Faith that Empowers Wholeness, Love, and Justice

I want to share a few thoughts on why I’m preaching through one of the oldest Christian creeds this summer. We’re trying to learn and live in and transmit a faith that empowers wholeness, love, and justice in people and communities, that promotes whole life flourishing. And let’s be real – contemporary Christianity has a pretty spotty track record on this front!

By the fourth century, Chrisitans had the Bible in more or less the same form we do today. They also had traditions, faith practices, songs, and programs to remember Jesus, learn to love God and neighbor, and pass the faith on to others. To help with all this, and to promote unity in the faith, leaders also wrote a series of short creeds meant to summarize core Christian beliefs. The Apostles Creed is one of them. And for many centuries, it has helped anchor faith, hope, and love for followers of Jesus. I’m preaching through this creed because it’s an opportunity to talk about some important beliefs and experiences at the heart of good news faith in a living, life-giving God known to us in Jesus Christ.

The creeds aren’t perfect, though. They skip over important things, like pretty much everything Jesus taught or did in his life between his birth and his death. And their language has had some gaps and oversights that have sometimes played into some of the worst problems in the Christian faith we’ve inherited in our times.

Personally, I think the two biggest problems we’ve inherited have to do with power and love.

Christians have passed on horrible ideas about power. As the Roman Empire was adopting Christianity as its official religion, the writers of the creeds and other church leaders increasingly portrayed God’s power on the terms of human emperors and tyrants. When Christians called Jesus Lord, or spoke of the Heavenly Father God as a King, they increasingly called to mind perfectionist, aloof, controlling, and violent images of God. This helps explain so much of what has disgusted modern people about the legacy of Christianity – its sponsorship of crusades and colonies, its complicity with white supremacy and patriarchy, and its fear-based teaching on sin, hell, and an angry God. 

These ideas about power have also magnified the worst resistance and crises of faith people have around their ideas and experience of God. So many people struggle with faith when they observe or experience suffering and evil and wonder why a good God with controlling, micro-managing, total power isn’t stopping it. Reframing and relearning that God’s power is not controlling or micro-managing, but instead consistent with the loving, relational nature of God is a first and powerful step in overcoming the barriers to faith the problem and experience of evil presents. So I’m teaching the creeds with a different understanding of God’s power in mind, a power that is consistent with what we know through science and experience of how the world works, and a power that is consistent with a God who is love. 

Christians have also so often really failed to follow Jesus, in centering and practicing love. Jesus famously boiled down all of scripture and faith to matters of love. He taught God’s call to a relationship with Love: that we learn to love God with our whole being. And he taught God’s call to us to love our neighbors (and our enemies) as ourselves. If the problem of evil is the biggest reason people struggle with faith, the cruelty and hypocrisy of Christians might be the biggest reason people avoid things to do with Christianity in the first place. 

To practice and transmit a faith that empowers wholeness, love, and justice, we need to recenter love. We need to recenter love in our worship and our thinking about God. We need to recenter love in our sense of God’s hopes and direction for us and our world. And we need to recenter love in our ethics, our communities, our relationships, and the whole of our public lives. 

Reteaching the Apostle’s Creed this summer is one opportunity I have to encourage a life-giving, liberating faith worthy of a living, loving God and helpful for our lives today. Reservoir offers these attempts at innovative faith rooted in an ancient tradition in the spirit of our God who is always doing a new thing, making a way in the wilderness and making rivers in deserts, and in response to Jesus, who tells us,

“I am making everything new!” (Isaiah 43:19, Revelation 21:5)

So far, we’ve talked about the nature of belief, the nature of God, the friendship and leadership of Jesus, what makes Jesus special, and the impact of Jesus’ suffering and death for our healing. This Sunday, I’ll speak about what Jesus has been up to since he died, and on August 8, 15, and 29, I’ll speak about the rest of what the creed has to say about Christian community and experience.

All things new….

And we’re talking about how people have reinterpreted these words in light of what God is doing among us today. Because this is how religion in general, and faith in Jesus, in particular works. It remains rooted in its original historical events and sources, while it also evolves as people and culture do, with the Spirit of God accompanying us in an ever-changing world. 

Steve

Stories Jesus Told, Part III

We’ve started a winter series at Reservoir, “Stories Jesus Told.” As I shared in our first talk, the idea is that the most striking thing about Jesus as a teacher is that he mainly taught by telling stories. I reminded us that of the many stories Jesus may have told, his four original biographers passed down 45 to us. And quoting my friend Carl Medearis, I mentioned that these 45 stories that Jesus told are stories we might want to listen to, to know, to tell to other people.

The second thing that might strike us is how odd and at the same time commonplace these stories are. Drawn from everyday working and family and social and situations, they seem to indicate that God doesn’t want to draw us out of our lives to a higher plane but to engage us in our ordinary lives with how we think and relate and manage them. The stories aren’t always clear, but they are ultimately pretty intriguing.

And maybe that’s the point – to intrigue us, to get us asking questions of ourselves and our community and God, to engage with Jesus as a teacher and to see what we learn as we do so.

In that spirit, I’ve taken quite a few liberties and rewritten Jesus’ stories in 140 character or less form. They’re going up daily on twitter, but in digest form, here are the second bunch. For the first batch, go here. The second bunch are here.

Stories About Returning Authority Figures

Boss w/ 2 workers leaves town-1 does all well,1 goes ape-sh*t. Boss comes back w/punishments and rewards. Who can God trust? (Luke 12:42-48)

Groom delayed til midnight.5 bridesmaids brought flashlights!Other 5 wanna share,but no luck-they’re lost and locked out. (Matthew 25:1-13)

Guy asks 3 people to manage,invest his assets. 2 risk much, win big: huge rewards. 1-paralyzed by fear-does nothing:fired. (Luke 19:12-27)

Some of you are good to the nobodies, some of you ignore ’em. Here’s the catch:I’m with the nobodies. This really matters! (Matthew 25:21-46)

Stories About Unexpectedly Good News

Two dudes owe a bank, one owes $1K, one $10K. The bank forgives both loans – who loves that bank more? It’s like this with me. (Luke 7:41-43)

A good shepherd does all for the life of his many sheep – they know his voice&listen. The rest are thieves&liars.

PS I’m not just the shepherd, but the gate – taking the sheep into safety & freedom and & the good places they want to go. (John 10:1-18)

A sheepowner is always happier about the one lost sheep found than the 99 milling about, safe and sound. Just like God. (Matthew 18:12-14)

Shepherd has 99 perfectly fine sheep,but just has to find that one he lost-then he’s happy. God and heaven work this way. (Luke 15:3-7)

That woman who stays up looking for her lost coin, then calls her friends at 2am to celebrate-God’s just like that. (Luke 15:8-10)

One dad, two kids. Kid 2 scandalizes with badness, dad scandalizes with goodness, kid 1 scandalizes with bitterness. (Luke 15:11-32)

Laborers hired for different jobs,all paid days wage,then argue about fairness. Boss says:don’t hate me when I’m generous. (Matthew 20:1-16)

Two people pray.Religious one thanks God for his own awesomeness.Irreligious one asks for mercy. God’s listening to #2. (Luke 18:9-14)

Stories Jesus Told, Part II

We’ve started a winter series at Reservoir, “Stories Jesus Told.” As I shared in our first talk, the idea is that the most striking thing about Jesus as a teacher is that he mainly taught by telling stories. I reminded us that of the many stories Jesus may have told, his four original biographers passed down 45 to us. And quoting my friend Carl Medearis, I mentioned that these 45 stories that Jesus told are stories we might want to listen to, to know, to tell to other people.

The second thing that might strike us is how odd and at the same time commonplace these stories are. Drawn from everyday working and family and social and situations, they seem to indicate that God doesn’t want to draw us out of our lives to a higher plane but to engage us in our ordinary lives with how we think and relate and manage them. The stories aren’t always clear, but they are ultimately pretty intriguing.

And maybe that’s the point – to intrigue us, to get us asking questions of ourselves and our community and God, to engage with Jesus as a teacher and to see what we learn as we do so.

In that spirit, I’ve taken quite a few liberties and rewritten Jesus’ stories in 140 character or less form. They’re going up daily on twitter, but in digest form, here are the second bunch. For the first batch, go here.

God’s land is a woman tucking yeast into her dough and working it all the way through. And Jesus always talked like this. (Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:20-21)

kneading dough

Wheat and weeds grow together in my field. I’ll take care of it later; there’s nothing you can do about it. Let it be. (Matthew 13:25-30)

God’s land: like a net, bulging with fish. The fishers collect the good, throw out the bad. So will the angels at the end. (Matthew 13:47-50)

Gill_Net_Full_of_Fish

Don’t fall asleep on the job. Your boss is watching and might show up at any moment! Stay awake! (Mark 13:32-37)

No one knows when Jesus’ll show up. People’ll be working and eating, and -boom- Jesus will show up and change everything! (Matthew 24:36-44)

Your boss could show up at any moment, like a nighttime thief. Be ready, because he wants to get on his knees and serve you! (Luke 12:35-40)

servant

Again, follow me on twitter for these every day for a few weeks.

 

Stories Jesus Told, Part I

We’ve started a winter series at Reservoir, “Stories Jesus Told.” As I shared in our first talk, the idea is that the most striking thing about Jesus as a teacher is that he mainly taught by telling stories. I reminded us that of the many stories Jesus may have told, his four original biographers passed down 45 to us. And quoting my friend Carl Medearis, I mentioned that these 45 stories that Jesus told are stories we might want to listen to, to know, to tell to other people.

The second thing that might strike us is how odd and at the same time commonplace these stories are. Drawn from everyday working and family and social and situations, they seem to indicate that God doesn’t want to draw us out of our lives to a higher plane but to engage us in our ordinary lives with how we think and relate and manage them. The stories aren’t always clear, but they are ultimately pretty intriguing.

And maybe that’s the point – to intrigue us, to get us asking questions of ourselves and our community and God, to engage with Jesus as a teacher and to see what we learn as we do so.

In that spirit, I’ve taken quite a few liberties and rewritten Jesus’ stories in 140 character or less form. They’re going up daily on twitter, but in digest form, here are a few.

Stories About Something New Happening, and What it Might Be Like

Old and new don’t match when you’re patching clothes or storing wine. New things need new containers. (Mark 2:18-22, Matthew 9:17, Luke 5:33-39)

The teachers in God’s land are like a homeowner who keeps finding new treasures to share alongside old ones. (Matthew 13:52)

van-gogh-the-sower

Farmer throws seeds everywhere – growth rates vary widely, from nothing to insanely large amounts. Think about that! (Matthew 13:3-23, Mark 4:1-9)

Light wants to travel and shine. Same with truth. There’s no permanent secret or hiding place – all will be known in time. (Luke 8:16-18)

lightshining

How seed becomes life is a mystery. Same with God’s land. We’ve just got to spot the life and enjoy it! (Mark 4:26-29)

God’s land is a tiny seed that grows into a plant for food and spice and big bird-nested branches, just so beautiful. (Mark 4:30-32, Matthew 13:31-32, Luke 13:18-19)

Again, follow me on twitter for these every day for a few weeks.

Christmas Talks I Won’t Give (Yet)

I’m not preaching this Sunday, but I’ll speak a bit at two different services around Christmas Sunday. Letting my mind warm up a bit to the task, and inspired by one of our band leader’s desire to play a Rolling Stone song at our candlelight Christmas Eve service, here are three talk ideas I’m pretty sure I’ll never use.

Title #1: How to Think About Stupid Bureaucratic Requirements

Bible Verses: And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (Luke 2:1)

Line from the Stones song Luke Suggested:

“When I’m drivin’ in my car, and the man come on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more about some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination”

Aspect of Christmas Story: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, fulfilling prophecy that he be a child of the city of David and heir to the expansion of David’s good rule over all the earth. This only occurs, though, through a bureaucratic fiat of a Roman emperor, that people return to their hometowns to comply with a census.

Theological Idea: God can work through all manner of human actions – regardless of their original intentions – to advance God’s good purposes,

Take-Home Thought: Stick it to the man… or just do what the man says… maybe it doesn’t always matter. Bullies don’t always win in the long run.

Title #2: When Life Gives You Lemons…

Bible Verses: And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

Line from the Stones song Luke Suggested*:

“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you might find
You get what you need”

Aspect of Christmas Story: Mary and Joseph travel to his hometown of Bethlehem, but find no first-class hospitality. Instead, they stay in the animal barn side of a neighbor’s home, and Jesus’ first bed isn’t a bassinet or crib, but a cow’s feeding trough.

Theological Idea: God’s child is born into the world into filthy conditions, the dirty Christmas baby underscoring that God joined the human race to be with us in all things.

Take-Home Thought: When life gives you lemons… remember that Jesus sucked on some pretty sour fruit himself. God can be with you in any circumstance.

Title #3: Sex is Complicated

Bible Verses: When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.  (Matthew 1:24-25)

Line from the Stones song Luke Suggested*:

“I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no girl reaction”

Aspect of Christmas Story: The virgin birth – as a teenager, engaged via arranged marriage to her future husband Joseph, Mary conceives the God-child not through conventional means, but by the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Joseph and Mary refrain from sexual relations until after Jesus is born. It’s sort of the original “Jane the Virgin” story of first-time sex after childbirth.

Theological Idea: God can do anything. Also, Jesus is fully human and fully divine, and the first sign of this is the rather unusual method of his conception.

Take-Home Thought: If you’re engaged to a woman who’s experienced immaculate conception, be patient; it’s worth it. (Or maybe God does weird things now and then. Or something.)

*So technically, this is the song Luke suggested, and my first and third excerpts are from a different, even less suitable Stones song, but since this whole post is a joke, whatever…

Freedom in Talking Theology, and an Amazing Talk on that Front

This is a longish post to introduce you to a stunner of a longish talk at the recent Blue Ocean summit. If my writing bores you and you want to get straight to Emily Swan’s fascinating talk, then have it.

Now for the introduction:

I was listening in on three of my friends having kind of a crazy conversation recently. They were having it in public, over on the Blue Ocean podcast, so I wasn’t eavesdropping. And my friend Tom told a story that captured something that I’ve been thinking about, and apparently something a bunch of my pastor friends have been thinking about  as well.

Tom talked about a time when he gave a talk about evolution and Jesus and what a freeing experience that was for him. As a psychiatrist whose work interacts significantly with evolutionary genetics, Tom is rarely asked to talk about Jesus. And with his part-time hobby as preacher and pastor, Tom had rarely found his work and thinking on evolution to be welcome. In fact, his interest in science and career as a scientist was often viewed suspiciously.

So how freeing it was for Tom to be invited to give a talk on Jesus and evolution, in which he could think and speak freely, without fear that he would be censored or perceived as a threat.

I’ve been thinking recently about how rare this freedom it is when it comes to public talk about God, faith, and meaning in life.

Academia prides itself on cultivating a free and rigorous life of the mind pursuit. Researchers and thinkers try on new ideas and explore new perspectives and data, and see where it takes them. The process of research and peer-reviewed publishing and after-session chats at conferences helps people explore new intellectual territory that sometimes eventually shapes us all.

The business marketplace often rewards this kind of adventuresome thinking as well. Entrepreneurs and innovators are encouraged to try new ideas and methodologies and are often rewarded, rather than stigmatized, for failure, if said failed ventures were big and bold in its aspirations.

When it comes to people that talk about God and faith for a living, though, there’s an awful lot of fear and censorship. I’ve known pastors who tried out a novel idea in a sermon and were fired within a month or two. Many theological institutions, particularly our more conservative ones, encourage writing and scholarship only to the degree it arrives at pre-set conclusions about the Bible, or aspects of God’s nature or how God works in the world.

All of this means leads to a climate of fear around our deepest questions related to faith. Pastors fear sharing their true thoughts with churchgoers. Churchgoers fear sharing their real doubts or asking their thorniest questions. And no one learns anything new.

I’m incredibly glad to pastor and teach at a church where this isn’t true. Where people don’t assume I have to teach with supreme confidence or an infallible set of views on things. And I’m glad to be part of a faith network where people can freely explore big, bold views on spiritual issues.

All this to say, when a hundred or so folks gathered for the recent Blue Ocean Summit, this year held in Iowa City, Emily Swan gave the talk of the conference when she spoke about the theology of Rene Girard. Girard was a literary critic and deep thinker who came to the Bible and the Christian faith later in life and then never left either.

He is notoriously hard to read, a reputation I can agree with after reading one of his books on the Bible. He also has a theory of everything. He purports to explain the origins of human society, the nature of evil in the world, the message of the Bible, the meaning of most ancient literature, the unique and abiding power of the death of Jesus, and much more! So there’s a lot to take in. And – of course – as with all big ideas, he may not have it all right.

But Emily gives us a way in to Girard’s thoughts about what’s wrong with the world and what Jesus does about it that is deep, fascinating, vulnerable, and powerful.

I hope you enjoy this talk nearly as much as I did:

2016 Blue Ocean Summit Talk: Introducing René Girard, by Emily Swan

Resources for Engaging in Action in a Broken World

Last week, I spoke on our value for action. Here’s the phrase again that guides us.

  • Action: Love for Jesus compels us to act—to seek justice, show compassion, work for reconciliation, and hope for transformation in joyful engagement with the world.

We also shared some information on ways that individuals and community groups can be engaged in action this fall. Here they are:

ACTION IN THE RESERVOIR CHURCH COMMUNITY, FALL 2016

Reservoir in the City

Assist a local public school through weekly tutoring, or helping run a monthly subsidized market for our local school and community. (Contact: Tory Tolles – tory@reservoirchurch.org)
Attend or help host Ladies’ nights at the Fresh Pond Apartments. Celebrate femininity with henna, threading, food, and music. (Contact: Tory Tolles – tory@reservoirchurch.org)
Attend or help host Soccer Sundays. Build athletic skill and sportsmanship while playing soccer with young people in North Cambridge. (Contact: Cate Nelson – cate@reservoirchurch.org)

Help Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) get out the vote for Boston’s Community Preservation Act (CPA), setting aside more municipal funding for affordable housing, green space expansion and reservation, and historic preservation. To learn more about CPA or to offer help contacting voters living in Boston, go to https://www.sites.google.com/site/gbiocpacampaign/home, talk to Sue Rosenkranz after service today, or email Sarah Outterson-Murphy at soutterson@gmail.com.

Join Tory in attending GBIO’s three-day (11/11-11/13) training on community organizing. (Contact: Tory Tolles – tory@reservoirchurch.org)

Other Reservoir-Related Ventures

Give to a scholarship fund for a displaced college-bound teen our community has been supporting. Over the coming year, we will be looking for further ways to support less privileged college-going youth in our community. (Contact: Dorothy Hanna – dorothy@reservoirchurch.org)

Give to Reservoir Church. Ten percent of tithes and offerings go to local and global partnerships with people and organizations we admire who are pursuing justice, compassion, reconciliation, or transformation. These are highlighted every Sunday your Events and Happenings. Much more of our budget supports our local outreach and efforts at community engagement and transformation.http://www.reservoirchurch.org/about/giving/

Community Resources, Actions of our Members

Peruse the A.R.T.’s list of Boston-area groups working in the areas of education, youth, criminal justice, or racial and economic justice, and offer your time and support. http://americanrepertorytheater.org/page/notes-field-get-involved

Participate in a day trip to get out the vote in NH on Saturday, November 5th. Training will be provided on site, pizza and beer afterwards.  (Contact: Val Snekvik – val.snekvik@gmail.com)

In your own workplace or field of work, look for ways you can pursue justice, compassion, reconciliation, or transformation. Big impacts often take significant and long efforts over many years. Start with what’s in front of you, and see what you and partners can accomplish in fifteen or twenty years.

Buy granola from our friends at The Providence Granola Project, who employ and train refugees in producing a healthy, tasty product for you. http://www.providencegranola.com/

Ask your friends and community group members at Reservoir what they are doing to pursue justice, compassion, reconciliation, or transformation. See if you can participate.

Resources for Financial Freedom

Last week, as part of our Flourishing series, I preached on Moving from Financial Shame and Anxiety Toward Freedom. It was pretty well received, and I personally think it would be a rich use of forty minutes of your time. I heard a lot of appreciative comments, and almost a third of the adults in the room committed to a 90-day tithing challenge as well.

Tips #2 and #3 at the end were:

  • Learn from the world’s best (and free) financial resources, and
  • Make the hard choices today for a better tomorrow, and a better today.

I was encouraging people to break patterns of anxiety around our finances not just by giving more – as important as that is – but by also figuring out the disciplined moves we can make to bring our financial lives into greater order and health.

I’m no personal finance expert, but I promised to pass along a few resources that have helped me or been recommended to me by good friends or facebook acquaintance friends.

So, here they are.

First off, if you need any more reading on just how big of an issue this is in America, here’s the article from The Atlantic that I lead with. “My Secret Shame” is a pretty powerful and sobering look at Americans’ personal finances, through the lens of one man’s struggles.

Next, my favorite book I’ve read on the topic: All Your Worth, by Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren and her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi. Your local library likely has it. The Warrens commend a financial balance, where no more than 50% of your income pays for true “must-haves”, where you devote a full 20% to savings or paying down bad debt, and where you’re left with 30% of your income for “wants”, which would include everything from music lessons for your children to shopping for new clothes, to eating out, and more. They have a ton of other great advice, on everything from bringing these categories into alignment, to helpfully navigating money issues with your partner, to dealing with frustration and blame around your finances, to what to do when your case seems hopeless. I shift her proportions to account for giving as 10-20% of our family budget, but they get things started well.

Several Christian friends swear by the resources Dave Ramsey produces, particularly his seven baby steps, which they say have helped them and others get out of debt, stop getting into debt, and give generously while living well. I’ve never read his stuff, so I can’t comment either way.

Many friends have used the website Mint to help them understand where all their money is going, which helps them gain awareness and change their spending patterns. Others have used You Need a Budget, and the work of Mr. Money Moustache for these purposes – to rethink spending and money priorities.

A few other have learned a great deal about personal finances from Suze Orman or a book called The Richest Man in Babylon.

If you can afford it, others recommend an appointment with a fee-based financial advisor (one who makes no money by selling you products), being entirely truthful, and seeing what advice you get.

Whichever of these tools you use, may you move out of the fear and shame of financial bondage and into freedom!

This Summer, Let’s Flourish!

We’ve started a summer series at Reservoir Church we’ve called flourishing. And we’re pretty excited about it – here’s why.

If you’re anything like me, even if you’re long past school aged, summer brings all kinds of anticipation. Our first 80 degree summer days take me back to those feelings from my last days of school as a student, or even as a teacher. Freedom is coming. Joy is here. It’s time to really live!
But summer can of course end up kind of disappointing as well. As a kid, all that freedom could quickly turn into boredom. Did I really want to play Nintendo for six hours? Did that really give me what I was looking for?
And as an adult, summer’s work demands don’t magically go away. Life for most of us isn’t set up with two month long breaks and vacations. And if you’re a parent – as I am – summer can actually be a lot more work than the rest of the year, as our schools shut down and we have to figure out what to do with our kids – and ourselves – all day.
Not just in summers, but in the whole of our lives, we don’t want to live in disappointment, stress, and restlessness, but we want to flourish – to grow, to contribute, to prosper, to experience life as we sense it was meant to be lived for us.
At Reservoir Church, we think Jesus knows the way and can help us with this. So we enter our summer of flourishing.
We’ll look at finances, and fear, and sex, and politics, and many more things and ask how Jesus can walk us toward flourishing. And this Sunday, I will walk us through a grid that an author Andy Crouch gives us in his book Strong and Weak that will help us understand some of the dynamics that lead us toward or away from flourishing.

Last week I kicked things of with a brief exploration of the strength we can experience as God meets us in our weakness. We started there, with understanding our disabilities, because this is not a self-help series. We won’t spend our summer telling you do be better and do more.

Rather, we’ll look at Jesus, and we’ll see in Jesus the tremendous authority and vulnerability that shapes God’s flourishing. And we’ll look at God’s invitation to join us and make that pattern of living our own as well, as we follow Jesus into more and more life.