Friday, December 29, 2006

Issue #3

December 18, 2006

There’s more to spending a winter season in Southern California than Bermuda shorts and flip-flops. A host of new opportunities for educational advancement present themselves daily. For instance, there is the didactic diversion that comes from attempting to decipher messages encoded on the plethora of personalized license plates that populate the premises. It can be seen as a kind of spiritual practice that helps to pass time spent idling in the massive traffic jams that are as ubiquitous as the sun and smog.

My favorite so far appeared on the back of a modest sedan that raced by me at somewhere close to 90 mph, the publicly determined speed limit out here. The plate announced: ERGO SUM2. As it quickly faded into the distance, I mused on the ecumenical hospitality contained in that statement. Binding yourself to others, all others apparently in this case, seemed a most authentically Christ-like endeavor.

Recently, a bumper sticker on a Mercedes Benz caught my eye with a similar, if less subtle, message. It was written out most distinctively with symbols from various schools of religious and non-religious thought. It looked like this:I was particularly taken by this clever and crucial message that offers, I believe, the only possible strategy for achieving peace on earth.

Progressive Christianity has aligned itself with the kind of deep ecumenism that is declared in this bumper sticker. At the outset, such sentiment seems self-evident. After all, any liberal worth his/her salt will willingly agree that all systems of belief deserve equal billing. But a closer examination reveals a number of problems inherent in this deep ecumenism. Progressive Christians must consider the ramifications of this alignment.

In worship practice, particularly in hymnody, references to the primary status of Jesus for all the world’s inhabitants, not just Christians, is problematic. Singing of Jesus as Christ the King or Lord of All will be offensive to advocates of this deep ecumenism. Creedal statements that place Jesus as the only son of God are equally complicated. But these difficulties pale in comparison to a far more fundamental issue that many Christians, Progressive or not, would just as soon avoid.

What happens when we honor a religious tradition that does not reciprocate our noble action? What happens when we place equal value on a religious tradition that actively seeks to annihilate our own tradition? Doesn’t this very real possibility make deep ecumenism unrealistic and deserving of its dismissal by conventional Christian thinking?

The life and teachings of Jesus do not allow such an easy release from deep ecumenism’s radical approach to coexistence. Before the mythologies and subsequent theologies surrounding Jesus’ death developed, there was the unassailable fact that Jesus did indeed die. A study of the gospel accounts reveals the disappointment the disciples felt in Jesus’ unwillingness to fight against the forces that sought his demise. The fundamental unfairness, both of Pilate’s decree and the religious establishment’s victory, surely must have tried the disciples’ commitment to loving one’s enemy or turning a cheek. And yet out of Jesus’ unwillingness to engage in the politics of violence, a powerful force for good was realized and a new movement was born, a movement that changed the course of history.

Jesus’ actions, in the face of those who sought to destroy him, serve as a deeply disturbing paradox for all those who claim allegiance to the life and teachings of Jesus.

It is a paradox that leads to the question: Are we willing to let our own religious traditions die in the hope of a resurrection into peaceful coexistence?

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Julia Sweeney, of Saturday Night Live fame, has just released a CD of her Broadway show, “Letting Go of God”. I commend it to you as a light-hearted way of dealing with some very profound issues.

Issue #2

December 11, 2006

Yesterday during worship, as I was preparing to receive the holy meal, I found myself singing a song whose melody moved and warmed me but whose words left me cold and confused. I suspect, for many, the Agnus Dei is a favorite part of the liturgy. Sung as we move forward to receive the bread and wine, it evokes a deep and profound alignment with two thousand years of tradition. And yet it also proclaims a bizarre understanding of the death of Jesus, embracing images of sacrificial appeasement that have no place in the theology of many who are committed to following the life and teachings of Jesus.

So what is the Progressive Christian to do when confronted with the kinds of incongruities that infuse so much of our liturgies and hymns causing such internal theological turbulence?

This common quandary is often confronted with the less than helpful suggestion that we not pay attention to the actual words of a particularly disconcerting hymn. Although my religious tradition is infamous for doctrinal battles over the placement of commas let alone the choice of words, such a request seems more than slightly incongruent, even downright dishonest.

Believing what we sing and singing what we believe is an integral part of living an authentic life. A religious practice enmeshed in duplicity and pretense can never provide a foundation for true spiritual growth.

The eminent Lutheran theologian, Joseph Sittler, once told me that his growing blindness was not as debilitating as one might think. Indeed, he suggested, there were even some benefits to his lack of sight. No more must he know all the words of any hymn, he told me. Now he simply sang the alphabetical “ABCs” to whatever melody was being sung. His strategy wasn’t based on a conflicted theology…at least he didn’t say so…but the technique is one the Progressive Christian might employ when encountering problematic lyrics in worship.

Far more fulfilling, it seems to me, is to find language and symbols that best portray our progressive faith. Here in Advent, many congregations include the pre-Christmas chestnut “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in their worship services. Such a choice is sure to please the traditionalists among the crowds but stop for a moment and ponder on the actual lyrics. I love the image of Christ as Emmanuel, that is, “God with us” …but what follows is a decidedly different understanding of the work of Jesus than mine… “and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.”

The Biblical images employed here date back to the pre-Christian prophets who yearned for a revitalized commitment to the God of Abraham. Nevertheless it is the atonement theme that is predominant for Christians. A ransom must be paid in order to free us from our enslavement to sin. Fair enough, if you buy into that kind of sadistic thinking, but isn’t it time we divorced ourselves from proclaiming the sad state (pun intended) of Israel? Symbols and metaphors must constantly be reappraised as to their effectiveness.

To equate the ancient situation of the Israelites in captivity in Babylon with the orthodox Christian understanding of an existential bondage to sin may work in seminary classrooms but rarely in sanctuaries. In a world where any newspaper contains daily accounts of atrocities in Israeli-held Palestinian communities, bemoaning Israel’s fate seems very strange indeed. (Yes, I fully understand the mutuality of the violence in Palestine but why must we Christians constantly appear, through our liturgy and hymns, to support only one side?)

One of the challenges of Progressive Christianity is to create new hymns and liturgies that are both beautiful and, even more importantly, authentic to the life and teachings of Jesus. This is happening. There is a growing number of congregations, pastors, musicians and theologians who are developing precisely such products. Occasionally, such authenticity even sneaks into traditional congregations. Take note of the following Advent hymn I encountered not too long ago on a Progressive Christian website ( Such work is very encouraging.

Dreamers, Awake This Holy Day
Tune: Dove of Peace ("I Come with Joy")
Words: © Bill LeMosy, 2005Texts: Psalm 126:1; Isaiah 61:1 ff.

Dreamers, awake this holy day,
Your hope comes as the dew.
A Spirit comes upon you now
To move you forth anew,
To move you forth anew.

So, face the Advent wilderness
Wherein you now are born.
The gracious One empowers you
As people of the morn,
As people of the morn.

The hungry ones shall walk with you
As sisters, brothers true.
The homeless too, the tired and lame,
Shall find God’s love in you,
Shall find God’s love in you.

Be not dismayed if you should fall,
For Christ the Lord does lead.
You still shall travel by his grace
And captives shall be freed,
And captives shall be freed.

Now, hold the dream within your soul
And with your feet do pray.
The Christ who comes now brings you home
Here in our present day,
Here in our present day.

The words for "Dreamers, Awake This Holy Day" are by William B. LeMosy, Copyright (c) 2006. Permission is granted for one-time use. For further permission, please contact him at .

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Issue #1

December 4, 2006

This past weekend I attended the 10th anniversary celebration of Progressive Christians Uniting in Pasadena, California. PCU was founded by two formative figures in the practice of Progressive Christianity, Dr. John Cobb of The Claremont School of Theology and George Regas, Rector Emeritus of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. (Regas, some of you may be aware, has recently come under fire by the I.R.S. for preaching a sermon that was, in that giant bureaucracy’s strange collective mind, deemed too political. Never mind the rantings of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Ted Haggard and the like.)

It was a small but enthusiastic gathering that highlighted the development of Progressive Christianity in Southern California. Most memorable for me was something Regas said in his brief presentation. He stressed the importance of combining a rigorous and clear progressive theology with a prophetic and disciplined religious practice. It was, he stressed, a deep and profound love of the Church that propelled him into action, even when his actions brought discomfort and even discord to his congregation.

It is with that same affection that I begin this occasional series on the impact of Progressive Christianity in the life of the parish. My reflections are based on 25 years of ordained ministry nearly all of it served in one congregation, Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church in Dillon, Colorado.

Over the years, I have sought to find ways of integrating my enthusiasm for a radically different understanding of Christianity with the practices of congregational life, particularly, but not exclusively, as it pertained to communal worship.

When one is captivated by the teachings of Jesus rather than the teachings about Jesus, one recognizes a distinct incongruence between the words of Jesus and the words of worship. Why, for instance, do we continue to employ creeds that give virtually no nod to what Jesus taught? Why are our hymns consumed by understandings that have nothing to do with the authentic teachings of Jesus? Why does our liturgy continue to focus on the strange, even bizarre, idea of atonement?

An excellent example of this incongruity comes in the recent introduction of the new Lutheran worship book. At first glance, a plethora of possibilities appears included among the liturgies presented but upon closer inspection one quickly realizes that they are all based on the same tired theology. How wonderful it would have been to have even one worship setting devoted to the teachings of Jesus. A liturgy based on The Beatitudes, for instance, might have provided some sustenance to those of us who find the continued emphasis on sin and redemption something less than satisfying or, more importantly, even consistent with the authentic teachings of Jesus.

In Lutheran circles, many congregations have been profoundly moved by Marty Haugen’s innovative vesper service, Holden Evening Prayer. A quick study reveals that this beautiful and brief liturgy is shaped not by the traditional emphasis on the depravity of humankind and the need for blood sacrifice but rather on the joy inherent in serving others, the pleasure found in creation, the call to peace and justice making. Why can’t our official liturgies share that same combination of prophetic witness, theological integrity and liturgical beauty? Again, for some of us who continue to dare lay claim to Christianity, such a combination in far more indicative of the call of Christ than what we hear on most Sundays.

Actually, many of us often do hear powerful sermons that call us to precisely the path of following Jesus, but then we quickly retreat with references to a religion that bears little relevance for the 21st century. The Words of Institution, so deeply imbedded in our communal consciousness, drip with doctrinal claims that many of us suspect are not authentic to Jesus. Must our celebration around the table always be prescribed by the divine demand of human sacrifice? Can’t it occasionally be shaped solely as a celebration of commonality?

Such is the challenge of practicing Progressive Christianity amidst our cherished denominations. There are many who suggest that such an endeavor should be conducted outside the traditional churches. Indeed, there are some who claim that Progressive Christianity has no right to even claim the Christian mantle. But there are those of us, admittedly sometimes very few, who believe that Christianity is a dynamic movement that, if it seeks to be guided by the authentic teachings of Jesus, must not to remain mired in archaic world-views or antiquated religious practices.

At this past weekend’s conference, a young Methodist pastor, bright, articulate and deeply inspiring, proclaimed, “I am surrounded by people who think they know enough about Christianity not to want to be Christian.”

I share her experience and seek to find ways of offering a Christian alternative that is both intriguing to others and authentic to Jesus.It is with that goal that I write this and ensuing epistles.