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Archive for February, 2011

I was talking with someone the other day who declared that they felt caged by their rage and resentment.  They expressed a desire to be able to forgive.

Forgiveness is a difficult subject for any of us.  We are challenged to forgive institutions, individuals, ourselves, maybe even God.  Forgiveness can be confused with forgetting.  Most of us feel like forgiving is not our strongest suit.  The reason maybe that forgiveness has often been characterized as something that we do for other people.  This traditional characterization may be where we are hung up.

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki (a bird lover by the way) has a more compelling and even persuasive understanding of forgiveness.  This is fully explained in her book The Fall to Violence:  Original Sin in Relational Theology.      In the work she details three dimensions of forgiveness and two misconceptions:

  • Three dimensions of forgiveness
    • the action of willing well-being
    • the relationship between victim and violator
    • and the courage of knowledge and remembrance
  • Two misconceptions of forgiveness
    • that forgiveness entails feelings of love
    • that forgiveness entails an acceptance of the other person

Suchocki asserts that violence in its lesser and greater forms will demand that the person of faith engage forgiveness.  The lesser forms of violence might be cutting remarks, gossip, or lack of follow through. The greater forms of violence include loss of live or vitality.  Whatever the case, violence, Suchocki says, “…does not end with the completion of its occurrence;  it insinuates itself into the ongoing experience of the victim.  Violation amounts to the robbery of future time by forcing what should be new experiences to conform to the contours of the old.  A person is robbed at gunpoint;  the robbery happens in an instant.  But does it?  Does not the person live and relive the experience of the robbery, repeating the fear and anger in every unguarded moment? ” (147)

Initially the violator is responsible for the violence but who keeps the violence perpetuated?  That is within the mind of the victim.  This does not blame the victim but it does describe the process and trajectory of violence at whatever level. As the victim internalizes the violence, the violator and the victim become one in the same.

Forgiveness invites the victim to come a strength of mind and a freedom to take flight into life.  Forgetting is not an option for those who have experienced violence.  It is, indeed, remembering in a specific way that is an option.  Allowing our experiences of violence to give us a contextualized knowledge is the first step to strength of mind.  For example, someone gossips about us and we find out.  We are hurt. We feel the violent effect and our mind begins to cycle around the infraction against us. In order to stop the cycling we might say something like this….”Ahh.  I have learned something important about my friend.  I will know better how to interact with this person in the future.”  A discovery allows us to have specific knowledge.  This prevents an anxious generalization which might sound like, “You can’t trust anyone anymore!”

The real reason to forgive is so that our mind, heart and self are genuinely open to the new experiences of life which are coming to us all the time.   If our mind is distracted and cycling on previous experiences of violence, we are already missing new life and opportunity.  The real reason to FORGIVE is so that we can really LIVE.

Marjorie also ties forgiveness into sin and transformation in her book’s conclusion…a most interesting read!  A personal note about Suchocki is that I have heard that she allows the birds she cares for to fly free within her home.  A practice that might be symbolic of her argument that we should not cage our life experiences for that is where the greatest violence can happen.

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Sometimes, people say to me “You are charismatic” to which I reply…”Thank you!” or “You are too kind!”.  But after some recent reading, a better reply might be, “Thanks for the warning…I will be careful with you and with all who are around me!”

Have you ever considered the charismatic people in your lives or in the lives of your children or parents?  Perhaps they are people who you adore and follow easily.  Perhaps they are people who persuade you even when you are prepared that you do not want to be persuaded. There is charisma on our children’s playgrounds and at their parties. Perhaps you yourself are charismatic?  Whatever the case, charisma has quite a bit of power and has at least several manifestations.  Charisma can be destructive, i.e. Jim Jones, Adolph Hitler, Ayatollah Khomeini, And Rev. Sun Moon.  Charisma can be ego driven, i.e. Lee Iacocca, Steve Jobs, Edwin Land, Michael Eisner and Donald Burr.  Or charisma can be altruistic, i.e. Mahatma Gandhi, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. (42)

The question for the discerning individual is, When is charisma used well and when is it a misuse of power?   After all charisma can affect our faith.  Appropriately, the Bible spends some time considering charisma and its persuasive or coercive effects upon the faith.

In the Fall 2010 edition of Journal of Religious Leadership, there are two articles that are particularly helpful on the issue of charisma.  The first article “Charismatic Leadership in the Church:  What the Apostle Paul Has to Say to Max Weber” by Rob Muthiah, highlights Weber and Paul as individuals who have both invested heavily in considering charisma while defining the word very differently.

Paul’s Charisma – The Apostle is the first to use the word extensively and Muthiah notes that Paul uses the word 16 times as a “gift of grace from God”.   The word is found only 3 times in more obscure texts and so the New Testament Paul is a primary source.  From Paul, Muthiah identifies seven characteristics of charismata (charismata is the transliterated plural of charisma)

  1. universal – the Spirit universally distributes charismata to all believers
  2. diverse – charisma is diverse and yields a church with people of different functions
  3. united – charisma is united (Paul uses a body image)
  4. communal – charisma does not produce a club but a community of gifted men and women who will be of service to each other and the world.
  5. equal value – various charismata are of equal value – therefore no “particular charisma” may be understood to supersede any others in importance.
  6. eschatological – the outpouring the Spirit and the resulting charismata evidences the coming of the kingdom.
  7. bounded by love – Charisma is characterized by love…agape…not eros or philo necessarily.

Now we put this New Testament/Pauline version of love up against Max Weber’s definition.  “Central to Weber’s understanding of charisma is that it is a form of authority.” (21)  Additionally, charisma is something that only a few have so that some are set apart from others.  It is their duty, in Weber’s opinion, to use charisma, but he does not say how.

This journal issue is helpful because it provides detail that will allow pastoral leaders to think reflectively on their own leadership style and use of charisma.  The temptation to understand charisma as Weber defined it.  This is surely a real temptation for the western mind-set and for the leader that wants to effect change quickly and arrive at goals.   Paul’s understanding of charisma would require that  leaders set themselves at the pace of community which is often evolutionary rather than revolutionary work and can feel very slow.

The next article “Charismatic Leaders as Team Leaders”  by Douglas Tilstra attempts to address this very dilemma.   Citing Weber’s influence and the work of Bernard Bass, Jay Conger and Rabindra Kanungo as leading researchers in charismatic leadership, the article  notes the following challenges for charismatic leaders that would also like to be team leaders:

  1. flawed, self-serving vision vs. clear, common vision (36) – i.e. charisma can lead one to pursue a singular personal interest rather than listening to the community
  2. overestimation of their ability vs. accurate estimation of the limits of their ability and resources (37) –
  3. difficulty  v.s mindful management of subordinates – i.e. they give little attention to organizational details and struggle to manage performance
  4. dysfunctional relationships vs. building relationships – their ego can cause them to manipulate relationships
  5. inappropriate power retention vs. empowering others –
  6. destabilizing tendencies vs. creation of a collaborative climate – this is primarily because constructive criticism  and poor listening skills are associated with charismatic leaders

Quite a list against charisma here but when charisma is good…the effect upon team building can be profound.  The ultimate contrast is between egotistic charismatic leaders and altruistic charismatic leaders.   So, it is important to return to Paul’s understanding of charisma….grounding ourselves in its seven characteristics as listed above.

I have noticed that no one that really works with me calls me charismatic…a church team knows charisma lives in everyone.   Its my prayer that First Presbyterian of  Osawatomie is a charismatic environment for our Creator.

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Corn male flower AKA corn tassel. The stamens ...

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My mother remembers among her childhood memories, a time when her small family farm was anticipating a corn harvest.  The corn was ripe, mature with tassels promising a great yield.  As is the risk in the midwest, about this time, a powerful storm blew up with increasing intensity.  As hail began to patter against the roof and then drive against it, my mother remembers her parents watching the storm through the picture window of their modest farm-house.  With their arms wrapped around the small of each other’s backs, side by side, my mother read her parent’s faces:   worry…then sorrow and slowly….ever so slowly… resolve.

My sense of America and my sense of my own work ethic is grounded in such stories.  It is with a sense of my grandparents humility, creativity and self-reliance that I consider the future of our country.  When I think of my investments (material and immaterial) I think of the promise and vulnerability of their corn.  When I think of life, they remind me there is much that you cannot control.  So human beings need one another for strength at the base of the spine.

Chapter six, “Is Social Security Really Broken”  of Progressive Christian Uniting:  A Different Voice on Faith and Politics was written just as President Bush’s proposal for the privatization of social security was being anticipated.  I have included links at the bottom of this post that might allow individuals to think about social security reform in a more up to date way.

Despite its age, like the other chapters of this book, the in-depth analysis of this chapter can inform our decision-making today.  The central concern of the chapter is the way in which privatization of social security might privilege those who are financially sophisticated.  “But what about the less fortunate citizens, the ones who will need to live on their Social Security checks but who may not know the difference between a stock and a bond?  Is a freedom of choice a blessing for them?” (99).  There is a great deal of work in the chapter to do math on the projections for privatization or the status quo and I am quick to admit the economics is beyond me.

As a pastor and granddaughter of farmers is the way that our country reforms itself according to capitalism as opposed to community.   There is an undercurrent of scarcity amid our abundance.  Like a proverbial pea under the mattress of gratitude, scarcity whispers to us…”there is not enough for all get what you can while you can.”    Such whispering seems likely to break the back of social security which is not the security of some individuals over another but a security for the whole fabric of our society.

Even as I am concerned that the poor at risk in the reforms AND that there is a fearful undercurrent driving reforms, I agree with the authors and am not opposed to “…the restructuring of Social Security in ways that increase participant choices over how they obtain their social-insurance protections.   …Americans have come to expect choices over what they buy and do.  …a structure that offers participant choice may be less rigid and more capable of evolutionary change than one with unitary structure.  ….Alas, the search for more efficient structures usually ignores the economic security of those (usually the poor) who are unfamiliar with the risks and rewards of private investment decisions.” (102).

We in the church have a responsibility to think about social fabric beyond our individualism and even beyond our nuclear family.  (Zech. 7:10 and Amos 2:6-7)  So the security we imagined has been ravaged by economic weathering!  There is an opportunity, with resolve to clean up, dig in and sow a few new ideas remembering that property lines are not as important as good neighbors.

http://www.progressivechristiansuniting.org/Blog/Entries/2009/1/28_Restoring_Dignity:_The_Employee_Free_Choice_Act.html

http://socialsecurity.procon.org/

http://www.socialsecurityreform.org/ (updated as of 16th of February 2011)

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At times, those leaders that facilitate the organization of the church become very concerned about the outcomes (or lack of outcomes) in a local congregation.  It is a spiritual discipline  to remind myself that more interesting than outcomes are the creative efforts of a local congregation.  When local congregations are courageous enough to creatively respond to God and the world…. vitality flows.  The following passage from Bernard Prusak returns me to my joy when I strive to be over-0rganized!

“The emerging church did not stress unchangeability or a fixity of structures positively predetermined by an immutable divine decision.  To the contrary, it was still open-ended, and had to be.  Jesus had chosen the Twelve and had left an emphasis on service or “pro-existence,” but he did not otherwise predetermine the development of his community.  His followers hd to live the he had, with love and creative trust amid the dynamics of mutability and diversity.  Open to God’s universal presence, the early communities were tentative, provisional, and free to experiment in regard to their order and structure, and in relation to the particularities of various moments and contexts.  That was reflected in the diversity of their theological and structural expressions.  It seems that God chose to depend on human freedom and creativity, as moved by the Spirit, to contribute to the “becoming” of the Church. (pg. 56 of The Church Unfinished:  Ecclesiology Through the Centuries Bernard P. Prusak)

May God bless the mess and the organic order that emerges!

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BTW – for the challenge read the end of this blog first!:)

Valentine’s Day originates when a priest refuses to abide by a ban on marriage.  The ban on marriage was issued for soldiers in the Roman empire.  The thought was the marriage made soldiers “soft” and a more aggressive soldier could be produced if they were not distracted by romantic love. The priest married soldiers in secret and defied the emperor’s edict. The priest accommodated an early stage of love (romantic) and engaged a more complex sort of love (challenging oppressive power).  For a more detailed history of Valentine’s Day, click on the following link.   http://www.theholidayspot.com/valentine/history_of_valentine.htm

The premise of this blog is that love emerges through various levels of maturity.  Valentine’s Day calls us to honor not only romantic love but the more complex experiences of love that the human being longs to understand. 

Last week I began a sermon series on the Johannine letters of the New Testament.  The first sermon focused on 1 John 1:5-10, 2:15-17.  The congregation and I considered, together, the definitions of love as presented by David H. Kelsey in his book Eccentric Existence:  A Theological Anthropology (vol. 2).  Most ministers attend to the language loss of love’s meaning as it travels from the Greek text to the English language.  It is not uncommon to hear ministers parse the english “love” into the greek words phileo, agape, and eros. 

Kelsey summarizes the New Testament’s employment of the various Greek words for our English love:

  • the majority of references to love within the New Testament are the greek term, agape (as verb and noun)
  • about dozen references within the New Testament utilize the Greek word, phileo 
  • while no references within the New Testament contain the Greek word, eros

He then defines the three words so that we can hone in on the experience of love that is most relevant for our faith. 

Eros is defined (using non-biblical Greek texts) as “…a desiring love that is grounded in some lack or need and perceives its object to be desirable because it can satisfy the need” (733).     So, in other words…this is the Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger moment….”You complete me!”.  When we human beings look at an object and understand that it will fill us up…we are engaging love as eros.  And our New Testament does not reference this kind of love.

Phileo is defined as the love between brothers and sisters and within the New Testament this is nuanced to include brothers and sisters in the faith. “Outside the New Testament, philanthropia generally means love for humankind or lovingkindness either by a ruler or deity” (734).  This is a love bestowed in order to remedy or fix a feeling or situation.  The New Testament references this only a few times. 

Agape, however, carries the majority of New Testament references but very few references to it in “non-Christian Greek inscriptions and texts”(734).  Kelsey then notes that agape is used in such a wide variety of contexts that one might be lead to believe that its definition might be vague…however the word agape really means something very specific.  Let’s take it step by step:

  1. Agape is God’s love for the creature. 
  2. The creature is not God
  3. Therefore, agape is a love that the Creator has for the Created. 
  4. The created person or thing may fall short of th expectations that the Creator has for him or her…but the Creator still loves (agape). 
  5. The loving that is done ( despite the Creator’s expectations or imagination being unmet) is for the purpose of keeping the Creator and the creature in relationship.

Now, let’s try to apply agape to the human experience.

  1. We human beings are created in God’s image
  2. We are therefore co-creators with God of our relationships and circumstances.
  3. The  relationships and circumstances of  our lives are often less than what we imagined they would be.
    • Often relationships and circumstances fall short of a “brotherly or sisterly love” or they cannot be “fixed” by a brotherly or sisterly love.  (phileo)
    • Often our relationships and circumstances cannot “fill us up” or satisfy us as we thought they might. (eros)
  4. When our created relationships and circumstances are less than we thought they would be we are offered a choice.
    • we can disconnect from relationships or circumstances
    • We can engage agape and be reconciled to the very thing that seems so different from our goals, expectations and hopes. 
  5. Agape opportunities arise not when life and relationships are good….Agape arrives as  a God-given tool when times are difficult and relationships and circumstances fall short of our anticipated mark.

Agape is not eros and phileo…though we have plenty of eros and phileo experiences in our life.  Agape is the sort of love that we are invited to exercise.  We might know we are receiving an agape invitation when we are faced with people and circumstances who hassle us.   Then for whatever reason, we begin to realize that the hassle is a more unavoidable challenges that requires our response.  The challenge and the person who embodies the challenge eventually morphs into a messenger for our life and faith. Because of the tenacity of the situation, a person of faith might assume divine initiative.   It is our response will determine if we are able to receive the God-given message. 

Agape is a method to love our way through an agitating message so that our life and faith might be enriched.  Agape can be avoided…but the human being who avoids it will survive in a diminished state.

On Valentine’s Day we are not just to celebrate the romantic love that a saint facilitated.  We are to celebrate the more radical agape as we remember the saint who engaged and challenged an emperor.  As we rise up and lovingly engage life’s contrasts ….process theology would remind us that in so doing we might experience a deeper sense of harmony with our Creator….who loves us.

Be Saint Valentine to the one who is a thorn in your side!  And let God receive a valentine…agape style!

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Have you ever found the Apostle Paul confusing? It may be because there are different dimensions of the Apostle.  In a collaborative effort, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg have authored The First PaulThis book argues that Paul was a radical apostle who was subsequently suppressed by the church.  They parse Paul according to scholarly consensus that there are genuine Pauline letters, letters from the “school of Paul” and disputed letters. 

As you may know, the Apostle Paul is a primary subject from the Book of Acts, but his authorship is in the epistles of the New Testament.  He is the undisputed author of seven of the New Testament letters:   1 Thessalonians, Galatians,  1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians (sections of), Philippians, Philemon, Romans.  His ministry and theology influence the books of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus.  These are  otherwise known as the pastoral letters of Paul likely written by someone influenced by Paul.  While the books of Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians are post-Paul entirely.  These are also known as the disputed letters.  

Borg and Crossan describe the Paul of the seven genuine letters as “The Radical Paul”.  The Paul of the three pastoral letters is for Borg and Crossan “The Reactionary Paul”.  And the Paul represented in the disputed letters, they suggest is “The Conservative Paul”.

This may be a very helpful book as one tries to reconcile the teachers of Paul in the local congregation.  Our Adult Sunday School class will be considering this book as we move through Lent and approach the radical truth of Easter!

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When I was a little girl, my dad built a sauna in our basement.  When I asked what it was for, he replied, “It’s  for health Leslie.  Always remember that in as much as you need to drink and eat and consume… you need to sweat-it-out in life too.”  

The most recent chapter, “Responding to Sweatshops”  from Progressive Christians Uniting:  A Different Voice for Faith and Politics, definitely caused my mind to wander and wonder about sweating, our national work environments and our global community.

I appreciated the authors historical explanation of the rise of sweatshops and how the unregulated global economy contributes to the rise of sweatshops in under-developed countries as Transnational Corporations try to compete and provide products at ever decreasing prices.    

When did it become appropriate or exciting to get something for nothing?  The deal at the mall or grocery store or restaurant is often a part of our cell phone conversations.  We declare victoriously that an item or experience only cost a fraction of what it might have to full price.  We tell our friends and neighbors to hurry to grab up the deal.  Let the consuming games begin!  For example, we bargain shop beyond the capacity of our dresser drawers or ability keep up with the laundry.  We purchase food items on sale and our homes are stockpiled even when we head out the door to eat at a local restaurant.  I want to submit that this consumption game plays us as  fools  primarily because the deals that we discover are not just deals in and of themselves.  The deals require that someone else  paid the cost difference.  Sweatshops are one such place where the deal we enjoy is actually at the cost of the under-paid and exploited worker.  The transnational corporations mediate this for us and demand the sacrifice.  We can only imagine the reality.

We might be tempted to imagine that these workers are enjoying a better life even if they are drawing a lesser wage than us.  We might imagine that hardship is part of the cost for making entry into this country or that individuals must pay dues when they are under-educated or otherwise unprepared for life.  Our imagination can always get us off the hook.  But there is responsible imagination as well.  Responsible or God-given imagination is not built to get us off the hook is fundamentally personal and honest…not just fanciful in order to make our life easier.   A sauna-like imagination builds and enriches our faith. 

As Christians, when we take seriously the scriptural challenge to consider the fate of others, i.e. we are our brothers and sisters keepers, then we exercise our imagination beyond fanciful retreat.  We might ask a question.  Would it be okay with us if our daughters and sons had to work in sweatshop environments?  A Godgiven imagination would cry out, “No!” Our children are precious and what they produce is worth something. 

It is then that we must acknowledge that we are not just consumers, we are also producers.   Very few of us would feel excited about someone else receiving our service or product at its cheapest or for nothing.  How would we feel if our services were valued for so little?  Would we put up with it?  Would we have a choice?  When considering another human being, I think our faith requires that we imagine them in our shoes and us in theirs as Jesus did.     

There is a more convoluted issue here.  When we consider sweatshops and their injustice.  We might do well to consider an opposite sort of work environment.  And then wonder….if some people are sweating too much could it because others of us are not sweating enough?  Shouldn’t all work environments have some level of sweat and self-sacrifice?   

 Across America there are, indeed, more luxurious work conditions than those found in sweatshops.  There are job descriptions, water coolers, benefit packages, reasonable challenges, collaboration, office parties etc.  Even within these work environments it is common that workers are concerned about fairness of their circumstances and whether or not the corporation is providing enough to employees.  But by world standards this is somewhat laughable.  I think in such concern there is the whisper of a more fundamental issue that needs to be addressed as we consider the loss of jobs and vitality of small businesses and even corporations.  There is a fundamental issue that needs to be sweated through.  A genuine sweating is required between workers and employers so that no one is derailed into simply competing for individual gain.  Rather what is needed is a sort of opportunity to sauna for the vitality of corporations and businesses that strengthen society.  

How is it that the employer and worker stop competing for rights, privileges or entitlements within the workplace and move toward a shared passion for the vitality of the workplace?   How is it that there is increased understanding that the work place has the potential to strengthen the social fabric of a local or global society?

Though it is not the author’s point, my mind has wandered. 

The reality of sweatshops cannot be fully addressed until one of its undercurrents is addressed.  That is, the entitlement and excess enjoyed by some North American workers that seems like an unbridled horse which drives companies employment practices. The fear of the unbridled horse causes corporations to over bridle others i.e. sweatshops in global setting with few employment rules. 

Until North American work environments reconcile their disparate parts… that is the competition between companies and the individuals they employ, there is little hope for a greater vision that could eliminate the depravity of situations like sweatshops. 

What is required are creative ways to redress  the North American worker’s tendency (this includes everyone at all levels of employment) to pursue ever-increasing individual benefits.  Part of this correction surely includes ways for individual workers to understand the thrill of life is not in how much can we get with minimal effort or cost to the self.  Rather the correction comes as individuals experience the true thrill and even happiness that comes with sitting in the sauna that demands appropriate self-sacrifice within an enriching and empowering work environment.  Until we have redressed the situation,  the majority will imagine that its okay that someone else make their living by slaving away in a sweatshop.

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