Sunday, November 29, 2009

Keeping the Faith Alive

Judges 2:10 "Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel."

"Anne Robertson!" I turned around at the large reception to see the man who had been my homeroom teacher in the seventh grade. "I thought about you just this morning," he said. "I was looking through old faculty pictures for tonight's celebration and I saw your parents' pictures. I remember you came a year early. Seventh grade and only 11 years old, but smart as a whip. 1970."

I was stunned. I knew many of my teachers very, very well. With parents on the high school faculty for their entire careers, my teachers were often friends of the family as well, and there are many I count as friends today. But my 7th grade homeroom teacher was not on that list. I don't remember even seeing him after I left middle school. But here he was at the 75th anniversary celebration of the founding of Coventry High School remembering me, the year I was in his class, and even my age.

It was an evening of such memories: The best principal on the planet, Jim DiPrete (pictured with me here), who talked about my mother's amazing skills and reliability as a colleague. The oh-so-patient Chemistry teacher and Student Council Advisor who was first taught by my father before he came to teach me. The teachers and students gone but not forgotten. The teacher who had never met me but who was consistently beaten by my father in ping pong.

Those people are why I went--to remember who I was and where I came from. To be among those who carry memories and perspectives of both me and my parents that I can get in no other way. To remember that our school motto was "Ad astra per aspera," "To the stars through difficulty," and to realize how true that was and is.

We all have our own memories, but it takes a community to keep them alive and vibrant. And of course there are those like my mother whose mind and memories have been taken from her. It is the job of her community to remember for her, just as we remember for and with each other. And memories were passed along. The most recent graduates were there along with a woman from the very first graduating class of 1935. We heard about her class and about the classes of the 40's, 50's and every decade since. Our own experiences were reinforced and given meaning and our memories were expanded both forward and backward--putting our lives in a greater context of shared community.

The Bible is full of places where God has people set up markers to hold the memory of events. Sometimes it was a physical marker, like a pile of stones or a special altar. Sometimes it was a festival like Passover or Pentecost. Sometimes it was the instruction to keep telling future generations, as in Deuteronomy 6:4ff where God instructs that the command to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, be said every morning and every evening and taught to all children. And of course there is the Bible itself, with scores of authors wanting to be sure that events and people and principles were remembered in certain ways.

The above passage from Judges stunned me when I first read it. How was it possible that a generation grew up that "did not know the Lord?" It was a catastrophic failure of community memory. For whatever reasons, a generation stopped sharing their memories, or shared them only with themselves and not with new generations. We know from the Bible itself that there were long stretches of time when the festivals were not celebrated and nobody even knew the Torah existed.

As our culture both inside and outside the church goes through a paradigm shift, it would be all too easy to allow another generation to grow up that "did not know the Lord." That doesn't mean our traditions can't change, but it does mean that if the pile of stones that used to mark an event has crumbled, the stones should not be tossed but should be reformed into something new. We are the keepers of the faith memory, both for those who have set it aside or had it beaten out of them, and for those just being born who do not know.

We need to gather to remember the stories and the people and our own "Ad astra per aspera," which might be translated to faith as "Take up your cross and follow me." When people return to faith communities they should be filled with the memories of why they came, not with flashbacks of why they left. We must help each other remember who and whose we are.

At the anniversary party I learned that my beloved principal was on Facebook and the minute I got home I sent him a friend request. Our churches should inspire us to do the same with Jesus. Rekindle the memory. Share the stories. Teach the children.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I just sent out a Thanksgiving e-card to the SpiritWalkers e-mail subscription list. I'm hoping it will work to link to it here as well.

Wishing all of you thankful hearts and open hands as God's blessings pour down.

Click here to view the card.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Trick or Treat

John 3:17 "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."

Last week the Vatican condemned Halloween. Of course if you have been reading SpiritWalkers over the years, you know my connection to Halloween and the sacred moments I've had with the holiday. Sure, there are depraved souls who use the holiday as an excuse to do depraved things, but I found nothing to condemn in the parade of children who came to my door on Saturday night. Even the banter with the teen who came late and tried to convince me that he deserved all the rest of my candy because he was last was fun.

So although I wanted to write a defense of the celebration, I've done that before. But really, the problem I have with the Vatican's proclamation is bigger than the issue of Halloween. I'm simply tired of the Church and the Christians within it condemning things. It seems to many that we are all trick and no treat.

The Massachusetts Bible Society which I lead just produced a video on biblical interpretation with Liz Walker Journey Productions, called "One Book, Many Voices." Copies will be available on Amazon by Thanksgiving, I hope. In that video, three biblical scholars express their views on the "I am the Way" text in John 14:6. Tony Campolo's view stuck with me. While he takes a standard evangelical interpretation of the text, meaning Jesus is the only way to salvation, he also takes a step back when considering what that means for those who are not Christian.

"I don't know," he says in the video. "And what's more, I'm not about to condemn them. I find that too many of my evangelical friends are in the condemning business. Jesus was quite clear that he came into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world. And if Jesus didn't come to condemn people, we shouldn't be in that business either." While my own interpretation of the I am the Way text is different (as you can read in God With Skin On), I am completely on board with his comments on condemnation. Christians should get out of that business. It is much more destructive than Halloween.

Perhaps you have heard about the ad campaign that began in the New York City subways on Oct. 26. The ad being plastered in trains and stations is "No God, No Guilt, De-Baptize." It's part of the new, and often quite militant, atheist movement. They have invented a ritual for people to remove their baptism and renounce Christian faith. Dealing with that issue needs its own post (are they saying that mass murderers should have no guilt because there is no God?), but for my purposes here, I want to simply observe that much of what the new atheist movement is reacting against is the Christian penchant for condemning people.

Our public persona has caused people to view us as the people of "Thou Shalt Not." When Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest, he didn't pick any of the host of negative ones. He didn't even pick any of the Ten Commandments. He reached to Deuteronomy 6:5, to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and Leviticus 19:18, to love your neighbor as yourself. Love, not condemnation is what Jesus thought was most important.

We don't get extra brownie points with God for every person whose sin we expose or for every practice we declare incompatible with Christian teaching. God isn't impressed with our seeming ability to discern who God loves and who is hell-bound. And neither are those outside of Christian faith. Our zealous condemning merely reminds them of why they are quite happy to be free of such a mean-spirited, negative bunch of people.

Of course not all of us fit that stereotype, but until the rest of us follow Tony Campolo's lead and object to all the condemnation that is occurring in Christ's name, we will continue to be seen as the people of "Thou shalt not" instead of the people of "Love your neighbor." And more people will propose ad campaigns like, "No God, No Guilt."

On Halloween night, everyone coming to my door received treats, whether they were dressed like Tinkerbell or Freddy Krueger. Let's do the same in our churches. Let's leave judgment in God's hands and spread God's love to everyone--not just those in the costumes we approve.

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