Wednesday, May 3, 2017

One More Before Leaving Patmos

The big question I am wrestling with at this point in my ministry, as I seek to do my part in building up the Body of Christ so that the Church can more faithfully follow Jesus and serve the world is this: how can Christian communities practice discernment that leads to resistance against the powers of this world that would seek to destroy the creatures of God? Or to paraphrase Mary Oliver, how can the Church more faithfully be "the way to the Way?" As I said to one of the faithful readers of this blog recently, it's about finding new ways to claim my own voice in this time and place, along with the bishop, clergy, and lay leaders in the diocese where I have been called to share in this work.

I think of my blogging as an extension of my preaching. And I've always felt that the sermons I preach are mostly for myself. I don't just preach to the choir; I preach the sermon that I need to hear. Very rarely do I try to figure out what a congregation "needs" to hear. In my current role I do talk a lot about transitions, because often that is the work I'm doing with congregations as they say goodbye to one cleric and prepare to say hello to the next one. But even then, I tend to think that if I am true to my own voice, they will hear, by God's grace, what they need. I am always surprised, and sometimes amused, at how the Spirit works, especially when someone says to me, "it felt like you wrote that sermon for me..." I am tempted to say, "no, I wrote it for me!"

In a similar way, I have been writing these posts for me. I have been needing to engage (and re-engage) the Book of Revelation as part of my Sabbatical journey. I've been needing to read and mark and learn and inwardly digest this strange and neglected book in a more structured and disciplined way. And I feel I've done that. If you've come along for the ride from the very beginning or read just one post, I'm grateful for the company. And I do hope that maybe you have even read something that is helpful to you, in your journey, and in your prayer life.

My initial hunch has been confirmed; namely, that the Revelation to John is a vital and underutilized resource in our time. I want to summarize why I feel that way before moving along:

First of all, it provides us with a much needed vocabulary. This vocabulary isn't immediately obvious, but guides like William Stringfellow and Walter Wink remind us that the Church needs more than language of morality and psychology to interpret the good news of Jesus Christ. We have all but lost our apocalyptic vocabulary which helps us to name, unmask, and engage the powers and principalities of this world. We have all but lost that vocabulary, especially in progressive Protestant circles that are focused on "progress." When we encounter "the Beast" (aka "evil") we are surprised, and maybe even a little scared.

We need to remember, however, that progress has never been a straight- line enterprise. The arc of the moral universe is indeed long, as Dr. King knew.. With him, and by faith, we trust that it does bend toward justice. But when the hoses are pointed at you (or when the "liberal" clergy tell you not too push too hard) you need a vocabulary that will give you courage and hope. Knowing how the story ends encourages us to keep on keeping on, even when it sometimes feels as if we've taken two steps back.

So in our own day, when it feels like the gains made for racial and economic justice, for the full inclusion of immigrants and refugees, for gender equality and for LGBTQ people, are under attack, we do not lose heart. We find new ways to work together. We find ways to name, unmask, and engage the powers that threaten God's people. And we keep singing that new song that the heavenly multicultural choir from every tribe, language, people and nation are already singing. Mostly though, we are able to discern that when you are battling against the powers and principalities it's supposed to be hard.

I also think that this language, while easily misinterpreted and misused, still has the power to encourage prayerful imagination. There is a sense of urgency that we need; not panic nor anxiety, but urgency for the Church in our day to recover imagination and wonder and holy curiosity. We have often adapted the language of "adaptive" and "technical" change and we know the former takes time. Yet too often I find that we can't seem to quit the addiction to latching onto the latest technical fix for adaptive challenges that in fact require patience, endurance, steadfastness, and trust. Too often like the dog in Up we get distracted by "squirrel."

At some deep level, John's Unveiling is an antidote to that temptation. If we believe that the Lamb is on the throne and is truly alpha and the omega, then we are freed to imagine that we are not responsible for it all. Only God is God. We strive to be members of the choir who are learning to sing that new song which then equips us to do the work God has given us to do, one day at a time. We are a way to The Way; not the Way itself. 

And what is this work? We are increasingly seeing, across the globe and in our own nation, the rise of xenophobia - a fear of the stranger. This runs counter to all of Scripture, literally from Genesis to Revelation and every place in between. Always, God calls on Israel and then upon the Church to love the stranger.

In John's Revelation, however, we glimpse the fulfillment of what was previously given as a commandment. You love the stranger because you were once a stranger in a foreign land. But what John sees is beyond this: the healing of the nations. John imagines the day when strangers become friends and the heavenly choir includes voices from every language, tribe, people and nation. The Syrian refugee is, in the end, harmonizing with the Russian Orthodox priest and the American evangelical. All of them play a role in their own cultures that is, in the end, greater than Trump or Putin or al-Assad. It may not feel like it most days, and we may get discouraged. But if this is in fact the heart of vision, then the work of the Church is to give us a chance to get to know each other better now, by refusing to allow the powers and principalities of this world to drive us apart. We have our work cut out for us.

Let anyone with ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. 


  1. Your view on the Book of Revelation is helpful. Prayerful imagination is good to focus on in these times as well. Thank you Rich.