Dinner Church

Posted: April 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

This week I attended the Spring Convocation of Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. In addition to the exceptional preaching of Jeremiah Wright (just doesn’t get better!) we had presentations that centered in one way or another on Food and Faith.

In one of the sessions Christopher Grundy, professor of Liturgics and Homiletics and Dean of the Chapel, shared the fruit of his sabbatical labor. During past months he has been exploring the role of food and meals with the earliest Christian communities, those referenced in the New Testament but also those in the first few centuries. Liturgical scholars often refer to the Christian meal experience that evolved into what we now call communion or the eucharist as “proto-communion,” that which led to what became communion.

Hallmarks of the earliest strand of the tradition included: communal worship gatherings around a complete, however simple meal; food brought by congregants; a symbolic/liturgical moment during the meal that included a recitation of the words of institution in the last supper, prayers and songs; and gathering up the leftovers to take to those who could not attend and the poor.

This last feature – going out with the bread/wine/food – is an interesting hybrid of what we now might call home communion and meals on wheels!

The closest analogy to our present day experience would be the pot-luck church supper. Everyone gathers, brings parts of the meal, and shares it together. The difference would be that the pot-luck would be the worship – just by adding features of worship to it, i.e., song, prayer,scripture, testimony, Jesus’ words about the bread and wine.

During Grundy’s sabbatical research he visited numerous communities of faith centered around just that, a meal. One of the most interesting ones was St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn, New York. With its simple beginning of twelve people meeting in a home, it has grown to two twenty-five person meal sections that meet in rented space. That meal format and sacramental sharing is their worship and community life rolled into one.

Other communities make a special point of gathering outside to eat in a city center, distributing food to the hungry while eating and worshiping together. At least one dinner church encourages its members to always invite those outside the community to dinner so that strangers might become friends.

It like it. The model, of course, is limited by the size of the community, but that’s okay. You’re not going to use a dinner church model when you have one thousand congregants that gather at the same time in one space (or are you?). That’s one reason the early Christian house church model of the first few centuries changed when Christianity became the religion of the realm under Constantine. They became a church of empire that met in large public spaces. What was an original real meal became a symbolic one.

This reminds me very much of the slow church movement and the way it insists we slow ourselves down in the community to plunge into it more deeply. One of the most counter-cultural and spirit-filled things we can do today is flee from “McChurch.” And Dinner Church, like Slow Church and maybe even the early table fellowship Jesus shared with disciples and diverse people from the community, may provide one of the answers.

As we explored the resurrection appearance texts taken from the Gospel of John this Easter morning I noted how John’s stories reveal 1st century competing narratives, leaders and traditions – all vying for preeminence. What tradition and which leaders should be viewed as authoritative? For John, a tension existed between Peter of the Jerusalem community, the “beloved disciple” of the Damascus community, and the Mary Magdalene community. He didn’t even touch on Paul’s missionary churches and his Gospel re-fitted for the Gentiles. All of these movements – and many more – existed simultaneously in an incredibly diverse tapestry of Jesus followers.

Following this earliest generation, the diversity continued. There never existed anything like a homogeneous church. There were always movements of Jesus people. This continued until empire eventually established uniformity in creed, Bible and leaders and defined what was and was not orthodox. Then non-dominant groups came to be labeled as heretical and persecuted with abandon.

That simple knowledge of the first generation of Jesus people corrects a false impression that we in the 21st century are the only ones who have ever waded through incredible theological diversity, competing Christian claims and multiple movements. That is not true. It has been that way from the beginning. In our own time and place – in a context of religious freedom, mass communication, wide cultural immigration – the American ethos is incredibly religiously diverse. But not unique.

Of special interest to one of my friends in attendance was the influence of Mary Magdalene, her leadership and community that was systematically suppressed. She was part of the inner circle of Jesus, the first to witness the resurrection, and the one who would share the Gospel first-person authority:

“Mary Magdalene gives me extra enthusiasm and inspiration. Thank you for reminding me of her important role. It’s all very mind boggling but exciting and hopeful!”

Happy Easter. May you find in the empty tomb not emptiness at all. May you find the presence of something absent, a mystery haunting the world, the spirit of life that prowls the cosmos and the hearts of those who dare receive it.

Is the furor in Indiana just the latest tempest in a tea cup? Is it another instance of people over-reacting to sensible protections for religious freedom, a freedom that has eroded for the longest time?

If you were to listen to other governors around the country who support the law and Indiana’s governor, Mike Pence, you might conclude that this is simply a matter of protecting freedom of religion, something already protected in the Second Amendment. All they want is reasonable protection. What could be sinister about that?

What they haven’t talked about is the real issue beneath the surface, one found in the difference between the legislation of Indiana and other states. In other states with similar legislation religious freedom has not been presented as absolute; it stands alongside other constitutional protections such as non-discrimination. Not so in Indiana. Non-discrimination language was conspicuously omitted. Then they hid behind the banner of religious freedom.

The backlash against that decision has been sudden and severe. Among many other organizations and corporations to boycott Indiana was the Disciples of Christ, who decided to move its 2017 General Assembly out of Indianapolis. I support that decision because it put pressure on decision-makers to reconsider the impact of their ideological decisions on, yes, business.

Religious freedom is a good thing. I am religious leader and serve a religious institution. I have a vested interest in keeping it so. But when religious freedom becomes a pass to discriminate against anyone I choose because of my religion we have crossed the line.

This do whatever you want because of your religion reasoning has been used to justify slavery, continue separate but equal social policies and systematically hide and conceal those who have abused children under religion’s banner. It is not acceptable.

As far as the supreme court goes, we have many examples of the high court making judgments on cases that include a dimensions of religious freedom. In the main, the court has provided for maximum freedom when the exercise of that freedom does not harm others or break other laws. Of course, religious freedom is not absolute. Other laws may supersede religious freedom.

The most extreme example is Waco and the Branch Davidians. They intoned “religious freedom” to provide protection for many of their practices. But when a universal law of the land is broken, a law such as one that protects minors, it trumps religious freedom every time.

Is religious freedom an absolute freedom? It is not. It is evaluated along side other freedoms and protections. People knew that when they first read the Indiana legislation. They were correct to object. And now that the legislature and governor are amending the law to make certain that discrimination is in no way tolerated on account of religious freedom we can only hope that, as the wheels of justice turn slowly, others will not try the same trick in the future.

Alfredo’s Brother

Posted: March 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

His name was Alfredo Jimenez. Alfredo showed up at church one day and we got to know one another. He was a musician originally from El Salvador. Most of his adult life was spent away from his home country, first in Costa Rica and then in the United States. His classical instrument was the French Horn, taught to him first by his father. He also played classical guitar and recorded with a band.

For a short time Alfredo played with our band at church. But he was not healthy and eventually became very ill, so ill that he died. We were sorrowful for him. A number of those close to Alfredo gathered to memorialize him.

Fast forward: Through the church Facebook page people followed the story of Alfredo and those who knew him drew our attention to portions of his family who still live in El Salvador – a brother, Carlos, and his daughter. We contacted them and by a miracle of only six degrees of separation we corresponded. On one of the mornings our mission team was in El Salvador Carlos and his daughter showed up to greet us.

Carlos had not seen his brother in over forty years. But then a group of North Americans showed up in his country with stories, a CD of Alfredo’s music, and an unexpected connection that brought the past and present together in an entirely unexpected way. His eyes glistened as we spoke of his brother. He showed us pictures of Alfredo from his youth. Suddenly Alfredo was alive again, alive to a brother who, for all practical purposes, had lost him long ago. He was alive to us in a new way, not disconnected from the world, isolated as a stranger among us, but rather as a family member who finally made it home for one final farewell.

Keep my toaster oven

Posted: March 20, 2015 in Uncategorized

At a recent community meeting in which a volunteer advocate from the foster care system spoke, people like myself asked questions about how and why children are placed in foster care. The average number of homes for such a child is surprisingly high. The role of a court-appointed advocate is very important.

As discussion moved to just how short-staffed the system is one person asked the “why are things this way” question. He wanted to know why so many kids are in foster care in the first place. And what about dealing on that level?

Of course, that is an important question. Why are there dysfunctional homes, drug addiction, poverty, unemployment, homelessness, abuse and terrible parenting, all of which lead to foster care for abused, abandoned or neglected kids? All of those are worth considering. But the way he stated it, on the heels of discussing our present situation of inadequate resources to meet the needs, made me uncomfortable.

What he implied was that we should change our focus to prevention. We should address the root causes and prevention. But we can’t wait for a perfect world to arrive before we reach out to children in dire circumstances.

When it comes to inadequate resources to address the rising need for foster care one question must be asked: “Is the system underfunded?” Unless it is adequately funded we won’t have the resources for those kids. The answer is, “Yes, it is underfunded.” And why is it underfunded? “Because the state has shrunk its budget and that had dire consequences for at-risk kids.” And why did that budget and those programs shrink? “Because powerful interests lobbied politicians they control to secure lower and lower taxes for themselves.” And why did they believe we need to lower taxes when Missouri is already on the bottom tier of taxes and state government? “Because they believe that lower taxes is always better regardless.”

And that’s why we have at-risk children poorly served at critical times in their lives. It is because we are underfunding the very systems that could provide better care.

Should we stop addressing root causes and prevention? Of course not. But when the dam is bursting you’d better get a row boat out to the drowning. And by the way, you can keep my toaster oven I bought with my reduced state taxes. I would much rather redirect that money to where it is really needed. Like to children for instance.

To: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel
From: President Barack Obama, United States of America
RE: My impending trip to address the Knesset of Israel

Just a courtesy note to say that I have arranged a visit to your Knesset next month. It would be swell if you were there, being the head of state and all, but it is not really necessary. I have decided that since diplomacy is now being conducted by our legislatures it is find to sidestep the administration. As a matter of fact, I was so very appreciative that members of your Knesset, members of your opposition party, invited me. I have a humdinger of a speech ready to undermine almost everything you have been working on in foreign policy in recent years. There is moral urgency to this speech because I believe it is important and your opposition believes it is important even if you do not.

Oh, by the way, it probably has not eluded your attention that this visit coincides with upcoming elections in the USA. The things I have to say will excite our base and help get our party’s politicians elected. We are using your Knesset, your country’s decision making body, to accomplish our own goals. Thanks for that. So even though it appears as though your own opposition is ringing your chimes, they ultimately don’t matter, not to us they don’t – it’s really about America! Don’t you see the beauty of it all? I make the powerful statement by simply sidestepping the head of state.

I send you this little note because, well, I like you Benjamin. Since you did this to me earlier – came at the invitation of a congress that wanted to use you to oppose my foreign policy, even though that is the rightful province of the Administration, ambassadors and the State Department – I thought I would just return the favor in a friendly kind of way. Kind of with a wink, I guess you’d say.

See you in Jerusalem! What? You won’t be attending? For goodness sake, why not?

When I encountered EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) several years ago I was skeptical. How could tapping on the body’s meridians while surfacing intense centers of emotion release people from suffering? I had long experience in the stock and trade of general pastoral counseling. Was this just more foo-foo from some new agey edge? To my surprise I found out differently. EFT was exceedingly effective with many blockages of mind, body and spirit. And worked in a relatively short period of time.

Though EFT falls under the whole umbrella of “energy psychology” it actually has ancient roots. It relies on the body’s centers of energy as known and utilized in China and India. With ties to both yoga and acupuncture/acupressure, EFT directly interacts with the field of energy that comprises every living thing. The energy itself – when allowed to flow in the presence of challenging or painful aspects – does the work. In this regard it is closely aligned with prayer, meditation and other healing arts.

Practitioners work with clients to tap on themselves while talking through difficult emotions of all kinds. This in turn frees the energy system to release and correct these painful blockages of energy. The result is remarkable freedom – that frequently impacts our bodily pain response. Anyone can do it but trained and skilled practitioners help people address the hidden layers that continue to act beneath the surface.

For the past several years I have been in training for EFT certification. Having completed all that I am now a certified EFT Practitioner. This mostly means that I weave it into my other work with people when it seems appropriate, though some people will come seeking EFT specifically.

For a person of faith and a Christian in particular, EFT is a contemporary healing modality that is consistent with my understanding of physics, the human being and spirituality. My joy comes in witnessing the healing power that unfolds, whether in healing past memories or working with those with PTSD. God is good and provides so many paths to healing and wholeness. How blessed I am to have found another one.

Certified EFT Practitioner Intermediate - 1