Annunciation

Annunciation. That is what we call the angel Gabriel’s message to the virgin Mary in Luke’s Gospel story (Luke 1:26-38). In Matthew’s version, it is only related that “an angel” came to Joseph to tell him that Mary would bear a son, not by Joseph’s act but by the work of the Holy Spirit. All of this was to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that “”a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)

Embellished in poems, liturgies, stories, songs, paintings and sculptures for centuries since, it is also an ethical and theological stumbling block for many, including me. It is yet another image of a male sovereign violating the integrity of a woman for his own purposes. The violations of biological science are merely additional burdens the story must bear. And yet it has walked the corridors of my imagination all these years, thanks not only to Botticelli and the Renaissance masters, but also to this stunning sculpture by my friend Charles McCollough, which was presented to me on my retirement from Andover Newton Theological School. It is only now, however, that I have finally made a proper pedestal for it, bringing her gasp and her stunned hand closer to my eyes, lifted up, so to speak, on angels’ wings.

And now it continues to provoke me. Separated out from the gender politics and scientific critique, it speaks to an even more universal religious question: How am I to be a bearer of the divine creativity in this world? The Annunciation tells us that we will be taken wholly by surprise by God’s answer to this question. It will stop our words in our throats. It will cause us to clutch our gut. It will drive us to our knees. We will not understand it until we search our distant past and attend on our distant future. And even then our understanding of the meaning of our life’s work is stunted by the limits of our minds and hearts.

Gabriel was not offering a proposal or a contract. He was simply announcing. It was left to Mary only to ponder it in her heart, to wonder, to “bear” this news until it issued in painful birth and painful death. And so we are offered a glimpse into our own bearing of whatever mysterious vocation is ours. The faith for which Mary is honored is a form of knowledge in only the sketchiest sense—the knowledge that she has been called into a mystery. The model of faith she gives us is more simply to live with and into whatever working of God is going on in our life and that our life participates in a wider work that brings the creation closer to its ultimate fullness and beauty. And so we gasp, and clutch, and kneel in pain. Waiting. Hoping. Becoming the beauty the world longs for.

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Yet, We Live

During this season of Lent we have been visually inspired by Sylvia’s newest piece, hanging in the midst of our sanctuary at First United Methodist Church, Waynesville. Entitled “Yet, We Live,” it seems to grow out of the whitened, ash-like branches of a tree known as a contorted filbert. An overlay of netting contains a series of crosses against the purple tones of the silk fabric.

In her description, Sylvia pointed out that “On Ash Wednesday we are marked with ashes and reminded that we are made of dust, and will return to dust. The purple silk hanging over the altar table, with its shadows of crosses and dry branches, reminds us that we walk Christ’s passion road through Lent and Holy Week. Lest we succumb to despair as we annually rehearse this cycle of life and death, we also remember the promise of new life as we await the breakthrough of light and renewal on Easter.”

This is a time when we place our own dark shadows and struggles within the larger drama in which the very Creator of all life struggles with us and  indeed bears with us the signs of our own dying as well as the hope and intimations of the deeper life from which we spring and to which we return. We are especially aware that we walk this dying way with a planet that is struggling to stay in harmony with the system of life in which we humans have emerged. All around us are the forces of fear and violence that would extinguish this life for the sake of a vain and transient self-glorification. But the God of all returns again and again to whisper and reveal, “yet shall you live.”

 

 

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Disciplines in Transformation

I am in the process of preparing my significant out-of-print publications for a renewed presence in the internet marketplace. For me it is a time of harvesting and gathering-in, no longer the forest-dweller of Hindu life stages, but not quite the renunciation of the sannyasin either. The tools of our contemporary technology, no matter how vilified or abused, offer writers a chance to preserve their major work for historians, students, or the wandering bibliophiles that still roam our world. I will report on that venture as I move along in the coming months. The first document to reach the light is a slightly revised and extensively re-formatted version of my first book, published by University Press of America in 1979. The cover alone, developed by Sylvia and my graphic arts wizard daughter Aneliese, is worth the price!

Over the past forty years, Disciplines in Transformation: A Guide to Theology and the Behavioral Sciences, which I wrote with T. J. Bachmeyer, has proven to be a helpful resource for people seeking to navigate the intricate relationships between theological disciplines and the behavioral sciences. Tim was my colleague at St. Francis Seminary School of Pastoral Ministry in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where we developed an ambitious curriculum in the 1970s that forms the basis for this work. Even after Disciplines went out of print, photocopies circulated in some reaches in the educational universe. It seems to me that it can still provide a unique theoretical framework for approaching these issues. Whether individuals or libraries want to have it for its wealth of retrospective material or for its analytic perspective, it is in easy reach, now listed on Amazon.

In a fairly short compass (one reviewer noted that if it were by a German academic it would have been three volumes), it lays out a typology for ordering the domains of Christianity, personality, and society. It argues that these realms are composed not only of theories but of practices and fundamental commitments, ordered in various ways. It then shows how they can  be knit together into “trilateral” packages to provide a more embracing grasp of the world known through these disciplines. In doing so, it provides a navigational and critical guide to the issues that arise in this interdisciplinary, constructive task.

We were very gratified by the extensive critical analysis of Disciplines that the Roman Catholic theologian Gregory Baum provided in his own journal, The Ecumenist. Here are some snippets from his report and from other reviews.

“…a remarkable ecumenical book on trilateral theological analysis…” “…an excellent introduction, in simple language, into trilateral interdisciplinary research and reflection, a stimulating guide to creative theological thinking, and a useful educational instrument to initiate students to trilateral analysis in the training for ministry.”

Gregory Baum, The Ecumenist. v. 19, No. 5/July-August 1981

“…the reader finds a good deal of helpful information which surely must prove broadening for a lot of social science practitioners.” “…these structures [of trilateral analysis] do stimulate imaginative reflections well worth the time of someone who works on the frontiers of science and religion.”

Paul J. Philibert, O.P., S.T.D., Social Thought, Spring 1981

“For anyone interested in the interchange between theology and the behavioral sciences, this study by Everett and Bachmeyer is essential reading.”

Leonard J. Weber, Horizons: The Journal of the College Theology Society, Vol. 7, No. 2. (Fall 1980)

“…[a] work of immense breadth and significance.” “…the authors…develop their position with immense care, complexity, and sophistication.” “…this book can function in a remarkably clarifying way for the organization and development of sound interdisciplinary work.” “…this book is certainly a giant step forward toward a more truly comprehensive, accurate, and critical interdisciplinary dialogue between theology and the behavioral sciences—in their practical as well as reflective dimensions.”

Pastoral Psychology

“…a very important book, carefully and systematically executed, providing a framework to make explicit the implicit and undeveloped relationship between these three disciplines.”

Stuart D. McLean, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

“In spite of its broad contents and sophisticated analysis of theology, psychology, and sociology, this book is immensely readable.”

John D. Carter, Journal of Psychology and Theology, 9/1, (Spring 1981).

Disciplines formed the foundational method by which I subsequently constructed my work in marriage and family, religion and public life, ecology, and worship and ethics. It was the first in time, aside from my dissertation on the body metaphor in ecclesiology and society, and it also underlay the rest of my academic work.

 

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A Conversation in the Midst of Conflict

As many of you know, my denomination, the United Methodist Church, recently held a special General Conference to try to find a way to enable its far-flung membership in the North Atlantic, Africa, and the Philippines to live in the same church connection in spite of their deep differences over the full inclusion of people regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation. You may also know that the Conference failed in that effort, tightening its restrictions and setting up the conditions for major splintering of an organizational form last re-shaped in 1968.

As a prelude to that Conference, my own congregation fostered a month of conversations at round tables using a circle conversation format to help people “listen with love” across differences about these sensitive issues. No matter what happened at the General Conference we wanted to be prepared to live and work together as a church seeking full inclusion of people. As part of that program I spent two evenings in a public conversation with my dear friend Wilson Strickhausen exploring these issues from very different vantage points rooted in our very different biographies. While we have been in this kind of conversation for some years, we hoped that it might offer people a model for deepening mutual understanding among our fellow Methodists.

The 30 minute conversations were recorded and are available to view on YouTube. The first conversation focused on how our very different backgrounds have shaped the way we approach these matters. In the second conversation we took up questions about Biblical teachings submitted to us by the some 200 people participating in this series. (Click on the highlighted segments in this paragraph to see them.)

It is too early to discern the outcomes of this traumatic General Conference, in which people who had prayed and worshipped together ended up deeply hurting one another, subjecting Christ’s Body once again to the trauma of our alienations. Some major structural changes will probably result in order to enable people nurtured in the Methodist tradition to work on common projects and respect very different approaches to the status and role of sexual minorities in the church and society.

Two things have struck me in these recent debates. First has to do with the role of circle conversation in dealing with social conflict. Over the past 25 years circle conversations have become for me a kind of sacrament in which the spirit of reconciliation can find a purchase in our daily relationships. It is a practice of mutual respect, affirmation of equality, articulation of deep understandings and hopes — the indispensable ground for just and lasting covenants of restoration. That is, it is a good in itself, grounded in our character as human beings and in God’s character as the source of all creation and renewal.

That being said, those of us supporting circle conversations also hope that it can solve our conflicts in a more direct manner. By weaving it into institutional life we hope that it can immediately and tangibly resolve deep disputes. Clearly, this did not happen for the Methodists in General Conference. As powerful as the experience of conversation in circle may be, it too can be perverted or rejected in the cauldron of fears, ideological certainty, cultural commitments, and zero-sum democratic process that characterize our institutional life.

We can respond to this fact in part by rehearsing how we move from conversation to argument. The capacity to argue, to persuade through appeal to commonly held facts and beliefs, is essential to the political ideal of governance through councils, congresses, and conventions. Too many of us have lost the capacity to argue because we have retreated to claims based on our personal feelings, on special beliefs, or the appeal to biologically-rooted identities. We can at least start there. How to repair and reshape our decision-making processes to enable argument to proceed is yet an additional step.

The second thing I have been thinking about is a theological matter affecting arguments over sexuality, faith, and the church. In our differences and often confused conversation about sexuality and faith we are confronting what theologians call the relationship of “nature” and “grace.” What is “natural” for human beings? Is there a single natural form for sexual relationship? Are there numerous natural forms that arise from a deeper natural impulse for enduring union with another? We confront here various understandings of the “natural,” whether from the standpoint of Genesis, of St. Paul’s teachings, or contemporary science.

We then have to ask whether our understanding of human nature defines the shape of God’s “grace.” Is our nature the container of God’s grace or does God’s grace overflow and redefine our understanding of our nature? St. Thomas argued that God’s grace “perfects” or completes our nature. What does this mean with regard to our sexual relationships?

Moreover, what does “grace” mean? Is it simply the grace of a judge that forgoes punishment? This is the classic forensic notion permeating so much of Christianity. Or is grace the continual operation of God’s creativity in bringing the whole creation to some kind of unimaginable fruition?

The movement of Christian renewal inaugurated by the Wesleys in the 18th century did not tarry long with reflections over our nature, flawed and incomplete as it is. They emphasized the overwhelming grace of an accepting God who is seeking to perfect our lives toward a promised new creation. It seems to me, in the midst of this trauma, conflict, and confusion, it’s a claim worth lifting up and celebrating. Whatever are sexual natures may be, I want to keep on celebrating that grace.

 

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