1/13/17

The Benedict Option?


A few years ago, some of my friends told me that I was a "Crunchy-Con."  I had no idea what they meant and they explained that I was one of those socially conservative, nature-loving, environmentally friendly, peace-loving, gun-rights and green-energy-supporting, big-government and big-business-skeptical, thoughtfully traditionalist Christians that a new book had labelled "Crunchy-Con".  I was clearly a conservative in many ways, they told me, but I also clearly did not fit the standard mold of the Republican party (in those days dominated by free-market worshiping "Neo-Cons").

The book was written by Rod Dreher, in whom I have taken an interest recently because he has roots in the church I now pastor, though Mr. Dreher has transitioned over to Eastern Orthodoxy.

My friends introduced the idea of "Crunchy Con" to me back in 2006.  Another book that I encountered around the same time was MacIntyre's influential book called After Virtue, that proposed that our culture, having lost sight of the value of the classical virtues in favor of an individualistic self-indulgence that we mistakenly call "happiness", was no longer capable of moral reasoning in any cohesive and broadly accepted way.  MacIntyre heralds the dawn of a new "dark age" for the Western nations, and hopes to see a new Saint Benedict appear to keep the lamp of faith and learning and virtue burning through the dark night, just as happened in the monasteries after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century.

Below is a video of Rod Dreher talking about this same idea, what he calls - following MacIntyre - "The Benedict Option" (which is also the title of Dreher's newest book).

This idea of a new dark-age, or a neo-barbarism as some have called it, has weighed on my mind for several years now.  It is a very dark topic (no pun intended), and not one that I enjoy thinking about, and yet I haven't quite been able shake the sense - the haunting feeling - that it may just be true.

As much as I hate to admit it (for I really don't want to sound like one of those "alarmists" who seem to rank only a step or two above "conspiracy theorists"), I must say that, after the cultural upheavals of the last couple of years (Dreher mentions the all-out assault on the very idea of preserving religious liberty for conservatives in Indiana; I might add to that almost every aspect of the 2016 election cycle as exemplary of cultural upheaval) I find myself more and more convinced that American culture and American civilization are in steep intellectual, moral, and spiritual decline.

What would James Madison, the principle author of the Bill of Rights who put "Free exercise of Religion" as the very first thing on the list (before free speech; before the right to bear arms) think of faithful Christian bakers being sued out of business, even prosecuted under the law, for refusing to participate in a gay wedding?  What would he think about a Fire Chief in a major US city being fired for writing a book about his faith in which he affirmed his belief in traditional Christian sexual morals?  What would he think about the online campaign to get Chip and Joanna Gaines and their hit TV show "Fixer-Upper" thrown off the air not even for anything that they have said but simply because the Gaines dare to attend a church whose pastor affirms the traditional Christian definition of marriage that Jesus himself gives in Matthew 19?

On the other end of the political spectrum, what would the noble George Washington think of a vulgar, reckless, self-worshiping, "reality TV" star, who is incapable of remaining in a committed marriage and who once graced the cover of Playboy magazine, ascending to the high and solemn office of President of the United States?  What would he think of man without sound judgment or soberness of mind enough to handle a twitter account having access to the nuclear codes?

Not too much, I expect.

As an aside, that one man should have authority to launch our nuclear weapons without any legal checks and balances is itself an affront to our constitutional heritage - a compromise of our political values, a deal we made with the devil, for the sake of winning the Cold War.  That is something Congress should address.

If there is a word that comes to mind to describe both the motivations of those on the left and on the right that word is fear.  And fear makes it hard for us to be charitable to one another.  On the other hand, perfect love casts out fear.
Part of the fear stems from the fact that all levels of the government, through the endless proliferation of laws and regulations, presume to dictate more and more of the most intimate parts of our lives: what should I do when I get sick?  Who can I marry or consider "family"?  What sorts of religious or political convictions can I express?  The government grasps for the power to answer these questions; I know of no philosophical or constitutional reason why that grasping should be accepted as legitimate.
As long as it is possible that people whose views are hostile to one's own values might come to power in such a system (as is always possible in our elected system), it is only natural for people to feel continuously under threat.  That is why our politics keep getting uglier.  Social media has, I think, exacerbated this sense of fear because it is no longer only the polished professional politicians whom we all hear as the voice of "the other side" but also the more thoughtless and rancorous voices shrieking across the web.

At the end of the 2016 election cycle, when more and more people seem to agree that our political system is broken - so enthralled to the interests of political parties and big donors and special interest groups that it is no longer responsive to the will of the people or the traditions of our American heritage; at a time when our culture seems locked into conflict, confusion, and turmoil, one wonders what to do.

It is at such a moment that what might be called  "The Benedict Option" looks more and more appealing to me.  What would it look like to do in our times the sorts of things Benedict did and monks have been doing since ancient days?  Build deep social connections right on your local level; meet your neighbors; spend less time online.  Pray and worship with your family and your neighbors - regularly and frequently in a local church.  Read the Bible, hold the grand Scriptural Story before you, and continually celebrate your faith in Christ.  Practice the Spiritual Disciplines.  Get back to the earth - grow some of your own food.  Work toward a more self-sufficient and sustainable community.  Get involved with children and youth in your community.  Read the classics and the great books of Western culture.  Share these spiritual and cultural riches with  your children and the children in your community.  Endure hardships - perhaps even persecutions - with a joyful spirit, and welcome others (even strangers) with open arms as if they were Christ himself.  Look out for the needs of the weak, the unborn and the aged, the orphan and the widow, the poor and the minority, the foreigner and the refugee.  Seek to be people of confident, gracious, self-giving love in a world of grasping fear.

The are the sort of things that went on in monasteries (and still do in many places), but as general principles and practices they need not be confined to monastic communities alone.

Another book I read in seminary, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, suggests that, far from being an anti-evangelical retreat from the world, the cultivation of intentionally Christian and (for that reason) intentionally welcoming and open-armed communities on the local level will be the key to relationship-based evangelism in a Post-modern world that is starving for 'rootedness' and deep community.


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12/19/16

What is the Net doing to your brain?



A couple of years ago I heard an NPR interview (which I'm sure you can find using a quick web-search) with an author named Nicholas Carr discussing his (then) new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains.  I must say that his basic thesis was distressing, and yet also had the "ring of truth" when I considered my own use of the web and that of the those around me (mostly college students at that time).  I put the book on my Amazon wishlist and eventually ordered a nice used hardback.

Over the last few weeks I read it.  Though generally a slow reader myself, I found this to be a quick read (especially for what may be the first book on neuroscience I've ever attempted), and more than that this book has literally changed my life.  I've noticed for years that I've been getting more "scatter-brained."  I'd assumed that this was simply part of the ageing process or (scary thought) the first hints of some early-onset dementia.  Since reading Carr's well-researched book I'm convinced that I'm feeling more scatter-brained precisely because my online habits have actually been reinforcing "scattered" thinking and attention.

I say that the book has changed my life because I've intentionally spent less time on the web - and social media in particular - since finishing this book.  So far I am quite pleased with this change.  It is surprising how quickly that feeling that "I'm missing something" subsides after you quit checking Facebook for a few days.  Instead I've been able to spend more time book-reading.

Some argue that the web makes us smarter and more creative.  They may have some evidence to support this (which Carr examines): without a doubt the web does help with certain kinds of mental activity.  But while the web encourages some mental activities, it actually weakens others: the processes in the brain connected with memory (especially long-term memory formation), concentration, reflection, attention, and contemplation (of particular interest to me as a pastor) all become weaker through constant internet use.
In short we are becoming shallower thinkers and it is more difficult for us to gain wisdom, especially since (researchers have learned) long-term memory actually plays a crucial role in wisdom and character-building.  
If someone were looking for evidence as to whether the web has indeed had a wide-scale deleterious effect upon our collective wisdom and our collective ability to think deeply, I suggest that the 2016 election process - from the primaries onward - stands as "exhibit A."

My advice to you: read this book.  Read it as soon as you can.

Below is a video that introduces some of the basic concepts, but with a five minute video you cannot begin to capture the detail, the charm, and the sheer persuasiveness of the book itself.

Plus, 5 minutes may be a stretch to our "online attention span".

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12/12/16

A Christmas Devotion from NT Wright

A few weeks ago I attended a conference at Southern Methodist University (where I attended seminary), at which the featured speaker was N.T. Wright.  If memory serves, this is the fourth time I've heard him in person, and it was excellent.  As always, Wright's ability to respond off the cuff to questions with extremely thoughtful answers far better than I could produce with weeks of research impressed me.  I was even more amazed because in the precious little time Bishop Wright had between our lectures, he was apparently giving other lectures and sermons to other clergy gatherings, including the following.  Here is some deep theology for the Advent and Christmas seasons:

Reflections on John’s Prologue

In the beginning was the Word…. And the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us; and we gazed upon his glory. 
John positively urges us in his prologue to see the whole of the story he will tell within the long reach of the first two books of the Bible. John, after all, focuses his story again and again on the Temple, on Jesus’ upstaging of the Temple, on his implicit warning to the Temple and its guardians, and on his final performance of that which the Temple itself could not effect.

What has that to do with Genesis and Exodus? Well, everything: because Genesis 1 and 2 describe, to anyone with first-century eyes, the construction of the ultimate Temple, the single heaven-and-earth reality, the one Cosmos within which the twin realities of God’s space and our space are held together in proper balance and mutual relation. The seven stages of creation are the seven stages of constructing a temple, into which the builder will come to take up residence, to take his ‘rest’: Here is Zion, my resting-place, says Israel’s God in the Psalms. 
Within this Temple there is of course, as the final element of construction, the Image: the true Image through which the rest of creation sees and worships the creator, the true Image through which the sovereign and loving creator becomes present to, in and with his creation, working out his purposes. Genesis 1 declares that the God who made the world is the heaven-and-earth God, the working-through-humans-in-the-world God. (I wish there was a word for that; it might be easier in German; or perhaps we could take the Greek and speak not just of ananthropic God, a God who was appropriately bodied forth in human life, but adianthropic God, a God who desired to express himself perfectly by workingthrough humans in the world.) And already, with this vision of Genesis before us, we understand both the beginning and the climax of John’s gospel: in the beginningen archebereshith: in the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh. And on the last Friday, the ultimate sixth day of the week, the representative of the world’s ruler declares ‘behold the Man’: like Caiaphas earlier, Pontius Pilate says far, far more than he knows, acknowledging that Jesus is the Proper Man, the true Image, the one at whom, when people gaze, they see the Father; the one through whom the Father is present, and powerfully working, to bring about his desire and design. And in the end, when the light has shone in the gathering darkness and the darkness has tried to extinguish it, the final word echoes Genesis once more: tetelestai, it is finished. The work is accomplished. There follows the rest of the seventh day, the rest in the tomb, before the first day of the new week when Mary Magdalene comes to the garden and discovers that new creation has begun. John is writing a new Genesis, and the death of Jesus places at the heart of this new heaven-and-earth reality the sign and symbol of the Image through which the world will see and recognise its Creator and know him as the God of unstoppable love, the sign and symbol of the Image through which the Creator has established that love at the climax of world history and as the fountain-head for the rivers of living water that will now flow out to refresh and renew his whole world. That is the primary story John is telling.
But if it is a new Genesis it is also a new Exodus. For years, when reading Exodus, I confess that I used to misjudge what Moses says repeatedly to Pharaoh: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert. I used to think this was just an excuse: we want to go home to our promised land, but let’s just tell Pharaoh that we want to worship our God and that we can’t do it in his land, surrounded by his gods. But the whole logic of the book of Exodus, and indeed of the Pentateuch as a whole, forbids that interpretation. If you read Exodus at a run you will easily arrive at Mount Sinai in chapter 20; up to that point it’s a page-turner, one dramatic incident after another, but then suddenly the pace seems to slacken as we get miscellaneous rules and regulations, though not (to be honest) very many of them yet. Don’t stop there; forge ahead; because the whole narrative is indeed moving swiftly forward to the aim and object of the whole thing, which is the restoration of creation itself, the purpose for which God called Abraham and his family in the first place, the purpose through which heaven and earth will be joined together once more, only now in dramatic symbol and onward pointing sign. The giving of Torah itself is just a preparation; what matters is the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is the microcosmos, the little world, the heaven-and-earth place, the mysterious, untameable, moving tent – or perhaps it is the world that moves, while the tent stays still? – in which the living God will come to dwell, to tabernacle, in the midst of his people, in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. The whole of the book of Exodus is itself moving towards this moment, in chapter 40, when the Tent is set up, constructed and decorated with the highest human artistry, which itself is part of the point, and the Divine Glory comes to dwell in it, so that even Moses couldn’t enter the Tent because of that glorious presence. Exodus 40 answers to Genesis 1 and 2: creation is renewed, heaven and earth are held together, the world itself is halted from its slide back towards chaos, and the people of God, tent-makers and tent-keepers and pilgrims wherever the glory-filled Tent will lead them, are to live the dangerous and challenging life of the people in whose midst there dwells, in strange humble sovereignty, the promise and hope for the whole of creation. (This is course is why Leviticus is where it is and what it is, with the priests as the humans who stand at the intersection of heaven and earth; but that’s another story.)
All of this and much more – think of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 8, think of the vision in Isaiah 6 – is then poured by John into the dense and world-shaping reality of the Prologue as it reaches its climax. In the beginning was the Word; and the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us; and we gazed upon his glory. We have been allowed where Moses was not. We have seen the glory, the heaven-and-earth reality, the human microcosmos, the Tent where the God of the Exodus is revealed as the One God of creation and new creation. The Exodus through which creation is rescued and renewed; the new creation which comes to birth on the eighth day after the dark power, the great and terrible Pharaoh, has been defeated once and for all. This is the story that John is telling.
Excerpt from an Address to Dallas Episcopal Clergy, 16 November 2016, by N.T. Wright

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11/28/16

Are liberal academics actually tolerant?

I've asked this question in different ways, over the years, particularly as it relates to the supposed free-and-open-debate of the academy. HERE is an interesting piece from The New York Times (by no means a reactionary publication) in which a black man reports facing more discrimination at the university where he teaches for being conservative than he faces in society in general for being black.

I've been keen on this issue ever since, as an undergraduate studying political science, I discovered that less than 10% of the professors in my department were Republican or conservative, while virtually all the rest were Democrats. This struck me as odd for an institution that supposedly valued diversity and vigorous intellectual exchange, both of which would have been much bolstered by having a few more conservative perspectives to broaden the conversation.

The above mentioned piece shows that new research has shed light on this skewing of academic faculties: it is a result of hiring discrimination. Read the whole piece for details. 

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10/18/16

Bringing Back Family Worship

Recent studies have found that the single biggest indicator of whether a child raised in church will turn out to be a committed Christian adult is what the parents (or guardians) do at home.  Is prayer, Bible-reading, and talking about our faith (what Methodists call "holy conferencing") part of the family life along with regular church attendance?

For Methodists, we can look to the example set by Samuel and (especially) Susanna Wesley in how they raised their children (including John and Charles Wesley) for inspiration: in addition to family prayers and Sunday Worship led by Samuel (who was an Anglican priest), Susanna spent an hour with each of her children each week to discuss the state of their souls and their relationship with Christ.

Theologians have called the family that embraces these sorts of spiritual practices a "domestic church."  Unfortunately this discipline (like the small-group accountability and the rule of life that combined to give the early Methodists their "method" and their vitality) was let slide and replaced with a more institutional church in which it was assumed that the "professionals" (i.e. the clergy, church staff, Sunday School teachers, youth ministers, etc.) rather than the parents have primary responsibility for raising children in the ways of Christ.  The results of this shift are obvious: ever declining commitment to Christ and his body among young adults and teens over the last 3 generations.

Certainly our new cultural situation requires that the Christian church become a community of pilgrim missionaries, rather than a complacent civil religion.
Our new situation also requires that we recover this vital discipline of family devotion, or "the domestic church."  HERE is an article from The United Methodist Church with 8 different suggestions of how you might do this.

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10/11/16

Recommended Reading


You may have heard that the 19th Century American Methodists' teaching that we should abstinence from alcohol was a factor in the development of Welch's Grape Juice - so that church members could receive communion wine without any alcohol in it.  But have you heard about how the Methodist Movement in Ireland helped give rise to Guinness Beer?  Check out that story, "God and Guinness", HERE.

This election season has brought with it a lot of talk about immigration and the potential building of a "great wall" along our southern border.  United Methodist theologian (and one of my seminary teachers) David Watson takes on these issues from a Biblical Christian vantage point in THIS POST in a way that I think is very helpful in preventing evangelical, traditionalist, and Bible-centered Christians from degenerating into slogan-slinging.

Here is a nice piece from First Things called "Dressing for Others" reflecting on how wearing a clergy collar or clergy garb can serve as an invitation to conversation.  I am one of the (growing) minority of United Methodist clergy who do wear the collar on a regular basis, a practice that is also common among Anglican, Roman Catholic, Easter Orthodox, and Lutheran clergy.  It also seems to be relatively common among non-denominational clergy in the Black Church tradition.

Everything we've been told for decades about obesity is wrong.  It is not just about eating fat...or even eating carbs.  It is about how the body digests different foods differently.  Check the whole story HERE.

In a world with too much scary news already, I almost hate to share this next one; but if it is true, it deserves our attention.  From Newsweek: In Europe and Russia there is Talk of War (this article is a few weeks old now; with the collapse of the Syrian peace talks - again - there has been more of this sort of talk recently - and not only talk, but large scale training operations for Russians civilians).

As an advocate (and practitioner) of traditional Christian sexual morality, I see it as my duty to try to point out how submission to the "higher standards" set by the Bible and Christian tradition, while difficult in our current culture, actually leads to happier, more fulfilled lives and deeper human flourishing.  HERE is a piece from a Roman Catholic source pointing to new evidence that the sexually "free" culture produced by the sexual revolution in our society is actually making people more miserable - and women especially (a sad irony since they are the very ones who were supposed to be liberated by the sexual revolution).

Here is an interesting piece about racial disparity in my "second hometown" of Baton Rouge.  I don't agree with all of the assertions in this post - in fact there are a couple assertions that I believe the author (who is not from Baton Rouge) simply gets wrong.  Nevertheless, the author does make some good points - especially how common (we might even be tempted to say "common sense") economic practices - when combined with 'de-facto' residential segregation, actually contribute to resource-scarcity in minority neighborhoods.  Because these are deep-seated and complex problems that go way beyond any gun issue or any protest of the moment, much of our media and public discussion has barely scratched the surface of these deeper problems (and the way we do public discourse these days - both on social media and mainstream media doesn't do "deep" very well), but they need urgent attention.  Check out "It's not getting worse.  It's been there all along."

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10/3/16

Learning with the Great Books

In his well-known classic, How to Read a Book, scholar and educator Mortimer Adler advocates an education based upon "The Great Books."  They are those Classics that have helped to shape Western Civilization, and which have stood the test of time.  There are many lists available and no single 'canon' (as you get with the 27 books of the New Testament); nevertheless there are plenty of books that are included among The Great Books by nearly universal consensus (works like The Bible, or Plato's Republic, or Shakespeare's Hamlet would make virtually every list).

As a general rule I tend to be reading - at any given time - a work of fiction, a work of non-fiction, and a work of Spirituality/Theology.  I have recently pledged to myself, for the sake of my own intellectual enrichment, to always be reading from something on the list Great Books (check out THIS LIST), in addition to whatever more popular or recent books I may also be reading.  Education should never stop just because formal schooling has ended.  Below is a great video discussing the value of the Great Books:

 

And here is another video from Mr. Callihan discussing a phrase coined by C.S. Lewis: "Old Western Culture" (which has nothing to do with the "old west" of American cowboys).  What does "Old Western Culture" mean?
This is a great little discussion about the importance of being conversant with our own cultural heritage (a wonderful heritage that is part of us and how we think, despite being neglected by some academics and leaders in the US in recent generations):


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7/10/16

Beyond 4 hymns and a sermon

I'd like to draw your attention to this blog post on moving (Protestant) worship services beyond '4 songs and a sermon'.  The article is about recovering and understanding the other classic and much-needed worship practices that have been held in common across the universal church (including among the early Protestants).

Thankfully many of these practices he mentions have been retained (if not always appreciated and understood) in most Methodist churches, though some newer 'contemporary' services have jettisoned them, as if there were a conflict between singing new songs with modern instruments and also saying the creed or the prayer that Jesus instructed us to say.  In fact I've been to plenty of up-beat services that used new music, guitars AND creeds and liturgy; there is no inherent conflict.  The evangelical Anglicans seem to be leading the way on bringing together classic liturgy and contemporary music, but it is quite consistent with Methodist identity to do likewise, after all, the Wesley's simultaneously insisted on the goodness and the use of the inherited Anglican liturgy while at the same time creating and introducing new music, new hymns, for the people to sing to enliven that inherited form of worship.

I might have added another spiritual practice this author did not discuss: the offertory, which allows us to respond immediately (and sacrificially) to the proclaimed word that we have heard.

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6/30/16

John Wesley's Prayerbook - New Edition

Reverend John Wesley
One of the things I love about our Wesleyan/Methodist spiritual heritage (as is evident from the content of this website) is the way it brings together the riches of the Anglican theological, sacramental, and liturgical tradition which is so deeply grounded in the ancient Church together with the Spirit-filled and socially conscious evangelicalism of the Pietist movements and the Great Awakenings.

I love how John and Charles Wesley developed new and passionate ways of worship - particularly in the outpouring of new hymns and songs - while at the same time affirming and celebrating the inherited Anglican liturgy and the importance of the Sacraments.  In fact the Wesleys considered themselves "high-church" priests in the English Church.  

Archbishop Cranmer
One great expression of this Spirit-filled, evangelical, Anglo-catholicism is John Wesley's own revision of the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer.  The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) was (and remains) the official liturgy (service book) of the Church of England, largely compiled by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer from Ancient and Medieval Christian sources, as part of the Protestant effort to recover an earlier Christianity that was unblemished by the corruptions that had crept in over the years.  

The Book of Common Prayer includes services for daily prayer, special occasions as well as Sunday Morning worship.  It guides worshipers through a set classic and well-loved prayers, deeply steeped in Biblical language and orthodox theology, and written in a beautiful and weighty yet unadorned English style befitting their awesome purpose of facilitating communion with God.  That the BCP has been borrowed and adapted by other denominations - Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Charismatic - shows the quality and spiritual significance of this Prayerbook.  

When the American Revolution made it clear that Methodists in America could no longer attend a local parish of the Church of England (which to this day is intertwined with the English state), Wesley helped the Methodists in America to get organized into a new and independent church: The Methodist Episcopal Church.  He did this by sending us a bishop (Thomas Coke), a formal set of doctrinal statements (The Articles of Religion and the "Standard" Sermons of John Wesley) and also a revised version of the English Prayerbook to serve as the Methodist liturgy. 

The Prayerbook he sent was officially called The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (there is a link to it down the right side-bar of this website).  For many years print copies have been hard to come by.  The Order of Saint Luke published a facsimile version a few years ago, but these are out of print and (in my experience) had some quality issues.

Now there is a new version available - both in paperback and hardback (and apparently with Leather on the way!) entitled John Wesley's The Book of Common Prayer.  After I move I'll be picking up a copy or two, I suspect.

Information is available HERE.  You can order yours HERE.  

  

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6/2/16

Recommended reading


I'd like to share a few interesting articles from around the web that I've been reading recently that are worth a look:

1) HERE is a piece that examines how the "Prayer After Communion" in The Book of Commmon Prayer can be read and understood in light of the Eucharistic theology of the great Medieval theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas.  Emphasis is on how much common understanding of the Eucharist there can be between Roman Catholics (who tend to follow Thomas) and Anglicans.  Methodists, of course, inherit much of Anglican theology and liturgy, as we are an offshoot of Anglicanism.

2) HERE is a great little piece on the connections between freedom and the intellectual life and reading the classics.  I've been trying to get back into a more regular discipline of reading The Great Books (or at least excerpts from them) for the sake of improving my mind.
A year or two ago my mother got me an antique set of 10 volumes of "The World's Famous Orations," which contains a nice overview of famous and influential speeches from the legendary speech of Achilles in Book IX of The Illiad, down to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and beyond.
I recently read a speech by Edmund Burke: On Conciliation with America
Burke, an Irishman and member of British Parliament in the 1700s cautioned the British Parliament against a war against the American colonies.  I think his description of the American love of liberty - it's origins and character - is quite perceptive (and God willing, still holds true!).

3) An interesting article from Scientific American asserts that Science will never answer the philosophical question: "Why is there something rather than nothing," which is (in my view) one of the great basic questions that can turn our minds toward the contemplation of God.  Many insightful thinkers have long noted that - while Philosophy languishes as a discipline (with many colleges cutting it back or removing it altogether from their offerings) in our age of reliance on science and technology - science is always actually dependent upon philosophy for its first principles.

4) Many Libertarians will tell you that anti-discrimination laws are an unacceptable intrusion into and curtailment of our natural right to free association. Others argue that they are necessary in a diverse society to prevent "tyranny of the majority".  Recent Anti-discrimination laws and court rulings punishing religious believers for refusing to take part in 'gay weddings' have raised questions about how these laws may indeed impact our freedom to associate (or dissociate) with whomever we like.
So, THIS ARTICLE asks, if a Christian or Muslim baker is legally compelled to help celebrate a gay wedding by creating a wedding cake, does it follow that a Jewish baker is legally compelled (by anti-discrimination laws) to make a cake for a Nazi party?  After all, many of them ban discrimination based upon political ideology - and National Socialism is indeed a political ideology.

5) Along a slightly similar vein, This Article from The Federalist (more libertarians) presents Alexis de Tocqueville's critique of socialism, which may be timely food for thought given the popularity of Bernie Sanders, a self-described "Socialist Democrat."
A quote from the end of the article (which is really a quote from Tocqueville), expresses so very while why many of us distrust socialist or "nanny state" governments as essentially inimical to individual freedom and personal autonomy:
 A third and final trait, one which, in my eyes, best describes socialists of all schools and shades, is a profound opposition to personal liberty and scorn for individual reason, a complete contempt for the individual. They unceasingly attempt to mutilate, to curtail, to obstruct personal freedom in any and all ways. They hold that the State must not only act as the director of society, but must further be master of each man, and not only master, but keeper and trainer. For fear of allowing him to err, the State must place itself forever by his side, above him, around him, better to guide him, to maintain him, in a word, to confine him. 

6) I've written before about my concerns both about the militarization of our American Law Enforcement in recent years, as well as the erosion of the political power of Congress - the legislature being the branch of our government that is most broadly representative of the people and (for that reason) was entrusted with most of the power by the Framers of the Constitution.  THIS ARTICLE about the creeping militarization of American society and the rise of the imperial presidency resulting from our imperialistic policies overseas, touches indirectly on both issues.  Students of history know that Rome degenerated from a Republic to an Empire in the decades before the birth of Christ.  Numerous thinkers are now asking the USA: Are we farther down that same road than most people realize?

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5/25/16

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.

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5/19/16

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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5/4/16

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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4/20/16

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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4/13/16

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.

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4/6/16

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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3/31/16

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

3/2/16

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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2/21/16

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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2/11/16

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):


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1/26/16

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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12/14/15

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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12/3/15

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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11/30/15

"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.


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11/23/15

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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10/26/15

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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10/20/15

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.

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