Religion

Post about Religious topics. My spiritual journey is a subtopic of this.

Ember Letter: Practicing the Intersectional Presence of God

For those not acquainted with ember letters, they are a quarterly letter, normally written by postulants to their bishops. I have found writing them a valuable spiritual practice, so I do so, even though they are not formally part of my journey right now.

A lot has happened since I wrote my last ember letter back in May. In June, I attended the Summer Intensive at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. It was a most wonderful experience in many ways. I had an overwhelming sense of ‘this is absolutely where I am meant to be right now’. I met people face to face that I had been in classes with for the previous two semesters and I met new people who have been become key members of community and support group.

I had started at CDSP in the Certificate for Theological Studies program. I was trying to get a sense of if I, a college dropout from years ago, could manage graduate level studies while working full time, supporting a family, and being involved in my community. I also thought it might help my credentials if I had a certificate from seminary, no matter where my studies led me. However, it became very clear to me that this is where I was meant to be and so I changed from the online CTS program to the Low Residency Masters of Divinity program. I now identify as a Low Residency Bi-Vocational Seminary Student.

I took Biblical Hebrew, which was a great challenge. I hope to keep up regular reading of the Hebrew scriptures along with other sources in Hebrew. I have been doing it sporadically since I finished my translation for that class, but not as much as I would like.

I also took Foundations for Ministry, which was a struggle for me as I try to get a better sense of the ministry God is calling me to, and where God is calling me to that ministry. When I had first written to the local Episcopal bishop about the current phase of my journey, I focused on the unexpected nature of it. I continue to live into unexpected uncertainty and I pray for those around me that they might be able to embrace more unexpected uncertainty.

This semester, I am taking Theology 1. It is helping me clarify in my own thoughts and language who and where I am. More later on this, I’m sure. I am also taking Postmodern Christian Education. I don’t want to jinx things by saying how excited I am about this class, but I’m really excited about it. Two of the texts we will be using that I am most interested in are Mai-Anh Le Tran Reset the Heart: Unlearning Violence, Relearning Hope and Anne Streaty Wimberly Soul Stories: African American Christian Education. It is great to be taking the course online because I am so interested in digital pedagogy.

I continue my worship at Grace and St. Peter’s in Hamden on Sunday mornings, Church of the Holy Trinity in Middletown Thursday’s at lunch time when I don’t have conflicts at work, the Emmaus dinners with the Andover Newton folks at Yale Divinity School on Thursday evenings, and Vespers at Three Saints Orthodox Church in Ansonia. I went on a pilgrimage to St. Tikhon’s Monastery over Memorial Day weekend, and I continue to serve with Dinner for a Dollar, Arden House, and with the altar guild at Grace and St. Peter’s.

Yet all of this is preamble to some of my current thinking. In the past, I’ve mentioned my interest in Brother Lawrence and practicing the presence of God. During Bible study at the Emmaus dinner the other week, we discussed a reading from Jeremiah which led to talking about social justice. A phrase came to my mind, “Intersectional prayer”. What would it be like if our praying without ceasing were more intersectional. When we pray for a person who is suffering, do we pray for others who are suffering, perhaps as a result of similar but different forms of oppression? Do we pray about the systemic causes of this oppression and confess our own role and culpability in this systemic oppression? If we take this further, how do we live in constant awareness of God’s awesomeness and the awesomeness of God’s creation while at the same time holding up the concerns, both individual and corporate about suffering?

How do we practice an intersectional presence of God?

This also brings me back to the issue of embracing uncertainty. How do we make ourselves as open as possible to uncertainty? How do we embrace kenosis and theosis in daily life?

Please, keep me in your prayers as I explore this over the coming months.

Whatever is right...

This week, I’ve been reached out to as the administrator of two different groups where things were getting divisive and nasty. In one group, I closed the comments and posted some thoughts. The original post ended up being taken down by someone else. In the other group, I simply deleted a post and shared my thoughts about the purpose of the group.

One of the groups is about the town I grew up in. I posted,

I remember growing up near the top of Henderson road. I often felt a social awkward and like a bit of an outcast. I remember when people picked on me. They called me names and threatened me. More often, I remember the kindness of people in a beautiful village overlooked by a majestic mountain.
The name calling and threats were not appropriate in elementary school and they are not appropriate here. Please join with me in helping make this place on Facebook as beautiful as the village we grew up in.

This resulted in a wonderful discussion. A few people shared memories of my late mother and we had a good time reminiscing. A few people spoke about having been bullied in school. One person confessed to having bullied people and asked forgiveness.

To that person, I responded,

Thank you for your response. I suspect that if we are honest, pretty much all of us have bullied people in the past, often in response to peer pressure.

The second group is for Christian seeking ways to share their faith in new ways in our secular world. I person posted a political video which started an argument about the current political administration in the United States. I posted,

I would like to remind people of the goal of this group. To quote from the description from early on, “Episcopalians need to get out more, talk about why they love the church, and have a pioneer spirit…we should seek out places where the church isn't known and plant seeds of hope and love.”
While our faith calls us to speak out about political injustices as we see them, this is not the place for it. Instead, this is a place where we should be exploring how we love our neighbors as ourselves; our Republican neighbors, our Democratic neighbors, and most importantly, our neighbors who are searching for God in this secular world, even if they wouldn’t use such language.

A friend of mine who alerted me to the post said in a private message (shared with permission),

I’d hate to see our little community just turn into another churning sea of discord. Perhaps it’s inevitable?

I responded,

I don't believe it is inevitable. Instead, I believe we are called to stand up against the tide of discord. To do this, we need to be intentional.

So, this is an invitation to all of us to intentionally stand against the tide of discord, to love our neighbors we disagree with, or, to quote Philippians,

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.

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.

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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