Monthly Archives: February 2012

online book group: practicing our faith, chapter 5

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In this chapter we join M. Shawn Copeland in considering the practice of saying yes…and saying no. He opens with a blunt statement that, much as we might prefer it that way, Christianity is not a spectator sport. We don’t get to watch and think “what a great player/dancer/musician” and to wish we had that but then never bother to work out or practice. “Throughout Christian history, it has been clear that spirituality is not a spectator activity. Tough decisions and persistent effort are required of those who seek lives that are whole and holy. If we are to grow in faithful living, we need to renounce the things that choke off the fullness of life that God intends for us, and we must follow through on our commitments to pray, to be conscientious, and to be in mutually supportive relations with other faithful persons. These acts take self-discipline. We must learn the practice of saying no to that which crowds God out and yes to a way of life that makes space for God.”

He certainly doesn’t mince words, does he? The trouble is, at least for me, that these words hit very close to home. It’s easy to look on and say “what a beautiful piece of music” but much harder to get out my own instrument and practice. It’s easy to look at someone else’s life and say “what peace, what joy” but much harder to make time for God’s Spirit to speak in my own life. It’s easy to look at the descriptions of the way God intends the world to be and say “that’s nice isn’t it” and to go on living my usual way. This is a practice I think many of us really need, but it won’t be easy!

“Learning when and how, to what, and to whom to give our yes or our no is a lifelong project. It is learning to live not merely in dull balance or tedious moderation but in passionate, disciplined choice and action.” It sounds both awesome and terrifying! How do we get there?

“Prayer, examination of conscience, and participation in small communities are three acts that can help us in this practice.” I love when they lay out the plan so clearly.

So first, prayer: conversation with God. “real, demanding, loving, and engaged conversation.” Since each person is unique, each person’s prayer life will be too–in fact, with 7 billion people on the planet I’d be willing to bet we have 8 billion ways of praying! But there are a few things we can learn that will enrich our conversations with God–things that have been part of the prayer lives of millions of people before us. Remember, prayer is a practice–it takes work! Copeland suggests: 1. choose a time to pray each day. Put it in your calendar or appointment book if necessary. 2. Find a place where you won’t be disturbed, and where you can be at least somewhat comfortable. 3. Take several deep breaths. 4. Consciously place yourself in the divine presence. Perhaps imagine yourself resting in God’s hand, or sitting with God in the living room, or some other image that works for you. Talk to God about all kinds of things–the things you talk about in the living room! The needs of people you know, the issues of the world, things for which you are grateful, things going on in your own life. 5. When a distraction comes up in your mind, simply notice it and return to your conversation. 6. Sit in the quiet and simply listen–even if you hear nothing. Listen for “the stirrings of your heart.” 7. Give thanks and prepare to return to the day.

Second, examination. This practice comes from the Ignation practice of examen in which we look back over our day and see where we noticed God, where we felt far from God, what gave us energy and what sapped our energy. Copeland suggests we also review our “decisions, choices, actions, omissions, attitudes, and desires” and determine where we have said “yes” and “no” during the day, and whether those yeses and noes line up with who we want to be. How do the opportunities we take, and the ones we pass up,  limit growth or future opportunity? How can we use the energy and time of our lives in the way God calls us to?

Third, small groups. A group of people who can hold us accountable for our yeses and noes, for the ways in which we live our faith, and who can help us grow and nurture our relationship with God and with God’s world is a beautiful thing. These groups often meeting anywhere from once a week to once a month, and are covenanted to keep the schedule–this is not a meeting we skip on a whim or for something better, but a commitment we make to God, to ourselves, and to one another as a group. Some of these groups include Bible study, others have a time for corporate examen, others gather around a particular issue or justice activity. All include the opportunity to get to know each other on a deeper level, to share our faith and doubt, to learn and grow together, and to pray with and for one another.

What are some other ways you can engage in the practice of saying yes to abundant life and no to destruction and despair? How have you used these three ways? What questions do you have? Hopes or fears or doubts? What else do you want to learn about this practice?

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with the Word online Bible study: healing and serving

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Mark 1.29-34
After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James, and John went home with Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.
That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. The whole town gathered near the door. He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.

*What grabbed your attention in this reading?
*What questions did it bring up for you?
*How does the Scripture connect with something that has happened in your day? your week? your life?
*What might God be saying to you through the gospel?

Remember that the word used for Peter’s mother in law getting up and serving is diakoneo –she ministered to them, like a deacon. It is the same word that is used when Jesus is in the wilderness after his baptism and “the angels ministered to him.” How does that change your reading of the story? What do you think about the fact that when it’s angels we use the word “ministered” but when it’s a mother-in-law we use the word “served”? (Think about this insight into biblical translation…)

Can you imagine being in front of the door with the whole town? What would that be like? What would you be hoping for?

Why do you think the demons recognize Jesus but people don’t? What do you make of the fact that Jesus won’t let the demons speak because they recognize him? What is that about?

What is the good news in this story? What is the challenge for us today?

This We Believe: Second Helvetic Confession, part VIIa

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Section 7, as laid out in the study guide, consists of chapters 17-21 and is about “Church, Ministry and Sacraments.” As you might imagine, this is a ridiculously long section. So we’ll take it a bit at a time–first, Church. Next week, Ministry. The following week, Sacraments. Otherwise this post will be so long that you’ll still be here reading it next week anyway! 😉

So, chapter 17, “Of the Catholic and Holy Church of God, and of the One Only Head of the Church.” (you can kind of see where this is going, can’t you? Remember it’s 1566…)

This chapter has some real gems–I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

“The church has always existed and it will always exist.” That’s quite an opening line. The confession goes on to say that “The Church is an assembly of the faithful called or gathered out of the world” which does make it possible then to suggest that in all times and places, God has had a church. The ancient Israelites may not have known themselves that way, exactly, but Bullinger says they too are part of the church, the great cloud of witnesses, because they were an assembly gathered out of the world to worship and serve the One true God. In other words–because there has always been only one God, there has always been only one mediator between that God and humanity (the one eternal Son) and therefore there has always been a church.

“Therefore we call this church Catholic because it is universal, scattered through all parts of the world, and extended unto all times, and is not limited to any times or places. Therefore, we condemn the Donatists who confined the Church to I know not what corners of Africa. Nor do we approve of the Roman clergy who have recently passed off only the Roman Church as catholic.” Alrighty then! I think the Roman church zinger is clear enough, and highlights a difficulty we still have today with the word “catholic”–which in the creeds means universal but is commonly used as shorthand to mean the Roman Catholic church. The Donatists may need a little more explanation. Donatism arose in North Africa in the 4th and 5th centuries in response to persecution. The basic idea was that anyone who, under persecution, had handed over a bible or renounced faith but then, when persecution ended, came back to the church, was a traitor. The church was to be full of “saints, not sinners” and so any sacraments performed by these traitors were invalid, any preaching done by them was inferior, etc. No amount of penance could restore these priests or bishops to their authority. The Donatists held themselves to be the only true church, against the church from Rome (even when the emperor became head of the church rather than persecutor of the church). The sect had mostly died out by the 800s.

Bullinger discusses various metaphors for the church, most of which will be familiar to us. The church is “the temple of the Living God” it is “bride and virgin of Christ” it is “a flock of sheep”  it is “the body.” He also discusses that “the church does not err” which sounds like something we would never say today. He continues that statement though–“as long as it rests upon the rock of Christ and upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles. And it is no wonder if it errs, as often as it deserts him who alone is the truth.” Well…yes. So the church does not err as long as its foundation is sure, but the foundation is often not so sure, so….no wonder things happen.

“Christ is the sole head of the church. It is the head which has the preeminence in the body, and from it the whole body receives life.”  “The Church cannot have any other head besides Christ.”  Using the body metaphor, Bullinger expounds upon what it means to be a body–and a major part is to be “under” the head, and there can be only one head. We are all under Christ, and there is no human being that can ever consider himself head of the church. Not a priest, not a politician, not an emperor, and not a pope. If we truly believe Christ is present in the church, there is no need for a substitute vicar/pope/head/pontiff. There is also to be no primacy in the church”  which means no succession or dominion–aka no bishops or popes who can be raised through the ranks (because there shouldn’t be ranks) by the opinion of one or via any way other than the whole community’s ratification of call. And to those who insist that there must be hierarchy and primacy in order to maintain order in the church, Bullinger says “The Roman head does indeed preserve his tyranny and the corruption that has been brought into the Church…” That’s not the kind of order we want anyway, in other words.

There is a whole section, though, on the biblical model for how to handle dissension within the church. The early church we find in Paul’s letters had plenty of controversy and dissension but still managed to be the church together and to maintain enough order that the Word could be preached and Sacraments celebrated, the poor fed and the community gathered, so..it must be possible.

Speaking of Word and Sacrament–these are the signs of a true church–“the true Church is that in which the signs or marks of the true Church are to be found, especially the lawful and sincere preaching of the Word of God as it was delivered to us in the books of the prophets and the apostles, which all lead us unto Christ…and those who are such in the church have one faith and one spirit; and therefore they worship but one God….and they do not seek righteousness and life outside Christ….Moreover, joined together with all the members of Christ by an unfeigned love, they show that they are Christ’s disciples by persevering in the bond of pieace and holy unity…they participate in the Sacraments instituted by Christ and delivered unto us by his apostles, using them in no other way than as they received them from the Lord.”  That’s mostly self-explanatory, except that last bit, which is another jab at the Roman church and its expansion of the sacraments from two to seven, and their understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice that turns bread and wine into body and blood (literally, not metaphorically)–because, as we’ll learn in the Sacraments chapters, we observe a meal as Christ did–one that brings us together with him but does not re-do his death every time.

Now we get to the good stuff. (see what I mean about breaking the section up? wow.)

“Outside the Church of God there is no salvation”  (again, the words need no explanation, though the concept is uncomfortable…but remember what he said about the church at the beginning of the chapter!) … “Nevertheless, by the signs of the true Church mentioned above, we do not so narrowly restrict the Church…For we know that God had some friends in the world outside the commonwealth of Israel…” Interesting, no? And of course we know this to be true, in Old and New Testaments as well as throughout church history. As Jesus himself said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.”

“We must not judge rashly or prematurely…we must be careful not to judge before the time, nor undertake to exclude, reject, or cut off those whom the Lord does not want to have excluded and rejected, and those whom we cannot eliminate without loss to the Church. On the other hand, we must be vigilant lest while the pious snore the wicked gain ground and do harm to the Church.” heehee, pious snoring. This seems contradictory on the surface–we can’t judge, but we must be vigilant. Remember that Bullinger is a pastor–he knows the ways we can behave badly even in the church, the ways we harm ourselves and community. What do you think he means by this?

Last but not least…“Unity consists not in outward rites and ceremonies, but rather in the truth and unity of the catholic faith.” In other words, the true unity of the church can sustain diversity of worship and ceremony, as long as the One is the foundation.

So, now that we’ve gone through a very long chapter, what do you think? What seems to still apply to the church as we know it today? What seems odd? What questions do you have? There’s more to this chapter so if you have a question, feel free to ask and we’ll see if Bullinger addresses it in the parts I left out, or if other parts of our theological tradition can shed more light.

Lent 2012: Heart and Seek

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In worship this morning John reminded us that we have entered the season of Lent, and told us there are family devotional booklets available for us to use each night to help us focus on seeking God this season. If you didn’t get a booklet, please let us know and we’ll get one to you!

Part of the booklet includes an optional Fasting practice (if you choose not to do it, there’s also a daily question we invite you to answer with your family).
Keep reading, because fasting is not necessarily what you think! We won’t be going days without food or giving up meat. We’ll fast from something different each week. Fasting is a practice that goes all the way back before Jesus—it was a practice that helped people draw closer to God in the Old Testament, Jesus fasted, and Jesus said things like “when you fast,” which suggest that he expected his followers to do it too. Fasting is the root of the common Lent practice of “giving something up”—but instead of simply giving up m-n-ms or “giving up” something we don’t do anyway (yes, we’ve done that!), we’ll be exploring the practice of fasting from a variety of things. Each Sunday in this booklet there’s a new thing that’s common in many of our lives. During the week from Monday-Sunday, we hope you’ll try, as a family, to fast from that thing. This is a way to re-orient ourselves, to remind ourselves that often we are so full there’s no room for God’s new thing, and to try a different way of living even if it’s just for a short period. There’s also a separate sheet about the practice of Fasting so you can learn more about it and how you might try it.

This week’s fasting practice is:
We are going to try giving up snacks—we’ll only eat at mealtimes, not in between. When you are hungry between meals, let that hunger be a reminder to look to God, who gives us the bread of life. Let that hunger be a reminder that your body does not control you—you can let your spirit take the lead instead. Let the hunger be a reminder that there are millions of people in the world who do not have enough to eat, and take that moment to pray for them.

Yes, we know that girl scout cookies just came in. They’ll still be there waiting for you on Sunday or Monday. 🙂

online book group: Practicing our Faith, chapter 4

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In this chapter we join Sharon Parks in considering practices of economics–remembering that the word “economics” (like ecology and ecumenism) comes from the Greek word “oikos” meaning household. SO economics is about how we arrange our household for the well-being of the whole.

There’s a lot to consider in this practice, because what we do in our own households is not confined within our individual private homes. The choices we make affect others and the planet, both near and far, now and future. The global economy seems designed to profit some and use others. The realities of the Global North and Global South (or “developed” and “developing” nations/economies) can be uncomfortable, but they nonetheless intrude on the choices we make every day, whether about what kind of coffee or chocolate to consume or where our clothes are made or what kind of environment we want to leave for our children and grandchildren. Add in the latest statistics on slavery (there are more slaves today than at any time in human history, and they produce everything from chocolate to jewelry to makeup to electronics) and we have a complex issue–how might we arrange our individual households for the good of the whole–both our house and the global oikumene?

Many of us have heard the statement “show me your checkbook (or credit card statement) and I will show you what you believe in”–ie, we tend to put our money where our faith is, despite what our mouth might say. It’s a modern way of saying “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6.21) In a culture where having things is equated with happiness, it’s even more true. We are constantly torn between the idea that there won’t be enough so we have to work harder and make more so we can get more and be more secure … and the fact that our lives are so full of stuff already. Parks quotes Douglas Meeks who calls this the sense of simultaneous scarcity and satiety.

Parks also talks about a concept the early Quakers called “cumber.” It used to be that we went to the market, but now the market comes to us, advertising is everywhere (including on us), and it has worked miracles–“Americans now spend more time shopping than citizens of any other nation, and we spend a higher fraction of the money we earn.” That means we’re out accumulating stuff–stuff that requires energy and attention to “secure, maintain, and finally discard” and also, often, stuff that has advertising on or built in, which takes more of our subconscious and conscious attention and shapes us in ways we don’t even notice.

All of this is not pointed out to make us feel guilty–most of us have plenty of that already. It’s to make us aware. Parks says that “for Christians, the move that is faithful is not from the material to the spiritual but rather from materialism to incarnation.” There’s no divide between material and spiritual–all is created by God and called good. How we use it is the heart of the issue. Incarnation is about Spirit being IN matter (made-flesh), not being separated from it. Parks puts it beautifully: “Every being participates in the household of God and is included in the economic imagination of God. The great gulfs we have created between the spiritual and the material, between religion and commerce, between businesspeople and environmentalists, are products of a false consciousness, an unexamined and inadequate economic faith.”

An adequate economic faith is not only to participate in charity–though that has been the church’s response most of the time, taking “you’ll always have the poor with you” to mean that it’s inevitable so we should just help where we can, piecemeal. But looking at our history there HAVE been things we’ve done that created structural change in various systems. “For example, the call to the desert, the development of religious orders, their subsequent renewals, the Protestant Reformation–all were fe-formations of life that gave rise to new economic patterns and structures. Likewise, in the 20th century, from the establishment of settlement houses in Chicago tot eh bus boycott in Montgomery, religious insight prompted changes in economic arrangements.”

So what can we do–in our own households and in our participation in the global household? What practices might help us align more closely with God’s vision and bring us more fully into God’s house?

Simplicity: a practice that re-orients our lives to foster a sense of right proportion. Of course, this practice isn’t as simple (ha!) as it seems. It’s not only about “streamlining” or “doing without.” How might you simplify your life and bring it into right proportion with the rest of the world? With God’s call to aid others? Can simplicity be both about material goods and behaviors? What would it be like to practice simplicity in speech? In eating? In travel?

Right Labor: a practice that allows us to participate in creating a more just world through our purchasing decisions. Where do the things you buy come from? Who gathers the material, makes them, transports them, sells them? What kind of working conditions are those people laboring in? Try creating a map of where all the elements of your favorite meal come from, and learning something about the work and people who bring it to you. Or do the same for your favorite outfit or favorite item in your home. How can you help create a more just working environment for people and the planet?

Asking yourself questions: many Mennonites (most of whom have given up the agrarian way of life but still maintain their spiritual understandings) ask themselves “what does it mean to live as a sign of the kingdom of God?” What does it mean, in your life, to live as a sign of God’s kingdom? How does that kind of living affect what choices you make?

Joining with others: It’s hard to change something in the global system or even in your own household all on your own. People are created to be in community, and economics is, by definition, relational. What group (family, church, social, business, etc) are you a part of that can also join in these kinds of practices of just economics?

What did you think of this chapter? Does it make you uncomfortable to think about your faith and money at the same time? What do you think God asks of us in relation to our economic lives? How can we work toward using our money and time in a way that brings glory to God?