Sunday, November 28, 2010


Look carefully at the images to the right. All of them are real things. None of them is intended to be ironic in the least. Each of them in its own way is a sign of celebrating a season-- a season I'm coming to call "Admastime."

Admastime represents the collision of two Christian seasons-- Advent and Christmas-- plus two other seasons that have little to do with Christianity per se-- the retail shopping season and winter (if you're in the Northern Hemisphere, that is!).

The result of this four-track train wreck is that two critical elements of Christian theology  can tend to get wiped out, first by the collision itself, and then by the overwhelming preponderance of noises, voices, songs, images and inducements to have fun with friends and family and buy things that are more plentiful than attack ads during the final weeks of election campaign seasons.

Those two missing elements are "vent" and "Christ."

Vent-- from the Latin, venio, venire, to come. Advent historically referred to the 'coming toward' of Christ, a season where we first and foremost reflect on the second coming of Christ as judge of the living and the dead to bring about the consummation of God's reign on earth as it is in heaven. This Advent, the second coming of Christ, is the final manifestion of God's "good news to the poor, deliverance of captives, recovering of sight to the blind." Such good news and different outcomes are discontinuous with our world as we know it because the powers in play in our world are bent on continuing to generate their opposites-- delivering more bad news to the poor, creating more and more captives and addicts, and keeping everyone blind to the fact that this is exactly what's going on. This world keeps singing "Sleep," "Rest," "Relax," and in more recent years "Buy More Stuff!" while the texts we read for Advent keep saying "Wake up!,"  "Be on the watch, day and night!, "There's work to be done!" and "Get ready to leave all your stuff and flee for the hills!" Where is there any sign or even willingness to hear of The Day of the Lord in Admastime?

The other missing element is Christ. Now, to be sure, there is much talk of "baby Jesus" even in the cultural renderings of this season. But he is variously labeled "cute" or "sweet" or, most commonly, "asleep on the hay." We may hear something of his poverty-- but it is thoroughly sentimentalized poverty. We may even hear something about him being Emmanuel ("God with us")-- but that is quickly reinterpreted as God being in all of us or God loving all of us just like a parent loves a newborn child, or worse, as the love of Santa who gives gifts to all "good" little girls and boys. So, as a friend of mine wrote recently, about the best that Admastime gives us is "baby Jesus eternally chained to a manger."

But Christ-- Messiah, Deliverer, Anointed One, Savior, Incarnate Lord-- where do we ever hear of him? Maybe we may substitute the reading from the prologue of John's gospel intended for Christmas morning on Christmas Eve and so hear something of the glory of the only-begotten Son of God. But aren't we more likely on that night to stick with the script that gives us the birth rather than John's theological commentary on it? If so, how much time in Admastime do we really give to ponder the mystery of Jesus Christ, and not simply coo and ahh about the babe in the manger? 

I'm not asking that question of the surrounding culture which is more to be pitied and prayed for than scorned.

I'm asking it of us... readers of this blog who are likely to be heavily invested in leading, planning and preparing for worship in United Methodist congregations. 

We are now, all of us, in the thick of Admastime, constantly, 24/7, at least through December 26 when Admastime offers its final hurrah in a blaze of post-Christmas clearance sales.

How are you planning for worship that celebrates and prepares people to expect the second coming of Christ in these weeks before Christmas? 

And then how are you preparing to celebrate, reflect on, ponder, and help your worshiping communities be changed by the revelation of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, beginning Christmas Eve, and in some concentrated way on the 12 days that follow until the celebration of Epiphany (January 6)?

The people in this culture and in your worshiping community are living, swimming in and constantly breathing Admastime. It is toxic to our professed faith in Jesus Christ. And it keeps us and our neighbors in thrall to the powers of this world.

How will you help them experience Advent and Christmas in ways that speak and enact good news, deliverance, and new sight in the blinding darkness that now surrounds us all?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Image Credits, Clockwise from Top Left:
"Buy More Stuff Day, 2009" photo by Michael Holden. Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.
"Christmas Tree New York 2006" photo by Alsandro. Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.
"DritterAdvent" photo by Jürgen Howaldt. Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Søren Kirkegaard Replies to the Call to Action Report

by E. Byron Anderson

Why is it that worship and music always are made the “fall guy” for the church’s problems? Is it because they are the most public? Is it because they are the most susceptible to “quick fixes”? (Full disclosure, dear reader, I am a liturgist and church musician.)

The recent “Call to Action” report released by the United Methodist Church provides yet again a simplistic analysis of the UMC’s problems and an even more simplistic prescription regarding worship. All congregations, regardless of size, social context, and economic means, should “offer multiple worship experiences [including a “mix of contemporary and traditional services”] and cultivate dynamic topical preaching.”

While this prescription needs some unpacking, which I cannot do here, it is, nevertheless, the same prescription we have been hearing from “church growth experts” for more than twenty years. 

But it has an even older history. 

In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard noted how the persistent question at church conventions was “what the age demands” with respect to religious practice. Kierkegaard notes, tongue-in-cheek, how everything wrong with the church can be blamed on the current hymnal. We would not be wrong, I think, to substitute the word “worship” in each place he includes hymnal. I especially like the last sentence!

"The Convention has recently arrived at the conclusion that…it is a new hymnal the age requires. 

    How comes it that church attendance is relatively so small as it is in the country's capital? Why, quite naturally, the answer is clear as day: it comes from aversion to the old hymnal….

    How comes it that the practice of family worship is so rare, although at home there is freedom of choice in the use of hymnals? Why, naturally, it is as clear as day, that the aversion for the old hymnal is so great that no one has any willingness as long as the old hymnal exists; its mere existence is sufficient to quench altogether the spirit of worship….

    And how then comes it that all this was unfortunately the case long before the need of any new hymnal was mentioned? Why, naturally, it is as clear as day, that it was the deeply rooted need of the congregation, its deep need, though still unconscious, since there was yet no convention to give it utterance. 

    But for this very reason it seems to me we ought to go slow in abolishing the old hymnal, lest we experience too great a measure of embarrassment when we have to explain the same phenomenon after the new hymnal has been introduced.” 

[my emphasis; Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David Swenson and Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton, 1947), 427-429.]

Why is UM church attendance so small, family worship non-existent, discipleship formation so lacking…[you fill in the blanks]? 

Of course, it is because of our worship and music. 

Perhaps we are developing a much higher tolerance for embarrassment, because the next “call to action” study (and there will be another, and another) will offer the same prescription. 

In the meantime it appears that we will be occupied with dismantling those very practices of the church (sacrament, prayer, worship, the study of and preaching on scripture) that are most suited to the formation we need for a new generation.

Image Credit: Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on a sketch by Niels Christian Kierkegaard (1806-1882). Public Domain.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On Time


For most of us in the West, time moves primarily in a line from one point to the next. What is before is the past. What will come later is the future. The present is wherever we happen to be on the line right now.

We move along this line in cycles. In our daily lives these cycles are marked by schedules of things we regularly do each day at a particular time. We rise. We bathe. We dress. We eat. We go to work or school. We work and learn. We eat again. We work and learn some more. We come home. We eat again. We work, or relax, or spend time with family or  meet with friends. We sleep. The cycle resumes the next morning. Our linear lives are the additions of these daily cycles, one upon the next, a spiral coil, starting at birth, ending at death, always moving forward. The past is past. The future is yet to come.

The cycles are of course not only daily, but weekly, monthly, yearly, multi-yearly. Moving along the perimeter of the coil, coil upon coil, always in one direction from birth to death.

A line of cycles. Coil upon coil.

The spiritual practices of many religions, including Christianity, seem to order time in a similar way. Morning, noon, evening and night prayer, and perhaps other times between these, form the daily cycle of prayer and readings we call the daily office. Every Sunday both ends and starts a new weekly celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Christian year-- Advent, Christmastide, Season after Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Season after Pentecost-- a yearly coil. The three year-lectionary cycle, with a focus each year on a different gospel, different strata of the Old Testament, and different selections from the epistles and Psalms, another coil. For United Methodists, the four year cycle (quadrennium) between General Conferences, another coil. And so it goes-- birth to death, cycle to cycle, cycles within cycles, but always, always moving forward. The past is past. The future is yet to come. The present is now.

More and more the ethos behind the design of Sunday worship, especially in the last 30 years or so in US Protestantism, participates in this linear understanding and embodiment of time. We enter the worship space, sing or experience music and often drama or video clips that seeks to move us beyond ourselves and toward God in some way related to what the core of that experience is designed to do-- give us a "message" the inspires us to live better in some way and informs us of ways to do so. A closing musical set sends us out with  affirmation and encouragement to make the improvements everything in the service has inspired and taught us to make. This week's message or topic builds on last week's and lead's to next week's-- one step forward along the line at a time. A series of coils, week after week.

This construct of time as a line of cycles or a series of coils moving forward is reinforced constantly in our cultural and daily life experience. And it has real, even adaptive value for us. By repeating cycles, we may be getting better at the things those cycles are forming us to be and do. Practice does lead to perfection. Practice in similar if not identical contexts helps us achieve that perfection in such contexts more quickly and also makes us more able to apply what we've learned in different contexts over time.

But it has a serious limitation.

Shakespeare points to that limitation directly in Macbeth's famous soliloquy when he gets word his wife has just died.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time. And all our
Yesterdays have lighted fools the way
To dusty death. Out! Out, brief candle.

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
Who struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by and idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

If all we do is move forward, one coil at a time, tomorrow upon tomorrow upon tomorrow, with all our yesterdays always gone, what is the point? Where is the "signifying,"  ultimately?
We need a different vision of time if time or we ourselves are to be redeemed.

And prophetic and apocalyptic Judaism, along with early Christianity, at least through Augustine (pictured at left), supplied it.

Perhaps the ultimate early Christian reflection on time comes from Augustine's Confessions. 

There he wrote:

"O my Hope, let not my purpose be confounded. For if there are times past and future, I desire to know where they are. But if as yet I do not succeed, I still know, wherever they are, that they are not there as future or past, but as present.”

In other words, all time really exists always in the present moment. Here, now, the past is with us. (Anamnesis).  Here, now, the future breaks into our lives (Apocalypsis and prolepsis). 

This is the sense we feel in worship, sometimes with dazzling brightness, sometimes as a dim flicker. All the saints from all times and in all places join us to sing the Threefold Holy to God and to the Lamb when we gather at the Lord's table. Every hand that has ever been or ever will be laid upon the head of another to convey the sealing of the Spirit at baptism or the empowering of the Spirit at ordination is present at such moments. Every voice in every tongue or sign language that ever has or ever will pray the Lord's prayer accompanies us as we pray it, every time-- including our own voice back then and yet then and right now. 

The past is no longer simply past. It is present. But it is never present with us as something we ever simply relive, but rather as whatever abides with us because we have lived it. The promise of the future is something we never wait to grasp, but always grasp by embracing and living the promise now. 

And so we live our lives at all times and in all times now. Our ordering of time during the day (daily office), the season or year (Christian year), and the groups of years (three-year lectionary or quadrennial decision cycles) are not, from this angle, simply coil upon coil, always moving forward from birth to death. They are or at least are invited to be  acts that open us to the Spirit's gracious re-minding and re-making us who we are meant to be, full participants in the very life of the Triune God who was, and is, and is to come, Alpha and Omega, ever, and now, always.

The energy that flows through the coils of our lives does not flow in one direction, but by God's grace in every direction at once. We do not move from birth to death, tomorrow upon tomorrow. We move, by the Love of the One in Three, always, from life to Life. We need not truncate our worship finally into being "set up" for and response to messages that follow messages, a linear series, as if time were only in one direction. We are invited by the Holy One not out of time, nor into Timelessness, but into Timeful Time, not simply with words but means of grace, ordinary and improvised,  where past and future are always present as we attend to the Presence in the present. 

While in Eastern and African Christian traditions, Augustine's understanding of time continues to this day, informing theology, ecclesiology and especially worship, in the Western philosophical tradition it came nearly to a full stop after Augustine.  

The Western mind has surely been captured and captivated by the idea of endless linear progress. But that idea, we know, turns out to embody and then endlessly run away from an endless nihilism at its core. The coils are centrifugal, fleeing and turning themselves away from the Nothing, the Terror within yet always equidistant from it.
But this prophetic Jewish and Christian understanding of time remained embedded and embodied in the Western liturgies and the Christian reckoning of time (East and West), a reckoning that still relies on cycles and coils, yes, but coils able to conduct energy in all directions always focusing on the Omega point of the now. Now is always the appointed time.

May the experience of such Timeful Time inform the ways we live and move and have our being before and with and in the Holy One, all our days. 

And may we know the grace to allow the energy of the Spirit to break us free from the Western, nihilist, uni-directional linear coiling of time, that in life and in worship we may know and help others know the One who flows in all directions always, every now and ever. 

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Image Credits, from top: Norwegian Arm Band, 1884 Poster of Thomas Keene in Macbeth, and 6th Century Image of Augustine from the Lateran Church, all public domain. Eternal Clock, photo created in Gimp by Robbert Van der Steeg, used by permission under a Creative Commons License.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

On Being "Pastoral"


It's a term that communicates warmth, caring, positive regard, and perhaps especially the love that a pastor, a trusted Christian counselor or friend seeks to extend toward others, especially toward those who find themselves in quandaries, conflict, pain or danger.

Indeed, when people find themselves under strain, these very feelings of warmth and care are often just what is most needed to provide enough safe space for persons to explore more deeply what is going on and what God might be inviting them to do next.

Pastoral can be a good word.

Jesus, and the prophets before him, longed for leaders who were pastoral, who were "good shepherds," (the word pastor is the Latin word for shepherd). Jesus and those prophets often modeled what good shepherds do. John's gospel records it perhaps most dramatically this way. "A good shepherd puts his life on the line for the sheep" (John 10:11). 

Hirelings and bad shepherds are out for themselves, Jesus says. They're only using the sheep, not truly loving them, and not, in the final analysis, serving them as shepherds but rather treating them as commodities. 

But a good shepherd, a genuine shepherd, always seeks the good of the sheep first. The shepherd gets the sheep to safe pasture and home again, inspects each one to make sure it is healthy, and protects them all from wolves and other predators who would harm them.

So the shepherd communicates warmth to the flock, and to each one individually, but also does whatever it takes to keep them safe, even if that means laying his or her life on the line to fight or fend off a predator. 

Much Christian art depicting "Jesus the Good Shepherd," like the example above from a 19th century Russian icon, has shown only one side of what Jesus himself said it meant to be truly pastoral. Here, as in many others, we see a fair-skinned Jesus with a tender look and a lamb slung over his shoulders. Other versions add a few or even many adoring sheep on the ground or emerging from the folds of his robe. It's obvious Jesus loves them and he loves them. These beautiful works of art nearly ooze with gentleness and compassion. 

But there's something missing.  Could such a Jesus as portrayed in so many of these paintings and statues fend off a wolf? Even more-- would such a Jesus even think to do so?   

That's what I appreciate about this portrayal from the Bowyer Bible, a lavishly illustrated late 18th century English bible in 45 volumes brought together by Robert Bowyer, the Royal Engraver. Here we see Jesus doing exactly what John says a good shepherd does-- putting his life on the line against a fierce wolf to protect the flock. This Jesus looks like he knows what to do with the rod in his hand, and like he's ready and willing to use it. 

Being pastoral then, in the sense Jesus describes a good shepherd, has to be about both pasturing and protection, both nurture and fighting for the sake of the flock.  It's about communicating warmth, but also demonstrating true love by taking a stand as needed.

The best pastors, the most pastoral ones I've known, have always demonstrated both care for people and care for the truth and the teaching of the church at the same time. For them, being pastoral has never meant choosing to make people happy at the cost of not speaking or acting the truth or the teaching entrusted to them. 

These pastors were truly pastoral with families who wanted their infants "done" (that is, baptized) while they themselves showed no real interest in living or teaching the Christian faith. They would not baptize the infants, but they offered to work with the parents until they, or others in the congregation, were ready to step up and take full and active responsibility to help lead the child to discipleship to Jesus over the coming years. 

These pastors were willing to say to unwilling confirmands (and their parents!) who had only begrudgingly participated in the process that though it seemed were not yet ready to take the vows of professing membership, the pastor and others in the church remained committed to working with them until they were. 

And these pastors would keep leading a public fight against race tracks and casinos locating in their communities, while also demonstrating faithfulness and love to persons in the congregations who were involved in businesses that would profit when the tracks and casinos came. Even when some of those folks made it clear they expected their pastors either to support the track or casino or be silent about it.  

In many cases, loving the people and defending them at the same time by upholding truth or justice proved personally costly to these pastors. Some members left their congregations, taking their money with them. Some started attack campaigns against the pastor, trying (sometimes successfully) to force the pastor out.  But in every case the pastors remained fully pastoral-- loving their flock even when some of them started acting more like enemies.

So pastors, and laity-- this example from Jesus is for all of us!-- be pastoral-- in the fullest sense Jesus and the prophets described.  Love one another well, even when it is personally costly to do so. Show and spread warmth and blessing always. And speak up for the truth and the teaching of the church where it remains truthful-- and against it where it propagates or protects lies or hate. 

For it is such truth and such faithful teaching that both nourishes and protects the flock-- all of us-- from the very real predators that continue to seek to devour us and the world.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Image Credits: Good Shepherd Icon, ca 1840. Public domain. Etching of Jesus as the Good Shepherd by Jan Luyken, from the Bowyer Bible (1791-1795). Public domain.