Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer: “Take the Next Best Step”  

On June 21, Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, Professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, engaged in an enriching and enjoyable online conversation with Rev. Dr. Matt Skinner, Professor at Luther Seminary and Scholar for Adult Education at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, as part of a series of  “Conversations on Big Questions for a Changing Church.”[1]

She emphasized that the Bible was not a scientific record. It is a library, not just one book. It emphasizes that the world is not just physical or material, but proclaims an enchanted world of belief and hope for love and justice beyond the physical world. Everyone is made in the image of God and should be caring for one another and calling for love and justice. Jesus testifies to that vision.

While justice and grace are both important in Christian faith, too much emphasis on grace can tend to emphasize the status quo. The parables about the importance of looking for the one lost coin from a collection of 10 coins or the shepherd looking for the one lost sheep emphasize the need to work for justice. The prophets tell us that you will be in exile no matter how good you are. We need to sing God’s song in a foreign land.

The current pandemics of coronavirus and racism are unveiling major problems in the U.S. empire and U.S. churches. For example, in the early years of this country, churches baptized slaves without emancipating them. The Presbyterian church in the U.S. split into northern and southern denominations over slavery. All  have been complicit in discrimination against Blacks, Natives, women and transgender people. We need the grace of God and our intangible qualities—trusting one another in community, praying for one another and having difficult conversations. We need to be “enchanting the world” with the hope of a force beyond the physical and material world to call for love and justice.

Thus, there is a need for Presbyterians and other churches to reform. We need to again recognize we are not perfect. “Reformed, always reforming.” Our tradition emphasizes talking the next best step. After that, there will be another next best step. (This especially resonated with me. It emphasizes the importance of incremental change and of avoiding the impotence of trying to understand every facet of a problem before acting to change some aspect of the problem.)

The Bible can be seen as migrant literature. Many of the Bible’s words are responses from outsiders to what was happening in the world of the Roman Empire. They are cries for justice and the rants of prophets. Many characters in the Bible have two names and thus are bicultural and provide migratory strategies for survival.

Professor Aymer made all of these points with graceful smiles and laughter. Thank you, Professor. (Others who have reactions to this conversation are invited to share them in comments to this post.)

================================

[1] Aymer & Skinner, Conversation on Big Questions for a Changing Church, Westminster Adult Education Hour (June 21, 2020).

 

Pandemic Journal (# 2): Westminster Presbyterian Church Service (03/22/20)

“The Power of Community” was the title of the March 22 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (delivered in a live-streaming service with around 2,000 watching at home) It provided this blogger with comfort and courage for living with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic.{1}

Scripture for the Day

 The Scripture for the day was Ephesians 3: 1-21 (NRSV):

  • “This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
  • “Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.“
  • For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
  • “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen

The Sermon

“As the coronavirus sweeps across the globe causing a rising level of fear, and leaving anguish in its wake, it’s tempting for us to be overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness.”

“But there is a power of community that will be examined by “how scripture views it, how the church uses it, and how we can benefit from it as we face this crisis together.”

“One of the impulses driving creation, as the story unfolds in the Book of Genesis, is the divine desire to generate human community. When humanity is made in the image of God and placed in the Garden, we’re told to steward the earth. We usually think of that solely in terms of the environment – but we are also stewards of the gift of human community.”

“The Presbyterian Church’s Brief Statement of Faith, adopted in 1991, says: “In sovereign love God created the world good and makes everyone equally in God’s image, male and female, of every race and people, to live as one community.” (emphasis mine)

“Today we might say, ‘male, female, and non-binary,’ but the point of this affirmation of faith is that the goodness of God’s love – the imago dei – is embedded in all of us. God’s image is seen most clearly in us when the human family lives as one community.” (Emphasis added.)

“The author of Ephesians speaks of the creation of community that heals a fractured humanity. This new community – really the recovery of the one humanity envisioned at Creation – is made known in Jesus Christ.”

 “’In former generations,” the writer says,”this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed…by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:5-6) (Emphasis added.)

“The promise of our faith is that the human family is one. The Gentiles – previously outside the circle – have become fellow heirs, members of the same body. The gospel makes the bold claim that the human family is no longer divided. We are one community, and there is power when we are united in purpose.” (Emphases added.)

“A friend who has been in recovery for many years told me their AA group met this week via Zoom technology. They didn’t know how to start the meeting, so my friend suggested they begin with the first of the 12 steps: ‘I am powerless.’ As they talked they acknowledged their individual powerlessness, something started to happen. They began to find strength in one another, even though they were not actually together. My friend said, ‘The sense of community was palpable.’” (Emphasis added.)

That’s the power of human community.” (Emphasis added.)

“One of the ironies of this time of being apart from one another, isolated in our homes, perhaps feeling helpless, is that the power of community is so much more evident. Just when we thought our culture and our politics and our nation were flying apart, now that we are apart we’re suddenly and keenly aware of what was missing, because we’re discovering it anew.” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s as if the biblical story of the purpose of human life has been instantly clarified: we exist to live together, as one community. Our insistence on the independence of the individual is giving way to an awareness that we cannot live long without one another. The best chance we have against the coronavirus is to exercise the power we have as a community to stay isolated and work together. All of us. If the community acts as one, we will slow the pandemic.” (Emphases added.)

The power of community.” (emphasis added.)

“Last week the New York Times ran a story with the headline, When the World Falls Apart, People Come Together. It was a report on the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, a disaster of biblical proportions visited upon the young city of Anchorage. With a magnitude of 9.2 that lasted four and half minutes, the earthquake destroyed much of the city of 100,000 people.”

““Life,” one person said, ‘Was ripping into a before and af

“That may be happening among us now, if only more slowly. In the future we may come to reckon time in terms of before and after the pandemic of 2020.”

“What will we remember most about this time? That question was the focus of the article on the Alaska earthquake. Experts had predicted that survivors of a major disaster would be desperate and panicked, and that pandemonium and chaos would reign. When researchers arrived on the scene only 28 hours after the quake, they were stunned at what they found.”

People immediately began helping others, pulling them from the rubble and leading them to safety. Boy Scouts entered a damaged hospital to help patients find their way to the cars that had pulled up to ferry them to another facility.” (Emphasis added.)

“Now, an earthquake is not a pandemic. The one occurs instantaneously and is fairly localized; the other is slower-moving and global. But neither is predictable. Neither is a respecter of persons. And the traumatic impact of both depends largely on people’s response to them.”

“’Everybody was trying to do a little bit of everything for everybody,’ one man in Anchorage said. That’s what people remembered.”

“What will endure from our experience of the pandemic unfolding around us?”

“A nurse named Dolly Fleming was in a stairway that day in Anchorage when the earthquake began. She saw a young boy in front of her being thrown around. Instinctively, she grabbed him and held him close to keep him calm and protected as they rode out the shaking together. Nurse Fleming would report many decades later at age 93 that being with that child was her lasting memory of the disaster.”

“’Something surprising had been shaken loose in Anchorage’ – the researchers in Alaska concluded – ‘A dormant capacity — even an impulse — for people to come together and care for one another that felt largely inaccessible in ordinary life.’ (NYTimes, March 15, 2020)”(Emphasis added.)

“They had discovered the power of community. That power is at the heart of the Christian gospel. It was the center of the ministry of Jesus. It is God’s hope for the world. And it is the mission of the Church. Jesus came to save us from our human tendency to break apart into divided groups: the Gentiles – in the language of that era…those deemed “other” then, or in our time– have become fellow heirs, members of the same body. We are in this together. We all share in the promises and risks of life.” (Emphasis added.)

Our best hope right now is that we would recognize the power in our being one, and acting together, like nurse Fleming, to protect one another.” (Emphasis added.)

“Children understand this instinctively. They crave community where they can belong and be safe. In this time of separation parents are helping them meet that need creatively. Technology helps. Our nephew sent a photo of his nine-year old daughter, isolated with the family at home in Portland for some weeks now, sitting before a computer having a play-date with about ten friends, all on the screen at the same time.”

“We will get through this together, even when apart. There is power in community.”

“I used to think that connections through technology were not genuine, but I ‘ve gotten over that. It’s real community. Like this worship service: this is not virtual worship. This is genuine worship. Our prayers are real, the sermon is actual, the shared experience of the music is authentic. We may be apart, but we are worshipping God together as the one Body of Christ.”

 “A Westminster member living alone at home emailed this week to tell me that online worship has become an anchor in their week. Without it, they said, the cycle of time in their life is so disrupted that it’s disorienting. Another member isolated at home alone emailed to say they watched all four of our online services last week, and each was a “lifeline.” (Emphasis added.)

“They were finding that they still belonged, were still loved.”

The gospel’s claim of the power of community is fundamental and foundational to our humanity. A recent article relates the story of anthropologist Margaret Mead being “asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture…Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000-year-old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. This particular bone had been broken and had healed…A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.’”  (Emphasis added.)

The church’s role in combating this pandemic is to remind the world around us of our oneness. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, insider or outsider, for all are one in the human family. That was God’s intention from the start.” (Emphasis added.)

“The power of community gives us strength and resilience.”

We are not powerless. The coronavirus is stirring the community to life, awakening an old memory that we are rooted and grounded in love for one another. “ (Emphasis added.)

“In this crisis moment the church – you and I, as followers of Jesus – the church is called to help the community know “the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love for all of us, equally and unconditionally. (Ephesians 3:18)”

“That’s the gospel of Jesus Christ, the One whom we follow in this challenging time.”

The One who, ‘by the power at work within us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.’ (Ephesians 3:20)” (Emphasis added.)

Comments

The Scripture for the Day  from Ephesians and its discussion by Rev. Hart-Andersen uncovered for me a new and more powerful meaning. Previously I had thought that the English- word “gentile” (translated from the Greek) referred to the non-Jewish people that Apostle Paul traveled to meet in the Roman Empire. Now I see the word as referring to all non-Jews. In short, the Jewish prophets and scribes were dividing the entire world into two groups: Jews and non-Jews or Jews and all other people or Jews and gentiles.

Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, Scholar for Adult Education at Westminster and a friend, provided the following in response to my question about the meaning of “gentile” in the New Testament: “From a first-century Jewish perspective, indeed anyone who wasn’t a Jew was a “gentile.” The Greek term rendered “gentiles” (ethnē) means “nations.” The New Testament and other early Christian literature adopts this same usage, describing the world in terms of Jews and gentiles. The Letter to the Ephesians places strong emphasis on the idea of the divisions between Jews and gentiles being destroyed through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The result of that is ‘a new humanity.’ See Ephesians 2:14-16 for a succinct statement of this. The basis of all that emphasis comes from the conviction that law obedience isn’t necessary for gentiles to receive the Holy Spirit and participate fully in the people of God (the church). The letter takes the notion of there being no special advantage or privileged standing before God and regards that as a new, singular humanity coming into existence.”

This fits within my sense that every human being in the world is a child of God regardless of race, color of skin and the specific religion they profess or none at all. All of these characteristics paint a wide variety of human beings. But nevertheless they all are children of God. Therefore, we need to be kind and generous to everyone.

When you recognize this and especially when you gather together with other human beings, there is power in community.

As Rev. Hart-Andersen said in his sermon, “The church’s role in combating this pandemic is to remind the world around us of our oneness. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, insider or outsider, for all are one in the human family. That was God’s intention from the start.”

============================

[1] This is the second in an ongoing series of posts about living through the  current pandemic. See Pandemic Journal (# 1): Kristof and Osterholm Analyses, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 23, 2020).

 

 

 

 

“What Needs to Die?”

This was the title of the November 4 sermon by Executive Associate Pastor, Rev. Meghan K. Gage-Finn, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s “Gathered at Five,” a casual, conversational worship service at 5:00 pm. The location: Westminster Hall in the church’s new addition. Below are photographs  of Rev. Gage-Finn and the Hall.

 

 

 

 

Sermon

(This sermon commented on All Saints Day, which was celebrated in the regular morning worship service with Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s “What Endures?” sermon.)

“This morning in worship we celebrated All Saints’ Day, remembering the names and lives of those in our congregation who died in the last year. We paused to recall their faces, their voices, their service to Westminster and community. The celebration of All Saints’ Day in the church began in the 9th century, but today in our context it is less about honoring the Saints (with a “Capital S”) and more about giving glory to God for the ordinary, holy faithful ones of our time whom we remember and love. It is yet another chance to declare and rejoice that nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love, as we pray that God’s good purposes would be worked out in us, that we would be helped in our weaknesses as we await the redemption of all things.” (Emphasis added.)

“It is a day when we think and talk about death and when we name the courage and hope with which others have lived, and imagine how we might model our lives of faith in the same way.”

“[For someone with a conflicted relationship with one of our deceased, All Saints Day was a] reminder that the final death of that relationship in life opened up something, created space for something new to emerge and begin. It was almost as if the death made way for a waiting change that couldn’t otherwise take shape.”

“This [observation] has pushed me to wonder about what we hold onto or are trapped by in our lives, and what happens when we are released from these burdens. In the context of All Saints’ Day, it led me to the question of, ‘What needs to die?’” (Emphasis added.)

“[The Ruth and Naomi story in Isaiah shows] cultural and religious norms at play for [them], which both women push back against. Both have to let these die in a way Orpah cannot, and because of this a new way forward opens up for them. They embrace each other and find healing and genuine friendship. [1]

“Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen observed, ‘The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief … Here a completely new way of living is revealed. It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain.”[2]

“The women of the book of Ruth certainly didn’t desire to suffer, but in their journey of letting go, of letting expected structures and frameworks die, they found knowledge in the birth of something new.”

For about the past 8 years I have been involved in a progressive movement of the PC (USA) called NEXT Church, which . . . seeks to build the relational and connectional fabric of the denomination, by cultivating leaders and congregations to serve a dynamic church in a changing context. About 4 years ago I came onto the leadership board of NEXT, [which] . . . set a goal of having representation of 50% people of color around the table.”

“I was in the meeting when this was decided, and I am pretty sure we all thought we could say it, wave our magic white privilege wands, and sprinkle the same old Presbyterian power dust, and so it would be. We quickly found it was going to take more intentionality than that to build any type of appreciable change, and that, of course, bringing balance to the leadership board needed to be based on relationships. And in a denomination that is 95% white, nurturing lasting relationships between white people and people of color takes a whole lot more than wand waving, magic dust, and good intentions.”

“I can report that now, in 2018, we have achieved the goal set 3 ½ years ago, but we find ourselves as a leadership board in a very tenuous and precarious situation. We have called people of color from across the denomination and country, but what we haven’t done is change how we are organized, how we communicate, how we make decisions, how we raise money, and we haven’t brought about change to any other critical structural framework within the organization.”

“And that has created an environment where trust and welcome haven’t been properly established, openness and safety is lacking, blinders are on and assumptions are prevalent. Frankly, it feels like a mess, but we are doing our best to wade through it together.”

“We are reading as a board Robin Diangelo’s book White Fragility, and discussing it in small and large groups. Personally, Diangelo’s book casts a harsh light on things I have said and silences I have kept, decisions I have made and systems I have benefited from since before I was even born. I thought I had some understanding of my own privilege and whiteness, but I have so much work to do.”

“As for the state of our board community, it is complicated, but I hope it is akin to what happens when you clean out your closet or basement or garage, any place that has old, outdated pieces of you and your history, things you have carried around that weigh you down, or maybe you even look at them all the time, but you hardly even realize they are there. Letting go, letting things die in order to create space for newness of life — sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.”

“It is All Saints’ Day, and death is, and can be all around us, if we would but recognize it.”

“I recently read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. [3] Gawande is a surgeon in Boston and professor at Harvard Medical School, an accomplished writer, and he also runs a non-profit organization that strives to make surgery safer across the globe. And for his work in public health, he is a MacArthur Fellowship winner. He is one of those people who causes you question if you are really making the most of the 24 hours you are given each day.”

Being Mortal explores the relationship we have with death, both as individuals as our bodies fail us, but also as a society, as generations age and needs change and death approaches. He speaks of the experience of one patient, Felix, who said to him, ‘Old age is a continuous series of losses.”[3]

“I think in NEXT Church right now the white folks are feeling the reality of that necessary series of losses- the way we are accustomed to doing things, the loss of hiding behind our cult of whiteness, the default of not sharing, the posture of being the experts in the room. And since so much of this is deeply ingrained and largely unconscious, letting it die means naming its life in us first. In some ways, maybe even these losses are what is hardest, or as Gawande reflects: ‘It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death—losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life.’ For many of us, our way of life works really well for us and for people like us, at the cost of the way of life of so many others.”

“Luther Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis, in writing on All Saints Day, says, ‘We allow death to have its way and a say before it should. We allow death to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God, in our midst. And finally, we allow death to have more power than resurrection.”[4]

“The same could be said of racism and the other social evils and ills of our day–  we let them have their way and say and we allow them to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God in our midst. We allow racism to have more power than resurrection.”

“[Gawande also says,]’Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?’”

“So once we name the things that need to die–racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, the fracturing of our political bedrock, we must ask ourselves these same questions:

  • What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding ?” [5]

“Just as Gawande emphasizes the concept of being an active participant in mortality and the dying process, so too must we be active participants in bringing about the death of the social sicknesses and diseases which are killing our children, our communities, our siblings of color, separating us from the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world, and separating us from God’s beloved.”

“So I close by giving us space in silence to ask ourselves these questions–what needs to die and in that dying and rising, what are your fears and hopes? What is the course of action that best serves this dying and new life? What new creation might God work through that death? How can you make room for the power of the Kingdom of God, the power of resurrection life”

Closing Prayer

“This is the Good News we know–you are God with us and you are here. By the power of your Spirit, help us to name what needs to die, help us to grieve the losses, but push us to move forward in the hard work ahead, to change ourselves and the communities you have created, that we might be repairers for the world. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”

Reflections

This sermon had a surprising and different slant than that of Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s sermon (What Endures?) at the morning service.

Rev. Gage-Finn focused on societal beliefs and actions that need to die: racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity and the fracturing of our political bedrock. These beliefs and actions, she says, should prompt us to ask these questions:

  • “What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • What is the course of action that best serves that understanding?

This concentration on societal and political problems, while understandable, can lead to reading and studying about the problems and to a sense of hopelessness. What can I do as one individual to combat such large problems? Instead, I suggest, we should focus on what can I do in my everyday life to combat these problems? And is there at least one of these problems where I can get more deeply involved by studying and getting active in a group that attacks the problem?

For me, blogging about law, politics, religion and history is one way to study and advocate for change on these and other issues. I also am active in various Westminster programs that address some of these issues.

And I make financial contributions to groups that concentrate on these issues, including the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization that has challenged mass incarceration, excessive punishment, imposition of death penalty, abuse of children, and discrimination against the poor and disabled; Advocates for Human Rights; Center for Victims of Torture; American Refugee Committee; immigrant Law Center; Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; Center for Constitutional Rights; American Civil Liberties Union; and Center for Justice and Accountability. I urge others to add these groups to their charitable contributions.

In my everyday life, I seek to smile and greet people, regardless of race, I encounter while walking downtown.

The Isaiah passage also poses even more challenging personal questions: What am I trapped by in my life and what happens when I am released from these burdens?

==========================================

[1] Wines, Commentary on Ruth 1: 1-18, Preach this Week (Nov. 1, 2015).

[2] Henri J. Nouwen & Michael Ford. The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessings into One Joyful Step. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press) 2005, p. 56.

[3] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal (New York: Picador) 2014, p. 55. [See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Comment: Review of Dr. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” (Oct. 7, 2014); Comment: Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 17, 2014); Comment: Yet Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 21, 2014); Comment: Interview of Dr. Gawande (Oct. 26, 2014); Comment: Dr. Gawande’s Conversation with Charlie Rose (Oct. 30, 2014).]

[4] Lewis, For All The Saints, Dear Working Preacher (Oct. 29, 2018).

[5] Gawande, p. 259.

 

 

 

Horizontal Faith

This was the title of the August 13th sermon by Rev. Sarah Brouwer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] Below are photographs of Westminster’s new addition now under construction and of Rev. Brouwer.

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession:

“God of every day, you are beside us, behind us, and before us, every second of our lives. Yet, we confess we find you mostly in mountaintop moments, and seek you in our dark valleys. We struggle to take our daily walk with you. Remind us, O God, to pause—to consider you, and others. In a world of connectivity, help us stay connected to your Spirit, and to put relationships first. Put us in touch with the rhythm of your life, so our lives may mirror the constancy of your grace. In Christ’s name, we pray.”

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture: Psalm 90: (NRSV):[2] 

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”

“You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.”

“You sweep them away; they are like a dream,                         like grass that is renewed in the morning;                                   in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;                                 in the evening it fades and withers.”

“For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.”

“For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.”

“Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.”

“Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!”

Sermon (Extracts):

“Psalm 90 is typically read at funerals. . . . [and] has become one of my favorite Psalms. I appreciate the comfort of its familiarity; it returns me to the sacred moments in which it has been read. Funerals . . . sometimes . . .  can be moments for taking stock, checking priorities, and making meaning. This Psalm acts as a mirror, and the more I’ve read it, the more I see myself in a reflection of what a relationship with God might look like over the span of a lifetime. Of course, the language about God being angry is typically left out for memorial services, which is appropriate. But, given the chance, I love reading the whole thing.”

“There is something about God being angry that . . . [is] an important part of this Psalm. It’s raw, honest. God is not completely unaffected, and that makes God more relatable. A God who is accessible is emotional and reactive, and closely aware of the measure and rhythm of our lives.”

“I wonder if the reason the Psalmist focuses so much on God’s anger, and his own mortality, is because he’s projecting some things on to God. . . . [It] sounds kind of like the Psalmist is playing a bit of a blame game. It sounds like he knows he has done something to make God angry that he’d rather not let us know about here–God doesn’t get angry without good reason, after all.”

“And maybe there’s also a chance, he’s angry with himself. Either way, he’s working it out, externally processing with God, using God as a sounding board. And along the way he touches on some serious concerns, which might be the underlying root of that anger. The Psalmist is struggling with life and death, what it means to have this life at all, and then what it means to have that life be limited and fragile and messy. In the end, what it reveals is important–that not only can God take this kind of stuff from us, God desires it. We want and need God to be there for us. And I think that’s the way God wants it, too.”

“I found myself coming back to this Psalm most recently because it does help me remember times when God felt particularly close. Maybe you can relate, but for me it takes work and intention for God to feel close every day. I know on an intellectual level that God is always there, but to feel spiritually connected is another thing, even for someone who does this for a living.”

“What I assume about most people, church-going folks or not, is that God tends to be near at hand only occasionally, either during spiritually recharging mountaintop moments or in the hardest, darkest valleys of life. Those are liminal times and places, in which the distance between heaven and earth seem to come miraculously or desperately close together.”

“But we can’t be climbing mountains all the time, nor would we want the lowest of lows to be our constant companions. That kind of vertical experience of faith is not possible day-to-day, and it doesn’t express the whole of our journey. I’m not sure we talk enough about the ordinary days of faith– how God is with us as we answer emails, or shop for groceries and pay our bills, or even deal with conflict. Nothing about God is ordinary, but life gets that way, and so we struggle to connect the two. And maybe that’s because we haven’t been taught how, or at least we haven’t been asked often enough to consider how we might do it. It sounds simple, but what is simple is not always simplistic.“ (Emphasis added.)

“In her new book, Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution, Diana Butler Bass writes about this issue for herself, and for the sake of the church in the 21st Century. At one point, she is using the spiritual practice of walking a labyrinth to describe what she means. She writes, ‘Here in the labyrinth, I struggle to find words to describe what I feel. Up on the mountaintop, I [know] the language to describe God: majestic, transcendent, all-powerful. [But,] in this vocabulary, God remains stubbornly located in a few select places, mostly in external realms above or beyond… Like countless others, I have been schooled in vertical theology. Western culture, especially Western Christianity, has imprinted a certain theological template upon the spiritual imagination: God exists far off from the world and does humankind a favor when choosing to draw close… In its crudest form, the role of religion… is to act as a holy elevator between God above and those muddling around down below in the world.’”[3] (Emphasis added.)

This vertical theology [Bass] describes misses the part about the incarnation, the part about God being with us that sets Christianity apart. It doesn’t touch on our individual need to be known and enmeshed in God’s life, and for God to be known, at least in part, by us. It’s the horizontal part of our faith we have a hard time with. It’s the part that says God is relational, neighborly, immanent, fleshy, earthy, broken, poured out, dead and risen… and even though I can come up with those words I probably don’t say them enough. Our default is easier: to keep God up there, or in these walls, and to only connect on Sundays. But, this structure of Christendom that has shaped our whole worldview, is changing, it’s being dismantled, along with many of the other hierarchical institutions around us.” (Emphasis added.)

“People, including me, are seeking a more horizontal faith, and a God that doesn’t live somewhere else, outside of us, veiled in complex theology that is beyond our capacity to understand. As Bass writes, “my soul has a mile-wide mystical streak.” And that resonates with me. Not in a supernatural sort of way, but it’s a description of faith that affirms a wideness, and a wisdom. All of this doesn’t mean we forget certain pieces of our theology, rather it confirms that God cannot be contained–and that God has vastly different ways of being in relationship with God’s people.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Psalmist begins by praising God for being a dwelling place. It’s a more intimate metaphor, and one that is used throughout scripture. The Gospel of John uses it often, taking a turn from the other three Gospels in the way he talks about God. The word for dwelling is related to the word for womb. It’s an indwelling–that’s how close the Psalmist is to God. A place where one lives, a home to return to. The Psalmist doesn’t describe how the dwelling looks, only that it is has always been there, and it always will be, and that it seems to take the shape of whatever the Psalmist needs. There’s no hierarchy to it, but it is clear that God is God, eternal, and human beings are finite and needy. This, as it turns out, is the Psalmist’s struggle, not proximity to God, but how to fit as much abundance into one life as possible, especially when life seems so short.”

“I wonder what Christianity would look like if we were less interested in how to figure God out in these vertical systems, less concerned with who is right about God and who is wrong, or who is saved and who isn’t, and more curious about our own day-to-day walk with God? Different, I think. Freer, kinder. More creative. I think that, for the most part, when I feel close to God I am more generous, more justice-oriented, more at peace with what I am good at and even more so at peace with what I’m not good at. I’m less ashamed and more confident in who I am.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Psalmist prays that God would, “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” and “prosper the work of our hands.” Wisdom and purpose are what the Psalmist wants from God and life. I have to admit, it seems a bit countercultural. Even though the Psalmist finds life to be unbearably short, there is nothing here about Carpe Diem, Seize the day! YOLO- you only live once! And there’s no prosperity Gospel here, either. Nothing about, ‘prosper our retirement accounts so we can live comfortably in the end!’ The Psalm calls on us to ask: What is important in the end? And will we be in a close and fruitful relationship with God, and one another?”

“Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Prosper the work of our hands.”

“Some days I get discouraged, because I feel like wisdom and prosperity defined like this are in short supply. And, I throw myself into the mix of those who have a hard time living this out. It’s easy to buy into the world’s definitions of wisdom and purpose, simpler sometimes to live mindlessly, distant from God, not treating each day as though it is a precious, wonderful, difficult and messy gift. Keeping God up here is more straightforward, more organized–it fits into our ordered society.”

“But, as my Old Testament Professor Terry Fretheim used to say, ‘God did not intend creation to be a machine…’ He writes, ‘For all the world’s order and coherence, a certain randomness, ambiguity, unpredictability and play characterize its complex life.’”[4]

“Unlike our tendency toward the vertical systems we have created for God–horizontal faith celebrates relationship, between us and God, but also among all people, and all creation. Our faith is not a machine that can be turned on, established, and instituted only when it is convenient–that promotes exclusivity and suffocates. Taken to an extreme, we’ve seen the dangerous ways this has played out over centuries, and even until the last few days in Charlottesville, when vertical theological power becomes twisted, misinterpreted, and used to dehumanize. horizontal faith, on the other hand, means there’s no power involved, no ego, no money, no walls, no competition. It’s no wonder the Psalmist uses organic images throughout: mountains, grass, even dust. We are intertwined with God, and all people, and all things, in a beautiful, sacred, web of relationship.” (Emphases added.)

“Poet Wendell Berry describes horizontal faith as well as anyone. (Emphasis added.) A farmer and writer from rural Kentucky, Berry has long used creation metaphors to describe his faith and call to environmental justice. His poem “The Wild Geese” seems like a modern interpretation of Psalm 90. It touches on life and death, wisdom and purpose, and our relationship with God, which is so much closer than we can believe. I invite you to close your eyes, and imagine what he writes,

‘Horseback on Sunday morning,

harvest over, we taste persimmon

and wild grape, sharp sweet

of summer’s end. In time’s maze

over fall fields, we name names

that went west from here, names that rest on graves. We open

a persimmon seed to find the tree

that stands in promise,

pale, in the seed’s marrow.

Geese appear high over us,

pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,

as in love or sleep, holds

them to their way, clear,

in the ancient faith: what we need

is here. And we pray, not

for new earth or heaven, but to be

quiet in heart, and in eye

clear. What we need is here.’”

“And it’s true. God is right here, God with us, our dwelling place. Not too far above or beyond our grasp. But, willing us to count our days as precious, and gain a wise heart– reminding us that prosperity and abundance are what has already been given us, in Christ.”

“Even within God’s very self–Creator, Christ and Spirit–there is a wideness and inclusivity. God’s very own diversity, God’s very own shape is a dwelling place for each of us, showing us that God is accessible to us all, and to our every need. It is this God who calls us, who desires us, and all we are. This is the God we have right here. God with us.”

Conclusion

Thank you, Rev. Brouwer, for opening our eyes to see and our ears to hear another interpretation of the 90th Psalm and to gain a better appreciation of our horizontal faith.

===================================

[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2]  The New Testament passage was Hebrews 4:12-16 (NRSV).

[3] Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution (Harper Collins 2015). This book won the Religion News Association Book Award, the Nautilus Award (Better Books for a Better World) and the Religious Communicators Council’s Wilbur Award. Bass is an independent author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture.

[4] Terence Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic) (Baker Academic 2010). Fretheim is the Elva B. Lowell Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary.

 

 

 

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Men’s Retreat

This last weekend 29 men from Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church gathered for a retreat.

Westminster Men @ Clearwater
Westminster Men @ Clearwater
Clearwater Trees
Clearwater Trees
Clearwater Sunset
Clearwater Sunset

 

The setting was the Presbyterian Clearwater Forest Camp and Retreat Center, which is 120 miles north of Minneapolis near Deerwood, Minnesota. In a beautiful 1,106 acres overlooking Clearwater Lake, the Center’s mission is to provide faith-building Christian programming, to provide effective facilities and services to support conferencing, to nurture active Christian community and to be the faithful steward of God’s creation at Clearwater Forest.

Matt Skinner Leading
Matt Skinner Leading the Men

The program on Saturday was lead by Matt Skinner, a Westminster member and Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary of St. Paul, Minnesota. He invited small group discussion about different images of community in the following passages of the New Testament: first session (Acts 2: 42-47; Acts 4: 32-37; Romans 14: 1-23); second session (Galatians 4: 1-7; Philemon); and third session (1 Corinthians 12: 12- 31; and John 15:1-11).

The passages from Acts were most meaningful for me. They discuss the community life in Jerusalem of the Jews who believed that Jesus was their Messiah. After spending much time together in the temple, they gathered together in their homes breaking bread and eating “with glad and generous’ hearts.” They also sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds to those in need.

Initially these passages said to me that this community of the first Christians was a distinct minority and needed one another’s company and support, spiritually and materially. The passages also suggest that this was a financially diverse group, thus creating a need for financial support of the poorer ones by the more affluent ones.

I also was reminded by the Acts verses of our brothers and sisters at our partner Presbyterian-Reformed congregation in Matanzas, Cuba. They are survivors of a former period of persecution and share their limited possessions with one another. On one of my trips their pastor told us that when he was unable to buy any toilet paper for our visit, he asked the members of the congregation to share whatever “TP” they had. We also bring over-the-counter medications from the U.S. to give to our partner church, which then acts as a de facto dispensary for its members and others in the neighborhood. Although our partner has its own church building that was constructed before the Revolution of 1959, newer Christian communities that do not have the money for church buildings meet in homes and are known as “house churches.”

These passages also remind me of the various utopian communities that have existed in the U.S. They shared their material resources often for religious reasons. At their best, they exhibit the same virtues of the early Christian communities discussed in Acts, but they have not been able to sustain themselves as long-term communities. At their worst, they are organizations for the self-aggrandisement of the founders of cults.

The above reactions saw the verses as relating to other times and places. On further reflection, however, I see the passages from Acts speaking to Westminster and other contemporary U.S. churches Our churches provide space and times for people of faith to gather together to renew their faith and lives and to seek forgiveness for their many failures, both individual and corporate. Moreover, just by being together in worship helps remind us all that we are not in this endeavor alone as we combat the dominant cultural emphases on materialism and secularism. Yes, we too are a minority and need support and encouragement from one another. Although we do not own all of our possessions in common today, we do respond to various calls for financial support of those in need.

Finally the retreat itself was the intentional creation of a short-term community of men. Many of us car-pooled to extend our time together on the two-hour rides to and from the Center. In our meals and times of general conversation we got to know one another at a deeper level than is usually possible when we pass one another on a Sunday in a congregation of 3,000. For example, several years ago at another men’s retreat, I became acquainted with someone for the first time and thereafter we developed a friendship.