Sunday, January 30, 2011

Micah 6:6-8

What does it mean to be a Christian? What am I supposed to do?

It's really simple. It was today's reading.

With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

On Religion in Early America

A good friend of mine posted earlier this week, hypothesizing on the reasons for a lack of socialized medicine in this country. He was blaming the Calvinist tendencies of the Puritans.

As it happens, I'm in Church History II this semester, making this very subject top-of-the mind. Last week we were going over colonial religion and movements in England and America during and after the Reformation.

I don't disagree with his basic premise, that there is a very definite Calvinist thread through the American meta-culture, that if you're poor, then it's because you deserve to be poor, and if you're sick, that's because you did something to deserve to be sick. It hearkens back to the doctrine of the Elect, that God chose the saved before the beginning of time and you cannot know if you are saved from Hell or not, so you better act as if you were. After a while, to justify theologically rulership, wealth, and power, things shifted. If you were healthy, rich, and well-born, you were obviously favored of God. Conversely, if you were poor or sick, it was because of your sins or the sins of your parents. In larger terms, America is the nation of the Elect because it was founded by Christians and brought the gospel to all corners of the world. Also, we're wealthier and more influential than anyone else.

This is an older idea than the Doctrine of the Elect. This type of thinking, which has it's modern form in the "prosperity gospel" churches, is older than Rome. The empire one. Caesar is favored by the gods, so much so, he's almost a god himself. Citizens of Rome are favored of the gods, otherwise, they wouldn't be citizens. Those who are slaves deserve to be enslaved. Athens is favored of Athena, thus is the center of scholarship and wisdom and trade. The Children of Israel are chosen by God to inhabit a land of milk and honey. The doctrine of the Elect was twisted to fit within human preconceptions and our need to have reasons for the class systems we like to build, but we needed that justification and we'd thrown out the Roman one. (Luther was much more egalitarian. We all suck, we all sin, undeserved grace is the only path to salvation, and it's open to anyone who asks).

On the other hand, I think it is massively unfair to blame the Calvinist threads on the Puritans.

The Puritan movement started really during the reign of Elizabeth I, after the Elizabethan Religious Settlement of 1559, which appointed the monarch as the head of the church and did away with many of the more physical Catholic trappings of Mass and instituted the Book of Common Prayer as the format for all worship in England. At this point, there were two main factions of the reformed Anglican church - those who believed that the church had gone far enough, in the formation of the Book of Common Prayer, the changes in the theology to make it more accessible to the people, and the slimming of the trimmings of the Catholic Church. The other crowd wanted to further purify the church of anything that looked vaguely Catholic - skip liturgical seasons, vestments, crucifixes, communion wafers, bishops, etc. - and put the laity in charge of almost all decisions. They did pick up the Calvinist theology about simplicity in worship and a congregationalist stance on Church government, but stayed kinda out on much of his other points and added quite a bit about sanctity of God's law in the lives of men, including the purity of the sabbath, and a high emphasis on works. Charles, unlike Elizabeth and James, took sides in this particular argument, and the Puritans left in something between a voluntary and involuntary exile to the Netherlands, where it was acceptable to be any Christian denomination other than Armenian. While there, they solidified their doctrines. The Puritans came into significant theological and social conflict with the Dutch Reform Church, a Calvinist/Zwinglian branch of the Protestant Reformation and the predominant church of the Netherlands. So much so, in fact, that they have the distinction of being one of the few groups the Dutch invited to leave as intolerable in their intolerance. They came to America because they wanted to found the perfect society, where everyone agreed with their theology.

No, we can blame those Calvinist threads in the American zeitgeist on the Dutch Reform Church, the English Reform Church, and the Presbyterians - contemporaries of the Puritans, but people who were never a serious part of the Anglican church. They were always Calvinist and bent on true reform of the church from without instead of the original Puritan view of reform from within. As such, many had much more hardline views about the position of the Elect in the world, and that because they had accepted and believed the one true way as revealed through scripture by Calvin and Zwingli, they were obviously the elect. They were founding their own colonies in the New World at the same time and those threads of justification dug in hard and deep.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


(I have a strong aversion to the transferal of church feast days to the following, more 'convenient,' Sunday. This gets really tricky at the end of October, when you end up with Reformation Day, Feast of All Souls, and Feast of All Saints in a three day period...which can spread those three days over more than a week. However, given my current computer woes, the moving of the celebration from Thursday to today gives me a bit of an excuse. Really.)

Epiphany is a season of joy, the counterpoint to Advent before and Lent to follow. All things cycle, and Epiphany is one of the high points. It is about things revealed, acknowledged, known, and brought forth into the light.

The story opens with wise men from the east coming before Herod, having followed a star westward. These are men of learning, astrologers who have discerned that this star, a light shining in the darkness, heralds the birth of the King of the Jews. Who better to ask than Herod, current ruler? He'd know, right?

And the sages of his court did know - the prophets had foretold it. Bethlehem, in Judea.

This is not a sudden knowledge. This is something studied, learned, consulted about. Slowly, bits and pieces revealed to scholars on a hunt. Having talked with their colleagues and continuing to use the star for more specific navigation, they came to the house where Jesus and Mary were staying.

The only big, dramatic, instant divine 'epiphany' was the dream that told the wise men to go home a different way than they had come.

Herod also spend time in thought about this situation, and obviously concluded that whatever had happened in Bethlehem was a threat. Someone besides those visitors might read the signs in the same way, and that was a danger to his power base, to have someone wandering around Judea claiming to be the King of the Jews (or having it claimed in his name). The slaughter of all the children under two years old ensured that no one could claim to have been born under those stars in the right time frame to threaten him.

Neither the wise men or Herod acted in haste, without deliberation. They both looked for the answers, and found solutions to the problems they perceived. But it wasn't anything sudden, it didn't happen overnight or in an instant. Slowly, through what they found, lives were changed...both selfless and selfish ideas espoused after careful, thought out plans, both centered around revelations about a small child in Bethlehem.

Christ himself was revealed piece by piece, his ministry starting out small, his status recognized by few, slowly growing until the crowds followed him everywhere and he could not get away. His was a life that led people, slowly convincing by word and deed that he really was special, someone to follow, a light in the world, no matter how cruel life seemed. The feeling of 'it doesn't have to be this way' present in so many ways...the difference between what is and what could be made more obvious in every step he walked.

Epiphany is not only the time of sudden insight, but also a season of the slow reveal and of acknowledgment of contrasts. The wise men and Herod both worked to pull information together and came to wildly different conclusions as to what to do with the information. And as we gather our information, search our hearts, and discern God's will in the world, we have some questions we need to ask: What are we called to do? What insights into our lives, into our hearts, do we need to face? Where does the difference lie for us between who we are as sinners and who God wants us to be? In light, darkness, and in darkness, light. In the liturgical year, the foil of Advent's somber waiting or of Lent's dark sorrow is the night against which a single star shines brightly, leading the way.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sacred Places

Ok. You know I'm a geek. Here's where it becomes obvious.

I've spent the last couple of days at a workshop put on by Partners for Sacred Places, a non-sectarian non-profit dedicated to helping places of worship use their spaces more efficiently and for the betterment of the community.

If you follow that link, there are a lot of resources that they publish, as well as the results of a study they did a couple of years ago. Some of the numbers that struck me that I intend to be quoting a lot:

93% of urban congregations open their doors to outside ministries
On average, congregations use the building 19% of the time. 81% of building use is by community organizations.

Also, everybody needs a roof.

Much of it focused on being able to tell the story of a congregation clearly in three steps:
Who we are - the heritage and culture of the congregation
What we have - buildings, grounds, and other resources
What we do - areas of ministry

So, both the cocktail party version and the one page case story and the ten page grant proposal all come out of knowing those three things.

Further, break it down:
What is the heritage and culture of the space? Why was it founded? Who founded it/built it? Who spoke there? Who paid to put stuff there? Who's buried there? What role has it historically had in the community it serves? Who worships there?

What are the buildings? What shape are the buildings in? What needs to be done for the physical plant? What are the available rooms? What are the resources of the congregation? What do members of the congregation like to do? What are they good at? What are the gifts of God within the congregation? Where do they work? What are their other interests/activities outside of church?

What happens inside our building outside of Sunday morning? How many people who are not members/attendees use our building? What's that percentage? What ministries do we run as a congregation? What is the value to the community in dollars, if the community had to replace our space and staff and pay the volunteers?

Once you figure out the story and what you have, you can figure out what you need, who to ask, and how to do it efficiently.

Other people are doing our programs better, somewhere. How do we start conversations so that we can all work towards the betterment of all our communities?

Life, health, and safety issues first. Then the rest of it.

I have shiny tools for asset mapping, finding money, and writing grants. I'm still processing a lot of things.

One of the suggestions put forth was to do a historic church tour of St. Louis. There are enough of them around that each neighborhood could probably come up with their own. If you ran it in conjunction with another neighborhood event (say, Taste of South Grand or the Shaw Art Fair), we could probably manage to make at least a little money off of it.

This is supposed to be about conversations in the community. What conversations should we be having?