10/1/17



I apologize for the (hopefully temporary) loss of some images.

Anglicans on the Wittenberg Trail

When I was in seminary one of the many books I read that greatly influenced me personally (most of which were, sadly, not part of the official curriculum) was a little book called Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, by Robert E. Webber.

Webber tells the stories of numerous Evangelical Christians - coming from Baptist, Non-Denominational, Pentecostal, and other churches - who made journeys into Anglican or Episcopal churches (and other liturgical churches) because of a longing for liturgy, mystery, history, and a sense of deeply-rooted, ancient, and authoritative community.

Indeed my own return to Methodism was a similar journey.  Having sojourned some years in non-liturgical evangelical communities (mostly Baptist and non-Denominational) I discovered the Episcopal Church and, through it, (re)discovered Methodism.  I was delighted to find that The United Methodist Church, of which I was already (technically) a member, had inherited and adapted the same liturgy and the same Articles of Religion and (in John Wesley's writings), the same sacramental spirituality that I had come to admire about The Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.

Another Evangelical who was influenced by Webber's book and who has personally "walked the Canterbury Trail" is Dr. Wesley Evans.  Dr. Evans has recently written a piece called "Anglicans on the Wittenberg Trail", which is a play on the same book title, and which I commend to you.
He refers not so much to Anglicans actually joining Lutheran churches, but a literal pilgrimage that he and several friends took to Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the church door and (accidentally) launched the Protestant Reformation.

Why this Lutheran pilgrimage by Anglican theologians?

This year, October 31st of 2017, Halloween or "All Hallows Eve" marks the 500th Anniversary of the launch of the Reformation.
Church door at Wittenberg

Will you be doing anything special to mark the Reformation this year?  Reading Luther's works?  Holding special services or prayers for Christian unity?

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9/8/17

How liturgy spoke to my evangelical soul

Here is a great post from an Anglican priest, Neal Michell, who has walked a similar journey to mine.

In my case I attended a Catholic school and was confirmed in a relatively traditional United Methodist church as a child, before sojourning in strongly evangelical Baptist and "Bible churches" (with just a dash of charismatic thrown in) before coming back to the liturgical and sacramental tradition by way of an Episcopal church.

For me this led full circle back to United Methodism with its historic blend of Spirit-filled and Bible-focused evangelicalism on the one hand and an Anglican liturgical and sacramental piety on the other going right back to Rev. Mr. Wesley himself.
Good, Wesleyan, Methodism embraces the best of both worlds.

The author, Fr. Neal Michell, says there were six aspects of the liturgical church that his soul was yearning for:

-Sacred Space
-Majestic hymns
-Liturgy as conversation with God
-A vision of God as Almighty
-The power of the ancient Creeds
-The absolution of sin (which is a practical application of John 20:21-23 and James 5:14-15)

You can read his whole piece HERE.

We strive to embody all of these in the church I pastor, Saint Francisville United Methodist Church.

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8/30/17

Can we have Unity without Doctrinal clarity?

One of the things I've noticed as I've read more of John Wesley over the years is that he frequently makes lists of the "fundamental" or "basic" beliefs that go down "to the root" of Christian faith and Christian living.  Not all of his lists of the 'basic' teachings are exactly the same, but they all cover the same great themes of Creation by God, the Fall of Mankind into Sin, and the Redemption through Christ.  This is the heart of Wesleyan (and all Christian) faith.

Unlike some traditions (such those stemming from Medieval Scholasticism), Methodism has never attempted to have an official answer to every possible theological question that every good Methodist is expected to believe; there has always been a degree of diversity, but beginning with Wesley it has been recognized that we must have unity on the basics if we are to live and work together.

Over the last several generations, while we increasingly do give lip service to the Wesleys and the other major lights of our theological tradition, we United Methodists have very often attempted to embrace doctrinal pluralism in the name of "inclusivity."  We (rightly) want to include as many people as possible within our church, but rather than trying (like the early Methodists) to teach all of these diverse people the same basic beliefs, we have downplayed the importance of beliefs or doctrine altogether, embracing (with a shrug) a sort of "anything goes" attitude, saying things like "it is not what you believe that matters, but how you live."

Ultimately, however, I believe this approach is self-destructive, especially to church unity.  How we live is necessarily related to what we believe.  How we live together is necessarily related to the beliefs we hold in common.

How can we indeed walk together if we are walking in different directions, following different guiding lights?

This is the major point of an excellent new post by Dr. David F. Watson.
Dr. Watson was my Greek teacher in seminary at SMU, and is now dean of United Seminary in Ohio.  I encourage you to read it in full at the link above; below are some highlights from his piece (in bold), with my own comments.

Watson argues that if we are to think, feel, and finally live as Christians, we simply cannot get away from "doctrine" (that is, official teachings).  Dr. Watson writes:

The Christian mind is necessarily doctrinal. Without an understanding of proper teaching about God and what this God has done for us in Jesus Christ, it makes no sense to talk about a Christian mind at all. We may claim to love God, but who is this God whom we love? Why do we love God? Why should other people do so? How do we know any of these things? The answers to these questions don’t just shape what we believe, but how we live.

The attempts to neglect or reinvent Christian doctrine - particularly, I would argue, in the seminaries and ivory towers of academia - are largely responsible for the massive degree of division that now exists within the Historic (often called "Mainline") Protestant churches, almost all of which have seen major schisms in recent years.  The "publish or perish" approach to scholarship that now dominates the Academia of the Western World, by its very nature, rewards innovation rather than the passing down of the time-tested faith that has been received.
Dr. Watson expresses well why this constant need to innovate and revise has led to dis-unity in the church:

We build upon the beliefs of those who came before us. We honor their work, their lives, and sometimes their martyrdom. Though many have succumbed to the temptation to try to reinvent the Church’s faith based upon foundations more palatable to the modern or postmodern mind, these attempts have been unable to sustain the Church. They have neglected the wisdom of the ages.
The end of such revisionism can only be division. If each culture, each era, each philosophical movement reinvents the faith on its own terms, Christian unity is impossible. True Christian unity can only come about when we share common beliefs about the nature of God, human life, and salvation. If we continue to de-emphasize doctrine in our faith communities, we will continue on the painful road of denominational fragmentation. 

Dr. Watson goes on to lament the lack of serious attention to doctrine in the Historic Protestant churches, noting the contradiction that necessarily results from this neglect:

The Christian mind requires doctrinal formation, and in mainline Protestantism, we have most often avoided this. We have chosen to focus on forming our congregations into socially just people who will live in socially just ways, but without teaching them how we might reach conclusions as to what constitutes just behavior. We are supposed simply to know right and wrong intuitively. If the 20th century shows us anything, however, it is that right and wrong are not things that human beings know intuitively... Our thoughts are disordered, and we need guidance. Teaching the faith once and for all handed on to the saints is a step toward the proper ordering of our minds.

We all call ourselves "Methodists", and we do have a standard liturgy and a standard set of doctrinal commitments.  As I see it, this is a bit like all the restaurants in a chain sharing the same recipes for their meals: You know what you are going to get based on the name of the restaurant.  Otherwise there would not really be any point in branding them all the same, would there?  If one KFC served fried chicken and the next served Italian food, what would be the point in calling all of them KFC and giving all of them the same logo?  It would be a meaningless moniker that would only confuse people.  The same happens to Methodism (or any denomination) when we neglect the official teachings (and the basic liturgical praxis) of our church.

Because of this neglect, United Methodism has now come to the very brink.  There are serious discussions about how to divide up the denomination.  The next 5 years will be decisive in the history of our denomination (and whether that denomination continues to exist in its recognizable form).

I fully agree with Dr. Watson that there is really only one way to Christian unity: to recover, embrace, hold-fast, celebrate, and actively teach "the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3), the faith of the one holy catholic and apostolic church that she has learned from listening to the Spirit speaking through the Bible over 2000 years, the faith that is focused upon the person and work of Jesus Christ.
This Classic faith, this classic way of understanding the Bible, is in fact already clearly expressed in our doctrinal standards (including the writings of J. Wesley), our liturgy, in the creeds and the lectionary, in our hymnody, and so on.  The question is whether we will trust these grand resources of the Great Tradition to help us rightly receive and live the Biblical faith (as I have tried throughout my ministry to do, in keeping with my ordination vows), or whether we will continue to neglect them and hope that goodwill is enough to hold together a body of people with disparate beliefs.

As William Abraham, another great United Methodist theologian (and teacher of mine at SMU) puts it, we need to "wake from our doctrinal amnesia" if we are to move forward in faith together.

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8/3/17

The "Senses of Scripture"

One of the many things I did not learn much about in seminary was how virtually all Christian clergy were taught to interpret the Bible before about the year 1800.

My seminary education focused upon the approach to Scriptural interpretation called the Historical-Critical method, which attempts to reconstruct the original historical context, the purpose in writing, the original author and audience, and so on to give insight into the meaning of specific books of the Bible.

Historical-Critical method is, in fact, very valuable to understand the original meanings of a Scripture passage, and I still read good Historical-Critical Bible scholarship to this day.

However, this method does have significant shortcomings.  It is (sometimes) great for gaining insight into a single letter, or single book, or single piece of writing, but it does not usually give much attention to the place of these writings within the canon as a whole; and while it is good at treating Gospels as Gospels and Letters as Letters and Poetry as Poetry, it does not always give much attention to treating any of them as Scripture.  The focus is generally on the original purpose of these writings, without attention to their subsequent, canonical use within the life of the church.  The preacher is (hopefully) attuned to scholarship, but also more than a scholar, using the Bible for pastoral purposes.

Another short-coming of Historical-Critical method is that, like so many fields in the humanities, it purports to be a "scientific" endeavor in some respects, but where 2 or 3 Historical-Critical scholars are gathered, you can be sure there are multiple contradictory approaches and conclusions on nearly everything in the field of Scripture study.  There is a great deal of confusion within the field itself at the moment, which lends a degree of uncertainty to almost every assertion about what "modern scholarship has revealed."


I did, however, eventually discover that before the rise of this, distinctively Modern, approach there was another, richer, approach to interpreting Scripture.  Early Church Fathers and Medieval theologians happily spoke of the various different "senses" of Scripture: a single passage could, and did, have more than one meaning.  The most typical approach (but not the only one) spoke of 4 different "senses" of Scripture.

Consider these words of Saint Augustine (pictured):
"In all Sacred Books we should consider eternal truths that are taught, the facts that are narrated, the future events that are predicted, and the precepts or counsels that are given." (from De Genesi Ad Litteram 1:1)

The different 'senses' of Scripture have been neglected in Protestant seminaries in part because of the Reformers' reactions to the abuse of non-literal interpretations and in part because of the desire by modern Biblical scholars to present themselves as "scientific" (read: "legitimate") within the modern academic guild.
In fact - despite not being formally taught in Protestant seminaries - these approaches to Bible interpretation have persisted in our churches because they are, for the serious Bible-reader, almost intuitive.  They have now been smuggled back into the seminaries through the Spiritual Formation movement and the rediscovery among Protestants of Lectio Divina.  These other, non-literal, approaches also allow passages of Scripture that would otherwise be obscure or irrelevant to continue to "speak to us" today.

To get a sense of how the different "senses" work, consider the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel.

Historical-Critical exegetes (interpreters) look at the story in historical terms of "the facts that are narrated": an Israelite boy entered into single combat with a Philistine warrior to defend the honor of YHWH.  The Historical-Critical exegete then asks historical questions: what do we know about single-combat in the warfare of the Ancient Near East?  Who were the Philistines and what historical evidence do we have about them or their culture?  What does this story say about the development of kingship in Israel's history?  Is the story we have the original form?  How does the author/editor(s) of this story want us to view David's dynasty, and why (that is, what is the "agenda" behind the text)?
And the always-popular among (modern) Historical-critical exegetes, "did this event actually happen as an historical event?"

In Early Church and Medieval terms, this approach comes closest to what is meant by the "literal" sense of Scripture: as Augustine says above, "the facts as they are narrated."

The literal sense is important, and is the first and most obvious starting point in understanding any passage of Scripture.  But there are other ways to read the story of David and Goliath, other "senses" of the Scripture.  There are, what might loosely be termed, "spiritual readings" of the text.

One is the allegorical sense.  Goliath represents temptation or opposition which we all, in our different ways, face.  David represents faith and reliance upon the God of Israel to bring us victory.  The story is now about "facing the giants" in our own lives.  There are eternal truths here.

Another, closely related, sense is the Typological reading.  Some classify this as a form of allegory, while others treat it separately.  Typology is frequently used and mentioned in the New Testament.  "Type" here is related to our concepts of "prototype" or "archetype."
David is a "type" or a "sign-post" pointing to Christ, who is the "antitype."  David defeats the pagan Goliath and becomes enthroned as king over Israel.  Jesus defeats Satan and Sin in "single combat" and becomes enthroned over Israel and, therefore, over all the world.  As with the allegorical reading above, this is not what the David and Goliath story is "literally and historically" about in the mind of the original audience, but it is one way that this story has been read as the Living and Active Word of God since the days of the Earliest Church (see, for example, 1 Peter 3:20-21 where the flood story of Noah is said to represent Holy Baptism).

Another approach to reading Scripture is the "moral" sense (called the "tropological" sense).  Look at the great virtues exhibited by David who is faithful, courageous, and humble.  Look at the vices of Saul and Goliath and the other characters, and learn from their examples, there is counsel here for how to live a good life, if we pay attention.

Yet another "sense" of Scripture approaches it in eschatological terms: What does this say about the final destiny of the world and humanity?  This approach is classically called the "anagogic sense."  In this reading, David's defeat of Goliath can symbolize and predict the final victory of God's Kingdom over the forces of idolatry that currently enslave so much of his good creation.

These various other "senses" of Scripture, alongside the historical/literal sense, are quite frequently of great importance for the work of a preacher or Bible-teacher as a spiritual shepherd within the living community of the Church, and deserve more attention than they currently get in our seminary training.

HERE is a nice article from a Roman Catholic theologian named Pauline Viviano examining the different "senses" (including the Historical-Critical sense) that have been applied to Bible-interpretation.  It serves as a great introduction to this topic.

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7/19/17

Capitalist culture inherently atheistic?

Many of us over a certain age grew up in the days of the Cold War, when Godless and totalitarian Communism was the existential threat to our Judeo-Christian and democratic Capitalist culture.  That being so, it may come as a bit of a shock that a thinker on the level of David Bentley Hart is now arguing that capitalist culture is inherently atheistic and, sooner or later, always seeks to jettison God.  We cannot, at last, have a culture that is thoroughly Capitalist and also thoroughly Christianized.

Whatever you think of his theory, which he puts rather succinctly in the video below, it does indeed seem that the recent histories of the most thoroughly capitalistic cultures on earth would lend credence to his thesis.



Hart's idea is that a capitalist culture always supports personal desire over against a God who may put restrictions on our behavior and call us to restrain certain of our desires; such a culture cannot abide a God who dares to say "Thou shalt not..." and is believed to do so with absolute legitimacy, authority, and righteousness.

Probably related to this (I expect Hart would say it is indeed related), you may have already heard that the US Supreme Court will hear a case involving Artistic vendors who have Religious objections to participating in Gay union ceremonies.  As indicated in my previous post on June 21st, I am very concerned about the erosion of 1st Amendment protections for religious believers, and I will be watching and praying about this.

Capitalism, of course, elevates the ideals of liberty and freedom of choice.  Liberty is, of course, a virtue.  But any virtue, when turned into the only virtue, quickly becomes distorted.  Liberty, when pursued without being balanced by other virtues such as personal responsibility or temperance or respect for God and others quickly devolves into the libertine - which, in the end, is a sort of slavery.  Which is, I believe, and apt description of our culture.

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6/29/17

Anglican view on family worship

A while back I shared this article: 8 Solid Tips to Bring back Family Worship, which was featured on The United Methodist Church's website.

Research has shown that family worship, family devotions, family faith-sharing is critically important for raising Christian children who will become Christian adults.  Corporate worship and church involvement is the foundational spiritual practice, of course, but at best that means engagement for only a couple of hours of the week.
Family devotions bring that focus on God - on adoring, obeying, and enjoying the Father, Son, and Spirit - into our every-day routine.  As a pastor I try to make clear to parents who bring infants to be baptized, this "family worship" is absolutely crucial for passing along the Christian faith to the next generation (and it is also probably the missing link in the last few generations of Protestantism).

I recently ran across THIS great post from Episcopal priest Esau McCaulley (pictured) on how the Anglican tradition is shaping not only how he worships on Sundays, but also how his family worships together every day.  His journey has some similarities with my own, and so I really resonated with what he has written.

Following the practice of John and Charles Wesley, I try to pray the Anglican Morning Office on most weekdays at the local Episcopal church with our local clergy, but that is while my wife is at work.

When it comes to our praying as a family, currently our "family devotion time" besides the Lord's Day Service and Wednesday evening small-group, consists of meal-time prayers and reading that great "bread and butter" of United Methodist daily devotions: The Upper Room. The Upper Room includes a Scripture reading, a devotional story, and a short prayer to read (to which we often add a few of our own 'free prayers' and/or the Lord's Prayer).
The Upper Room is available online HERE (and on the side bar of this blog).

There are numerous other Devotion guides and Prayerbooks that are specifically grounded in our Wesleyan heritage that have become popular among United Methodists.

As my first daughter grows older, it might be nice to expand our family devotion times to include a seasonal Psalm or gathering prayer.  I rather like the "Daily Devotions for Families" included in The Book of Common Prayer of 1979 (p. 136-140).  I hope the forthcoming 2019 Book of Common Prayer will include something similar.

What do you do for family devotions?

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6/21/17

Equal Justice?

The motto of the United States Supreme Court Building

Freedom of speech and expression (and, implied thereby, freedom of thought and conviction), the free exercise of religion, and the right for groups of citizens to band together to speak as a group in public are rights guaranteed in the 1st Amendment, at the very top of the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution.

Yet in our day it seems that these freedoms are losing support among some (or perhaps many?) younger voters.
Much publicized has been the attempts on numerous college campuses by students to silence speakers (even some progressive speakers) who do not hold favored political or social opinions of the moment (or, who are believed not to hold them, it is difficult to ascertain with certainty what one thinks if you silence him before he has the chance to explain himself).  Even some secular liberal commentators have recoiled in horror from what they call "the regressive left" (see here, for example).

Of particular interest to me is the fact that many of these younger voters are more secular and more progressive/liberal than previous generations and are, accordingly, less likely to sympathize with conservative, traditionalist, and religious (especially Evangelical or traditional Catholic) view-points.  Indeed the ideas of religious conservatives (and even moderate-traditionalists) are despised and rejected as forms of "hatred" and even "verbal violence" that are to be silenced (sometimes, ironically, with actual physical violence).

This is a disturbing development for me and, I hope, for all lovers of liberty without regard to political stripe or religious conviction.

When I was in college studying Political Science we learned that an important principle in interpreting the Bill of Rights is that freedoms such as "freedom of speech" are enshrined in law precisely to protect the unpopular and the despised forms of expression from legal suppression.
The logic is simple: nobody calls for bans or suppression of popular speech that most people find agreeable (or at least innocuous).  It is the forms of expression that the majority of citizens find offensive or "unacceptable" that are targeted for silencing (which we saw vividly when the often unkind and harsh conservative Ann Coulter was physically prevented from speaking at Berkeley - being excluded ironically in the name of "inclusivity" and "non-discrimination").

The same principle applies when protecting the rights of religious people to freely exercise their faith, and live according to the dictates of their religion or convictions: it is not the belief systems that most people find acceptable that need protection from legal suppression, but those that most will find objectionable.

This is significant because the so-called "millennial generation" is the largest group of voters since the Baby Boomers, and as the latter die off the political power of the younger generation will increase dramatically.  Will that power be used to under-cut constitutional rights for minorities whose views they find "unacceptable"?  Time will tell.

The video below (the original reason for this post) illustrates exactly why many have been saying - and I agree - that we need more protections for religious conservatives in some parts of the country.  When asked if a progressive can refuse services to a conservative for reasons of personal conviction, the young voters agree that this is an important "right" that should be protected.  When the situation is reversed, however, the same voters find themselves much less likely to support a conservative Christian who wants to refuse to provide services that would contradict his religious convictions.

I am not attempting to answer the particular question about when it may be appropriate for someone to refuse services on the grounds of personal conviction, merely pointing out that there is clearly a double-standard at play in the thinking of these younger voters.  So the question arises, will the next generation really stand committed to "equal justice under the law", or will favored groups receive more rights than unpopular groups?



Since the current Congressional majority claims to whole-heartedly support freedom of religion and freedom of speech, this might be a good time to contact your congressmen and urge action.

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4/18/17

Back in print: Upper Room Spiritual Classics

In The United Methodist Church we teach that a proper approach to interpreting Scripture makes use of other Scripture, and of Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

While everyone has some access to spiritual experience and (at least in principle) to logical reasoning, it seems to me that of all these elements "Tradition" is the element with which people are often largely unfamiliar.  While regular church-goers likely know the seasons of the liturgical year, at least one or two of the ancient creeds, and probably some of the more popular hymns from the last 150 years or so, it is likely that there are centuries and centuries worth of hymns, writings, ecumenical councils, saints and their stories that our folks are simply unfamiliar with, but which form the bulk of the Holy Church's tradition.

This leaves the average United Methodist Christian without some important tools for clearly hearing and discerning the voice of God, and that is a deficit we pastors and spiritual teachers should be eager to remedy.

How does one get to know the Tradition?

Read, read, and read some more! 

There are lots of good one-volume anthologies and devotion books that draw upon writers from across the Christian tradition, or focus upon the early Church.

One great resource available to you comes from the Upper Room ministries, affiliated with our Church's Board of Discipleship: The Upper Room Spiritual Classics Series.

The Spiritual Classics Series is now back in print, in new editions, and I heartily recommend them to any Christian (not only Methodists), who would like to discover the treasure trove of spiritual teachers, friends, and guides that can speak to you from the long life of the Spirit-filled Christian Church.  
 The Spiritual Classics series offers small anthologies of short selections drawing from writers like St. Augustine or the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the Early Church down to Thomas a'Kempis the great Medieval spiritual writer, or John Wesley the early Methodist revival leader or even more recent writers like Evelyn Underhill.  Readers can "sit at the feet" of great saints like John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and William Law among others.

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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, "reality TV" star, 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 such a man, who throws temper tantrums on twitter, 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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