just a holiday but a profound spiritual truth.  Here’s the real reality, we say: God took on flesh, our flesh, and not only came among us but became one of us.  This is the mystery we call “incarnation”.  And don’t let the flip side of the incarnation pass you by without notice, then: God also became human so that our nature, our humanity, our mass and energy and atoms and stuff would be renewed, restored, and redeemed.

John the Evangelist points to this remarkable truth in the prologue to his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word,” John writes, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”  What John’s trying to do is shine new light on an old, old story — that God has always been a part of the world, not a distant, removed, faraway entity; that God has been breathing, inspiring, moving in and under and through this world, a very part of it.  There’s quite a quantum theory within John’s gospel:  “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. He was in the world and the world came into being through him. To all who received him, he gave power to become children of God. And the Word lived among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. No one has ever seen God.”

The radical message of the incarnation, then, is radical in a quantum way – order and truth, purpose and plan, intelligence and truth is not outside of the stuff of this world; no, the meaning is a living, breathing, part of that stuff.  The creation has within it, already, the power of redemption.  And when God took on our flesh God wiped away the dirt and the grime which we had allowed, generation after generation, to obscure the gifts of this marvelous creation.

This’ll change the way you live. One of the keys to salvation is to live in the way God chose, intentionally, to live – as fully human, as a fully incarnate human person.  Stop trying to be more spiritual.  Start trying to be more human, indeed fully human.  Realize that the years of distance and sin and distrust have made us leery of ourselves, but they have not wiped away that original blessing, not permanently at least.

The challenge, then, is that there’s no universal principle by which salvation is earned, save for one: we all, all of us, work out our salvation by becoming fully human, to the degree that God has made himself known, already, within.  Love, then, as we know we can love, as God has shown us how to love, giving freely and generously of the grandeur of Godself in order to become vulnerable as one of us, vulnerable even to death.  Forgive, then, as we know we can forgive, as God showed us how to forgive, from the heart.  Live, then, as God showed us how to live, “from his fullness” and yet borne from within the context of this life, this earthly, physical, particular and human life which is, all the same, mysterious, wonderful, and endowed with the mark of blessing and truth.

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Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland

‘YOU SAY THAT I AM A KING’

The Kingship of God is a scriptural concept and expresses a spiritual truth: God, the creator of all, is in charge of this world.  And we are members of that kingdom.  As such, our lives are worked out in the context of a world which is neither chaotic nor random but ordered by love and maintained in justice, an orderly world which is a kingdom, the very Kingdom of God.

Jesus himself was called King by several of his followers.  During his lifetime on earth, Nathanael called Jesus “King of Israel” after Jesus said he’d seen Nathanael by a fig tree. (Jn. 1:49)  The crowd used the title as a derisive one, mocking him while he hung on the cross: “He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now…” (Mt. 27:42, also in Mk. 15)  Those Magi  went in search of the child “born King of the Jews” (Mt. 2:2), and even Pilate asked Jesus if he was, in fact, a king. (Jn. 18:37 & Mt. 27:11)  The title was, from time to time, ascribed to Jesus after the ascension.  Writing to Timothy, Paul confessed that Christ is “King of the ages” (1 Tim. 1:17) and called him “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (1 Tim. 6:15)  For obvious reasons, John’s Apocalypse abounds in language about Christ the King, the righteous victor who will overthrow the wicked powers of this world: Jesus is “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5), “King of the nations” (Rev. 15:3), and “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16, also 17:14).  Jesus talked about his kingdom, and he made mention of kings in many of his parables, such was the association readily made for his listening audience.

Jesus never called himself King, though, nor did he accept it when offered.  The title he seemed to prefer was ‘Son of Man’ or ‘Son of God’, and yet Jesus resisted people making a ready connection between him and the great messianic hope of the people.  The Messianic Secret of the gospels – the reason Jesus tells people to keep quiet that he is, in fact, the Christ – is because a commitment to discipleship must be the result of an organic faith, growing from the inside out, not following a leader like we are so readily programmed to do.  The titles we employ – King, President, CEO – carry so many associations that they have the dangerous tendency to inhibit a truly heart-grown faith, the only thing which will lead to that kingdom within, the only thing which creates true discipleship.

For these reasons, then, Jesus and Pilate have what seems an unnecessary argument in Pilate’s chamber on the night our Lord was handed over to be crucified. (Jn. 18:33-37)  Pilate wants desperately to maintain order on that clamorous night, and it seems he’s aware that Jesus has been wrongfully accused.  “Are you King of the Jews?” Pilate asks, exasperated by the proceedings.  Jesus answers in an odd way, not answering the question with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.  “How’d you hear that?” Jesus asks.  Pilate shoots back, “Look, tell me, what have you done?”  Jesus gives an unusual answer once again, mentioning his followers and talking of his kingdom.  “Aha!  Then you are a King,” Pilate snaps back, thinking he’s caught Jesus.  “You say that I am a king,” Jesus says, and again goes off on a seemingly disconnected musing about truth and his followers and pointing to his work of reconciling all things in Him: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Jesus doesn’t deny his kingship, not at all.  The fact that we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King is meet and right so to do.  That God in Christ is King of everything is a standard of faith and a profoundly comfortable truth (…well, I suppose it’s decidedly uncomfortable if you are already a worldly power or principality).  And Christ’s Kingship has profound consequences for the ways in which we live in this world, amidst these powers and principalities.  Officially instituted in 1925 with Pope Pius XI’s encyclical, Quas Primas (In the first), the Feast not only affirms the scriptural witness about our Lord’s Kingship but also made clear in the early 20th century – a time of growing fascism and vitriolic nationalism – that the Christian’s supreme allegiance is due only one ruler, Christ the King, in heaven.

This is why Jesus makes Pilate squirm through an oddly philosophical conversation about kingship and kingdom on that heated night.  What Jesus points to in not taking on the title “King” is that it is God’s nature to give and give freely and give of God’s very self.  As Lord of all, God has everything, indeed, is everything.  God is complete in Godself, the very fullness of Being.  In God, there is no gift that is not shared (in truth, the opposite it impossible; if it’s not given freely it’s not a gift).  The gifts of God, being that they are, by definition, of God are also, by definition, shared.  God knows no other way than to give freely, vulnerably, fully. There is, then, in God, only blessing.

As ruler of all, we short-handedly call God “King”.  Moreover, He could very well establish  that fact by having us pay continual homage, receiving as a monarch our fidelity and love and service.  But God doesn’t establish his dominion by power; no, he does the opposite: He makes Himself vulnerable, becoming one of us, even dying for our sake in a humiliating, dreadful means of public execution, dying so that we may live.  Our Lord doesn’t ‘lord’ over us in the way we would otherwise associate with the term “king” or “monarch”.  On the one level, He models for us selfless, unconditional love.  On a much deeper level, however, He does this because He is this; by God’s nature He is selfless, generous, vulnerable and blessed – hence that greater mystery we call the Trinity, a mutual, egalitarian, self-giving monarchy of the One who is Three and the Three who are One.

The identity and nature of God cannot, therefore, be summed up in words like “King”.  After all, God is not what God says He is, nor is He what we say.  No, God is is who God shows himself to be by acting meaningfully and decisively in history and our lives.  Faith, in turn, is not intellectual assent to a series of beliefs – God is King – but, rather, an experience of the living God, the experience of knowing that one’s life caught up in the life of God, the creator and lover of all.

We are called to a beatitude life, a life of supreme blessedness, which means we are called to share freely and with humility the gifts we have been given.  Especially in this fast approaching season of gifts – gift-giving, gift-buying, gift-wrapping, gift-getting – it’s counter-cultural to celebrate that the only true gift is the one which is given away, freely, and used for the wellbeing of all – shared, not owned; given away, with no expectation or hope of return.

That’s what the gospels call a beatitude life, a life marked by blessedness, not fullness, not giftedness.  Sharing of yourself in some small reflection of the way in which God, who is and yet never accepted the title, King of kings and Lord of lords, shared – freely, vulnerably, for the life and blessing of the world.

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Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, 25 November 2012, the Last Sunday of Pentecost and Feast of Christ the King.  For the full text of the sermon, click here.

TRANSFORMED BY THE RENEWING OF YOUR MINDS

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.  Romans 12:2

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SIR TONY BALDRY
Second Church Estates Commissioner addresses
House of Commons Nov. 22, 2012

Watching Britain’s House of Commons have a lively chat about their church’s recent disapproval of women bishops, I had at first a feeling of ‘Bravo!’ as well as ‘Uh oh!’  As is often the case, it was a spirited chamber on Nov. 22 when Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, rose to field an urgent question as the Member of Parliament who is the liaison between that body and the group responsible for the oversight of the church’s vast property assets.

I heard smatterings of Jesus in the thoughtful generosity of the MPs — their eagerness to move established institutional structures, no less than their own, to embrace a society in which gender distinctions and previous social mores are giving way to greater egalitarianism and justice.  The Labour Party’s Diana Johnson, who tabled the question, said it well: “…there should be no stained glass ceiling for women in our church.  The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve, looking outdated, irrelevant, and frankly eccentric by this decision.  It appears that a broad church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds.”

They could easily get away with this conversation, of course.  Sir Baldry reminded them that he himself couldn’t possibly justify the odd parliamentary procedures which enabled the General Synod of the Church of England to strike down a measure which was clearly supported by the vast majority of the church:  42 out of 44 dioceses expressed support for women bishops; counting the number of total votes cast, 324 voted for and 122 against; 94% of the bishops and 77% of the clergy voted for the measure; but it failed to achieve a 2/3 majority in the House of Laity, even though a significant majority, 64%, of them voted in favor of the measure.

It’s an odd thing when the State appears more inclusive and egalitarian than does the Church, the Body of Christ.  A Canadian friend told me a few years ago that this was perhaps the one issue most besetting the Anglican Church there: how could they appeal to others to follow the teachings of Jesus when, in practice, they are less welcoming than their secular government?  I’m aware we’re mixing issues here — church and state (fairly modern concepts) with Jesus and Empire (more ancient and biblical ones) — but it’s more than clear that Jesus himself and, certainly, a dominant strand in New Testament Christianity fostered profoundly egalitarian communities, gatherings which were radical in the eyes of their contemporary, stratified secular society and which were, therefore, incredibly attractive.  Followers of Jesus have always had a difficult struggle with the ruling powers and principalities, such that 20 centuries after Jesus (and 17 or so after Christianity was perverted into a state religion) H. Richard Neibuhr contributed to the conversation in his now-classic text, Christ and Culture, helping people identify with integrity their position with regard to the relationship between the Way of Jesus and the ways of the world.

Thus my ‘Uh oh!’ moment.  Jesus and the world, church and state have always been uneasy bedfellows.  That’s a good thing, if you ask me, because the tension within that relationship is what has the potential to give rise to a profound, meaningful faith in God.  The principle of moving the church along with the world — to make the church relevant or hip or up with the times — is therefore a dangerous principle, no matter the issue.  It’s not inclusivity versus exclusivity, liberal against conservative, outdated giving way to modern.  And if we, the Body of Christ, let secular politicians and pundits remain on the forefront of this conversation it will be stuck in those divisive, neatly categorized, but meaningless concepts.  Look again at the Nov. 22 conversation in Parliament.   The Conservative Party’s Eleanor Lang declared that “when the decision making body of the established church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society which it represents then its position as the established church must be called into question.”  And the Church Commissioner agreed, adding that “if the Church of England wishes to be a national church, reflecting the nation, then it has to reflect the values of the nation.”  Some people may put an exclamation point at the end of his statement because it’s boldly open-minded.  I’d put an exclamation point because the principle it expresses is as frightening as hell!  (And if you think it’s just talk, the Episcopal Cafe reports that there is scheduled a Jan. 18, 2013 Parliamentary vote on making it illegal “to discriminate against women in the Church of England.”)

Over on these shores, then, give thanks we don’t have an established church and, in fact, have a clause in our Constitution that prevents that sort of thing — the one, by the way, which doesn’t “separate church and state” (it drives me nuts when people use that phrase, taken from an 1802 letter of Jefferson’s talking about “…a wall of separation between Church & State”).  Our First Amendment makes way for a vibrant church and a free state by not marrying the two: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

So let’s talk about a vibrant church.  A vibrant church is one which does precisely what early Christian communities tried to do — build community of disparate folks, indeed, make family out of people who aren’t blood relatives and wouldn’t even socialize with one another.  That’s the one and only way the New Testament shows how we’re supposed to reconcile all things to God in Christ.  A vibrant church, then, is other-worldly and necessarily so because its organizing principle is in contradiction to the ways we would put things together.  A vibrant church gives ordinary women and men a taste, albeit fleeting, that their lives are caught up in and wedded to the life of God, the creator and lover of all.  A vibrant church is not easily described, and has few smatterings of worldly concepts.  It’s neither conservative nor liberal, and it’s sometimes both.  It’s neither stuffy nor outdated, and it delights in its eccentricity while it doesn’t take itself, at least its structures, too seriously.  It has no problem putting random people together, sometimes people who would otherwise disagree, and it’s bold enough to referee those contests and call its members, all of them, to confess their pride and arrogance.

A vibrant church is one agent in God’s mission of reconciling all things through Christ, and I’d say it’s a pretty important agent.  But in order to be vibrant, the church needs a large, disparate, somewhat disorganized, diverse, random collective of ordinary women and men, a sizeable group of people representing a significant cross-section of human experience and, especially, who this world would never, ever put together in a social club or institution of human construction.  The institutional Christian church in the western world is hardly that body any longer.  And Parliament hit that nail on the head this week, taking note that a big issue raised by General Synod — see Labour MP Diana Johnson’s quote, cited above — is that the established church has done a poor job of bringing the nation into the Body of Christ or, we should say, bringing the Body of Christ to the whole of the people.  Affirming that fact, however, is decidedly not the same as saying what Conservative MP Eleanor Lang said, also quoted above; namely, that the church must get on with the times and reflect society.  Doing so would only confirm for the increasing percentage of people, in Great Britain and the United States and everywhere else, that the church has become such a human institution that there’s no reason to participate in something so small and worldly and so devoid of its much more attractive, deeply spiritual commission.

This is not a problem reserved exclusively for an established church in a foreign land.  We have abandoned our voice and public theologizing, yes, even we in America.  And the “we” is not the state — not the politicians and the pundits, nor the marketers nor the secular institutions nor the school systems which stopped enforcing prayer long ago.  It was never their job to enforce faith or, for that matter, even be Christian.  It was our job, ours as the Body of Christ.  It was our job to be counter-cultural, not the place to see and be seen. It is our job to do the things which this world says cannot be done, and that includes creating a safe space for diversity of all kinds, and that diversity must and should include theological diversity as well.  The longer we fail to do this in our congregations and communities — and, add to that, the longer we let our own Episcopal Church be ruled by worldly institutional structures, determinining via legislation and policy who is in and who is out, even if the majority agrees — the more irrelevant we will become, not because the world is looking for another, better human construct but because it’s yearning for the opposite.

At least a group of people who call themselves “little Christs” and act like it, being at peace with disagreement and disorder because they go about practicing hospitality and seeking God’s blessing on the whole, messed up thing.

PREGNANT WITH THE POSSIBILITY OF NEW LIFE

“Why can’t the church just get relevant and start having fun with Christmas? My answer is simple: look what they’ve done with Christmas … for Christ’s sake!”

It’s upon us already.  Christmas-y kitsch is here, and it’s only mid-November.  In fact, I heard that Nordstrom’s is not putting up any Christmas stuff until after Thanksgiving.  It’s astonishing that something which seemed fairly standard not long ago – waiting until after Thanksgiving to start Christmas – is now so counter-cultural it makes news.Meanwhile, we in the church are extremely counter-cultural.  While the world is going into Christmas crazy-ness, the church focuses on other themes, particularly about an apocalyptic end-time (Mk. 13:1-8).  This theme is only going to get more pronounced over these next six weeks.  During Advent – the four week season leading up to Christmas – we’ll actually talk more about the second coming than about the first one and the baby and the manger and that little town of Bethlehem.

 

Why can’t the church just get relevant and start having fun with Christmas?  My answer is simple:  look what they’ve done with Christmas … for Christ’s sake!  By the time we actually start talking about Christmas in the church, around the evening of December 24, many folks will be taking down their trees and removing their yard ‘art’ and making New Years’ resolutions about losing the 15 pounds they added during the holiday and saying to themselves, with great exhaustion, “Whew, I’m so glad this only happens once a year.”  Look what they’ve done with Christmas.  Is this the story you want told, an exhausting sprint through the world of marketing and media and mayhem?  Or do you want another story, and is your heart yearning, pleading for another story of a life well lived and the gift of God’s goodness?

 

Speaking of which, here’s another annual ‘Christmas’ tradition I haven’t yet experienced, but I’m sure I will.  Every year, someone or some headline or some email gets all hot and bothered because someone said to them “Happy holidays”, instead of “Merry Christmas.”  (God help the person who says “Happy Hannakuh” or “Happy Kwanzaa” or, for that matter, “Happy Festivus”!)  Or someone else is going to clip out an article about a local town, somewhere, which refuses to put up a crèche in the village center, or insists that a Star of David also needs to be there.  This ‘tradition’ happens every year, as well, and it’s almost as exhausting as the other one, to me at least.  Why is it the culture’s job to say Merry Christmas?  Why is it the job of the department store or TV station or local jurisdiction to preach Christmas?  And if this is what they’ve done to Christmas – turning it into a holiday completely devoid of what it’s about, for us, as Christians – do you really want them in charge in the first place?

 

It’s your job to say Merry Christmas, and live it, too.  It’s my job to say it and model it, as well.  It’s our job, as followers of the Way, to be Christmas people.  And if we want to show the world what this means we’ve got to prepare differently, and renew in ourselves a story that is, at its core, all about renewal.

 

In the Gospel of Mark’s thirteenth chapter – what scholars call Mark’s “little apocalypse” – Jesus predicts that the Jerusalem Temple will be toppled.  Later, standing atop the Mount of Olives – the very place where the prophet Zechariah predicted God will stand at the end of days – Jesus foretells of earthquakes and wars and all those nasty, bad, terrible, no good things we associate with the apocalypse.  This type of literature frightens us.  It’s scattered throughout the bible, through the prophets and Daniel and, certainly, Revelation, yet it causes in us feelings of discomfort and fear and un-ease.

 

The word, apocalypse, though, is a rather welcome term for early Christians, and it should be welcome for us, even today.  The Greek word simply means an uncovering, a revelation from God of what was previously hidden from our understanding or vision.  All the drama which surrounds apocalyptic literature – the earthquakes, pestilence, fire, warfare, seven-headed beasts, four horsemen – is simply there as code language.

 

And here’s the basic meaning of that code: When God comes, the world and everything in it is going to change.  Apocalyptic literature was welcome to early, persecuted Christians, then, for it was a message of redemption and release.  Similarly, I’d say, apocalyptic literature can be liberating for us, too, for it sets us free from the crazy-ness which this world has already embarked on, the ways they’ve taken a story of new life and turned it into a marketed, draining secular observance.

 

When God comes, everything’s going to change.  The world will be turned upside down, and this culture’s rampant pursuit of death – and, if anything, secular Christmas points profoundly to a culture fixated on killing itself – will be set against an offering of real life, the only kind of life that can truly be called life, namely, God’s.  Later in December you’ll hear Mary proclaim this very truth in her song, called the Magnificat: God has “looked with favor on his lowly servant; … he has scattered the proud in their conceit; … he has lifted up the lowly; … and the rich he has sent empty away.”  That theme resounds, as well, in the song Hannah sang upon hearing that she is pregnant with the one who will become her firstborn boy, the son whom she will name Samuel, the biblical character who will renew his people, not unlike Mary’s son centuries later.  Hannah, too, proclaims that when God comes, everything’s going to change:  “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. … He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” (1 Sam. 2:1-10)

 

It’s wonderful to have stories of pregnancy and birth in this season of preparation.  I suspect that God’s coming will not appear, to us, as earthquakes and wars and headline news.  On the contrary: I suspect God’s coming will be much more quiet, off to the side, unnoticed by many, much like a woman who is pregnant and is waiting the day of expectation, knowing that it’s coming and so she waits, patiently.  This world, itself, is pregnant with the possibility of new life, and yet that life is not found in the splashy celebrations or public observations or kitsch on the lawns or department store shuffle.  The life which is offered of God, the life which really is life, is born in unexpected places, in quieter moments, in the opening hearts and minds of ordinary women and men who decide to observe differently, to worship more fully, to spend less money, and give more of their life.

 

This, to me, sounds a lot like Christmas, which is not only a counter-cultural, upside-down kind of holiday but is also a subtle story, a baby born in a barn to two unwed parents, greeted by beasts of burden and dirty, uncultured shepherds.  God is turning this world over upon its head every day, but doing so by a quiet, interior revolution, it seems.

 

Join that revolution, then, and make these next several weeks a revolutionary series of observations, for yourself and for your community.  Turn away from that death-march the secular world calls ‘Christmas’ and find God’s pregnant possibilities within, where they’ve always been.  That’s a life worthy of being called life, one which will feed you and one whereby you can feed others, as well.

 

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Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Sunday, 18 Nov. 2012.  For the full text of the sermon, click here.