Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Swirling Maelstorm of Language

I am currently reading Tim Keel's book, "Intuitive Leadership" and amongst other things he talks about the difference in how different languages are read. The three styles of language he talks about are Chinese, Hebrew/Arabic, and Greek/English. Chinese, as well as other languages of that region have a pictorial value to their language. The symbols used often partially reflect the word they are representing. By contrast Greek and English use completely arbitrary and abstract symbols combined together to make words which only have meaning when we are taught them but often hold little resemblance to the things that refer to. Keel also notes that in Arabic and Hebrew one reads right to left, which apparently requires the use of the right brain instead of the left, and that Hebrew and Arabic do not use vowels, so that part of the act of reading is the filling in of those gaps. The result, Keel argues is that language takes on a greater meaning because of the increased stimulation.

I could go on and on about language, how its meanings are shaped by culture, and so on, but instead I wanted to spend a moment of the question of how we read. Unfortunately because of the format I am using, we are forced to look at this topic through a limited lens but I will still try. The idea that I wanted to talk about was less the question of left to right/right to left/top to bottom, but instead the nonlinear way of speaking and reading. When I go to outline my sermon, I often struggle with seeing a clear line through the swirl of ideas that I usually start from. Some of this is necessary refining to take the often caffeine induced ideas that I start from when preaching. Part of the challenge is that people often make better sense of something when it is done literally, and really the two sermon formats that I was taught were inductive and deductive, so either working from a conclusion and following its progression or working towards a conclusion. The image I have in my mind is something I recall from learning about Jewish Biblical studies, where a text of scripture is placed at the heart and then written around it are the various interpretations of different Rabbis through the years. I like the idea of simply saturating someone with ideas and letting them sort out all of the connections.

I guess my question in all of this is whether it is possible, in the context of a sermon, to have an effective, non-linear conversation. Can one use the swirling nature of language, imagery, and ideas and simply spin out ideas for the congregation allowing them to make the connections. Rather than being a process of moving from or towards a conclusion it becomes the art of creating multiple conclusions, or at least introducing the possibility to go many different ways from the same ideas. I think I am stuck on the question of if there is something to aspire towards, in a sermon that would be a better understanding of God, can you lead people towards a universal end while allowing for multiple paths? I want to hold in tension the desire for some sort of universal aim while respecting the need for different paths to move towards that end. What worries me is whether it is possible to allow people to engage in their own journey, their own quest towards understanding while at the same time actively moving them forward on that journey. I think the hard part is that even the concept of moving forward assumes the understanding of a some sort of goal, which would assume that in order for a pastor to help people forward a pastor must have some sense of what that direction looks like. How do we allow for different paths of truth while still assuming an ultimate sort of truth, even something as simple as a God who is knowable in some form. I feel like there is a compromise out there. I feel like there is a way to have a sermon/message/experience with the Word, that allows for people to access God and learn about God without requiring forgone conclusions or a linear projection towards or from sort of absolute.

I feel that I am largely left with no great conclusions on this, but I hope the swirl of my thought has been interesting to follow and gives you a sense of what is going on in my brain at present.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A brief meditation on light

This is one instance where I wish I had a camera around with me at all times. Last night we did a Tenebrae service at Light of the Lakes where we read through the passion narrative and slowly darkened the church by putting out candles one at a time. While the church did grow gradually darker as the readings continued, a lot of that was do to the sun setting and not because the candles were putting out so much light as to make a huge difference. The change that I really did notice was in the way the candle looked after its flame was extinguished. Because the candles were white against a white background of the altar cloth, once the light was out they blended into the backdrop. I was just struck by the powerful imagery of this, that it really is that light, the light of Christ that helps our lives to stand out for people. These candles were not providing a whole lot of light, but the little light they did provide made all the difference in whether or not you even noticed them. It reminds me of the song "and they'll know we are Christians by our love." How are we preparing to let the Easter light, the light of Christ burn brightly in our lives to help illuminate the darkness, how are we letting that light stand out against the plain backdrop of our lives? Just a few thoughts as we move through the darkness towards Easter's dawn.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Depravity of Humanity

At UMYS, the gathering of United Methodist high school students in Minnesota, I was bombarded at several points by songs and speakers that stressed our total dependence on God. While I would agree that each of us needs God, what I struggled with was the accompanying belief that without God, we are nothing, or really that left to our own devices, humans will tend towards evil and failure. This low view of humanity has been around for a long time. Luther certainly believed in the total depravity of humanity and our great need for grace. Several different branches of the Christian faith today also stress this same depravity and dependency.

Now I should make it clear that I know from my own numerous failings in life that I am far from perfect and certainly in need of God's grace. I guess I want us to have a better sense of God's prevenient grace. I think if we have too low of an opinion of humanity, we are in fact insulting God. I am not big on the whole idea of original sin and its completely destructive effects on our lives. What I struggle with is that God's creation, namely us, could have been so fragile that we could screw it up so bad in one go. When we talk about the depravity of humanity we are talking about the depravity of God's creation. While I believe in need for grace in our lives, I believe that God is already at work in our lives. While we ultimately need God's grace to be saved, we also need to remember that God gave us some gifts already to help in our salvation. To my knowledge Gandhi never really claimed the need for God's grace in his life. I am certain he never accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior. At the same time, can we say that he lived a life of total depravity. While I question some of the choices he made, I think he is a great example of what humanity can do. I do not want to undermine the need for grace in our lives, I just think we need to recognize that part of the grace that God gives us is simply innate in who we are. We as humans are capable of making good choices. We are not perfect, but I think like Wesley we need to aspire to perfection, and when we fall short in this life, we can trust in God's grace to help us along.

I think this is more ranting than I wanted it to be. I think that at the moment I am simply struggling for a more positive view of humanity than I often find in Christianity. I feel that we ultimately undermine ourselves by saying we are not capable of anything without God. The sort of negative language we use in our theology would be scorned in regular conversation as being overly negative, and damaging to our sense of self worth. I guess I think it is possible to believe in the greatness of God and yet to see some of that in the ways that God created humanity, to see God's grace already at work in our lives, not something we have to claim before we can be anything at all. The irony in this is that I want to talk tonight about how each of us betrays Christ in our own ways ... maybe I am not so sure what I think after all.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Bigger is Better?

I was reading the book "Releasing the Power of the Smaller Church" this evening when I had an interesting though. The author of the essay I was reading was contrasting our idea that bigger is better with the powerful nature of small groups, family units, and by extension the "smaller church" (200 or less in worship). One example he had was the idea of Big Schools, which made me think of my own decision to attend Beloit College, a small liberal arts school (graduating class of about 300). During my time at Beloit there at been a real push to move the overall enrollment from about 1100 to 1200, increasing the incoming class from 320 to about 350. While I think there was other spin put on the push, in the end it came down the need/desire of the administration to increase their revenue without increasing the cost of tuition. While I understand the financial needs of the institution and the reality that colleges need at some level to function like businesses, but the more I think about it the more I think there is actually a value in growing smaller. As I think about it the reality is that I think Beloit, and many schools like it would benefit more by shifting their numbers closer to 1000 than 1200, because while there is some advantage in being larger, there is a great deal of benefit in the small intimate style of learning that a lower enrollment can allow. I would be happy, and impressed if the next push I get from my alumni association is not a request for how we can build bigger buildings, but instead how we can help the college grow smaller. At the same time I wonder if really what we as a church need to be doing is not looking at how to create more examples of mega-congregations, but instead should be looking at new ways to sustain smaller churches. Rather than placing all our emphasis on chasing the elusive dream of bigger and better, we should instead be looking at how we can help churches to grow smaller and yet also more numerous. I think what may be a more challenging and yet better goal for the Kin-dom of God is for us to look at how to expand by building out and broadening our base, not by building up the biggest and the best. I think we need to shift the paradigm. The image I will leave this post with is one I have seen outside my window a lot these evening ... huge snow flakes ... but each of these snow flakes is in fact several smaller snow flakes clumped together. Perhaps the ideal mega-congregation is not a Willow Creek, but a connection of tiny parishes connected in a great web of ministry.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Talking the Walk

On Sunday I took a group of church members on a field trip down to the Cities. We visited "The Well" at Centennial UMC and also Solomon's Porch. One of the things that was most striking to the group was th way that both of these congregations talked about the mission work that they were doing. At "The Well" they are raising money to build a well in Africa. At Solomon's Porch different members talked about a mission trip to Central America as well as some work that some of them were doing in Thailand and Southeast Asia. In both cases they were willing to talk about th work that they were doing in the community and the world. The truth of the matter is that all United Methodist Churches help out around the world. It may not be a large amount, monetarily or as a percentage of their budgets, but through paying apportionments to the denomination local churches are taking part in missions. The difference is that we do not talk about it. Or if we do talk about it it tends to be with more of a tone of resentment, more along the lines of how people talk about taxes rather than missions.

In listening to the responses of my members it reinforced the need for churches in general to talk about missions. I do not say this because I think we need to be self-congratulatory or make a big deal about what we are doing. I want us to start talking about missions work because I think we need to help build on the idea that we need to be doing it. Hearing about what other people are doing in missions encourages other people to think about and participate in mission work. If we as a church do not share the stories of the work we are doing in the world then we start to forget how important that work is. By sharing the difference we make in other peoples lives we encourage each other to make a difference.

The culture we create in the church is important. What we talk about effects what kind of a church we are going to be. In most churches we seem to spend most of our announcements talking about meetings and social events. The end result is that most churches are about meetings and social events. Instead if we started talking about missions and ministry, maybe the church would be more about missions and more about ministry. In the end I think walking the walk is important, but if we don't talk it as well, then we are not going to have others join us on it. The task of discipleship, as I see it is to both walk it and talk it. And now I am done talking.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Gender and Politics

I heard a comment on NPR from an old union worker in Ohio who had always vowed to never vote for a woman. He then went on to say that he voted for Clinton in the recent primary there because she had shown she was a fighter. While I am glad that this gentleman overcame his prejudice and realized that individuals of both genders have things to offer when it comes to politics, however; I am also concerned at what seems to be an underlying message of his statement. I guess what worries me is that he voted for Clinton, not because he realized that women are people too, but that Clinton did not fit into his stereotypes and so she was therefore acceptable.

I am not sure how to best express my thoughts on this without also falling into the trap of stereotypes around gender, so I will try and tread lightly. What strikes me in this man's statement and the sentiment behind it and by others like it, is the idea that men are the fighters, the hunters,the aggressive ones. Women on the other hand are talkers, compromisers, "soft" for lack of a better word. What worries me is that it seems the only way for women to get respect is to prove that they are not soft, that they can be fighters like the men. I think this is an important realization because I know a number of women, and I would probably include Clinton in that group who are fighters just like the men. My problem is that I wish that was not the only way to achieve respect. I wish what this Ohio man had realized was that there was something to be valued in people who are not fighters. Is it possible to hold a position of power and responsibility without being a fighter?

My own nonviolent tendencies and values would like to believe that it is possible for someone to acquire a position of power without the combative attributes that we tend to associate with people in power. I do not think I have the ability to parse out and breakdown every part of this hope of mine, but I would like to push forward the idea that the stereotypes associated with women ... community oriented, willing to compromise, etc which are in turn are perceived weaknesses in men, are something that needs to be valued more in this society. I am not saying that this is something that Senator Clinton needs to aspire to, I would like her to be authentic to who she is, whether that is someone who is a fighter, or compromiser. I just want society to consider the idea that not only is more than one gender capable of providing leadership to our country but that there is also more than one way of providing that leadership, and in particular some effective ways of being a leader do not fit neatly into the typical stereotypes of what it is to be a man.

I hope I spelled that all out correctly. I just wish we could find new ways of looking at things beyond the gendered stereotypes about people, power, and politics.