Hyper-tension

I wanted to spend some time talking about Dialectical theology today—I know sounds terrifying, but just stay with me for a minute.

Around the turn of the 20th century Dialectical Theology became a popular way of thinking about faith and God and all the big questions. Karl Barth may be one of the more prominent theologians who advocated for this approach. The idea here is that we aren’t necessarily looking for answers, but instead, we are looking for tensions. For example, on one end of the spectrum is ideological and on the end is practical. There is a need for both of these approaches, however, if we become completely ideological, we lose our ability to live within the world around us. If we become too realistic, we fall out of touch with the radical nature of the gospel and the places where God is pushing us to pursue the kingdom. Neither approach is an answer unto itself, but living in the tension in between is where the truth lies.

This idea of virtue being the happy median in between two extremes is not a new idea. Aristotle’s ethics were based upon very similar thinking. Unfortunately, in this day and age, there are many who might see this reasonable approach to compromise as being somehow unfaithful. However, the gospel story is filled with these kinds of tension, and there is plenty to support this kind of reason within the Christian tradition.

Perhaps the greatest of all tensions comes in the gospel lesson this week—Palm/Passion Sunday. On the one hand you have the joyous arrival of the Messiah onto the streets of Jerusalem. On the other hand, there is the foreboding end of the story that we all know lies around the corner. There is the Irony of a king’s welcome in tension with the funeral procession to the cross about to take place. There is so much tension and so much depth to the events of Palm/Passion Sunday.

When we think about it, this makes so much sense given the lives we live as well. Last Sunday was the perfect example. Here we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of Covenant, and yet, it also happened to be the Sunday where we talked about “letting go of the past,” and “leaving it at the table.” Talk about tension! The fact is, we know there is much to celebrate about our past, yet, if that is where we dwell, we lose track of where God is calling us to be in the here and now.

So many of the things we have been letting go of probably fall into this kind of tension. Several of you have spoken with me about the discomfort of letting go of vengeance—where does vengeance end and justice begin? Certainly an important question, and one in which the Truth lies somewhere in the tension between Vengeance and avoidance of the realities of oppression.

This week we take on “Plans for the Future.” Again, I think this is a place of tension. Giving up all future plans doesn’t exactly make sense for any of us. However, when we have come to a rigid dependence on things going exactly according to plan, we will most surely find ourselves disappointed. Not only that, but we will prevent ourselves from seeing the movement of God’s Spirit in our midst! Perhaps that is why those disciples couldn’t see what was actually taking place in the events of Holy Week—There was a very specific plan for what this Messiah was supposed to be doing!

I think what all of this points to is how very complicated the realities of this world are. Perhaps there is reassurance in this as well. When we find ourselves uncomfortable and in a place of tension, the Spirit of God may be close at hand. Keep this in mind as we begin our journey into Holy week where both the reality of death and the promise of Resurrection are held in tight tension over the week to come.

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Tight Rope Walking

I am not a terribly big fan of Deepak Chopra, but I think the quote of his that we are using as the opening meditation for the bulletin this week is spot on. “I use memories, but I will not allow memories to use me.”

As we continue our journey of letting go and leaving it at the table this week, we hit an interesting topic—The Past. Certainly, there is something to be said about letting go of the hurts and the grudges of the past that have prevented us from being who God called us to be. There is even something to be said about letting go of the victories of the past that have come to cloud our understandings of the present. However, all that being said, there is certainly a need to hold in tension the memories and traditions of the past, and yet, not allowing them to completely take hold of the present.

There is perhaps no better example of how this plays out than in a church. Churches so often are shackled to the traditions of the past—“But we’ve always done it that way!” Incidentally, those are probably a pastor’s 7 least favorite words. Frankly, I think much of the decline of mainline protestant churches is completely tied to this problem. We have to be able to let go of the past in order to live into the future.

HOWEVER, the past has also been so important in telling us who we have been, where we have been, and what we have been doing. The past teaches us about how we have messed up, and how to avoid those same mistakes in the future. The past teaches us what is truly valuable and worth holding onto, and what needs to be abandoned. We need the memories of the past. Truly, we need to know more about our past in order to be healthy churches in the present and the future. There is great value in tradition.

Theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan once said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” The fact is, we cannot, and should not, completely let go of the past, but we cannot let it deaden us to the needs of the present. This is a tough tightrope for any of us to walk—especially when you get 200-300 members of a church walking that high wire all at once!

This Sunday we begin to celebrate Covenant’s 60th anniversary. We will have other events throughout the year, but this will be our first. Regional Presbyter Sallie Watson will be joining us for this celebration of our past as well. There is indeed so much to be thankful for in the life of this church. However, there are also things that we need to leave behind to move into the future that God has laid before us. It is a difficult tension, but a necessary tension within which we must live. So I end this reflection with a serious question that I would like you to consider in preparation for Sunday:

What things from our past must be a part of our future story, and what things do we need to let go of?

Remember to bring a symbol of something from your past to leave at the table as well!

Vengeance is…

This week’s challenge for leaving it at the table, may be one of the more difficult for many of us—VENGEANCE. How many of us have something for which we want to get even? How many of us would like to see the people that have wronged us receive their just deserts? How many of us, no matter how many times Jesus says, “Turn the other Cheek,” still want to see that enemy of ours bite the dust?

Well the answer is…all of us.

This is yet another example of how hard it is to let go of our brokenness. In fact, one of the things that Debi and I used in our Bible Studies this week was a Google NGram search of the word “vengeance.” Google NGram is a project that is trying to add every word written in the English language to a searchable site on Google so that we can see how those words were used over time. “Vengeance,” was used quite a lot in the 19th century, but fell out of more common usage in the 20th century—except of course when there were major global conflicts when usage ticked up again. Perhaps most strikingly, the usage of the word “vengeance” is today at its highest since before WWI. Take a look:

Use of the word Vengeance over the last 115 Years

Yet, the scriptural message about this is fairly consistent—if there is any vengeance to be had, it is God’s business and not ours. This Sunday we will be doing things a bit differently. We are going to hear a LOT of scripture that speaks about vengeance, followed by a bit of a surprise for the sermon. The point really is to take some time really reflecting on how each of us has been ruled by this brokenness and how we can begin to let it go.

One last thought, at this point you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of the confessional elements we have been using this lent. How many of us are beginning to wonder, “Can I really let any of this go?” Certainly, the challenge that we have taken on as a church is a steep one. But remember, we have taken this approach knowing full well that we do this in the company of the Grace of God. None of us will get all of this perfect, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start somewhere.

Many of you have told me your feelings on ISIS, and that the crimes against humanity that they have perpetrated are unforgivable. Given that we are talking about vengeance this week, I thought it might be interesting for us to see how some of the family members of the 21 Christians that were beheaded by ISIS on the coast of Libya are reacting. I believe that it will come as quite a challenge to most of us.

The Greatest Weapon Against ISIS: Forgiveness

Christian Mercy for Islamic State

MIdrash or Echo Chamber?

Dear Covenant Kin,

Many of my reflections have centered around how we understand scripture, and there are a couple of reasons for this. First, though most of my reflections feature prominently the ideas of thinkers much more profound then myself, many of the ideas I relate are not necessarily the mainstream or the norm for our Christian culture. A lot of what gets written in these reflections cannot be assumed, and even runs contrary to Christian tradition. Secondly, understanding scripture is a life long journey, and our understanding of scripture should be constantly evolving.

All that being said, we are spending time thinking about scripture again today. The Jewish tradition has a bit of a different way of reading scripture (the same scripture) than we do. What I am referring to is Midrash—the idea that to understand scripture we pull together centuries of thought and reflection of great minds upon the same subject. Of course, one important aspect of this is that if you are asking centuries of people from different cultures, different periods, different experiences you are going to get different answers as to what is important about a passage, or what it actually means. In other words, any given scripture doesn’t have one meaning, but countless meanings. This kind of flies in the face of how we have come to look at scripture in the Christian tradition. We often are of the belief that any scripture has a meaning, and our job as Christians is to figure out that singular meaning and believe it. It really is unfortunate, because this kind of thinking really does limit the great depth of meaning behind scripture. There is so much more to scripture than any one meaning can capture, and the notion of collecting the ideas of great thinkers about scripture is a wonderful one. I also think that this really is more faithful.

This week our focus for “Leaving it at the Table,” is the need to be right. More than ever before we live in a culture where winner take all, slash and burn politics have come to be the norm. That usually means that there is no room for multiple answers or understandings, but that if you disagree with me, something is wrong with you.

I will be the first to admit that of all the things we are leaving at the table this lent, this one is the greatest challenge for me. How often I catch myself thinking that the person who disagrees with me is uninformed and foolish! Definitely something I need to work on, but I am fairly sure that I am in no way alone in this. These ideas have come to be the norm, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Thus, introducing the idea of Midrash—that there can be many different understandings and our goal is to hear the truth in all of them, and not to assume that one is more correct than another. That scripture speaks with many voices, and eliminating some of those voices that disagree with us is a way that we do violence to the text.

Of course, this is easier said than done, and it really does take consistent practice to do this well. It is hard to hold competing claims in tension and see that God could be speaking to us through radical and contradictory statements. But I suppose, that is part of why we do this church thing. Hopefully, you don’t agree with everything that you encounter at Covenant. Hopefully, you find things that challenge you. Hopefully, this is not just an echo chamber, but a place to be challenged to learn and grow. After all, we don’t really grow by just being reassured we are right about everything. Growth comes through exploration. Growth comes through encountering new ideas. Growth comes from challenges to our faith. Growth comes from a community that doesn’t just seek those that are exactly the same, but those that show us faith can look differently for different people. I hope that is what you find somewhere in your church life…

Here is Richard Rohr’s reflection on Jesus’ teaching style and how understanding the concept of midrash helps us understand the meaning behind scripture. Enjoy!

Yes, and…