Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I love Legos...

I just had to share this. You can make anything with Legos. It's a LegObama!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Transitions, Triumph, and Tribulation

Jesus said, "If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand."

The above is from today's Gospel according to the Daily Office lectionary. I can think of no more fitting passage to mark the transition from the presidency of George W. Bush to that of Barack Obama. I was in seminary at Virginia Theological Seminary (just across the river from Washington D.C.) for the inauguration of former President Bill Clinton in 1992 and I am now, as I was then, amazed that in a world in which transitions of power are often accompanied by at least strife and wrangling and at worst war and bloodshed, our transition of power simply involves one man gracefully stepping down and another gracefully stepping up.

It is my fervent hope that we have turned the page on one of the most divisive chapters in our nation's history. President Obama has repeatedly called for unity, for disagreement without being disagreeable, for finding common ground in the midst of the daunting challenges that face us. He has also repeatedly invoked Abraham Lincoln, a president who presided over literally the most divided chapter in our nation's history. I remember well that now former president George W. Bush stated that he was "a uniter, not a divider." While that may have been his initial intention, he and Karl Rove presided over a presidency that was a poster child for a divide and conquer strategy. Perhaps history will judge him less harshly then his outgoing approval ratings, but I devoutly hope that we have seen the last of divide and conquer politics and instead have a "unite and overcome" politics.

As has been said many times, this day hardly marks the end of the movement for equal rights for African-Americans, much less other minorities. It is, instead, a new beginning in what I and millions of others hope and, yes, earnestly pray, will be a time of both sacrifice and solidarity in the midst of war and economic uncertainties. The church, too, is in a state in which we desperately need to hear and heed Jesus' words that a house divided cannot stand. May both church and state be united within themselves for common purpose and healing.

Welcome to the White House, President Obama and family!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Barna and The Belief Buffet

Although just one of many voices, George Barna has made a career out of taking the religious pulse of the United States and suggesting the implications of those results for individuals, churches, and the country as a whole. His latest offering, headlined "Christianity is No Longer America's Default Faith" explores the increasing tendency of Americans to either choose no faith at all or to pick and choose from a variety of beliefs and spiritual practices to meet their needs. The article is a good one, well worth reading, and the implications of the study results are summed up at the end as follows:
  1. The Christian faith is less of a life perspective that challenges the supremacy of individualism as it is a faith being defined through individualism. Americans are increasingly comfortable picking and choosing what they deem to be helpful and accurate theological views and have become comfortable discarding the rest of the teachings in the Bible.

  2. Growing numbers of people now serve as their own theologian-in-residence. One consequence is that Americans are embracing an unpredictable and contradictory body of beliefs. Barna pointed out, as examples, that millions of people who consider themselves to be Christian now believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the lessons it teaches at the same time that they believe Jesus Christ sinned. Millions also contend that they will experience eternal salvation because they confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior, but also believe that a person can do enough good works to earn eternal salvation.

  3. In the past, when most people determined their theological and moral points of view, the alternatives from which they chose were exclusively of Christian options - e.g., the Methodist point of view, the Baptist perspective, Catholic teaching, and so forth. Today, Americans are more likely to pit a variety of non-Christian options against various Christian-based views. This has resulted in an abundance of unique worldviews based on personal combinations of theology drawn from a smattering of world religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam as well as secularism.

  4. Faith, of whatever variety, is increasingly viral rather than pedagogical. With people spending less time reading the Bible, and becoming less engaged in activities that deepen their biblical literacy, faith views are more often adopted on the basis of dialogue, self-reflection, and observation than teaching. Feelings and emotions now play a significant role in the development of people’s faith views - in many cases, much more significant than information-based exercises such as listening to preaching and participating in Bible study.
It almost goes without saying that this has huge implications for the church, especially the Episcopal Church which is both very rooted in words (Bible, Prayer Book, Hymnal, etc...) while also being rich in multi-sensory symbols (water of baptism, bread and wine of Eucharist, candles, stained glass, etc...). The traditional Evangelical way of converting folks to Christianity and enriching their spiritual lives focuses primarily on preaching and Bible study. The above statements reflect the fact that people are becoming more individualistic, less likely to have (or take) the time to do much Bible study (much less do serious theological reflection), and are perfectly comfortable with holding contradictory views taken from a variety of religious traditions. This is sometimes, in my opinion, without actually knowing much about their own faith tradition (if they have one)! A great example of this is the practice of a Christian incorporating Buddhist meditation practices into his or her spiritual practice without realizing that there is a rich Christian tradition of contemplative prayer from which to draw without having to graft in practices from another faith tradition. Of special note is the last observation that "faith views are more often adopted on the basis of dialogue, self-reflection, and observation than teaching."

I would suggest that, at its best and done well, worship in the Episcopal Church and associated programs that emphasize such
dialogue, self-reflection, and observation are the primary means by which we might best enter into the conversation that is likely to be the only way to conversion for most people. The challenge for us is to do such things ourselves rather than taking who we are and what we do for granted. The misquoted line from Field of Dreams "If we build it, they will come" (it is actually "If you build it, he will come.") applies here. We can build anything we want: people are not coming unless they have a reasonable expectation of finding a place in which they can enter into dialogue without limitations or pretense, self-reflection without pressure to conform, and observation without pressure to participate.

Quite a tall order for the church at the dawn of the twenty-first century!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Light in the Darkness

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
- John 1:1-5

In my daily "blog habit" I track a dozen or so blogs (see sidebar), one of them being Pluralist Speaks, a blog from across the pond in England. Sometimes it is very interesting, other times less so (like all blogs, including this one, I suspect!). After celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany last night, I was interested in his latest post regarding the alleged drift of the Episcopal Church (and by extension the Church of England and the Anglican Communion) towards Unitarianism. Since he has both some background in Unitarianism and apparently no apprehension about such a drift, he is more qualified than most to identify its presence or absence. After a fairly lengthy post, he notes:
So for Unitarian drift you need a really humanising Jesus according to how science understands the development of humanity, that the Christian Bible is but one view of something much wider, that the Pauline origin tradition gets replaced by a broader view of religion and salvation, or that there needs to be something like a frequent interfaith approach to ordinary church services. Liturgically there needs to be revision towards variety and simplicity and actual theological change involved.

This is not found at The Episcopal Church, or the Anglican Church of Canada, or at any other Anglican Church. It's not that it cannot happen: it can. It just isn't.
As we enter the Epiphany season, where we celebrate the light of Christ coming into the world, it is worth taking note that no official creeds or formularies have been changed or rescinded by official action of General Convention. I don't expect it to happen this summer either. To be sure, we as a denomination are much more lax about requiring conformity with doctrines or creeds than we are in enforcing our polity, but unless and until I am required to believe something plainly contrary to scripture, I think I'll stick around.

That is not to say, however, that the average person-in-the-pew isn't pretty darn fuzzy on exactly what Christianity is, much less the Episcopal flavor of Christianity. There has not been a consistent effort (or often interest) in enhancing biblical and liturgical literacy among folks. In my experience, people generally do what they do because that is what they've always done and there often is not very much interest in going much deeper than an hour on Sunday morning. Much like evangelism, I think the decline in TEC is due less to a sort of institutional slide into Unitarianism than to a decline in people's interest in exploring, enhancing, and sharing our faith. Perhaps a good Epiphany exercise might be a commitment to fanning the flame of faith and passing it along to others.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Semi-Happy New Year

Among the various things said today "Happy New Year" and "Thank God 2008 is over" seem to be the most common. There seems to be a collective breath-holding at work as many people both anticipate the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama and cast wary eyes to the faltering economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the new flare-up of conflict in Gaza. 2009 is set to either be the year that things begin to turn around or the year that things continue to slide.

Perhaps I'm projecting, but 2009 also looks as if it will be a pivotal year for the church as well. Culture wars continue to rage, the economy is sliding, and there does not appear to be a lot of signs of the mainline church reconnecting to the surrounding culture. The Episcopal Church has its triennial General Convention this summer which will no doubt result in some controversy, a few headlines, and many resolutions expressing the church's position on various world issues, most of which no one who is not already in the Episcopal Church will pay the least bit of attention to. So, some hope, some fear, some talking to ourselves, and we'll see what else. I'm sure God will show up in some form as well, as befits the celebration of Epiphany in a few days.