July 17, 2008

Dear Centenary family,

Did you see it?  Last night (Wednesday) the moon was spectacular over Macon.  It had that golden glow as it sat low on the horizon.  Since Susan is away for a few days with some friends I could not help but think of that old jingle: 

I see the moon and the moon sees me.

The moon sees the one that I want to see.

God bless the moon and God bless me,

And God bless the one that I want to see.


Yes, I know.  It is pretty syrupy, isn?t it?  <S>


I find myself grateful these days? for deep belly laughs, for good salads, dear friends, a beautiful moon, a good life partner, the birds that eat a lot of sunflower seeds at our house, a fantastic dog, and even my dysfunctional cat.  You get the idea.  You can make your own list.


I want to live in rhythm and harmony with the earth.  That is something that most of us humans have not done well.  For about a million years we have related to the earth as if we were managers, administrators, regulators, or consumers.  The ?at-one-ness? with the earth does not come easy.  We live much of our lives as if we are strangers in a strange land.  We inhabit the land, but we are not fully in the land.  We are separate from the creation, above the creation.  No doubt, some of that spirit is coming back to haunt us now as the polar ice caps melt.  We are reaping what we have sown.


But we are people of hope, not despair.  Our lifestyles and sensitivities can change.  In so doing we honor God?s creation.  And God?s creation includes us! 


This Sunday I am preaching on ?The Hinge? of our faith? You will be hearing Bono?s ?I Still Haven?t Found What I?m Looking For?.  It is a great song with depth and spiritual longing.  We also will be singing ?Holy, Holy, Holy?.   It will be a good day.  I hope you will be in your place for worship.


Grace and peace.

Tim Bagwell

Love God.  Love others.  Love yourself.  Serve.




 July 24, 2008

Dear Centenary friends,

Dr. David Aiello, a professor of biology at Mercer and a part of the Centenary Community, and I have been talking for over a year about co-teaching a course on the connection between faith and science, particularly as it relates to evolution.  So, he and I made a commitment to work on this project in the fall so that we can share it with the Centenary congregation at some point after the first of next year.

Along the same line, I am teaching a 12-week course called ?Saving Jesus?, beginning  September 7 at 9:30 at Centenary.  The course is designed to question some of the presumptions and assumptions most of us grew up with about Jesus.  It focuses on the work of many Bible scholars and theologians and will be presented from a progressive theological viewpoint.  The course is not for the fainthearted and it is not for those who wish to avoid asking questions about faith.  The course is for those who love to engage in dialogue about research, anthropology, biblical research, sociology, archaeology, and want to allow those disciplines to inform their faith.  Openness to other voices is a prerequisite. 

The course is not designed to have everyone end up at the same place with a ?cookie cutter? understanding of who Jesus is.  If you are completely comfortable with where you are in terms of your understanding of the world, faith, Jesus, God and you don?t want the cart upset, this course is not for you.  The goal of the course is to allow this radical Jesus who calls us to commit our all to re-introduce himself to us, and to look at Jesus in the context of his time so that he can truly speak to us in our time.   Some of the assumptions and myths which have surrounded faith discussions will be stripped away. 

My conversation with David Aiello about the plans for the course on faith and science, along with the preparation I am doing for the ?Saving Jesus? course has caused me to begin thinking about some dishonesty in the church.  Those of us who are church professionals have been guilty at points of hiding the truth, particularly about Christian history and the Bible?s origins.  We justify our silence by saying that we don?t want to destroy the faith people depend on.   In reality what happens is that when people on their own begin to question what they have been taught by the church or orthodoxy and find the teaching to lack credibility, they reject the faith and the church as dishonest.  How tragic!  More damage has been done by the lack of biblical and theological integrity than we can ever imagine.  The reason the damage is so far-reaching is that our fear of controversy has driven us to teach a faith that is fragile because it is not based on an invitation to engage the conversation and the contradictions in the Bible.  We are guilty of misinterpretation of the Bible because we have not taught people how to read the Bible, with an eye always on the big picture.

Through the centuries, the Church has valued adherence to creeds, rules, structure, order, hierarchy, authority, and discipline over questions, searching, and relationship.  Think of it this way? If you are in a relationship with a significant other based on structure, rules, discipline, authority, hierarchy, order, and rule-following, what happens to that relationship?  If it is in the context of a relationship between a parent and a child, I can guarantee you that the child will have emotional problems for the rest of their lives AND the relationship with the parent will be distant at best.  If the significant relationship is with a husband/wife/partner then the relationship will either end in divorce court or will exist in a highly dysfunctional state of being.   It falls to logic, then, that if faith issues are taught primarily from the perspective of creeds, rules, structure, order, hierarchy, authority, correct belief, and discipline then it will ultimately do great damage to the relationship with God.  Is that not logical?

The church has viewed itself as the ?keeper? of truth, thus antagonizing and thwarting those who have questions about the mysteries of the faith.  Order has been valued more than honesty.  The Church has used and abused the Bible to bring order and discipline to those who dared question the orthodoxy of the church (which is many times NOT the orthodoxy of the Bible).  Such a perspective is disingenuous, dangerous, and dishonest. 

At Centenary, we embrace and are rediscovering ?the mysteries of faith.?  Liturgy and litany are designed not to give a closed understanding of what faith is.  Liturgy and litany invite questions and a dialogical relationship with God.  Is there only one way to understand God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit?  If so, which biblical perspective is true?  Is asking questions a sign of heresy?  I argue that failure to engage in meaningful questioning harms individuals and it harms the church as a whole.  The Bible is absolutely filled with questions, struggles, unresolved wonderings, wanderings, open-endedness, messiness, and a longing for relationship with this God who created us.  It is precisely the lack of order in various places throughout the biblical narrative that makes the Bible come alive.  The Bible does not exist to nail everything down.  We are drawn to the stories because they are what we experience.  If you read the Bible for facts and history, ultimately you will find yourself disappointed and bamboozled.  Read the Bible for its truth rather than its facts.

John Robinson (1575-1625) was pastor to the Pilgrims before they set sail to the New World on the Mayflower.  He dissented from the Church of England in some matters of theology, liturgy, and the interpretation of the Bible.  Before he sent the Pilgrims (which included his son, Isaac) to the new world he gave them this word:  ?The Lord hath more truth and light still to break forth from his holy word.?  I deeply believe that.  However, if one is bound by too many creeds, rules, structure, order, hierarchy (who hand down the truth), and authority (who guard the handed-down truth) then one cannot see or experience the ?more truth and light still to break forth from his holy word.? 

Since I have more thoughts on this, I will continue these thoughts next week? This is enough for now.  Suffice it to say that I am deeply grateful to be in a place where we are engaging the mysteries of the faith and where faith is not defined as adherence to a pre-defined and arbitrarily-set collection of beliefs.  Faith is much deeper than that!

This Sunday I will be preaching about the Kingdom of God from Matthew 13.  I hope you will be present!

Grace and peace.

Tim Bagwell

Love God.  Love Others.  Love Yourself.  Serve.



 July 31,2008

Dear Centenary Friends,

I love the church deeply.  But I also believe that at points the church can be quite delusional about its role in the world.  I have been reading a wonderful book by Debbie Blue titled From Stone to Living Word ? Letting the Bible Live Again.  Debbie writes:  ?It seems like the church has a reputation for being a place you go for answers, or to get your life straightened out.  That?s probably a lot because the church has encouraged this image itself.  Some churches promise this on billboards or cable TV:  Are you messed up?  Is your life in shambles?  Jesus can make a difference in your life right now, this minute.  A smiling man vows that his church is committed to helping every person, regardless of background and economic status, achieve his or her fullest potential? Call 1-800-555-5555.?

Blue continues:  ??I can?t help but thinking this is a misrepresentation of what faith is like?.  I agree with her.  What does it mean to straighten out life?  What does that look like?  Blue writes further:  ?I have hardly ever seen anything alive that seemed very straight or neat.?  Absolutely true!  There is an inherent messiness to life which belies easy answers.  Life is outrageous!  There is no such thing as a simple life.  Even after three intense years with Jesus, the disciples? lives were still a mess in many ways.  I don?t think anyone would define the disciples as having lives that were neat or straight.  Look at the record!   

I had lunch with a friend last week who talked about process in her life.  She celebrated how far she had come.  She also was disappointed and a little discouraged in not attaining more spiritually.  She expected an ever-present sense of peace because of her connection to God and her spiritual growth.  I shared with my friend that I believe peace is not a permanent state of being.  It is something we touch occasionally, and when it happens we are blessed by it.  However, this question begs to be asked:  Exactly what do stability and peace look like according to the New Testament?  Peter?  I don?t think so.  The Apostle Paul?  Guess again.  Mother Mary?  Give me a break.  Jesus?  Where did you get that idea?  Do you get my point?

Life is paradoxical:  inexplicable, lush, desperate, sad, happy, beautiful, scary, challenging, confusing, depressing, invigorating, wonderful.  Anyone who comes to faith with the expectation that faith will plant their feet on solid ground and will bring a peace that passes understanding as a continual state of being will find themselves very disappointed.  However, that sort of propaganda is what the church has ?sold? through the centuries.  It is a less than honest way of interpreting scripture.

What then is faith? What good does faith do?  Faith is not an ideology nor is it necessarily orthodoxy.  Dogma, ideology, and orthodoxy very quickly become idols.  James Alison, a British theologian and Catholic priest, defines faith this way:  ?Faith is not an assent to a set of propositions, an assent to live according to some sort of principle or practice, even ? It is a belief in an Other coming towards us and transforming us.  Faith depends on the reliability of the Other.  To have faith is VERY different from consenting to an ideology.?

A friend from Iowa recently reminded me of this wonderful story from Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain:  Huck is told by his Sunday School teacher that if he helps a runaway slave, he will go to hell.  (That position was orthodoxy in the church in the South.)  Huck spends a lot of time on the river with Jim, the runaway slave, and discovers through their relationship that Jim is not a bad guy.  In fact, he has a lot of wisdom.  Huck says later in the novel as he reflects on the Sunday School teacher?s rule:  ?All right? then I will go to hell.?  Could it be that Huck, in helping Jim and developing a friendship with Jim, was closer to heaven than that Sunday School teacher who taught orthodoxy as a way to attain faith?  (Thank you to Denny Coon for reminding me of this story!)

Hear this:  Jesus ignored purity laws.  He broke the rules.  He developed relationships with those who were ignored by the ones who wrote and followed the rules.  He loved a good party with sinners more than he enjoyed hanging out with religious professionals.  Faith, for Jesus, was far from ideology and orthodoxy.  His encounter with the Other was alive, vibrant, challenging, sometimes uneven, but very real.  Jesus danced with God.  Jesus helped others dance with God.  No doubt there was a sense of growing self awareness in his life? but at times he was frustrated, sad, angry, disappointed, hurt, betrayed, uncertain.  Those emotions are not the stuff that a ?peace that passes understanding? is made of.

So, what did the church through the centuries do with this Jesus?  We took this unorthodox, dancing  Jesus and made him orthodox.  Creeds and ideologies sprang up all over the place.  The Jesus who challenged the rules was transformed into the one who was the focus of the rules.  That which was intended to be movement, Spirit, dynamic, dancing, and relationship became rules and creed.  The creeds then became ways to determine who was ?in? and who was ?out? because creeds defined ?correct belief.?  Correct belief was orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy was determined by whoever was in power at a given time.   The Jesus who questioned and rejected orthodoxy and rules, became the object of orthodoxy and rules.  Ironic, isn?t it?

My heart is full these days.  Jesus is out of a pre-defined box for me.  Life is good, but that does not mean that I live life in a state of peace that passes understanding.  In fact, I find God and God finds me in the messiness of my life.  Faith, for me, is a dance with God, not easily defined.  I try to let God do most of the leading, but occasionally sometimes I wrest the lead away from God.  When I lead, the dance becomes very awkward.  But even in the awkwardness God does not leave the dance floor.  And how many times have I stepped on the toes of God in this dance?  This dance is communal, more than it is personal.  Many others are involved in the dance.  The dance is not one of rigid structures, nor is it based on a strict and unbending set of rules.  No doubt, sometimes my dance with God must look pretty ridiculous.  So be it.  I can live with that.  Let me re-phrase that last sentence:  I live BECAUSE of that.

Interested in joining the dance?  Centenary Church is inviting you to a dance ? with God and the rest of us.  The set dance steps and the dance orthodoxy of Arthur Murray don?t work well on the dance floor.  Loosen up? Rumba, Polka, the two step, a waltz step, the twist? Will someone teach us how to do the Charleston?  How about some Saturday Night Fever disco?...  Maybe the Bunny Hop?  Occasionally we might even break into a line dance!  Can you feel the rhythm?  Get up!  Let?s dance with God.   And remember this:  Your dance does not have to look like the other dancers.  Thanks be to God!

This Sunday I will be preaching on Jacob?s wrestling match with God.  We will be celebrating the mystery of Holy Communion.  I hope you will be present.  Spread the word and invite someone to join you.

Grace and peace.

Tim Bagwell

Love God.  Love Others.  Love Yourself.  Serve.