A Walk with Jeremiah 6.1

Jeremiah 6I’ve not posted for some time.  But, Jeremiah called me back again.  I needed some time for meditation.

Once I start reading Jeremiah again, I was reminded how scripture continually calls us back.  This morning, I needed to connect to human experiences much older than my own.  I’m picking up my walk with Jeremiah with chapter six (6).

Who hasn’t felt madness listening to American politics?  It doesn’t matter which party or ideology you ascribe to.  The partisan nature of our political scene and the circus that money and media have made of public opinion and national feeling can leave anyone with this sense of grief.  Jeremiah apparently felt that way, too.

To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear?  See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen.  The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it.  But, I am full of the wrath of the Lord; I am weary holding it in.  (vs 10-11a)

Most of us hold to our political perspectives with the same fervency Jeremiah did to God’s word and its clarity.  There is a reason why religion and politics equally offend in today’s dominant norms of decency.  Jeremiah’s religious language gives some of us a false sense of difference.  Forget that this is the bible.  Remember that Jesus hadn’t been born yet.  Remember, prophets were mouthpieces for the covenant of God’s people with God.  That is the contract that birthed their nation.  Jeremiah is explicitly talking about his political point of view, which he sees in relief of God’s vision for reality.

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.  They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace…[H]ear, o nation, and know O congregation, what will happen…(vs 13-14)

It struck me that the angst and helplessness we feel for the direction and politics of our nation, even communities, is ancient.  It doesn’t matter if you see our foundation as the word of God, the Constitution, universal human rights, or Locke and Rousseau’s social contract.  Who hasn’t grieved over the injustices and corruption they see?  Who hasn’t felt the fear from signs of instability, irrational decisions, and the plight of those powerless to rise up and correct inequities?  I hear this grief from both liberal and conservative.  Each has their definition of injustice.  Each has their definition of rationality.  Each has their definition of inequity.  Each has their scapegoat and theory of inequities.

As a Christian socialist and/or social democrat, I, too, fall on this spectrum.  And, I see the folly of our partisan blame-games.

They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders…(vs 28a)

In response, Jeremiah offers a strangely prophetic counsel:

Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it an find rest for your souls.

What are those ancient ways?  What, exactly, is this crossroads?  My soul seems to know without argument or passion.  Perhaps, a still small voice might say it this way:

It’s the humble way.  Neither self-righteous nor divided, the good way is neither silent nor partisan.  It is where justice entwines you and I in a common welfare.  It is where peace is waged for the sake of the most vulnerable, among which are each others’ elderly parents and youngest children.  It is where our trust merges in the form of a covenant, in which our wealth and welfare is not in competition, but where the only win is win-win.

I’m reminded of Community of Christ’s Doctrine and Covenants 163:4a-c:

God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.

The earth, lovingly created as an environment for life to flourish, shudders in distress because creation’s natural and living systems are becoming exhausted from carrying the burden of human greed and conflict. Humankind must awaken from its illusion of independence and unrestrained consumption without lasting consequences.

Let the educational and community development endeavors of the church equip people of all ages to carry the ethics of Christ’s peace into all arenas of life. Prepare new generations of disciples to bring fresh vision to bear on the perplexing problems of poverty, disease, war, and environmental deterioration. Their contributions will be multiplied if their hearts are focused on God’s will for creation.

Life and Community, post-Ph.D.

Limbo.  After seven years.  That’s what it feels like.

Last Tuesday, I passed my dissertation defense and earned a Ph.D. “with distinction.”  On May 15th, I will be awarded the Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from  Chicago Theological Seminary.   Elated and relieved, I remain unsure about what all of it means.

The last seven years have been transformative for me.  In 2003, my family and I moved to Chicago from Kansas City, Missouri.  I quit a job in ministry that I loved, but really was not fully spiritually or emotionally prepared for.  I was to be pastor of a fairly new and large suburban church (around 200-250 active members) that had equal challenges and potential.  But, something within me and in my family was not right.  Margo and I separately felt a mix of latent restlessness and angst.  We needed to break away, move on, give up some things to focus our lives.  My previous six years in ministry had been difficult with consistent leadership changes and direction always dictated from the top.   And, it kept changing in a mix of organizational control, disorientation, and theological reinterpretations.  Spiritually, we were a bit strained.  I would have had one of the best jobs in the church, in some ways, as a full-time Pastor.   But, God, future, and family – and a faint sense that I needed to grow and heal – drew me away.   So we moved.   We left family, career, and community, to look for ourselves and God on our own.  I enrolled in Chicago Theological Seminary’s PhD program.  I went from pastor to student and stay-at-home dad of my 2 year old and 6-week old infant.  Our rent was higher in Chicago than our previous house payment in Kansas City.  Margo went to work for Chicago Public Schools.   Our income and sense of sanity was cut by 30-40%.

Here we are seven years later.  We now own a small co-op just off Lake Shore Drive and can see Lake Michigan from our living room window.  It is both quaint and affordable, though the lack of garage or parking spaces is an ongoing frustration.  Margo works in one of Chicago’s top 25 elementary schools, where Katy and Kenzlee also go.  I work, again, for Community of Christ, which is finding its way amidst new opportunities, shrinking U.S. congregations, and dwindling resources.  I’m surrounded by new inspiration and wonderful people as a church employee, but also a durable struggle for corporate direction.

I have now earned my PhD.  I’ve written a book that has reworked the very way I think about theology, economics, and community.  My work consistently causes me reflect on my own economic habits, who they effect, and what the Kingdom Christ came to affect means to me and those who share my kind of life.  Should we continue to live frugally?  Give money away?  Envision a co-operative with an urban garden with those like-minded?  Look for a job in academia?  Move into a single family home and seek out real community with our neighbors?  I don’t know.  Life, no longer shaped by the pressure of a Ph.D. program and its rigorous requirements, is disorienting.

Limbo.  I’m not sure where the next thirty years will take me.  The city is so different than the suburbs.  In many ways, I like it.  I actually walk by, see, and interact with strangers everyday – right outside my front door.  Even, on the elevator.   But, like a sailor, I’m trying to discern the winds while I have not yet plot a course.  How will God work with me?  Through the winds?  Through the inspiration of my prayer, heart’s desires, and vision?  Do they matter?  Life is, yet is so much not about…me.

I’m lucky to have a job.  Even though it looks less and less secure, especially for both ministry and theological education, the fact that I have a job is a blessing.  I have no doubt I have something to offer both my faith tradition, and if not it, then another tradition or another theology school.  I’m impassioned.  I want to ask the questions Christ’s life and ministry brought into others lives and immerse myself as he did in new life.  For me, church is not a doctrinal system (though I can do those), nor is it some kind of personal spiritual outlook that is somehow more optimistic.   Personal salvation is nothing without life in community, unless personal salvation is about being saved from a life that is ultimately alone.  Life with Christ speaks to relationships.  The Spirit of Christ is both the inspiration and the glue that holds together temporal life with spirituality.  God is creator, Christ is redeemer, and the Spirit sustains.

What does God create, Christ redeem, and Holy Spirit sustain?  Relationships.  Now that I have grown, become a dedicated father and a loyal partner.  I’ve deepened my life in the disciplines of spiritual discernment, of reading and reflection, and the practices of disciplined written and oral proclamation.  I just am not sure what relationships God will call me to next.

I know our world and churches have monstrous challenges to face, spiritual and temporal, and most are without answers.  I fear America’s increasingly robust and elaborate, even if inordinate, faith in ourselves and dependence on the promises of our all mighty economy (“In God We Trust”) is shaping up a storm of forces that will both shake us and unravel some of the fabric of our society and its mode of relationships.  An economy that survives on consumption, self-regard, and debt is simply not a mode of community, sacred or otherwise.  It is a mode of relating in which the very meaning of human being is redefined.  The edifying and enriching part of human relationships becomes what enriches and feeds ourselves, while the commitment and obligations that create and sustain these relationships are relegated to a secondary position.   Our world promotes “have now, earn and pay later” relationships, whether we are looking for a home, a hassle-free meal at the end of a harried day, or the long-standing love of a significant other.   I can only hope a uniquely Christian and profoundly human faith and community can respond with knowledge of a different kind of relationship – ones that flow in grace, peace, and generosity, as well as grounded in a commitment to what ultimately creates, redeems, and sustains human relationships.  I’m tired of relationships based on fear and promises that are increasingly empty.  I’m looking for a community that begins with people who hit the bottom of their addiction and finally realize that real life, now and eternal, begins somewhere on the other side, at the edge, of “me.”

Announcing New Blog

I want to alert you to a new blog being started.  You can check it out at http://saintsherald.com/.

The SaintsHerald.com is not an official site of the Community of Christ.  Rather, it was started less than a month ago by a group of young (~20-30’s) members, scholars, and activists interested in engaging the emerging issues facing the Community of Christ, with an eye to its connection to the greater Restration movement.

You are invited to the discussion.  Please check it out, read a post, and make a comment.  Today, the future is emerging.


In the Crucible: Fire, Refinement, and Seclusion

Cloister at Chicago Theological Seminary (2007)

Cloister at Chicago Theological Seminary (2007)

As I go into a kind of seclusion for the next couple of weeks to take my doctoral exams, I wanted to reflect for a moment on what I’m doing, what I feel about it, and why.

I’ve been in seminary for almost 10 years.   I’m not bragging.   If you’ve been to where I am, you know how little there is to brag about.   It is tremendous work, with little glory paid out.  I’m not even finished, yet.  Even when I do, there are only teacher’s salaries, few positions, and no real status positions.  But, at a deeper level – spiritual and almost beyond measure – there is so much I’ve gained.

Over ten years ago, entering Saint Paul School of Theology, I was on a journey.  I felt my way into seminary led by something I didn’t fully understand.  I was curious about God and life.  I was haunted by an insatiable sense of “Why?!”  I was spiritually hungry.

Church offered me so much in terms of love and spiritual challenges.  But, now, it offered little to answer my questions and offered no real a path to some kind of spiritual or personal development.  I guess I unconsciously believed in the goodness of education and its betterment.  I hoped to “arrive” somewhere on the other end of seminary.  But, I only knew a few examples of persons who had been through theological education.  I didn’t want to be just like them; in fact, I wanted (and still do!) to overcome what I thought were some of their blind-spots and mistakes.  I also wanted to understand the things they seemed to know about.   I wanted to be able to say some of the things I was hearing them say.

After 10 years in two different seminaries, I’m at the point of my doctoral exams at Chicago Theological Seminary.  I’m not sure I’m where I imagined I’d be.  But, I am finally beginning to see where I’ve come.  I’m beginning to feel and appreciate – in a way I can barely explain – what doctoral work and its pressure for disciplined study has done for me.  I’m beginning to see that I’m coming into “that place” I was unwittingly searching for, and could have never imagined.   There is something immeasurable I’ve gained.

I’ve not so much received an education, but gained a way of life in spiritual discipline.

Reading, writing, and love of God have come together for me in a unity I find difficult to describe.  It’s transformed me, given me a gift that is impossible to receive: a divine gift that cannot be possessed, but only lived.

What I used to call a commitment to theological education I know see, even deeper, as a way of life where the love of God, by study and faith, come together.   Making time for reading, reflection, and writing is a life of living prayer.  It immerses me in way of life that is generative, a life of incredible spiritual resources, access to God, and deep ongoing meaning.

Theological education is no longer something to “achieve” or “to do.”  While degrees do stand for something, ultimately the gift of theological education is introduction to a life of spiritual discipline beyond any title or degree.  Frankly, in an ancient and timeless way, this is all theological study ever was.   Any theological education that is theo-logical is, in fact, not something fully achievable at all.   Nobody, not even prophets or oracles, achieve full knowledge of God or the keys to divine mysteries.  Theology is simply an approach to life.   It is spiritual and it is disciplined, lived in a way that trusts its divine meaning.

I’ve tasted, in a sense, the life of the monastics: the rhythm of life in work and study, forged together in a way that forms heat, pressure, and transforms the mind and soul.  Even though my experience over the last 5 years, in particular, has been very different than the monastics, with the pressures of child care and supporting while almost losing my wife, I know how these pressures – amidst all my stubborn resistance and imperfections – have had their way with me.  They’ve formed a crucible in which the heat of life and demands of study has reshaped my soul and sense of faith.   Life through study and faith has taken me into a way of life, in which I want to remain.  In it, I’ve found the peace of Jesus Christ.

I’m convinced more than ever before.   There is a basic human need in the human soul for spiritual nourishment.   This nourishment both feeds and transforms the heart and mind.

Reading, writing, and reflection amidst real life and community are powerful soul-shaping practices that provide that nourishment.  They form the generative relationship between faith, real life, the world, and its transformation.  While not exclusive, these practices practiced in community are the backbone of a unified approach to life and a wholistic spiritual discipline.  They are the seedbed of worship and action.

They are the ways, in other words, of what the church is desparately searching for: “discipleship formation.”

Jesus, the Kingdom, and Revelation

The words below came to me with clarity, and even a little urgency, this week.  I do work in ministry and study theology.   So, for many reasons, these words seemed important to me.

“The purpose of the church is the Kingdom of God.  God’s gift is to the church is ongoing revelation.”

Community of Christ members who have a memory that goes back to RLDSism may very well recognize the impact of RLDS tradition on these words.   Our belief in the Kingdom of God on earth, what we’ve referred to early as Zion, and God’s ongoing revelation are part of what makes the Community of Christ and its tradition unique.  So, if you grew up RLDS, you might read these words with an “insider’s lens.”

But, I’m not sure I mean them exactly that way today.

I grew up in the Community of Christ.  I’m a child of “the church.”  I was nurtured, blessed, baptized, and ordained in it.  I was loved and blessed by its people in extraordinary ways.  The ministry of ordinary people in the church has had a life-changing impact on my life.  It grounds my life with the stuff of testimony.

It was also through the church – its tradition, testimony, and unfolding story – that I felt led out into the world to search for God – amidst other traditions, amidst other testimonies, and other theologies.  It was because of the church and the ordinary people that made it up that I believed I could find God just about anywhere, especially amidst new connections and new relationships.  It was through the church that I learned to expect to find God there amidst other movements, people, and ordinary things.

So, when I write these words today, they have a much wider testimony and deeper meaning than they ever could originally.

“The purpose of the church is the Kingdom of God.  God’s gift to the church is ongoing revelation.”

This is not some religious conviction.  It calls to me as a way to live and view my life.

I think the broader meaning of these familiar words is precisely the spiritual challenge facing the Community of Christ today:  Can we return to the new and revealing Spirit that first brought this church into being and made it a movement?  Can the Community of Christ pursue the purposes of God’s Kingdom on earth with fervor and with others?  Can we remain attentive and receptive to God’s ongoing revelation amidst us and coming through others?  Can we be transformed in the prophetic Spirit that presents this challenge and grounds our faith?

I think it remains undecided.

And, yet, it’s central to everything we have ever claimed to believe.

To pursue the Kingdom of God, to pray on earth as it is in heaven, and accept Jesus is to accept the life of the disciples.  We can accept this in light of scripture.  Jesus was the the Kingdom of God among them.  Jesus’ life ministry, death, and resurrection was God’s new revelation to them.  Through the Holy Spirit, this same promise and this same challenge given to the disciples is also given to us:  God’s purposes will continue to unfold.

To have faith at all, to believe in God amidst us and within the world, is to be on the verge of a moment of revelation.  How else can God be God if God is not beyond our present scope, beyond our expectations, and not bound to religion and, instead, is released amidst God’s creation?

Blessing by proxy – Rethinking the Sacrament of Administration

I know.  Weird title.  But, bear with me.  I’m trying to talk about something like intercessory prayer…but in the spirit of community. 

I went to three reunions this summer.  (Community of Christers call family camp or church camp “reunion”.)  At them, I had several wonderful spiritual experiences. 

…such communicating with God still amazes me. 

During prayer service one morning, I sensed the Holy Spirit in a special way.  As I write this, I can still feel the mix of humility, inspiration, and love involved in what happened.  It is difficult to describe. 

At this prayer service, the presider led us into time of prayer requests.  A steady flow of prayer requests began to pour out of the people.  Each was unique and heart-felt.  Some, heart-breaking.   There were family members mortally ill, loved ones in prison, children with cancer.  Each prayer request was obviously carried close to the petitioner’s heart. 

Listening to the list of supplications, I added a couple myself.  I wanted to join the outpouring of trust in Jesus’ love that was evident in the flow of concern.   What was amazing, however, was the way the prayer concerns began to transform our worship space.  As people’s hearts began opening up, our worship became very real.  As some shared, their hearts slowly broke, almost in a spirit of sacrifice.  The vulnerability to God created a green cathedral beneath the canopy of oak and maple leaves. 

I can’t explain exactly how.  But, in the midst all this, I suddenly felt the Holy Spirit.  It came in a moment of vision seen only in my mind’s eye.  I felt lead into the heart of worship.   I cannot easily describe what I felt, but I recognized what it was. 

Administration by Jack Garnier

Administration by Jack Garnier

I saw a picture.  In it, I saw myself and other ministers administering to those offering their prayer requests.  (“Administration” is the name of a sacrament in which the sick or those seeking a special blessing are anointed with oil and prayed over.)  What was special about the administrations was what God was doing with them.  One the one hand, we were praying for the person making the prayer request.  But, in a way I can only see in my mind, I coudl also see that the individual that needed prayer was also being blessed.  Through these administrations, God could people in need that were not actually there.  It was as if I was seeing the sacrament of administration in the Holy Spirit of community.  Blessing by viritue of relationship.  Blessed to be a blessing.  Giving blessing by proxy.

What was most spiritual about the picture was the message that clarified it.  Through administering to the person making the prayer request, the one they carried upon their heart would also be blessed by the administration.

This is what is a little difficult to describe.  It was clear.  It was not about someone receiving administration in the stead of someone else.  The mother, father, sister, friend, who’s heart was heavy for a loved one was the recipient of the administration.  But, so was the actual person they were carrying upon their heart.  Like the friends who carried their paralytic friend up to the roof of the house Jesus was at and, after tearing away the thatch, lowered him in – the friends and the paralytic could be blessed.

It is a radical idea that an anointing and prayer of administration for the petitioner could also be an anointing and blessing of someone in need of healing or God’s presence.   In this way, we literally can reach out to others who are not physically there.  As people, we are not discrete individuals, but are connected.  Through the blessing of one, others can receive prayer and blessing by proxy: receiving blessing one through another.

It is a difficult differentiation to make.  But, the leading I felt that day was beautiful.

I continue to think about administrations and sacraments differently since that morning.  I think what I felt that day was a confirmation of our call to rethink the church in the name of community.   It is not only appropriate, but important that we administer to someone and do so mindful of their connection to another.  Sometimes, we carry many people within us upon our hearts.  Maybe, it is how Jesus uses us to carry one another (think Footprints in the Sand).  We are not just discrete individuals that are held up for God’s blessing in administration; it is everyone intimately connected to them – one to another.

Imagine:  Not getting administered to in place of someone you love and is suffering, but asking for God’s special blessing for their sake.  Such a hope puts us in the web of God’s goodness and interconnections.  It widens the spiritual circle of God’s blessing to others, in the name of community.  Relationships, themselves, are acknowledged as the carriers of blessing.   We are connected to each other…and those connections are sacramental, especially in times of spiritual need or healing.

I know.  I was there.

I will continue to think about administration in this way: sacraments of blessing, not just for the one seeking administration, but also for the sake of others.  Blessing is a communal affair.  We are ultimately connected.

It’s not such a strange idea, then, if you think aobut it.  Blessing by proxy.

Nitty-Gritty Dirt God

The God I know and love, I know through dirt.

What is dirt? 

1.  Dirt = earth, ground, organic stuff.  This is the stuff of creation. The Nitty-Gritty Dirt God, who made life and makes life possible, made it all.  God is why the environment, sustainable agriculture, proper use of natural resources, and earth-stewardship are central to Christian faith.  

That’s dirt.  But, there is more.  Here’s the dirt on dirt.

2.  Dirt is also stuff of our lives – the stuff I bury deep down inside.  The stuff I don’t want to deal with.  The stuff I don’t want other people to see.  

“Do you know the dirt on, Matt?” 

God knows my dirt.  In fact, when I’m dealin’ with my dirt, I feel and understand the need for God the most.  The shame I carry around – often so deep, I don’t realize I have it – buried deep, but there in my thoughts and decisions.   But not just shame.  There’s the fear, embarrassment, hurt, and mistakes.   Think even of the freakin’ possiblity of making a mistake ~ big time.  Skrewing up a friendship, or a ministry opportunity, or job.  Saying the wrong thing.  Or, so fed up, you don’t care anymore.  Isn’t that what holds so many of us down – or makes us run away, escape, and pretend we’re too proud to care?   It’s a shame.

Who’s got the dirt on you?

Dirt is the stuff that rules our lives and relationships.  This dirt is spiritual.  Especially in white middle-class America-dom.  Appearence is everything, and its best not to have any dirt – or have so much it, no one takes you seriously.   That’s dirt on us.  We pretty people.

Either way, dealing with the dirt is nasty.  Makes you feel dirty.  (Now that word packs alot of different meanings!)

But, God knows my dirt.  God holds me accountable for it, but also calls me out of it – to freedom.  It’s not freedom from my dirt.  I know alot of people preach and believe that.  But, I just haven’t found that to be true.  The freedom I’ve found in Jesus is the freedom to live and love…in spite of my dirt.   And, others’.

Let me try to say it this way.  This is my testimony:  The dirt on God is that all that God loves about you and me – all that God put in you and asks of you – comes through the dirt.  In fact, the dirt makes you, YOU – and God, GOD.  And, there’s no shame in it.  In fact, this is true freedom.

God’s in the dirt.  God comes through it – not only the dirt of our lives, but also the literal dirt – the cosmic dust, the billion-year-old carbon (thanks Joni Mitchell, CSN) – that God put together and breathed life into. 

Everything is spiritual.  The Nitty-Gritty Dirt God is lord of all.