Monday, August 31, 2015

Be Opened: Lectionary Reflections for Back to School Youth and the Rest of Us, too.

"Be opened," Jesus proclaimed in Mark 7:34.

The disciples were pilgrimaging with this prophetic Rabbi when he put his fingers in the ears and touched the tongue of a deaf man with a speech impediment. 

“Be opened,” Jesus commanded. 

Only a handful of verses earlier, Jesus encountered a Syrophoenician woman. This Gentile neighbor ran to the Jewish Messiah and pleaded for the life of her beloved child suffering from an “unclean spirit,” a sure subversion of first-century social mores. She knew her life mattered; her daughter's life matteredUnconcerned about such racial barriers and ethnic codes of segregation, this poised mama dared, even provoked, Jesus to model the same. 

And she was open to a miracle and resurrection possibilities. Her only question, would Jesus be open as well? 

The answer, “the demon has left your daughter.” 

These two healing stories are everything but loose fragments and isolated parables in the building of Mark’s gospel.  Last week’s lectionary highlighted the preface to the narratives we encounter this Sunday.  Jesus challenged the Pharisees and Scribes who had become so obsessed with the letter of the law they were closed to the reality that in Jesus God was doing very new things.
“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition…You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mark 7:8-9).
Now we read of Jesus practicing what he preached. The entirety of Mark 7 is a call to be opened to what God is doing all around us, even when it confronts our most hallowed traditions, collective assumptions, and cultural barriers set up to protect and preserve what we (sometimes falsely) believe to be right and good. Jesus' witness pushes us to collapse anything and everything set-up to oppress or marginalize another. 

“Be opened,” Jesus reminds us nearly two millennia later. 

If we are truly listening, we will notice Mark’s account of these healing stories is aimed at us. They dare us to remain open.  They challenge us to hold loosely our truth claims, comfort zones, and social networks as we consider what God may be up to in the very people and places we have previously dismissed. 

Be opened.

Every year for the last four years I have written a letter to students as they go back to school.  These letters are public prayers for those who navigate the hallways and commune in classrooms for 180+ days of the year. 

This year I write less of a letter and more of an echo of the words of Christ, “Be opened.” If we listen carefully, what follows are invitations for all of us. 


Be opened by your neighbor next door, behind, and in front of you, as their life and story are equally as significant as your own. 

Be opened by history learned and lamented, celebrated and grieved. Be opened by how history can transform our collective present and future.

Be opened by the teachers in your midst, who have devoted their lives to spark the imaginations of young people and nurture agents of change locally and globally. 

Be opened by nonviolent means to solve conflict. 

Be opened by forgiveness.

Be opened by faith communities, especially those different from your own. What may God teach you through the convictions of others? 

Be opened by rest, aware you cannot do everything, all the time, every day. 

Be opened by play, reminded life is a gift to be enjoyed versus a task to be completed. 

Be opened by Scripture and new ways of understanding the story we claim as sacred. Welcome others to read alongside you and remain open to the possibility of the Spirit reading you page after page, story after story. 

Be opened by service and opportunities to engage your most vulnerable neighbors. Recognize the stranger not as less rather as equal. 

Be opened by advocacy for those relegated to the margins of your campuses, workplaces, neighborhoods, cities, and world. Dare to challenge the status quo and never cease to elevate the voices from the fringes of society. 

Be opened by art, so frequently the Spirit’s tool for social change and movements rooted in God’s concern for justice and equity. 

Be opened by being wrong.

Be opened by being right.

Be opened by failure. 

Be opened by joy. 

Be opened by tears. 

Be opened by hope. 

Be opened by shared suffering.

Be opened by witnessed resurrection. 

Be opened by the One who was able not only to open the eyes and ears of the blind and deaf, but also a cold and dark tomb many believed would forever remain closed. 

Be opened. 

A great Podcast that brilliantly engages the story of the Syrophoenician woman:
LectioCast: Entrusting Ourselves to Abundance and Generosity

See also a recent reflection from Jill Duffield of The Presbyterian Outlook: 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Technology as Sacramental: A Means of Grace, Prophetic Witness, and Community Formation

I remember my ordination service vividly. 

Probably because it was this past February. 

Also because I was able to preside at the Eucharistic table and serve communion to family, friends, and neighbors who joined in the celebration. 

The opportunity to break bread and share the cup was what I most looked forward to as an ordained Teaching Elder and, more preferred, Minister of Word and Sacrament.

In seminary and throughout my theological studies, the sacraments were taught as a means of grace.  Presbyterians are also apt to affirm the ordinariness of the elements, a visible sign of an invisible grace. Water. Font. Bread. Cup. Wine. Juice. 

Ordinary. Common. Everyday. Tangible. Not much has changed in nearly two-thousand years of Christian tradition and sacramental practice. Theological nuances of the practice have varied; nevertheless, we still use the same basic elements. 

And these elements point beyond themselves.*  They point to the God made known in Jesus Christ and the Spirit who calls and sends us all into the world as embodiments of the very means of grace that drench our heads and nourish our bodies. The sacraments are simple reflectors.

These liturgical elements, in a certain sense, were also ancient and sacred technologies of the church. 

I once stumbled upon this definition of technology:
technology, n. the mediums and/or tools used to apply knowledge of something [or someone] of significance for real and practical purposes.
As the real and practical mediums of bread, wine, and water are used to apply the knowledge of and bear witness to the Crucified and Resurrected Christ, the sacraments serve a technological function. 

The ordinary also becomes holy. 

In the Digital Age, might this be the framework in which the Spirit invites us to view the everyday mediums of social media, digital devices, on-line platforms, and new technologies we hold in the palm of our hands or upon our laps? As twenty-first century disciples of Christ, the witness of the early Church dares us to consider not only the sacraments as technological but also the technological as sacramental.  We are nudged to consult all available mediums and tools within reach to apply our knowledge of the One who gathers us at font and table and sends us from these sacred, technological spaces.  
“The church can’t change her response to Gutenberg’s printing press, the radio, or the television; they are forever fixed in history.  But at the onset of this digital revolution, her response to New Media is wide open.  The world is waiting and listening in the virtual sphere.  Will the church remain silent, or will her voice be proclaimed from the roof tops (and the laptops)?  Will she plunge the message of Christ into Facebook feeds, blogposts, podcasts, and text messages, or will she be digitally impotent? If the Church’s promotion of evangelization, formation, community, and the common good is to continue throughout future generations, she must harness these technologies and utilize them well."

The Christian church continues to wrestle with how to engage the digital revolution of the last 25 years.  Especially since the advent of social media and on-line networks, we are more connected than ever before. New and innovative technologies are more accessible than at any point in human history, being used for both good and ill. 

Think of all the hashtags that have birthed social movements through open-source rhetoric. Think of all the Facebook posts that have perpetuated various forms of hate speech and slander. 

As a result, many church leaders and members of our congregations become admittedly overwhelmed, overly indulged, or even dismissive of new technology and media. Our on-line world creates unique challenges for congregations and related pastoral care as we live into the emerging cultural realities. 

Nevertheless, we must not throw out the baby with the bath water.  Instead, we must regularly ponder which forms of new technology our congregations and ministries will use and how we will use them as means of grace for practical purposes of loving and serving our local and global neighbors.  We must be willing to view various forms of technological innovation not solely as evolving distractions, although aware of such possibility, but as redemptive opportunities for community formation, social advocacy, prophetic witness, and proclamation of the Good News. 

In so doing, the ordinary technologies we apply become sacramental platforms versus trendy widgets void of broader meaning. They are able to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, pointing beyond themselves and towards God’s dreams for a world made new and right again. That’s what our earliest ancestors of the faith did with bread, cup, and water as they went viral with the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

May we be at least as technologically innovative as they were two millennia ago.

Where have you seen technology as sacramental?  #sacredtechnology

A great resource: 
The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World by Keith Anderson

*"We cannot celebrate and receive the sacrament ordained by [God] without looking beyond the sacrament as such and finding [God] in the sacrament" (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 p. 50).  

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Naptime as Divine Office & Smartphone as Acolyte: Technology's Ability to Usher Us into the Presence of God

"You can never catch your breath in this house," I said to my wife after another failed attempt to put our youngest down for a nap.

I huffed back up the steps, lifted our crying son out of the crib, plopped myself in the recliner, and tried once again to soothe him back to sleep.

I also pulled out my iPhone, opened a YouTube playlist complete with some my favorite contemplative hymns (#PresbyNerd), turned the volume on low, and whispered to our nine-month old the lyrics of John Bell's, "The Summons." 

As each verse appeared on the screen, complete with kitcshe background images, I caught my breath. 

I also realized gratitude for these holy moments must become my reactive posture more so than lament about what I could or should be doing instead of caring for our young children. 

Maybe there needs to be a new category for Divine Offices: when putting little ones to sleep. 

Maybe we also need to see our smartphones and various technological tools not so much as distractions, although they can be, rather accessible acolytes into the very presence of God. We may be surprised how the Creator of all things can use even the most complex technologies to breathe calm in the midst of chaos.

Here are a few ways the smartphone or tablet can serve as everyday acolyte, whether a caregiver in the middle of a late-night rocking, a working professional looking to engage in spiritual formation during a brief lunch break, or a minister making the daily commute to the office:

Recommended Podcasts and Blogs:

Monday, July 27, 2015

Neighborhood Narratives and Cultural Exegesis: Churches Moving from Pulpit to Pavement

While there are plenty of reasons to lament the brokenness of the twenty-first century, Mainline church, many congregations are daring us to lift our eyes from trending despair and towards resurrected life. 

In recent months, I have witnessed first-hand their invitations to hold on hope for another day more. 

There is a church who, when their suburban community reported an increase in heroine use, developed an art program alongside local partners as one of many mediums offered to neighbors in recovery. 

A fellowship hall in an old urban church building was revisioned as studio for local artists who craft elaborate murals, which have been plastered on city schools, historic prisons, and a SEPTA train.  Many of these resident artists are ex-cons participating in Philadelphia’s Restorative Justice program.

Another church, located in a neighborhood whose residents are predominantly immigrants, has reclaimed the value of ecumenical partnerships as they reach out to children who are both first-generation Americans and first-generation Christians. 

A new church development is using rare urban green space in their front yard, once the site of their large sanctuary before being destroyed by a hurricane fifty years prior, to host art programs for urban youth. As they engage everything from Matisse to Monet, young people are empowered to dream and imagine alternative futures for their families and communities.  

Still more, another city church is incorporating “Harambee,” motivational songs, and methods learned from the Children’s Defense Fund in education programs offered to urban children who reside in the middle of one of the most dysfunctional school districts in the country. 

Each of these churches, and an abundant more, have learned the narratives of their neighborhoods, leveraged ministry initiatives through collaborative local networks, and birthed new (or renewed) contextualized expressions of church in their communities. 

This is what many in ministry call practices in cultural exegesis. 

For most, exegesis is a fancy word thrown around at gatherings of theology and Bible nerds. Exegesis is not exactly a word able to make you the life of any sort of party.

I know from experience.

Exegesis is a term that refers to the reading out of a given text or narrative in Scripture a reasonable sense of meaning or purpose. Exegesis is the process preachers implore as they prepare sermons and do their due diligence not to read into the story or passage what may not actually be there. That would be called eisegesis.  Unfortunately, eisegesis happens with great frequency and can quickly transform the Bible from hopeful story to oppressive weapon.

Exegesis, linked to the broader discipline of hermeneutics, is the preferred method for reading the Bible and teaching and/or preaching what is thoughtfully gleaned. The process of exegesis is not always pretty and frequently looks more like the dissection of a carcass than the crafting of a piece of art. 

Word studies. 
Underlining and boxing key terms.
Pretending to know Greek and Hebrew. 
Pretending the congregation will be impressed by Greek and Hebrew words.
Bible study software.

I was once told that to preach effectively you needed to spend one hour of study for every minute preached. 

That doesn't leave much time for Starbucks runs. 

The messy craft of exegesis is important.  Actually, exegesis is critical. However, in the twenty-first century, preachers and practitioners of the faith require far more than an ability to know what the Scripture once said and may be saying. Church leaders must be invested in cultural and neighborhood exegesis, drawing out of their local and relational networks a sense of identity, thirst for justice, and expressed hope no longer limited to the great beyond.  We cannot afford to read into our communities a (falsified) longing for what the church once was. There is no time for cultural eisegesis. 

So we must engage new hermeneutical tools: maps, impromptu conversations with neighbors, partnerships with community leaders, interactions with the polis and local officials, investments in the history of the context surrounding a given congregation, new stewardship methods and sustainable funding sources, and a willingness to risk implementing something altogether different and no longer limited to 9:45 on a Sunday morning. 

Over the years, I am grateful so many cultural exegetes, a.k.a. pastors and church leaders, have been willing to take such risks. It is through the likes of these faithful innovators that the Spirit will not only birth a future for our congregations and communities, but also foster a platform to proclaim Good News alongside our neighbors near and far. 

This is sure reason to hope beyond despair.