Sunday, April 30, 2017

Revelation 19:19-20:15

You can read this portion of John's Revelation here.

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! This is a tough one today and I confess that I am far from being an expert on it. But I found an interesting, and I think helpful link, that comes from a group (the Blue Letter Bible Ministry) that acknowledges their "historical, conservative Christian views" and leanings toward Biblical inerrancy. While I don't read Revelation literally and am not going to start doing so here, I do think it's helpful to know how much "ink" has been spilled on these verses in some interpretive circles. While these are not my views, I think it's helpful to know the language and distinctions about how some Christians have interpreted these verses, because it does come up from time to time. You can check it out here. 

I'm not going near the "lake of fire!"

For my own part, however I'd simply say that 1000 years is a very long time by any human measure. If you took the date, 1776 and projected it out to 2776, then you'd realize we're only a third of the way through a millennium as a nation. The work that we are called to, as the Church, is clearly not a sprint; it's a marathon. So I'm going to offer a millennial poem here from Wendell Berry which I've found encouraging. It offers perspective.

I hope you will click on this link right here for an alternative way to think about today's reading. And I invite you to "invest in the millennium" by planting sequoias, and "by putting your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years." No one can sit around for a millennia waiting to die. So whatever these verses may mean, we do best to "get busy living" - and I think in part this means not getting overly worked up about one four-year administration in our nation's history. That doesn't mean it doesn't matter. But it does mean we can choose to take the long view.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Revelation 19:7-18

You can read the end of chapter nineteen in John's Revelation here.

Along with this time of reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting this vision given to John on Patmos, I've been working on a cookbook. It's not been overtly theological, although it does include some Scripture and some table blessings along with recipes. But undergirding it, I am making a theological assumption not unlike that of Richard Capon in his The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection: namely that every time we gather at the table to share a meal, the risen Christ is present. Not just in church at the Eucharist!

When I have prepared persons for confirmation and reception into The Episcopal Church over the years, and we have come to the point of discussing the Eucharist, I've reminded people of three dimensions to this meal - not unlike the Paschal mystery itself there is a past, present, and future tense to it. A last supper is remembered, a meal that took place in an upper room, in the context of the Jewish celebration of Passover. A thanksgiving (literally what the word eucharist means) is offered which has both a horizontal and vertical dimension as we commune with God and with our neighbor. And a future eschatological feast, this supper of the lamb, is anticipated.This last component tends to be underplayed in the liturgies in The Book of Common Prayer but gets highlighted more in newer rites approved for use in The Episcopal Church.

We are invited to share in this marriage feast, this "Supper of the Lamb" to get a foretaste of what is to come. But we get glimpses from our lives of what that will be like when we attend the wedding of a family member or friend, or share in a special meal at a table where there is laughter and joy and stories to be told. This image captures our imaginations and invites us to make our own tables places where Christ deigns to be our guest. To taste and see that the Lord is good indeed.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Revelation 17:1 - 19:6

You can read this section here.

There is a lot to see in these chapters. A reminder: "Babylon" is code language for Rome, and ultimately for all powers and principalities that draw us from the love of God alone. I find William Stringfellow to be an extremely helpful guide to these chapters. In An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens in a Strange Land, in the final chapter on "The Efficacy of the Word of God as Hope," he asks the million dollar question:
If, as I have said, the moral reality of death in the Fall is so mighty, so ubiquitous, so relentless a power, what then? If Babylon be the story of every nation and, right now, is a parable for America; if indeed the Antichrist is incipient in the American technocratic State, what can a citizen do?
He then writes about the gift of discernment, which he says is...
...basic to the genius of the biblical life style...with the ability to interpret ordinary events in both apocalyptic and eschatological connotations, to see portents of death where others find progress or success but, simultaneously, to behold tokens of the reality of the Resurrection, or hope, where others are consigned to confusion or despair. (pages 138-39)
To see portents of death where others see "progress" but also, at the same time, to also see signs of hope and new life even when others despair. That'll preach! And then, this wise counsel: . the face of death, live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word. Amidst Babel, I repeat, speak the truth. Confront the noise and the verbiage and the falsehood of death with the truth and potency and efficacy of the Word of God. Know the Word, teach the Word, nurture the Word, preach the Word, defend the Word, incarnate the Word, do the Word, live the Word. And more than that, in the Word of God, expose death and all death's works and wiles, rebuke lies, cast out demons, exorcise, cleanse the possessed, raise those who are dead in mind and conscience. (page 142) 
I can't do better than that, friends! What the seer on Patmos sees is the fall of Babylon and rejoicing in heaven which is another way of saying that at least in the end, after much struggle, good will triumph over evil.

Truth really is stronger than lies. And so we bear witness to the truth. We live against the grain, naming death where others claim progress, but also not losing hope. Even as we we feebly struggle, we do so knowing that there is a cloud of witnesses who have been here before us, shining in glory, and they cheer us on.

 We know how the story ends. This allows us to live by faith, with hope and courage and love.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Revelation 15-16

You can read the two chapters for today here.

Seven angels, seven plagues, seven bowls. Lots to ponder here, especially since the plagues seem to be a bit of a "riff" on the Exodus and the plagues that are remembered each year at Passover.

I'm drawn back to the dream we find in the prophet Isaiah, however, particularly in chapter 56 where the holy mountain of Israel becomes a house of prayer for all peoples, and then in Isaiah 60:3 when "nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn." That vision was rooted in a post-exilic mission statement, from the one the Biblical scholars call "Third Isaiah." First Isaiah announced the coming Babylonian exile, Second Isaiah spoke a word of comfort and encouragement to exiles heading home, and Third Isaiah articulates a vision of how this experience may have clarified the work ahead. It's also found in Psalm 86:9, and I am sure elsewhere as well.

It seems that John is remembering this promise, or glimpsing its fulfillment, from the Island of Patmos as we listen to the Song of the Lamb: "all nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed." 

We also get the place name, Armageddon, in 16:16, which is worth noting. It seems to me that the plagues, and Armageddon, remind us that the work is hard, and the struggle is long. But the end of the work is the worship of the Lamb and all those witnesses from every tribe, language, people and nation. So we do not lose heart. We keep our eyes on the prize. As women and men, in spite of it all, we nevertheless persist.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Revelation 14

You can read the fourteenth chapter of the Revelation to John on Patmos here. (For those who  may be stumbling upon this post, it is actually the tenth part of a sixteen part series, if you are interested in checking out the previous posts.)

John looks and sees the Lamb with the 144,000 we heard about earlier (12,000 each from the twelve tribes of Israel) on Mt. Zion. Then John listens and hears a new song led by harpists and this choir of 144, 000, who have clearly been rehearsing for a while. And then the angel (messenger) shares good news, and yet again it is with every nation, tribe, language and people:
  • Fear God. (Which is not to say "be afraid of" but approach with awe.)
  • Give God the glory. 
  • Worship God alone, the maker of the heavens and the earth.
An overarching question I've been pondering during my Sabbatical, which began on the first day of April, is about what it means to be the Church in this time and place. I've been trying to read this last book of the Bible looking for clues on how to answer this question. I recently came across a poem of Mary Oliver's that I had not previously encountered called After Her Death, written after the death of her partner. I commend the poem to you, but for here I want to pick up on just two phrases. Oliver writes:
I have not forgotten the Way, but a little,
the way to the Way.
And then:
I open the book
which the strange, difficult, beautiful
has given me...
I love the Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery that is trying (always with God's help)  to support God in carrying out the work of salvation in this world. We pray for wisdom and for discernment to know what it is we are called to be about in that work, and to keep our eyes on the God who is the maker of heaven and earth, the God to whom we give the glory. We have good days and bad days; some days we get it right and some days we don't.

But at our very best the Church is still  trying to faithfully be "the way to the Way." Not The Way itself: Jesus is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; not the Church. The "strange, difficult, and beautiful" Church's vocation is to simply be "this way to the Way."

John's apocalypse is one of the tools in our tool box - a strange and difficult and beautiful one, to be sure. But nevertheless a place where we can hear a "Word of the Lord" as we continue to follow the one who is The Way to the living God.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Revelation 13

You can read the thirteenth chapter of John's Revelation here.

Here is an extended quote from The Jewish Annotated New Testament:
The bizarre polymorphic beasts that arise in chapter thirteen to threaten and delude the earth belong to the most archaic biblical traditions of creation and would have been easily recognized as such by early audiences. The idea that the God of Israel, like other Canaanite gods defeated and bound the monsters Leviathan/Rahab and Behemoth - respectively sea and land monsters - at the beginning of time is invoked in such disparate biblical sources as Psalm 74, Job 41, and Isaiah calls for its reenactment to perfect the earth once again. (Isaiah 27 and 51:9-10)
Years ago I read a much more in-depth study on these texts which I recommend, Jon Levenson's Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence. The main premise of the book (as I remember it) is that there are these "archaic biblical traditions" embedded in the Old Testament texts of a God who is still ordering the chaos, still battling the evil powers of this world. The battle is ongoing and the work not yet finished, Levenson argues. God is good, but evil is real - and persistent.

What does it mean? William Stringfellow spends a good bit of time on "the beast" in An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens in a Strange Land. There he has an extended reflection on the demonic tactics that the principalities (aka "the beast") mount against human beings, inverting language and turning it into a weapon of chaos, falsehood, blasphemy, and propaganda to make communication more and more difficult. It's Babel on steroids, meant to degrade human life by replacing it with a culture of death. This, from Stringfellow:
The Antichrist, remember, means anti-human as much as the name means anti-God.The Antichrist is the incarnation of death in a nation, institution, or office, or other principality, and/or an image or person associated therewith. And where there is worship of the Antichrist, where there is an idolatry of death as embodied in the State, or otherwise, the manifest blasphemy against God and the denigration of worship and the degradation of human life are all aspects of the same happening. A human being cannot be an idolator of the Antichrist without negating his or her humanity, which, at the same time, means without indulgence in a travesty of worship, which, in turn, means without arousing the jealousy of consequence, a biblical person is always wary of claims which the State makes for allegiance, obedience, and service under the rubric called patriotism. (page 113, emphasis mine.) 
In verse 13:10b, John says that what is required in times such as these of the saints is "endurance and faith." What are the practices that help us to do that, in the midst of degradation and fear?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Revelation 12

You can read the twelfth chapter of the Revelation to John here.

What do you see? The image to the left is one of William Blake's watercolors, the pregnant woman being chased by the red dragon. To paraphrase the little prince - does this drawing frighten you?

One does not need to be a Christian, or even a person of faith, to dive into this image. The late Joseph Campbell would have have a field day with this one. Karl Jung might also be helpful. I read in one commentary that the image is very similar to that of Leto and Apollo being pursued by a Python, which would have been part of the regional mythology in first-century Asia Minor.

But for this post, I offer these words from Linette Martin, an iconographer, who has this to say about icons:
The pictures are not there just to be looked at as though the worshipers were in an art museum; they are designed to be doors between this world and another world, between people and the Incarnate God, his Mother, or his friends, the saints.
While Blake's watercolor is not an icon in the technical sense, I think that John's entire vision, and Blake's watercolors of various scenes, and the images created in our own imaginations, can function iconically as we make our way through this vision. The images can be doors into the heavens that help us to better imagine what heaven on earth looks like.

What does this image say to you?  A pregnant woman represents the future - the hope of new life and what is yet possible. But birth pangs are painful and can feel like dying. And new life is always tenuous and fragile and dependent upon the care of others. The Word that was there at creation, and became Word-made-flesh-to-dwell-among-us still needed Mary to nurse him when he was hungry, and for someone to change his swaddling cloths when they were soiled.  In Bethlehem and at Golgatha we see the God who chooses weakness.

Dragons represent our worst fears and perhaps we might say, "the forces of wickedness that rebel against God." St. George is but one famous dragon-slayer. But at some level, each of us must slay our own "dragons" as we move through life. Dragons are real, and sometimes the scariest ones of all are the ones we carry around inside of us. What dragons have you slayed? Which ones still terrorize you?

Which is stronger in you these days: hope or fear?  This image speaks to me in both deeply personal and cosmic ways, posing the same questions in the Harry Potter series and The Narnia Chronicles and in Star Wars. Which is simply to say that the battle between good and evil is epic. How do we navigate this world and into the next - and will we choose to live courageously, or fearfully?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Revelation, Chapters 8-11

Today's passage is quite long; four chapters. You can read it here.

Did you know that the entire libretto for Handel's Messiah is made up of scripture verses from both the Old and New Testaments, essentially "cut and pasted" together. You can see for yourself here.  You can also see there, if you did not know it already (or it wasn't triggered when you read the eleventh chapter of Revelation) that the famous "Hallelujah Chorus" is comprised entirely of three verses from this apocalypse: 19:6, 11:15, and 19:16. Handel, of course, used the King James Version. (Actually, to be precise, his partner Charles Jennens did that; Handel wrote the music.)

This is all by way of saying that buried in the midst of today's long selection are these words, from the eleventh chapter, the fifteenth verse:
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. 
Take 4 minutes and 22 seconds to listen again to what Handel does with just these three verses from Revelation, including 11:15 right in the middle:

How does this promise sound to people still without clean water in Flint? How does it sound to refugees trying to leave Syria for a new life?  To those on death row in Arkansas? To all who mourn?

How do these words sound to the powerful, the rich, the one percent who control the kingdoms of this world?

Too much "politics" in the Church? Don't blame me, nor Handel, nor even John of Patmos. We are all just messengers, trying to listen for a word of the Lord. This vision is that of the Lamb who was slain, the Lamb who is the Shepherd and the king of kings and lord of lords. This vision comes from the living God, and the risen Christ: he shall reign for ever and ever.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Revelation 7

You can read the seventh chapter of John's Revelation here.

More numbers: there are four angels at the four "corners" of the earth holding back four winds. And there are 12,000 each who are "sealed" from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, for a total of 144,000. But that's just Israel. Again there is this diverse multitude that no one could count, from every tribe, language, people and nation. And again this multi-ethnic choir is singing.

The image that captures my imagination, however, is the Lamb at the center who is also the Shepherd. Just ponder for a moment how bizarre and wonderful that metaphor is. Shepherds take care of the sheep. The sheep are cared for by the Shepherd. But this Shepherd is a Lamb. This Lamb is the Shepherd. Both are Biblical metaphors that are revealed as one in this apocalypse. 

Revelation 7:9-17 is an option offered in The Book of Common Prayer for "The Burial Office", i.e. for funerals. I have sometimes thought of this reading as a bit like reading I Corinthians 13, often read at weddings. The words are beautiful, and they work. But when Paul spoke of love to the early followers of Jesus in Corinth, he wasn't addressing a couple on their wedding day, but a congregation in the midst of conflict.

Similarly, while these words no doubt bring some comfort to those who mourn the loss of a family member or friend when read at a funeral, the larger context of eyes being wiped of tears is a global phenomenon. It's more like swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. These words have deep personal and intimate connotations to be sure for anyone who is grieving. But it also means that when a bomb is dropped in Syria or Afghanistan, the God who is being described here (and worshiped here) by people from every tribe, language, people and nation is not a God who cries more tears for American Christian deaths than for Middle Eastern Muslim deaths. The God being described here loves all the little children of the world, and all means all. The God being described here is clearly a God more interested in blessing the whole world, not just the United States. The God being described here will wipe away all tears.

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza puts it this way, in her commentary The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgement:
Only when Satan and the concrete representation of demonic power, the Roman Empire, no longer rule on earth is final salvation accomplished. Then a new, more humanized world shall be created by God where there shall no longer be weeping and mourning, hunger and thirst, pain and death. 
As long as the water in Flint, Michigan and other places is not potable there are tears to be shed and there is work to be done. Until we move closer to "heaven on earth" by making sure that the water that comes out of our neighbor's tap will actually quench their thirst, and not make them sick, we have not grasped this vision. But when the hungry are fed, and the thirsty have clean water, and there is justice and peace among all the nations, wiping away the tears may be easier by comparison.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Revelation 6

You can read the sixth chapter of John's Revelation here.

A friend of mine (a priest who also happens to be a reliable source and exceptional Biblical interpreter) pointed me to Eugene Peterson's Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination as a helpful guide to reading the Revelation to John. I have not yet checked it out, but I will, although I admit I've never been a huge fan of Peterson.

In the meantime however, she shared that the helpful lens Peterson offers for reading John's apocalypse is to read it as if one were reading an epic poem. That makes sense to me. Poets show us something, she also noted; they don't tell us what it means. It's left to the reader to interpret, but we do well first to develop the skills to pay attention. This is a really helpful thing to remember as our journey continues.

I also like the subtitle of Peterson's book, which is what I hope is being cultivated in me (and perhaps in you who are reading along) - a praying imagination. Our goal in reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting any sacred text is not, including this one, is not so much to gain more information in case a question about the four horsemen of the Apocalypse is asked to us one day on Final Jeopardy, but to engage these images and this poetry in order to deepen faith, as we imagine the living God in new ways.

Too often we fall into the habit of praying as if we were little children sitting on Santa's lap with a wish list: asking God to do stuff for us, or maybe more often for those whom we love. There is nothing wrong with prayers of petition or intercession. But sometimes our repertoire is limited by these "requests" and we forget adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, and oblation - all of which (it seems to me) are an integral part of John's Revelation.

How might these images  help to form more creative, passionate, and imaginative followers of Jesus? Perhaps as this journey continues we might be led to deeper and more intentional prayers of oblation, that is to prayer by which we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable and living sacrifice to the living God. As we join that great cloud of witnesses in doing the work God has given us to do in this time and place, we do not lose heart.We refuse to be lukewarm, to be the living dead: but to be more fully alive in Christ as witnesses to the power of the resurrection, and the hope of the world.

I do need to add that numbers have meaning for this poet: especially the numbers 4, 7, and 12. Four has meaning beyond Israel's faith - across cultures there are four directions and four winds. Here there are four living creatures and later we'll encounter four horsemen. There are twelve tribes of Israel and twelve disciples of Jesus. But the most important and complete number here is seven: the Lamb has seven horns and seven eyes, there are seven churches addressed, and now seven seals to be opened by the Lamb that is worthy. One could spend a lot more time on the numbers, but perhaps it is enough to simply pay attention to how many times these numbers come up in the chapters ahead.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Revelation 5

This post is the fourth in a sixteen-part series. You can read the fifth chapter of Revelation by clicking here.

Notice the question being posed: "who is worthy to open the scroll?" (5:2b) When the Lamb takes the scroll the creatures and elders sing a new song: "you are worthy!" (5:9) Then the angels join this song, with full voice, "worthy is the Lamb."

This worth appears to have come about because the Lamb has formed a kingdom of priests to serve God from every tribe and language and people and nation. This language and imagery will be repeated again in the text appointed for All Saints Day, from Revelation 7, and numerous other times as well as this vision unfolds. In the final chapter we'll see a tree whose leaves are given "for the healing of the nations." (22:2)  It's worth paying attention to the repetition and the clarity John seems to have about this part of the vision: to a beleaguered and weary and perhaps small struggling Christian community, John invites his readers to remember that we are part of a great multicultural cloud of witnesses from every tribe, language, people and nation.

It seems to me that one important aspect of  the Church's work is to be moving toward implementing this vision in the context of a North American Church that remains in so many ways, as Dr. King put it, the most segregated hour of the week. We still have so much work to do! But I offer this testimony. When I'm not on the road in my travels across our diocese, I tend to worship with my wife at All Saints Church in Worcester.There, one gets a glimpse of what John saw on Patmos: an urban congregation where black and white and brown people whose family roots reach back to Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia all gather together around one Table. It is a place where Spanish regularly drops in alongside English as the prayers are offered. And the deacon came to this country from Uganda during the terrible reign of Idi Amin.

Those who would claim "the Lamb" for their own racist or cultural biases are taking the Lord's name in vain. And they are not paying attention to the new song that is being sung in the fifth chapter of John's Revelation: Blessing. Honor. Glory. Might.

Only God is worthy of our praise. All other penultimate authorities either serve God, or are working at cross purposes with God. It seems to me that one way to distinguish the difference is this: are we bringing God's people together, from many tribes and languages and peoples and nations? Or are we building walls that separate God's people from one another?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Revelation 4

William Blake, "The Four and Twenty Elders"
You can read the fourth chapter of John's Revelation here. This is the third part of a sixteen part series, so if you are just joining in, you may wish to go back and read Monday's and Tuesday's posts first.

Notice, again with the looking. John has a vision - it's not literal. It's not history, and therefore shouldn't be interpreted that way. It's more like an icon - a window into some deeper truth. In fact this is often how icons are explained, as windows or doorways to heaven. And this is exactly the language that John uses here: he sees a doorway into heaven. There is singing, day and night, without ceasing: "Holy, holy, holy Lord..."'

He sees a throne, surrounded by twenty-four thrones. Thrones are about power and authority. Kings sit on thrones. Politicians have their own "seats of power." This vision insists that the Lamb is the true king of kings and lord of lords. To say this, that "Jesus is Lord," is a political statement; it counters the claim that Caesar is. While there have been, and will be, many "pretenders to the throne," there is only one who is worthy of this throne.

When we sing the Sanctus as part of the Eucharistic Prayer, when we sing "Holy, holy, holy Lord..." we are joining with the saints and angels who are always singing around the throne. Why do we do this? We do it to remind us where our allegiance lies, where true power and authority rest. We pray that it might be on earth as it is in heaven.

I heard a wonderful sermon, on a different text, this past Maundy Thursday. You can find it here. I encourage you to listen to it or read it; the link gives you both options. Because I think the fourth chapter of Revelation is "radical" in precisely the same way. When we sing this song with the heavenly chorus we are remembering where our true allegiance lies, and that is not simply about turning the pyramid of power from first-century Rome upside down. It's about participating in the work of God in the world which is always about turning  things "upside down" in order to make them right. With God's help. This is the challenge that the seer sets before us: to take up the work that God has given us to do. Not to be like "warm spit" - neither hot nor cold - but rather a Church that has opened the door and let Christ in.

I think this image is enormously encouraging to people who feel weary. I imagine that if the fire hoses are turned on you, if you have been falsely and unjustly maligned for taking the side of the vulnerable, that this remembering of the true "seat of power" helps us to keep our eyes on the prize and to not lose heart.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Revelation 2 -3

You can read these two chapters from John's Revelation here. If you missed the introductory post in this series, you can find it here. And yesterday's post is here. Finally, you can view a Bible map of Patmos and the seven churches here. It will help you to get your bearings.

But I have also added a photo of Patmos to the left because I want those "traveling with me" to remember this is a real place you can still go visit. You can get on a plane and go there. Context matters. It may also help to take a look at a modern-day map of Turkey, as a reminder that this journey is not simply back in time to "Bible-land" as a kind of Narnia you get to in your imagination, through the wardrobe! I've traveled to the Holy Land three times now and each time I have this keen awareness that you aren't traveling "back in time" - but rather, as Faulkner put it, the past is never really past. So notice Greece and to the west of Greece is Italy. Notice Syria, and Lebanon - both in the news. There is a particular culture and time in which John has this vision.

As to time? Most people think it was written during the time of Emperor Domitian which puts it between 81-96 CE. The thing is that it was not so much a time of systematic persecution of Christians, but it was a challenging time politically. If this date is right it is almost as if John is saying, "be the Church! If you are really the Church, if you live out your faith - it's going to get you into trouble! But don't be afraid to do that - it's what you are called to!"

In my work with congregations I'm often called to spend time with vestries (aka leadership councils) and one of the things I do regularly is called a Mutual Ministry Review. I ask them three basic questions in the simplest form: what is going well? what are the challenges? where might God be leading you to make some changes?

I didn't think this up, but it's interesting when I read the second and third chapters of vision that John is doing something similar. You could compare and contrast the seven churches but you could also imagine them as one body, in that region - not unlike a "diocese" perhaps. This is early on; they don't have buildings. They are young church plants; house churches. Even so they have been at it a while and there are things they do well, challenges, and perhaps some next steps. If you think of these chapters as an MMR, note the responses (at least as John sees things - he does not seem to have asked them!)

Strengths? They are hard working. They are patient. They have endured and held fast even though difficult times. They show love and faith and service. 

Challenges? They've sometimes abandoned love. They've embraced some false teachings. They seem to be dead. One congregation in particular is "neither hot nor cold" but kind of like warm spit.

Next Steps? Get your act together! Turn around (aka "repent.") Wake up! Be the Church - be what you were called to be - be faithful! 

And then this wonderful image. If this really was an MMR, this would surely be offered by the little old lady who has been running the altar guild for decades who hasn't yet said a thing and we've been at this for an hour now. She's just been listening carefully and taking it all in and letting the extroverts say their thing. But you know when she finally opens her mouth it will be to say something really, really important. So naturally she is the one who says:
You know, Jesus is at the door knocking! He wants to come in to our church! I can almost hear him knocking and saying, "let me in! I want to be with you! I want to be present in the Eucharist and at coffee hour too."  I think we just need to open the door and let Jesus in!  (See Revelation 3:20)
In any case, like all congregations, they are "a work in progress." They are in danger of becoming a zombie church, however, as Michael Battle puts it - a church of the walking dead. The clarion call is to be an alive, hopeful church. While it's on a different Biblical text, I think of Dr. King's sermon, A Knock at Midnight as deeply relevant here. Whether in the first century, or in the middle of the twentieth century or now in the early decades of the twenty-first, the church is called to wake up and to be the Church by letting Christ in.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Revelation of St. John, Chapter 1

In a recent post I wrote that mainline "progressive" churches have mostly ignored the last book of the Bible as a resource for teaching and preaching, That's mostly true, but I want to qualify that statement: Episcopalians (and other liturgical Christians) may notice (if you come on this journey with me through John's Revelation) that there is quite a bit of poetry and imagery and language that has made its way into our common prayer. That starts right in chapter one, which is why I invite you to sing along with Charles Wesley's famous hymn linked above, "Lo, he comes with clouds descending." (And see Revelation 1:7)

It's also a good place to begin because it reminds us that this book (like all of the Bible) needs to be translated and interpreted. We don't live in a three-tiered universe. We don't need to ignore what Copernicus and Galileo and Einstein have taught us about the universe in order to read the Bible. We can sing the hymn and still not spend our days looking up, up in the sky, for Jesus to come back "riding" a cloud.

The almond-shaped overlap of the two circles on the cover image of Michael Battle's Heaven on Earth: God's Call to Community in the Book of Revelation is called a mandorla, the Italian word for almond. I happen to know about this image from the same place that Battle learned of it, as we share the same spiritual director, Brother Curtis Almquist, SSJE.

Rather than heaven being "above" the earth, Battle offers this image as a way into John's Revelation; hence also the title of the book, heaven on earth. He says Revelation is about that place where heaven and earth intersect - what the Celtic Christians might call a "thin place." This language is both cosmic and mystical and those are good words to help prepare us to journey into John's Vision.The lens we need is not to be literal detectives, but rather to see with the eye of the heart. In fact I'll come back to that again and again in these reflections and ask: what do you see? Or more accurately: what is John telling us that he saw in his vision? And how does that impact you, in a way similar to seeing a piece of art or watching the ebb and flow of the ocean?

At my ordination to the priesthood, I declared to the bishop and the gathered congregation that I believe "the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation." (BCP 538) I wasn't crossing my fingers and internally saying, "except for the Book of Revelation." And yet, The Episcopal Church (as well as other denominations that use the Revised Common Lectionary to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" this material) has essentially done just that by writing it out of the canon. It only comes up during the Easter Season in "Year C" (which next comes two years from now) and on the Feast of All Saints. We have, essentially, ceded this "Word of the Lord" to the fundamentalists.

This sixteen-part series is an opportunity to rectify that somewhat and I invite you as a reader of this blog along for the ride, to see what we can see together. Here is an online link to Chapter One of the Revelation of St. John. I prefer the NRSV translation, but there are plenty of options here you can change to if that's your preference. Over the course of these next two weeks or so, I want to reflect on John's Revelation because my intuition is telling me that there is something really important here for us to receive if we mean to be faithful witnesses in this time and place.

I want to be very clear about something, however. My interest in Revelation is not because I am trying "to crack the code" on when and how the world is going to end or that I think this is imminent. That hermeneutic, I think, is the wrong way to read this literature. It's simply not about predicting the end of the world. Rather, it is written in a time and place (that I would argue is not so different as our own) when it feels as if the world is already coming apart at the seams. It's about how Christian communities are formed in that socio-political context. It's about, as Michael Battle puts it, opening our eyes to see heaven on earth even in the midst of challenging times..There is perhaps no better time to think about these things than during this Easter season, this season of new life.

Notice that John is pretty sure this is going to "take place soon." (1:1) If we take that literally and we anticipate this book to be about the literal end of the world, then we have to say two thousand years later that maybe he was wrong. I know, a millennia in God's eye is but an instant, and all that. But still. Maybe, "these things" are always taking place. Maybe there are signs of endings all around us, and some times more than others. But always those ending are, for an Easter people, signs of new beginnings as well, signs of the reign of God breaking in.

The writer (not the same John who gave us the Fourth Gospel) tells us he is a brother who is going through some tough times. The scholars aren't sure exactly when to date this book but a few emperors come to mind: Nero or Domitian have been the most popular choices, but most now agree it was the latter. This means the historical context of this book is some time late in the first century of the common era. (Although keep in mind it wasn't called that until centuries later.)

Here are a couple of things I notice in this first chapter: first, in the Greek the very first word is "acocalypse." We translate that as "the revelation" (singular, not plural) of Jesus Christ. If you are looking for synonyms you might say, "the uncovering" or "unveiling" or even "vision" of Jesus Christ. John has the vision; he is the see-er or seer. But the vision is focused on the victorious, risen Christ.

The second thing to notice, particularly relevant to this vision, is how many times that verb "to see" appears in just this first chapter alone; I count seven. (An interesting number.) John sees and then he is told to tell the seven congregations in Asia Minor what he has seen. And then John tells us what he saw. Hearing is also involved in this mystical experience, but not quite as much as seeing. Like so many others in the Bible who have this sort of experience, he is told to "be not afraid." (verse seventeen) which seems necessary given what he has seen.

Although this letter will soon get different, it's worth noting the parallels between Paul's epistles and this opening chapter which is quite similar in many ways to Paul's letter to the early Christians in Corinth or Rome or Galatia. It's an odd letter, but it is a letter from someone on Patmos and addressed to seven congregations in what we would call Turkey. More about them in the next post, but it's worth thinking about how we read Paul's letters, to the Christians in Rome or Corinth or Galatia. We may well claim there is a "Word of the Lord" there for us, but we begin by paying attention to those real congregations - and what they were experiencing at the time. We "overhear" the good news as we listen in. I think a similar approach makes sense here.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Prayers for God's People in Syria

I was not planning to post anything here today; I've been on a bit of a whirlwind of reading and blogging this week and I had intended for today to be a day of rest, leading into an unplugged Holy Week with the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. And mostly it has been...

But the news about the bombing last night in Syria has occupied my prayers and thoughts all day and prompts this brief post about soup and some other thoughts as well.

I received Soup for Syria: Recipes to Celebrate Our Shared Humanity this past Christmas. In the Forward, Carlo Petrini, founder of The Slow Food Movement. writes these words: "the effort to keep our unique food traditions alive is the key to our dignity and our future, even in the midst of very harsh conditions. For we have all been migrants compelled by hunger or war to seek a better life."

The cookbook is a collection of recipes and photographs by Barbara Abdeni Massaad, who lives in Beirut, Lebanon. What makes it different is that in addition to soup recipes and pictures of the soups, it also includes pictures of people,many of them children, taken at refugee camps.

A week ago I made the Aleppo Red Lentil Soup shown below. In a strange way that I think only people who really enjoy cooking "get" - making that soup was a form of prayer for me. The people of Syria were in my mind and on my heart as I cooked and as the smells of Middle-Eastern spices filled my kitchen. Proceeds from the sale of the book had already gone to feed Syrian refugees back in December. If I left it on a shelf and never cooked a recipe from this gift, the "transaction/donation" had already been completed and some percentage of the sale price had already been contributed to help support Syrian refugees.

But for me, those words of Petrim's really do ring true. When we share the food of another culture we really begin to see them, even in the midst of very harsh present-day conditions. And in that seeing we potentially increase our respect for their dignity, even as we entrust God with their future and commit to join God in doing justice and loving mercy,

Our president used phrases several times during the presidential campaign about "bombing the hell out of places" - places where people live. I winced every time he said it. I cannot say whether or not the president was right to order this action to bomb an airfield last night in retaliation for the Assad's chemical bombing of innocent people earlier this week. I do pray that no innocent civilians were killed as "collateral damage" and I do think that Gandhi had it right, that "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." But perhaps militarily, and politically, this was the "right" call. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, however, we do well to pay attention to the president's own about-face here. The truth is that the office carries enormous responsibilities, and real leadership is required not to order the military to "bomb the hell" out of someone, but the next day and the day after that to figure out what work the State Department needs to do.

The president needs and deserves and has my prayers. But here's the thing: the death of those little children who were killed by chemical weapons and whose images the president was so clearly moved to see; they are the same kids on the pages of my cookbook. I'd gladly send him a copy if I thought he'd open it. They are the same kids who have been trying to get into this country as refugees. They are not terrorists; they have been terrorized. And those Russian "friends" of the president's: they've been propping up Assad's regime for a long time. That's not fake news. That's the truth.

So what next? If the president's heart has been truly moved to see the humanity of the people of Syria, then I give thanks to God for that. But what happened last night doesn't make those kids safer today or tomorrow. So let's figure out how to really help them by doing justice there, by getting tough with the Russians, and by working for peace. That takes more than slogans and it takes more than cruise missiles. It takes commitment. It takes time, even when time is of the essence.

Whether or not the president is ready for that, I am. And I pray that the Church I love continues to see our neighbors; all of them. And in seeing them, to work for immigration reform that welcomes the stranger and supports ministries that do the hard, holy work of refugee resettlement. So that we can share our gifts, and our food, and our culture with one another as we celebrate our shared humanity.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Seer of Patmos

This map tells a lot. It reminds us that the Book of Revelation has a real cultural and historical context, whatever else we may wish to say about it.

When I was a child, my grandfather was very interested in the end of the world, especially through the lens of Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth. Of course, my grandfather had lived his life and was retired, but my life was just beginning; so we had very different perspectives on this. Also, he was an independent Baptist and I was a United Methodist. We didn't talk much (read: at all) about the Book of Revelation in my church but I got the sense that they talked about it a lot in his.

To be clear: I loved my grandfather. But I was skeptical of his reading of the Book of Revelation. And my instincts were to not trust the not-so-great Hal Lindsay. So I began reading John's Revelation on my own in my early teen-aged years. I remember getting to verse 3:7, which is addressed to the angel of the church in Philadelphia. And since I was a Pennsylvania boy without a guide to read this book I thought for sure I was on to something and about to "crack the code!" Clearly this sacred text was speaking directly to Pennsylvanians in the 1970s!

One might think that my New Testament classes in seminary would help me to do what I was unable to do in my youth and on my own, but that would be a mistake. I had wonderful professors at Drew but their focus was on whatever quest for the historical Jesus was popular at the time and particularly on the Synoptic Gospels, which were way more popular than the Fourth Gospel. And of course on Paul as well, although again with a bias toward the real, historical Paul and not his lackey pretenders. It all left little time for the seer of Patmos.

Seer is a good word that I've been pondering since rereading Walter Wink this week. A seer literally sees. It's a reminder that listening to this revelation (singular, by the way, not plural!)  is not palm-reading about a distant future. Like all Biblical texts there may be implications for readers in the 1970s or the early years of the twenty-first century but the text itself was written from an Island in the Aegean Sea to first-century Christians in Asia Minor, what we would call Turkey today. John writes to seven congregations - or more accurately to the aggelos (i.e. angel) of those seven congregations. He tells us that plainly. The map above grounds us in that reality; it's not a map of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The word "apocalypse" (in Greek this is the apocalypse of John) literally means "an uncovering." It's about removing a veil or cover over something hidden. Again, then, with the seeing. It's not about predicting something but helping the reader to see what was previously hidden.

Unfortunately, this last book of the New Testament has essentially been ignored by mainline Christians and therefore "handed over" to fundamentalists. In fact, Revelation is mostly ignored by the Revised Common Lectionary. The only time a preacher even has the option of preaching on it is in the Easter Season of Year "C" - the third year of the three-year lectionary cycle. And then it's up against Acts and John's Gospel! Not to mention that seventeen chapters are completely ignored, so the texts are completely wrenched from the narrative itself. But for those interested preacher-planners who happen to read this blog; it might be helpful to consider a preaching series from April 28 - June 2, 2019. I suspect most congregations would be grateful.

What to do in the meantime? I'm going to take Revelation with me next week, Holy Week, on a quiet monastic retreat. It's not like I've ignored this book completely in my ordained life; in fact at least twice while I was in Holden I taught a class on it using The Kerygma Series. It was alright but as a lectionary preacher, I've not really had the occasion to dive in deeply. So this is my chance. My hunch is that it may be helpful in making sense of our current realities; that there is a "Word of the Lord" here that may help the Church to be the Church in these difficult times. Not because "The End" is coming, but because signs of endings and of new beginnings are all around us.

Unlike when I went as a child, I'm taking some trustworthy guides with me. First, I'm taking my copy of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which includes the NRSV translation and some helpful commentary that reminds the reader of that first-century context and also helps the twenty-first century reader avoid the pitfalls of anti-Semitic readings. I'm also planning to follow the outline used there which divides the book into sixteen manageable parts (Revelation is 22 chapters long but the logical breaks don't follow chapter by chapter.) My plan is to blog on these sixteen sections piece by piece during this Easter Season if you are interested in coming along.

I'm taking two other guides along with me to Cambridge. One is an older but recently re-edited commentary by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment and the other is a brand new commentary by Michael Battle, Heaven on Earth: God's Call to Community in the Book of Revelation.

I don't know yet what I'll find, but I trust my guides. My prayer is for open eyes and  to pay attention to what I see along the way by not getting too bogged down with polemics. If you want to come along and have not checked out my previous four posts on Walter Wink, I encourage you to do so - as a kind of "orientation" to the landscape ahead.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

One More on the Powers: Practicing Resistance

I am not yet one week into a three-month Sabbatical. But I realized sometime last Friday afternoon that my brain tends to get very "occupied" by work, even when I'm not at work. I carry the joys and challenges of diocesan ministry in my head and on my heart. Setting it aside for a while has meant...what exactly? An empty head? That's not quite right, but maybe you get my point. Certainly it has meant some space for other things, including Walter Wink's trilogy on The Powers. (As well as blog posts here, here, and here.)

This reading and blogging may seem like a busman's holiday to some. In truth, however, it's far from that. I don't get to read Walter Wink much in my present job! It's not that I'm not allowed to; I just don't seem to find the time or the energy to do so. Even when I am reading (or listening to audio books) related to church life, they tend these days toward the leadership development side of things. For example, the last book I read before Sabbatical was Thanks for the Feedback: The Art and Science of Receiving Feedback Well. It's a wonderful book that I highly recommend; a book I very much enjoyed reading. But it's very much "work related."

In the largest sense, I suppose that Walter Wink is "work related" too. But it feels very different for me, and incredibly energizing. This reading takes me back to the core of vocation: my own as a priest, but also I think the vocation of the Church into which I've been ordained. I think of that great line from T.S. Eliot in "Little Gidding," that all of our exploration brings us back to the place where we started, to "know the place for the first time." Whether one serves a large urban congregation or a small rural one or is a Canon to the Ordinary - whether one is a United Methodist or Lutheran or Roman Catholic - there is this larger question of what the Church is even for. Why does it matter? The theologians speak of ecclesiology - from the two Greek words meaning "words about the assembly/church."

We sing that the Church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. But most days we don't act like we really believe that. Most days we function as if it's "my" Church to either fix or break. Most days we think the Church depends on whether or not we can learn to receive feedback well or whether we can rediscover the Church's mission in a post-Christendom context or preach the sermon that changes hearts and enlivens a congregation or bring in enough resources during the pledge drive to keep the doors open another year. 

All of these things matter. But there is something underneath it all, something that holds it all together. Or someone. Jesus Christ, her Lord. Our Lord. My reading list for this Sabbatical is about remembering this underneathness of the risen Christ. Wink is a helpful guide toward this end and re-reading this series has been extremely helpful. The luxury in fact of being able to carve out time just for reading and thinking is an incredible gift and I think at least one part of what a Sabbatical is for. (Next week I'll be spending Holy Week with the brothers of The Society of St. John the Evangelist without a laptop and embracing the gift of silence; which I trust will also be a great gift.)

So try this: the last two parts of Wink's third volume in The Powers trilogy are about God's New Charter of Reality, namely the Reign of God that is an alternative to the Domination System. And then Wink turns to the question of how the Church can engage the Powers non-violently. There is some amazing material in this section that I'm sure I'll come back to on this Sabbatical as I search for communities/examples/case studies of times when the Church did just this, however imperfectly and mustard-seed-like. 

But for here, and for now, before I leave Wink for a bit, I want to offer an extended quote from the section he entitles, "The Church and The Powers." He writes:
The Church has many functions, not all related to the Powers. With reference to the Powers, however, its task as we have seen is to unmask their idolatrous pretensions, to identify their dehumanizing values, to strip from them the mantle of respectability, and to disenthrall their victims. It is uniquely equipped to help people unmask and die to the Powers. (emphasis mine, page 164)
And then this:
No social struggle can hope to be effective if it only changes structured arrangements without altering their spirituality. All our letter writing, petitioning, political and community organizing, demonstrating, civil disobedience, prayers and fasting move to this end: to recall the Powers to the humanizing purposes of God revealed in Jesus. We are not commissioned to create a new society; indeed we are scarcely competent to do so. What the Church can do best, though it does so all too seldom, is to delegitimate an unjust system and to create a spiritual counterclimate. We may lack the wisdom to determine how homelessness can be solved; and our attempts as churches to feed, clothe, and house the homeless may only obscure the true causes of homelessness and fill us with false self-righteousness. But what we can do is create an insistent demand that homelessness be eradicated. We are not "building the Kingdom" as an earlier generation liked to put it. We simply lack the power to force the Powers to change. We faithfully do what we can with no illusions about our prospects for direct impact. We merely prepare the ground and sow, the seed grows itself, night and day, until the harvest. (Mark 4:26-29) And God will - this is our most profound conviction - bring the harvest. (page 165)
This, it seems to me, "will preach." This, it seems to me, is what connects the work we do whether it is as a bishop or priest or deacon or layperson. Whether we do it inside of the congregation as a member of the altar guild or vestry or outside of the building at a protest march or public liturgy. We refuse to let those whom the Powers would "disappear" be eradicated from our memories, our prayers, our work.

This morning I was watching again the horrible and tragic news out of Syria. The United States blames Assad, the President blames his predecessor. I would add (since the President appears to be unaware of it) that the Russians deserve a lot of blame too. But in the end, blame won't bring Shalom/Salaam, and probably it won't even bring an end to the violence. After all the blame game, might it be helpful to say that what we are battling in Syria is against more than flesh and blood, that what we are fighting against are the fallen Powers and Principalities of this world?

The Church can, and must, pray for those children and their families. The Church can and must recognize the blood on our own hands and then welcome the refugees from that war-torn land who would much rather be playing soccer in the street and going to their own schools, but the streets are not safe and the schools are no longer there. But the Church must also remember how to do what we so seldom do: delegitimate the unjust system that has created this mess and remind one another that we are called to repair the breach and restore streets to live in, with God's help. (See Isaiah 58:12.) We can offer an alternative vision of the Reign of God. Or as the seer on Patmos put it:
...I heard a loud voice saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God.; they will be God's peoples.and God will be with them; God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more; for the first things have passed away. (Revelation 21:3-4)
Wink concludes this section with a series of questions that are worth sharing here:

  • How then can the Church carry on the struggle with the Powers more effectively?
  • How can it shake off the suffocating weight of institutional self-preservation and make a difference in the world?
  • How can it engage the Powers with the redemptive power of the cross?
  • What kinds of action and spirituality must it cultivate to be able to serve God in the redemption of the Powers? 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Part III

There was a time when the Church was very powerful - in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven" called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary Church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church's silent, and often even vocal, sanction of things as they are...but the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before. If today's Church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. (The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, in Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.)
I have not forgotten that this post is the third in a series, intended to reflect on the third volume of Walter Wink's trilogy on The Powers. Part I and Part II can be found here and here.

But it cannot go unmentioned that on this day in 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. Five years earlier he had written the words above from a Birmingham Jail cell, words that ring as true for me in the early years of the twenty-first century as they did when he wrote them almost fifty-four years ago. And, interestingly enough, I think they provide a way into today's post...

Wink says in a couple of different ways that the thesis of this series in it's simplest form is this:
  • The Powers are good.
  • The Powers are fallen.
  • The Powers must be redeemed.
He notes that all three must be held together because each by itself causes serious problems. King might note as a preacher what Wink is suggesting as a Biblical theologian: that this redeeming work of love requires  a Church that is more thermostat than thermometer, a discerning Church that is proud to agitate and disturb the peace as "a colony of heaven" called to resist the Domination System of this present age. 

In the Preface to Volume III, he suggests that there are really four volumes to this series - the three I've been reading but also, he says, another book he wrote entitled Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa: Jesus' Third Way. "That book," he writes, 
...provides what this one lacks: a practical case study of the relevance of nonviolent direct action applied to a concrete situation. Some of the abstractness of this study can be mitigated by a reading of that volume. 
I would simply add that one could make a similar case for reading the Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of Dr. King in the same way: as "a case study of the relevance of nonviolent direct action applied to a concrete situation."

What does Wink mean by "the Domination System?" He means the "Beast" that emerges when an entire network of power is hellbent on control. Wink quotes from Jose Comblin's The Church and the National Security State:  
...the survival of the nation is the absolute goal, National strategy intends to incorporate the whole nation into the national survival plan, to make it the total  and unconditional object of each citizens' life. 
Such a worldview must destroy authentic faith, even as it saturates the language of propaganda with religious platitudes. It uses the language of Christian faith to
...enhance the power of the wealthy elite and the goals of the nation narrowly defined...[even though] it has no interest in compassion for the poor or for more equitable economic arrangements, or for the love of enemies. It merely uses the shell of religion...
Wink has a brilliant reading of Revelation 12-13 here that I'm sure I'll be coming back to. He begins by noting that John of Patmos was a seer; that is he sees what is, to others, invisible. And then he writes this:
Discernment does not entail esoteric knowledge but rather the gift of seeing reality as it really is. Nothing is more rare, or more truly revolutionary than an accurate description of reality.
It's hard not to think of King's "I Have A Dream Speech" as relevant here: King was able to see the world God intended, a world where people are judged by the content of their character, and to call out the Domination System that tried to trick people into not seeing that the Jim Crow laws were in violation of that Truth.  In this same way, Wink notes that:
The Roman Empire had brought peace to a fratricidal world. It presided over a period of unparalleled prosperity (for the prosperous.) It's might was so legendary that a single emissary could prompt surrender. But this facade of magnificence was bought at a horrible price. The revelation that comes to John strips off mask of benevolence  and reveals, beneath it, the true spirit of Rome...
John "sees" Rome's monstrous spirit. He sees the Domination System and then names it as "Beast."

Perhaps the most powerful quote in this book for me, however, comes when Wink is discussing the "priestly propaganda machine of Empire." I'll refrain from editorializing except to note that this book was published twenty-five years ago, before 9/11 and before we were trying to "make America great again." Here is what he writes:
...the Beast knows that the public is fickle, that opinion swings wildly in response to the slightest shift in the world scene...ethnic feeling is not enough. Patriotism is not enough. What is needed is worship of the state...Nationalism is not, in its essence, a political phenomenon; it is a religious one...propaganda is not merely deception, then. It is the manufacturing of idolatry. It is not enough that people be misinformed about the nature of the System, for powerful disconfirming truths could easily slip in to shatter such illusions. But if you can cause people to worship the Beast, you have created a public immune to truth. As studies of cognitive dissonance show, worshipers do not surrender their beliefs in the presence of disconfirming facts. They simply adjust their beliefs to neutralize the facts. (The emphasis is Wink's, not mine!)
This is huge! Let me reiterate that if I am reading Wink correctly, we make a big mistake if we try to associate any one person with "the Beast." People are not Domination Systems. They may serve them to greater or lesser extents and be used by them in greater and lesser extents, but even Hitler is not the Beast in this reading, even if a very bad man. Rather, the Domination System that colluded in making it possible for Hitler is what Wink is trying to unpack: namely the kind of nationalism that seeks to usurp the place of God and demand our worship. When that happens, it seems to me that you don't change people's minds with information - which is precisely the point Wink makes here. Transformation comes through seeing what has been previously made invisible to our eyes. This is all really important as I am getting ready for a close reading of the Book of Revelation. It's also really important in clarifying the work of the Church in our time, which is not about giving people more "data" which will be neutralized by their previously held beliefs and idolatry, but rather to help them to see the Beast for what it really is.

Maybe that's enough for today. Maybe like Wink (who made his three-volume series into a four-volume series) I'll need a fourth post on this third volume of the series because, I've mostly been focused here on discernment and not yet on resistance.

But there is one further point worth making, and pondering. There is a lot of talk out there these days about resistance. When I told people I wanted, in my Sabbatical, to focus on a Church that is learning to practice resistance, I think people got what I was saying and most were excited with, and for me. But what I'm beginning to get some clarity about is that without discernment, resistance is a futile and even dangerous endeavor. If we skip the crucial steps of Naming and Unmasking the Powers and then discerning/seeing what is really happening and go right to Resistance, we run the (high) risk of becoming what we hate and/or fear. In fact Wink raises this very question as a question that runs through the book: "how can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?" (page 3) I'll simply add that King wrestled with this question as an ethicist trained at Boston University School of Theology, and chose non-violence for a reason.

And I think I'll stop there for today.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Part II

This is the second part of a three-part series. You can read the first post here.

Walter Wink's three volumes on "the powers" focus on the task of naming, unmasking, and engaging those powers, which Wink connects primarily (but not exclusively) with the Greek words archai and exousiai, or what we might call "the powers and principalities of this world."

In Volume II, Wink begins by recognizing this is not language that modern people (and especially "progressive" Christians) are very comfortable with. We've given the language over to the television evangelists, whom Wink laments "could try to terrorize us with Satan and then speak favorably of South African apartheid." He wryly observes that "we should have sensed something wrong."

In its reaction against the misuse of this highly charged language, however, liberal Christianity has tended to throw out the notion altogether. This has left us "at the mercy of a shallow religious rationalism that is naive, optimistic, and self-deceiving." (page 28)

How, then to reclaim this language? That is the work of this second volume: to re-imagine and re-claim words like "Satan" and "demonic" and "angel." But it's a real challenge. I learned this as a parish priest whenever I would prepare young parents and godparents for the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. In my denomination, in the liturgy for Baptism, the priest asks the candidate (and if the candidate is a child who cannot yet speak for herself, the parents and godparents of that child): "Do you renounce Satan and all of the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?" (BCP 302) The correct response is, "I renounce them." But that takes some unpacking...

I was first given this second volume for Christmas in 1992 by a member of my Campus Ministry Board in New Britain. It's well marked! But in re-reading it twenty-five years later I find it even more compelling and important, because I've come to believe that Christian theology stripped of this language is indeed very thin and naive. Or as Wink puts it:
...without a means of symbolization...evil cannot come to conscious awareness and thus be consciously resisted. Like an undiagnosed disease it rages through society and we are helpless to produce a cure." (page 11) 
That is a sentence worth reading again: without an adequate theological vocabulary to name the evil powers of this world, they cannot be resisted. This is precisely why I've become so interested in returning the Book of Revelation - to reclaim that language at a time when the Empire looms large.

So, how exactly to re-symbolize evil? It doesn't work to simply repeat the words wrenched from their first-century Biblical context in the Roman empire. Picturing Satan as the guy with the pitchpork in the red suit trivializes the very nature of evil. From a practical point of view, how in fact might parents and godparents answer this question about "Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness" as something they are truly ready to renounce and resist? I used to try to get at this by asking them what they were afraid of, for their children. Bullying, mental illness, racism, sexism, and addiction were often the first things to come up but sometimes in pushing one might also get to some others: the idea that work and money are the only things that matter in this life or since my context was the suburbs, that insidious notion that no matter how much a child achieved they might never feel good enough.

Wink puts it this way:
Satan is the real interiority of a society that idolatrously pursues its own enhancement as the highest good. Satan is the spirituality of an epoch, the peculiar constellation of alienation, greed, inhumanity, oppression, and entropy that characterizes a specific period of history as a consequence of human decisions to tolerate and even further such a state of isn't then a question of whether we "believe" in Satan or not, but of how the archetypal and/or social reality of evil is currently manifesting itself in persons and in society. (page 25)
To make sense of this, it helps to consider how Wink deals with the issue of angels, in Greek, aggelos (literally "messenger") and then double back.  Wink got interested in this question as a young pastor in Texas in 1964, reading the Book of Revelation with a group of young people. He noticed that unlike St. Paul's letters to the early Christians in Corinth and Galatia and Rome, the writer of the Book of Revelation addresses this to the aggelos of the churches in Ephesus (see Rev. 2:1), Smyrna (2:8), Pergamum (2:13), Thyatira (2:18), Sardis (3:1), Philadelphia (3:7) and Laodicea (3:14). What he came to understand is that angel is a symbolic way of talking about both what the church is and what it is called to be. It's the church's corporate personality; a close synonym to the word "Gestalt."

I could read Wink's words in 1992 and understand them intellectually a young pastor serving on a college campus, but my experience with congregations was pretty limited. Today, however, I know exactly what he means in my bones, especially based on my experience these past four years of diocesan work. He uses a corporate example in the book that is helpful: if you fired all the employees and GE on Friday and replaced them all with new employees on Monday, the corporate culture would not dramatically change, maybe hardly at all. Changing corporate culture requires intentionality and time. There is something bigger than the sum of the parts. This, in part what is meant by its "angel."

He doesn't go there but since today is Opening Day in baseball and I'm soon headed into Fenway Park, one could say this is true of sports teams too, especially the ones that have been around a while. The "angel" of the Red Sox, of the Chicago Cubs, of the New York Yankees, of the transplanted Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers is different, based on lots of things that have little to do with the current roster.

And of course the same is true of congregations. Architecture, liturgical style, the socio-economic-political-cultural-racial-gender-educational level make-up of the members, the power structure (is it a father-knows-best parish or is there strong lay leadership?) all affect how we think about a congregation. How does the congregation deal with conflict? How do they see themselves? How do others see them? Sometimes you can feel it when you walk in. And changing church cultures isn't easy; ask any pastor, across denominational lines.

Wink is saying that the angel is what it is, and what it is called to be. And this can be distorted. Perhaps the most painful and obvious example is related to clergy sexual abuse, which contrary to popular opinion is not limited to Roman Catholic congregations. When trust is violated, it stays in the air and in the water for a very long time. It cannot be hidden under the carpet forever. The angel may give way to the demonic.

Wink says nations have angels too, and that "we cannot minister to the soul of America unless we love its soul." But these angels of nations have a will of their own: they push toward rebellion against God by claiming they deserve ultimate allegiance. Canada and the United States may have similar histories, but in this language they have very different angels. So how about this insight?
...angels of the nations have a will of their own, and are capable of resisting the will of God...the angel of an entity must be seen under two aspects: what it is and what it is called to be...[the former might be called] it's personality, what it is called to be, its repent means to recover vocation.
It is now possible to double-back to Satan and the spiritual powers that rebel against God. Wink writes about a German pastor who said, cannot understand what happened in [Nazi] Germany unless you understand that we were possessed by demonic powers. I do not say this to excuse ourselves, because we let ourselves be possessed.
Wink adds this:
The demonic was the interiority of the German state made into an idol. The demon was the Angel of Germany having turned its back on its vocation.
That kind of writing gives me goosebumps! I see it in congregations that lose their sense of vocation and sometimes even turn their backs on it. And on occasion also repent and turn again to the living God and rediscover who they are called to be: not some generic church in some generic place but a specific congregation with a particular calling to their neighbors. And I see it today, in this nation. Comparisons with Nazi Germany are cheap and in some ways not so helpful; the reason is that our angels and our demons are different. But noticing how nations give in to "temptation" and naming what repentance looks like? I think this falls under the rubric of the work God has given us to do in this time and place.

Having named the powers (as that language is used in the New Testament) and having unmasked the powers (by reclaiming this language for our own time and place) the question then becomes: how do God's people engage those powers? How do we discern and resist in a world of domination?

But that question will have to wait for the next post. I'm off to see if I can spot an angel in the outfield today...

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Part I

Somewhere in the middle of my tenure as the Protestant Campus Minister at Central Connecticut State University (1989-1993) we received a bequest, which the Board voted to use for a lecture series to honor the donor. The first year of the series we brought another former campus minister, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. to campus. The next year we had Walter Wink come; he worked with his wife, June Keener Wink to put on a day-long workshop I'll never forget. Both Bill and Walter are now among the saints triumphant; both were extraordinary witnesses to the Christian faith.

I'm re-reading Walter's trilogy on The Powers and am feeling a bit of nostalgia as I have fondly remembered his visit to New Britain and the way he engaged with our students, two in particular who are now both United Church of Christ pastors. And he very kindly signed volume three of the series for me, shown to the left, which had just been published.

Volume I came out in 1984. It's the most challenging to read technically: Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament. Volume II, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence was published in 1986 and then finally (and I think most importantly) Volume III, published in 1992, and entitled Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. 

Volume I, as the name suggests, is focused on the New Testament documents and the language of power used there. "The language of power pervades the New Testament," Wink writes. In Greek the two main words are archai kai exousiai, the "principalities and powers." The word dynamis also gets used lots to refer to military or political power - the same root for our word "dynamite."

Here is a quote that caught my attention:
The true dimensions of evil, according the writer, are known only through revelation, however bad life may have seemed before. Conversely, it is not to rescue the believer from a world of evil but to open their eyes and bring them to "light" (Ephesians 5:4) and thereby to enlist them in the struggle for liberation. Just as peasants liberated from the control of a military dictatorship are not freed from conflict but freed for conflict, the Christian is recruited into the ranks of God in the graceful struggle to bring the world to the truth (1:13) that the crucified and risen Christ is its principle of harmony and power. (1:20-23) (Naming the Powers, page 92)
Wink is writing in this section on the Letter to the Ephesians but I'm also interested in its implications as a lens for reading John's Revelation as a document that encouraged first century believers in the midst of Roman imperial power to "open their eyes and bring them to the struggle for liberation." In fact, just nine pages later when he turns his attention to Revelation and notes the various Greek words for power that John uses - a "veritable thesaurus of power terms" as he calls it - he notes that "no book in the whole Bible is so thoroughly preoccupied with evil powers and their defeat" as is the Book of Revelation.

One other major point Wink makes in Volume I that I think might be a conversation starter for evangelicals and progressives in the Church is his insistence that the challenges we face in engaging the powers is not "social struggle versus inner change, but their orchestration together so that both occur simultaneously," and then this: "...the transformation of society and persons can begin at either end."

It seems to me this is one way to think about the Church's work and the shared vocation of Christians who come to this work from opposite sides: evangelism and social justice work are not, in this understanding, polar opposites but more like two sides of the same coin.

How might the Book of Revelation open the eyes of Christians and bring them to light, enlisting us all in the struggle for liberation?

More to come...