Meaning Makers

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It’s kind of striking that in asking and answering the question at the head of these reflections [“What do you make of all this?”] each of us is channeling, more or less unknowingly, a mass of assumptions about anthropology, ontology, teleology, providence and the doctrine of God. And it is for this reason that the other interesting aspect of the question comes into focus. Since these various so-called “intellectual” assumptions are operating as we see and reflect on our experience in the world, they touch rock bottom (an insufficiently foundationalist metaphor to be sure) upon our creatureliness or our made-in-the-image-of-God-ness. Our making meaning or making sense or making something out of a tough situation is an aspect of our participation in the triune God who made us. Making meaning out of our experience, imaginatively looking for links and drawing out significance, brings about newness: a new view of whatever situation, yes, but more than that, a new person, insofar as we are no longer who we were before this experience and act of making meaning, but also a new opportunity for meaning-making for those who interact with our meaning-making (and, depending on the strength or weakness of your Pneumatology, this type of meaning-making could be classed as revelation).

I’ve had a front row seat to this act of making meaning in the midst of our COVID-19 crisis by dialoging with some really faithful and wise Christians, both in my role at the CPT but more generally as I’ve interacted with my Christian community in my home and on Zoom, iMessage, WhatsApp, FaceTime or whatever. The instinct on display in these conversations is to broaden the field of vision, quickly moving to speaking about…

  • the benefits of this situation for families, who sadly don’t get a lot of regular time together, but are now having meals together, learning together through “home schooling”, playing together and worshiping together;

  • or the helpful by-product of being, in some cases, forced to utilize technology for our churches, often causing those previously opposed to streaming and other various approaches to soften a bit, at least as an emergency measure to accommodate Christian worship of some kind;

  • or the joy of realizing that something as routine as going to church each week is indeed, once it’s taken away, a gift to be received rather than simply reducing it to an aspect of routine;

  • or the salutary awareness of the possibility of some kind of national unity as countries work together to contain and prevent the spread of the virus;

  • or – for pastors – some welcome perspective, reacquainting them with the basic elements of their pastoral vocation, weaning them away from the excess that, barnacle-like, attaches to pastoral ministry and church life over time;

We make meaning; that’s what we do as humans.

– Jameson Ross at The Center for Pastor Theologians, “Making Meaning

Jameson Ross is saying that human beings seek patterns and attempt to establish coherence, to make order from chaos. We are map makers. For Christians, our meaning making incorporates elements which are invariably drawn together from our theological convictions, which is why it is so vital for us to have sound and well measured doctrines of God, of anthropology, and other subdisciplines. But meaning making does not operate in isolation. There is also a transformative aspect of this process. As beings situated within history it is not only the events themselves that shape us, but what we make of those events. We narrate, and as we do so, by God’s grace we learn, change and grow.

I pulled this quote primarily for the items Ross chose to bullet, for I think all five observations are accurate and worthy of thought. [Visit the article for his handling of the reflexive (and refining) critiques of these benefits.] Our family is enjoying our time together, the institutions I serve (both church and university) are learning and gaining further expertise in the use of technology, my fellow congregants are expressing love for one another and a longing to be together again, there is a sense among friends that America is a wonderful place to be, and (oh Lord, I hope!) I have pastor friends who are reconnecting with the most essential and vital aspects of pastoral ministry. The showy stuff has been put aside, and we’re being stripped down to extending care, listening, gently and humbly offering the Word, creatively meeting needs, expressing concern for our neighbors (entire communities; not only congregants) and, of greatest importance, I have witnessed a renewed emphasis on prayer.

As for the meaning making I’ve been engaged in, I’ve been reminded that I am very small and the world is a very large, that God is beyond my comprehension (yet God is personal; not beyond knowledge), that life is very fragile, that I am thankful for a place, that I am temporal and daily passing away, death is an enemy, that kindness is paramount, that the fellowship of the saints is a gift, that the gospel is a comfort and a source of power, and…that’s enough for now. Those are just a few.

The Veil

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I wrote these words this morning. On the second Friday of each month I meet with a group of men for the study of Scripture, prayer, and mutual encouragement. These men are my elders, and they have met together for over twenty years. I’ve served this group as part of a teaching rotation since summer 2017, at which time they welcomed me. Today we were unable to gather due to the pandemic, and thus I sent a meditation via email. This is it.

Scripture Reading:

32 As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. 33 They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 34 There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. 35 When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 36 And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. 37 Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.

38 Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

Meditation:

I’ve been slowly reading through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I.1: The Doctrine of the Word of God. Barth was a Swiss Reformed theologian who lived from 1886 to 1968, and he is considered a giant in the history of theology. He was educated by Adolf von Harnack at the University of Berlin and then by Wilhelm Hermann at the University of Tubingen, both leading theologians during their time.
 
Barth later came to reject the form of Protestant liberalism that he was taught by his mentors while pastoring a small church in a village called Safenwil. It was there that Barth wrote his commentary The Epistle to the Romans, which he revised several times. Barth later taught theology in Germany, until he was pushed out by the Nazis, whom he rejected. He was asked to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. He refused.
 
Barth is well known as the primary author of the Barmen Declaration, which, in short, proclaimed that the Church’s highest allegiance was to Jesus Christ; thus Christians should not pledge fealty to the Nazis or other earthly lords. Barth mailed a copy of the Barmen Declaration to Hitler personally.
 
In The Doctrine of the Word of God, Barth describes what he calls “The Speech of God and the Mystery of God.” One of his observations, which has stuck with me, is that Jesus came into the world publicly, and yet not everyone received him the same (this is an observation that preceded Barth in Scripture, but nonetheless, a good reminder!). The Word of God was revealed, and yet not all said, “Oh, here is God!” Even in God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, many where still unable to see what was plainly in front of their face. Barth observes that this has been the case with many events throughout time.
 
Barth says it simply: “The veil is thick.” Barth writes that when God speaks, God acts, and what was concealed is suddenly revealed as “not just His act but His miraculous act, the tearing of an untearably thick veil, i. e., His mystery.”  Barth goes further, saying that those who are able to perceive God’s action and hear God’s speech are enabled to do so by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit’s action that opens our eyes, softens our hearts, and unblocks our ears.
 
Today is Good Friday. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is one that we tell often. If we are preaching the gospel, we should constantly and routinely bring ourselves back to a fresh consideration of what Jesus did in his life, death, and resurrection. We should keep all three in view. But we shouldn’t minimize or ignore or gloss over or neglect the cross. I think we do. We move too quickly past the cross. Why?
 
In the Protestant tradition, at least in more recent years in the North American church, we have often focused on Jesus’ life or his resurrection. We emphasis Jesus’ example and his moral teachings, or we focus on our eternal hope and the gift of eternal life.
 
Too often, we think we’re pretty good people, and Jesus’ teachings can help us be a little better. We like the idea of resurrection and eternal life, because it offers comfort. But the cross is where our sin is dealt with, which means we must think and consider carefully the fact that we are sinners. We must consider how we have failed and rebelled, we must look at the ugliness within. We move too quickly past the cross, for it reminds us not only of the death of Jesus, but what also needs to die in us. It is a horror to behold.
 
We are rightly horrified. But we must look. We must gaze upon the Christ, and consider how in his death what was hidden has now been revealed. We must consider how your sin, my sin our sin, has been dealt with. God’s mystery is ours to contemplate and to enter, to encounter and to behold.
 
In our Scripture reading today, we see that there are some who are plainly unable to see Jesus as he is, as Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior, the Redeemer, and our truest friend. They see Jesus as a threat, a false teacher, a revolutionary, an outsider, even an enemy. The veil is thick. Having rejected Jesus, they nail him to a cross. Jesus is stripped, mocked. He is considered a spectacle. A weirdo. A fool.
 
And yet, there were some who saw something very different, and perhaps the longer they gazed upon Jesus, something more profound began to come into view. They began to perceive that this was no ordinary human being. Yes, he was a human being. There, he bled, he suffered, and he died.
 
And yet! The moment Jesus gives up his spirit (it is Luke who tells us that before Jesus did this, he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” and prior to this, Luke tells us that Jesus prayed to the Father to forgive those who crucified him, “for they know not what they do”), Matthew reports that something incredible happened. The veil in the temple, which separated the temple sanctuary from the Holy of Holies, was torn in two from top to bottom, and that many miraculous signs accompanied this event, including earthquakes and the raising from the dead of “many holy people.”
 
You might have noticed that the first people to proclaim that Jesus was indeed God’s Son were a centurion and others who were overseeing the execution. Outsiders to the Jews; people who were not in the covenant community. Matthew also notes the presence of the women, watching from afar. Some walked away from Golgotha unchanged. But a few wondered, “Did God do something there? I’ve never seen anything like it. Was I seeing God? Who was this Jesus?”
 
Romans 5:8 tells us, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That’s no small claim. Do we give it due consideration? Do we allow it to sink in?
 
On this Good Friday, let’s consider that claim afresh. Let’s behold the mystery. On the cross, Jesus died for us. God, in the flesh, made atonement through sacrifice, he instituted a new covenant in his blood, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). That’s the tearing of a thick veil. Do we see?
 
He has done it. Because Jesus has done it, he is now doing a new thing. In me, in you, and in us. Those who receive Jesus by faith are given the gift of eternal life, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and an imperishable, everlasting hope.
 
There is joy and peace, for in our inmost being, we can know, by God’s grace and with the Spirit’s consolation, that our sins–every last one–have been paid for on the cross. There is power, for as Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
 
Thank God that in and through Jesus salvation has been extended to us as a gift. Don’t rush past Good Friday too quickly. Behold the mystery and the magnificence. Behold the love. And let that love move and melt you, transform and change you. Let the life you now live in the body by one that is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved you and give himself for you, and for us.

Prayer:

Father, I give you thanks that you are a Redeemer, a Savior, a God who rescues us, and who reveals yourself as a self-sacrificing, loving God. Your love for us is beyond measure, and because of this, you are worthy of our adoration and our praise. Help us to live today perceiving you, beholding you, and let us be changed by what we see. Thank you for Jesus, for his cross, for his death, and for the forgiveness of sin that has been extended to us in the new covenant. Help us to live as faithful stewards, as servants in your household, and to honor you with our words, deeds, and dispositions of heart. Give us your peace and your joy, and make us a testimony to your grace. In the strong name of Jesus we ask these things, Amen.

During the Crisis, Establish a Rule

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In 516 A. D., Benedict of Nursia developed a rule of life for monks who were living together in community. It’s known as The Rule of St. Benedict. This idea has been applied to our moment in books like Ken Shigematsu’s God in my Everything and Justin Earley’s The Common Rule.

Our rhythms have been disrupted. We’re out of routine. This presents a chance to evaluate our commitments, to adjust our priorities, and to develop a new structure. Blake Sherman had this to say about utilizing a rule during the pandemic. What practices could you establish? What habits can you build in that could sustain and strengthen your life with God?

Are you structuring your days differently because of the coronavirus? How so? And are you giving attention to how you direct your energies toward your life with God? What are you discovering?

Communion Online?

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For Religion News Service, Jack Jenkins writes, “with churchgoers still holed up in their homes to avoid infection for weeks and even months to come, Christian leaders are starting to ask: Is Communion appropriate for cyberspace?”

Jenkins’ report includes quotations from Christian leaders from a diversity of denominations, and I’ll summarize several of his findings. For Catholics, the doctrine of transubstantiation presents a substantial hurdle. The ELCA discouraged online communion, and is viewing this as a teaching moment about the Lord’s Meal. The PCUSA said no to online communion, and then reversed course, saying yes, since we’re in an “emergency” situation. The United Methodist Church is citing conclusions reached by a 2014 task force who studied this question and recommended communion be observed among a physical, gathered assembly, while now making allowances for regional conferences and their Bishops to observe communion online. Bishop Ken Carter of Florida called this “an extreme situation,” and granted the clergy in his region latitude in meeting pastoral needs.

This weekend my local fellowship, First Methodist Church Waco, is observing communion Sunday. We’ve encouraged our people to prepare, to think forward to Sunday and to gather bread and juice, so that in our homes we might observe the Lord’s Meal together while physically dispersed. As crises tend to do, theological convictions are laid bare. And yet, there is a great deal of framing left. There is a grammar that is yet to be established. We have to explain what we are doing, and why it isn’t ideal, even though it might be the right idea.

When we observe the Lord’s Supper, we do so as the gathered communion of Jesus Christ, remembering the first observance of this ritual on the night that Jesus was betrayed. In that room, there was sorrow and grief and confusion, there was closeness and love and fellowship, there was adoration and reverence and, sadly, betrayal and misunderstanding. There was, we might observe, a crisis. The immediate crisis was that of Jesus’ impending betrayal and death. But the greater crisis, the one preceding the immediate crisis, was that of broken fellowship between God and humanity. God, using a surprising and unconventional means, took on the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and bridged the gap in the breaking of his body and in the pouring out of his blood, all in fulfillment of the Scriptures.

I argue strongly in favor of the Lord’s Supper as an observance that is to be conducted with persons gathered physically as a local fellowship. This belief is grounded in convictions concerning the nature of the church, embodiment, and the importance of public witness. But I also recognize that each time a local fellowship celebrates the meal that Jesus gave us, we also recall that we are gathered as part of a wider fellowship–the company of the called that gives praise and glory to our king across the boundaries of time and space–the church universal.

In “normal times,” whatever those are, I think churches should celebrate the Supper as a gathered local fellowship. That is the ideal. But seeing that the gap between the real and the ideal has widened, we’ll do the best we can with what we have. It should not be lost on us that the fact that many churches are seeking ways to observe communion online is an expression of the reality that we are together seeking God. Perhaps this crisis is revealing to us that the world isn’t quite as disenchanted as we thought, and that God can still be encountered in the breaking of bread and in the sharing of a common cup.

Online Church: It’s the Relationships

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This then is the one thing everyone needs to know about online church: It’s not the technology. It’s the relationships.

[ . . . ]

Today, we tend to think of a building as church. Likewise, people tend to think the online platform is church but neither of these are church. Church is a localized assembly of the people of God, dwelling, with a task.

I was so concerned about this that I listed all of the ways people would confuse technology with online church (i.e., the building for the body). [In SimChurch] I wrote:

It is critical that we do not confuse an online church with, say, a website of a real-world church. An online church is not a website (building or place), a podcast (ritualized institution), or a blog (fellowship or activity). An online church is a place where people professing to have faith in Jesus Christ gather regularly to be in meaningful community appointed to build up the kingdom—or more specifically, an online church is the confessing people gathering in a synthetic world.

When my pastor called to speak to me about online church, this was the advice I offered: Don’t worry about the technology right now (yes, it has to work, and be decent, but most people will understand if it’s not perfect), focus on building connections between people. Focus on making sure people can respond to worship, and respond to each other.

– Douglas Estes, writing for The Center for Pastor Theologians, “The One Things that Makes or Breaks Online Church

The reason that I think my online Sunday school and online teaching experiences have been moderately successful thus far is due to the relationships that were already established prior to the outbreak. The creative challenge before church leaders, I think, is to consider how online technology can deepen existing connections while, secondarily, opening avenues for connection with those who are a new to a particular, localized expression of the body of Christ.

Thanks, H-E-B

Michael Leas, stock controller, store number 351, Edna: My overnight crew, they’re just coming in, and it seems like they’re ready. They just ask me what I need them to do. I haven’t had very many complaints from the guys or anything. It’s been really nice. You can tell that they understand it’s not our fault; this is just something that’s happening.

Craig Boyan: We’re not in a super glamorous job. We have a lot of hard-working people doing hard jobs. But there’s a strong sense of pride at H-E-B. We describe ourselves as a purpose-driven company, and we’re at our best amid times of crisis. There’s a great sense among H-E-B partners that they’re doing what’s needed to take care of Texans, and that keeps the morale very high.

[ . . . ]

Tina James: It’s not lost on us that we are offering an essential public function, and it’s not lost on our partners, either. And they continue to come to work with a very positive attitude, and continue to serve above and beyond even their normal hours. That never ceases to amaze me. We are very fortunate in that H-E-B has a chief medical officer as well as a medical board, so we have resources at our fingertips to offer up medical advice and guidance to our partners. So we play a unique role in our partners’ lives that allows them to have some comfort and calm so they can turn around and take care of our customers.

[ . . . ]

Craig Boyan: The spirit of Texans and their treating H-E-B partners with the respect and pride that they do makes us feel fantastic. I drove by a church the other day in San Antonio that had a sign out front that said ‘Thank an H-E-B checker.” We’ve seen an outpouring of support for our partners and truck drivers that gives us a great sense of pride.

– Dan Solomon and Paula Forbes, in Texas Monthly, “Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic

I don’t often give much thought to how food and other supplies are delivered and then made available by my local grocer. But I’ve been thinking about it more lately.

Thanks, H-E-B.

Lament is an Answer

No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t? Supposing real human wisdom doesn’t mean being able to string together some dodgy speculations and say, “So that’s all right then?” What if, after all, there are moments such as T. S. Eliot recognized in the early 1940s, when the only advice is to wait without hope, because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing?

Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world. It’s bad enough facing a pandemic in New York City or London. What about a crowded refugee camp on a Greek island? What about Gaza? Or South Sudan?

[ . . . ]

It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope. New wisdom for our leaders? Now there’s a thought.

– N. T. Wright, in Time Magazine, “Christianity Offers No Answer About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To

The headline is misleading, as headlines often are, and I doubt (and hope!) that N. T. Wright did not pen it himself. Wright argues that Christians do not have an explanation for the coronavirus, but they do have an answer. That answer is lament.

To offer lament is to cry out in anguish and pain. It is a means of expressing grief, of naming injustice, and declaring one’s suffering. The Bible has countless examples of lament, particularly in the Psalms.

N. T. Wright argues that Enlightenment rationalism is the reason that we long for explanations. I suspect the human proclivity for designating attribution to God or another source is much older than that. For Christian people, our response is to refrain from explanations, and to leverage ancient wisdom. That wisdom is lament, to humble oneself and to confess that there are some things that are beyond comprehension but in need of divine intervention. To lament is to cry out for mercy, and to hope for deliverance.