Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hoping Alongside Communities of Despair: One Truth Gleaned from the Karl Barth Pastor's Conference 2015

If I were to do it all over, I would have begun again at the beginning.  While the Karl Barth Pastor’s Conference was great, I should have attended the full week of dialogue, paper presentations, and interactions with some of the more gifted theological minds our Protestant Christian tradition has to offer. (Also, I would have received this bag as a gift versus lucky leftover.) Instead, I settled for live feeds of the likes of Moltmann and Migliore and headed to Princeton Theological Seminary for the tail-end of what some referred to as “Barth Camp for Pastors." 

Still, I was not disappointed. 

I was also right where I needed to be. 

As the tragic events of Mother Emmanuel AME continued to occupy the hearts, minds, and prayers of attendees, we were reminded by Dr. Willie Jennings that Barth’s work must refuse to remain as mere rhetoric for disengaged and irrelevant theologians.  Instead, pastors and preachers must engage Church Dogmatics as means to resist the racial disorder of the world.  Jennings remarked, “Christian faith should create an alternative vision to current racial divisions…The issue is not do you hope but it is from where do you hope and who do you join in hope.” 

While society likes to tout progress, frequently synonymous to the innovation in technology, increase in productivity, and advancements in mechanisms for national defense, we are actually underdeveloped in our racial relations. Hatred is perpetuated by historical and cultural symbols; powers intended to protect often prioritize the privileged through profiling and prejudice; sameness remains the preferred method for gatherings in social, political, and religious arenas; solidarity is often offered from a safe distance. Dr. Jennings challenged this cultural cowardice, “We cannot hope within a community of homogeneity.  We need to hope within communities of despair….The problem- we believe we are coherent in communities of homogeneity.” 

These prophetic challenges, delivered to a gathering of preachers and teachers of the Christian faith, are rooted in the contributions of Karl Barth who dared us to link arms with both near and distant neighbors (Church Dogmatics III.4). The Swiss theologian, who more often than not took on the role as advocate and activist in the midst of Nazi Germany, refuted national and racial idolatry that frequently breeds oppression and injustice. 
“In this respect, too, [the Christian] cannot return to the prison and stronghold of his own national [or racial] limitation.  As he holds his near neighbours with the one hand, he reaches out to the distant with the other.  And so the concept of his own people is extended and opened out in this respect too.  It is true that he belongs wholly and utterly to his own people.  But it is equally true that the horizon by which it exists as his people is humanity.  It is equally true that he himself belongs wholly and utterly to humanity” (Church Dogmatics III.4, 298). 
There was so much wisdom gleaned from those who gathered at Princeton to reflect on Karl Barth’s contributions to Christian theology. I will save such musings for another time and place. For now, both Barth and Jennings remind us we must return over and again to the beginning question Jesus posed to his earliest disciples: who is my neighbor? 

More frequently than not, we will discover our neighbor is revealed in persons and communities of diversity and difference with whom we are called to join hands in hope amidst great despair. 

I pray this call would claim more space in religious, political, and casual rhetoric as we wrestle with the ongoing reality of racial divisions further exposed in the recent events in our nation and Christian churches. After all, we belong wholly to one another and all of humanity. 

**Grateful for time spent with Rev. Dr. Will Willimon at #KBPC2015**

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Madness Must End: Groaning for Emmanuel AME & Charleston, SC

I am out of words. Frankly, my privileged rhetoric is tired. 

Maybe that’s part of the reason many have resorted to other means as response to the insanity of our self-destructive tolerance of racism plaguing our neighborhoods, cities, public schools, places of work, political offices, and sacred spaces. 

I have read and watched more than a fair share of reports in regards to the hate crime committed on Wednesday night; a massacre rooted in racism during a Bible Study at one of the more hallowed symbols of the Black Church in America- Emmanuel AME. As I read endless posts, it felt as though the press and novice bloggers merely needed to press CTRL^V on their keyboards after a brief period of waiting for the next hate crime or abuse of power spurred by bigotry. 

The madness must end. We are tearing ourselves apart from within while we focus most of our financial and political energies on conflicts beyond.  We are not as dreamy and socially progressive of a nation as our propaganda would suppose. We are infected and underdeveloped, moving a few steps backwards with every stride forward.  As comic-gone-preacher, Jon Stewart, noted, the road signs and bannered symbols of the south continue to breed bigotry through "racist wallpaper."

We have subliminally created and sustained injustice for generations too long.

So I groan because I am out of tears, motivational cliches, and poignant and prayerful verbiage. To be honest, I often don’t even know what to pray for anymore. 

Still, I trust the Spirit to intervene as I hope for a reconciled world still yet to be seen. And I will advocate for that renewed and holistic world until kingdom come. 

“But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.  Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:25-26).

I also lean on words the prayers of the faithful going viral, the insights of of prophetic comics who’s monologues take on a homiletical flair, and previous posts I have made that remind me of my call to hold on hope for yet another day. 

"Arresting the shooter is the job of law enforcement. Arresting hate is the work we are all called to do as disciples of Jesus Christ."

A Prayer for Baltimore: 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Happy (belated) Pentecost and Trinity Sunday: Sacred Questions on Holy Days

"Come, O Spirit, dwell among us,
come with Pentecostal power;
give the church a stronger vision,
help us face each crucial hour.
Built upon a firm foundation,
Jesus Christ, the Cornerstone,
still the church is called to mission
that God's love shall be made known."

This week we are sandwiched between two holy and liturgical celebrations, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. The former, a celebration of the coming of the Spirit upon the faithful mosaic called the church; the latter, an annual reminder we worship a God who is mysteriously revealed as a self-giving, other-regarding, community forming love.* 

While the temptation for many may be to use these holy-days as platform to exposit theological convictions and proclaim interpretations of perceived biblical truths, for me, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday raise more questions than answers.* They dare us to listen to the voices of the other and open our ears to musings from the margins. Pentecost and Trinity Sunday provoke each of us towards risky yet humble discipleship whereby we ask faithful and intentional questions about where and how the Spirit may be leading us next. 

These questions, much like the like the lyrics of the familiar hymn that echoes throughout sanctuaries during this time of years, nudge us as individuals and a collective body to face the crucial hour that is our time and place nearly two millennia after the Spirit was first breathed upon the disciples. And like the church throughout history, which faced hours just as crucial as our own, our authentic embrace of these critical inquiries will only strengthen our vision as we live into our call to mission and make the love of God known throughout the world. 

As we linger in the weeks that follow Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, here are a few questions I am asking as I long for the Spirit to dwell among us during the crucial hours of our day:
  • Who are the voices of innovation and creativity we have yet to give places of influence and leadership in our congregations? 
  • Where are the faithful embodying the mission of the church but not being celebrated because their congregation may not have the lustrous numbers so frequently craved by the public? 
  • What would it look like to equip pastoral leadership not only for exegeting biblical texts, but also exegeting the uniqueness of their neighborhoods and cultural demographics surrounding the local church? 
  • How can our theological institutions reform their educational paradigms in efforts not only to equip leadership with the language of our confessional traditions, but also an entrepreneurial competence able to birth new ideas, collaborative initiatives, and formative communities of influence and sustainability?
  • How will the church mirror to the world unified diversity in the midst of an antagonistic culture all to familiar with polarization and demonization of intellectual, religious, and political opponents?
  • How will the church live, love, and serve within a religiously plural social reality, embracing our neighbors of other faiths without compromising what we believe to be true about who God is in Jesus Christ?
  • What would it look like to disagree collegially in theological discourse versus alienating those whose convictions differ from our own?
  • How will the church engage, encourage, empower, and equip younger generations whose participation in church life is said to be in steady decline?
  • Will the church be willing to let old paradigms and certain institutional elements die as a means to resurrect new methods for mission and ministry?
  • What will we be willing to birth within old church buildings on the verge of closing their doors, potentially redefining what connotes a congregation and chartered church?
  • Will the prophetic voices of grassroots movements be willing to journey alongside priestly ecclesial institutions, and vice versa, in efforts to sustain these very creative and imaginative incarnations of the gospel?
  • How will the gospel speak into real issues of poverty, lack of access to adequate healthcare and quality education, violations of human rights, climate change, and an increasingly militant society whose primary means to solve conflict is to return evil for evil and wage in endless wars? 
  • What are the other pertinent issues of our local and global community the church is called to engage and reform?
  • How will the church continue to engage the arts for prophetic witness, thoughtful worship, community development, and affirmation of the God-given creative potential with each of us?
  • How will ecumenical ministry shape the hearts and minds of the church as we reduce what is necessary to hold in common for the sake of creative collaboration and the embodiment of God’s dreams for the world?
  • How will a theology of the cross and resurrection frame how we do all of the above?
There are infinitely more questions I am asking, especially this time of year when the mainline church is willing to talk Holy Spirit. My prayer is for growing lists of questions from both individuals and corporate bodies to spur renewed visions and faithful dreams for being the church in the crucial hour that is today. May the Holy Spirit meet us all along the way. After all, as Osacra Romero one wrote, “It will always be Pentecost in the church, provided the church lets the beauty of the Holy Spirit shine forth from her countenance” (The Violence of Love 48). 

*See Dr. Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, p. 73

**As Barth writes, “The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths.  The Gospel is not the door but the hinge.” (The Epistle to the Romans, 35).

***A related post, "God as Unified and Missional Community": 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Karl Barth on National Day of Prayer

Now that National Day of Prayer 2015 has passed, it is only fitting to post a few insights on prayer from the greatest theologian (of the twenty-first century).  After all, while we may be tempted to exercise this day as opportunity to leverage nationalistic zeal or further the cause of a particular political camp, Barth reminds us: 
“…the Church will always and in all circumstances be interested primarily in human beings and not in some abstract cause or other, whether it be anonymous capital or the State as such…or the honor of the nation or the progress of civilization or culture or the idea, however conceived, of the historical development of the human race.” (Christian Community and Civil Community 171)
When we pray, we invoke the name of God alone. Not a nation. Not a party line. Not a flag. True, we give thanks on this day for the country in which we live, even lifting in prayer the names and offices of all those who serve within positions of influence and power.  But we also clasp our hands in prayer on this day- and everyday- on behalf of all of humanity and all those subjected to the disorders of this world. Our prayers of intercession are never to be limited to those who live within our national borders. 

That said, here are a few favorite statements by Karl Barth on prayer:* 

“One can be God’s witness only by becoming so ever anew. This is just what happens in prayer” (Church Dogmatics III.4, p. 87).

“Even in common prayer...will be simply a sighing and stammering, both in its beginning and in its end"
(Church Dogmatics III.4, p. 89)

"When prayer becomes a museum piece in the private treasury of the Church it ceases to be prayer” (Church Dogmatics III.4, p. 115)

“Prayer means that we address ourselves to God…Prayer cannot therefore in any way estrange us from other people; it can only unite us since it involves a matter that concerns us all” (Prayer 11). 

“Let us approach the subject from the given fact that God answers.  God is not deaf, but listens; more than that, he acts.  God does not act in the same way whether we pray or not.  Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence.  This is what the word ‘answer’ means.” (Prayer 13)

“Our prayers are weak and poor.  Nevertheless, what matters is not that our prayers be forceful, but that God listens to them.  That is why we pray” (Prayer 13). 

“To be a Christian and to pray are one and the same thing; it is a matter that cannot be left to our caprice. It is a need, a kind of breathing necessary to life” (Prayer 15). 

“One cannot say, ‘Thy kingdom come!’ without hope for our time, for today, for tomorrow. The great Future, with a  capital F, is also a future with a small f. (Prayer 39). 

“The children of God are not anxious about work.  They work because they pray” (Prayer 50). 

“That Christians call upon God, that they do everything they do in this calling upon God, is what is expected of them as those who are obligated and committed to Jesus Christ.  It is the command they must keep if their action is to be obedience” (The Christian Life 50). 

Christians pray to God that he will cause his righteousness to appear and dwell on a new earth under a new heaven. Meanwhile they act in accordance with their prayer as people who are responsible for the rule of human righteousness, that is, for the preservation and renewal, the deepening and extending, of the divinely ordained human safeguards of human rights, human freedom, and human peace on earth” (The Christian Life 205)

“Invocation of God in and with [the Lord’s] prayer, obedient human action in this vertical direction, implies (as the same obedient human action) the horizontal of a corresponding human, and therefore provisional, attitude and mode of conduct…Thus to pray the prayer does not excuse [Christians] from provisionally rebelling and battling the disorder in their own human thoughts and words and works” (The Christian Life 212-213). 

“The heart of the Christian ethos is that those who are free and summoned to pray ‘Thy kingdom come’ are also freed and summoned to use their freedom to obey the common that is given therewith and to live for their part with a view to the coming kingdom” (The Christian Life 263). 

“And this means that theological work must really and truly take place in the form of a liturgical act, as invocation of God, and as prayer” (Evangelical Theology 164).

“Prayer without study would be empty.  Study without prayer would be blind” (Evangelical Theology 15). 

*As much as I love Barth’s works, Dr. Daniel Migliore is correct to note Barths lack of engagement with lament in his writings on prayer (see “Freedom to Pray” in Karl Barth’s, Prayer).  However, I wonder if lament was somewhat assumed when Barth suggested prayers as the beginning of a revolt against the disorder of the world.  In other words, was Barth constantly lamenting the chaos that sought to claim sovereignty over God’s creation?  Would this not serve as reason to aid in such confessions as the Declaration at Barmen?

**The mug above would make a great gift :)