“The Ministry of Not Giving Up”

So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” —Galatians 6: 9

My mother-in-law is 86. Every day she engages in some form of political protest, such as contacting her representatives by phone or writing them a letter. This is part of her personal faith discipline. Continue reading

Paul on the Relationship of Christians to the Civil Authorities in Romans 13:1-7

Chapter 13.1-7 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans has been highly controversial and is a good subject for a lively conversation on just how Christians should view the government. The Christians that Paul is writing to lived in Rome, the capitol of the world’s biggest empire. Christians claimed that “Jesus is Lord,” the title that the Roman emperor, seen as a divinity, required. Could one say both “Caesar is Lord” and “Jesus is Lord?” Paul would say no, “there is one Lord, Jesus Christ.” So was simply being a Christian an act of sedition against the state?

If this new transformed community said that Jesus, rather than Caesar, is the true Lord how shall they live in the heart of the empire? This is what Paul was addressing in Chapter 13.1-7. Continue reading

Mike Maguire and Me: Recollections from Long Ago

mikeI heard two items of news last week that started me recollecting about events in my life when I was a young man.

The first item of news was that the members of the South Deerfield Congregational Church voted last Sunday to close the church by the end of the year. The second item of news was that peace activist Fr. Daniel Berrigan had died at the age of 94.

I will try to tell a story that connects these seemingly unrelated news items. To tell it right I have to go back a few years. Continue reading

“The God of the Far Off” Toward the Ministry of Inclusion

Prodigal sonWhat an extraordinary week this has been for our country! The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth liked to admonish the church that it must read both the Bible and the newspaper, because we Christians live in the world.

And what a week of news it was! There were two historic Supreme Court decisions that will change our national life in significant, and in my opinion, profoundly positive, ways.

On Thursday, by a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, which makes health care available to all Americans.

And on Friday, by a 5-4 decision, Marriage Equality became the law of the land.

The reason I am here before you instead of our pastor Brent Damrow is that he is in Cleveland at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, representing the Massachusetts Conference. I am sure he will have stories to tell about the celebrations taking place there, as our national church has been a long and tireless advocate for equal rights for the LGBT community and a supporter  of marriage equality.

I believe that these two historic Supreme Court decisions share a common idea, and that is the idea of “inclusion.”

And a third extraordinary event in our national life also happened on Friday. President Obama climbed into the bully pulpit in Charleston, South Carolina to give the eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emmanuel AME Church who, along with eight of his congregants, was murdered by a gunman while attending a Bible study at the church on June 17.

President Obama gave a stirring eulogy for Pastor Pinkney, but he was addressing not only those present, but also the nation. I’d like to share with you some excerpts of his eulogy:

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston . . . .the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he (the alleged murderer) failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace . . .

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace . . .

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

Martha and I were driving to Onota Lake in Pittsfield for a walk on Friday when the President’s eulogy came on the radio. We got to the parking lot at the boat ramp, but we didn’t get out of the car. We sat in the car until it was over, and when it was over I had tears streaming from my eyes.

The President was addressing the painful facts of racial relations in today’s America. He mentioned that in response to the massacre at the church the Confederate flag had been taken down in the South Carolina capitol and elsewhere. That flag, he said, was a symbol of our nation’s “original sin,” slavery.

The president had both the Bible and the newspaper in mind as he gave this incandescent speech. I don’t know of such a theologically astute presidential address since Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural.

And once again I would argue that inclusion is the big idea that binds all these events together. Inclusion.

I believe in the power of ideas to shape societies, and, as my teacher, mentor and friend, Max Stackhouse taught me, to examine where they come from and what they mean. So I want to do a little bit of that with you today about the idea of inclusion. Continue reading

“The Cross and the Church: The Soteriology and Ecclesiology of P. T. Forsyth”

Forsyth(Note: This article first appeared in the Andover Newton Review in 1992 (Vol 3, No. 1). It is the fruit of essays I wrote for my tutor the Revd. Donald Norwood during my 1989 sabbatical at Mansfield College, Oxford. I want to thank Professor Max Stackhouse for inviting me to submit it. This is the first time it is available on the Internet. RLF)

Part 1 The Church and Our Redemption

 The British Congregationalist P. T. Forsyth, 1848-1921, is above all a theologian of the cross, and it is this soteriological focus that dominates his understanding of the church. The church was created by the saving work of Christ, and, therefore, for Forsyth, it has no other principle or foundation. Everything in, of and about the church is informed by the work of Christ; questions of polity, ecumenism, church and state, ethics, the ministry, the sacraments, all these are seen through the lens of Christ’s atonement. Since Forsyth’s view of the atonement is profoundly corporate and universal, so too his understanding of the church is corporate and universal. This understanding of a corporate and universal church created by a divine act in the atoning cross of Christ gives Forsyth’s theology a truly catholic and truly evangelical character and accounts for his continued appeal to several branches of the church as a significant ecumenical theologian for our time. Continue reading

“By Their Groups Ye Shall Know Them”: Celebrating Max L. Stackhouse

Max Stackhouse FlyerWe had a very moving day today, as we celebrated Max Stackhouse at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ,  in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, first in our morning worship, then followed by a first-rate public lecture on Public Theology by his former student, Dr. Scott Paeth, one of the editors of a new anthology of Max’s writings, Shaping Public Theology (Eerdmans, 2014). It was not lost on many of us that we were hearing about Public Theology in the congregation where Jonathan Edwards was the second pastor and Reinhold Niebuhr was a member.

Max, and his wife Jean, are well-loved, long-time members of this congregation, and many friends, former students, and colleagues were there. There was very special music from some of Jean’s colleagues at the New England Conservatory, and a beautiful letter/tribute was read from Yo Yo Ma, a board member of BITA, who was unable to be there because he was performing in Cleveland. It was a red letter day. Thanks to my pastor Brent Damrow for putting it all together and for giving me the opportunity to say a few words. Here they are:

“By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Matthew 7:20

 Max’s mentor, James Luther Adams, liked to expand on Jesus’s words “By their fruits ye shall know them” to say, “By their groups ye shall know them.” For me to list all the groups, societies, and institutions Max has founded or been active in would use up all my allotted time this morning

So I’d like to highlight two groups that Max and Jean created here in the Berkshires. When they moved here they planned monthly gatherings of the United Church of Christ clergy and their families in their home on Sunday nights. We’d all share a potluck supper, and then the children would retire to watch a video (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was a favorite), and the weary pastors and spouses would go to the living room and enjoy friendship and good conversation.

The very first time we went there I firmly instructed my kids during the car ride to address Max and Jean as “Dr. and Mrs. Stackhouse.” When Max greeted us at the front door he knelt down low and said to them “We lived in India, and in India the children call grown-ups Auntie or Uncle, so you can call me Uncle Max.” Andrew nodded soberly and said, “OK, Dr. Stackhouse.” Those gatherings were a blessing to me and to my family, and to many clergy colleagues.

You all know about Max and Jean’s wonderful organization The Berkshire Institute for Theology and the Arts (BITA) that brought together artists, lay people, pastors and scholars for discussions, performances and fellowship. Again Max and Jean opened their home for a meal to the participants.

I mention these to illustrate the commitment that Max (and Jean, too) have to bringing people together to think and talk about important matters, and to share their life with others. Wherever they have lived or traveled around the world, and that list is also huge, they have made deep friendships and countless connections with all sorts of people.

I must confess that in addition to being my teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend, Max is also “a voice in my head.” I think Scott (Paeth) and other former students of Max will recognize how the Stackhousian voice lingers long after the studies are over.

What does this voice say? Well, to take just one example, Max, who is the son and grandson of Methodist preachers has an allergy to hyper-individualistic religion. “Pietism” is the word he uses to describe such impulses.

“Pietism” is a perennial danger for Christians and a regular feature of American religion, where the emphasis is on me: my faith, my experiences. So the Stackhousian voice in my head sometimes says things to me like, “Be careful, Rick, that your faith doesn’t become too individualistic, too private, because faith, though personal, is not private. Your faith is about you, but it’s not all about you.”

Some view a congregation as a collection of beautiful cut flowers collected as in a vase. The beauty is in the individual spirituality, which each person brings to make a beautiful bouquet.

Max, or at least the Stackhousian voice in my head, rejects that view. For Max participation in a congregation is more corporate and organic than that. He might prefer to think of us more like a tree with common roots.

He wants us to think of ourselves as bound together by shared covenants and commitments that are thicker and more transcendent than the sum total of our individual spiritualities. Which is to say that our personal faith is shaped, formed, strengthened and enriched in life together as a congregation.

He wants us to always be asking big questions, such as, “What does it mean to live life together under God?” “What does it mean to be the body of Christ?” He wants us to think about important words such as covenant and vocation.

He believes that out of this shared life and these deep conversations comes a world-transforming Christianity, like that of our Reformed and Puritan forbears, that helps shape our larger community and society.

You can read in Max’s many books the arc of his Christian Social Ethics, but you can also clearly see in his life and commitments the embodiment of his thinking, the caring for peoples and societies by attending to the way they organize themselves and by how they think about who they are together under God.

I give thanks to God for Max’s part, and Jean’s too, in my life and the lives of my family, and also in the life of this congregation. Amen.

(For a podcast of the whole service go here)

Remembering Rubem Alves (1933-2014)

Rubem AlvesRubem Alves, the Brazilian writer and theologian, died last week at the age of 80. I had the privilege to get to know him during one of his visits to the United States in the early 1980’s. He came to Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine, where I was the chaplain at the time. One of my unofficial duties was showing hospitality to visiting scholars, and so over the course of a week or so, I shared several meals with him and  drove him around town to see the sights. I remember I took him shopping for his family at T. J. Maxx. He had a shopping list from his wife, and was very methodical about what to bring home to Brazil.

He was one of the most intellectually curious people I have ever met. A professor of philosophy, he was interested in literature, music (he wrote eloquently about Vivaldi), education and psychoanalysis (in which he was trained.) He was such great company, full of ideas and ready to discuss a world of topics. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a great laugh

He loved poetry and his 2002 book, The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet (SCM Classics) is an important work in the field of theopoetics.  He went on to publish over 40 books on a wide variety of subjects.  A popular lecturer and speaker he was also a columnist for his local newspaper.

He is often credited as one of the founders of liberation theology and his dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary was later published under the title A Theology of Human Hope (Corpus Books, 1969) with a foreword by Harvey Cox. It was an important early work in English on the subject.

I just learned of his death from a tweet from the World Council of Churches, memorializing his many contributions to the ecumenical movement. The remembrance of him from the WCC can be found here.

I recall him with great affection and give thanks to God for him.

Here is a quote of his:

“Let us plant dates even though those who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see. . . . Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries, and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.” (From There is A Season by Joan Chittister)