Archive for the ‘retreat’ Category

Of Rocks and Rivers

20110924-105013.jpgRiver. Moving water, flowing water, living water. The site of baptism, the origin of civilization, the source of life.

And in the middle, rocks. Hard as stone, solid, seemingly immovable, reliable. Foundation. The stuff on which churches get built.

The waters may not move the larger stones, but they shape them. Smooth out the rough edges. Go around, over, even through them. But it doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time. Days. Years. Millennia.

Holy Jesus, my rock and my life source, help me not to be in such a hurry. Teach me to sit and wait in patience, listening to the babble of the stream for that sound, that voice, of sheer silence. Ground me firmly. And let the waters of my baptism shape me constantly, smoothing out my rough edges, so that your church might be built. Amen.

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Let’s Go

Mark 1:29-39

This story takes place very early on in Mark’s gospel. So far, Jesus has ben baptized, called four disciples, and gone to Capernaum where he has taught and cast out a demon. On the sabbath, no less.

So they retreat to Peter’s house, where (still on the sabbath) he cures his mother-in-law. Once the sun goes down and sabbath is over, people flock to the house to have their loved ones healed. He silences the demons to speak about him, a curious little detail which is what I’ll look at in depth next week.

Jesus’ response to the growing crowd is a disappearing act. His disciples want him to know how famous he has become. Jesus announces that they are moving on to the next town where he can “proclaim the message.” And that he does all throughout the Galilee.

There are so many curious details in this story. One is the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. As soon as he heals her, she gets back to the assumed role of the day, serving everyone in the household. No time for recuperation, no word or deed about her being an equal now. She goes back to what she was doing. Given Jesus’ radical take on gender roles for that time, part of me expects Jesus to say, “Get up and come sit with us and let Peter serve.” But why not?

And then Jesus intentionally submarines his own successes. He’s got a great racket going right there in Capernaum, healing everybody that is brought to him. Instead of continuing that, he takes off for some solitude. Not even the disciples know where he has gone, and it takes them a while to find him. This is a rhythm in Jesus’ ministry, the public versus the private, the overwhelming crowds versus the need to isolate, get away, regroup, recharge. What is at stake there?

And finally, once he’s been found and the disciples share with him this great news that everyone is looking for him, his response isn’t the expected one, especially for this Messiah. He’s supposed to be thrilled at the number of new recruits and followers, building up steam for the eventual restoration of the kingdom of Israel. No: he tells them that they’re going to head out into the Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons. What’s with the career suicide?

It strikes me that there are several things at work here. First, the solitude. Jesus, throughout the gospels, is constantly trying to get away for a moment of prayer and quiet. It’s the natural rhythm of his ministry. He doesn’t often succeed, but it does strike me as a way that he remains grounded and keeps from losing perspective. We don’t have any sense of what he prays at this point, but from other prayers, we know how intimate his relationship with God can be. We can assume the same is true here. So perhaps there’s part of him that wants to be focused right now.

Second, Peter’s mother-in-law. The healing that she gets means that she stays where she is, in a sense. It’s not a freedom in the sense that we might want, but perhaps it is that she still has a role to play in that place?

Third, the moving on. Jesus is aware of the Messianic expectations of the day. And in a sense, he is trying to undercut them. He heals on the sabbath. He splits when the crowds surge to be alone. And when he learns of his fame, he takes off on a tour. Jesus, perhaps, was concerned that his fame might spread as a “mere” faith healer, and that he wouldn’t be known for the fuller ministry by which we know him now. Faith healers were a dime a dozen. So were wandering teachers.

And then I wonder about how this might connect with me, with us. I think there’s something to the rhythm of Jesus’ ministry that we can learn. Do we have times of solitude and quiet? Of prayer and restoration? Do we carve out places and spaces and moments to share our fears and hopes with God? Do we act as though we know God intimately?

I also think there’s something in the story of Peter’s mother-in-law. There’s something about knowing where it is that we are supposed to be. I don’t mean that in a “know your place” kind of way. I am passionate enough about Christian justice movements and see Jesus at work in those in profound ways. But I do think that there is something to our ministry “in place,” as it were. We are all connected in some way: to families, friends, neighbors, coworkers. How is it that what we do can be transformative? How is it that we can be healed and yet remain “in place”?

And finally, I think that Jesus is teaching something profound to us by moving throughout the Galilee. And it is in this place that the tension develops with the last point in healthy ways. In a very tribal time, Jesus was saying very clearly, “Let’s go. Let’s get beyond that tribe and move among the people.” Far from staying “in place,” Jesus is on the move.

So let’s go!

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For the past few days, I have been at the Presbyterian Global Fellowship conference in Long Beach, California. PGF is an organization which exists to “to transform mainline congregations into missional communities following Jesus Christ”. It tends toward the conservative, especially on hot-button denominational issues such as ordination of homosexuals. Many are concerned about the recent actions of the General Assembly to change the Book of Order for full inclusion, seeing it as a change from traditional Presbyterian standards.

I need to say up front that I am as comfortable – and as uncomfortable – among this group as I am among the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, a notably liberal group within the denomination. I take Stanley Hauerwas’ description of the “resident alien” not only as a personal feeling of exile within the wider society, but also many times within the church itself. I worship as well in an emergent church as I do in Orthodox liturgy. I’m never quite at home in any context.

There is the threat, after this summer’s General Assembly, that there would be a split within the denomination. However, I am encouraged that much of the conversation among the leadership here at PGF is about how to live into that tension and division within the denomination, rather than finding a “way out.”

One proposal is to re-shape the denomination with non-geographic governing bodies that reflect the divisions over key issues, and would still maintain a wider unity of the denomination. I think there is great wisdom here, and I do hope that it gets some traction. I think it is far more fruitful to the health and faithfulness of the church and its witness than any kind of split we might find. Speaking very broadly, and from my point of view, we need the evangelical passion within the denomination for its insistence on the uniqueness of the gospel and of Jesus Christ. We also need the progressives’ zeal for justice and fairness. There are places where the two find common ground, but they are seemingly rare. “Mission”, in conservative circles, most often means “conversion.” “Mission”, in liberal circles, most often means “compassion.” For me, at least, the division is a false one. Thus the broader denominational tension is a healthy one.

As soon as I say this, though, I know that any such proposal will cause a personal crisis for me. If we are divided along these traditional lines, I’m not sure which way I will fall. If I could do “both/and”, then I’m probably good. But if it’s “either/or”, I remain in a more permanent exile.

And here comes the flaw that I see in the conversation here at PGF: there is an assumption that we are all systematic theologians, that there is no intellectual gap between our assumptions about God and God’s character and the positions we take on the positions of the day. In other words, a conservative theology leads to a conservative worldview; a liberal theology leads to a liberal worldview. I do not think that this is necessarily so, and I do think that there are many of us who cross lines quite fluidly. Two more academic illustrations of my point:

  • In South African theologian John de Gruchy’s book on art in liturgy, he examines the view that John Calvin had about the use of iconography by the church. Calvin saw icons in the light of his strong stand against idolatry and his radical focus on God, and thus opposed the use of religious icons. But what if, de Gruchy wonders, Calvin saw icons in the light of his strong stand on God’s accommodation toward humanity (e.g. incarnation, human language, etc.)? In other words, what if icons were a part of the way that God chooses human ways to communicate heavenly ideas? As systematic and logical and legally minded as Calvin was, even he had tension in his interpretive, intellectual lenses.
  • Richard Hays of Duke Divinity School has written profoundly on the “What Would Jesus Do” ideal in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament. In it, before he digs into the controversial issues of the day, he sets up his hermeneutical/interpretational lenses from the New Testament. He sees three important ones: cross, community, and new creation. When he looks at the issue of sexuality, for example, he is ultimately convinced by the need for the church to present a different way of being as new creation as a call to traditional standards of sexual behavior. But what if he were to choose another lens, namely community, to be primary? What if it were Christ’s radical call for inclusion and expansion of who is “in” on this particular issue? Would this cause him to look at this issue differently?

I am not a systematic theologian. My theology is strongly evangelical. But the conclusions it leads me to most often (not always) look a lot more like those of so-called liberals. Perhaps I am confused. I am definitely post-modern. But here’s what I’m convinced of theologically: none of the divisions of the church have a monopoly on truth. The PC(USA) cannot be our ultimate eschatology. I myself do not claim to have any authority to speak on “truth”. And, most importantly, I know that living in the tension of friendships with different parts of the Body of Christ has been the most powerful way for me to continue to seek that truth. Dividing in these ways would simply reinforce the fact that we self-ghettoize along theological lines, rarely seeking friendship and/or conversation with those with whom we disagree.

Whatever the future of the denomination might be, my hope is that there would be an intentional way to encourage – and, perhaps, even force – us to seek relationships across traditional boundaries. That, to my mind, would be the best way to benefit from the challenging heart the gospel offers us.

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I don’t know why I haven’t posted this before.

Back in August of 2007, I started an amazing journey with three fellow pastors in the Presbytery. We applied for, and received, a grant from the Lilly Foundation to enroll in the S3 (Service, Study, and Sabbath) program. Since then, we have gathered around the themes of the arts, reconciliation, and retreat in moving and powerful ways. We are getting ready to wrap up our time together officially, though we are eager to continue in whatever way we can.

The video below is a bit of fun from last August. We had five minutes to introduce ourselves and our project to the other S3 recipients. We decided to riff on the idea that we were ordinary mild-mannered pastors who were suddenly granted super (artistic) powers. There’s also a surprise cameo in there.


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I spent the past weekend with my S3 group – four pastors engaging in Service, Study, and Sabbath. We played and created all weekend, including two songs. The music is original; the words are psalms; the recording rough. I expect to come back in a few weeks with more polished versions, which will be posted here.

Psalm 63:

Psalm 121:

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I just got back from the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC, where I spent the weekend with three colleagues. Each of us had our own art we learned – two in quilting, one in blacksmithing, and me in printmaking. I took some of my favorite photos through the years and transferred them to solarplates for printing, and I loved the results. I’ll try and post those soon.

Last year we received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to form a group rooted in service, study, and sabbath. The crux of our project is to look at the creative arts – whether that be musical, visual, or written – and to spend time together for refreshment and exploration. This weekend was part of that. In a way, it’s our desire to connect more deeply with the God of creation and the Spirit who continually re-creates us, shapes us, and calls us to serve the church with imagination and creativity. In some ways, there is something in this act of creating which moves us a breath closer to that divine, creating character.

One of our group noted that the artistic process has three movements: inspiration, creation, and exhibition. We have the idea and we give it form. But the piece doesn’t really exist until someone else sees it and interacts with it. Could the same be true for God’s work of creation? Is that part of the reason we need community with one another, that we creatures need to see and know one another to become fully created beings?

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