Translating the theology of Incarnation into prayer and a way of life

December 27, 2010

At the religious center of the Christmas festival is an idea—that the eternal God comes to live among us embodied in the life of a human being just like us. That person, of course, is Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph.

Classic Christian faith affirms that the Incarnation, this indwelling of God in human flesh, extends beyond the unique and definitive form that we celebrate in the Christmas festival. All who become members of the community inspired by Jesus’ life receive the same Spirit that fully enlivened the Bethlehem baby who became the man of Nazareth. We learn to live the Incarnation and through our efforts the Spirit of the eternal God is brought into the life of the world.

This understanding of the theological heart of Christmas was renewed in my mind at the communion table on Sunday, the day after Christmas this year. The setting was University Christian Church in Seattle. This congregation follows a liturgical discipline in which leaders of the congregation choose the language of the devotions and prayers.

The words spoken at the table on this Sunday were seriously theological even though they use a vocabulary drawn from ordinary life experience rather than the technical language often used at the communion tables.

The first set of words were described as “Invitation to Communion” and were spoken responsively by leader and congregants. (They come from The Work of Christmas by Howard Thurman.) “The Prayer of Thanksgiving” was offered by the elder for the day. The congregation sang the Lord’s Prayer (the well-known setting by Malotte), and the pastor spoke the Words of Institution while breaking the bread, following Jesus’ example. The communion trays with unfermented grape juice and gluten-free bread were passed among congregants.

This Christmas celebration of the church’s distinctive meal was devotionally satisfying and theologically appropriate—a liturgy well suited to the season and setting.

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry;

To release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brother, to make music in the heart.

Dear God, we gather around your table this day after Christmas, this day when our waiting and preparing and celebrating is nearly done, when we begin to clean up and put away the special things.

We gather for this most ordinary meal, bread and juice, reminded again that the most ordinary can be transformed by your grace into the most holy.

We thank you now for this meal, and for the One it embodies: our Messiah, the Prince of Peace, the Light of the World.

Give us the faith and courage of Mary and Joseph, two ordinary people who welcomed the Christ Child into their lives, who risked social ostracism and political persecution while they went about the ordinary tasks of raising a child up into a man.

As we share this meal, so empower us to go about the ordinary tasks of welcoming Jesus, of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, doing justice, and proclaiming that the Prince of Peace lives. Amen


Jesus on a bicycle (by Yusuf Grillo)

December 22, 2010

“Flight” . . . design by Yusuf Grillo of Nigeria, contributed to benefit UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund

I bought the UNICEF Christmas card with Grillo’s painting more than thirty years ago, and it continues to be one of my most cherished depictions of Jesus. As a work of art, it is striking in its composition, color, and emotional impact. As a theological statement, it surpasses most sermons and carols of the season.

By depicting the holy family as African, Grillo expresses the principle of incarnation. In Jesus, God comes to each of us in a humanity that is exactly like our own—Nigerian, Chinese, American, Albanian, Korean.

By putting Jesus and his parents on a bicycle—all three of them on one bike intended for one rider—the artist conveys their poverty in a way that people of many cultures understand. When all of a family’s possessions can be contained in a box hanging from the saddle, life is being lived on the edge.

The bicycle overcomes the time barrier. Of course, Joseph didn’t have a bike (or that kind of hand saw, either). It doesn’t matter. The holy family of Bethlehem comes to life anew in every time and place, in modes that are characteristic of life right now.

Even if we did not know the story that the painting depicts, the portrait is eloquent in its implications. The biblical narrative, told in Matthew 2:13-23, conveys the terror that forced Joseph to hurry southward into hiding in Egypt rather than returning to his Nazareth home in the north. For the first two years of his life, Jesus lived as a refugee far from home.

It could be said that he is always a refugee. “This world is not my home,” the Spiritual tells us. It wasn’t Jesus’ home, either. Yet, he came to live among us, “full of grace and truth,” experiencing the fullness of life, its high moments and its times of despair. No matter where we are going, irrespective of our mode of travel, the Incarnate One, whose first trip was on a bicycle, travels with us.

Thank you, Yusuf Grillo, for helping us to draw closer to Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem, and Egypt, and everywhere.


Progressive Christians Reclaim the Lord’s Prayer

December 20, 2010

Every Sunday one short prayer, which in English begins “Our Father in heaven,” is said by worshipers in churches of almost every kind around the world. In many orders of worship, this prayer is part of the devotional beginning of the service and in others it is recited as the conclusion to the long prayer of praise and intercession. In most published orders for celebrating the Lord’s Supper, this prayer is the concluding portion of the Great Thanksgiving Prayer, providing a way for all of the worshiping congregation to join in this prayer at the climax of Christian worship.

In some progressive churches, however, this prayer is either omitted or modified. The problem is the way it begins, with the title that Jesus used as his ordinary way of addressing God: Our Father in heaven…” In a world when so many people have experienced abuse by their fathers, the objection goes, how can we ask them to use this title for God? They answer their own question by abandoning the prayer completely or by altering the address—“God our parent,” “Holy One,” or “Eternal Friend.”

Another course of action is implied in John Dominic Crossan’s book The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer. While he says very little about the liturgical use of this brief prayer from the lips of Jesus, he does provide a way to understand it so that its metaphoric language is redeemed and Progressive Christians can restore it to their public services of praise.

Early in the book, Crossan states his central claim: “What if the Lord’s Prayer is neither a Jewish prayer for Jews nor yet a Christian prayer for Christians? What if it is—as this book suggests—a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world? What if it is—as this book suggests—a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth?” (p. 2).

Near the end of the book (pp. 181-2), he summarizes the themes that he has explored in considerable detail.

1.     God the Father is to be understood as God the Householder of the World whose justice and righteousness mean that “it is only just and right that all who dwell together—in household or Household—have enough.”

2.     Made in the image of God, “we are to collaborate with God as appointed stewards of a world that we must maintain in justice and equity.”

3.     When Jesus is called the “Son” of God, the meaning is that he is “the Heir of God, the divine Householder of the World.”

4.     “Christians are called to collaborate with Christ as the Heir of God.” We are to participate in the kingdom of God understood as eschaton, as “the Great Divine Cleanup of the World.”

5.     The Abba prayer “is both a revolutionary manifesto and a hymn of hope not just for Christianity, but for all the world.”

In their worship and theology, progressive Christians have to decide whether to interpret God according to our human experience or to shape our human life according to our spiritual and theological experience. When Jesus prayed “Our Father,” was he praying to a glorified form of Joseph the carpenter? Is “Our Father in heaven” to be understood as my earthly father, or anybody’s earthly father, made into the standard of parental love?”

It ought to work the other way. In our prayers and systematic thought we come to understand what fatherliness really is. Even when our own life experience has been troubled or deficient, we can find some resolution in the one Father whose love is never tough but always gentle, who always reaches down, takes us by the hand, and helps us walk.

Most progressive Christians seem able to refer to the church as a family despite the fact that many families have been abusive, and we can gather at the table to eat together in Christ’s name even though some people go hungry or find their own little tables to be scenes of diminishment and despair. Progressive Christians can use Christ’s family and Christ’s table as examples for transformation of our own broken or diminished experience.

So too, if I understand Crossan, we can continue to crown our services of worship with the revolutionary prayer from the lips of Jesus, saying, “Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come…” 


Bishop Pike and a new kind of church in America

December 13, 2010

For the national news media, Eugene Carson Blake’s sermon at Grace Cathedral (December 4, 1960) was a major story to be reported as quickly as possible. So too for the Christian Century, the most important journal of opinion in American Protestantism. It took a couple of weeks, however, for editor Harold E. Fey to bring his editorial correspondence into print. In the same issue of his journal (December 21, 1960), however, the article that generated an even greater response was Bishop James A. Pike’s contribution to the Century’s series “How My Mind Has Changed.”

Although the article—“Three-Pronged Synthesis”—had been written and scheduled before the Blake proposal and its impact could have been anticipated, its appearance in tandem with the event at his church was providential. Unlike Blake, who continued at the center of the Consultation on Church Union, Pike was not a member of his church’s delegation. In his Century essay, however, he advocated ideas and practices which were to be at the center of the debates that were to come.

“As to church unity,” Pike wrote, “I am impatient with the snail-like progress on the national level in discussions of various joint committees. Hence I have tried to make every breakthrough I could, in affiliation, in relationship.” An example was his extending of Episcopal orders (ordained status) to the Methodist chaplain of Mills College across the Bay in Oakland, who is “still a good Methodist.”

The second example was eucharistic hospitality. “I believe that the Holy Table is not an Episcopal Table but the Lord’s Table. I have told my pastors that they can announce that adult communicants of other communions who agree that God in Christ really acts in the sacrament (as most of the principle traditions really affirm) and who (like Episcopalians also should) repent of their sins, may be admitted to Holy Communion.”

At that time, I was a doctoral candidate in Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion and on a few occasions attended Holy Communion at Grace Cathedral. The worship bulletin extended this invitation, and years before this kind of hospitality had become common practice I experienced brief moments of inclusion in an extended family that I had never known.

Acknowledging that “denominational guardians of tradition” in his church and others did not like this kind of ecumenicity, Pike then declared: “I shall go on doing the best I can to affirm the fact that all baptized Christians who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are members of the holy catholic church; and if our national bodies can’t grasp this fact, we shall still do our best in the diocese of California to operate on that principle.”

Pike also spoke to the issue of bishops in the life of the church, advancing a point of view that expressed much of the spirit of Blake’s proposal concerning the kind of episcopal office the united church would include. “I’m not prelatical,” Pike wrote, but “I do believe in the experience through most of the centuries and at present in 90 per cent of the whole Christian church of a pastor pastorum. I try to be a good pastor to my 150 clergy families. I do not see a similar officer for the churches not having bishops. There is something existential about this that makes me feel that there has been a divine wisdom in the continuity of the episcopate—not only for pastoral reasons but also in terms of a witness to the fact that the church is a body, not simply a committee of like-thinking people.”

“I just know that there is something different about the relationship I have to my job and to my mission and to my clergy than a transferable and re-electable executive secretary has.”

Pike concluded his essay by declaring (using phrases from his church’s vocabulary) that he was more broad church than he had formerly been in that “I know less than I used to think I knew; I have become in a measure a ‘liberal’ in theology.” He was also more low church “in that I cannot view divided and particular denominations as paramount in terms of the end-view of Christ’s church, and I do regard the gospel as the all-important and as the only final thing.” He was also more high church “in that I value the forms of the continuous life of the catholic church as best meeting the needs of people and best expressing the unity of Christ’s church. These forms include liturgical expression and the episcopate.”

Although many people were deeply distressed by this essay, others found it to be a way of anticipating the future. In more ways than anyone at that time could have anticipated, Bishop Pike and his community of believers in Northern California were forerunners of the church that the Consultation on Church Union would try to bring into being.

Note: The image is taken from David M. Robertson’s book A Passionate Pilgrim: A Biography of Bishop James A. Pike (Alfred A. Knoff, 2004).


Remembering our fathers

December 10, 2010

In a recent blog, Dave Moulton remembers his father whose tough love had made Dave’s early life very difficult. The comments elicited by the column are deeply moving, at least to anyone who reflects upon fatherhood. Dave and the respondents prompted me to send my own comment for posting with Dave’s column.

My father’s dreams of being a mathematics professor, or at least a public school teacher, were destroyed by an increasingly disabling medical condition that now is politely called seizure syndrome. The best he could do to eke out a livelihood for his family was work as farm laborer in a succession of short-time jobs.

One was shoveling manure out of milking barns at Alpenrose Dairy in Portland, Oregon. On SW 45th Avenue, which ran between the dairy and the formerly abandoned farmhouse where we lived, he taught me to ride a bicycle. He was a harsh disciplinarian. Life was hard at our house. But I was free and my coaster brake Schwinn was my freedom machine. After World War II, when he worked in the shipyards, he faded out of the picture. I often wonder what his life–and our family’s–would have been like if he had been able to pursue his dreams.

My favorite ride is a hard climb on Skyline Drive overlooking Portland, past the cemetery where he and my mother are buried. Sometimes I stop to stand at their graves to ponder the mysteries of life in families.

Although I am confident that I have been a better father than he, I often wonder how many scars my children carry as a result of my fatherly shortcomings. One good thing I did was teach them all how to ride a bicycle–and I used exactly the same method that my father had used for me.

My dad–Harold S. Watkins–was born on November 22, 1906. He would have been 104 years old this year. In these pictures, taken in the early 1930s, he was in his late twenties and I was quite a bit younger than I am now. The infant is my sister Anne, now deceased. It takes only a little imagination to think that he’s wearing a cyclist’s cap.


A Sermon to Transform the American Church

December 6, 2010

In the 1950s two preachers commanded national attention because of their advocacy, in the name of the Gospel, of theological, cultural, political, and societal issues that challenged conventional American attitudes. In anticipation of a national gathering of church leaders in his city, one of them, James A. Pike bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, invited the other, Presbyterian Eugene Carson Blake, to preach during the Holy Eucharist at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. In an earlier column, I  state why this sermon (preached fifty years ago, December 4, 1960) was so important. In this column I provide excerpts from the sermon.

The Proposal: “Led, I pray by the Holy Spirit, I propose to the Protestant Episcopal Church that it together with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America invite the Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ to form with us a plan of union both catholic and reformed on the basis of principles I shall later in this sermon suggest. Any other churches which find they can accept both the principles and the plan would also be warmly invited to unite with us.”

Why Union? “I am moved by the conviction that Jesus Christ, whom all of us confess as our divine Lord and Saviour, wills that his church be one. This does not mean that his church must be uniform, authoritarian, or a single mammoth organization. But it does mean that our separate organizations, however much we sincerely try to cooperate in councils, present a tragically divided church to a tragically divided world.”

“Never before have so many Americans agreed that the Christian churches, divided as they are, cannot be trusted to bring to the American people an objective and authentic word of God on a political issue. Americans more than ever see the churches of Jesus Christ as competing social groups pulling and hauling, propagandizing and pressuring for their own organizational advantages.”

Principles: “Let me begin by re-emphasizing the requirement that a reunited church must be both reformed and catholic. If at this time we are to begin to bridge over the chasm of the Reformation, those of us who are of the Reformation tradition must recapture an appreciation of all that has been preserved by the catholic parts of the church; and equally those of the catholic tradition must be willing to accept and take to themselves as of God all that nearly five hundred years of Reformation has contributed to the renewal of the church.”

Cutting the Gordian Knot: “I propose that, without adopting any particular theology of historical succession, the reunited church shall provide at its inception for the consecration of all its bishops by bishops and presbyters both in the apostolic succession and out of it from all over the world, from all Christian churches which would authorize or permit them to take part.”

“I mention first this principle of visible and historical continuity not because it is necessarily the most important to the catholic Christian but because it is the only basis on which a broad reunion can take place, and because it is and will continue to be the most difficult catholic conviction for evangelicals to understand and to accept. My proposal is simply to cut the Gordian knot of hundreds of years of controversy by establishing in the united church an historic ministry recognized by all without doubt or scruple. The necessary safeguards and controls of such a ministry will become clear when I am listing the principles of reunion that catholic-minded Christians must grant to evangelicals if there is to be reunion between them.”

Worship: “In worship there is great value in a commonly used, loved, and recognized liturgy. But such liturgy ought not to be imposed by authority or to be made binding upon the Holy Spirit or the congregations. More and more it would be our hope that in such a church, as is here proposed, there would be developed common ways of worship both historical and freshly inspired. But history proves too well that imposed liturgy like imposed formulation of doctrine often destroys the very unity it is designed to strengthen.”

Notes: In my search for an online publication of this sermon, I have found only one, a “full text of the sermon,” that was printed twenty-five years later in “The Ecumenical Review” 38/2 (April 1986), 140-148. Copyright restrictions do not allow me to post this document, but I will continue my efforts to find a copy that can be posted. The photo owned by Presbyterian Historical Society is published in “Eugene Carson Blake” by R. Douglas Brackenridge.


Increasing the odds of safe cycling: a response to the OHSU report

December 2, 2010

What can aggressive cyclists do to improve their chances of commuting safely in Portland, Oregon? This is the question that all serious bicycle commuters should be asking in response to “Bicycle Commuter Injury Prevention: It Is Time to Focus on the Environment,” a research project by people based at Oregon Health and Science University. The study, which took place from September 2007 to August 2008,  examines the experiences of 962 adult bicyclists in Portland, Oregon, who commuted a monthly average of 135 miles to school or work. The researchers draw three conclusions:

“Approximately 20% of bicycle commuters experienced a traumatic event and 5% required medical attention during 1 year of commuting.

“Traumatic events were not related to rider demographics, safety practices, and experience levels.

“These results imply that injury prevention should focus on improving the safety of the bicycle commuting environment.”

This study deserves careful attention because it was (1) done by a team with good credentials, (2) using reliable methods for data collection and evaluation,  (3) supported by knowledgeable use of results gathered by other studies, (4) submitted to peers both in public forum and publication in a professional journal, and (5) written to attract the attention of the general public in Portland and of agencies and personnel who deal with matters related to bicycling in this city and across North America.

My first response to this report is dismay. Is it really true that 20% of commuters will suffer bicycle-related trauma every year? What should we conclude from the findings that age and other demographical practices, experience of the cyclists, and their safety practices make no difference? If it is really the case that there is a higher incidence of trauma while cycling in bike lanes and boulevards, how should cyclists and transportation officials respond?

My second response is a strong desire to examine this report carefully in order to discern more clearly what it means for aggressive cyclists like me. In a subsequent column I will clarify the definitions used by the researchers, highlight the facts they report, suggest matters that may not appear, point to assumption by the researchers, and evaluate the conclusions they draw.

This second response is prompted, in part, by my experience a few years ago when examining the report of a longitudinal study published by a major medical journal and widely reported in the press. While the conclusions reported in the press were supported by the study, one contrary finding–the one that described my condition–was not mentioned in newspaper articles. If I had not examined the report itself, I might have failed to take potentially life-saving action.

I can’t help but wonder if the same might be true with respect to the OHSU report on cycling in Portland.

My third response, is to follow the lead offered by one of the respondents when the OHSU team presented their study to professional peers. Fortunately, their report includes a transcript of this discussion, which may be as important as the formal report for cyclists and public officials. I want to believe that there are ways for serious cyclists to increase their safety odds.

My credentials for this series of columns are my forty years as aggressive cyclist, during which I have logged approximately 150,000 bicycle miles throughout the United States and Canada. For twenty-five years I commuted to the Indianapolis campus where I taught, a six-mile round trip through a residential community on streets with no provision for bicyclists. Despite heat in summer and cold in winter, I commuted year round, except for a few days each year when the streets were slick.

Although now retired, I continue a commute-like ride on Portland streets two days a week. On Thursday afternoons I cycle across the I-5 bridge, along Marine Drive, to the Oregon Food Bank, a round trip of twelve miles. On Fridays, I cycle across the bridge at 6:00 am, travel through Delta Park and then Vancouver Avenue or Interstate Avenue to a scheduled breakfast meeting at NE 10th and Broadway, a round trip of twenty miles. My frequent trips by bicycle through downtown Portland ordinarily take me south on Broadway and north on 10th or 4th Avenue. I have cycled many miles in highly disciplined circumstances and am well-read in a wide range of cycling literature

During my forty-year history as cyclist and thirty years as commuter, with a yearly average of 1,000 miles a year, I have suffered only two events that the OHSU study would classify as traumatic. If there’s something I can do to keep on cycling safely, that’s what I want to do!

Notes: An editorial in The Oregonian called my attention to the OHSU study, and a link in BikePortland.com provides access to the report, which was published in The Journal of TRAUMA, Injury, Infection, and Critical Care in November 2010. The image at the top of the column comes from 100 Years of Bicycle Posters, edited by Jack Rennert.