Archive for May, 2009

My Life Is On Display in Them…

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

John 17:6-19
May 24, 2009
Mary Hammond

Inheriting a name can be serious business. Today, many couples who marry go through a big quandry about what to do with their last names. Should they adopt the husband’s name as the family name–the traditional response? I did that 34 years ago today. At the time, I was so glad to stop pronouncing, spelling, and explaining the nationality of my Finnish last name. Should couples keep their own names, hyphenate their names, or combine syllables? Some we know create a new name entirely, as Rachael Wylie and David Reese recently did when they became Rachael and David Weasley.

What does a name mean, though? If you are a Kennedy (I date myself with my examples here), it may mean that you have power and influence by virtue of your family heritage, or that you might have a better crack at making it in politics due to both name recognition and inherent connections. If you are a Presley, you might stay in the media spotlight just because your father is Elvis. You might even be known just by a first name–like Princess Diana or Prince Charles. Diana what? Charles what?

If we bear the name “Christian,” we have another name to live up to and into. What does it mean for us to claim this ‘family name’ as our own?

In the extended prayer discourse recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus lifts before the throne of grace those who will remain after his death, those who will bear his ‘family name’ in the generations to come. He claims these followers as ‘kin,’ and he turns the family inheritance over to them.

Today, we are exploring only part of this much longer prayer in the Gospel of John. We are party to the intimate relationship Jesus experienced with the God he called Abba, a name whose endearing closeness is better translated “daddy” than “Father.” Like the disciples of old, we are ‘listening in’ on this prayer for both them and us.

What does Jesus pray for? What are his heart yearnings for those friends and followers who traveled with him, whom he taught, loved, and argued with for three years? In our passage for today, Jesus gives them three charges and has three expectations that speak so fully to our setting and celebration this graduation weekend.

First, the three charges: Jesus calls his followers to unity with their fellow pilgrims, to a oneness akin to that which he experiences with God. That’s a tall order, especially as we look around 2,000 years later and see a church fractured, divided, parceled out in its own fiefdoms, sometimes incapable even of dialogue, what alone unity. I guess that prayer hasn’t been answered yet. Nevertheless, it is a yearning and vision of Jesus’ heart, and he prays that his disciples will commit their lives to this cause.

Secondly, Jesus charges his followers neither to define themselves by the world nor to join in the world’s ways. This, too, is a tall order, because the disciples aren’t taken out of the world but left right smack dab in the middle of it. The temptation to place a myriad of tantalizing options before God’s Reign can be very subtle. One of Oberlin’s great temptations is incessant activity, no quietness and space for the listening heart to stop and hear rather than “do, do, do.” Endless preoccupations, multiple distractions, and simple inattentiveness to the ways of the Spirit can derail us; never mind the more obvious temptations catalogued so often in the scriptures. Jesus charges us to remain vigilant and attentive.

The third charge is to pick up Christ’s mission and continue it in his absence. Another tall order. What is that mission? [Congregational reflection]. To offer healing, welcome, prayer, and service, especially– but not exclusively–to the least of these. To proclaim the Reign of God and share that vision with others. To discover one’s spiritual gifts and use them faithfully. To find one’s place in the community of faith. To cultivate a grateful heart.

There are some expectations that come with these charges, this passing of the inheritance from one generation to the next. The first of these is beautiful, gentle, and lovely–that Jesus’ disciples will complete his joy! Imagine that! Completing the joy of God! I don’t reflect enough on God’s pure delight in relating intimately with me–it’s too easy to focus on my own inadequacies in relating to God. As my Spiritual Director would say, “That is ego talking.” Consider the joy and delight of God in loving us, my friends! Feast on this!

The next expectation is not for the faint of heart. Jesus indicates that the world will hate his disciples for not following its ways. While this hatred is not something I’ve experienced very often in my adult life, I am well aware of the many brothers and sisters in the faith who have been maligned, imprisoned, tortured, and killed over the centuries. We should not be surprised when we face persecution, whether in subtle or overt forms.

Finally, with Jesus gone, his followers will be on display for the whole world to see. We will be the standard for and against which people will judge the credibility of the claims of Christ.

We are facing in our nation and world a gaping credibility gap between religious faith, of all kinds, and compassionate, inclusive, loving practice. Recent studies by the noted Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life indicate that the more religious a person is, the more likely that person supports the use of torture on behalf of national security. The less religious a person is, the more likely that person sees torture as a moral issue that is non-negotiable.

How twisted and tragic is this? If we start with the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” torture doesn’t pass the Golden Rule test. If we move to the two greatest commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” torture doesn’t pass the Great Commandments test. If we compare torture to the manifesto of virtues found in the beatitudes located in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, torture doesn’t pass that test either.

These are times of great peril for the Church and for religious faith in general. We must raise a clear voice that represents the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth well. To be true to the One who leaves us here to represent his name, we can accept no other call.

Wherever you are, wherever you go, take the vision you have received at this church and run with it. Do not, I beg you, do not hide it under a bushel. If you leave Oberlin, don’t be tempted to search for “the perfect church” and opt out of church altogether if you can’t find it.

Years ago, we visited married alums who were very active at the church while students. The wife confessed, “I realized how little we have practiced our faith at home when we all were invited out to dinner and our hosts said, ‘Now we will say grace,’ and our 9-year old son said to them, ‘What is grace?’”

As she and I talked, it became clear that this couple had never settled into another church after their experience here in Oberlin. “Why?” I asked her. “We just couldn’t ever find anything like First Baptist” (the previous name of Peace Community Church). I was horrified to think that these beloved alums, in the pursuit of a replica of this place, had not raised their children in the life of faith nor had they nurtured themselves spiritually for many years.

My heart yearning and prayer is that each and every person who comes through this place will catch a vision for the church that will fuel and flame their passion, give them a reason to stay involved, and give them a hope that the body of Christ can indeed be ‘Christ present in the world today.’

With new urgency, this couple began looking again for a church home, found a good place, and did, indeed, become involved there. But this story is frightfully repeated again and again, I say with sadness in my heart. We dare not leave our light under a bushel.

On the other hand, for those who stay here, I urge you not to let rich, deep Christian community substitute for strengthening your own personal relationship with Christ. You need both. We all need both.

These are perilous days, and it is our charge in Christ’s prayer that we continue this journey we have begun. We must water the seed that Christ has so lovingly planted within us. We must honestly and boldly struggle with our faith questions, put them out on the table, share them with others, pray through them, and wait with them in patience and care. Sometimes–not always, but sometimes–we need to leave them in God’s hands, consign them to mystery, and just keep moving.

Recently, Steve and I were invited to share about our faith at the Atheism/Agnosticism EXCO Class on campus. I knew the drill about the usual criticisms of Christianity—the problem of suffering; religious violence; questions of rationalism, scientific inquiry, and faith. Regarding the problem of suffering, I can only go back to the Hebrew scripture story of Job. With Job, I consign much to mystery while proclaiming the importance of faithfulness in the midst of the Dark Night of the Soul.

We need the strength of Job, the suffering saint; the courage of Mary, the mother of Jesus; the tenacity of Paul, the traveling apostle; but most of all–we need the voice, conviction, and faithfulness of our own unique selves–of Danielle and Linden, of Jesse and Steve, of Brenton, Emily, and Anna-Claire–of each one of us here.

After we receive the offering, Steve and I invite the graduates to come and stand with us as the congregation recognizes your diligent efforts and persistent pursuit of knowledge. We will send you off with our love and prayers, and fortunately–this year–not far at all, as everyone is staying in Oberlin for this summer or coming back in the fall. We join Jesus today in praying for you…

A Faith for the Nones–From the Washington Post

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

What are your reactions to this article? What do you think it says to us about how we do church?

A Faith for The Nones
The Right Kind of Religion Would Bring the Young Back

By Michael Gerson
Friday, May 8, 2009

There is a book that everyone will be talking about — when it appears over a year from now. “American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives,” being written by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, is already creating a buzz. Putnam, the author of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” is the preeminent academic expert on American civic life. Campbell is his rising heir. And the book they haven’t yet finished will make just about everyone constructively uncomfortable.

At a recent conference of journalists organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Putnam outlined the conclusions of “American Grace,” based on research still being sifted and refined. Against the expectations of hard-core secularists, Putnam asserts, “religious Americans are nicer, happier and better citizens.” They are more generous with their time and money, not only in giving to religious causes but to secular ones. They join more voluntary associations, attend more public meetings, even let people cut in line in front of them more readily. Religious Americans are three to four times more socially engaged than the unaffiliated. Ned Flanders is a better neighbor.

Against the expectations of many religious believers, this dynamic has little to do with the content of belief. Theology is not the predictor of civic behavior; being part of a community is. People become social joiners and contributors when they have friends who pierce their isolation and invite their participation. And religious friends, says Putnam, are “more powerful, supercharged friends.”

Yet this kind of religious affiliation has declined among many since World War II, especially among the young. The change was not gradual or linear. It arrived, according to Putnam, in “one shock and two aftershocks.”

The shock came in the 1960s. As conservatives have asserted, the philosophy of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is an alternative to religious affiliation (though some of the rocking religious would dispute the musical part). Baby boomers were far less religious than their parents were at the same age — the probable result, says Putnam, of a “very rapid change in morals and customs.”

This retreating tide of committment affected nearly every denomination equally, except that it was less severe among evangelicals. While not dramatically increasing their percentage of the American population, evangelicals did increase their percentage among the religious in America. According to Putnam, religious “entrepreneurs” such as Jerry Falwell organized and channeled the conservative religious reaction against the 1960s into the religious right — the first aftershock.

But this reaction provoked a reaction — the second aftershock. The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: “If this is religion, I’m not interested.” The social views of this younger cohort are not entirely predictable: Both the pro-life and the homosexual-rights movement have made gains. But Americans in their 20s are much more secular than the baby boomers were at the same stage of life. About 30 to 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated (designated “nones,” as opposed to “nuns” — I was initially confused). Putnam calls this “a stunning development.” As many liberals suspected, the religious right was not good for religion.

The result of the shock and aftershocks is polarization. The general level of religiosity in America hasn’t changed much over the years. But, as Putnam says, “more people are very religious and many are not at all.” And these beliefs have become “correlated with partisan politics.” “There are fewer liberals in the pews and fewer unchurched conservatives.”

The political implications are broad. Democrats must galvanize the “nones” while not massively alienating religious voters — which is precisely what candidate Barack Obama accomplished. Republicans must maintain their base in the pew while appealing to the young — a task they have not begun to figure out.

But Putnam regards the growth of the “nones” as a spike, not a permanent trend. The young, in general, are not committed secularists. “They are not in church, but they might be if a church weren’t like the religious right. . . . There are almost certain to be religious entrepreneurs to fill that niche with a moderate evangelical religion, without political overtones.”

In the diverse, fluid market of American religion there may be a demand, in other words, for grace, hope and reconciliation — for a message of compassion and healing that appeals to people of every political background. It would be revolutionary — but it would not be new.

michaelgerson@cfr.org