January 2009

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).


“And he [Jesus] said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear…’” (Mark 4:24).


While looking for bargains in the clearance section of a big box store, I found a great little book, Wine for Dummies (Pocket Edition). In fifty-five 4” x 6” pages, the authors gave me an introduction to winemaking, grape varieties, and techniques like how to properly open a bottle and how to taste wine. Regarding the last, they offered two fundamental rules: slow down and pay attention.


When I read that, I thought “What great advice for life in general and spiritual growth in particular!” How often have I been in too much of a hurry to notice small details that make a text come alive or add unique interest to a landscape? When did you last take the time to savor a meal or a quiet evening with a loved one? Yes, sometimes we have to move quickly and cannot linger. But that makes it all the more imperative that we take the book’s advice: slow down and pay attention.


One particular spiritual discipline that teaches us the patience and the attentiveness that is necessary to deepen our walk with our Lord is the ancient art of lectio divina (“spiritual reading”). In case you’re not familiar with it, the discipline leads the seeker through four steps as he or she reflects on a selected passage:


¦ Read the passage slowly, pausing between phrases and sentences. Read the passage again, this time aloud or whispered to yourself, so that you can truly hear the words. Allow the words to linger in your mind; let their sound and meaning sink in. If a word or phrase seems especially significant to you, stay with it, turning it over in your mind and heart.


¦ Meditate. Once you have selected certain words and phrases which seem to speak to you, explore their significance for your life. Consider how God might be trying to catch your attention with these words or phrases. Try putting yourself into the passage, perhaps as some character. Reflect on what God might be saying to you in this passage of Scripture.


¦ Pray. Let your prayer emerge from your encounter with the text. Consider how the words you have read move you to pray for yourself, for others, and for the world. Express to God as fully as you can what is in your heart.


¦ Contemplate. Now the work is done.  Take time to rest in the presence of God. Release all your thoughts and feelings to God. Enjoy the moment.  This is the “Amen” of spiritual reading. So be it!


To aid in the selection of texts, I suggest using a daily lectionary (list of readings) like the one available at http://www.pcusa.org/devotions/lectionary/index.htm or employing the ancient method of lectio continua (“reading in sequence”), in which the seeker simply moves through a book of the Bible, like Psalms or one of the gospels.


May God bless you and me as we slow down and pay attention!


© 2009 Tom Cheatham





“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 20.2).


“…[W]e…believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other” (Presbyterian Synod of New York and Philadelphia, 1788; Book of Order: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church [USA], Part II).


When I was younger, there wasn’t a liturgical or ecclesiastical issue ditch I wasn’t willing to die in. The fate of the Church and maybe the world hung on what provisions were voted in or out of the denominational constitution, what doctrines we affirmed, and/or how the church year was observed. Everything mattered and in the same measure. So I applied litmus tests (“I don’t think he’s Truly Reformed”), listened closely to examinations of ministers for the proper theological buzz words (whether of the left or the right), and argued with organists and church members over whether we could sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” on the first Sunday of Advent.


But as I got older and learned more, grew in experience and maybe faith, the list of issues that were absolute matters of conscience became shorter. Don’t get me wrong: there are still things that are vitally important to me. But the world has not ended because somebody sang a Christmas carol in early December or didn’t wear the right vestment for Holy Communion or even disagreed with me over the interpretation of some doctrine. Maybe I’m weary from the fight, but I hope the reasons for my mellowing are that I’ve gotten wiser, more tolerant, and above all, less full of myself as the Arbiter of All Things True and Good.


I forget exactly when I first encountered the term “adiaphora” (ah-dee-af-oh-rah), meaning “things indifferent,” but I’m glad I did. It’s an important concept. The word originally was used by the Stoics to refer to matters that were morally neutral, doing neither good nor harm. But since the Reformation, it’s been applied to rites and practices, particularly in worship, that vary with circumstance and context. So, what kind of wood the pulpit is made of or whether the choir wears robes or when the announcements are read really doesn’t matter. (Of course, I’m speaking generally. In actual practice, there are people in the churches who would more readily deny the Incarnation than give up their insistence that the chancel furniture or the paint in the chapel look a certain way.)


But “adiaphora” is not just a word to use in church. Watching the inauguration of Barack Obama last Tuesday, it occurred to me that the majority of Americans have expanded their list of things indifferent while at the same time populating their roster of essentials with some things that really do matter. For the former, the new American adiaphora: race, political dynasties, conservative religion, social issue litmus tests, and old divisions. For the latter, things that truly matter: hard work, personal responsibility and accountability, cooperation to solve problems, imagination, courage, curiosity, confidence, and hope.


There’s a common saying regarding adiaphora: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.” Let both our churches and our nation affirm those words with energy and enthusiasm and resolve to give our attention to what really matters for the future and the good of all.


© 2009 Tom Cheatham

The annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins this Sunday. Once again it finds us broken and divided in the Church and the churches. We argue over everything from what color paint to put on the walls of a Sunday school room to who can serve and be served Holy Communion. Some “Christians” promote and thrive on division for one reason or another, usually power, money, and/or recognition. Most in the Church, though, long for God’s people to prove by their life together the power of God to bring harmony and peace. They look to the day when Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one” (John 17:21) will be made reality. They join the prophet Ezekiel in hope that those who belong to God may be one in his hand (Ezekiel 37:19; the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer).


I doubt seriously that oneness will ever be achieved or practiced as once imagined, namely, structurally or by agreement on doctrines. And, indeed, I suspect that kind of unity is irrelevant today. Denominations as institutions simply don’t matter anymore. We live in a post-denominational age. 


And that’s actually good news, since it may force us to refocus our energy from ourselves back to where it belongs. As usual, young adults are leading the way in reminding us of the possibilities of paradigm shifts like that from denominational to post-denominational Christianity. Rodger Nishioka, of Columbia Theological Seminary, has pointed to eight trends in the viewpoints and interests of young adults we all need to pay attention to:


n  from tribal education to immigrant education;

n  from mission out there to mission right here;

n  from reasoned spirituality to mystery-filled spirituality;

n  from official leadership to gifted leadership;

n  from long-term planning to short-term planning;

n  from mass evangelism to one-to-one evangelism;

n  from “traditioning” to experience;

n  from duty and responsibility to “what’s in it for me?”


Nishioka says that the main thing young adults are interested in is not what denomination a congregation is, but whether the Holy Spirit is active there. Do they experience God in the midst of the gathered community?


A major indicator of how God is present among a people is their involvement in mission. Post-denominational young adults are telling us that they want to see those nearby (“right here”) served with compassion, given a voice, and treated with justice. I believe it is involvement in such mission—not agreement on doctrine, structure or ordination— that has the potential to unify Christians. As Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, once famously said, “When you’re up on that roof, it don’t matter if you’re a Baptist or an Episcopalian; it just matters that you can hit the nail on the head.”


In serving our neighbors, especially the “least of these,” we serve Christ. Jesus himself said that our commitment to them is the basis on which we will be judged. So I dare say we won’t be held accountable for whether we wore the “right” vestment, believed the “right” doctrine or ordained the “right” people. We can find our unity again or for the first time if we simply follow Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.


© 2009 Tom Cheatham


On the Monday before Christmas, I was troubled and saddened by a story on HLN (formerly “Headline News”) about how people flock to evangelical churches during tough economic times. The upshot of the piece was that such congregations teach people to trust in God, while, according to one community church pastor interviewed, for mainline churches it’s about the denomination, the building, traditions, and history. Mainline churches for him are apparently all head and no heart.


How awful that denominations like my own Presbyterian Church (USA) are perceived that way! And in fact to some extent we deserve the criticism. Our worship can be arid and lifeless. Meetings frequently go on forever as elders and ministers argue about this word or that in a document few even in the Church will ever read. Some places and sometimes, more money goes into preserving the museum-like building that’s open for a couple of hours a week than into mission that brings hope and wholeness.


But the evangelical pastor’s global and stereotyping comment was in the end unjustified. Mainline church folk are deeply spiritual, passionately hopeful, and compassionately involved in mission. I think of the college student walking the labyrinth at our presbytery’s campground, contemplating her vocation. Or the retired man fluent in Spanish who travels to Central America as part of a team installing simple technology to bring clean water to a village. The elder from a dwindling congregation who is nevertheless committed to ministry in her community and determined to carry on faithfully in the name of Christ. Myself, as joy wells up in me when I celebrate the Eucharist or Baptism.


Pam Byers, the Executive Director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, expresses the commitments of mainline churches well. Commenting on a statement by a member about how God chooses to do God’s gracious work through us, Pam says: “I see you making that real every day.  As you offer warm coats and a warm word to those who rarely receive either, as you invite the unloved and unlovely into your fellowship, as you find and inspire resources to share you didn’t even know you had, with music and pageant and preaching you carry that same countercultural word—‘Do not be afraid.’ 


“And even while others build walls of exclusion, you reach out to those too long on the outside. You witness publicly and repeatedly that no one is outside of God’s love” (“Fear Not,” e-mail, 12/22/08).


The fact is both evangelical and mainline churches do a great many faithful things in the name of Christ, bringing the good news, changing lives, working for justice, protecting the environment. Neither deserves the easy and sometimes mean-spirited stereotypes attached to them by the media or by each other. But having said that, both also have a great deal of repenting to do of complicity with the forces that deform and destroy human life and rob people of hope and joy. We have both been too closely allied with political parties, measured our success and failure by the numbers in pews and bank accounts, and turned away those whom Jesus included and loved.


In this new year, maybe we can get beyond name-calling and instead, join together to call upon the Name.


© 2009 Tom Cheatham  


One of our favorite Christmas books is the award-winning The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. We also love the extraordinary animated movie of the same name. It’s the story of a skeptical boy at the beginning of adolescence who learns the power of belief when he takes a magical train ride to the North Pole. There he meets Santa (“Mr. C.”) who grants him the “first gift of Christmas,” a bell from Santa’s sleigh.


Given the beauty and the positive theme of the book and movie, it was disconcerting and troubling on a recent trip to see a criticism of The Polar Express on a sign outside a fundamentalist church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “The first gift of Christmas was a child,” read the message. I’m sure if an emoticon had been available to put up, it would have been a shouting face expressing disapproval or even anger. And if italics could have been included, the word “child” would have been so emphasized.


What kind of believers have to put down a work for children, whether The Polar Express or some other, to make their point? They must be terribly insecure in their faith! And how is it that they saw in the book and movie a threat to Christianity, another front or issue in the alleged “war on Christmas” (the totally bogus invention of the Religious Right)? The author’s and screenwriter’s subject was not the biblical Christmas story at all. In fact, it had to do only with one boy’s journey back to belief and the embrace of the true spirit of the season at one particular Christmas. Surely a heart-warming and uplifting message for all people!


The Bible and the wonderful story of the first Christmas point us to our Savior, and the gift of the first Christmas was a child. Indeed, each year he is born in us. That truth is not diminished or rendered false by other stories or approaches to the season.


Christians who live with joy and hope and regard others with good will need not be threatened by truth and beauty whatever its source, whether a children’s tale or someone of another faith or no faith at all. The God of the Bible, the God whom the Child of Bethlehem reveals to us, is so big that all truth is his truth, all beauty his beauty. It’s a shame that some of those who consider themselves defenders of the faith deny and/or forget that all too often.


© 2009 Tom Cheatham