Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Finding God in the Questions

Chapter 10:  Can We Bet on the Heart of God?

1.  In your opinion, what are the most important character traits one should possess?

2.  Are you surprised by the "omissions" in the parable of final judgment as noted by Johnson?

3.  How could you serve "the least important ones" more than you are now?

4.  Is there anything in your life that seems impossible to release?  Will you consider this important at the end of your life? Will Jesus?  How might you alter your priorities to fit those of Jesus?

5.  Do you think the distinction between "stars" and "servants" in the Philip Yancey excerpt is useful?

6.  What comfort does it give you to know that if you are attempting to follow Jesus, you will be close to his heart and he will be present in your life?

7.  Do you have a sense of fulfillment and contentment about who you are and what you do?  If so, how did you achieve this peace?  If not, how might you gain peace in your present situation?

8.  Many questioned Dr. Albert Schweitzer's decision to give up promising academic and musical careers to study medicine so he could help meet desperate medical needs in Africa.  In what ways could you practically help to meet the needs of those around you?

9.  Because of Schweitzer's example, Johnson has decided to rearrange his life so that he has more time to follow Jesus and give direct service to those in need.  Has the book encouraged you to take similar steps in your life?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Finding God in the Questions

Chapter 9:  Is God in Control?

1.  Has there been a time when you experienced God's providence or design in your life?  What were the events surrounding that situation which suggest it was controlled by some other force than chance or luck?

2.  How could making choices according to the standards suggested by the Sermon on the Mount increase your potential for personal contentment?

3.  Under what circumstances do people claim God is on a particular side?  How or why might God disagree with those claims?

4.  Have you ever wrestled with reconciling the existence of evil in a world created by a good and loving God?  What conclusions or insights did you draw?

5.  What about the world seems unfair to you and "cries out for ultimate justice?"

6.  Johnson says, "There will be an ultimate and cumulative effect from the many choices we make in our lives."  How do the choices you make affect yourself and others around you, if at all?

7.  Do you agree that a world without suffering or death would lead to an increasingly smug humanity without worry or concern?  Why or why not?

8.  What about life after death seems real or unreal to you?  Are there experiences in your life that suggest there might be life after death?

9.  What words would you use to describe God's character?  Have these character traits of God been evident in your life?  How?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Finding God in the Questions

Chapter 8:  How Should Faith Shape Our Lives?

1.  Where in our culture is it easy to place your faith?  Where is it difficult?

2.  Should all of Jesus commands given in the Sermon on the Mount be applied to a modern lifestyle?  Why or why not?  Now might these instructions be applied to our present-day society?

3.  Do Jesus' teachings on murder and divorce differ from traditional understandings of them?  In what ways?

4.  Re-read the excerpt from Scott Peck.  In what areas of your life do you compartmentalize?  How could you realistically integrate the demands of the "real world" and the desire for a conventional lifestyle with the teachings of Jesus?

5.  What are your experiences with climbing the ladder of success?  Do you think Jesus would have done it the same way?

6.  What does Jesus' teaching using the parable of the talents teach us about ordering our priorities?  Which of the servants would you be according to the priorities in your life?

7.  How have your childhood experiences or your personality shaped your beliefs in Jesus?

8.  How have other people in your life influenced you spiritually, either positively or negatively?

9.  How could you practically seek first God's kingdom and righteousness in your life?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Finding God in the Questions

Chapter 7:  Who Was Jesus?

1.  What about the jargon/lingo of Christianity seems confusing or odd to you?

2.  Does the idea of Jesus performing miracles in the Gospels enhance or hinder your faith in him as the Son of God?  How?

3.  How do you respond intellectually or emotionally when hearing the story of Jesus' crucifixion?

4.  Why is it so important to a Christian's faith that Jesus was resurrected from death?  In what ways might the resurrection change your life?

5.  How would you respond to the perspective cited, "If you don't believe in the resurrection, you are not a true believer and certainly not a Christian in any traditional sense?"

6.  Which piece of evidence for Jesus' resurrection, if any, do you find most convincing?

7.  In your mind, what about the church discredits the Jesus of the Gospels and his teachings?

8.  What experiences with the church have led you to or away from following Jesus?

9.  Are you comfortable with Johnson's decision to describe himself as a "follower of Jesus" rather than as a "Christian?"  Which label feels right for you?

10.  How might followers of Jesus mend the negative reputation Christianity has gained?

11.  Jesus told Nicodemus, "No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit."  What does it mean to be born again?  Why did Jesus insist, "You must be born again?"

12.  How do you feel about the N.T. Wright quote in answer to the question, "Is Jesus God?"  Is it as helpful to you as it is to Johnson?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Chapter 6:  What Did Jesus Teach?

1.  Imagine that you are sitting on the side of a hill and listening to Jesus in person.  What questions or responses might you have about Jesus?

2.  What is your impression of Jesus?  What experiences or people shaped this impression in your mind?  How might this be different from the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels?

3.  What prejudices about Jesus, the Gospels or religion keep people from exploring Christianity?

4.  What is most surprising to you about Jesus' teachings mentioned in the chapter?  What about this teaching seems startling?

5.  Why do you think teaching on certain subjects (like abortion or homosexuality) is not found in the Gospels?

6.  Think of a time when you viewed yourself as impure or unacceptable.  What made you feel that way?  How might Jesus respond?

7.  Jesus warned his followers about the foolishness and futility of acquiring wealth for its own sake.  Do you agree with Jesus' teaching on money and possessions?  Is it realistic?  Why or why not?  What makes his teachings so hard to follow?

8.  Johnson states, "Jesus had a startling way of zeroing in on the sore spot, the hidden problem that was keeping a person from truly seeking God."  If you were to encounter Jesus on the side of the road, what would be the "sore spot" he might focus on in your life?

9.  Considering the story of Zacchaeus, what might Jesus expect you to do in order to receive "salvation" and remedy that troubled area in your life?

10.  Which character do you identify with in the story of the prodigal son?  Why do you picture yourself in that role?  What does the parable say about God's love for this particular character?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Finding God in the Questions

Chapter 5:  Why Bother with Religion and the Bible?

1.  Do you think that it's worthwhile to think about and discuss religion?  Do you think that religion could change your life?  In your view, what are the best reasons for paying attention to religion?

2.  What kind of impact, both positive and negative, has religion had on the world?  What effects has religion had on your life so far?

3.  As Johnson notes, the Bible is central to the Christian faith.  What role has the Bible played in your life up to this point?  In what way is the New Testament relevant to your life now?

4.  When speaking about the Bible, Johnson advises us "not to take particular passages out of context."  Why is this so important?

5.  What is special about Jesus' life and teachings that help us understand the whole Bible?

6.  What are signs that the New Testament is a dependable source for what Jesus actually spoke and did?

7.  What similarities and differences do you see from Johnson's short summaries of each of the four Gospels, especially regarding who Jesus is?

8.  In his discussion of the Gospels and the teachings of Jesus, Johnson says, "His parables and life experiences often speak to universal questions and longings that transcend the particular concerns of his own time."  How might Jesus' words and life apply to your own "big questions" of today?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Finding God in the Questions

Chapter 4:  Who Are We?

1.  Johnson says that even if we think that moral principles came about because of a kind of social selection, the existence of God could still be the ultimate source of morality.  How is this possible?

2.  Do you think it is reasonable to claim that all moral principles came about because they are useful and advance the comfort of the human race?  Why or why not?

3.  Describe a time that you experienced the "inner light" that Johnson describes on page 64...a time when you specifically referenced a higher moral principle.

4.  Which do you think is more likely, that our universal moral principles come from the existence of God, or as a result of social evolution?

5.  Are you convinced by Johnson's arguments that there is a God of creation, and how does this idea of the creator God affect your idea of the God of religion?

6.  What does our deep need for morality, relationships and contact with something (or someone) transcendent tell us about our place in the universe?

7.  Have you ever had an experience in which you seemed to be in contact with a transcendent entity?  How did this experience influence your spiritual journey?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Finding God in the Questions

Chapter 3:  How Did We Get Here?

1.  Have you ever had experiences in which God seemed to be speaking to you through nature, mathematics, science, music or art?  How did these experiences affect your belief in God?

2.  Johnson describes various "cosmic coincidences" that are particular conditions required for the existence of life.  Do you think that all of these special circumstances could be the result of chance?  Why or why not?

3.  Johnson points out the complex interactions in our environment that support life, and how water, light, carbon and oxygen all have structures that specifically allow for human existence.  In addition, DNA is unique in its ability to replicate human life.  What might this tell us about the existence of God and humans' place in the universe?

4.  Johnson postulates that perhaps the fact that you are thinking right now about the origin of the universe suggests the existence of a divine Mind behind it all.  The ability to reason and wonder about grand matters like this goes beyond our need to physically survive.  Do you think the similarity between the order in your mind and the order in the universe suggests the existence of God?

5.  Do you think that nature alone gives enough evidence for the existence of a creator God, or are more signs needed?

6.  What things in nature do you personally observe that suggest they came from one source?

7.  Do signs of intelligent design in the universe affect how you live your life?  How so?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Finding God in the Questions

Chapter 2: Is the Universe an Accident?

1.  Have you ever had an experience that made you marvel in wonder and awe at the beauty and vastness of the universe?

2.  The first section of the book deals with the question of whether the universe was more likely made by a "creator God" or the result of alone.  Why do you think Johnson chose to tackle this question first?  Have questions concerning the beginning of the world ever been an obstacle to belief in your own life?  How so?

3.  In this chapter, Johnson discusses why he thinks the universe was made by an "intelligent" creator.  What are your own thoughts in response to this claim?

4.  Which, if any, of the scientific discoveries Johnson discusses do you consider to be a persuasive pointer to the existence of a creator God?

5.  What do you think about Johnson's arguments against the position that the world came to exist entirely by chance?

6.  Do you agree that the issue of how life came from dead chemicals and materials is "the most unfathomable phenomenon of all?"  Can Darwinian science (and science in general) adequately account for this reality?

7.  The concept of natural selection might seem to many people like a roadblock to belief in an intelligent designer behind the universe; however, Johnson does not view natural selection as an obstacle.  How might natural selection be a part of a universe designed by God rather than one run entirely by chance?

8.  How can science support and enrich a person's belief in a creator God?  What role has scientific knowledge played in your own spiritual journey?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Finding God in the Questions

Chapter 1:  Why do the Questions Keep Coming?

1.  No matter what our age, Johnson attests that we all have "big questions," and they keep coming back.  What comes to mind when you hear the term "big questions," and what are the "big questions" in your life that would like answered?

2.  During times of transition, our questioning often intensifies.  Think about a time of change in your life.  How did it help you to focus on big questions?

3.  What answers appeared during this intense time of questioning?  How have those answers and questions affected where you are today spiritually?

4.  Johnson thinks that intellectual and spiritual doubts aren't enemies; instead, these kinds of doubts are important companions on the journey to truth.  Do you agree with this view on doubt?  Has doubt ever helped you in your spiritual quest?

5.  Johnson discusses how his upbringing in a strong Christian family influenced his beliefs.  What part has your family played in your belief system?

6.  What events or people have you encountered in your life that have changed your beliefs? In your opinion, were these changes positive positive or negative?

7.  Johnson claims that the following two beliefs are foundational to his spiritual journey: everyone is capable of knowing God, and God is the creator of all types of truth, not just religious truth at one particular time or place.  What is his rationale for holding these beliefs?  Do you agree with them?  Why or why not?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Emerging Christian Way

Ch. 14 – Spiritual Discernment 

Nancy Reeves addresses spiritual discernment from the viewpoint of a clinical psychologist and a Christian.  As such, she brings several unique perspectives to the table.  For example, she refers to the work of C. S. Lewis, raising the question, “Are we hard-wired for God?”  She discusses the role of a healthy ego.  She also lightly touches on spiritual discernment, using the transfiguration of Jesus as a template.  In the end, Jesus is our companion and guide, gently nudging us by the work of the Holy Spirit to prayerfully listen as we lean on God’s grace day by day.

How did this final chapter speak to you and your own process of discernment?  Is your discernment “spiritual?” 

For our final discussion, several group members have requested that we gather as one large group.  This will allow for a broader discussion of today’s reading, as well as any follow up questions we might consider together. 

I look forward to the Spirit’s leading us in group conversation!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Emerging Christian Way

Ch. 13 – Pastoral Care for the 21st Century

1.  Donald Grayston has been around the block a time or two, citing a long and impressive resume.  As part of his introduction, he emphasizes, “Work with the people who want to work with you, instead of spending your energy persuading the people who don’t want to work with you (or are not ready to work with you) to work with you!”  How has this wisdom proven reliable to you over the years?  Can you expand this strategy to other areas of life?

2.  The topics of pastoral care and adult Christian education are probably rare conversation pieces around most coffee tables.  Grayston indicates that they have traditionally been applied separately within the church.  He believes they can come together, however, in the realm of spiritual formation…creating “the essential matrix for congregational membership and adult Christian discipleship.”  From your experience over the years, how have you seen these two disciplines applied?  How have you been the recipient of each, and what value do you place on them?

3.  Grayston advocates for a much longer new member process than the typical model of several weeks.  Review his discussion of “field placements” on page 224.  Have you seen this model work in any congregation or religious setting?  What are the challenges of successfully implementing such an extensive and long-term program in this age of instant gratification and constant mobility?

4.  On page 226, Grayston introduces the concept of 16 as the minimum age for a rite of entry into adulthood.  Building up to this would be four critical areas of examination: spiritual practice, sexuality, social justice, and pilgrimage.  He then provides an integrative approach to spiritual formation for adolescents which include the four elements as outlined on page 229.  How does this prescription compare with the Lutheran model of confirmation? 

5.  Grayston encourages congregations to offer individual and/or group spiritual direction for each of its members.  How does st. Mark provide this already?  What additional means of spiritual direction would be beneficial to you and others?

6.  Finally, what else did you gain from this reading?  Are there any issues for Pastor Mark you wish to raise concerning this material or related issues?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Emerging Christian Way

Ch. 12 – Christian Education and the Imaginative Spirit

1.  Susan Burt is genuinely excited about her subject: “We are being motivated by a new story, an emerging vision that embraces search and meaning, not certainty.”  “As a result, our focus has shifted from the afterlife, to an emphasis on transformed lives, communities, and world in this life, through relationship with God and each other.”  She identifies the Christian community as the most effective context for Christian education.  Compared to my own conservative religious upbringing in rural Minnesota, I have seen and experienced this shift of focus.  Please share your own observations/experiences.

2.  Burt emphasizes the role and urgency of imagination in this process.  I was intrigued with Alan Jones’ quote, “The work of imagination is serious business because through it we build or destroy the world.”  And Carol Wehrheim says, “It is our imagination that propels us toward the God of all creation.”  Review Wehrheim’s five bullet points on page 204.  Briefly share one or two examples in your life where imagination was applied to these areas and led to some kind of personal transformation.

3.  Burt further develops her thesis, “The Power of the Imagination – to Build or to Destroy,” with biblical examples on page 209.  Let’s go with her questions here on page 211:
  • So how might we provide spaces and opportunities to encourage such imagination, passion, and compassion?
  • In what places are these gifts honored and nurtured in our Christian education practices?
  • What do we need in order to foster “Christ-given imagination?”
  • What changes for us personally, and in the world at large, when we imagine all people as truly valued neighbors, rather than as rivals or strangers, or “lesser than…?”

4.  Burt notes, “It is in the question, in the not-knowing, that learning occurs.  Remember also that questions do not necessarily need answers, and it is important that we create environments where questions and doubts can be openly and respectfully asked and explored.”  “It is not the answers but the questions that will lead to new discoveries, creative imagining, and transformed lives.”  Where do you encounter such environments and with whom do you share this common search?  What compels you to participate and share in this journey of imagining and learning?

5.  Burt’s mantra reminds her, daily, to let go, to suspend, and to be open to transformation: “Let go of preconceived notions and prejudices.  Expect surprises, expect miracles.”  Review her suggested applications of this on pages 215-216.  How have these, or other applications, provided freedom of imagination?

6.  “When we exercise our imaginative spirit, we move the biblical story out of literalism, factuality, certainly, and fixed answers, and into the unknown.  The story is born anew – a liberating, healing story, revealing deep truths, and an invitation to ‘discern God’s message for this time.’”  I couldn’t have said it more eloquently!  But it doesn’t stop there…she concludes: “Transformation-centered Christianity propels us into transformative acts of love, compassion, and justice.” 

In other words, personal transformation has a purpose and goal that always extend beyond us, into whatever communities we encounter.  What are those groups you are touching right now?  How are you engaged in such transformation in the various relationships and lives around you?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Emerging Christian Way

1.  Bruce Harding begins with the not-so-subtle question, “So what the hell is happening in worship today?”  Not a happy camper.  His verdict: “We have become passive consumers of music and this passivity is affecting our congregational song.”  He attributes such change to recent worship trends, as well.

Without pronouncing judgment, where have you noticed or experienced the greatest changes to our worship and music over the past two decades?  What has been the goal of these changes and for whom were they made?

2.  Harding claims that the cultural battles between traditional and contemporary worship voices are irrelevant…that “the only essential instrument for congregational song is the human voice.”  I agree with his statement that, “Duty quickly turns to delight when a sense of accomplishment and ownership over congregational song prevail…in which the communal voice is at the heart and soul of worship.” 

Can you provide examples of this from your own range of worship experiences over your lifetime?

3.  On the one hand, Harding affirms that, “It is imperative that we remember there is nothing wrong with our tradition.”  On the other hand, he affirms that “to simply dwell in the past will suck the life out of a worshipping community…we must also always be ready to ‘sing a new song.’ 

“The important thing is to choose well, to look for music with depth and rich metaphor, and to lead it sensitively and with awareness of the power music has to take us to a deeper place.” 

What is your sense of balance between old & new music/worship expressions?  What is the appropriate balance between personal preference and diversity for the sake of outreach?

4.  “Increasingly, we are also inviting the song of our sisters/brothers from around the world into our sanctuaries.”  Our recent Lenten mid-week services focused on ELCA missionaries around the globe, including their diverse worship and music. 

How has such exposure to different cultures expanded your appreciation for the Spirit’s activity?  Do you have any favorite ethnic music outside of our country?

5.  What else did you gain from this week’s reading?  Where do you feel most encouraged to explore new forms of music or worship?

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Emerging Christian Way

Chapter 10 – Worship: Pilgrims in the Faith

1.  Mark MacLean addresses a deeply personal, yet very public topic of ongoing discourse within the Christian community: How are we to worship?  Our responses are as unique as our individual life experiences, viewpoints, and preferences.  Any kind of consensus on a large scale is therefore difficult, if not impossible.  (Thus, the proliferation of countless religious expressions!) 

MacLean begins with an intimate, mystical encounter with the Spirit at a church service on the island of Iona.  He effectively introduces the origin and purpose of the Hebrew word for Spirit, Ruah.  “It is essential that each worshipping community find a way to lift its faithful membership into that Spirit of God which binds our hearts…for God’s BreathRuah – is central to our being and vocation.”  How has this “breath” and “blowing wind” of God touched you in worship?  Where and when do you encounter it?  How has it shaped you over time?  (Please be sure that every participant has opportunity to share a response.)

2.  MacLean quickly moves into the challenges we face as worshiping communities.  He stresses that we have “lost our sense of corporate worship as the central if not utterly essential moment in the life of Christian community.”  “Our challenge is to provide a space for this new generation of faith to find a spiritual home, and to be willing to hear their voice when they arrive.  It is through our corporate worship that this window is first cracked open so it can be flung wide for Ruah to blow through them, and us.”

What might “space for this new generation of faith” look like as we address this challenge together?  How might we become better equipped to re-think this issue and explore fresh opportunities for inclusion and growth?

3.  As MacLean moves deeper into our present debates of style and substance, he cites the broad backgrounds of the Liturgical Renewal Movement and Contemporary or Evangelical Worship, providing general formats of worship from each (pp. 176-181).  Take a moment to review these again.  Briefly describe your own experience or awareness of them.  What do you see as the strengths and limitations of each?

4.  MacLean urges us to move beyond the split.  “The irony for both communities is that these styles are dated, outmoded, and neither adequately lifts the culture of the gospel in the midst of the dominant culture.”  “The future of worship lies in deep authenticity and artistic forms.”  These five themes include:

  1. Revelation
  2. A new emphasis on the Bible
  3. Historical consciousness
  4. Influence of the Reformation
  5. Ecumenical character
Briefly review each (pp. 183-184).  Individually and collectively, how do these five forms serve to shape our church today?

5.  MacLean concludes with the realization that this will always be an ongoing debate...a “shared pilgrimage in faith.”  As “pilgrims,” we share in this journey…reveling “in the rich stories of the other pilgrims around them, who are moving on their own distinct paths toward the same destination.”  How does the term, “pilgrim,” aid us in defining our vocation and our destination?

6.  “Authentic, innovative worship moves beyond the concerns of bulletins and spreadsheets, instrumentation and multimedia, personality and taste, age and tradition, and points to the mystical realm of the Spirit.”  “Authentic worship names our unique heritage amidst our diverse reality, and openly shares the richness of the full human condition as a spiritual gift.”  Let this wisdom simply be our closing prayer today… “Lord, let it be so.  Amen.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Emerging Christian Way

Chapter 9 – Social Justice and a Spirituality of Transformation

1.  Bill Phipps is a minister, and it shows.  This essay reads like a lengthy, but eloquent sermon…carefully crafted with compelling examples and a sense of urgent necessity.  Bill is a straight shooter who doesn’t cloak his thoughts and feelings with vague descriptions.  His opening sentences are profoundly direct, “What could I possibly say?  I was blank.”

Have you ever witnessed an atrocity of the kind Phipps gives in the beginning?  Do you agree with his quote from Margaret Atwood: “The facts of this world seen clearly are seen through tears; why tell me then there is something wrong with my eyes?”

2.  From here, Phipps provides additional stories of attempts to renew and transform social attitudes and behavior.  These include the “Women in Black”; the “People and the Planet”; the “Bow Riverkeepers”; the “Celebration of Water”; and the place of homosexual people in the life of Christian congregations.  “In each of these stories,” he concludes, “a universal spirituality with a particular expression lifts up a spirituality of transformation, which leads to action.”

Which, if any, of these examples capture your own interest and/or passion for social change?  Can you provide examples or experiences of your own that have greatly changed your point of view?  What are the current challenges & barriers for developing further attitudinal and behavioral changes in our society?

3.  Phipps stresses that “social transformation through action takes priority over correct belief.”  After citing several biblical references, he says, “In other words, true spiritual transformation is more likely to occur when we ‘act into belief’ rather than then when we try to ‘believe into action.’”  “Actions…are more important than what we say.”

The rest of his essay serves to further illustrate this driving premise.  Where do we, as Lutherans, tend to favor responses that “stay in the head,” versus getting to “the actions that will transform lives?”  Where has “actual engagement” in ministry opportunities served to initiate such transformation for you?  Please consider sharing some specific examples.

4.  Citing Archbishop Oscar Romero as one of his spiritual heroes, Phipps includes Romero’s poem, “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own.”  Look at this poem again (p. 165).  What does it mean to you?  What might it mean to the United States?  What might it mean to the entire world right now?

5.  Following this, Phipps concludes, “I believe our modest efforts for justice and peace are better if they are interfaith, if we fully respect and honor other paths of faith.  No one has the corner on truth.  We live in a multicultural world; if we are to be effective, our work for social change needs to reflect this reality.”

Do you agree with and accept this final premise?  Given our local context…how are we working together, multiculturally, here in the Rockford area and in northern Illinois?  What more can we do, together, to promote social change and transformation?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Emerging Christian Way

Discussion Questions:  Chapter 7 – Paying Homage 
Chapter 8 – Radical Inclusion

1.  In this refreshingly concise and clear essay, Bruce Sanguin offers a thesis supported by tolerance and open-mindedness toward the larger faith community of the world.  He begins with a not-so-tolerant lampooning of the Southern Baptists for their hell-bent agenda and tactics of peddling conversion at all costs to Muslims.  Sanguin’s message: this is bad…very bad.  Have you encountered such efforts with other Southern Baptists or with Evangelical Christians bearing a fundamentalist agenda?  What attitudes/theology inform such exclusion and claiming of truth?

2.  From here, Sanguin introduces a different model, as presented in Matthew’s depiction of the Magi…noting that “the basis of the unity of all peoples of faith is biospiritual.  We have all come from the same place and are made of the same stuff.  We are stardust, reconfigured in human form, inspired by the Creator.”  The Magi travel to Israel for a single purpose…to pay homage to the Christ child. No Southern Baptist agenda here. This, Sanguin suggests, is our healthy alternative…the way of the Magi. 

Let’s discuss his follow-up questions: What would ecumenical relations with other faiths look like if they were homage-based?  What would it mean for Christians to make the long journey across strange cultural and religious landscapes bearing only gifts of respect for all that is sacred in other traditions?

3.  Finally, Sanguin contends that “the deeper we go into our own faith system, the closer we get to God…[and thus] the more we are informed by values of diversity, inclusivity, and respect for the inherent dignity of other people and faiths.”  Only by adopting the wisdom of the Magi will we, too, be equipped to “return home by another road,” transformed by our experience.  So where in your life have you returned home by “another road?”

4.  Anne Squire writes with a similar passion/goal, embracing the language of inclusion in understanding “the kingdom of God.”  I chuckled at her opening quote from Don Cupitt, “What Jesus preached was ‘the kingdom’; what he got was the church!”  What does this statement imply about the historical and current affairs of the church?

5.  Squire says that “radical inclusion demands that membership in the community in question be open to all.”  Let’s address her initial question: What did Jesus mean when he talked of the kingdom of God?

6.  Squire then quotes John Dominic Crossan, who says, “Jesus robs humankind of all protective privileges, entitlements, and ethnicities that segregate people into categories.”  Thus, she writes, “The kingdom of God, as defined by Jesus, is a realm of radical inclusion, a society of radical equality.”  Therefore, “no one has the right to speak for God in the choice of who is in and who is out.”  Sounds eloquent and simple…yet the world struggles to adopt such attitudes of mutual tolerance.  As we look around us, what are the greatest barriers/hurdles toward this path of grace?

7.  Squire notes many of the individuals and groups most directly affected by current restrictions and exclusions (pages 147-151).  The key to addressing these, she suggests, is “education about the early days of Christianity…[as well as] the new formulations of theology, which allow the church to re-create itself.”  She invites us to think and live in “the kingdom way”…motivated and informed by Jesus’ own vision of God’s kingdom. 

What does thinking and living in “the kingdom way” mean for you?  How does it promote inclusivity in your life journey?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Emerging Christian Way

Chapter 6 – On Being a Postdenominational Priest
in a Postdenominational Era

1.  I met Matthew Fox in person at a clergy conference in Bend, OR, in 1985.  He was regarded then as a person of distinct notoriety.  More pointedly, he was in theological hot water with just about every major denomination for his extreme left views on religion and spirituality…a reputation he seemed to relish.  Our reading today provides a travelogue of his bumpy ride through the 1990s and onward, including his official rejection by the Roman Catholic Church and his integration into the Anglican Church…specifically, the Episcopal Church.  Are you aware of any other theologians, pastors or religious leaders who have made such a dramatic switch?  What were the circumstances and outcomes surrounding their transition?

2.  Fox identifies his ouster from Catholicism as the point at which he understood his vocation as “a postdenominational priest in a postdenominational era.”  His discussion of the movement from the modern era to the present era is enlightening, albeit heavily slanted by his rejection by the R.C. Church.  And yet, he makes some accurate points…especially those that challenge the limitations of denominational institutions and agendas when held up against the pressing needs of a global community.  Where are such limitations visible to you: locally, nationally, and globally?

3.  Fox notes on page 109 that, “Ecumenism is postmodern and may even be another word for postdenominational.  Worship is becoming more and more ecumenical.”  Fair enough, to a certain degree.  But he quickly gets at the heart of his critique on pages 112 -113, “Christianity will never grow up to its adult stature until and unless it heals its wounded Roman and its wounded Jewish child.”  He believes ecumenism with Judaism and Islam can “reinvigorate our species with spirituality.”  He tosses in Buddism, Taoism, and Hinduism (East meeting with West) as further ingredients for his recipe of postdenominational and postmodern awakening.  Politically, the East, Middle East, and the West have not worked well together.  How, then, might these same groups approach one another in search of unity with such diverse and longstanding religious disparities?

4.  In his section, “Protesting Catholicism and Protestantism,” on pages 116-118, Fox provides a detailed list of behaviors that offend.  Look at them again…where do you agree/disagree?

5.  Fox’s devotion to Jerry Garcia is obviously quite substantial.  I found this short section a bit bizarre…especially his seeming dependency on the Garcias to repeatedly validate his ministry.  How exactly is theirs a “postmodern marriage”…and how can he attribute “applause as prayer?”  I’m baffled by his eagerness to elevate the Garcias, yet exclude them from his former style of critique.  How did you respond to this love story?

6.  Hubris abounds here…get your boots out.  This leads to his glowing evaluation of the “Planetary Mass” in October of 1994.  His revelation from that event: a new philosophical era has emerged.  Their mantra: “We celebrate, therefore we are.”  Like I said, hubris abounds!  They were especially pleased to exclude any theologians from the design and execution of this event and do so with a team of artists.  He describes this mass as “reconstructive postmodern art” with “spirituality at its core.”  The pinnacle of Fox’s hubris?  “I think the Planetary Mass represents a new, postmodern stage in human development.  Postmodern worship has arrived.”  (Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?!)  I’m at a loss of words here.  How about you?

7.  Orthopraxis (correct practice/behavior) versus orthodoxy (correct beliefs)…confused yet?  Fox despises the latter and praises the former.  We need both, folks!  He concludes with this healthy observation: “Indeed, if we put these two together, a Protestant principle and a Catholic one, we are talking about a reconstruction of Western Christianity.  This would move us from religion to spirituality.”  What would this look like and what would it take to achieve it? 
(Uff da!)

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Emerging Christian Way

Chapter 5 – Consider the Liles of the Field:
How Should Christians Love Nature?

1.  The theme of Sallie McFague’s essay is no mystery…it’s embedded in her title.  The answer to her question?  “…by obeying a simple but very difficult axiom: pay attention to it.”  She elaborates by saying, “The message is that we pay attention to difference, that we really learn to see what if different from ourselves.”  When are you most likely to pay attention?  What are your motives for doing so?  When are you least likely to pay attention?  What contributes to such detachment?

2.  McFague suggests that art is a valuable means of helping us learn to recognize and accept real differences.   Can you recall some form of art that has produced such attention from you in the past or present? 

Simone Weil concludes, “absolute attention is prayer.  By paying attention to something she says, we are, in fact praying.”  This leads to revelation.  I like that insight!  “So to really love nature, we must pay attention to it…to the world that lies around us but is not us…because we cannot love what we do not know.”  Are there parts of nature that have felt “prayer-like” for you?  Under what circumstances or frame of mind do you need to enter into such a relationship with nature?

3.  McFague invites us into “two ways of seeing the world,” directing us to consider nature writing.  She demonstrates its value through Annie Dillard’s description of a gold fish named Ellery, as well as the famous whole-earth picture of our planet from NASA.  Using these as metaphors, who or what are the current “goldfish” and “whole-earth” relationships in your life?  In other words, where (nature) and with whom (community) are you drawn closer or farther apart?

4.  McFague notes, “The arrogant eye simplifies in order to control, denying complexity and mystery, since it cannot control what it cannot understand…(and that) we Westerners all perceive with the arrogant eye.”  “The loving eye, on the other hand, acknowledges complexity, mystery, and difference…(promoting) acknowledgement of and respect for the other as subject.”   As Christians individually and as the Church collectively, where have you (and we) experienced our greatest weaknesses and strengths with each of these “eyes?”

5.  Under the heading, “The Subject-Subjects Model,” McFague notes that the best analogy for loving nature is friendship.  What attributes of friendship connect and bind us to nature in a life-giving way?  How might our entire planet and its inhabitants benefit from such a respectful and honorary attitude?

6.  Care or rights?  This debate will linger until the end of time… as well it should.  Applied to the natural world, it becomes even murkier…especially in our highly charged political/economic environments.  Much is at stake, on both sides of the discussion.  McFague raises the delicate question, “But is all of this Christian?  Is it commensurate with the radical, destabilizing, inclusive love of Jesus?”  What do you think?

7.  Perhaps the author of Ecclesiastes might have benefitted from this metaphor, “A time to map…and a time to hike.”  This last section stirred my imagination.  “What if we saw nature as ‘a world of difference?’  Then we might realize that we have to take a hike (without a map), become world-travelers, become apprentices to nature.”  Where have such “hikes” transformed your life in the past?  Are you on any kind of  hike at this moment? 

McFague concludes, “No one, I believe, loves the whole earth except as she or he loves a particular bit of it.”  Tell us something about your small piece of earth and why you love it.  What do you receive in return?  Where is God active in your love of nature?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Emerging Christian Way

Chapter 3 – New Creeds; Chapter 4 – The Great Work

1.  Tom Harpur has an axe to grind…in fact, several of them.  Connecting the dots of his diatribe isn’t easy.  For example, his initial discussion of “Core Christianity” and “Perennial Philosophy” were briefly mentioned, but never fully explained or integrated into his bump-and-run style of discourse.

The Christian Church, he claims, is in a world of hurt and the forecast ahead is one of gloom and doom.  While he correctly directs us toward the kingdom of God being present everywhere, I become quite nervous of his assertion of “the divinity of humanity, the ‘godness’ of every human being who has ever lived…the divinity of every one of us.”  How is this any different from today’s New Age definition of spirituality and its highly individualized motives and agenda?

2.  Moving on to the Creeds, Harpur characterizes the Church’s current efforts to face our challenges as “feeble.”  He castigates Liberals for having nothing worthwhile to proclaim, while criticizing Fundamentalists for checking their brains at the door and clinging to outdated traditions and interpretations.  (We love you, too, Tom!)

On page 61, Harpur goes off the deep end by denouncing the comprehensibility and relevance of our Creeds!  But wait, it gets better…and I quote, “Most are in a zombie-like state of consciousness anyway and just let the whole liturgy roll completely over their heads, unexamined and unexplained.”  He then states that we’ll either wake out of our trance or drop out due to health or old age.  Offended yet?  I sure am!  So, what should we Lutheran zombies do to ward off this vicious condition?  Are our Creeds really the problem here?  Again, how is the re-writing of the Creeds any different than the New Age agenda of fleeting personal accommodation?  What are the real problems we face?

3.  Thomas Berry offers a refreshing contrast with our previous author.  While listing several examples of “The Great Work” throughout history, Berry notes that our agenda now “is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.”  He then asserts that we have moved from natural selection to cultural selection as the “decisive force in determining the future of the biosystems of Earth.”

How did we get into this mess?  He blames it on “an attitude that is shared by all four of the fundamental establishments that control the human realm: governments, corporations, universities, and religions – the political, economic, intellectual, and religious establishments.  All four are committed consciously or unconsciously to a radical discontinuity between the human and the nonhuman.”  Take a few minutes to explore this premise.  How do you see each of these as participants in this shift of balance?

4.  From there, Berry zeroes in on the solution: “that every being has rights to be recognized and revered.”  This is solid biblical stewardship, folks.  But alas, like Berry notes, “Throughout the 20th century the situation has worsened decade by decade with relentless commitment to making profit by ruining the planet for the uncertain benefit of the human…so that a few establishments now control vast regions of the earth.”  Our Great Work, and that of our children, will be to change this course of devastation.

Where do we see this tragedy being played out in our country?
Where do we see this being played out around the world?

Where do we go from here? 
What are you doing, or would you consider doing, to further participate in this Great Work?
How do we approach and address this as the Church?