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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

Body Talk (Sermon Notes)

Many of us have been sold a bad brand of Christianity. It has something faulty at its core and produces something very harmful in the end.

The core problem is that your ‘spirit’ is the really important thing. Your mind is the next most important thing. In distant third is your body. At best, it is inconsequential to your spiritual journey. At worst, your body is harmful or dangerous and must be guarded against.

So much of modern Christianity is nearly dis-embodied. It is about what you believe in your heart (wherever that is) and what you understand with your mind. This is bizarre for a religion whose primary story is incarnation.

 

The reality is that your body is central to your spiritual journey. It is a vessel for the journey. It is the ship in which you sail. Not irrelevant at all. Your body has so much to do with your journey.

So that is the core problem … but then it bears some devastating consequences.

 

Yesterday was Earth Day so it is notable that we view earth in much the same way that view our body. I am surprised that the brand of Christianity I run into the most thinks that the future of the earth is only destruction, devastation, and Armageddon. That is a harmful brand of Christianity.

 

Many believers are surprised to learn two things about the Christian story.

  1. It begins in a garden but it also ends in a garden. The poetry and symbolism are profound.
  2. The future of our earthy body is not devastation, decay, and destruction – but New Creation.

 

The future of our planet is New Creation. The Bible ends with a new heaven and new earth.

 

The bad brand of Christianity that is dis-embodied also sees the Earth as a cardboard box –a temporary container- to be discarded and burned when we are done with it.

This is a profound misreading that affects the Body of Christ (God’s children around the world) and the Earth which is a gift from God that we are supposed to care for and cultivate.

 

On Easter I talked about Christ’s glorified body. It was neither a ghost nor a zombie … but a glorified body that was not limited by walls, still had the marks of the spear, and could make breakfast on the shore for the disciples. It was both like and unlike Jesus’ crucified body because God had glorified it.

This is a foretaste of New Creation. Easter is a prolepsis (a coming attractions if you will) – not just for each of us but for all of creation!   New Creation is the future of the planet.

 

In this light, your body is central to your religious faith and your spiritual journey. Likewise, the Earth is central to the experience of the Body of Christ.

Today would be a good day to consider one thing we might begin doing and one thing that we might stop doing if the brand of Christianity we were sold is faulty.

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What I Learned (Evangelicals)

A couple of weeks ago I shared what I had learned about Social Media and about Education in the past 2 years. I was scheduled to post this reflection about Evangelicals when a big story broke about a famous pastor and I decided to see what became of it before I waded in.

Yesterday there was a terrifying comic in the Sunday papers that compelled me to finally publish this reflection.

 

In 2016, I got an amazing opportunity to move back to Portland (from LA) and take an appointment as Visiting Professor of Theology at the seminary I had graduated from in 2010. I also taught a week-long intensive at the seminary in NY that is a part of my former denomination. I preached at Evangelical churches in 3 states and attended numerous churches. It was quite a year.

I was born and raised Evangelical. I was trained and ordained Evangelical. I love Evangelicals and I talk weekly to Evangelical pastors around the country. While my faith journey has emerged into quite a different expression, I am still conversant with and sympathetic to my former-tribe.

Here are some observations for your consideration:

  • They are really into the Bible.
  • They use coded language.
  • LGBTQ issues both terrify and annoy them.
  • Membership is a moving target.
  • They focus on the Supreme Court.
  • They can smell danger.
  • They don’t get Critical Theory.
  • They struggle with Identity Politics.

 

Evangelicals are really into the Bible. If you are not a part of this tribe then you may not realize just HOW into the Bible Evangelicals are. It’s not just that they like quoting the Bible, the actually think in the Bible. There is a joke that ‘versification is verification’ – which basically means that if you can put a Bible verse behind a point (Romans 12:1-2) that will validate it.

I’m not sure that non-evangelicals understand HOW big a deal the Bible is inside the Evangelical sub-culture. If you don’t give this point its proper weight, you might not understand much of what else follows.

[Side note: I prefer the Wesleyan Quad which has scripture first but not alone. Prima scriptura not Sola scriptura. That is followed by Tradition, Reason, and Experience in that order.]

 

Evangelicals use coded language. Due to its nature as a bounded set, evangelism can use words and phrases as a sort of short-hand or insider linguistic. I noticed it back when I was an insider but it became quite obvious that I had been out of it for 6 years.

It can be little things like “I just feel like God said …” to vouching for someone who “loves the Lord”.  It can also be big things that require a double-coding. It turns out that ‘liberal’ is really a code for not believing in ‘biblical authority’ which is actually code for being open and affirming of LGBTQ issues.

 

LGBTQ issues both terrify and annoy Evangelicals. I cannot overstate how many conversations I had about same-sex marriage and LGBTQ issues. It is a massive deal in every corner of Evangelicalism.

Homosexuality terrifies them because they want to be seen as loving but the way that they read the Bible makes them seem hateful (quoting here – not my words). I can’t tell you how many members and pastors of Evangelical churches I heard say either “we want to be open but not affirming” or “I just wish this wasn’t such a big issue – it comes up all time but I just want to preach the gospel and not talk about this. Sexuality is just one aspect of our life that has gotten blown out of proportion and is now the biggest or ONLY thing people want to talk about.”

 

[Side note: I too find it sad that this is such a big issue to my Evangelical friends. It is really not that hard to read the Bible in a way that is inclusive and open. I figured out how to be open and affirming even as an Evangelical. If anyone wants it, email AnEverydayTheology@gmail.com and I will send you the essay ‘An Evangelical Defense of Same-Sex Marriage’.]

 

Membership is a moving target. Very few people can tell me what it means to be an Evangelical. There is no sure litmus test or doctrinal statement. There is very little agreement. Evangelical academics try to utilize Bebbington’s (historic & British) definition but it does not fit the American context nor the 21st century. Somebody quipped that it basically means that you liked Billy Graham.

Here is the danger that most people are missing though! Evangelicalism is not a process – it is a conclusion. Unlike Presbyterians who can say ‘I am Presbyterian and I disagree about this XYZ’ … Evangelicalism IS the agreement.

It would be like saying, “I am a New Yorker who lives in Oregon” and New Yorkers saying, “then you are not a New Yorker”. You try to defend yourself by saying, “I was raised in NY, it is in my blood, I have the accent, I carry all the values … I just migrated to Oregon.” Nope. That is not how membership works. You can’t say “I am an Evangelical who just believes XYZ…” without being told, “then you are not Evangelical”. Membership is about territory and current residency.

 

Evangelicals focus on the Supreme Court. I was teaching during the election year. Thank God I was not on social media that year. One thing I constantly have to convince my non-evangelical friends is that most Evangelicals don’t actually support this man in the Oval Office and his terrible behavior … he is just a means to an end.

The Supreme Court is the end game. Many Evangelicals are nearly blind in their obsession with it. You have to understand: in their mind, they are just 1 judicial appointment from a 40-year plan to overturn Roe v. Wade. This is all about Supreme Court Justices. This is why when non-evangelicals pull their hair out and yell about his immoral behavior and hypocrisy of the Religious Right … they are screaming at the wind. That punch will never land – you are swinging at shadows. There is no there-there. You have missed the bigger end game.

You don’t have to agree with me but I hope that you believe me. It has nothing to do with the President. Politics are corrupt anyway. This is about something much deeper. I talk to my friends who voted for him and this is about the Supreme Court.

Evangelicals can smell danger. When I spoke of ‘coded language’ above, I noticed an interesting inverse as well. It is not just what you say .. but more what you don’t say. Look, I don’t listen to Christian radio or shop at Christian bookstores. I don’t go to churches where we sing Hillsong and Matt Redmond worship choruses … and it shows.

I am not exactly sure how it is so obvious that I am progressive but I might as well be a smoker who thinks that spraying cologne on will cover the smell. I stink. I was on my best behavior – I wanted a full-time position. I watched what I said at every encounter. I bit my lip when I needed to … but there was a glaring absence in the sort of things that were missing.

It’s not that I did anything wrong  per se …  If you have never been in an isolated community or closed environment then you may not know what I am talking about.

The phrase ‘guilty by association’ or ‘your reputation proceeding you’ comes to mind. The reason I include this point is that, of course, they were right. I just don’t know how they knew they were right. Like garlic leaking out of my pores … I smelled liberal.

 

Evangelicals don’t get Critical Theory. Systemic analysis is not built in to Evangelical thought. In fact, because they are so focused on personal piety and individual experience, systemic issues are often outside their scope of concern.

Admittedly, Critical Theory is rooted in some pretty secular and post-modern philosophies. Since Evangelicals think in the Bible (see earlier) they are grounded in a religious language-game and pre-modern worldview that seems incompatible (to them) with systemic analysis. Evangelicals prioritize personal sin and issues of the heart. They have not developed tools to explore the thing-behind-the-thing that Critical Theory is based on.

I only bring this up because …

Evangelicals struggle with Identity Politics. I did my PhD course-work at a school that has been addressing issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality for over 40 years. It is baked into the very essence of the place. It saturates every aspect of the institution.

For Evangelicals, it is a recent add-on that is causing some compatibility problems. For a group that is in the midst of figuring out women-in-ministry, colonial missions, capitalist prosperity and disparity, personal responsibility, and marriage roles … adding racial diversity to the mix can seem overwhelming (at worst) and clumsy (at best).  How do you add gender and racial diversity without it being tokenism and at the same time ensure that you come to the previous historical conclusions that determine membership and belonging?

 

Those are my reflections. I would to hear your thoughts, questions, and concerns. I know that this is a rough season for Evangelicalism but I am hoping for a fruitful conversation about a group of people I love very much but no longer camp with. I am like the brother who comes home from journeys abroad with trinkets and treasures.

When Technology Meets Theology The Church Changes

The church is always changing.

It adjusts and adapts to cultural shifts and needs.

Change is often initiated when new technology meets evolving theology.

I talked about it in Why Do Church This Way? [link] or listen to the podcast audio

There are two interesting notes about these changes:

1) When new developments arise, the previous form does not go away, it continues on but without its former prominence or influence.

Phyllis Tickle points out in The Great Emergence that 500 years ago when the Protestant Reformation happened, the Catholic Church did not cease to exist. It had a counter-reformation and made some changes.

500 years earlier the same happened with Great Schism between the Roman West and the Eastern Orthodox. Both of which survived … just in modified forms.

500 years early in the period of Councils and Creeds saw similar issues of division and adaption.

500 years earlier (in the fallout of the the Axial Age) figures like Jesus had profound effects, and some divisions, with the existing religious order of their day.

We are 500 years after the Protestant Reformation we look to be going through something similar.

2) There is always an authority issue involved in change. 

Like a song, most people focus on the lyrics and the melody – for our analogy that is the theology and the technology. The driving force is the baseline – this is the role of authority.

Authority was central in every change listed above:

  • Axial Age
  • Jesus and early churches
  • Councils and Creeds
  • Great Schism
  • Protestant Reformation
  • Denominational decline (now)

I like to talk about collaboration, contribution, and conversation as locations of authority. I have a very de-cenereted  and democratized ideal of the church in the 21st century.

I have to keep reminding people that this is not a “free-for-all” anything-goes anarchy. It is simply the church hosting a space and but not providing all of the content.

The current change is about control. We are no longer in control. That doesn’t mean that things are out-of-control!!   It means that control was always an illusion at some level and required coercion and violence to maintain the illusion.

Opening up the microphone means that we are not in control of everything that is said. The desire for control keeps us from welcoming our congregation’s insights, experience, and perspectives as locations for God’s revelation and our theological reflection.

Admittedly, we are in the earliest days of the transition .. but here is the harsh reality:

People are voting with their feet and the ‘nones’ and ‘dones’ are the fastest growing religious affiliation in N. America. People are going to grow increasingly unsatisfied with being spectators at religious spectacles where their contribution doesn’t count and their experience and perspective are not valued.

Listen to the podcast and let me know what you think.

Being A Different Way In The World

What does it mean to be an Easter people?
In what way are we aliens and strangers (1 Peter 2:11)?
Is it possible to opt out of the current ‘Argument Culture’?

You can say “a different way to be in the world” … and that first step is a change in your personal orientation.

The next step is then to talk about being “a different way in the world”, which is a communal commitment and expression.

The emphasis of the first is the “be”.  A different way to be in the world asks us to consider how we approach the world, how we position ourselves, our posture toward the world, and our participation with the world.

  • How we approach the world
  • How we position ourselves in relation to the world
  • How we are postured toward the world
  • How we participate with the world

The emphasis of the second approach is the “way”.  This imagery rings familiar for Christians because Jesus proclaimed that “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. Following the teaching of Jesus is not just a different way to be in the world (though it certainly is), but the church is to be a different way in the world.

  • Forgiveness and reconciliation where there is division and animosity
  • Connection and community are prioritized
  • Peace and ‘shalom’ wholeness are desired
  • Unplugging from partisan politics and consumerism

Sadly, throughout history, the church has often followed the world’s way. It has utilized power, violence, personal gain, and many other worldly-ways to accomplish its work. People have used God’s name to get their way – but they have not always done it in God’s way.

The gospel is not just a different way of being in the world. It calls us to be a different way in the world.

If you don’t like the way that the world works, if you don’t want to be that way toward your neighbor, the stranger, and even your ‘enemy’, Christ offers you another way of being in the world. Then, when a number of us do this together, it provides a chance for others to find a different way – a path that leads to a different place.

Not understanding this has led to ‘the church’ participating in partisan politics. Christians have become a part of the problem and are actually making the situation worse. This happens in Liberal circles, in Conservative camps, and with folks who have opted out of the process altogether because they are disillusioned and don’t want to vote for ‘the lesser of two evils’.[1]

Aligning with the Republicans and the Democrats is failing us. Fox News and MSNBC (or NPR) are not the problem nor are they the solution. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul “neither voting or not voting brings in the kin-dom of God” but right-living, peace and joy in God’s Spirit.  (Romans 14:17) [2]

Cable news and social media are not the way. In fact, this is part of how we have been seduced by the ideologies of our day. Conservatives who want to legislate morality and Liberals who look to identity politics as an end in itself are practicing the way of the world. You can’t legislate morality and identity politics are great for liberal politics but not for sacred community.[3]

Jesus calls us to a different way of being in the world that does not use our race, gender, class, and sexuality as boundary markers. It includes and transcends the categories of identity and belonging (Galatians 3:28).

Likewise, the way is not found in military strength. It is not satisfied by consumerism or credit card debt. It is not found in reclaiming some idealized past or in returning to some romanticized notion from a previous era. It is not about becoming more orthodox in our beliefs or extravagant in our worship and sacrifice.

Once we discover a different way of being in the word (first step) and then collaborate with others to be a different way in the world (second step) then we may choose to partner with or support those elements of political parties that help bring about the greater good. These are the first two steps on a very long journey.

To be clear: I am not an idealist but I am a true believer. I am not after utopia. There is no pure or perfect to be had. Just writing this in English (or any language) is inherently compromised and corrupted. We have been formed and informed by the very words and ideas that we have been given. We are groomed and conditioned from birth in the way of the world.

Christ’s way will never be popular. It will always be a minority movement. It started that way and is perfectly suited to be that way. It does, however, provide a different way for an individual to be in the world and collectively we provide the world a different way than its round-and-round, dog-eat-dog, us versus them, march toward destruction.

Admittedly, I am being foolish here. I believe that there is a different way that isn’t measured in dollars, or troops, or ‘likes’, or members, or votes, or converts, or doctrinal purity, or visibility, or sales, or laws, or nearly anything that can be measured or quantified.[4]

The current way of being the world is being exposed as a rotten tree. We can smell its sour fruit. Its roots in division and deceit are coming to the surface. It can barely stand under the weight of its own burden. It provides no future or hope that the way forward will be satisfying or liberating.

Our hope is to follow the way of Christ, to live in the truth of God’s love, and to live life in the Spirit. If we did this, together, we would open up possibilities that are not even visible to us yet.

 

 

[1] If you are going to vote, I would certainly encourage you to vote for less evil. If nothing else we could use less evil.

[2] “for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (NASV)

[3] Identity politics is great for politics. Of course someone’s politics should be informed by their social identity and location! What else would it be informed by – ideology?

[4] If you are looking for specifics, step one might focus on passages like the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 and step 2 might begin to look at passages like 2 Corinthians 5:19 in which God reconciled with the whole world through Christ and then gave Christ’s people the ministry of reconciliation. The first step is often personal and the second is always collective.

Church Health not Growth

Last month I posted about measuring ministry differently for the new century.

In this video I want to talk about some other metrics for measuring church health.

We all know that “nickels & noses” doesn’t tell us if ministry is actually happening.

Neither do the following suggestions but at least they are more interesting:

  • Square footage (3,700 sq. ft)
  • Pounds (400 vs. 300 lbs)
  • Carrying Capacity
  • Bone Structure
  • Who is present not just how many are
  • Attendance patterns (150 for 88)
  • Giving patterns (200 or 1200)
  • Expectations on Specializations
  • Conversation Contribution

Just remember:

“Growth isn’t always good and bigger is not always better.”

Power of Practice (sermon notes)

Your body is not just a suitcase that carries your soul around.

Your body is not an automated shell that your brain tells what to do like a computer inside a robot.

Your body informs your experience and shapes your behavior.

 Much of what you think, or even believe, about the world is because of the interactions of your body.

This is why what you do with your body matters. Your behaviors and routines inform and form you. They give shape to your day and thus your week and ultimately your life.

Annie Dillard has said it this way,

“How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.”

To the outside world, I appear spontaneous and even impulsive. But that internal permission in rooted in long hours of discipline and practice that frees my up to be spontaneous in the moment. The behind the scenes preparation is rooted in a deep commitment to values and practices. I move the chairs in the sanctuary every week – because I have been thinking for months about what that gathering should look like!

Your daily routine functions in a similar way. Your weekly patters both form and inform you as people of faith.

The life of faith is comprised (made from) your participation in a community of faith.

This is the liturgy of life.

One of my favorite old-words is “phronesis”. I have talked about it before – it means embodied wisdom or enacted knowledge. It is a wisdom that you have down inside of you, embedded in the cells and muscles of your body.

If you do an activity, even if you have not done it in a while – like riding a bike again – there is set of “know-how” that has been formed through practice.

This is the case with playing a musical instrument, or caring for a child, or playing a sport, or doing a hobby.

My favorite example is teaching a teenager how to drive.  Now you, if you have been driving a while, can day dream, change the channel (and all sort of other things) and still end up at your destination … sometimes not even thinking about it on the primary register of your brain. That is phronesis – the way home is embedded in your muscle memory.

Teenagers do not have phronesis. Everything is happening on that primary register at the front of your mind! Hands at 10 & 2, turn on the lights, shoulder check, shift into reverse, etc.

This is the power of practice. You are moving an activity, an expertise, a knowledge down from the front of your mind into your body. Routine and practice go hand in hand.

The liturgies of our lives shape who we are and both form and inform our view of the world.

The book that we are reading “Liturgy of the Ordinary” encourages us to be intentional about our mornings. Instead of slogging through and mindlessly stumbling our way to the kitchen or the shower – to add a moment of intentional pause and prepare for the day.

I want to encourage you try it. To change up the routine this week. Whether that is her suggestion to make the bed and take a moment of silence (prayer) first thing in the morning, or to read something nourishing in the morning before your check your phone or turn on cable news …

Like I said at the beginning: Your body is not just a suitcase that carries your soul around.

Your body is not an automated shell that your brain tells what to do like a computer inside a robot.

Your body informs your experience and shapes your behavior.

 Much of what you think, or even believe, about the world is because of the interactions of your body.

This is why what you do with your body matters. Your behaviors and routines inform and form you. They give shape to your day and thus your week and ultimately your life … especially your life of faith.

Follow the whole series here [Sacred Everyday]

Pastoring the Cynic and Fool

My friend Tad DeLay has written a second book, The Cynic and The Fool. I was first introduced to this concept by Tad a couple of years ago. I immediately asked him to come to the Loft LA as my conversation partner to talk about it. It was controversial to say the least.

I have held onto a very small part of the concept (that people are comfortable these days in the role of the cynic but that they want their leaders to be fools) and have radically changed my approach to ministry to account for it.

This weekend I will be presenting this concept in Sunday School, as part of the series ‘5 Favorite Ideas’, so I made a 10 min video to share and get the conversation rolling.

I would love your comments, questions, and concerns.

I would also love if you would share this with any leaders or pastors that you know. I want to have a much bigger conversation about the church being a different way in the world.

Waking Up To Easter

Easter is a waking up. How do you wake up an Easter people?

When I was a child, my father would sometimes wake us up with an Easter song. It is called ‘Up From The Grave He Arose” and it still brings a smile to my face when I think about it.

This came to my mind as we were picking songs from Easter. We did not choose this song but it is always in the back of my mind.

It became even more relevant when I started reading ‘Liturgy of the Ordinary’ and the opening chapter was about ‘waking up’.  I started working on my sermon for ‘waking up’ before Easter and found it impossible to think about one without thinking about the other.

Easter is a waking up.

It is waking up to new life, hope, second chances, and possibilities.

Every morning is invitation to an Easter people to ‘be a different way in the world’.

Here is a video about being woken up by Easter.  I hope you enjoy a little levity on a Wednesday afternoon.

I also hope that in this series you hear the invitation to wake up to a different way of being in the world as Easter people.

When does your morning begin?

“When does your morning begin?” is our opening question in Sacred Everyday.

Depending on work, kids, and age – that answer probably has an ‘AM’ behind it. For me, 5am seems early but 8am seems a luxury.

What if you were to adopt an ancient Jewish perspective that your day actually begins at sundown the evening before?

This is my challenge this week!

 

Today is Monday and I asked myself on Sunday (yesterday) “What do I want my Monday to look like?” and then I prepared for it as the sun set last night.

I will do the same tonight. I have a long day Tuesday so instead of ‘vegging out’ and filling up this evening, I am going to get prepared. I will lay out my clothes (not my normal practice), turn off my electronics, watch what I eat and drink, and do something to calm myself (like stretching) so that I have the best chance of sleeping.

I would like to invite you to try this practice with me. Let’s see if it makes a difference in your week.

 

If you are not ready for that, I also found a cool morning practice.  Keep a bowl of water by your bed, bathroom mirror, or beside your kitchen stove.  (You may to cover it with a cloth or pour a new one each morning).

Then first thing in the morning – before anything else (or while the water is heating for coffee and tea) – place three fingers in the water (to symbolize the trinity) and touch it to your forehead.  Remember your baptism.

 

It may also help to say part or all of the following confession:

I am born again today

I am born of water and spirit into my new life

Today is a new day

Today is a divine day

I am beloved   (of my Father/Mother)

These two practices are invitations to see your every day as sacred and full of possibility. The goal of today is not to survive. The goal of today is shine with the divine in the midst of the ordinary. You have a light within – nurture it and let it shine.

Follow the whole series here: http://vermonthillsumc.org/category/sacred-everyday/

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