Friday, December 30, 2016

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

2016 JSOR, Beaverton, OR: Christianity, God, and the Future of Religion

Joseph Bessler and David Galston presented at our Jesus Seminar on the Road, November 4-5, 2016. Both scholars were generous in allowing me permission to post their powerpoint presentations and accompanying audio.

The event was entitled, Christianity, God, and the Future of Religion.

Here is more information about Westar "Home of the Jesus Seminar."

Friday Night Session:  David Galston, "Introducing the Historical Jesus"
Powerpoint    Audio

Saturday 9:30 am Session: Joseph Bessler, "How Jesus Became Plato and God a Platonist"
Powerpoint    Audio

Saturday 11 am Session: Joseph Bessler, "The Historical Jesus and the Rise of Modern Civil Society"
Powerpoint   Audio

Saturday 1:30 pm Session:  David Galston, "Trajectories for God's Human Future"
Powerpoint    Audio

You might also be interested in their books:

David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity

Interview with David about this book on Religion For Life

David Galston, God's Human Future: The Struggle to Define Theology Today

Interview with David about this book on Progressive Spirit

Joseph Bessler, A Scandalous Jesus:  How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better

Two-part interview with Joseph about this book on Religion For Life.  Part One & Part Two

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

JSOR 2016, Beaverton, David Galston, Trajectories for God's Human Future

For many both in and outside the Church, traditional Christianity has faltered. It no longer addresses the important questions of life. In place of the tradition there have arisen new ways to consider religion, Christianity, and the value of God in human experience. This session seeks to open a conversation on God's human future.  Here is the audio that accompanies the powerpoint.


JSOR 2016, Beaverton, Joe Bessler, The Historical Jesus and the Rise of Modern Civil Society

Interest in the historical Jesus returned with the modern period and new debates over the control of modern civil society. As established churches began to lose their status and control, they closed the door on secular reasoning and historical Jesus scholarship. How wise was that decision?  Here is the audio that accompanies the powerpoint.


JSOR 2016, Beaverton: Joseph Bessler, How Jesus Became Plato and God a Platonist

After the earliest period of pluralism, Christianity took the form of Christian orthodoxy.  This form is found in the Nicene Creed and still remains the basic expression of Christianity today.  Problematically, this form of Christianity is not based on the teaching of Jesus but hte philosophy of Plato.  How did Jesus become Plato and God a Platonist?  Here is the audio.

JSOR 2016 Beaverton. David Galston, "Introducing the Historical Jesus"

Here is the powerpoint from David Galston's Friday night lecture. The Christian gospels express beliefs about Jesus. They do not reflect what the Jesus of history had to say. But, fortunately, they do preserve traces of what he really did say. In this opening session, David Galston will distinguish biblical theologies about a divine Jesus from the theology of the human Jesus.

 Here is the audio.


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

New Location for Sermons

Audio and text of my sermons are now on Southminster's web page.  Please bookmark it and add it to your favorites!  Thank you for listening and reading!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Awake (1/31/2016)

John Shuck

January 31, 2016

In the Dona Suttra, there is a story about the Buddha that has an enticing parallel with Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.

In the gospel, Jesus has just finished doing some miracles and is walking along with his disciples.  He asks them

“Who do people say that I am?”

28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’  30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it.

This is a central text for the Gospel of Mark.  It is central in that it occurs in the middle of the gospel.  The gospel of Mark has 16 chapters.  This is in chapter 8.   It is that center of the text that we hear the centrality of the author’s message.    This is who Jesus is, what it means to follow him, and thus the meaning, purpose, and goal of life.     

It starts out being about Jesus and ends being about you and me.   Jesus says, cryptically,

35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel [the good news], will save it.”

That is tough to get your head around.  Peter doesn’t get it.   The messiah suffers, is crucified, rises again?   That doesn’t make sense.    Jesus never affirms who is he is.  Peter calls him the ‘messiah’ and in response Jesus says don’t tell anyone.   

Messiah, in Greek christos, or christ, literally means anointed, that is someone who has been anointed or ordained to do some task, usually a heroic task.  David was anointed to lead the kingdom of Israel, etc.   We all have a longing for a hero or heroine to come and make things right.   Politicians bank on this.  “I’ll make America great again, yada yada.”    This is a common longing to wait for someone to come and fix it.    In the time of Jesus, someone to come, defeat the Romans, make Israel great again, yada yada. 

When Peter says that Jesus is the messiah or the christ, Jesus doesn’t say yes or no.  He says don’t tell anyone.  It is as if Jesus is saying don’t call me a messiah because you don’t know what it means.   Then he uses a different phrase “Son of Man” which maybe is a synonym for messiah or maybe just means what it is literally, a child of the Adam, in other words, a human being.    The human being, the messiah, will suffer, be rejected, crucified, then after three days rise again.   

Peter says that that’s not a good answer.   That doesn’t fit his plot of how things need to shake out, or as they say now, Peter doesn’t like how that narrative is taking shape.    Jesus pushes back and says “Get behind me, Satan!”  Now we should bracket later Christian mythology around the term Satan.   Satan is not the fallen angel, but the tempter or tester, the being within God’s court who goes around and tests people.  

Peter, in Jesus’s mind is taking up the role of the satan by saying, you don’t have to do that hard stuff, crosses and suffering, no.   

Jesus is saying, “Don’t tempt me.  Don’t let me lose my focus.”    I think that is what is being said there. 

Then Jesus puts it to all of them, his disciples and the crowd.   If you want to follow me, you, too, must take up the cross.   If you want to save your life, you will lose it.   If you lose it for my sake and the gospel, that is for this path, this path of the cross, you will save it. 

This is a cryptic passage.  It is hard to get our heads around it, but even harder to actually do. What does it mean to take up your cross?   We know it means something important.   What are we really supposed to do?  Is it literal?  Is it metaphorical? Half and half? 

And what about this business of rising again in three days?  Is this literal?  Is it metaphorical?  Half and half?  Does just the messiah, son of man, Jesus do that, or those who follow will do it, too?    People have been dying on crosses and other means for a long time, they aren’t rising.   Is this some future thing in another 14 billion years, or after your dead?   Do you have to die on a cross first?    Or do we just believe that Jesus did and then your bases are covered?  

I don’t find this stuff particularly easy.  

As I say that, my detractors will say, that is because you are a false teacher.   You aren’t saved and so on.    Well, maybe.  But I also think that many preachers and theologians are a bunch of snake oil peddlers, selling superstition.    They don’t know anymore than you or me.   

They say you have to believe this or that to get to heaven or whatever.  I think a lot of it is a bunch of theological gobbledygook.    This gobbledygook keeps people feeling bad about themselves because they have doubts.  It serves to keep people passive and obedient, doubting themselves and their own creativity and questioning.    These religious experts take one verse here and another there and make a theological system that it my opinion tortures the text at hand.   

It think this text in Mark 8 is a fascinating piece of literature.  It is compelling and it has a pull but I am not sure what it means intellectually, and more importantly, what it means for me personally, but I know I can’t let it go, and I know that it has a hold of me.    Haunting words,

“Take up your cross and follow me…lose your life to save it…”

I am going to let it sit, and dabble in some Buddhism.  Then come back. 

The Dona Suttra tells the story of encounter with the Buddha or the Blessed One.    In this story the Buddha like Jesus is walking along the road.   And a brahman, a holy person, is following him.  And he sees in the Buddha’s footprints “wheels with 1,000 spokes, together with rims and hubs, complete in all their features.”   He says this cannot be a human being! 

Both Buddha and Jesus were probably historical figures who had layers of legend attached to them.   I doubt that the historical Buddha made these footprints.  I doubt that the historical Jesus walked on water.   I do think that both figures had a gravitational pull that attracted people to their message or way of living that resulted in attaching miracles to them.   Whether you believe in supernatural miracles or not is not important, I don’t think.   I think what they taught and did was important and that was attractive.   Thus miracle stories were attached to them. 

Anyway in the story, Dona, the brahman follows the tracks and finds Buddha sitting tranquilly under a tree.   He is chilling, doing his Buddha thing.   The text says that Buddha was

“…confident, inspiring confidence, his senses calmed, his mind calmed, having attained the utmost control & tranquility, tamed, guarded, his senses restrained…”

 Dona goes up to him and asks him:

"Master, are you a deva?"
"No, brahman, I am not a deva."
"Are you a gandhabba?"
"... a yakkha?"
"... a human being?"
"No, brahman, I am not a human being."

Deva, gandhabba, and yakkha, are different kinds of divine beings, or mortals with super powers.     Buddha, says no, he is not any of those things.  He also says no to whether or not he is a human being.    

Dona, the brahman, asks him,  “What kind of being are you?”

Buddha says in paraphrase, if I were any of those things, I would be subject to future arising, for example, reincarnation, but these ways have been abandoned.   One life to another to human to deva he has cut off.   He is not identified with anything.

Then Buddha says:

"Just like a red, blue, or white lotus — born in the water, grown in the water, rising up above the water — stands unsmeared by the water, in the same way I — born in the world, grown in the world, having overcome the world — live unsmeared by the world. Remember me, brahman, as 'awakened.'

Then he goes on…

"The fermentations by which I would go
to a deva-state,
or become a gandhabba in the sky,
or go to a yakkha-state & human-state:
            Those have been destroyed by me,
            ruined, their stems removed.
Like a blue lotus, rising up,
unsmeared by water,
unsmeared am I by the world,
and so, brahman,
I'm awake."

Another passage tough to get our heads around and perhaps even harder to live out.  Buddha is not identified with any category.   He has transcended all of these identities, not because he is magic, or divine, but because he is awake.  

The invitation from Buddha to us is to become awakened. 

The invitation from Jesus to us is to lose our lives to find them. 
Are these invitations similar or different?  Are they complementary or contrasting? Do we take up a cross?  Do we become a lotus?   Or both?  Must one be right the other wrong?  Does one path inform the other?  I leave the questions open.  

I do find it helpful to find wisdom wherever it may be found.  I think that the religious quest or the spiritual quest for those who have trouble with the word religion is to take what we can and then ask, to what is this invitation? 

Personally, I want to follow Jesus and I want to be awake.   I am probably neither, but I still have this day and maybe even more to give it a go.   

Religion, in my opinion, and that is all it is, take it for what it is worth, my opinion, is a beautiful magnificent thing.  At its best it invites us
to redefine ourselves,
to challenge all self-definitions,
to engage in an exciting quest,
to live with depth,
to recognize illusions,
to awaken,
to not cling to a version of self that is destructive,
but like a snake to shed the skin and be reborn,
and to contribute to this wild, amazing human existence on this beautiful planet. 

And we have whatever time we have to do it.   

I find it personally tedious to worry about what others think I should do or believe.   I deal with the tedium by making light of it, like a lotus, rise above it.  I find it actually abusive to try to manipulate people into thinking or believing in things in order to get some reward or avoid punishment.    Religion is too important for that.  It is too important to be left to the zealots. 

The symbols of religion play with one another, and cross paths.   I think it is fruitful to take a religious text and compare it with one from another tradition and see what is produced.  

To pick up a cross like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to be awake like Thich Nhat Hahn, yes, yes.   Not that we have to be those people or think we have to be something great, but to live the life we have with wakefulness, with not clinging, with experiencing the suffering in a way that acknowledges it and transcends it, to pick up the cross and to rise.    

Our religious stories are not about things that happened or things that must be believed, but about ways of happening in the present.  

I think these stories, Mark chapter 8 about Jesus and the Dona Suttra about Buddha have fascinating parallels and points of intersection.    They contrast as well.  Buddha does not want to rise again, Jesus does.   What does rising mean for each of them?   Jesus picks up the cross to engage suffering.  Buddha meditates to transcend suffering.   Yet both are of the world but not defined by it.   Who are they? They both refuse definition.   Lose your life to save it.  Be awake.  

As a lovely irony I chose the text where Jesus is about to be arrested to complete the task he spoke of, to suffer and be crucified.  He prays and he tells his disciples to be awake.  They sleep.   You can take that story at face value, that is that Jesus wants the disciples to stay awake with him.   

But with the insights from the Buddha story, I play with the idea that Jesus is inviting the disciples to be awake in the Buddhist sense.    To transcend all identities put upon us.  Why? Why would you do that?   You do that to live freely.   So you can be present to what is at hand and to who is at hand.   To be awake, carrying the cross.  Living a life that is engaged.  Like a lotus, unencumbered, so that one can be with, be present to, feel with, in other words live compassion, which is likely the highest value for both Jesus and Buddha. 

I am going to close with one more story.  Here is an illustration of both following the cross and being awake.  This is from another tradition, the Jewish tradition, from the Talmud as told by Henri Nouwen in his book Wounded Healer:

A Rabbi asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
        “Where is he?”
        “Sitting at the gates of the city.”
        “How shall I know him?”
        “He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds.  The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again.  But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, “Perhaps I shall be needed; if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”

 Awake.  Lose to save.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Our Church's Photo Album (1/24/16)

Our Church’s Photo Album
John Shuck
January 23, 2016

[Special thanks to Rev. Fran Hayes.  She is the pastor of Littlefield Presbyterian Church in Dearborn, Michigan.  I borrowed a lot of great information from her for this sermon!]

Today we are dedicating our new hymnal.  First a quiz:

Finish the lines of these hymns:

God of the Sparrow, God of [the whale]

Here I am Lord.  Is it I, Lord.  [I have heard you calling in the night]

I’m Gonna Live so   [God can use me]

Morning Has Broken  [Like the first morning]

You did pretty well.   These songs and many others are part of us.   They may be “heart songs” -- songs that have found a place in our hearts.   Here is the deal.  All of those hymns plus many others were unfamiliar to Presbyterian congregations before the 1990 hymnal.    Many of the songs that were new to us in 1990 are now favorites—heart songs.

Why do we need a new hymnal?  What is the matter with the old one? 

Nothing of course. There is nothing wrong with the old hymnal.  It served us for a generation.   There is nothing more wrong with the 1990 hymnal than there is wrong with the photo album you put together in 1990 of your family.  It is a great photo album.    It is great looking through the pictures of the family from 25 years ago. 

But since 1990, the family looks a little different.  The existing members have become a bit more mature.  Some are not there.  There may some new family members.   Good thing we didn’t stop taking pictures twenty-five years ago.    We have tended to grow fond of some of these new family members.    So we ought to take their picture with our cell phones and load them on our computerized photo album.  That was something we didn’t do in 1990. 

My mother has stacks of photo albums of photos she took  from the 1950s up until a few years before she died.    She also inherited albums from her mother and her husband’s mother.  When I made a family history book about 15 years ago, I took many of those old photos and reproduced them as well as new photos and made a new album.    I had to be selective.    In doing so I was creating our family’s story.  It is probably time to do that again.

In a similar way, the church’s hymnal of our larger Presbyterian family gets updated about once per generation.   We look different that we did 25 years ago.   We have grown.  We have changed.   Our photo album, our hymnal reflects that change.   

There is nothing wrong with our old hymnal.   There is something right about a living vibrant tradition that continues to re-create itself. Many of the hymns have become like our theology, less focused on beliefs and more metaphorical.   More hymns reflect our multi-cultural reality.   More inclusive in language.   More hymns focus on social justice.   These have been added over the years.

Singing has been part of our religious and spiritual practice since well the beginning of religion and spirituality.   One of the oldest texts in the Hebrew Scriptures is a song.   Miriam, the sister of Moses, sang a victory song after crossing the sea escaping from the Egyptians.    The Psalms are a collection of songs for worship.  

Likewise, music has been part of Christian worship since the church began.  One of my favorite Bible stories is of Paul and Silas singing hymns in jail.   They have inspired more than one protest movement.    

Throughout the medieval period, the Gregorian Chant was the music that shaped worship.    Mostly sung by choristers. 

Martin Luther gave the church an upgrade, in part by enlivening the music.  He took popular tavern tunes and put theological words to them.  When you think of it, you can imagine singing loudly “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” while waving your beer stein.    

Luther realized that people would learn their theology through music.  He wrote many congregational songs.   While Luther would allow any text to be sung in worship unless he deemed it unbiblical, Calvin was a bit more stern.  Only scriptural texts put to music were good for him, such as the Psalms put to music with no accompaniment.  

There are songs from our new hymnal from the Genevan Psalter of 1551, such as number #330, “Our Help Is In the Name of God.”    As Presbyterians moved to Scotland they formed their psalter, the Scottish Psalter.  An example is on page 168 “Within Your Shelter Loving God.”

Presbyterians sang metered songs from the Psalter until the early to mid 1800s.   Some branches still sing only metered psalms.     Other traditions were a bit more creative.     We have a number of hymns in our hymnbook created by Isaac Watts, the “Father of English Hymnody.”    #32 “I Sing the Mighty Power of God.” 

Presbyterians have since allowed Methodist heresy to make it in to our hymnals.   One of my heart hymns is by Charles Wesley, “Love Divine:  All Loves Excelling” is in our hymnal #366.   

The Second Great Awakening led to gospel songs.  Fanny Crosby and others made music for revivals and camp meetings.   We sing some of those such as “Blessed Assurance”,  “To God Be the Glory” and “Open My Eyes that I Might See.”

There have been seven hymnals in our stream of the Presbyterian Church in the United States.  The first was in 1831.  This was the church’s first move away from singing only psalms in worship.  

The next hymnal came in 1874 when the new school and the old school reunited. 

The next was a hymnal published during the heat of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in 1911.
The next was the green hymnal published in 1933.

In 1955 the red hymnal was published following World War Two and the height of the Cold War about the time Southminster started.

In 1972, Presbyterians came out with the blueish gray Worshipbook.   That was about the time Jim Peterson arrived.     Jim was here for over a generation and the hymnal we have just finished using was published when he was here in 1990.    That hymnal came out when I was in seminary and was the hymnal that nurtured by own children.   

Since 1911, it has been about every 20 years or so, a generation, that the church feels the call to revise our “photo album.”  There is only so much room.  You need to add new pictures.  What to do with the old ones?  Some are keepers that you never want to lose.  Some were interesting for a time but they can be replaced.    When our Presbyterian family needs to update its “photo album” of hymns it wrestles with what hymns are our “heart songs,” that have been with us, what hymns are we as a new generation singing, and how do we put it together. 

The formation of this committee for the new hymnal began in 2004.  The new hymnal was published in September 2013.  None of the members of this committee, not one, is completely happy with it.   What that means is that no individual person agreed with all of the decisions of what hymns to include and what to leave behind.   Each of us would do better for our own selves in choosing our own favorite hymns!  This congregation could not create a hymnal for itself that everyone would like.   But, it isn’t about that.  It is about the breadth of songs that speak to our hearts.   It isn’t so important that I always sing my favorite heart song.  It is of more importance that I am in community with the person next to me who knows and loves  different heart songs.   If we each learn each other’s songs our hearts might be touched even more. 

This new hymnal has about 800 hymns.  Half of them are new, that is, that have not been in previous Presbyterian hymnals.   About 60% of the 600 hymns in the 1990 hymnal are in this new one.

The order of the hymnal is such that the saga of the Christian story is seen in its fullness, so as we sing the hymns we sing the theology of the church. 
Some songs will be new.  People write hymns every day.  Some will be from the global church.  These are hymns from different cultures.   These will have different rhythms.  They will help us recognize that we all are neighbors.

The first two hymns in our mini-hymn sing are from that 19th century American gospel tradition, “I Love to Tell the Story” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”    I sang them growing up Baptist. You may have known them as well. 

“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” has been made popular by Iris Dement and Alan Jackson.   They bring a little of the American South to the Pacific Northwest. 

For the rest of the worship service we are going to have a mix of hymn singing and a few poems.  I will make a brief introduction of the hymns as we get to them.   Get our your hymnal and let’s sing!


[Part 2]

Here are three new songs for our photo album. 

Our theology changes as we change.   One of the huge changes that have happened in the last 25 years is theological language for God.   Our metaphors for God reflect the variety of the human experience.  Thomas Troeger’s hymn, Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud, uses a variety of images for God.   These images shine a different hue on the traditional metaphor of the Trinity.

Glory to God is the title of the hymnal.  This hymn may be the hymnals’ signature song.   These words are the words of the angels to the shepherds sung to a Peruvian tune. 

This third song, Give us Light, Give us Life, Give us Peace, is a beautiful song from India.  


[Part 3] 

Inclusivity is a major theme of the new hymnal.  So the committee was intentional about including hymns that celebrated diversity and inclusion

The words to the hymn “For Everyone Born, A Place at the Table” were written by Shirley Erena Murray.    The hymn was ‘evoked’ as she put it “by the UN Declaration of Human Rights” and her involvement with Amnesty Internationsl.   She said “it should be sung at a spirited pace.”  

The second song, When Hands Reach Out and Fingers Trace” was written by Presbyterian minister Carolyn Winfrey GilletteThis hymn celebrates the breadth of human diversity and the variety of gifts and abilities through which God’s people serve the church and world.

The tune, O WALY WALY is a traditional English melody associated with the song "O Waly, Waly, gin love be bony.”  It is also well known in the Appalachian region of the United States.


[Part 4]

We take a final peek at our photo album with more new hymns.

“He Came Down” is  Christmas song celebrating the incarnation.  It is a traditional Cameroon piece.

“As the Wind Song Through the Trees” is another beautiful song by Shirley Erena Murray.  The music was composed by Lim Swee Hong  of Singapore.  He is the author of the book “Giving Voice to Asian Christians.” 

 “Heleluyan, We Are Singing” is a Muscogee hymn.  “Heleluyan” is the Muscogee (Creek) word for “Alleluia.”   This Muscogee hymn is a Trail of Tears song, a testimony that their Christian faith was more powerful than their mistreatment by those who took away their ancestral homelands. Revered and cherished, it remains the most popular Muscogee hymn sung in churches in Oklahoma.

The closing hymn, “Siyahamba” is Zulu for “We are Marching” or “We are Walking.”  This hymn from South Africa has been popular since the 1990s and now in the new Presbyterian hymnal.