Saturday, December 31, 2005

Epiphany Is Coming

My apologies for neglecting this blog. We've been busy visiting friends and family, which cuts into my computer time but gives me a buoyant sense of belonging, as if the home I'd always dreamed of was around me, made of invisible bricks and mortar, warmed with kind words and fond smiles. I'm so happy to be here, alive.

This week we went to the annual OALC-family gathering, where I chatted up several relatives, joked around with my little brother, and introduced our daughter to an uncle she'd never met. This brother is a preacher now and was asked by our dad to "say a few words." The women present were not wearing scarves and made no effort to find any. I wondered if this was a new development. In past years, the women brought scarves and put them on for singing hymns and listening to the prayer.

In any case, I resigned myself to the inevitable: a mini-sermon that would conclude an exhortation to the fallen star or wayward sheep or what-have-you to return to the precious, one, true, living Christianity.

But no. My soft-voiced, golden-eyed preacher brother spoke simply of gratitude -- for the blessings God has given our family, for seeing his sisters again. Of his hope to meet again in heaven if not here on earth.

That was all. I was moved to tears.

Could it be that preaching has changed? It is evident that my OALC kin are raising their kids differently than how we were raised. It stands to reason that they preach differently too.

As we drove home that night with the children sleeping in the back seat, I wondered how many more times we would be making this trip down the interstate and back, going to these relatives who will not come to us. As long as possible, I suppose.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Teach, Don't Preach, the Bible

This is from today's New York Times.

By BRUCE FEILER
YESTERDAY'S ruling by a federal judge that "intelligent design" cannot be taught in biology classes in a Pennsylvania public school district has the potential to put the teaching of the Bible back where it belongs in our schools: not in the science laboratory, but in its proper historical and literary context. An elective, nonsectarian high school Bible class would allow students to explore one of the most influential books of all time and would do so in a manner that clearly falls within Supreme Court rulings.

In the landmark 1963 Abington case (which also involved Pennsylvania public schools), the Supreme Court outlawed reading the Bible as part of morning prayers but left the door open for studying the Bible. Writing for the 8-1 majority, Justice Thomas Clark stated that the Bible is "worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities," and added, "Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment."

Though the far right may complain that this academic approach to teaching the Bible locks God out of the classroom, and the far left may complain that it sneaks God in, the vast majority of Americans would embrace it. But the devil, as some might say, is in the details. School board officials in Odessa, Tex., for example, have been embroiled in a running controversy over their choice of a curriculum for an elective high school Bible class. While the board's choice is now between two competing curriculums, pressure from civil liberties groups has prompted changes in even the more conservative alternative.

By helping to design an academic course in the Bible, moderates can show that the Bible is not composed entirely of talking points for the religious right. In fact, on a wide range of topics, including respecting the value of other faiths, shielding religion from politics, serving the poor and protecting the environment, the Bible offers powerful arguments in support of moderate and liberal causes.

In the story of David, the ruthless Israelite king who unites the tribes of Israel around 1000 B.C.E. but is rebuked by God when he wants to build a temple, the Bible makes a stirring argument in favor of separating religion and politics, or church and state to use contemporary terms.

In the Book of Isaiah, God embraces the Persian king Cyrus and his respect for different religions, even though Cyrus does not know God's name and does not practice Judaism. By calling Cyrus "the anointed one," or messiah, God signals his tolerance for people who share his moral vision, no matter their nationality or faith.

In the Book of Jonah, God offers a message of forgiveness and tolerance when he denounces his own prophet and spares his former enemies, the Ninevehites, when they repent and turn toward him.

In recent decades, the debate over religion has been characterized as a struggle between two groups that Noah Feldman calls "values evangelicals," like Roy Moore, who placed the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court, and "legal secularists," like Michael Newdow, who attacked the use of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. This debate does not represent reality.

The Fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics, completed in 2004 by the University of Akron, shows that only 12.6 percent of Americans consider themselves "traditionalist evangelical Protestants," which the survey equates with the term "religious right." A mere 10.7 percent of Americans define themselves as "secular" or "atheist, agnostic." The vast majority of Americans are what survey-takers term centrist or modernist in their religious views.

These mainstream believers represent to their religiously liberal and conservative neighbors what independents do to Republicans and Democrats in the political arena. They are the under-discussed "swing voters" in the values debate who, the survey shows, are slightly pro-choice, believe in the death penalty, support stem-cell research and favor gay rights but oppose gay marriage.

Above all, they welcome religion in public life but are turned off by efforts to claim exclusive access to God.

At a time when religion dominates the headlines - from Iraq to terrorism to stem cells - finding a way to educate young people about faith should become a national imperative. Achieving this goal in a legal, nonsectarian manner requires Americans to get over the kitchen-table bromide, "Don't talk about politics and religion in public."

The extremists talk about religion - and spew messages of hate. Religious moderates must denounce this bigotry and reclaim Scripture as the shared document of all. When flamethrowers hold up Scripture and say, "It says this," moderates must hold up the same text say, "Yes, but it also says this." The Bible is simply too important to the history of Western civilization - and to vital to its future - to be ceded to one side in the debate over values.

Bruce Feiler is the author, most recently, of "Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion."

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Mindful Advent

Happy Advent, friends. Here are excerpts from a wonderful sermon last week (by our seminary intern):

I don’t remember much Latin but I do remember that phrase “Veni Vidi Vici” -- I came, I saw, I conquered. I think of it every year when we come to the season of Advent and I try to re-remember what the word “advent” means. It comes from the Latin: Julius’ Caesar’s “veni” (I came) together with the prefix “ad” meaning “to” or “toward.” Thus "advent" means “come to.”

Advent is a season of waiting for Christ’s coming to us. More precisely, it is a season of waiting for the comings of Christ to us.

Julius Caesar came, saw, and conquered – all in past tense. Once. Done. Finished.
Jesus Christ came to us – once long ago as a baby born of Mary;
Jesus Christ continues to come to us daily in the Word of God, in Communion, among our brothers and sisters of faith; and
Jesus Christ will come once again to us in glory.

Advent is a season of waiting for all these comings of Christ.

Not all waiting is the same, however. There’s waiting… and there’s Advent waiting. Waiting is standing in the long snaking line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles on a Friday afternoon. Advent waiting is the 16 year old in that same line, waiting to sign up to take her test for her learner’s permit. She’s waiting, but she’s waiting with something more. She’s waiting with hope, with anticipation, with expectation.

Waiting is lining up behind the ranks of passengers heading out of Boston’s Logan Airport as it seems security ever-so-slowly checks ID’s and carry-on baggage. Advent waiting is the businessman set to fly out on that plane on his home trip, returning to his family after being gone for over a week. He’s waiting, but he’s waiting with something more. He’s waiting with hope, with anticipation, with expectation.

There’s that whole room established for the purpose of waiting at the doctor’s office. Waiting is sitting in one of those upright chairs with a two-year old magazine trying to figure out how many people are ahead of you. Advent waiting is the young couple in that waiting room waiting to see if it’s true – if they are indeed going to have an addition to the family. They’re waiting, but they’re waiting with something more. They’re waiting with hope, with anticipation, with expectation.

There’s waiting…and there’s Advent waiting. Advent waiting is waiting with a twist – with hope; with anticipation; with expectation.

In this Advent season we wait the comings of Christ. How do we wait? Is it true Advent waiting – with hope; with anticipation; with expectation? Or is it with anxiety and frustration and maybe even a little bit of boredom – same old, same old?

We know the story . . . how do we keep the Advent sense of hope and anticipation and expectation – when we know the ending? . . . . it is precisely because we do know the ending that we await with hope and anticipation and expectation. . .
the ending is not the candles or the tree or the poinsettias or the carols . . . the ending is Jesus.

What do we do with ourselves during this period of Advent waiting? Jesus gives three commands. He says, “Beware! Keep alert! Keep awake!” We are to be vigilant and watchful in our Advent waiting. Not looking for signs from above like stars falling or the sun darkening or other such things – not looking for evidence about the timing of Christ’s coming. That is a futile search as our text tells us, for no one knows!

The only hint we get from Scripture is that the time will be soon. How soon is soon? If you have read the Chronicles of Narnia . . . you may remember this conversation between Lucy and Aslan, the lion who is the Christ-figure in the story.
“Do not look so sad,” Aslan says. “We shall meet soon again.”
“Please, Aslan,” said Lucy, “what do you call soon?”
“I call all times soon,” said Aslan; and instantly he was vanished away.

No need to watch the skies. We live in these “soon” times -- now. Christ is here! In Advent we don’t pretend that Christ has not yet come to earth. We don’t pretend not to know the ending. We acknowledge his presence now even as we look to his future coming. And as we look to his future coming, we keep awake. We watch. We keep ourselves alert and aware of God’s presence in the world – Christ who came and Christ who comes.

A former colleague of mine calls this sense of awareness of God “mindfulness" . . .

When the Buddha was asked, “Sir, what do you and your monks practice?” he replied, “We sit, we walk, and we eat.” The questioner continued, “But sir, everyone sits, walks, and eats.” And the Buddha told him, “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.”

Most of us live our lives apart from the present . . . apart from this knowing. We are distracted from the present by memories of the past or by future projects and concerns. When we are mindful, we are truly aware, we are alert, we are watchful, we are fully open to the present. Wherever we go – there we are.

When we are mindful of the comings of Christ, we are awake and alert to the presence of God all around us. We are awake and alert for opportunities to follow Christ who came once as a baby in Bethlehem – calling us to love one another, to offer compassion to others, and to work for justice and peace. When we are mindful of the comings of Christ, we are awake and alert for the coming of Christ to us every day in Scripture, in baptism, in Holy Communion. We live our lives knowing the ending – that wherever we go – there we are – and there God is.