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Squirrel-Hill-fire-2On Ascension Day this year, a fire broke out two buildings away from The Upper Room’s worship space. We were untouched, though the building that caught fire was completely destroyed. Friends, colleagues, and supporters asked me for days afterward if The Upper Room was affected. I reassured them that we were, though the theater next door will now be torn down and our block frankly looks blighted.

Strangely, the reaction I heard within our congregation makes me think we noticed the fire less than our friends and supporters from other neighborhoods. We cancelled our Ascension Day service, and I later heard a few people comment on the rubble outside. But I’ve yet to hear us express either hopes and visions or concerns and worries for what will come of ruined properties right beside us. We’re thankful our space didn’t burn, but I’m embarrassed to say we’ve shown little interest in others affected by the fire. And this makes me wonder . . .

What if The Upper Room’s worship space had burned down? Would we have searched for another space in Squirrel Hill? Would Squirrel Hill notice our absence? Who would care?

The possible answers to those questions make me queasy.

Seven years ago, as we started gathering the community that has become The Upper Room, I was reading Lesslie Newbigin. A twentieth century missionary from Scotland to India, Newbigin worked tirelessly to promote the unity of the Church and to strengthen its global witness. When he returned to the UK near the end of his career, he noticed the sharp decline of the Church in Europe. He observed then the reality that we’re now responding to by starting new worshiping communities like The Upper Room: our immediate context is a mission field.

Newbigin-Gospel Pluralist_Reprint_PB_04268.qxdIn Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, he argues that “The only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live it” (p. 227). In other words, the only way the world will see and understand what the Kingdom of God looks like is if members of a local church believe the Gospel and live it out earnestly together. And because a congregation exists in a specific, concrete place and time, the neighborhood in which a congregation gathers is the first set of eyes to see if we’re actually living out the Gospel as a community.

So Newbigin writes that this congregation

will be a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood. It will be the church for the specific place where it lives, not the church for those who wish to be members of it – or, rather, it will be for them insofar as they are willing to be for the wider community” (p.227)

For Newbigin, the local congregation ought to be “perceived in its own neighborhood as the place from which good news overflows in good action.” It’s “God’s embassy in a specific place.” We’re called to be a visible, tangible outpost of the Kingdom of God that anyone from our

So this begs the question: Who from Squirrel Hill would say that good news is overflowing from The Upper Room? I believe the youth at Allderdice High School who meet in our space each week with Young Life experience an overflow of good news. But who else?

I want to hear more voices answering that question. I want us to be more in touch with our community and context.

This doesn’t mean that we all have to move to or work in Squirrel Hill. (I myself live on the other side of Frick Park because we couldn’t afford a home in Squirrel Hill.) The Upper Room has members from all throughout the East End of Pittsburgh and all of our members have other spheres of influence that include other parts of the city. Newbigin himself acknowledges and blesses the plurality of places in which we live out our vocations. He even says that “the major impact of such congregations on the life of society as a whole is through the daily work of the members in their secular vocations” (p. 234, emphasis added). We celebrate this at The Upper Room through our monthly “Fruit We Bear” sessions – a portion of our worship service where members share how God is at work in their workplaces, families, and other spheres of influence. But as a church, as a community, this is a calling for us to attend together to Squirrel Hill. As Newbigin wrote above, our local congregation can be for us insofar as we “are willing to be for the wider community.”

When I welcome people to worship at The Upper Room each week, I often say that “we’re a community who does not exist for ourselves, but to glorify God and bear witness to Christ in this place.” Our place includes all the spaces where we individually work, live, and play. But as a congregation, our place is first Squirrel Hill, then the radius around Squirrel Hill in which most of us live. Will we be a community who does not live for itself? Can we be deeply involved in the concerns of our neighborhood? How will good news increasingly overflow from The Upper Room into the lives of our neighbors?

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It was a hectic morning. I’d overslept, our sixteen-month-old daughter had awakened early, and our small family was grasping for order amid the chaos of what promised to be another busy day. Trying to occupy her attention, I said,  “Why don’t we read a book?” She pointed at the bookcase, said “Book!” and proceeded to grab a copy of the Jesus Storybook BibleI opened the pages and started reading aloud. Most of the language was still far above her head, but it went straight to my heart. With a sigh of relief I thought, It’s refreshing to simply be told a story about Jesus.

Then I had a flashback. Ten years ago, I was working in a cafe in Boulder, CO. One weeknight during my closing shift, I was sweeping the floor and preparing to clean the sparsely filled cafe when I overheard a conversation between three customers. They were college-age women having a Bible study. One, who appeared to be the leader, was talking to the others who both listened attentively. As I tried to hear more, I noticed that all she was doing was telling them stories about Jesus. And the women she was speaking to kept asking questions curiously. They wanted to hear more about Him. It was beautiful. I could have continued sweeping for hours while eavesdropping on that conversation.

These two experiences stand in contrast with most of the conversations I overhear in the Church at large. We talk about a lot about things related to our life together, but it’s been a long time since I heard (or sadly, preached) a sermon that was only about how magnificent Jesus is. We have lots of good theological conversations at the seminary, but we constantly run the risk of reducing Jesus to a distant historical figure or a moral principle, instead of the compassionate divine lover of humankind that He is. This distancing of our conversation from Jesus seems to happen even more in the higher levels of the bureaucracy of denominations.

This weekend I’ll go to Detroit for the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I’m not a delegate; I’ll be there to represent and promote Pittsburgh Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative. There will be a lot of talk at General Assembly, good and bad, about a lot of different issues. I’ll even engage in some of those conversations. But I think we’ll all be better off – our hearts will be more joyful, the Church will be edified, our decisions will be more faithful – if we take moments this week to set aside those debates and instead focus upon Jesus. So here’s my suggestion:

If you’re attending General Assembly, try speaking about Jesus more than yourself and more than your agenda. I want to hear you tell me about Jesus. If you’re using Twitter or Facebook throughout the Assembly, hashtag your posts with #TellMeAboutJesus. For one example of a possible tweet, a member of my congregation whom I recently asked to simply tell me about Jesus responded with, “He’s the sort of person who, when he speaks, you want to hear more.” I’m thinking that if we at GA share such holy thoughts with one another, we’ll find ourselves caught up in surprisingly beautiful conversations. Perhaps we’ll even recognize Jesus’ presence with us more clearly. I pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire our words, and guard us against any blasphemy.

So here we go . . . Tell me about Jesus.  

For Christians, this is Holy Week. For Jews, this week is Passover. Two thousand years ago, these were the same events: Jesus’ celebration of Passover was at the center of the original Holy Week. Yet this week our Holy Week services at our church in Squirrel Hill will have a distinctly Christian flavor, while the Jews in our neighborhood will celebrate Passover according to their traditions. And though these two celebrations are deeply related, most of us will remain ignorant of what our neighbors are doing. Why is this? Should it really be this way?

Rabbi David Zaslow’s book Jesus: First-Century Rabbi seeks to remedy this ignorance by reminding its readers of the common heritage of Judaism and Christianity. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, and so were the first “Christians.” But since the first-century, the divide has continually grown between followers of Jesus and Jesus’ Jewish brothers and sisters. In some cases, this has led to tragically violent manifestations of anti-Semitism. Seeking to build bridges between Jews and Christians, Zaslow writes from a place of optimistic belief that deeper understanding of each other’s faiths can help lead us to greater harmony, calling us to “ask God together to turn Constantine’s sword into a pruning hook” (p.xxiv).

For one example of our common heritage which is relevant for this week, consider how Zaslow’s description of the Hebraic understanding of time illumines our understanding of Passover and our practice of Eucharist. At his last Passover meal, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying, “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” As Zaslow examines what remembrance would have meant to first-century Jews, he quotes Lawrence Hoffman, saying “the rabbis saw zikarone [remembrance] as anamnesis: making the past present. Continuing, Zaslow writes,

This same sense of anamnesis, time past experienced as time present, is central to the annual Passover seder, the yearly retelling of the Passover story accompanied by a festive meal in Jewish homes. In the Hagaddah, the book containing the stories and prayers to be read at the seder, it is written, ‘In every generation a person must regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt.’ The annual retelling of the Exodus story is accompanied by wine and foods emblematic of slavery and liberation, and has the effect of a spiritual time machine.  (p. 102)

This worldview in which zikarone makes the past present is the same worldview that enabled early Christians to speak of the “real presence” of Jesus in the bread and wine of communion. Though it runs contrary to the sensibilities of many modernist Protestants, this “spiritual time machine” was part of the worldview of the early Christians and is at the root of our practice of the Lord’s Supper.

Zaslow of course presents many other interesting examples of Jewish roots of Christian teaching which make it worth reading. But I have to observe that Jesus: First-Century Rabbi also has a few serious limitations. As a Christian, I found myself objecting to many of the caricatures of Christian theology Zaslow makes when comparing Christian beliefs to Jewish beliefs. There’s not room even in 200 pages to accomplish what Zaslow sets out to do, so doctrines such as the Trinity receive only two pages. Zaslow himself acknowledges his limits in the book’s introduction, and asks his readers to grant him some poetic license. I can do that in many places, but not all.

I struggled especially with Zaslow’s very short chapter on the Apostle Paul. Describing Paul as “antinomian,” Zaslow wonders, “Did Paul really love his own Jewish faith,or was he just pretending to practice Judaism in order to win people over to the new gospel?” (p. 174). Such a question reveals a very shallow reading of Paul. Zaslow makes no mention of Romans 9-11, where Paul himself shares his theology of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and expresses a deep yearning for his brothers and sisters to see Jesus as Lord. Why would Paul pretend to be Jewish when all that brought him was persecution? As he lists in 2 Corinthians 11, Paul endured floggings, stonings, sleeplessness, and hunger for the sake of telling others about Jesus. Zaslow writes wisely earlier in the book that “Christianity is at its best when it is expressed from the cross – from the place of sacrifice, suffering, failure, and not from a position of power” (p. 130). This was exactly the position taken by the Apostle Paul, who suffered even to the point of martyrdom for his faith in Jesus.

While I admire Zaslow’s bridge-building intentions, and am grateful for the insights this book gave me into the Jewish roots of Christianity, I cannot minimize the differences between our faiths as Zaslow wants to do. I grant that Jesus: First-Century Rabbi was supposed to be about the Jewishness of Jesus, not Paul, but Zaslow’s difficulty with Paul still reveals how great the difference is between Christianity and any other faith. So much depends upon how we answer Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” Zaslow writes from the perspective of one who believes Jesus was a righteous Jew. I read this book from the perspective of someone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God incarnate. I pray that this Passover, this Holy Week, God will grant Christians and Jews the grace to learn from each other and grow in relationship, while still answering Jesus’ question clearly and honestly. Who do we say that he is?

 

 


 

Thank you to Paraclete Press for sending me a review copy of Jesus: First Century Rabbi.

 

The House of St. Michael the Archangel just published an essay that I wrote called So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighted Down. It’s an extended meditation on  watchfulness, revolving around Jesus’ words in Luke 21:34: “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life.”  It’s also an invitation to repentance, to turn away from all the figurative and literal drunkenness of the world, and to instead receive the blessed inebriation of communion with Christ.

I wrote most of the essay months ago, but the timing of its release is perfect: Advent is an appropriate time to grow in watchfulness, as we “wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Hard copies are available for suggested donations of $6. A free pdf is also available. Both can be ordered here.

 

While you’re at the House of St. Michael’s website, also check out Shea Cole’s album of original worship music. It can also be downloaded for free, or hard copies are available for a suggested donation. (The cds make great Christmas presents, if you’re still shopping.)

When someone first visits The Upper Room, that person may not realize they’re in a Presbyterian congregation. It’s not because we hide that affiliation. We do talk about our connection with the denomination and our Presbyterian partner churches, and we share our gratitude for their support. But our worship services deliberately don’t feel like they come from any particular brand of Christianity. The focus is on Jesus, revealed in Word and Sacrament. No one comes to Upper Room because they want a Presbyterian church. We come because we’re seeking Jesus. While this lack of exclusive identification with a particular denomination is characteristic of our younger demographic, we’ve been shaped by historical forces that have been at work for centuries. American denominational relativism has its roots in events that took place three hundred years ago, such as the surprisingly trans-denominational Great Awakenings.

This week I read The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism by Harry S. Stout. (This book – and the one I wrote about last week, and the one I’ll write about next week – is part of the American Religious Biography class that I’m taking over at Pittsburgh Seminary.) Whitefield was ordained as an Anglican priest, but his itinerant preaching ministry brought him into fellowship with all branches of Protestantism throughout England and the colonies in the middle of the eighteenth century.

One of the first true celebrities in America, Whitefield dazzled audiences – or congregations – with his dramatic flair. His sermons were so infused with skills he had honed in his youthful studies of the theater that he took the art of communication in the pulpit into the realm of acting and entertainment. But because the content of his message was the proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ, those who heard him responded with emotionally infused conversion and repentance. These experiential responses to the proclamation of the Gospel made the institutions of the Church take a much less important role in how Americans understood their faith. As Stout explains,

In the evangelical parachurch, individual experience became the ultimate arbiter of authentic religious faith. Experience . . . came to be the legitimating mark of religion over and against family, communal covenants, traditional memberships, baptisms, or sacraments (p. 205).

Stout’s biography of Whitefield can be seen as an extended illustration of how this shift played out in the culture of the revivals. Whitefield prized his own religious experience, treasuring the exhilarating highs he experienced while preaching as evidence of God working in him. Whitefield valued this experience over family, being an absentee husband to a wife who could not come along for his endless travels. Concerning the sacraments, we’re left to assume that Whitefield deliberately chose not to over-think them. Stout disappointingly explains very little of Whitefield’s thoughts on the sacraments, but the fact that Whitefield was quite comfortable with Christians in traditions who understood the sacraments differently suggests that he saw them as secondary to the feelings engendered by passionate preaching of the Gospel.

It wasn’t that theology didn’t matter for Whitefield. He was a Calvinist who did not shy away from criticizing his friend John Wesley that Wesley’s ideas of Christian perfection. But Whitefield refused to connect his revival preaching to any one denomination. As Harry Stout poignantly observes, Whitefield also resisted the temptation to found his own denomination when he easily could have. One could be a Calvinist Anglican, or a Presbyterian, or a Congregationalist, and never feel that Whitefield was calling one to change denomination affiliation. In fact, at Whitefield’s funeral, an ecumenical mixture of pastors from those three denominations served as pallbearers for Whitefield’s body (Stout pp. 280-281). 

This matters for us today because many of these same values have been passed on through successive generations in American Christianity, for good and for ill. On the one hand, American evangelicalism still emphasizes the centrality of the Gospel rather than one exclusive institutional structure of the Church. On the other hand, these truths mean that many American Christians have a very shallow sense of ecclesiology. When we value personal experience over corporate experience, it’s easy to become consumers of religion. We “shop” for churches that meet “our needs,” or we seek entertainment in the musical or preaching styles of a congregation. This isn’t entirely bad. Whitefield did genuinely touch lives for Christ through his entertaining preaching. As the Apostle Paul wrote, what matters is that, “Christ is preached, and in this I rejoice” (Phil 1:8). But giving personal experience of faith priority over corporate experience of faith means we may under-value the importance of the Church.

While this is the legacy American Protestants and evangelicals have inherited, we should be discerning in which parts of it we pass on. To be true to Whitefield’s legacy,  we should remember that he was a loyal Anglican up to the point of his death. He chose to remain loyal even though jealous Anglican bishops actually incited mob violence against him and other revival preachers in England. Whitefield was among the early Methodists, a group which began as a revival-oriented anti-institution strain within the Anglican Church. In such a role, he challenged the institution, but did so in loyal opposition.

This suggests to me that Whitefield recognized his place in the Body of Christ. He knew the Body of Christ was larger than the skeleton of one denomination, so he could preach Christ to anyone who was willing to listen, and act charitably to (almost) anyone who believed in the same Lord. But he also knew that the Body needed structure, and that it would be inappropriate to say to that he, as a unique member of Christ did not belong to the rest of the Body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:15-20). In the face of all the individualism and entertainment that Whitefield ushered into the American Church, let’s not forget his deep sense of the necessity of connection to other believers.

Today is All Saints Day, the day when the Western Church remembers and celebrates all of the holy people through whom God has graced the Church throughout its centuries. I’ve observed this holiday casually in the past, but this year it’s taking on a new depth of meaning for me. Yesterday, I shared a post at the Conversations Journal Blog called “All Who Walk in the Way of Perfection.” In it, I wrote about how I’ve developed a relationship with St. Mark the Ascetic, or “Mark the Monk.” And I think relationship really is the proper word.  As Valerie Hess says in her All Saints Day post on the Conversations blog, the dead saints are alive in Christ, and the communion of saints which we confess in the Creed means that these heroes of the faith means that we can relate to them now just as we relate to our living brothers and sisters in Christ.
Recently I read another work by Mark the Monk which opened up the communion of the saints in an even deeper way for me. In a piece called “A Monastic Superior’s Disputation With an Attorney,” Mark presents an account of an elder monk debating the virtues of withdrawal from the world with a fairly worldly lawyer. Near the end, as the elder is debriefing the conversation with the monks who serve under him, the elder says this:
“Do you wish to know more fully and clearly how all the apostles have entered into communion with us by means of thought, word, and deed and how, through this communion, they have taken responsibility for our trials and temptations?  Using thought, they open up and explain the Scriptures for us, commending prophetic utterances, persuading us to believe in Christ as the Redeemer, giving us the assurance to worship him as Son of God by nature, praying for us, weeping, dying, and whatever other faithful actions come from thought.  By means of words they exhort, admonish, reproach, rebuke our lack of faith, cast in our teeth our ignorance, interpret the Scriptures, clarify the times, confess Christ, preaching that he is the crucified one, the incarnate Word . . . . By means of deed, they are persecuted, sneered at, made indigent, afflicted, mistreated, imprisoned, killed, and whatever other things they suffered on our behalf. In this way, then, for the sake of community, they accepted responsibility for our trials and temptations: ‘Whether we are being afflicted or whether we are being consoled,’ he says, ‘it is for your salvation and consolation’ [1 Cor 1.6]. They received the law from the Lord when he said, ‘No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ [Jn 15.13]. They themselves have handed on this law to us, saying, ‘If the Lord laid down his life for us, we too ought to lay down our lives for our brothers [1 Jn 3.16], and again, ‘Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ [Gal 6.2].” (Mark the Monk Counsels on the Spiritual Life [SVS Press 2009] pp. 248-289)
Mark says the apostles and saints take responsibility for us and our sanctification. This is in no way to suggest that they replace Christ as Savior, of have any power of their own to save us. But they are teachers with whom we can have personal relationships. Just as a teacher bears responsibility for his or her students, the saints bear responsibility for handing on the faith to us, and we bear the same responsibility for the sanctification of those whom we influence. At its best, this responsibility takes the form of conformity to the likeness of Christ, with these wise teachers laying down their lives for future generations of the Church, imitating and participating in what Christ did for all of us. The saints teach not in an impersonal way, merely passing along objective knowledge, but in a profoundly embodied way, suffering to bring us the Word.
This means that celebrating the communion with the saints is about more than recalling their examples. It’s about entering deeper into relationship with brothers and sisters in Christ who have shared Christ with us through their own sufferings. When we read the New Testament epistles, we’re direct beneficiaries of the sufferings Paul endured which shaped him into the likeness of Christ. Reading this quote from Mark together, we are all personal and direct recipients of the wisdom gained through Mark’s ascetic struggles. Twenty centuries later, those who read about the life of Mother Teresa become beneficiaries of her sufferings, gaining inspiration or encouragement from her. And each of these saints had earlier saints from whom they directly benefited. Mother Teresa was inspired by St. Therese of Lisieux. Mark the Monk may have been a disciple of St. John Chrysostom.  When we look the holy examples of the great cloud of witnesses around us, we in turn are shaped to become such witnesses for others. And as we’re shaped to become such witnesses, we start to bear the same responsibility to allow others to profit from our pursuit of Christ and sharing in His sufferings. Such grace and such responsibility fills me with thankfulness to God, and to all the saints. Let us keep the feast.

Worship should take us on a journey into the Light of the Kingdom of God. This movement towards heaven is the driving force behind Father Vassilios Papavassiliou’s new book Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church. At the surface level, the book is a clear and readable explanation of Orthodox beliefs and worship. But at the heart of the book lies an invitation to be transfigured in the Light of Christ through worship.

As the subtitle suggests, this book is an insider’s look at Orthodox liturgy. As an outsider, I found Papavassiliou’s descriptions of the liturgy clarified both my understanding of and questions about Orthodox worship. While I’ve read a good amount about Orthodoxy, I still feel dizzy when I have the cross-cultural experience of an Orthodox worship service.  When I’ve worshiped at Orthodox churches or at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary here in Pittsburgh, I’ve known that I should simply ask more questions, but I haven’t known where to begin. This book asks and answers many of those questions. Papavassiliou also has a gift for succinctly communicating Orthodox theology in ways that any Christian can understand, often using sidebars in the book for deeper explanations of certain topics. For example, the sidebar on page 22 is the most concise and clear explanation of the veneration of icons I’ve read.

Papavassilou also explains the nuances of what happens behind the iconostasis in ways that would enrich even an insider’s understanding of Orthodoxy.  For example, chapter 7 is dedicated to explaining the use of Psalm 50 (Psalm 51 in Hebrew and Protestant numbering) in the Divine Liturgy.  This psalm of repentance is recited before the consecration of Eucharist because, “It is repentance that opens the gates of heaven to us” (p. 65). But there’s more than meets the eye going on here: Anyone familiar with the psalm may have noticed that there seems to be a change in tone between verse 17 and verse 18.  Before this change we read “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (NASB). Then verse 19 speaks of God delighting in “righteous sacrifices, in burnt offering and whole burnt offering” and “young bulls” being offered on God’s altar. The first portion of this psalm is recited during the Divine Liturgy when the not-yet-consecrated communion elements are processed throughout the church. Then there is actually a pause between verses 17 and 18 during which the priest places the bread and wine upon the altar. Then he completes the psalm demonstrating symbolically that Christ is the one righteous sacrifice Who replaces all earthly sacrifices with the offering of Himself. As the book demonstrates, this sort of poetic beauty permeates Orthodox worship, with deeper nuances always awaiting discovery.

Such beauty is a reflection of the Light of the Kingdom, the Light into which worshipers enter through the liturgy. With the liturgy’s “very goal and purpose being participation in the divine Mysteries” (pp. 82-83), all of the elements of the service are explained as preparation for entry into the presence of Christ. The hymn which follows reception of communion says, “We have seen the true light! We have received the heavenly Spirit. We have found the true faith, as we worship the undivided Trinity. For the Trinity has saved us!” (p. 169). The reception of Christ in the Eucharist transfigures Christians that we may bear His Light to the world. And this means that there is a missional component to even the other-worldly worship of Orthodoxy. As Papavassiliou writes, “We leave the world that we may return to it renewed and illumined, fit to bring light to those in darkness” (p. 18). Amen. In the Lord’s light may we see light, and may others see Christ’s light in us.

(Thank you to Paraclete Press for sharing this book with me.)