Postmodern Online Seminary Water

This is a discussion post for the class Post Modern Christian Education that I’m taking at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, adapted to the blog. The references are to James K.A Smith How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor and John Roberto Reimagining Faith Formation for the 21st Century. The discussion questions

To me, the enlightenment and modernity with their focus on rationality presented a greater challenge to Christian Education than postmodernism. I tend to think of God as being so much greater than what we can approach rationally. We need stories and metaphors and with my strong leaning to apophatic approaches to God, I wonder if that is even enough. Postmodern questions of our ways of understanding, challenges of binaries, and promotion of counter narratives provides rich ways in which we can expand our experience of God.

A good illustration of this right at the beginning of Smith where he asks, “Where should we look for the ‘thin spaces’ that still seem haunted by transcendence? Or have they disappeared…?” (Smith, 1). The idea of “thin spaces” doesn’t seem very modern or enlightened either in terms of rationality or in terms of the dominant narratives. Postmodernism allows us to talk about other narratives that go beyond rationalism to make space for the transcendent.

Smith goes on to talk about the secular “shift in the ‘conditions of belief’” (Smith, 22) which he does in the context of David Foster Wallace (Smith, 14-17). Many people know Wallace through his famous 2005 Commencement address at Kenyon College, this is water. The ‘conditions of belief’ are the water we find ourselves in. The full text of Wallace’s speech also talks about an atheist and a religious person discussing God and what it takes to believe.

This leads to Roberto’s list of forces affective religious identify formation in the twenty-first century. Roberto mentions the “increasing impact of digital media and web technologies”. (Roberto, Kindle Location 173). The fact that I reference this from a Kindle in a post to an online discussion forum illustrates this point.

Wallace talks about the water of the modern human condition. In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks about “living water”. How do we talk about this living water in a Postmodern digital world?

Post Modern Christian Education, #CDSPTheology, and the Decline of Church Involvement

Tomorrow, classes start for my second fall semester at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Since I started, I’ve had much less time for writing in my blog, so I figured I’d try to get this post written before all my writing energy goes elsewhere. If I can manage it, I’ll post extracts from some of what I’m reading and writing for class here, but don’t be surprised if there are fewer posts here over the coming few months.

This semester, I’m taking Post Modern Christian Education and Theology 1. I’ve done my readings for the first week and find them overlapping in some interesting ways. I’m also thinking about current events and how they might relate to these classes.

Morgan Guyton has a post up on Patheos about the Roman Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse Scandals in Pennsylvania and the call by Archbishop Vigano for Pope Francis to resign. No, You Can’t Blame Pope Francis For This. He writes, “It is not simply a matter of policy; it is a theological issue.” The original post got a bunch of comments and my sharing of it on Facebook got its share of comments too.

It seems like there are several different components to the discussion that seem to be talking past each other. How should the church be organized and how hierarchical should the organization be? Richard Hooker, an influential sixteenth century Anglican theologian, in his “Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie”, considers the role of bishops or presbyters in church polity to be adiaphora, or a matter indifferent to salvation.

How libertarian or authoritarian should church leadership be? What role should gender play in church leadership? How do we understand sexuality? Lots of fun topics to explore. Is lack of consensus on these issues leading to a decline in church attendance?

Yesterday, after nearly 200 years, the UCC Church of the Redeemer in New Haven, CT had its final service. Around me, more and more Episcopal churches are moving to part-time priests. What is the future for churches in the United States?

As I think about clergy sexual abuse scandals, the decline of church attendance in the United States, not to mention the impact of climate change on our world, it seems like all that is missing is a pre-exilic prophet, from the time before the Babylonian exile, putting things all into a greater context. It could be supplemented by more readings of the current U.S. Presidency in the context of The Scottish Play.

How do we link the stories of pre-exilic prophets and Shakespeare to our situation today? One of the books I’m reading for Post Modern Christian Education, Soul Stories: African American Christian Education by Anne Streaty Wimberly talks about “storylinking”. It will be interesting to explore how we can link some of these stories.

One interesting exploration of this was the introduction to James K.A Smith’s “How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor” which we read for this week. I appreciated the references to David Foster Wallace’s stories (pages 14-17).

Yet what I found even more interesting was the discussion of different aspects of “secular”. Smith describes Taylor’s view of secularism this way:

A society is secular3 insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested).

(pages 21-22)

This leads me over to my thoughts about Theology 1. We’ve started off with Alister E. McGrath’s “Christian Theology: An Introduction” and Ralph McMichael’s “The Vocation of Anglican Theology”. I’ve been thinking a lot about western Christianity’s apparent need for its theology to be systematic and rational, especially after the Enlightenment.

How does a systematic rational theology help us deal with the aftermath of the Great War, with the Holocaust, with nuclear weapons, and with climate change? Are there limits to our systematic rationalism?

Has western culture fallen into a form of idolatry where created rationality is worshiped instead of the creator of all that is rational or beyond what can be understood rationally? How does this fit with Taylor’s talk about secular society and the decline of church involvement in the United States?

Recently, a friend spoke about her thoughts on why religion is declining in the United States. She attributed it to problems people have believing in the angry God of the Old Testament and the religion of angry white men who worship this God and hate homosexuals.

I don’t believe that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is this angry God that many people caricaturize God as. Perhaps the bigger issue is that the assumption is that we live in a rational world and we can understand God rationally. It seems like we’ve lost our ability to see and appreciate that which transcends our understanding, and that this is the great loss. It is where I find common ground with those who have little use for God that are seeking to reconnect life to art. It is like trying to reconnect life to spirit and things that go beyond rationality.

It will be interesting to see how my thoughts and feeling evolve over the coming term. It will be interesting to see how some of our national and global dramas shake out over the coming months, and, of course, it will be interesting to see how much time I can make for posting to my blog.

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit, Eevee, Opa!, Happy New Year

For the past couple years, I’ve been trying to write a blog post on the first day of each month, starting my title with “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit”, harkening back to those childhood days of saying Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit to bring good luck for the coming month. My blog writing, like my poetry, have been taking a back shelf to my seminary studies and my posts here have been less frequent as a result.

However, classes don’t start for me until Tuesday. I’ve done a lot of my reading already for the first day of classes and I find myself with a little bit of time to reflect and write before the new semester starts.

I continue to play Pokemon Go, taking moments here and there throughout the day. They’ve added various new features to the game since they first launched it. One is missions. You need to accomplish various tasks in the game. One of these tasks is trading Pokemon with other players. I made a trade with my youngest daughter today, so I accomplished that task. I also need to evolve one of the Pokemon, an Eevee, into its next evolution, and have a bit of walking to complete for this.

I did contact another Pokemon player via Facebook about making a trade, and we were going to do it either just before or just after Vespers this evening. We didn’t manage to connect, but the other player was asked by a priest at a neighboring church why he has hanging out at the church. We talked about this a little on Facebook, and I wrote:

A lot of priests I know have no idea what to make of Pokemon, especially when the gym which also happens to be their church has a legendary raid. Many churches have a blessing of the animals (usually in early October). Maybe a good 21st century church needs a blessing of the Pokemon.

For those who don’t play Pokemon, a “gym” is a location in Pokemon where key activities take place. They are often at important sites, including churches. A “legendary raid” is one of those activities where a group of Pokemon players gather at the same time at a gym, and play Pokemon, looking intently at their smartphones. I will save the discussion of theology and liturgics of a blessing of the Pokemon for a different time.

This being Labor Day weekend, Kim, Fiona, and I went to the Greek festival at the local Greek Orthodox church. We’ve been doing it for years. They always have great food.

With all of this going on, I still managed to make it to Vespers. I did not realize that September first is the liturgical New Years in the Orthodox church. Happy New Years everyone. In a few days, we can celebrate New Years again with our Jewish friends.

Hineni and Seeking to Please God

At the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, I heard various singer-songwriters talk about being part of songwriting circles. They introduced various songs as ones that had started as a response to a songwriting prompt. I thought about how much I would enjoy being in a sermon writers circle following the same sort of idea. It would be easier because most of the sermon writers I know have a weekly prompt called the Revised Common Lectionary.

When I returned from the folk festival, I contacted a few close friends who I thought would be interested and we set up a little group on Facebook. It was partly for this group that I wrote my recent blog post, Humbly Confessing our Participation in Abusive Systems of Power.

As the summer winds down and my wife and I begin discovering what it is like to be empty nesters, we went to the beach Saturday afternoon followed by an early dinner at a local clam shack. While I was waiting for the meal to be ready, I checked Facebook and found a discussion about my blog post.

One of my friends asked a question I was struggling with in my blog post and a question that we all need to be asking ourselves, how do we as members of cultures that allow things like this to happen respond?

I’m not sure there is an easy answer. Part of the answer in the Episcopal Church was to have a Liturgy of Listening at General Convention. I encourage everyone to check out that liturgy.

In the online discussion, my friend mentioned the Hineni prayer. I don’t know that prayer and went out to find more about it. The first version I found was from Velveteen Rabbi. (What a wonderful name for a blog!). The blog posts links to a more traditional version of the Hineni prayer. Another version I found was at A New Translation of the Rosh Hashanah Hineni. Others link to Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker.

Since I took Biblical Hebrew this summer in seminary, I thought I’d try to find it in Hebrew which led me to A Chazan Sings: Hineni. This, in turn, led me to Hineni He'ani Mima'as, which then led me to Piyyut and finally to trying to find various
Readings and Prayers for Jewish Worship in the Biblical Studies software I use. (If any of you know any good sources for such readings and prayers online, please let me know.) I also read briefly about Jewish Prayers in Jewish Prayers and Liturgy 101

All of this also reminds me of the Merton Prayer

I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing

One of my hopes for the sermon writers circle is to find people that I could engage in discussions with about my sermons and other people’s sermons. Hopefully, I can use my blog and social media to make some of these discussions more broad based.

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Humbly Confessing our Participation in Abusive Systems of Power

I am not preaching this Sunday, but if I were, here is a draft of what I would say.

May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, o Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

If I have sinned against any of you knowingly or unknowingly, by things I’ve done or things I’ve failed to do, please forgive me.

As many of you know, I am currently a seminarian seeking to become an ordained priest in the holy catholic and apostolic church. So, the recent news about the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church in Pennsylvania has weighed greatly on my mind. How do we respond to a church that allows this to happen? I’ve seen a lot of posts on Facebook dealing with this.

One post that particularly jumped out at me was a link to an Op-Ed in the New York Times, I Stood Up in Mass and Confronted My Priest. You Should, Too.. The man spoke about going to church and hearing his priest say the church has to change. The priest began to move on and the man jumped up and asked, “How?”

The priest responded with what felt like a bureaucratic answer. At the end of the service, the priest spoke with him.

the father looked at me and said the most honest thing I’ve ever heard in a church: “You and I have no influence.”

He was right. And if congregants like me have no influence, and if parents like me no longer feel safe and comfortable bringing our sons and daughters to make Communion, then the Catholic Church is beyond redemption.

Fr. Jonathan Slavinskas, a Roman Catholic priest serving in the Diocese of Worchester, MA wrote a powerful Facebook post about how the scandal affects him from the viewpoint of putting on the priest’s collar.

He talks about the great responsibility that the collar represents, the suspicion it generates, the grave sin it now represents for so many people. He talks about questioning why he should stick around. He talks about not wanting to wear the collar because of the shame of what it represents to so many people and the weariness of dealing with it.

He then went on to talk about a woman asking if he were a Catholic priest. She wanted him to anoint her dying brother and the comfort he was able to bring to her and her family. He reminds us all that the collar is not about us, it is about Jesus. He speaks with great humility.

It reminded me of a priest I know who starts off the Divine Liturgy asking for forgiveness. It was based on his words that I asked your forgiveness at the beginning of this sermon. I was copied on an email he recently sent to a friend. He ended it with, “I remain your unworthy pastor”. We would all do well to show some of his humility.

How do we respond to the scandal in the church? Do we have any influence? Is the church beyond redemption?

Today’s Gospel offers us some insight:

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Jesus doesn’t back down and responds, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Many of the discipled turned away and then Jesus asked the twelve if they would turn away also. Peter responded, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

You and I do have little influence on the church structures, but that isn’t what matters. We are called to abide in Jesus and trust in God’s influence. We will not change the church. God will.

This is not just a passive thing, the “thoughts and prayers” that are so often derided in political commentary today. This is putting on the whole armor of God with the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness. This is praying in the spirit without ceasing.

This is adopting a spirit of humility and recognizing that we, ourselves, participate in structures of power that harm others. Like well intentioned priests in a broken ecclesiastical power structure, we participate in systems that perpetuate racism, sexism, and a raft of other “-isms”.

The first steps in dismantling these systems is recognizing our own culpability and the powerful narratives that support these systems. We can then begin to change these narratives by turning away from the gratifications they offer and turning towards the gratifications of humbly abiding in Christ.

Let us pray in the spirit without ceasing. Amen.

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