2009-12-26

GOD HAS GIVEN US HIS WORD


A Sermon For Year C, Christmas 1
Copyright © 2010 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7 and John 1:1-18

I want to begin by congratulating us. In the last few weeks, most of us in this place have made our shopping lists, and checked them twice. We have figured out who was naughty, and who was in fact nice.

We have licked envelopes until our tongues tasted like glue. We have wrapped presents, tied bows, and endured paper cuts innumerable.

We have listened to approximately 237 hours of Christmas music, watched three versions of Dicken's Christmas Carol, and seen "It's a Wonderful life" 2.4 times.

We have been to more Christmas parties than we can count, eaten more cookies and pies than we should have, and realized that 7% of our body mass is now made up entirely of Turkey and Dressing.

And now, instead of spending this hour writing thank you cards, or taking out garbage cans full of wrapping paper and gift boxes, or figuring out where to put up all our new presents, we are here.

We have made it though a lot to be here today. A lot of people. A lot of activities. A lot of family drama. So let us all take one, big, deep breath.

You are here. In the Lord's House. To worship.

In the midst of doing, doing, doing, you have come here to just "be". To just "be" in the presence of the Lord. You are not just a human doing. You are a human being.

So, take another deep breath and just "be".

Look around you. Look at the altar. Look at the cross. Look at the stained glass. And as you look, remember WHY you are here.

And just "be".

Listen for a moment. After a holiday full of noise, full of joy, full of drama: Listen to the silence [pause].

And just "be".

Why are you in this place today? Why did you come here? What are you seeking?

This place is a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the world all around us. It is not only a sanctuary in the religious sense, but it is a sanctuary in the fullest sense: It is a safe place to retreat from the craziness of life.

It is a safe harbor from the hurricane of endless activity and deadlines and decisions that swirls all around our daily lives.

It is a place to reconnect with WHY we exist, WHO we really are, and WHO we really belong to.

That is why I am here. To reconnect. To just "be" in the presence of God. To re-center myself upon the One who is the Center, the Source, and the Purpose of all existence.

And it is because of this that I believe the Gospel reading for this Sunday after Christmas is perfect. Every year, it is the same reading: The beginning of the Gospel of John. The Story of the Word of God who became one of us.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us."

Now, like translating any language into English, this reading looses a little in the translation. Because the Greek word "Logos", which we translate as "Word", does not fit neatly into our language.

Logos can mean many things, depending on the context it is used in:

If Logos were used in reference to a building or a work of art, it would be the essential shape that makes the thing what it is.

If Logos were used in reference to a Story or a Drama, it would be the Plot or Purpose that drives the Storyline to its completion.

If Logos were used in reference to a song or symphony, it would be the musical score that tells all the instruments how to converge and diverge to create beautiful music.

And yet, this Logos, this Word of God, is still more than the Purpose and Plot of our existence. These are still abstract and impersonal. They miss the full translation.

Another way to get at it would be this: Let's say you come to me and need me to help you somehow, and it's really important, and if I can't help you, then you will be in a real tight spot.

Then I look at you right in the eyes and say "Don't worry. I give you my WORD. I will be there for you."

That gets at the personal side of what John is saying here when he talks about Jesus being the Word of God. Because when I give you my Word, I am not just saying "yes". I am not just giving you a promise. I am giving you myself. I am saying "Trust in me. I will be here for you".

So, this beginning of John turns out to be saying something revolutionary, something that had never happened before on the world stage.

Because, on one hand, John agrees with most cultures and religions and philosophies across history. Most people have some sense that our world is created by a creative "Word": That there is a Purpose, a Plot, a Meaning behind our existence that guides our lives, and our history, to a goal.

That is not a very revolutionary idea in itself. But what John does that is revolutionary is to say that THIS Word has come to us, and become one of us. In Jesus, God has looked us straight in the eye, and said "Don't worry. I give you my WORD. I will be there for you."


History is littered with the assumption that humans must struggle and strive and work to attain that Purpose that is "out there", somewhere beyond us, as something abstract and unattainable.

But John makes the incredible leap of faith to the idea that this Purpose has not stayed "out there". Instead, that Purpose has given us a promise in Christ. That Meaning has given us Himself in Jesus. That Word has said "Trust in me. I will be here for you".

John says that God has given Godself to us, to be seen by us, to be known by us, to be touched by us, in Christ Jesus.

I supposed if God had wanted to make Godself known to ants, God would have become an ant. Or if God wanted to be known by dogs, God would have become a dog. And who knows, perhaps God did do just that, and we haven't found out yet.

But we do know that God has made humans in God's own image to Love God and be Loved by Him, to know God and make God known.

And so, after God had prepared humanity for his arrival through Ages and Stages, by sending Prophets and Sages, God became human to be KNOWN by humans.

That is what John is getting at by saying that "The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."

The Law is the preparation. It is the set of instructions to clean the house to prepare for holiday guests. First you clean the bathroom, then the kitchen, then the bedrooms, then the living room, and so forth. After that, you are ready for your company to come.

Moses and the whole Tradition of the Jewish Law was a preparation for our Christmas Guest: The God made flesh. This Law taught us to put God first, to not confuse idols with the Real thing, to make space and time to worship God, to treat other people with justice, dignity, and Love.

And not only was the Jewish Law a preparation for the coming of God in Christ, but many cultures have been a preparation for Christ as well.

Early Christian teachers, like Justin the Martyr, taught that Greek and Roman cultures prepared the Gentiles for Christ, in the same way that the Jewish Law prepared Jews for Christ.

Many cultures, many belief systems, give us a "Law" which is fulfilled in Jesus. They teach us that there is a Purpose and a Meaning guiding All Reality; They teach us to avoid idols and illusions which masquerade as God; They teach us about Love and Justice and the dignity of human life.

But they are all incomplete. All miss the mark. All fall short. Whether it is the Hebrew Law, or Greek philosophy, or another worldview: The best they can be is a preparation for our Guest.

Grace and Truth, God in human form, comes in its fullest in Christ. In Christ, God doesn't just give us another Law. He looks us in the eye and gives us His Word.

And that is why this reading comes at the perfect time of year every year.

Every year, we enter into a month-long period of intense activity that runs from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

Every year, we run ourselves ragged by doing, doing, doing, and we desperately need a place to just "be".

Every year, we finish Christmas exhausted, and we desperately need a time to rest, reflect and re-assess our lives: WHY we are we here? WHO are we? WHO do we really belong to?

And every year, we are confronted with the fact that the Purpose of our lives, the "Why" of our existence, has sought us, and found us, and is present to us in Jesus Christ.

In fact, in our society, it is almost as if we purposely re-live the struggle between the Law and Faith that Paul speaks of in our reading from Galatians today.

Think about it: Every year, summer ends, and the activity ramps up. This is especially true of families with kids in school, but it is also true of anyone who lives around friends or family with kids in school.

Which is just about all of us.

And so, as the fall semester begins, we plunge into activity after activity, and event after event. We live our lives by our appointment calendars and our to-do lists.

These calendars and lists tell us what must be done, who must be seen, where we must go, and when to be there.

Each kid, each job, each organization in our lives has their own calendar, their own list. And these lists and calendars fight with each other for dominance.

What will win? Family time or the project at the office? Do we go to Sally's ballet recital, or Billy's soccer tournament? Will I spend time helping with the school project, or completing the spreadsheet for the presentation?

And then, as fall turns into winter, a new set of calendars and lists are imposed on us. What are the Thanksgiving plans? When do we schedule the Christmas parties? What does everyone want for Christmas? How can we possibly find enough time and money to buy gifts?

And all of the lists and calendars crescendo into a symphony of controlled chaos on Christmas, when Christ finally arrives.

And afterward, finally, all is calm again. There is rest. The presents and the parties and the calendars and the lists are finally done. If only for a few days. There is rest.

You know what all these calendars and lists and requirements and activities sound like to me? They sound a lot like what the Bible calls "Law".

And this cycle of chaotic activity finally leading to rest in Christ: It sounds a lot like what Paul describes when he says:

"Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith."

Do you sometimes feel imprisoned by all the activities and requirements in your life? I do.

Do you sometimes look at your appointment calendar and to-do lists as a disciplinarian who sternly guards your life? I do too.

Do you yearn to reconnect with the real Purpose and Meaning for your life, to find that Faith that has been left behind, somewhere in the clutter and chaos of everyday life? I do too.

When Paul uses the word "justified", it means to be put back into a right relationship, a right standing with God.

And that right relationship is not one where we are slaves, endlessly toiling for a harsh boss, who will never be happy with our hard work. That right relationship is not one in which we check our to-do list to see if we have done everything to please God.

Rather, that right relationship is that of children, who are held close by our Father's embrace. It is a relationship where we freely, without shame, call God our Abba, our Father, our Daddy. That is what it means to be justified before God.

So, in the calm and peace of this first Sunday after Christmas, I call upon us to realize that our struggle with the Law is over. I call upon us all to embrace God as our Daddy once more.

In this place, at this time, we are free from lists and calendars and activities. We are free to just "be" with our God.

I call upon us to be silent, to rest in God's Love, and to realize that the Meaning of Life has become flesh. In Him, God has looked us in the eye and given us His Word:

"I will never leave you or forsake you. I am yours forever."

2009-12-17

Thoughts on the Presiding Bishop's Visit


On the weekend of December 12-13th both Canterbury House SMU and Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church (hereafter SMAA) were visited by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori (hereafter +KJS) and the longest-ordained bishop in the Anglican Communion, Bill Frey (hereafter +Frey). At SMAA, +KJS and +Frey talked about "Who is Christ for me?" and "Who is Christ for the world?". In this, +Frey represented a voice of "conservative" Anglicanism, particularly with his long standing association with the charismatic renewal movement, and his teaching experience at Trinity School for Ministry (an Evangelical Episcopal Seminary). +KJS, on the other hand, was a voice of "liberal" or "progressive" Anglicanism, with an emphasis on social and ecological justice, which has been one of the hallmarks of her ministry as Presiding Bishop. It was great to see two bishops who represent two different strands in the Anglican tapestry come together to discuss the Person at the Core of Anglicanism: Our Lord Jesus Christ.

After the discussion at SMAA, we hosted +KJS for a community wide Eucharist at Canterbury collegiate chapel. This was followed by a visit from +Frey on Sunday night. Both preached and celebrated Eucharist with our young adults and others who were gathered each night. Since I got to see and hear both of them up close and personal, I have been asked by many people what I thought, especially about +KJS. For those who may not know, some in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas tend to have a bit of opposition toward the Presiding Bishop and the "National Church", so it is with some controversy that +KJS was here. So, for those who want to know what I thought, read on:

Regarding the Presiding Bishop Visit to Canterbury on December 12th:

As far as her visit to Canterbury goes, the event went awesome. +KJS did an excellent job of interacting with the young adults and making my folks feel special, especially as she stood in a circle talking to them for about 30 minutes. Out of the whole weekend, this pastoral interaction pleased me the most. They were very excited to have her come, just as they were excited when former Archbishop George Carey came to visit last November, when the Archbishop-elect of Uganda came last Spring, and when +Frey came the following night. In fact, since +KJS was here on Saturday and +Frey was here on Sunday, for largely identical services, these events gave my students a great experience of the breadth of Anglicanism.

In addition, +KJS was very pleasant, and actually showed a sense of humor which I had not seen before. Her homily was spot on, and could have comfortably been preached by any Creedal clergyperson in the world. It was solid and clearly rooted in the spirituality of Advent and Christ's Incarnation. Her liturgical style was quite a bit "lower" than I practice. But, she is a graduate from a "low church" seminary after all. Her vestments were, as always, festive and interesting. [;-)] My folks played their parts well, and the music was fabulous. It was a great night all around. It was a delight to show Christian hospitality to our Presiding Bishop, and to receive it right back from her.

As far as the +KJS / +Frey discussion at SMAA goes:

You know, I have mixed feelings about this weekend. I am firmly Incarnational and Trinitarian (=Creedal), so I think some of her statements were a bit soft in the discussion. At the same time, I have gone to seminary with students and professors who are Unitarians and Pantheists, and her statements about Jesus' divinity were much, much further than they would be willing to go. She was clearly in the Trinitarian/Incarnational camp, but with a hesitant, empirical, "scientific" cast to the way she expressed it.

She affirmed Jesus as the "Divine Architect" and "The Second Person of the Trinity", as well as affirming a few times that it was the entire course of Christ's life that was salvific. In this, she explicitly affirmed Christ's historic birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection. In her argumentation style, I was actually reminded of how +William Temple carefully constructed his arguments in a scientific manner. Thus, I am fairly comfortable with her Christology, although I personally would speak in a less reserved manner about Jesus as both our Lord and God. However, at the end, when she was asked about the bodily resurrection, she recounted the Biblical narratives of Jesus appearing and eating with the disciples, and then said "that is how they experienced it, but I was not there". I was not satisfied with her lack of specificity, and the lack of personal ownership she expressed in that answer, and wish she had gone further.

In the discussion, she spoke of Jesus going to hell and "turning it upside down to look for Judas". I realize where she was trying to go with statements about Jesus emptying hell, and going in search of Judas, which are rooted in Alexandrian-Cappadocian theology of Apokatastasis in the 3rd-6th centuries. For those who do not know, Apokatastasis is an Eastern Orthodox, Christ-centered, redemptive vision of hell and ultimate reconciliation of all Creation in Jesus Christ. She, along with +Frey, also drew heavily on the Eastern Orthodox idea of theosis/deification, in which salvation is primarily a personal union with God, by which the individual comes to share in God's life through Christ without "merging" or loosing personal identity. A favorite Orthodox analogy is how a sword may be plunged into a fire so that it glows and takes on the fire's energy, without actually merging and becoming the same as the fire. We are the sword, and we come to be infilled with God's energy as we draw near to Christ in Word, Sacrament, and Prayer.

However, I don't think she clearly laid the groundwork to explain and use these concepts. For instance, she quoted Athanasius "God became human so that humans might become divine", and said things such as "[Jesus] is the ultimate sacrament of God" embodied in a human person. These ideas could be (and have been!) misinterpreted by people that seem to have little familiarity with the Orthodox Theological sources she is drawing from. I will confess that I personally am sympathetic to the Incarnational, Apokatastatic Trinitarianism that we find in the Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory,Gregory, and Basil) as well as Athanasius' "On the Incarnation", as well as Irenaeus' recapitulatory atonement theories. So, even though +KJS did not fully or clearly explain what she was referencing, I am sympathetic to that theology for many of the same reasons I am sympathetic to theNicene Creed and its unique construction (for instance, using homo-ousias instead of homoi-ousias, etc.). Both were authored by the same group of people: The Alexandrians and Cappadocians.

Her comment on "Green Jesus" and Christ's mission of Liberation to ALL Creation was perhaps her least explained reference. It is clear that Jesus is a prophet of Liberation (and also God Incarnate!), when we read references like Luke 4.18-19. If I were trying to make her point, I first of all would not use an adjective (Green or otherwise) to describe our Lord. He is who He is without adjectival attribution. Second of all, I would make the point that God's justice for individuals is tied to creating more just structures in society, and that in turn is connected with how we, as societies, steward the Creation that has been loaned to us by God.

Then I would probably then argue that the inherent basis of Consumer Capitalism is the "profit motive", which is nothing other than the vice of greed writ large in nice handwriting. I would point out that we need to establish another basis for our economic and political system than this vice (maybe love or justice?), lest our whole economic-political system will implode upon our heads with thunderous crash. And then I would tie that back into the process of Evangelism, in which we bring individuals and communities into relationship with the God who is Love (not greed!) through Jesus Christ. So, on the "Green Jesus" I applaud the idea she was trying to get at, even if I would not use her route or wording to get there.

Swimming beneath the surface of +KJS's lectures seemed to be a profound discomfort with ontology and metaphysics, and her value of concrete action which liberates real people in real situations. I think she comes by this honestly from two directions: Both as someone trained in science, and who has "come of age" in postmodernity. Both the strength and weakness of her training as a scientist is that such training necessarily focuses on the particular, the empirically measurable, and the quantifiable. Thus, it is with great reserve that she theologically jumps from particularity toabstract forms, metaphysics and ontology. This kind of "bottom up" view of theology is common among the great scientist-theologians of the Anglican tradition, notably +William Temple, and more recent folks like John Polkinghorne+.

In addition, she seems clearly affected by the postmodern critique of ontology. If the scientific critique of ontology is that it tends to explain more than the evidence warrants, the postmodern critique is that such explanations tend to be an ideological mask that power hides behind to oppress others. And, anyone who is honest will see the validity of both critiques, taken in measure. Often, static ontologies of eternal unchanging structures lead to violence against those who will not conform to "The Ontology" (as can be clearly seen in examples ranging from Catholic hierarchy to Marxist liberation to Nazi fascism to Cutthroat Consumerism). Static ontologies make what is "really Real" into some unchanging, unseen system, which is then appropriated by those who can use it to legitimize their oppression and exclusion of "the other". This leads to a cultural/worldview system which stuffs Reality into the "box" of the ontology, thereby cutting off limbs of the Body to make it fit.

I rehearsed this fairly standard scientific and postmodern critique of static ontologies to make it clear why some, such as +KJS, feel uncomfortable setting down "Absolute, Objective, Metaphysical Ontologies" which declare how Reality MUST be, prior to ever encountering Reality as it really is. But, perhaps there is a way out. What if ontology is dynamic, and not static? What if there is indeed a "Metaphysical Absolute", but one which is relational, active, and living? I would propose that the way through the scientific and postmodern critique of ontology, which was embedded in +KJS's theology, is found precisely in the Metaphysical Ontology of the Trinity.

The ontology of the Holy Trinity would lead one to the belief that "Ultimate Reality" is not something static, but Someone who is dynamic, relational, living, interpenetrating, dancing, emerging, and self-giving: Someone who is Love. In short, the dynamic ontology that grounds the Universe is none other than the Triune God, who eternally loves in perichoresis shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and overflows into the creation and redemption of all things. This idea is made most accessible for me by Roman Catholic Philosopher Peter Kreeft in lectures such as thisand this. This emergent, dynamic, relational, Triune ontology provides a sure metaphysical basis to ground "traditional" theological concepts like Incarnation, the Body of Christ, and sacraments, as well as more "contemporary" theological concerns like liberation, inclusion, and justice.

Overall, what interested me about the lectures was how +KJS was so rigorously Scriptural (in the first lecture) and so rigorously traditional in the Eastern Orthodox sense (in the second lecture). And +Frey was based almost entirely in personal experience. These roles were "reverse" of what we would expect from a "conservative" and a "liberal". In fact, +Frey made some theological moves that are typically very "liberal", such as saying:
  • In regards to judging the salvific status of non-Christians: "We have to let God be God…"
  • In regards to missionaries going to "unreached" places to share the Gospel: "[Christ] is already there, often anonymously."
  • "If our Trinitarian theology is even remotely correct, we can't run into God without bumping into Jesus."
  • "[Jesus] came to destroy religion and open the Father's heart to the world."
All of this is pretty radical. And both of them ended in an expansive vision of Christ's Personal and Global redemption, with a strong emphasis on Social Justice. I loved that. By the end of the lecture, it seemed that in most ways, both +Frey and +KJS were describing the same Jesus, but using two different languages (and as we know, when we compare any two languages, such as Greek and Hebrew, we find that each has it's strengths and weaknesses in what it can express and what it has trouble expressing).

With that said, I know she had her "Dallas persona" in full play, and not her "New York persona". It would be a sin against charity to speculate on which persona of hers is more "genuine", if either, so I will leave that to God. But I will note that she, like nearly everyone I know including myself, does change her persona depending on who we are speaking to. For instance, my collegiate sermons are different than my sermons to older folks which are different than my sermons to kids. In addition, this blog article has undergone four different major revisions as I sent it to various people, and finally prepped it for "public" posting.

The thing that did not come up this weekend was, of course, Church politics, gay unions, gay ordination, women's ordination, how the "National Church" handles dissenting groups, and how dissenting groups handle non-dissenters (and each other!). That, of course, colors how one looks at the whole thing. I honestly don't have much to say about that other than that I think all sides involved exhibit exceptional degrees of gracelessness and truth manipulation, through gossip and public legal action (this among Christians!). For instance, here is one example and then another, among countless that could be named. So, I am not attracted to any "party" in this debate. If I go further into specifics, it will only result in being labelled by both sides as one of the other sides, so I will decline to go further. The best I can do is work where I am at, with the people God has given me, to help them know Jesus and grow into all his fullness. So, that is what I will do, so help me God.

2009-12-01

Which Holy Crap Must Go?


A friend sent me an incredible article by Walter Russell Mead called "The Holy Crap Must Go". Well, this article struck quite a chord with me. So, I wound up writing a whole lot...

Initially, when reading his rant about being property-laden and bureaucracy bound, I was cheering along with him. I think acquisition of property and power is the besetting sin of Christendom, and it is at the root of so much of what is wrong with the "Christendom Model" of doing things (where we tend to treat persons as property, while giving our property the status of persons... But I digress).

So, the first several paragraphs were singing my song. And I do not want the rest of my critique to overshadow my MASSIVE agreement with him on the property and bureaucracy issues.

In the second half of the article, he began a critique of clerical training and the clerical profession.

I think clergy as "profession" is a rather unhelpful category inherited from the corporate world which needs to be dismissed almost entirely. "Profession" is a frame, or container, to hold a set of ethical norms and specialized practices which are unique to ordained life. Unfortunately, "profession" is also necessarily caught up with the idea of success, forward progress, and increasing status which is measured in economically quantifiable terms (i.e. money received, butts in seats, etc.).

If we use the concept of "profession" to measure the ministry of Peter, or Paul, or Jesus for that matter, then what we find is that they were dismal failures. Not only did they fail to keep up "professional" decorum (read Matthew 23 or Galatians, for example), but their ministries ended as numerical and financial failures, including their own deaths.

Yet, quite obviously they were successful in non-economic, and non-immediate terms. People do not gather on a weekly basis to remember any of the Caesars, Alexander the Great, or even Henry Ford. But they do for Jesus and his followers.

Also: Implicit, incipient in the concept of "profession" is an inherent slant TOWARD economic, quantifiable measures to judge the "success" or "failure" of ministry. If being clergy is a profession, then the most successful practitioners of that profession necessarily have larger buildings, bigger budgets, and more attendance. It is true of the Mainline infrastructures formed in the 20th century, and it is true of the Megachurch infrastructures formed now. All of them will collapse under their own professional weight.

So, I think a hidden key to this entire discussion resides at the heart of clerical identity itself. In fact, the best category to place "clergy" is not in the box labelled "profession", but in the box labelled "vocation" or "calling" or "mission" or "vision" or just plain old "identity".

To be ordained as a deacon/minister, or as presbyter/priest, or (God help you!) as bishop/overseer is not to enter into a "profession" with a series of "benchmarks" you must pass as you advance up the "corporate ladder" to "success". To be ordained to any of the clerical orders is to receive a new identity and a new life-mission as a member of Christ's one holy catholic apostolic Church.

If we think of the Church as a Family (which it is), becoming clergy is to become a spiritual parent who has responsibility and response-ability to nourish, protect, and raise into maturity other members of the Family. If we think of the Church as a Body (which it is), becoming clergy is to become part of the "skeletal system" which provides support, structure, and boundaries so that the other organs of the Body can function and move and reach out to the world around them.

I could go on, but I hope you get the idea. If we think in terms of clerical "identity", "vision" and "vocation" (instead of "profession"), then we begin to measure clerical "success" in qualitative, spiritual terms rather than quantitative, economic terms. A faithful, consistent ministry will be valued more than a ministry that built a 3000 seat worship center. Mother Teresa will be valued more than Joel Olsteen.

Like it or not, the clergy provide for the structure and continuance of the Church as a recognizable entity. And, the manner in which clergy provide that structure and continuance is largely a matter of how clergy are FORMED in their identity.

If you form clergy to have a quasi-theological ideal of clergy as "profession", then they will structure and continue the Church by building large buildings, and forming complex bureaucratic systems, as evidence of their "success". But, if you form clergy to have a deeply theological sense of clergy as "vocation/vision/identity", then they will continue the Church by mission, by preaching, by catechesis, by raising up missionally minded lay leaders who take Jesus with them into their families, workplaces, marketplaces, and civic responsibilities.

And all of this ties into what I think is the BIGGEST FLAW in the article: His demeaning of clerical education. It is almost as if he has taken a page out of Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Life" to say "If you can read, you can lead".

The truth is, we need better clergy formation, not worse. We need better clergy formation because, at the least, clergy come out thinking being clergy is a "profession" rather than a "vocation". While this may be one small issue, it reflects a deep bias in the way in which most seminaries- even good ones- train clergy. It like saying that, when you reduce Christian ministry and mission down far enough, you find "it's all about the economy, stupid".

And that is the besetting sin of American culture: To reduce, flatten, all of reality into strictly economic terms. Income versus expenses. The ledger. Cost / benefit analysis. The bottom line. We read all of history this way, either with a Capitalist or a Marxist spin to it (depending on which news channel you decide to watch!).

We need clergy to be educated so that they can effectively think, preach, teach, and pray outside of the box of American consumerism, with its devastating reduction of all facets of life to strictly economic terms. We need a clergy that can think theologically, rather than merely economically. We need a clergy that can think historically, rather than just in terms of marketing psychology. We need a clergy that can see all of life in terms of God's Mission, rather than in terms of the market.

And while he may be right that "An increasingly well-educated and independent minded society doesn’t need as much guidance from professionals as it used to. Curious parishioners can get many of their religious and theological questions answered on line..." This does NOT mean that they are getting good information. Nor does it mean that they are analyzing that information from the right vantage point. Dump all the theological information you want on someone thoroughly enmeshed in a consumeristic worldview. All you will get out of them is an economic-marketplace analysis of that data. For real worldview transformation, mentoring and pastoral care is required so that a person can "see" another way of living embodied in another person.

I think that one of the comments on his post was very telling: "The core spiritual ideas of the Society of Friends would work very well in the kind of local, people centered approach." And they are right. Quakers/Society of Friends are the original form of contentless, make-your-own-way, super-individualistic, semi-buddhist-quasi-christian, church-that-is-not-a-church. His approach leads to a lowest-common-denominator kind of Church where Christianity is a contentless spirituality that is anything to any body. There is no one authorized to speak on Christ's behalf, and no historical or theological reflection really guided by anyone. Rather, "church" becomes a cafeteria spirituality developed from articles on Wikipedia which re-capituates every heresy and schism over the last 2000 years.

For real transformation of people and communities, what is required is a cadre of well-trained "organic intellectuals" who are able to envision life outside of the world system we are in, and lead people in that vision to personal and communal transformation. These "organic intellectuals" need to speak both the language of the people, but also the language of the vision. They need to be implanted into the communities they serve, to incarnate the vision to those around them. These organic intellectuals need to have a personally felt sense of mission and vocation, which gives them clarity of mission, even in the midst of hardships and apparent failure.

This language of "organic intellectuals" was developed by Antonio Gramschi, a Communist theorist, at the beginning of the 20th century. But I think it describes well the vocation of clergy, and what clergy training is needed to empower them for their mission.

So, we need better clergy education and formation.

This starts by selecting people for clergy formation who HAVE ALREADY demonstrated significant gifts for ministry by actually DOING ministry in a sustained fashion. We need to stop selecting people who have little or no Christian formation, and even less ministry experience, and then thinking that seminary will somehow "fix" the problem and give them an authentic spirituality by the time they graduate.

To reduce student debt and increase pastoral practicality, I think we should probably make use of a hybrid parish-and-seminary system of education. For more "cognitive" classes on Scripture, History, and Systematics we rely on seminary professors in a classroom setting. For more "practical" classes on Liturgy, Pastoral Care, and Administration we rely on practicing clergy in the local diocese who have been identified as particularly effective in those areas. Perhaps a local parish (the Cathedral?) might be designated as a "clinical parish" where ordinands run the ministries under the mentoring of a very experienced priest or two. Maybe it could even be a quasi-cloistered environment for the ordinands.

And did I mention that if a denomination calls a person into the ordination process, they are morally bound to pay for the costs associated with education? We would consider it immoral for a wealthy person to demand that a their workers pay them for the honor of working for them full time. Yet, we send ordinands to work full time for 3 or more years in seminary, and pay for it all themselves, or go into crippling seminary debt, and then expect them to take jobs that can't pay for their families and their debt. And we wonder why people don't want to become clergy.

And I haven't even critiqued the 5-10 year hazing ritual that we call "the ordination process". The "hoops" are supposed to be there to weed out bad apples from ordination. But, there are plenty of bad apples who make it through the process, and plenty of good apples who see how messed up the Church is and bid adieu to ordination. And, if we only called people into ordination who ALREADY demonstrated significant gifts for ministry by actually DOING ministry in a sustained fashion, then most of the bad apples would be gone by the sheer nature of what it takes to actually DO ministry rather than just talk about it.

So, in contrast to the article, I say that clergy need better education and formation. Not longer. Not more costly. But better. Education that better enables them to grasp the vision of clerical identity and clerical vocation.

If we heal this wound- the wound of trying to make the Church into a "professional" world, run by "professional" clergy, which is successful by "professional" socio-economic measures- then the Church can be reformed and the holy crap can be thrown out. It will be thrown out because clergy will start to see ministry in terms of vocation and vision, and will form communities of Christ-followers who live into such a vision, and they will naturally jettison all of the "holy crap" so they can continue with Jesus' mission to heal the world.
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.