Archive for March, 2014

Theme: The Lord’s Prayer

Meditation title: Speaking Christian; Speaking Downton

7th Sunday after Epiphany; February 23, 2014

For First Mennonite Church of Denver

©Vernon K. Rempel, 2014


Bible reading: Matthew 6:9-13

Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.


Speaking Downton

Do you love Downton Abbey?

I love that show.

I didn’t think I would love a costume drama

set in the early 1900s.

But it has three great story elements

and I would argue that they flow in this order:

Good plot

Great characters

and Amazing dialogue

Amazing. I want to take a course in how to speak Downton.

The speech and conversational patterns

are elegant and lovely.

Marcus Borg in his book Speaking Christian,

is, I think, trying to get some of this back

for our Christian words as well.

In his final chapter, he writes this:

“…If we avoid the language of our faith because of uncertainty about what it means, we grant a monopoly on it to those who are most certain about its meaning. That would be unfortunate, for the language is extraordinarily rich, wise, and transformative.” (p234)

Rich, wise, transformative.

Like listening to the dialogue on Downton Abbey!

Today, we will look at the example of the Lord’s Prayer

rich, wise, transformative language.

But consider also these examples of elegant speech

from Downton Abbey. I can’t hope to fully convey

the import of the dialogue, without the background

of the characters, and without the brilliant actors

speaking the lines.

But perhaps you’ll have the gist.

So we have the lady’s maid Phyllis Baxter and footman Joseph Molesley…

Molesley: I thought I’d make some coffee, would you like a cup?

Baxter: No thank you.

Molesley: It’s just a cup of coffee, you won’t have to surrender any of your independence.

And on Daisy becoming engaged to William, who is off to World War I…

Mrs. Patmore: It’s too late for second thoughts now, Missy. You don’t have to marry him when it comes to it, but you can’t let him go to war with a broken heart, or he won’t come back.

Daisy: But I don’t know what to say…

Mrs. Patmore: You don’t have to be Shakespeare, just say nice things….

And finally Daisy and Alfred the footman figure out how to part as friends after considerable awkwardness and missed cues and bad feelings:

(In kitchen)

Daisy: I thought I’d missed you.

Alfred: I’m off to the station now, Daisy. And I won’t be back. My dad’s gone and my mother’s moving [away]…. so I’m glad you’re hear to say goodbye. I really am.

Daisy: I’ve brought you a present. Mr. Mason’s made you a basket full of things. Rolls and cheese and ham, and jams and pickles and he’s put some cider in too to keep you going on the train home.

Carson: That was kind of him, Daisy. Are you sure it wasn’t meant for you.

Daisy: No, he did it for Alfred. (To Alfred) I told him we were old friends, so he did it for you.

(Walk into hall for more private conversation)

Alfred: You know Ivy turned me down?

Daisy: I do, yes.

Alfred: It seems I’ve been a bit blind where she’s concerned.

Daisy: Love is blind.

Alfred: Maybe. But I wonder now I’ve not been a fool. You’ve always been so good to me, Daisy. So true. But I could never see it.

Daisy: That’s kind of you to say and good to hear. I loved you, Alfred. I’ll not deny it. But that’s done with now, and what I felt won’t come back. It’s time for you to go your way and me to go mine.

Alfred: But you wish me well?

Daisy: Oh, I do, Alfred, yeah. So well. So very well. Friends forever.

Alfred: Friends forever, Daisy. Right, now this really is goodbye.

(Alfred leaves and motherly Mrs. Hughes and gruff Mrs. Patmore walk over)

Mrs. Hughes: Are you all right, Daisy?

Daisy: I’ll just get this off and pop in the pantry for my apron.

(She walks off, and Mrs. Hughes nods to Mrs. Patmore. Daisy steps outside the kitchen, and Mrs. Patmore comes after her.)

Daisy: Well, that’s that then.

Mrs. Patmore: Do you know when you brought up that basket, I were so proud of you, I felt like crying out. If you were my own daughter, I couldn’t be prouder than I am now.

(And with a little breath, Mrs. Patmore touches Daisy’s shoulder and walks off.)

That’s so much more of a break-up scene than George on Seinfeld being given the line “It’s not you, it’s me” from a woman, and being offended because that’s supposed to be his line.

Seinfeld is brilliantly funny. But Downton Abbey is elegant.

Not because of the old class divisions.

Those are falling slowly away.

But because of speech that says what needs to be said,

says it in a way that lets the speaker speak their heart

but at the same time care enough

for the feelings of the other.

The verbal negotiation becomes a careful

and ultimately loving dance of mutual

respect and recognition.


Speaking Christian: The Lord’s Prayer

Speaking Christian & Speaking Downton

In both cases, speaking well to each other

enables people to do greater things with their lives

because of good and capable speaking.

Good speech allows us to do

greater things in relationship.

Allows us to walk in more wholehearted and graceful

relationships in our faith community.

We need Christian words that allow us

to do these greater things in relationship.

This is what Borg is working on

in his book Speaking Christian.

Or in the words of the book of Hebrews:

To untie us from “every weight and the sin that clings so closely”, to untie us from that constricting stuff that blocks our capacity, so that we can, again in the words of Hebrews “run with perseverance the race that is set before us… for the sake of … joy….” (Hebrews 12: 1,2)

And so it may be with the what Protestants call

“The Lord’s Prayer”

and Catholics call the “Our Father.”

The Lord’s Prayer potentially offers us great poetry

arising from within the heart of Christian history,

and rich with generative Christian metaphor.

We have here a suggestive prayer

that carries within it forgiveness, liberation, and transformation

protection, equitable distributive justice.

Borg asks us to notice first of all what is not in this prayer:

It’s not about the afterlife – no plea to go to heaven

Not about material success – no prosperity prayer

It’s not about belief – there’s no request

to help us believe rightly

It’s not even about Jesus – nothing about believing

only in him and him dying on the cross

for our sins

Then Borg asks us to notice what is in the prayer:

And he notes that we need to remember

that Jesus mostly spoke to the peasant class

of his day:

It starts with a sense of deep spiritual intimacy

“Our father who art in heaven”

In the context, was like speaking

to a dear parent or loved one.

I personally like to use the phrase

“Dear One” or even “Our dear Spirit of God” in prayer

Spiritual intimacy for the socially disenfranchised.

Hallowed be thy name

Or as we used to joke “Howard be thy name.”

But it means Holy be your name

As Borg notes, this means for God’s name to be holy

in the earth, for this to be a holy house,

a city in the Spirit of God

full of God’s passion for distributive justice,

for joyful peace, for communities
of laughter and love.

On earth as it is in heaven:

As John Dominic Crossan puts it: Heaven’s in great shape; earth is where the problems are.

Again, the focus is on earth, on this life,

no just in getting saved for heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread:

for a peasant, a request for food in time of real need,

a request for justice, for some of God’s bread

which is intended for all people

Forgive us our debts

– likely the earliest reading –

peasants need debt forgiveness

God does not intend that anyone be

enslaved by economic misfortune

And if it is forgiveness more broadly

it is the daily goodness of letting things

pass so we don’t get bound up

and it is the great work of things like

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission,

deep and political and spiritual work of forgiveness.

And deliver us from evil,

from the power of evil in our lives:

our addictions, old habits, falsehoods,

pride, fear

everything that separates us from each other

and the from great love of God in our lives.

And this latter is really the thing:

Great Christian words, like the words in this prayer

have the capacity to open our hearts

and to increase our capacity for love,

which is the joy and creativity and passion

of lives well-lived

lives lived with all the elegance and grace

and joyful careful work of Downton Abbey characters.

These good words can open us up to something great and new

and wonderful in our Christian speech.

We can get untied from old burdens.

And when we get untied from some of that old weight,

even just a little,

we will find capacity blossoming in our hearts


An increase in love

In 1st Thessalonians 3:12 Paul writes

“And may the Spirit of God make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all….”

And in 2nd Thessalonians 1:3, Paul is pleased to write the most wonderful of notes:

“We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because you faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”

That’s what it’s about,

an increase in love,

an increase in capacity of love

an increase in great speech

“Speaking Christian” in such a way that we honor each other,

respect each other, care wonderfully for each other,

so that we become great-hearted,

so that as Paul writes:

“the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”

And all in the infinitely beautiful and powerful

and loving presence of the Holy Spirit

who is poured into our hearts,

our lives, and our relationships

daily and in every step we take.

What Borg calls “heaven-hell” Christianity

talks a lot about conversion,

but it is a lot about conformity

to a set of necessary beliefs,

in order to get into heaven.

But I think there’s conversion

for what Borg calls “transformation-goodness” Christianity

as well.

And it is this conversion to Paul’s “increase in love”

And the conversion is not about what we need to do

and about feeling guilty for not doing enough.

It is about discovering new capacity in our hearts.

And that’s a wonderful thing.

To find that where we felt limits before,

now there is new courage, a new grace,

a new generosity of spirit,

a surprisingly capacious

envelope of love

around our hearts.

That’s a conversion I can sign up for

It’s a conversion I’ve experienced.

It makes all the difference.

Thanks be to God!

As we pray in our New Zealand version

of the Lord’s Prayer:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!

The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom

sustain our hope and come on earth.


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MCUSA and FMC in this moment

So we are now in a moment when great ferment and turbulence is moving in waves through our denomination. Discussions long-delayed are now readdressed. Old compromises may find considerable tearing at their seams. And new life and joy may emerge among us.

We as a congregation, in collaboration with our conference, have for the first time granted Mennonite ministerial credentials to a woman – Theda Good – who is openly in a (deeply loving) same-sex relationship. It is not just our action that has tipped us into this denominational moment, but a constellation of actions across the denomination, including more celebration of same-sex marriages and relationships by congregations, more affirmation of church members of various affectional orientations, and deep conversations at one of our educational institutions (Eastern Mennonite University) about hiring practices that are prejudiced against people of some orientations.

This has shown a light on fault lines in our denominational order. There is always an array of sensibilities across the denomination. But every once in awhile, a moment of great turmoil comes along. And we are in one such moment now.

Across the denomination, our congregation and conference are various viewed as troublemakers or prophetic, visionary leaders; as those who go it alone without accountability to Bible or church and those who are forging past old prejudices and injustices. 

But I wish for all to have a bit of the view from the “inside” of our congregation. My wish would be that all could experience the great joy and profound love that I experience in our congregational times together in small groups, in countless shared activities, and in our times of worship. This community is full of such goodness! Who would not feel some of that were they with us? In any case, I want to make that known, to sound that note, to speak that word as clearly as possible: here is not chaos and darkness and lawless despair but rather a vibrant, wholesome joy in the Spirit of Christ.

To say this is not to declare superiority in any way. It is simply to bear witness to a joy and a love that sings out from the heart of the congregation. May this be true, and may we more and more increase in love in the Spirit of Christ. I pray for this each day.

–Vern Rempel

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