Saturday, July 31, 2010

Belhar Confession: A Bold and Intentional Incorporation?

Yet another witness to the thesis and praxis, semper reformanda, always reforming.  At the 219th General Assembly, the PCUSA denomination considered the inclusion of this brilliant confession penned in the wake of South African apartheid.  There is much to be gained by this declaration, and certainly much to build upon as God's people continue to live into the new humanity for the new creation.  The church must unite in its diversity and live into its prophetic and missional vocation amidst so much injustice and oppression.  May we continue to have our hearts broken for that which breaks the heart of God, and then practice resurrection in those very places- no matter what the cost.

Confession of Belhar

September 1986 1

1. We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end.

2. We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.

We believe
• that Christ's work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another;
•that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God's Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain;
•that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted;
• that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another's burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity;
• that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God;
•that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church;

Therefore, we reject any doctrine
•which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation;
• which professes that this spiritual unity is truly being maintained in the bond of peace while believers of the same confession are in effect alienated from one another for the sake of diversity and in despair of reconciliation;
• which denies that a refusal earnestly to pursue this visible unity as a priceless gift is sin;
•which explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church.

3. We believe
•that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.
• that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world;
• that the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity;
• that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.

Therefore, we reject any doctrine
• which, in such a situation sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.

4. We believe
•that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;
• that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged
• that God calls the church to follow him in this; for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;
• that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;
• that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly;
• that for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering;
• that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek theright;
-that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
• that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.

Therefore, we reject any ideology
•which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.

5. We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.

Jesus is Lord.
To the one and only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the honor and the glory for ever and ever.

1. This is a translation of the original Afrikaans text of the confession as it was adopted by the synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in 1986. In 1994 the Dutch Reformed Mission Church and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa united to form the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA). This inclusive language text was prepared by the Office of Theology and Worship, Presbyterian Church (USA).

Friday, July 30, 2010

Summer Reading

Every August I have a brief window where I get to step back from the required reading necessary for seminary/ordination coursework and pursue my own interests in the realm of periodicals and books.  This is always a very intentional decision; however, I am often accused of not being adventurous enough by choosing not to read fiction.  While I appreciate fiction, nonfiction has always been my reading of choice- and yes, it too can be an escape.  I confess that my imagination is not as sharp as those, like my wife, who spend vacations absorbed into certain contemporary works of fiction that have been likened to "literary crack."  But for me, I find my rest in exploring the depths of philosophical thought, historical events, theological discourse, and other forms of writing that many consider dense and boring.  To each their own.  Teenage wizards and vampires just do not do it for me.  Neither do hobbits and dragons.  I wish I enjoyed these writings, but alas, I do not. 

That being said, here are three of the books I have chosen to read on various vacations as I conclude the summer:

Theology of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann.  A contemporary reformed theologian, Moltmann explores eschatology from a Christian perspective and reminds the church that a theology of hope is not where the Christian ends up, rather where one must begin.  I am sure that this book, as well as others by Moltmann, will serve as fuel for future blog entries. 

Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back by Josh Hamilton withTim Keown.  As a baseball fanatic, I look forward to reading about the redemptive story behind one of the game's premier performers, Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers.  Hamilton was a highly sought after draft pick who eventually struggled with drugs and illegal substances that forced him to reevalluate his identity, image, convictions, and behaviors.  He ultimately (re)discovered a faith in Jesus that has led to a radical transformation in not only his personal decisions, but also in his attitude, posture, and witness as a professional athelete.

Jacob and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey.  I selected this book so to explore the Lukan parable from a unique perspective, i.e. as Jesus' retelling of the history of Israel with the narratival backdrop of the patriarch Jacob.  The story of the prodigal son, or as Bailey suggests, the parable of the father and his two sons, is one of the most well-known sagas/teachings of Jesus; however, Bailey offers a fresh interpretation that I am eager to explore. Again, I am sure future posts will engage this text and related insights and hypotheses.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

PYT 2010: For Such a Time as This

This September will mark my third anniversary as a Presbyterian. I am not sure if God landed me in this denomination because of some divine sense of humor or because God knew that I was already a quasi-Presby who had yet to discover that this is where I belonged. Either way, this past week’s Presbyterian Youth Triennium  was yet another strong affirmation that the PCUSA denomination and the Reformed Tradition are where I have been called to serve, to minister, to dialogue, and to swim in life and faith as a (yet-to-be) ordained pastor.

I was not quite sure what to expect, as all of my previous experiences with youth conferences were with hyper-evangelicals and unaffiliated para-church ministries. While I appreciate their role in the body and their contribution to youth ministry, I had grown weary of packaged preachers and programs that emphasized individual salvation and escapist theology at the expense of ecclesial connection and missional vocation. Needless to say, I was looking forward to this new venue and context- and I was mostly impressed and refreshed. Here are a few highlights from the week:

For Such a Time as This: The emphasis for the week was the book of Esther. This was an excellent choice as the protagonist of this biblical narrative is a young woman who liberates her people from pending genocide at the hands of the Persian King. The conference explored the context of the narrative with a prophetic imagination that underscored the horrors of genocide (ancient and modern), missional vocation, ministries of compassion, temptation, hope for change and resurrection, and even the need for community as the people of God continue to strive towards kingdom life in the here and now. In other words, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” was communicated with clarity and creativity that inspired even a cynic like me.

Christocentric Emphasis: I love the story of Esther, yet had not heard it explored in the way it was this week:
  • Call of Esther as Queen || Call of Jesus in Baptism
  • Manipulation of Xerxes by Haman || Temptation of Jesus in the Desert
  • Fasting and Prayer of Mordecai and Esther and Prophetic Vocation || Jesus’ Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and His Messianic Vocation
  • Esther’s Liberation of the Jewish People; Feast of Purim || Road to Emmaus, “We had Hoped Jesus would deliver”;The Resurrection
Emphasis on Vocation: This is not talked about with youth very often. We discussed it last year as a part of our Missional Experience with the Potter’s House and Church of the Saviour in D.C.; however, it is rare to explore vocation with youth ministry without minimizing God’s call to either evangelism or to professional ministry. I was grateful for how Rev. Dr. Mitzi Moore reminded the youth (and their youth pastor) that “our vocation is not how we get a paycheck…our vocation is God’s people living out their conviction that God is love.” This does not happen only when you get older, adorn the stole, or are employed in a particular field. Our vocation happens every day in the way we love and bless others, especially the poor and marginalized of our communities and world, in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Rev. Dr. Moore continued in an emphasis that our vocation is to be pursued even though we will not necessarily be vilified should we choose to remain silent in the wake of human suffering or elevated as heroes should we act and move in rhythm with the gospel.

Great Beginning and Ending Speakers: Bruce Reyes-Chow and Tony Campolo delivered incredible opening and closing sermons to the youth that spoke their language and challenged them to be the church in the world. Bruce was able to remind youth that God’s people are a diverse group of people who must remain in dialogue as we pursue love and grace, especially for the sake of the poor. Our students especially loved his benediction: Go forth into the world/ with compassion and justice in your heart/ give voice to the silent/ give strength to the weak/ serve one another/ hear one another/ care for one another/ and love one another/ it’s all that easy/ and it’s all that hard…” Tony’s sermon was provocative and convicting as usual. He addressed poverty, injustice, racism, homophobia, revolutionary living, and many plugs for the greatest Christian University in the U.S- Eastern University ;) However, he was most poignant when he declared that the youth were the “generation he had been waiting for.” He called them not to waste their God-given gifts on consumer America, cultural-forms of idolatry, and professions that exploit versus dignify and liberate humanity and the creation. This was a hard, yet significant message to the students. One of my youth said it was the best sermon he had ever heard ;)

Hope of and for the Church: At most youth conferences the youth are affirmed in their distaste for their churches, especially for the older generation and traditions. However, this was not the case here. Students cheered for their denomination (and others), were exposed to the diverse work and witness to the resurrection through the social action of the PCUSA, encouraged to participate in the life of their faith communities, and moved to have the eyes to see and the ears to hear how Jesus is alive and well in the church locally and globally. In other words, students left aware the church is to be both critiqued and celebrated. Unfortunately, my experiences with youth conferences is that it is rare to move beyond the former and rejoice in the latter. Thanks PYT for going deeper…

Passion of the Youth: From the cheers after creatively crafted liturgies, especially the calls to worship, to the constant embrace of would-be strangers, the students became a diverse and eccentric community of 5000 that was contagious. My hope and prayer is that their zeal for their faith and their hope for God’s kingdom of justice and peace would continue even as they return home, some to circumstances of suffering and experiences of pain and heartache.

However, by far the best part of the week was the time spent with five incredible students from Westminster (and one from soon-to be Lancaster), and one self-less adult volunteer, all who continually amaze me in how much God continues to move through young and old(er) lives by God's Spirit and for the sake of the world.  Thanks for allowing me to be a part of your faith stories.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lectionary Reflections: Luke 10:38ff

Luke 10:38 - 11:1 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.1 Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

I have heard this text preached on a number of occasions, often by way of comparing and contrasting Martha’s distraction and obsession with menial tasks (i.e. “many things”) compared to the personal piety and contentment embodied by Mary (i.e. her attention to “only one thing”). We are then encouraged to be less like Martha and more like Mary, less distracted and more focused, less domestic and more pious. These are all true, for sure, especially within a culture obsessed with the idols of schedules and the worship of busyness. Indeed, the devil often dresses in the wardrobe of hurry and worry. I am certainly one who needs to be reminded and heed the warnings of homilies that goad me towards Mary-like character and spiritual discipline. I could paraphrase Paul, we are all hurried and busy, and I am the chief of distraction.

However, I wonder if there is more to Luke’s incorporation of this narrative. I even wonder if this text, which directly follows Jesus’ telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan and the elevation of a marginalized people, is yet another Lukan attempt to underscore the social implications of Jesus’ gospel. In other words, while Martha is about the domestic chores of a first-century woman, Jesus celebrates Mary’s bold move to sit at the feet of Jesus as though a student of her rabbi- a rare and radical move on her part. Yet again, Luke is less prescriptive, i.e. be like Mary, and more descriptive, i.e. this is what the kingdom of God looks like and who is invited to participate. Jesus once again is the great liberator from systems of oppression and exclusion. Jesus announces the kingdom of God as that which moves beyond gender roles and social classes and invites all to participate in what God is doing in and through Jesus the Messiah. The revolutionary and prophetic statement, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her,” is then echoed in the declarations of Paul, who writes that in Jesus there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female- all are one in Christ.

Maybe this is the greater caution of this narrative- being too distracted by the assumptions of our culture and social systems of our communities that we fail to take notice that in Jesus an open invitation has been extended to a wider fellowship then we ever dreamed possible- even permissible. Then the traditional warnings may be appropriate- be not Martha, but celebrate and engage the Marys of this world.

In this light, I have been daily challenged to expand my hermeneutical horizon and engage less familiar and sometimes suppressed voices from the margins. The words of J├╝rgen Moltmann are advantageous in this regard, “Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experience and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible’s revolutionary themes- promise, exodus, resurrection, and spirit- come alive.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Our Pilgrimage to Philadelphia

It is amusing the reactions I get when people find out where I took the Imago Dei Youth Ministry for our summer missional experience: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Youth Ministry over the years, at least within Suburban America, has developed the assumption that when students go on a “mission trip” they will embark on a highly fundraised adventure to an international destination, preferably a developing nation. These trips are likely to include expeditions to places of poverty and misfortune that not only make for great stories about types of food consumed, difficult living conditions endured, and language barriers crossed, but also for a sense of accomplishment as we share Jesus through programs like VBS, street evangelism, and work projects that more often than not could be completed better and more efficiently by the locals in the community. This is not to say that these projects are completely void of any and all significance, it is just to suggest that there may be other alternatives that allow us to be faithful not only to our identity as a universal people of God, but also sensitive to and aware of God’s activity in particular places that precedes our travels to these places. Even more, the Spirit of Jesus is often alive and well in places we frequently pass (drive) by, a la the priest and Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25ff), if we only would have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Andy Crouch wrote last fall:
Short-term trips (STMs) are contemporary versions of an ancient practice called pilgrimage (Perhaps we should call them STPs.) A pilgrim goes on a journey to meet God in a faraway place, hoping to return as a different person from the one who left…Pilgrims had no illusions that they were going to “change the world” by their pilgrimage, but they hoped that being exposed to the world, and to the stories of the saints who had been faith in it, would change them. They were much more than tourists, traveling simply for the fun of it (though medieval pilgrimages were often, appropriately, convivial and joyful affairs.) Pilgrims travel for transformation, and that’s a good thing (“Making the Most of Ministry Trips.” Youth Worker Journal. Sept./Oct. 2009. pp. 22-25).

As we spent the week with our friends at Broad Street Ministry (, a partnership we have developed over the last three years with an urban faith community in Center City, we began to realize that we were on a modern-day pilgrimage. We may have only traveled 45 minutes, yet our eyes and ears were exposed to a world so different than our own and stories of prophetic saints who were practicing resurrection in ways that left us breathless and filled with hope. It is incredible to view the city, not as a tourist, rather as a faithful sojourner alongside those who live and serve, pray and celebrate, weep and grieve, feast and invite, worship and engage alongside the rich, poor, unemployed, overemployed, addicted, afflicted, homeless, artistic, believers, and doubters. It is true, Broad Street was a place, and is a place, where biblical stories come alive- and we were invited to be real-life characters in their dramatic improvisation that continues to bear witness to God’s dreams that are for the whole world—and we could not help but be transformed.

I will never forget hearing from a student about how she had been to Rittenhouse Square annually with family, yet never once saw the homeless who frequently called this place “home.” She would never experience this place the same again. She was transformed by her pilgrimage.

I continue to visualize the sheer joy that exploded from the face and vocal tone of one of the homeless men who toured us through the murals of Philly, one of which they helped to create. Sweat bursting from one of the men’s forehead and dripping from his hair, he told us of how the homeless wrote stories on pieces of fabric that were then woven onto this mural of hope for a home. The fabric was then painted over and plastered to the building, resurrecting their stories of struggle into a fresh and beautiful display of art. We would never view these murals the same again. And our small group was transformed.

Then there were the trips to food banks, thrift stores that benefit victims of AIDS, urban gardens, St. Francis Inn in Kensington, tutoring at local elementary schools, New Jerusalem rehabilitation center, the list goes on and on. Ben Harper is right when he sings, “what good is a cynic with no greater plan” (Better Way). It is easy to critique the social injustices and the infinite realizations of a world in distress. Yet, we must not remain there…we must move as God’s people in the world who have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the legs that move in rhythm with God’s greater plan of redemption that met us full force this past week. And we did not have to travel very far. And Imago Dei Youth were transformed.

Luke 19:41 says, “As [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Thank you Broad Street Ministry for removing the scales from our eyes each day, and even in the days to come, and revealing to us the One who has made for peace and the ways in which God’s people participate in it each and every day, even after we have left. May we now practice that same peace in our own communities as I AM sends us home.

**Above "Short-term mission trips" cartoon taken from The Christian Century, May 18, 2010.  Check it out...**

Monday, July 5, 2010

Learning from the Scottish Youth

This week I have been immersed within the daily life of Broad Street Ministry as a part of our youth ministry missional experience. While I was excited for the week in community with our BSM family, I was particularly excited to spend the week with new friends from youth ministries in Scotland. After we exchanged cultural jokes about William Wallace (the movie completely ruins the historicity of the fight for freedom), accents (of which ours is far more interesting to hear mocked by a Scot), and who drives on the correct side of the road, I began to be intrigued by their questions and comments:
You have to pay for health care? That's crazy!

Americans love their government and leaders. (I explained it depended who you asked)

Your food portions are huge and inexpensive. Your cars are enormous compaered to ours.

Billboards are everywhere, constantly telling me to buy stuff. And when we are in stores people watch you and talk to you...kind of weird.

Your enthusiasm for everything is very interesting (I also mentioned this depends on who you talk to)

I have been reminded yet again that life is best lived in dialogue, especially with international youth. I look forward to our ongoing conversations, especially as they move towards faith and the church.