General Conference reflections

The General Conference is the highest body in United Methodism that alone can determine church teaching and practice (traditionally, 'doctrine and discipline').  The 2016 General Conference finished its quadrennial meeting last week in Portland, Oregon.  I did not attend General Conference (GC), nor did I watch it on live-stream.  Like probably many reading this post, I followed the events of GC as well as the interpretation and comments on those events through social media.

So what happened at General Conference?

First my 2 cents on GC; then some reflections from prominent leaders who were there:

Maintaining and Strengthening traditional/catholic/evangelical teachings:

The Church decided to maintain its current classical and Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality; the church strengthened the measures to hold bishops accountable to that teaching; the church strengthened its pro-life witness (including an improved statement on bio-ethics) and its anti-pornography witness.  We also decided to add 5 new bishoprics to the continent of Africa in 2020, which is desperately needed from an oversight point of view because of the tremendous growth there, but is also expected to move the make-up of the council of bishops in an evangelical and traditionalist direction.
For orthodox and evangelical Wesleyan Christians who are committed to maintaining the faith that was 'once delivered to the saints' (Jude 3) all of this is very positive.

Appointing a "Way Forward" Commission: 

While many of us wondered going into General Conference if the United Methodist Church would split this year, the very real possibility of a schism seems to have been averted by the decision of the GC to ask the bishops to appoint a commission to review our church's teaching and disagreements over sexual morality and recommend a way forward - perhaps at a specially called General Conference in a couple years.

It is unclear if this "way forward" means recommending some kind of segregation of liberals and conservatives into parallel jurisdictions within Methodism, or splitting into separate denominations, or simply recommending some radical change or minor tweak our official teachings in some way.
What the commission recommends, who is on it, what will happen to judicial complaints in the meantime, and even if there will actually be a special called General Conference (and if so, which delegates would go) all remains to be seen, and so for the moment liberals/progressives and conservatives/traditionalists are all currently waiting to see what will happen next (rather than working out the details of a schism).

Some of the more cynical among us (both liberal and conservative) have asked whether this move to create a commission is simply an institutional band-aid, an attempt by the bishops to "kick the can down the road a couple of years" and put off doing anything decisive.  Some have also wondered if the special called General Conference - a major selling point in this plan - will ever actually be convened (only the bishops have the authority to call such an extra-ordinary meeting).  Some conservatives (apparently unhappy with this commission idea) have reminded us that the only true "way forward" for the Church is the "narrow way" of Jesus Christ (see Mt. 7:13-29).

Looking to the Future:

It seems clear that The United Methodist Church will become a more and more orthodox and evangelical denomination over time (though not, I trust, 'fundamentalist' in the American sense**), as the overseas & non-Western parts of the Church continue to experience explosive growth (regions which have strong traditionalist as well as Charismatic leanings).  If the mood of the GC was overwhelmingly traditionalist in Portland even after the US Supreme Court decision last year, even after several prominent and respected pastors and bishops called for the Church to liberalize our teachings, even after the enormous pressure from liberal groups and protesters going into this conference - if, in spite of all of this, the GC voted down every single piece of Progressive/liberal legislation, how then do we expect it play out in 4 years when we are a majority non-American church, or in 8 years when we are a majority African church?    

It seems our church's teachings on these issues are not likely to get any more liberal - in fact the opposite may well happen.  If then, the liberal/progressive wing of the church is not willing to live by the current teachings, I suspect some kind of division or split is inevitably going to happen; the question is whether it will be an internal segregation into parallel jurisdictions within United Methodism (essentially abandoning our current connectional church structure for some kind of federation) OR an outright split into two denominations OR a "quiet schism" as members and clergy who can no longer abide by church teaching quietly trickle out on their way to other denominations.

Those are my 2 cents on GC2016 (which may not be worth much more than that).

Here are a couple of reflections from people who were actually there:

THIS PIECE is from Dr. David Watson, who was my Greek Professor in Seminary at SMU, who is now dean of one of our Methodist seminaries (United Seminary), and who has become an important voice for classical Christian orthodoxy.
This is a great piece you should read.

Then there is this video from The Good News renewal and reform group that was at GC representing "Biblical, orthodox, classical, Wesleyan faith" in The United Methodist Church.

** While some use "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" as synonymous, I believe this misses some important distinctions and leads to confusion and ignorance rather than clarity and understanding.  

Not all conservatives are "ultra-conservative."  
Indeed United Methodist "conservatives" support the ordination of women, while fundamentalists do not.  
United Methodist evangelicals say that God loves all people, Christ died for all people, and all people are welcome in our churches, while "ultra-conservatives" (of the Westboro Baptist Church sort) carry signs saying that God hates homosexual people.  
United Methodist traditionalists believe in ecumenism, that is, seeking deeper cooperation and unity with other Christian denominations, while fundamentalists generally see all Christians who do not belong to their own little group as gross heretics, filled with spiritual darkness.  
United Methodist evangelicals believe in the benefits of education and the academic study of Scripture, and are open to spiritual, allegorical, and other kinds of non-literal interpretations, while fundamentalists tend to insist that every word be interpreted in a "literal" sense regardless of genre differences within Scripture.  
United Methodist traditionalists believe in using the whole Tradition of the universal ("catholic") church to help us rightly interpret Scripture, while fundamentalists generally pour scorn of "traditions" of any sort (without realizing that this basic outlook is itself a tradition) - therefore orthodox United Methodists cherish the ancient Creeds while fundamentalists reject them as "Romish corruptions".  
While fundamentalists emphasize legalistic purity, evangelical Methodists seek to balance the call to holiness and justice with the message of mercy and grace.  

There are many more distinctions one could make between United Methodist evangelicals/traditionalists/orthodox and fundamentalists, but the point is we should be careful how we use these labels if we care about both clarity and charity.



John Wesley Video

This coming Tuesday (May 24th) is Aldersgate Day, when Methodists (and Anglicans too) recall how the power of the Holy Spirit descended upon John Wesley at a Bible study at Aldersgate street in 1738.  Wesley is often considered the "father of Methodism."  His experience at Aldersgate has been interpreted in different ways - as his first genuine conversion to faith in Christ (though he was already a pastor at the time) or as his "baptism in the Holy Ghost," or simply as a special outpouring to prepare him for mission.

In any case it is clear from Wesley's own account that he left that Bible study with a new sense of assurance about his salvation and his relationship with Christ and also that he left that Bible study with a new fire for the mission of God.  Here is his own account of that night:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart... 

I have seen several films about the Wesley brothers and the revival that they helped lead.  A few years ago the feature-length film called Wesley was released.  I must say that it suffered from low production value (like many "Christian films") and in my view the story pacing was rather slow and felt bogged down by too many details.  Actually I think the animated short film The John Wesley Story was actually more interesting to watch, even though it was clearly aimed at younger audiences (I used it in a recent confirmation class).

I recently saw this video posted on Facebook, which is a very short documentary about John Wesley's impact on society and history.  It looks like it may be cut from a longer film, because it feels a bit dis-jointed at places; yet it does have some really nice visuals that are well-done.  Enjoy!


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Bishop Jones on Methodist Unity

In the liturgy for the consecration of bishops in our Book of Worship, the ministry of the bishop is described (in part) as follows:

"You are called to guard the faith, to seek the unity, and to exercise the discipline of the whole Church; and to supervise and support the Church's life, work, and mission throughout the world."

The idea that bishops are the primary guardians of the faith and unity and ordered life of the church is not a Methodist innovation, but has been inherited from the ancient and ecumenical church.  And yet in recent years more and more bishops have undermined the unity and the faith of the denomination by putting their private agendas, opinions, and goals above the common and historic teachings of the church.  Examples range from Bishop Sprague who very publicly denied the Resurrection, Virgin birth, atonement, and the Deity of Christ to Bishop Talbert who has now repeatedly officiated at same-gender civil 'marriages' in direct contradiction to the very Discipline and Covenant that all of our bishops vowed to uphold at their consecrations.

In these instances many spoke out calling for accountability, while some other bishops and clergy stood by silently doing nothing, or in some cases even cheered these acts of infidelity.

People have been wringing hands for years - and especially in the last couple of years - over the unity of The United Methodist Church, asking if the denomination will split.
I believe that unity and relationship is always based upon trust.  According to the classic Protestant teaching of justification by faith (affirmed by Methodists) it takes faith - that is, trust - for me to be in right relationship with God.  Indeed it truly takes trust for me to be in a healthy relationship with anyone else.  How can a wife have a good and life-giving relationship with her husband if she thinks he is cheating on her - if she doesn't trust him?  The answer is that she cannot.

How can we work side by side in common mission if we do not trust one another?  How can we follow the missional leadership of our bishops if we are suspicious of their motives?  We obviously cannot.

There is a crisis of trust in The United Methodist Church right now that is a direct result of the kinds of actions mentioned above and the "mixed signals" coming from other leaders in response to these actions.
If the denomination does split it will be because we simply no longer trust one another.

There is only one way that trust can be regained, and it is simple: practice honest.  Let your "yes" mean "yes" as the Lord Jesus says.  Do not make a rash vow to God you do not intend to keep as the Book of Ecclesiastes says.  Simple honesty and integrity is the only way this crisis of trust in our church will begin to heal.

If bishops and other officials will simply uphold their vows, keep their promises, and do those things that they swore an oath to do (regardless of their own personal opinions) it will go a long way toward rebuilding trust.  If they do not - if they find some rationalization for breaking their promises to the covenant community - then I believe a breakdown of the covenant that binds us together (and thus, a denominational break-up) is inevitable.

One of our most outstanding and godly (as well as scholarly) bishops these days is Scott Jones.  He has written a frank and much-needed post on this very issue.  Here is the opening section (read it all HERE):

During the last four months, I have had multiple invitations to break my vows. Many people have suggested that, in the name of protesting against perceived injustice, I should disobey the discipline of The United Methodist Church and violate the sacred promises I have made at two key points in my life — ordination as an elder and consecration as a bishop.
I decline those invitations.
I will keep my promises.
I will be faithful to God’s calling on my life as a leader in our church.
Because American culture so little values obedience and discipline today, and because too many persons in the UMC are following the culture in this direction, it is important that I explain why such a refusal to participate in disobedience is the right course of action...
Read the full Article HERE.

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Being "pastoral"

When I was in seminary, people often used the world "pastoral" when they meant "comforting."
People would say "I'm not doing systematic theology right now, I am doing pastoral theology" which roughly translated as:
"What I'm saying may not fit with our church's theology, or correspond with what the Bible actually says, but it is comforting to those who hear."

When I was preparing to transition to my second appointment - to pastor my first conventional church (my first appointment was as a college campus pastor) - I read St. Gregory the Great's Book of Pastoral Rule.  I wanted to learn more how to be a pastor from the Early Church Fathers, and Gregory is known as "the Great" for a reason - he was a potent leader and pastor in the ancient church.

One of the things that most resonated with me about this book is Gregory's basic approach: the role of the Pastor is to be a shepherd of souls.  Our job is to help people grow closer to Christ, to help them turn away from sin, to help them walk on the Way, embrace the Truth, and cling to that "Life which really is life."

Another thing that Gregory did well was to emphasize moderation: that a pastor should neither be too severe nor too indulgent in addressing the spiritual needs or spiritual brokenness of the church members (this section reminded me of the "Golden Mean" of Aristotle in his Ethics).  A pastor should remember his own failings in dealing with others (and so, live according to the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12).

What people sometimes need from a pastor is a word of comfort.  But sometimes what is truly needed for the health of the soul is a word of challenge, a word of confrontation with the truth.  As most of us pastors by nature like people and want to 'get on well' with others, I suspect our temptation will often be to offer soft comfort and cheap grace when piercing truth and transforming grace is needed (though I've heard some pastors who seem to delight in shocking and upsetting others, and they may need to learn from Gregory to moderate in the other direction; or simply to love their flock).

I was thinking of this tendency to reduce "being pastoral" to "tickling men's ears" when I read these words from 19th-Century Scottish pastor (and author) George MacDonald:

"To make a man happy as a lark might be to do him grievous wrong; to make a man wake, rise, look up, and turn, is worth the life and death of the Son of the Eternal."
               - From Consuming Fire, April 9th

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Honoring the Body with your body

There is an anonymous post floating around Facebook which is supposed to have been written by a young clergy woman of the United Methodist Church.  In it she is quite frank about her plans to be sexually active outside of marriage and that she (nor the writer of many of her comments) does not see why she should be expected to be celibate in singleness, according to the ancient and universal Christian teaching, based upon the Bible.

I was going to write a post (rant?) about this, but my brother and fellow clergyman, Reverend William Nance Hixon, has already said it well:

CLICK HERE to read his post on the issue.

I should only add two things:
1) I would hope that, even if a clergy person does not see why she should be sexually pure, surely she would be able see why it is important to keep the promises that she made to the covenant community when she (quite willingly) took the ordination vows - surely she at least believes what the Bible says about honesty and integrity, if not what it says about sex; and
2) The Easter Season - when we celebrate the BODILY resurrection of Christ - is the perfect time to reflect upon how deeply God does indeed care for our bodies - and what we do with them.

We are not Gnostics, for we believe in Creation, Incarnation, Resurrection, and Sacraments.



Resurrection Day Liturgy Winchester Cathedral

Here is the video for the Easter Day service at the Anglican (Church of England) Cathedral in Winchester from last year.

It begins with a door-knocking tradition based upon Revelation 3:20:

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. (NRSV)

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60 Days of Prayer for General Conference

Today (March 31) begins a 60 Day period of prayer for General Conference.  If the internet is to be any guide, this could be a most contentious world-wide gathering of United Methodist leaders - laity and clergy and bishops - and nothing could be more fitting than that we should bathe the gathering in prayer, and beg the Holy Spirit for revival in our denomination, and in all of the Church of Jesus.

Click HERE for more.

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Wright: Resurrection in the 1st Century


Justification by faith

One website I have enjoyed reading from time to time is the "United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy" blog which, as the name suggests, includes posts from United Methodist thinkers commenting on the doctrines of United Methodism and writings of John Wesley as well as their roots in the broader, ecumenical, orthodox Christian faith.  This group is working toward the much needed doctrinal renewal of our denomination and of the whole church.

The latest post examines the classic evangelical and reformed doctrine of Justification by Faith.
This is a great post reminding us of the beauty and simplicity of living by a great gift of grace.
This doctrine, as Tom Oden has shown (see here) also has deep roots in the faith of the apostolic and early church fathers, and is not merely a Protestant innovation (though the Reformers certainly had reasons for stressing it heavily by comparison to previous generations of church leaders).

One of the thoughts I've had re-reading our doctrinal statements and the comments is re-thinking the concept of "merit."  The church talks about our trusting in Christ and his merit rather than our own.  I suppose we have tended to think of merit as a way of talking about righteousness and good deeds; perhaps it makes sense really to think of it in broader terms: that Christ is the true man, who lives the truly authentic human life, who perfectly embodies God's kingdom in perfect faithfulness to his Father, even though (in a fallen and rebellious world) such fidelity necessarily led him into conflict with the powers of this world and to the cross.

I'm still pondering this, but there seems to be more to 'merit' than simply a medieval way of talking about the moral value of specific good deeds, but as a way of talking about the perfectly kingdom-embodying life of Christ as a man on earth.  In his life the will of the Father was indeed done "on earth as in heaven."

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Lecture: Ben Myers on the Patristic model of Atonement

Here is another lecture, this time from Ben Myers, on the atonement: addressing the logic of just how the death of Christ saves us.  It comes as a surprise to many evangelical Protestants (at least it did to me) that the way the Early Church Fathers most often talked about how Jesus' death and Resurrection save us was rather different than what you find in most evangelical preaching and hymnody.  I actually believe that the Bible gives several complimentary perspectives on that question that are all valid (so don't take my sharing of this video to mean I am dismissing other views of the cross and the atonement, for I frequently use other ways - including some 'substitutionary' models - of talking about it myself).

The way that the Fathers often (though not exclusively) talked about the atonement of Christ has come to be known as "Christus Victor."  Basically, through the cross Christ gave himself over to death [the consequence (Rom. 3:23) of sin] which he could do as a real man; but because he was also God, very Life Himself, his very presence overwhelmed and destroyed death.  The clearest Biblical reference you can find to this idea is Acts 2:24-28 where we are told "it was impossible for death to hold Christ" precisely because of his unique relationship to God the Father.  This idea is behind other passages too that talk about Christ "defeating" death by his own Life (such at 1 Cor. 15).

It also clarifies the phrase of the Apostles' Creed (much neglected by Methodists) that Christ descended into Hades, which means (among other things) that he fully entered into death precisely in order to overwhelm it by his life.

The Fathers worked out the implications of that basic idea in detail, and that is what this lecture from Ben Myers is all about.  It is a very good lecture laying out the inner logic of this theory of the atonement.  I think during the Q & A afterwards there are a couple of things that - to my Wesleyan way of thinking - he could have said to better clarify some of the "difficulties" that are mentioned regarding this (and any) theory of the atonement.  But maybe he thought of what he could have said on his way home.  That how it usually goes with me.  

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The theology of beards

Yes, you read that right: beards.
Many people know that Orthodox Jews are very particular about their grooming for religious reasons, but did you know that similar attitudes have existed within the church?

Here is a funny piece from the always astute Bishop Chartres of London on the theological significance of
facial hair down through the ages of church history.  As someone who rather loves my own beard, this was most interesting to me.

Also, here is an unrelated, but similar joke about beards in ministry (click image to enlarge):



On Guns...

I've not been blogging much lately, as December and January are quite busy times in the life of a United Methodist pastor.

Over the coming weeks, I do want to share a couple of nice articles I've run across.
The first has to do with gun ownership in America.

Now I should say first off that, like many of the people in my homeland (Louisiana), I am a gun owner.  And I strive to be a responsible one.  I have taken a couple of gun safety/training courses over the years and regularly practice in order to be proficient (rather than clumsy and dangerous) with my firearms.  I keep them for sporting and - God forbid that it should ever be necessary - legally authorized defense of my person and family.  So, I am by no means "anti-gun."  In fact, I do agree with the argument that having significantly more well-trained (and I emphasize that qualifier) concealed weapon carriers in this country could limit the impact of (though not actually prevent) San Bernardino or Paris-style mass shootings by Islamists and other terrorists.
Theologically, I think of armed citizens (duly authorized, trained, and licensed by the authorities) as an extension of the legitimate role of coercive force as it is described in Romans 13.

I know some Christian pacifists will disagree with the traditional reading of Romans 13, and I appreciate their valuable witness, but (beyond the obvious arguments about the Nazis) I've always wondered if they really want to assert that only non-believers who do NOT believe in Christ or his teachings should be law-enforcement officers or members of the military.  That sounds like an argument for religious isolationism and doesn't seem to ring true for me if we believers are to be "salt and light" in every corner of society (nor is it consistent with John the Baptist's message to the soldiers).

However, I do support any common-sense improvements that can be made in back-ground checks and gun-sales screenings to keep weapons away from criminals, the mentally ill, and terrorists.  I don't really understand the logic of opposing such measures.

But more important than any of that is this: as a pastor I am keenly aware of the many Biblical passages that urge us not to trust in or rely upon weapons for our future security.  The Psalms repeatedly affirm, and Christ himself embodies that our trust is not in our own ability to do violence to our enemies, but in God's power to work wonders - even raise the dead (Psalm 20, is one typical example from the Psalter).

So my own position (which I accept is fraught with ambiguity and tension) follows thus: While the coercive power of the government (and by extension, that of the individual gun-owner) does have a legitimate place in diminishing the impact of evil in a fallen world, such use of violence is "by way of concession" and it can never be our true and final hope ("Don't put your trust in princes" say the Psalms - which is not to say "get rid of princes/governments altogether").  Even in the midst of a fallen world, Christians should work creatively and deliberately to transcend violence and retaliation with non-violence and with the Gospel of Christ, that the violent and fallen world may be transformed by the leaven of the Kingdom.

The question of guns (relating either to war or to coercive force in law-enforcement) reminds me of what C.S. Lewis once said about never confusing a necessary evil with a positive good.

I recently saw an article on some Christian website critiquing American gun-culture called "In Guns We Trust."  That title might feel like a slap in the face to some Christian gun-owners, but perhaps it is a "wake up" slap.  If you take seriously what is said on some online message boards and YouTube videos, a lot of people go to church and profess to trust in God, but actually trust in their ability to out-gun others.  It begins to sound like what some "gun guys" really believe in is the me-first "law of the jungle" which, morally, falls far short of even human chivalry and gallantry, to say nothing of the inspired teachings of Christ and the Bible.

SO HERE is an interesting article exploring Gun ownership and following Jesus, entitled "Jesus may not care if you own a gun..." It really asks what "rights" we have when we (in that great evangelical expression) "surrender our lives to Christ," and it asks (like 1 Tim. 6:17 in relation to wealth) what we are ultimately putting our trust in.  I recommend it as food for thought.

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Lecture: Rowan Williams on "Consciousness"

Rowan Williams tackles the question of "What is Consciousness" and points out some significant problems with the purely "mechanistic" approaches to this question that are popular in many circles of the academy.

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Ben Witherington III on "The Rapture"

Following the previous video of N.T. Wright talking about "the Rapture," I thought it might be nice to share this video from Methodist theologian and New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III from the "Seven Minute Seminary" on "Where did Rapture Theology Come From?"

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"Giving Tuesday"

Tomorrow, Dec. 1st is "Giving Tuesday" for United Methodists.  That means you can make a donation to any mission project you'd like - be it digging wells in Africa, planting new churches in Russia, or helping Syrian refugees in Central Europe.  On this one day only, Tuesday Dec. 1st, online gifts will be matched up to a million dollars.



N.T. Wright on "the Rapture"

As I recall, I  have talked about 'the Rapture' in a sermon on one occasion, saying that it was a relatively recent idea in the history of Christianity and there is no mention of "the rapture" at all in our classic doctrinal statements in Methodism (derived from Reformation-era doctrinal statements of Anglicanism).  Good Methodists may disagree on this issue, for the church has no official teaching regarding it.  Thus anything I share here is my own approach, not that of United Methodism.

You will not hear me say that "there is no rapture" - for I do not know this.  What you will hear me say is that, I think many Christians over-state the case for the Rapture, when actually the Scriptural evidence is quite weak, and possibly even non-existent.
Growing up and ministering in the Bible Belt of the American South it is common for me to hear people talk in a matter-of-fact way about 'when the Rapture happens.'  I am one of those who believes that, if this really were a major "first order" Biblical teaching the Scripture would say a bit more about it (and it would have been included in the ancient Creeds).  As it is, almost the whole idea is built on a certain way of reading only one or two passages of Scripture.

One of my favorite contemporary theologians is N.T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop who now teaches at St. Andrews in Scotland.  Having grown up in English Evangelicalism, he too is quite familiar with talk about the Rapture, but as a New Testament scholar he is quite critical of the idea, claiming that it is based upon a mis-understanding of the New Testament imagery, as he explains below.  Advent is a time when, traditionally, the church focuses on our teachings about the Return of Christ and the Last Things (eschatology), so it is a good time to ponder this issue.

In a future video we will learn more about the history of "Rapture Theology" and what (if any) connection it has to the broad and ancient Christian tradition.

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Lecture: Jerry Root on C.S. Lewis and Hell

Here is a lecture on C.S. Lewis' understanding or interpretation of the classical Christian doctrine of Hell, given by Wheaton professor, Dr. Jerry Root.
As a Methodist I have always found Lewis' understanding especially congruent with Wesleyan theology (which I suppose makes sense as both Wesley and Lewis were Anglicans, nourished by the same liturgical tradition, studying the same theology, Articles of Religion and classical Anglican Divines, etc.).

Certainly this is good food for thought, that - God willing - also prompts a lifestyle of repentance.

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Notes on Sunday's Bible Readings (Oct. 25)

Thoughts and Notes upon Sunday’s Bible Readings
For the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 34:1-8
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

Psalm 34
v. 5  “Look to him and be radiant” – a lovely verse recalling the shining face of Moses after his meetings with God (Ex. 34:29) and looking also toward the sanctification of those who look upon the glory of the Lord Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18)
So our lives become ‘radiant’ when we fix the gaze of our hearts upon Jesus.  We often say that a joyful pregnant woman is “positively glowing” – and I have seen this to be the case in many joyful believers who are full of the Spirit as well.  (Note: There is a mystical tradition within Eastern Orthodoxy in which the saints who go deep in prayer are said to literally shine).

v. 8 “taste and see…”  We’ve moved from our sense of sight to that of taste (which is always linked with touch and smell in the case of food).  We “taste” God’s goodness in many ways and are fed by his Word.  Especially in the Holy Sacrament (which we physically/literally taste) we encounter God’s goodness in the offering and sacrifice of the Living Word, Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 7:23-28
Because Christ has conquered death through his resurrection, he is the perfect and ideal high priest who can minister forever, “able for all time to save those who approach God through him.”
Because Jesus lived without sin his one offering of himself is sufficient for all people, such that no further sacrifice is needed to deal with sin.  The sacrifice of the eternal Logos is infinite in its sufficiency, as He is infinite. 
“The word of oath” refers to the Scriptural words of the Psalms referred to in v. 21 and back in chapter 5, possibly also with the words of the Father’s heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration in view as well (Mk. 1:10-11, Mk. 9:7).

Mark 10:46-52
Jesus both comes to, (stays in?), and leaves Jericho in this first verse.  Luke places the healing on the way into (not out of) town, but in either case it happened just outside the city of Jericho; Luke also tells us that this visit was the occasion of Jesus’ staying with Zacchaeus (see Luke 18:35-19:10). 

Matthew 20 shares Mark’s chronology/order here but says there was a second blind man (perhaps there was some confusion in the manuscripts since Mark repeats the man’s name?).  All three synoptic gospels agree that Jesus next went to Jerusalem for his Triumphal Entry.

The discipleship section of the central part of Mark’s Gospel, from the passion prediction (and Peter’s profession of faith) of Mark 8:27-38 to this new passion prediction and new misunderstanding among the disciples in Mark 10:32-45 is framed before and after by healings of blind men.  In between there has been a lot of spiritual blindness among both disciples and Pharisees in chapters 8-10.  But Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), though physically blind, he has a pure faith which is the spiritual “sense” or “vision” (see Heb. 11:1).

v.47 “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  His prayer is very similar to (and one of the Biblical sources of) the ancient “Jesus Prayer” which has been so prominent in the Eastern Church (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” - compare also Luke 17:13, Luke 18:13 & 38).
The man’s petition is politically inflammatory since “Son of David” means “rightful King of Israel” (and possibly therefore: “Messiah”) over against King Herod and Caesar; this may be why some try to silence him.  We can imagine Legionaries at the city’s gates who might hear such a remark as seditious. 
This man’s “Jesus prayer” is a simple and faithful plea for divine aid in his life, including (for him) not only forgiveness but also restoration of sight, as that is where divine aid is most clearly needed.

When Jesus calls him over (v. 49) he asks him the same question he asked James and John (v.36) but this blind man asks for sight.  Because he believes he receives the ‘mercy’ he sought from Christ.

v. 50 When he heard that Jesus was calling he threw aside his cloak, representing a degree of warmth and security certainly; some scholars have argued that the cloak was issued by authorities to serve as an official “begging permit”; in that case he is casting off a whole way of life – a limited life – for a new and more abundant life with Jesus (whom he “follows” on the “way” in v. 52 as a new disciple/follower, “Way” being an early name for the Christian faith – see Acts 9:2).

Some additional sermon thoughts:

Maybe start with the question Jesus asks in v.51 and which he had also asked in last week’s reading (v.36)

Good quotation from Matthew Henry’s (concise) commentary:

“Where the gospel is preached, or the written words of truth circulated, Jesus is passing by, and this is the opportunity.  It is not enough to come to Christ for spiritual healing, but, when we are healed, we must continue to follow him; that we may honor him, and receive instruction from him.  Those who have spiritual eyesight, see that beauty in Christ which will draw them to run after him.”

For “blind” Son of Timaeus faith is spiritual sight, while disciples, Pharisees, and the rich young man show themselves spiritually blind by grasping at “cloaks”; we should be casting off the meager comforts and securities for a deeper life in Christ – trading the comforts of wealth and prestige for faithfulness and trust; the comforts of complaining and gossip for deeper relationship.

What do we want Jesus to do for us?  Leave us with our cloak, or give us deeper sight?  There is a kind of gift that empowers us to ‘follow  him on the way,’ as Bartimaeus now was able to do.

“Pass me not” would be a good hymn for this text.



Lectures: John Milbank on the Collapse of Secularism

I've had Milbank's book Radical Orthodoxy on my shelf for a while, but it is way down my reading list.  Yet I've still been keen to hear and consider some of his ideas.  This lecture is called "The Myth of the Secular" in which Milbank discusses the intellectual paucity of contemporary secularism, which is un-moored from the heritage and intellectual content of Western Civilization in terms of religion, virtue, and a compelling vision of the Good.

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Notes on Sundays' Bible readings (Oct. 18)

Thoughts and Notes upon Sunday’s Bible Readings
For the 21st Sunday after Pentecost

Greeting – United Methodist Book of Worship (UMBOW) 384 
OR adapt the beautiful poetry in Psalm 104, a hymn to the Creator
Collect/Prayer – UMBOW 335
Thanksgiving Prayer – UMBOW 551

Hebrews 5

v.1-2 The high priest is a ‘mediator’ (because he approaches God “on their behalf” – for the people) and a bringer of sacrifice.  Jesus did not belong to the priestly tribe (of Levi) but the royal tribe.

v.4-6 Even as Aaron was called by God to the priestly ministry (Exodus 28 and following), so Christ was given a priestly ministry by the Father, “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4).  Melchizedek is the priest-king who appears in Genesis 14:18-20, who:
                -brings an offering of bread and wine
                -who is king of Salem (literally, “peace”), possibly that is Jerusalem
                -whose name literally means “king of righteousness”
                -who blesses Abraham in God's Name
                -who receives a tithe/homage from Abraham himself (compare John 8:39-59)
He is seen as a “type” (pre-cursor and foreshadowing) of Christ, and I wonder if he is perhaps even an appearance of Christ (a 'Christophany').

What is the “order of Melchizedek”?
Probably the writer of Hebrews is emphasizing that the priesthood over which Christ is high priest, in which all Christian believers share (1 Pet. 2:4-5), and which gives a characteristic offering of bread and wine when blessing God’s Name is older than the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood; therefore showing that the ministry of Christ and the church as a priestly people is more ancient and primordial in its continuity and mission than those founded after the Exodus (stretching instead all the way back [at least] to the days of Abraham).  Thus it can be that Jesus, though a non-Levite, was even so a true priest in a priesthood recognized by Abraham himself, and that Christ's priesthood has a unique 'primacy.'

v.7-9 “…he was heard because of his reverent submission…he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…”
Christ is the priestly mediator (v. 1, 10) because as a true human he completely submitted to the will of the Father.  The Kingdom of God came in and through him because he perfectly lived with God (the Father) as his King; with God’s will being done in him (literally on earth as in heaven).  Because the world is rebellious and sinful (openly rejecting God's kingship), Christ’s perfect submission to God’s royal will naturally and necessarily meant he would face rejection, the cross with its suffering.  That is the price for bringing the Kingdom of God into a fallen world.
So, through Christ and his cross, the eternal life is opened to us, because as God “heard him” and “saved him from death” (v.7) in Raising him who was perfectly obedient; and now we who "obey him" are aligned with him.  When we obey him as king with ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom. 16:26, etc.) we too are part of his heavenly Kingdom; for then we are rightly related to him as our king.  This then connects to the “cup and baptism” that Jesus disciples partake (as signified in the sacraments), in giving up ourselves to him as 'living sacrifices' – following the true King in the midst of the rebellion (Mk. 10:38-40). 
“All who obey him” (v. 9) those who trust Christ and follow their Lord where he leads (even through death and into life), are obviously those whose lives should be characterized by obedience to him (see Matthew 28:20).  

Mark 10:35-45

v. 35 “…we want…”
What gall these disciples have!  And are our prayers often like verses 35-38?  Do we too fall (in subtle ways) into a consumerist “me-religion”?
After the teachings on cross-bearing, soft-hearted, generous discipleship that is also humble in the last 2 chapters, it seems the disciples still do not understand (they are still the “duh-sciples”) and so we have the self-promoting request in verse 37 and the angry (jealous?) reaction in v. 41.  Yet the way of Jesus is the way of servant-hood (v.42-5).  So whom are we serving?   

v.38 “You do not know what you are asking” – they do not understand that Christ’s glory comes from walking the way of humility, commitment, and the cross.  “Are you able to drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am…?”  Jesus uses the sacrament-language to speak of his own faithfulness to God even in walking the way of the cross (Phil. 2:5-9; Heb. 5:7-9 above).  In the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist we are connected with the reality and power of Christ’s sacrificial death and of his Resurrection (Rom. 6:3-11; 1 Cor. 10:16-17).  Through participation in the sacraments we are committing ourselves to lives of similar submission to God and cruciform servant-hood.  So too Jesus here speaks of the cup (as also at Gethsemane) and the Baptism as representations of his own complete submission to God his Father’s loving will, even though (in a rebellious world) that will mean the cross.  Jesus, in drinking this cup and being sunk in this baptism, is giving himself over to the ordeal that is his Passion.

v.39 “We are able…”  Jesus said to them…”you will drink…you will be baptized…”
These apostles, in the hardships and persecutions they face in their ministry, will indeed live out the utter commitment unto God’s will and Kingdom, to which they had committed themselves through the sacramental vows, and to which Jesus here calls them.  St. James was martyred (Acts 12:2) for his faith commitment to Christ, and according to tradition John was tortured, but survived.

v. 40 “…but to sit at my right…or on my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for  whom it is prepared.”
And intriguing and cryptic statement.  Who is it?  If one thinks of the crucifixion as a strange “enthronement” as some scholars do, then the thieves on their crosses might fulfill this saying in a macabre way. 

v. 45 “Ransom” is one Biblical way of understanding the atonement through Christ’s cross, as here and in 1 Timothy 2:6 (see also Hebrews 9:15, NIV).

In his sermon on this passage at Duke Chapel Rev. Sam Wells says, “We all die sooner or later.  Jesus tells us what he is going to die for.”  He dies to ransom, to set free.  That is what he gives himself over to.  What about us?

What does ‘greatness’ look like?  (Tony the Tiger equates it with ‘tasty’) how do we use that word?  (see verse 43).  To What do we aspire?



Lecture: David Bently Hart on the "New Atheists"

In this lecture (about 48 minutes, then Q&A), philosopher, Patristics scholar, and Orthodox Christian David Bentley Hart addresses and rebuffs the arguments and errors "the New Atheists" (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, et. al.).

He points out the mis-understandings of the New Atheists (who argue against a god that they imagine is some very great an object within the universe rather than the ground or foundation of all Being beyond this and any other universes), as well as numerous errors of historical fact that they include in their books.  He also laments that the popularity of the New Atheists may itself be indicative of a loss of intellectual depth and integrity in Western cultures more generally (which he points out includes a decline in the quality of religious discourse itself, against which Dawkins et al. are reacting).

Completely fascinating lecture.  Well worth your time!

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Thoughts and Notes on Sunday's Readings (for Oct. 11)

This is the first of a new series that I hope to post (most) every week.

Each week I will look at one or two of the assigned texts from the Revised Common Lectionary and offer a few thoughts, questions, and observations (nothing elaborate or especially scholarly) that I hope may be of help to preachers or students of the Bible wanting to prepare for the coming Sunday's Liturgy.  The text based upon my handwritten notes, sketched out week to week over the last 3 years.  These notes will be most helpful when read alongside the Biblical text itself (I always had a Bible open in front of me when making these notes).

Most weeks I will also suggest a general prayer (known as a "collect") and a liturgical greeting to accompany the chosen text.

My quotations of Bible verses or phrases generally come from either the NRSV or the ESV translations.


Thoughts and Notes upon Sunday’s Bible Readings

For the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

Collect/Prayer options: UMBOW 308, UMBOW 462, UMBOW 335

Hebrews 4:
v.12 – the Word of God ‘pierces’ to the heart of things to ‘judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ making our spiritual condition known to us, as it is known to God, as in v.13: “before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
Jesus speaks in Mark 10 of giving possessions to the poor – if our hearts are resentful against charity towards the poor, we will be made to render our account before him for a “hard heart” (as also in Mark 10:5), as will those who, owing to laziness or sloth, abuse the kindness and charity of others.   All will give an account.

Note – since v.11 speaks of avoiding disobedience so we can enter “God’s rest;” the living and active word, written in Scripture and Incarnate in Jesus, reveals where we disobey to help us avoid disobedience.

V.14-16 – Jesus is the greatest possible high priest because he has entered even into the heavenly temple, for the purification of all those who ‘hold fast to our confession.’  Because he has suffered and been tested as we have, we can approach his heavenly throne to seek ‘mercy and grace’ confident of finding a sympathetic hearing from Jesus.  Being without sin, he shares in complete and unhindered communion with God in the highest heavens; being a true man, he brings our human nature there with him, opening the way for his followers to be brought there also (compare John 14:3).

Mark 10:
v.17 – ‘As he was setting out on a journey…’  This man, it seems, delayed Jesus yet the Savior gave time and attention to the man all the same.  The journey is ultimately to Jerusalem, to the cross, which casts a shadow over this whole passage.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  A question we all may sooner or later ask, especially when we are most cognizant of our mortality.  The emphasis on ‘doing’ enough may, in part, be precisely the idea Jesus wants to move them past, since by the end of the conversation the disciples are brought to see that ‘For mortals it is impossible, but…for God all things are possible.’ (v.27)

v.18 ‘No one is good but God alone’ invites the hearers to consider the fullness of Jesus’ identity as the one who is truly good (v.17), while reminding us to put no trust for eternal life in our own goodness.

v. 19 Jesus connects keeping the commandments with the way leading to life.  The man has done so in outward details so Jesus, the Living Word pierces deeper to the heart of the issue (as he did with divorce in verses 1-12).  So he says ‘sell your possessions, give to the poor, and follow me.’  
Following Jesus does not always mean giving away all wealth, since Joseph of Arimathea and Lydia were wealthy disciples (who used their resources for the Kingdom) and Zacchaeus is permitted to keep some of his wealth after he volunteers to give half his wealth to the poor and to make restitution for his fraud (which presumably would use up much of the other half but still not leaving him penniless); but following Jesus does always mean cutting out that which hinders us from giving ourselves over to Him.  The difference between this man and Zacchaeus was a difference of the heart: Zacchaeus was not going to let his great wealth get between him and Jesus (Luke 19) while the rich young ruler did.  The more things we have – be they advantages of wealth, class, education, intellect, or personal gifts, the more things we may be tempted look to as “our portion” besides the Lord (Ps. 119:57); thus Jesus says it is hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom (v. 23-25).  And we (in the US) are rich indeed.

Giving to the poor is a theme repeated in the stories of the Rich Young Man and Zacchaeus; see also the callousness of the rich man of Luke 16, who gave nothing to poor Lazarus, which is the reason for that man’s condemnation.  This giving (traditionally, “alms”) is an important discipline for followers of Jesus, that we might become ‘cheerful givers’ (2 Cor. 9:7), even as God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer is generous with us.

A couple of interpretations of ‘eye of the needle’ are current (the tiny hole in a sewing needle or a small door in the city gates that required an animal to be unloaded of all its burdens/possessions and kneel or crouch down to pass through); the “sewing needle” is the likeliest reading. 

Note that Jesus’ answer to the man’s question is not so much an answer as an invitation to follow; not theoretical but threateningly practical.  Tom Wright has said it well, that 'This call echoes down through history and we are all judged by the answer we give.'

Note also that “inherit eternal life” (v. 17) and “enter the Kingdom” (v.24) and “be saved” (v. 26) are all used synonymously.  The rich man is the most prominent case of a person refusing a personal call to follow Jesus in the gospels.  So then we must ask, does wealth = “blessed’ as we often assume (as when we say “God has blessed my family/America/my business” etc.)?

Perhaps the rich man, so self-disciplined him keeping the commandments, had grown wealthy through similar disciplined efforts in his business and was loath to give his ‘hard earned’ money to un-working and un-deserving poor.  He expects to earn through his ‘doing’ the Kingdom and perhaps expects the poor to earn all that they gain, rather than simply be given it.  Yet God’s attitude toward us sinners and the attitude he calls forth from us is all grace.

This passage asks us ‘What is wealth for?’

Remember Wesley’s rule: Earn all you can, save (conserve) all you can, (so that you can) give all you can.

Jesus tells the disciples that “in this age” those who had left home and family (as many must do when they convert to Christ in anti-Christian cultures) will receive it back many times over, as they are welcomed into the new family of the Church, which shares its resources.  We must ask, ‘does my life, my handling of my resources, my engagement with the church, help to make that promise true?’

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Lectures: Rowan Williams on Christ's Uniqueness

I am planning to spend more of my free time in the morning watching more serious lectures from theologians and thinkers on YouTube rather than cartoons or re-runs.  The best or most thought-provoking of these I plan to share on this blog - a "Gloria Deo Lecture Series" if you will.  I am not necessarily endorsing all that is said here, but I am holding up some serious thinkers with some deep claims that are worth our attention.  If you have the time to engage with some of these lectures, I hope they will get "the wheels turning" in your head.

The First video is a lecture from Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury on the finality and uniqueness or even the exclusivity of Christ (as expressed in John 14:5-6 and Acts 4:11-12) in a "Pluralistic" World.

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Rule of Law and Freedom of Religion

Interesting video from a PBS segment discussing rule of law "versus" freedom of religion in light of the recent Kim Davis case in Kentucky.

I think it is interesting that the liberal spokesman, the UCC minister, neglected to mention the long tradition, often claimed and celebrated by progressive Christians, of civil disobedience in the name of justice (as with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement).  One wonders what to make of that omission, as well as the lack of any mention of our tradition of allowing "conscientious objection" to important civic duties such as military service or the pledge of allegiance on religious grounds.

I also think it is interesting that none of the speakers acknowledged the dilemma potentially faced by any elected official when the law gets changed after you have already been serving in office. It is one thing to know ahead of time that assuming a particular elected office will mean signing onto acts that go against one's conscience or religion, it is (in my view) quite another thing to find that after being elected and serving without any scruple for some period of time such an official finds himself thrown into a moral quandary because "the rules have changed " (thanks to a Supreme Court decree).

I also worry that the "last word" in this video may turn out to be true...though it may be a trend that has been happening a long time.  What do you think? Are we moving from a live and let live society to a winner take all society?

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Some more recommended articles

Higher calling, lower wages:

This article about the disappearance of middle-class clergy highlights a problem that is actually a confluence of several factors:

1) the problem of the decline of the American middle class in general - a problem which appears poised to accelerate among millennials as they mature
2) the problem of the relative decline of the Church as a major social institution in our culture, and in particular the loss of status that clergymen once enjoyed as important and respected members of society, and
3) the expanding costs of higher education in general and the seminaries' marriage to a "professional graduate school" model of preparing ministers that may not serve either denominations nor individual clergy as well as it might.  Indeed many younger clergy in my area are encouraged to commit to a 3-year continuing education program on church leadership, even after attending a 3-to-4 year seminary program precisely because the seminaries - married as they are to the latest speculative theological fads - do not often prepare us well for many of the more practical challenges of our work.

The phsycological benefits of walking in nature:

I love to hike.  Unfortunately the daytime temperature is above 90 degress for about 4 months of the year where I live, so I am unable to do so much at the moment.
I like to say I go hiking so much because "I am looking for elves."  In truth I wonder if I am not actually looking for Eden.  I wonder if that is not a deep spiritual yearning that most of us feel: to search for a primal harmony with nature (go read Genesis chapter 2) that we sense has been somehow lost (Genesis 3).  It turns out that people - in particular urban-dwellers - who are surrounded by artificial environments all day actually suffer from various mental health problems due to lack of the natural, the beautiful, and the God-given in their lives.

On a related note is this:

7 Ways Electronics Quietly harm our Mental Health:

While I do keep up with mainstream news sources such as NPR and BBC and CNN, I am obviously also a believer in the alternative news and analysis found in many blogs and websites.  This article comes from a source - Off The Grid News - which is certainly alternative.  This is from the solar powered, organic farming, urban-homesteading, environmentalist/disaster preparedness, self-reliance crowd.  Whether or not you are inclined to trust the source, the 7 Reasons that our tablets, smartphones, laptops and the like are said to harm our mental health and our relationships seem to ring true to my experiences as a young person, and my experiences of working with (slightly younger) college-age folks at UL Lafayette a few years back.

The Decline (and Fall?) of Religious Freedom in America:

Most of the conversation I have heard on the topic of religious freedom since the recent Supreme Court ruling to re-define civil marriage have either come from traditionalist Christians or from secularists (who may or may not be nominally Christian - like a friend of mine who recently expressed her hope that churches would lose their tax-exempt status in order that the government should have more money to help out the poor - yes, folks, college-educated people who grew up in church are really saying this).
Anyways, this article comes from a rather different perspective: that of a Jewish author at Mosaic Magazine.  The article also includes links to a couple of responses from other Jewish authors (both agreeing and disagreeing with the thesis).  I think their perspective adds something unique to this conversation, having been a religious minority (and in many places, a despised one) since the founding of this country.

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Articles on young people seeking liturgical worship

I am one of THOSE young people (though a little less young with each passing day).  I love the liturgy, the creeds, and the sacraments of the church.  I love the "rootedness" and the beauty of historical patterns of worship.  I love that the liturgy doesn't try to be trendy but just is what it is, and always has been (mimicing as it does the patterns of eternal worship in heaven as they are glimpsed in Scripture - particularly in The Book of Isaiah and The Revelation to John).

As a pastor this means I find myself often seeking to ensure that our worship services follow the basic pattern and include the basic content that is handed down to us in our Book of Worship, which builds off of the more ancient liturgical heritage of Anglicanism.  For example, in Holy Week I re-worked a special Holy Thursday service that was inherited from a previous pastor who created it many years ago.  The basic idea of the service was a good one with precedents ancient and modern; in re-working his service I simply incorporated liturgical prayers, lectionary readings, and other elements that have historically been a part of the Holy Thursday experience of Christians and yet were missing.

I've been thinking about this as I've run across not one but two more good articles on young people being attracted to the liturgy, and why that trend is happening.  As far as I can see, it is still a pretty small trend; a minority report among young American Christians.  But I believe it is a genuine movement of the Spirit that is part of a larger "rebirth of orthodoxy" (to use Tom Oden's phrase).

SO, why might I (and maybe some others too) be interested in reconnecting with the "old-school" practices of faith and worship?  Check out these pieces:
5 Reasons Young People are Seeking Old Ways of Doing Church (which is a short and "spot-on" piece)
Why Millennials Long for Liturgy (a longer, more in-depth, article with more personal stories)

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'Liberation' in St. Luke's Gospel

I've been slowly plodding through Richard Hays' excellent book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament for some time now; as a pastor I've made a commitment to the church and to myself to stay academically and theologically sharp, and I try to build serious reading into my work schedule.

I ran across a great quote in the closing remarks of his chapter on Luke.  It seems to me that in many circles Christianity can easily "blur" into a kind of political activism - whether of the conservative kind ("let's win the culture wars and take back America for Jesus - by electing conservatives") which I encountered attending Baptist churches in North Louisiana, or of the liberal kind ("let's liberate the poor and oppressed and do something about all the social and political institutions that keep people down - by electing liberals").

Now we should indeed be working to call the precious people in our and every culture to yield to the Lordship of Jesus and that part of this should indeed mean caring for the poor and helping out the needy.  But have you ever noticed how little Jesus talked about reforming the political institutions of his day?  I've been struck recently by the fact that he did indeed encourage paying taxes to Caesar, considering all the ungodly things that the Roman Empire was likely to do with that money...

Anyways, here is Richard Hays' comment:
Because the language of liberation has been so widely appropriated in the interest of various political causes, it is important to specify what Luke does and does not have in mind.  The book of Acts gives no evidence of the Apostles seeking to reform political structures outside the church, either through protest or by seizing power.  Instead, Luke tells the story of the formation of a new human community - the church - in which goods are shared and wrongs are put right.  In this way the apostolic testimony to the resurrection is made effectual.  The question that Luke-Acts puts to the church - then and now - is not "Are you reforming society?" but rather "Is the power of the resurrection at work among you?"

Now that is a potent question...

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What happens when a Christian dies?

United Methodist pastor and theologian Matt O'Reilly keeps a blog called "Orthodoxy for Everyone" (formerly "Incarnatio") that I like to check from time to time.  As the title implies he writes to call everyone to a Biblical and orthodox Christian faith, worldview, and lifestyle.  I recently watched a video he had posted - part of the Seedbed/7 minute Seminary series - discussing the Biblical teaching concerning the afterlife of believers in Christ.  It is a quite good and straight-forward presentation of the classic and Biblical Christian teaching that has often been over-simplified or 'watered down' in Christian preaching and pop-theology.

Here is some great material for funeral sermons as well: What happens when a Christian dies?

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Becoming "Gospel Catholics" by lifting up the cross

This video is a sermon by Bishop Sutton of the Anglican Church in North America on the preaching of the cross drawing from 1 Corinthians chapter 1:17-21.  He is addressing a gathering of Anglo-catholics (that is, Anglicans who, while not Roman Catholic, do emphasis the catholicity of their tradition) that recently took place in Texas (I had half a mind to try to go, but at least I can watch - and share - some of it online).

He points out that, in this passage Paul equates "preaching the Gospel" with "preaching the cross."  That is a word many of us preachers need to hear again and again.  He also points out that the preaching of the cross is intimately connected to the sacraments - which themselves preach the cross with outward signs rather than with a sermon AND (connected to this) that preaching the cross was how Paul addressed the disunity of the Corinthian believers.  The message of the cruciform Savior and the call to cruciform discipleship in union with Him is God's answer to the tendency of Christians (in our still-fallen nature) toward division.

Interesting and edifying stuff in here.

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Pyrotechnics versus tradition in growing the Church

Here is a nice piece from Rev. Sarah Puryear, a young Episcopal Priest, writing about the efforts of the churches - particularly the historic and liturgical churches that grew out of the Reformation - to reach Millennials.  She notes that many of the "silver bullet" and "quick fix" strategies are rather superficial, saying:

"If churches are looking for quick fixes that might ease their sense of panic and attract young people, they need only consider the suggestions of millennial Jordan Taylor, who suggests in his video “How to Get Millennials Back in Church” the following remedies: fog machines, light shows, aggressive worship leaders, and a beard for every staff member. Taylor’s sarcastic suggestions expose a central weakness in many churches’ thinking about how to draw millennials: young adults can tell when they are the target of marketing strategies, and they generally don’t appreciate it."

She goes on to underscore new research that demonstrates the importance that parents - mothers and fathers - play in passing the faith on to the next generation.  As a society, we love to outsource "problem solving" to properly accredited professionals - and so we try this same approach when it comes to trying to keep our children connected to Christ and his Church.  Instead we should look to the time-honored practices of families praying together, reading the Bible and talking about their faith together, and of parents living a dedicated Christian life for their children to see and learn from.  This is no silver bullet.  It is simply the organic and natural process whereby a Christian parent's faith can bear fruit in the life of a child.  I strongly suspect - in the entertainment age when the TV screen (rather than the family altar) is the dominant focal point of the home - that it is the collapse of the "home church" and the Christian training of the children by their parents that is really at the root of the decline of active Christian faith in our culture.

Finally, she believes that this organic/natural family model can inform the communal life of the church as well, as she writes: 

I believe there is a parallel here for the Church. Rather than luring young adults through flashy programs or outsourcing their formation to experts, we will contribute to the spiritual formation of the next generation best by being serious about our faith ourselves. We must be serious about our faith on two levels — first and foremost, demonstrating what it means to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus; and second, modeling what it looks like to be a Christian in the Anglican tradition. Most Episcopal churches don’t stand a chance against nondenominational churches in a pyrotechnic competition, but we have a rich and beautiful tradition in our prayer book that goes beyond short-lived trends that will seem horribly dated within a few years’ time. Our tradition will not appeal to everyone, but it will draw young adults who long for something deeper in a superficial and distracted age.

I believe the same can be said about the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition.  We share in the same liturgical and doctrinal stream as do the Anglican churches (if only we'd remember it in practice); we share with many churches a special emphasis on the spiritual disciplines and practices that can deeply anchor one's life in the life of the Triune God: the Early Methodists teach us to live by a rule of life, to practice meditation on Scripture, prayer, fasting, sacraments, silence, covenant groups, corporate praise, and so on.  I am afraid that we Methodists currently seem to be buying into more of the "let's look to the entertainment industry to find a flashy, wizz-bang, silver bullet" mentality, rather than committing ourselves afresh to the deep doctrinal truths and spiritual practices of our own tradition as a key to connecting people with Life Himself. 

In an age of loud, superficial, and often mind-numbing (rather than intellect-sharpening) entertainment/distraction I believe there are many young adults looking for ways to connect more deeply to God and to Reality.  Christ has created his Church precisely to help people do just that!

Last week our local church led a retreat of 25 people to a Benedictine Monastery.  We had among us a handful of young adults who had a great experience.  No fog machine, but instead the Daily Office.  No light show, but instead Lectio Divina.  No celebrities, but instead some genuine Christian community - what we Methodists call "holy Conferencing."  And through it all, God was near...and that was enough to feed our souls.

"My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever...for me it is good to be near to God; I have made the Lord God my refuge..."  Psalm 73:26-28  

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