11 April 2024

And we wonder why church attendance is lower...


The Atlantic reported in 2023 that church attendance in the US is declining because that's "just how American life works in the 21st century." It's true Americans like to be seen as individualists responsible for their own destinies, but that has always been the case. Contrast that with the belief that after WWII, we Americans came to be believe our system is exceptional and we owe the world our leadership, although that has been tempered by recent isolationism. Still, I don't think isolationism is what is impacting church attendance. Covid had a catastrophic effect on attendance, so we must keep trying to get back to where we were back in 2019.

We churchgoing Christians certainly need to look inwardly, as well. Just as Christmas has taken on a materialistic life of its own regardless of its religious origins, churches have allowed the commandment to love our neighbors to be eroded by the desire for secular accomplishment. The kids participate in multiple activities and the adults are in constant contact with their work lives. Partisan politics infects all levels of community involvement. IT's hard to make time for church.

Adults have failed to instill a sense of mature moderation in our kids. I believe I am supportive of diverse gender identities and lifestyles, but we should push back a little when a person's only objective seems to be to support a fluid sequence of lifestyle choices. OK, so let's say a person spends a couple years, 24/7, proving it's OK to be queer ... now what? The person still has gifts that can be used to meet meets needs the person discerns. No one can fix everything, but it's always possible to find something that can be fixed.

Some people don't feel accepted at church, and that's painful. Churches need to start from a position of inclusiveness and acceptance. There is little Scriptural support for the notion that Jesus taught we should hate trans people in 2024. Individual members of churches need to get on board with the communal starting point of inclusiveness, and there is Scriptural support for that.

Sometimes, an individual encounters, at church, political and social perspectives that can't be reconciled. Churches need to do the best they can to publicize their positions so frustrated Christians can find a new church home rather than to stop attending.

Christians need to evangelize, not by Bible-thumping, but by doing God's work in the world. If I hide in my pew and don't use my gifts to help others, then that makes for a pretty boring religion.

If my clergy and hierarchical leadership have acted sinfully but are accountable only to civil courts, then I need to push for more accountability. If my church supports excommunication and the invalidation of baptisms, then I need to vocalize the lack of Scriptural support. Certainly, some people commit evils that are hard to redeem in civilized society, but there is no commandment that says, "Love my neighbor unless I decide the neighbor doesn't deserve my love." If my church assigns a different value to a fetus, the mother and the father, I have to realize those value judgments will push people away.

Churches communities are a rare sort of environment in which the successful can sit next to the up-and-coming, and help each other out.

29 March 2024

Aunt Marie will be shown the way


My Aunt Marie passed away two days ago. Because that was the Wednesday of Holy Week, Marie must wait until Tuesday for her funeral. Of course, this is a path we will all travel.

But it occurs to me that Marie has received an amazing gift. In between her passing and her funeral, we will commemorate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.

As I write this, I have just returned from a Good Friday service at which we remembered the death of Jesus as the apostles and disciples looked on. They followers of Jesus then locked their doors with only faith and hope in something almost beyond belief.

Now in 2024, on Sunday we will be reminded of how the faith and hope of Jesus' followers was rewarded. Of course, in these crazy modern times, a lot can happen in two days. Come next Tuesday, will the Holy Spirit assure me that the risen Jesus found the path and showed Marie the way? Do my faith and hope really satisfy me today?

But wait, I have more than faith and hope. 1 Corinthians 13 tells me I also have the surpassing love of God (and the love of Aunt Marie, for that matter). "And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love." I believe Marie is gonna make it!

Risen, indeed.

18 March 2024

Anointing, theophany and fulfillment, oh my!


God privately told Samuel, the revered nazirite priest, that David is the one to anoint as the future king. "The Lord said, 'Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.' (1 Sam 16:12). Admittedly, this is not a glorious theophany, but it is presented as a direct communication from God. David had been tending to the sheep (in the wilderness). Samuel then anointed David. "Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward." (1 Sam 16:13). David is revered as the greatest king, with whom God makes a covenant to continue David's line. This "Davidic covenant" is the beginning of the hope for a messiah. "Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever." (2 Sam 7:16).

Isaiah refers back to this anointing and life of David. "A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." (Is 40.3).

At the beginning of Jesus' ministry on earth, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and a theophany occurred. "Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?' But Jesus answered him, 'Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.' Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'" (Mt 13-17).

Many New Testament verses point back to prior Scripture. The Jesus story in general is a Creation story, and Jesus fulfilled the messianic, Davidic covenant. So, when something really important happens, I wonder what old pattern is being repeated, or as we Christians like to say, "fulfilled".

After Jesus' entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday, as we call it today), Jewish leaders were hatching plots against Jesus, and Jesus' followers were nervous. As Jesus spoke to his followers, a theophany occurred, "'Father, glorify your name.' Then a voice came from heaven, 'I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.' The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, 'An angel has spoken to him.'" (Jn 20:28-29).

A theophany occurred, unaccompanied by an anointing by a human. When God promised to glorify God's name, the glorification would occur by exposing the divine nature of Jesus through the upcoming resurrection. Episcopalians accept two two dogmas: "the doctrine of the Holy Triadic Unity as the proper doctrine of God, and the doctrine of two natures in one hypostasis of our Lord Jesus Christ." [Education for Ministry, Reading and Reflection Guide, 2023-24, p.121]. Therefore, I am looking for the anointing of the divine nature of Jesus. John the B anointed the human nature of Jesus. While one could argue that God is monotheistic and John's one anointing is enough, I argue that the Holy Triadic Unity is pretty mysterious, and that it's reasonable to look for a second anointing.

My opinion is that this anointing happened at the empty tomb and immediately afterwards. Consider that it is well accepted that the ascension of Jesus after the resurrection is a fulfillment of, "The Lord says to my lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.' (Ps 110:1).

I argue that Mary Magdalene fulfilled the following Scripture verses by encountering Jesus and announcing this to the others:

Ps 40:1-3
"I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord."

Ps 40:9
"I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord."

Ps 110:3
"Your people will offer themselves willingly on the day you lead your forces in holy splendor. From the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will come to you."

Here are the relevant Gospel verses:

Mt 28:1,10
"After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. Then Jesus said to them, 'Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.'"

Mk 16:1-2,7
"When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb." They are told, "'But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.'"

Lk 23:55-56, Luke 24:1,8
"The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest."

Jn 20:1-2
"Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, 'They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.'"

No human could physically anoint the divine Jesus, but Mary Magdalene came so close that Jesus denied her. "Jesus said to her, 'Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.'" (Jn 20:17).

As an aside, Jesus later invited Thomas to touch him. I wonder what Mary M would have felt if she had been in that room, having been denied the opportunity to hold Jesus at the tomb, regardless of whatever Jesus meant by ascension.

02 March 2024

Why talk about Mary at all?


What if we didn't know who gave birth to Jesus? Would the Sermon on the Mount be different if Jesus was not born of a virgin? After all, Mary isn't mentioned often; after the crucifixion she gets only a tiny mention in Acts 1.

However, let's look at the way Jesus fulfills Scripture. When Jesus says "destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days" (John 2), he is specifically referring to the exile of the Hebrews from Jerusalem to Babylon (Jeremiah, Isaiah, etc.). The Hebrews, according to these prophets, had fallen away from God, suffered a metaphorical death with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and exile to Babylon, and enjoyed a restoration when allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Note that the events in the exile story parallel events in the Exodus story, and they both refer back to the Genesis 1 creation story. When Jesus is resurrected, we say he has "fulfilled" Scripture, in this case the exile story. Don't get distracted by thinking that Isaiah predicted the crucifixion; Isaiah was writing about the exile of his own time period, 500+ years earlier.

I will get to the "Mary" question; I just wanted to give an example of what I think it means to "fulfill" Scripture.

In Matthew 1, the genealogy of Jesus shows that Jesus is descended from King David, a critical character of the Hebrew Bible, through Joseph the carpenter. In 2 Samuel 7, God makes a covenant with David; the Davidic line will continue. This is the beginning of the belief in a messiah. If Jesus is descended from David, we have the first evidence that Jesus could fulfill the Davidic covenant. It is known to Matthew that Joseph is not the biological father, but from a fulfillment perspective, this is not a showstopper. As far as the canon is concerned, Jesus is a human who can restore the Davidic line.

Where did David come from? In fact, the mother of David is not named in the Hebrew Bible. In 1 Samuel, the barren woman Hannah prays really hard, promises to dedicate any son she might bear to the service of God, and then bears a son, Samuel. Specifically, Samuel is a nazirite who doesn't cut his hair; another nazirite is Samson, remember the importance of Samson's hair? Hannah sings a song in 1 Samuel 2 which begins, "My heart exults in the Lord". Samuel grows up to become the high priest who "anoints" the young David to become the next king.

In Luke 1, Elizabeth is a barren woman who surprisingly conceives and gives birth to a nazirite son, who we know as John the Baptist. Mary is a virgin who conceives through the power of the Holy Spirit and gives birth to Jesus. Mary sings a song in Luke 1 that begins, "My soul magnifies the Lord". Hannah's song is indeed the model for the Magnificat. In the Jesus story, we have a barren woman who conceives, a conception through the Holy Spirit, a song, a nazirite, and genealogical research showing David. Mary helps to show how the Jesus story fulfills the messianic covenant. Without Mary, Elizabeth and John the B, the genealogy is a simple coincidence.

I do not mean to suggest that the Gospelists concocted a story to ensure the fulfillment. Either the Mary/Elizabeth/John connection was learned and then it was up to Matthew to do the genealogical research, or vice versa, and the pieces of the historical puzzle were all in place to show the fulfillment of Scripture. There is no record of how the Gospelists learned the details of Jesus' birth.

Again, Mary's role after the birth of Jesus is rather inconsequential. The same is true for Hannah. Certainly, Mary was tasked with raising the messiah, and the appearance of the young Jesus at the temple (Luke 2) resembles the anointing of the young David (1 Samuel 16), but the Bible doesn't give us many details about the relationship between Mary and Jesus, and Joseph disappears after the Luke 2 event. As a final comment, give Hannah credit; way back in 1 Samuel, she starts the fall of the dominoes that leads to Jesus' fulfillment of the Davidic covenant.

20 February 2024

Where the meek meet the elite

People learn to succeed when they're able to interact with successful people. Diversity on its own does not ensure success, but no one starts out "successful". Everyone should be given a chance to succeed. It's OK to address failure, but don't discriminate against someone who hasn't yet had a chance to succeed.

People tend to live and work with others who are in a similar stage of life, so where can a person just starting to climb the ladder of success interact with successful people?

One of the few environments that welcome people from all walks of life is a place of worship! Are you looking for role models? Go to church, synagogue, mosque, coven, etc. Are you a successful person looking to improve your community? Go to your place of worship and welcome and mentor  others.

08 February 2024

1 Cor 13 - but why love?

Consider 1 Corinthians 13. This is Paul's famous letter describing love. Love is patient, love is kind, you know the drill and you probably chose it for your wedding. Actually, it is well known by us exegesis writers that Paul was not referring to romantic, marital love. Paul wrote to the Christian community in Corinth in response to troubling reports of conflicts within the community. Paul compliments them on their many gifts, but the conflicts must be resolved. Paul tells them they must go beyond their usual gifts of speaking and healing, etc., and use love to fix their problems. Paul proceeds to define what is meant by love.

My intent today is not to dissect each line. My question is, "Why love?" What was it that led Paul to determine that the answer to the conflicts was something called "love"?

Jesus certainly refers to love at times. Jesus says the most important commandments are to love God and love our neighbors (Mt 37 and Mt 39). However, Jesus stops there, apparently assuming everyone knows the definition of love, so why wouldn't Paul just tell the Corinthians to love each other and leave it at that? The Greeks used multiple words that are translated as love, which may explain Jesus' assumption (sort of).

So far, in my journey through the Bible, I have not come across a narrative similar to Paul's description of love. Hosea has a couple interesting but brief comments on love. The Magnificat (which is modeled after Hannah's song in 1 Sam 2) and Beatitudes (and the Sermon on the Mount in general) do not discuss love. The book of Isaiah, with its shocking messianic prophecies, does not predict a messiah who will love us.

Plato argues we must understand the "Form of the Good", through truth goodness and beauty, in order to live a virtuous life. Christians can easily build on that to be faithful in order to find a path to righteousness. But again, why does Paul settle on love? Along with the Magnificat and Beatitudes, 1 Cor 13 is one of the most beautiful bits of prose in the Bible and literature. What is the root inspiration for choosing to define love?

Have no doubt, I think Paul was right in 1 Cor 13. Paul had achieved a miraculous level of spiritual maturity and gives us most of the New Testament.

At this point in my Bible studies, I think 1 Cor 13 is a new idea by Paul. I will continue to look for examples. Let me know if you find anything.

23 January 2024

How many Christianities?


In "Communications of the ACM" (a periodical for computer industry professionals), in November, 2021, Moshe Y. Vardi commented on the surge in virtual conferences during the height of the COVID pandemic. "Choice is critical to freedom and autonomy," but "we don't seem to be benefitting from it psychologically." Vardi continued: "[the] research publication system conflates research publications with community building."

Trust me, I will get to the Christianity thing. Vardi saw that a lot of thinking was being done while we were all locked up during the pandemic, and then we found conferences could be held online for a fraction of the cost of traditional, in-person conferences. The number of conferences exploded, all competing for attention by splitting research genres into lots of little pieces. Each conference was attempting to "go viral" with some narrowly focused subject matter, hoping to build yet another sub-sub-community.

So then, have we Christians ever wondered if it's good to have a dozen or so big, mainline denominations, and a bazillion small denominations and boutique churches? They're all Christian, and yet, they're all different. The Old Testament presents us with the twelve tribes of Israel, and they couldn't always make that limited number of divisions work peacefully. And then there are the Shiites and Sunnis, let's not even go  there.

Christianity is all about gathering together. We MUST gather together to break bread in remembrance of Jesus. However, most Christians know of Christian places at which they would not be welcomed in the breaking of the bread, and know of Christians with whom they would not want to break bread.

I don't have a solution, but, may God be with you.

And we wonder why church attendance is lower...

  The Atlantic reported in 2023 that church attendance in the US is declining because that's "just how American life works in the ...