4/14/14

Prayers for Holy Week

This was posted last year, and it is that time again: Click here to see prayers for each day in Holy Week from the United Methodist Church's Book of Worship.

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4/6/14

Bishop Jones on Unity in a tense time

If you follow "church news" and "church politics" you know that the last few months have been a very tense time in the life of the global United Methodist Church.  Clergy, even a few bishops, who are frustrated with The United Methodist Church's teachings on certain issues (particularly our upholding traditional sexual morality, but usually there are others in the mix as well) have threatened to openly break the law and teachings of our church as found in The Book of Discipline.  Some have followed through with these threats.  Other clergy (including some bishops) have stated that they will not pursue church trials or impose any serious discipline or accountability for those who break with church law.   

Many are now speaking quite openly about the risk of a church schism.  One clergy friend of mine has suggested that the 2016 General Conference (the decision making body for the global church) will be "a knock-down, drag-out fight."
The church and her leaders could use your prayers in the coming months and years.

One of our really wonderful bishops, Bishop Scott Jones (formerly a professor at my seminary), addressed this tension head on in an address to his clergy in the Great Plains Conference.  He asks how we can "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:1-3) in the midst of this tense time.  What he says is a refreshingly straightforward call not to political maneuverings but to integrity (keeping the commitments we've made) and honesty (only making commitments we plan to keep) as essential for holy living.

You can read the whole address (it is not all that long) HERE, and I hope you will because I believe his words are an important call to "recenter" ourselves as a church during this tense time.

May God give us all the strength and patience we need to bear with one another and keep our covenant oaths, for the good of the church, and the world, and our own souls.  Kyrie Eleison.

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3/28/14

St. Justin on Pre-determinism

For me, one great attraction of the theology of the Wesleys (and indeed other Anglicans like C.S. Lewis) is their strong assertion that we humans really are responsible agents, who make real choices with real consequences.  Some Christians (who occasionally call themselves Calvinists, though I'm uncertain that John Calvin himself would willingly own their ideas) have taught that God controls everything so completely that we humans have no free choices at all but, like puppets on strings, do only what he has determined that we should do (which would lead to the strange assertion that God has predetermined that I should write this blog post rejecting such predeterminism...which would be a very odd thing for God to do).

The rejection of Predeterminism did not begin with the Wesleys or with Jacob Arminius (a Reformation-era theologian who influenced them); rather the belief in the genuineness of human choices and responsibility goes all the way back to the earliest Christians.

One of the Early Fathers to address this issue with remarkable clarity is St. Justin the Martyr (so named because he was killed for his faith in Christ).  Justin Martyr was born around the year A.D. 100, only a few years after St. John the Apostle died.  When Justin when to church, he was part of a community that had a living memory of the Apostles themselves who were taught and ordained by Christ.  Even at this very early and pure stage the Church rejected the kind of determinism that denies real human choices.  Here is how Justin puts it in his First Apology, Chapter XLIII:

Chapter XLIII.—Responsibility asserted.

But lest some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever happens, happens by a fatal necessity, because it is foretold as known beforehand, this too we explain. We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it be fated that this man, e.g., be good, and this other evil, neither is the former meritorious nor the latter to be blamed. And again, unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be. But that it is by free choice they both walk uprightly and stumble, we thus demonstrate. We see the same man making a transition to opposite things. Now, if it had been fated that he were to be either good or bad, he could never have been capable of both the opposites, nor of so many transitions. But not even would some be good and others bad, since we thus make fate the cause of evil, and exhibit her as acting in opposition to herself; or that which has been already stated would seem to be true, that neither virtue nor vice is anything, but that things are only reckoned good or evil by opinion; which, as the true word shows, is the greatest impiety and wickedness. But this we assert is inevitable fate, that they who choose the good have worthy rewards, and they who choose the opposite have their merited awards. For not like other things, as trees and quadrupeds, which cannot act by choice, did God make man: for neither would he be worthy of reward or praise did he not of himself choose the good, but were created for this end;1855 nor, if he were evil, would he be worthy of punishment, not being evil of himself, but being able to be nothing else than what he was made.

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3/21/14

What is the endgame in Crimea?



What has happened so far?

As everyone likely knows, Russian troops seized control of the Crimean region of Ukraine in the final days of February.  It quickly became apparent that the uniformed troops without insignia were indeed Russians.  The occupation of Crimea came in response to a change in Ukraine's government from a pro-Russian to a pro-Western government.  You may recall that a (normally elected) pro-Russian government came under intense pressure late last year due to popular protests in the capitol, Kiev.  The violence of those protests led to condemnation of Ukraine's leaders by the Western nations and also ultimately led to the establishment of a new government that is seeking closer ties with Europe.

The Russians - claiming that ethnic Russians who populate Crimea will not be treated fairly by this new government - seized control of the Crimean Region of Ukraine to "protect Russians living there."  It is also worth noting that Crimea is home to a strategically important Russian naval base that was being leased from Ukraine by Russia (an arrangement that may have been endangered by the rise of the new Ukrainian government that wanted to distance itself from Russia).  Last Sunday the people of Crimea voted overwhelmingly to break away from Ukraine and join Russia.  Despite some concerns that the presence of Russian troops nullifies the legitimacy of such a vote, many commentators believe that actually the vast majority of people in Crimea do indeed wish to rejoin Russia.  The Russian Parliament is now moving on annexation of Crimea.

Where are we now?

The US and European Union have condemned the Russian move as an act of blatant invasion and have already put in place economic sanctions to punish Russia and Russian leaders.  Commentators have suggested that these sanctions are intended to push Russia into diplomatic talks and to serve as a deterrent to further aggression rather than persuade Russia to give Crimea back.
When I was a child we were living through the final decade of the Cold War; Russia was "the bad guy" on the world stage, and to find myself again in a US/Europe versus Russia moment actually has a certain familiarity to it.  Perhaps others feel the same way.

Yet I wonder if seeing this situation through a Cold War lens has perhaps led to a knee-jerk reaction among US and European leaders that misses the point of current events.  Or at least this is what I've been wondering since listening to former US Ambassador  Jack Matlock's contribution to the March 19th episode of "To The Point" on NPR (which you can listen to here, beginning at 19 minutes 32 seconds).  Ambassador Matlock's arguments really challenged the way I've understood this whole situation in Crimea.    

Ambassador Matlock points that that - as Putin claims - Crimea was indeed historically a part of Russia (that is why the people there are Russian) - it was given to Ukraine when both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union, so that was a transfer of bureaucratic functions without any real "national boundary" significance since the people were still being ruled from Moscow in either case.  The feeling, he says, both in Russia and in Crimea has been that the Crimean region is indeed a part of Russia.

Matlock also points out that what Russia has done in Crimea is essentially the exact same thing that NATO did in Kosovo a few years back: forcing a larger country to give up claims to an ethnic minority region that wants to separate anyways - except Russia has done so without killing anyone (whereas we bombed Serbia for almost 3 months to pound them into submission and force them to relinquish Kosovo).  Is it not, then, hypocritical for us to condemn this move by Russia?  Ambassador Matlock also states that - technically - Putin and Crimea have acted within the letter of the law (a point that US Secretary of State John Kerry obviously disputes) in terms of how regions break away from larger countries and become independent - and once independent their decision to join Russia is their own business, not ours.

The most important question he raises is "what is the compelling US interest here?"  Ambassador Matlock says he does not see a "Western stake" in this conflict, suggesting that we are inserting ourselves into someone else's family dispute.  Given the history, it may actually be true (as Putin claims) that Russia is simply reclaiming what both Russians and Crimeans see as Russian territory that was cut off by an accident of history.  If that is the case then there is little reason to think that Russia will try to conquer all of Ukraine or other countries/regions that are not ethnically Russian.  Further, if the people of Crimea do wish to join Russia, and have expressed that wish through a democratic vote - does the US and EU (champions of democracy that we are) really want to over-rule (from far-off Washington) the voice of the Crimean people there on the ground?  Who does that ultimately help?

Yesterday (March 20) the US and EU increased the intensity of economic sanctions against Russia.  My question is: "To what end?"  Do we really think that Russia will give Crimea back to Ukraine?  Even if they did so, do we really think that the Crimean people - having achieved their goal of reunion with Russia - would then willingly go back to Ukrainian control?  Would we not simply be setting the stage for an on-going guerrilla war as the Russian population of Crimea refused to submit to the authority of the government in Kiev?  Would not such a protracted conflict simply further de-stabilize the country and especially the pro-Western government in Kiev? 

If, on the other hand, we do not expect Russia to give Crimea back (I certainly do not expect that) in response to sanctions, then how long are we expected to keep these sanctions in place?  Forever?  What is the endgame here?  Considering that these sanctions may have negative impacts on economies far beyond Russia, how can the US possibly come out "ahead" from having gotten involved here?

It seems that our best move going forward is to concede Crimea to Russia and do what we can to strengthen the rest of Ukraine economically, militarily, and politically so that it can stand stable on its own two feet without threat of further aggression and chart its own (presumably pro-Western) course into the future.

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3/5/14

Lenten discipline: Reading the Fathers or the New Testament

Some of you may have seen this going around Facebook - a reading plan for reading some of the major writings of the Early Church Fathers throughout the season of Lent.  This is a great chance to go deeper in your understanding of the Church's tradition and theological heritage, which is an important guide for rightly interpreting Scripture (see last week's post for an example of why this is so important).

Or, getting even more foundational, you may want a deeper familiarity with the Scripture itself.  How about reading the New Testament through the season of Lent?  There is a 40-day New Testament reading plan here.

In either case, Lent begins today and goes until Easter, but these reading plans do not count Sundays.

Reading the Fathers through Lent:

2014 Date
Day in Lenten Season
Reading
3/5
1
Didache: complete
3/6
2
Epistle to Diognetus: 1-6
3/7
3
Epistle to Diognetus: 7-12
3/8
4
Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians: complete
3/10
5
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Ephesians: complete
3/11
6
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Magnesians: complete
3/12
7
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Trallians: complete
3/13
8
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Romans: complete
3/14
9
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Philadelphians: complete
3/15
10
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Smyrneans: complete
3/17
11
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to Polycarp: complete
3/18
12
St. Justin Martyr: First Apology: 1-11
3/19
13
St. Justin Martyr: First Apology: 12-23
3/20
14
St. Justin Martyr: First Apology: 24-35
3/21
15
St. Justin Martyr: First Apology: 36-47
3/22
16
St. Justin Martyr: First Apology: 48-59
3/24
17
St. Justin Martyr: First Apology: 60-68
3/25
18
St. Cyprian: On the Unity of the Church (Treatise I): 1-9
3/26
19
St. Cyprian: On the Unity of the Church (Treatise I): Secs. 10-18
3/27
20
St. Cyprian: On the Unity of the Church (Treatise I): Secs. 19-21
3/28
21
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 1-10
3/29
22
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 11-20
3/31
23
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 21-30
4/1
24
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 31-40
4/2
25
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 41-50
4/3
26
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 51-60
4/4
27
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 61-70
4/5
28
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 71-80
4/7
29
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 81-94
4/8
30
St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Catechetical Lectures: Lecture XIX
4/9
31
St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Catechetical Lectures: Lecture XX
4/10
32
St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Catechetical Lectures: Lecture XX1
4/11
33
St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Catechetical Lectures: Lecture XXII
4/12
34
St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Catechetical Lectures: Lecture XXIII
4/14
35
St. Ambrose of Milan: Concerning the Mysteries: 1-4
4/15
36
St. Ambrose of Milan: Concerning the Mysteries: 5-9
4/16
37
St. Leo the Great: Letter XXVIII (called the "Tome"): complete
4/17
38
St. Leo the Great: Sermon XXI (On the Feast of the Nativity I): complete
4/18
39
St. Leo the Great: Sermon XLIX (On Lent XI): complete
4/19
40
St. Leo the Great: Sermon LXXII (On the Lord's Resurrection): complete


If you don't own a set of the Early Church Fathers' writings, you can find them online here or here, or you can web-search individual titles (note the first reading, The Didache, is an anonymous document, and may be further down some lists, even though it is extremely early - probably composed not long after St. John the Apostle died).

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2/28/14

On Snake Handling

Have you seen this great post at Craig Adams' blog on snake handling?

He wrote it only a few days before the death of Jamie Coots (pictured) - a snake handling pastor who starred in a (so-called) "reality TV show."  My thought when hearing the news was that this was another sad story that also presents Christianity as bizarre and dangerous to our non-church-going popular culture.  And the sad truth is that, if only this man had a deeper knowledge of the Christian tradition and had used it as an authoritative guide for Scriptural interpretation, he never would have done something so foolish as to handle deadly snakes; but a man has literally lost his life because his knowledge was limited to his local customs without input from the wider, deeper, and older wisdom of the Church universal.  Ideas have consequences and false ideas about God, false interpretations of Scripture are dangerous to soul and body and community.  

Adams ably addresses these issues as he ends the discussion of Mark 16 (virtually the only relevant Biblical text on the subject; especially verses 14-18):

"This passage does not contain any command to handle snakes or drink poison. And it certainly does not say that salvation depends upon doing those things. It says these signs will follow (παρακολουθήσει) or accompany believers. The only condition of salvation mentioned in this passage is faith (verse 16). This looks for all the world like a description of things that were reported to have happened during the time of the earliest church. According to the book of Acts, the apostle Paul was bitten by a snake and suffered no ill effects (Acts 28:4,5). It doesn’t say he or anyone else in the early Church sought out snakes — or sought to drink poison to prove the genuineness of their faith.
This is not an issue about “inerrancy” or “literal interpretation of the Bible” (whatever that means). This passage in no way commands snake handling!
In fact, most Christians would argue that to deliberately handle snakes or drink poison as a proof of faith would be tempting God and thus, a sin (Matthew 4:7)! It says signs follow believers. Believers do not follow signs...
However, this passage has been in the Bible for many long years before Biblical scholars determined that it was a later addition. There is nothing heretical about it — and it is very ancient. People were not running around poisoning themselves and getting themselves bitten by snakes right and left until the advent of modern textual criticism.
The issue with Jamie Coots, and other snake-handling preachers, is not about inerrancy or “literal interpretation" — it is about false interpretation. It is an issue of hermeneutics.
Bad theology is deadly. In more ways than one."

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2/22/14

Whelby supports Bartholemew on ancient cathedral


I was saddened to hear that the ruling party in Turkey is pushing forward plans to again convert the Hagai Sophia into a Mosque.  The Hagai Sophia was built after the Roman Emperors converted to Christianity in ancient times.  It is a huge and beautiful church building that served for a Millennium as the cathedral for the Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the world.  Around AD 1500 the city was conquered by Muslims - Ottoman Turks (thus, 'Turkey') - who converted the great church into a mosque and white washed all of the beautiful mosaics.  In the 20th Century a secular government came to power which converted the building to a museum.  Across town is the Blue Mosque which copies the architecture of Hagai Sophia, and also makes one wonder how another mosque of that size would be needed in the city.  Converting the cathedral into a mosque would seem to be an attempt to make a statement about the power of an expansionist Islam over Western/Christian culture.   

In any case, I am heartened to hear that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Whelby has lent his support to the Ecumenical Patriarch in this matter, stating that Hagai Sophia should not become a mosque.  I, for one, think that the cathedral should be returned to the Eastern Orthodox community in Istanbul from whom it was forcibly taken; a Christian community which has certainly not thrived under Turkish rule.  There are several petitions to that effect floating around the Web.

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2/17/14

Truth in Beautiful Spaces: from CC

When I was in college and moving in non-denomination and similar evangelical circles, there were many
factors that motivated me to explore deeper the more traditional and sacramental ways of being Christian that led me to spend lots of time around an Anglican Church and ultimately to connect with a rather traditional Methodist Church with lots of ministry opportunities.
Some were theological factors that had a lot to do with my discovering more of the Bible (especially the sacramental passages that had been largely ignored by my Baptist and non-denominational teachers) and also reading authors like C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, and John Wesley.

Some were what we might call "spirituality" reasons - a desire for more "roots," mystery, and especially beauty in my Christian experience.  I remember expressing this desire for beauty once in a conversation with a like-minded friend about our discovering the prayers in The Book of Common Prayer (many of which are also to be found in The United Methodist Hymnal and The United Methodist Book of Worship): If I can, with equal sincerity, say a prayer that is beautiful and elegant or one that is less so, surely it gives more honor to God to say the more beautiful prayer.  After all, he is the Creator of much that is beautiful, and beauty evidently delights him.

We could apply the same logic (and the Christian Church traditionally has done) to the worship spaces in which we meet.  Assuming that we can worship God in a big-box or in a gothic cathedral with equal sincerity and fervor, then would it not be preferable (all other things being equal) to have a more beautiful structure that makes a rich statement about our God and our faith to all who not only enter in, but even those who simply pass by?  (Of course, for practical reasons and financial reasons this is not always possible; all things are not equal; we cannot all afford to build Westminster Abbey, and even if we could there might well be other higher priorities requiring faithful attention.)

One of my attractions (back) to Methodism was that while many Methodists seemed to believe the Bible just as seriously as my non-denominational friends, yet they evidently (based on their church-houses and church-services) had a much greater appreciation for beauty and the kind of cultural achievements (in music, literature, architecture, stained glass, sacred-vessel making, and so on) that delight the human soul the way that God himself delights in the beauties he has made.

This struck me as somehow deeply true to what Man is as the Imago Dei, though even as I write, it is difficult to convey in words or rational argument.  It is the kind of thing that you feel or sense, the kind of thing that is best communicated in symbol, perhaps.  We not only proclaim with words the life-giving truth of our faith, we also seek ways to embody, to incarnate, it as well - embody it first and foremost in how we live, and also in our own acts of creating (creating music, creating art, creating poetry, creating architecture). 

I got to thinking about all of this after reading this (relatively short) piece at The Christian Century: Truth in Beautiful Spaces.
----------------------



Pictured above is Christ Church, United Methodist - New York City.

You can click here to look at a few of United Methodism's beautiful spaces - but there are in fact hundreds more both large and small. 

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1/21/14

The Case for Courtesy

One of the many mis-leading slogans that has been uncritically accepted in our society for no reason other than massive and mindless repetition, is that all of us - especially those (like clergy) who have a public role to play - should prioritize being "authentic."  But what does it mean to be "authentic"?  Usually this means to do what one feels in the moment, to let people see your "true colors" by saying just what you think and doing just what occurs to you to do and so on.  This let's people see your "real self." 

I have long suspected that this idea, so apparently innocuous, is actually poisonous if followed to its logical conclusion.  I am one of those people who can't help but be a little jealous when I read about the elaborate manners and courtesies of the characters in a Jane Austen novel.  The men not only open doors, but they stand when a lady enters the room; there is a precise order in how people are introduced to one another and what is said by way of introductions, and so on.  That all probably seems rather rigid and stilted to many in our informal age; but I ask you, are our current social conventions truly better?  Have you gotten phone-snubbed lately when people sitting at dinner with you (probably my age or younger) gave more attention to their smartphones than to the human beings sitting around them.  Wouldn't we prefer some manners?  Perhaps that desire is precisely why Jane Austen has enjoyed a great resurgence in popularity in recent years. 

This question of "authenticity" is explored in a recent article from Christianity Today: Strive to be Inauthentic!  Taking a cue from Tom Branson, a character in Downton Abbey, the author meditates upon the virtues of courtesy and manners; that is, not acting in the way that is most "authentic" to how we are or feel in any given moment, but to act in the way that we believe is good.


This is exactly the purpose of manners or courtesy in society.  Men are not "naturally" going to be respectful of women if we simply live out of our "authentic" desires and feelings; that sort of thing has to be trained into us.  As an introvert, greeting other people around me and making conversation with them may not be what I authentically feel, but it is often what I ought to do for the sake of pursuing good character in myself and sharing good things with others.  In other words, we humans have to intentionally strive to behave better than our current "authenticity" would lead us to; we should move past authenticity and press on toward excellence and virtue. 

This is closely connected to the Christian goal of pursuing holiness.  C.S. Lewis (in Mere Christianity) when talking about Christ's call to holiness in the Sermon on the Mount (loving our neighbors, praying for our enemies, etc.) says that we start out by "play acting" - acting as if we really loved these people (even though we don't feel like it), and that is how we begin to form habits which in turn help condition our feelings and (by God's grace) transform our character. So we end up trying not to show the "real/authentic self" that we already have to the world, but rather to pursue a "new self" one that has a new kind of authenticity because it is being renewed in the image of Christ who is the perfect image of the invisible God. 

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1/9/14

Baptism

This coming Sunday (Jan. 12) is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, when we in the Western Churches traditionally read the narrative of John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River, and remember our own baptism into the Body of Christ.

A few months back the new royal baby, Prince George, was baptized by Rt. Rev. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Before that baptism he made this video presented below, which is a nice introduction to baptism in the Anglican tradition from which we Methodists and Wesleyans also inherit our theology and our services for baptism.

Here is the prayer for Baptism of the Lord Sunday from our United Methodist Hymnal (#253), which is also borrowed from the Anglican tradition's Book of Common Prayer (1979 BCP, p. 214):

Father in heaven, at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit.  Grant that all who are baptized into his name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, One God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.  







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12/29/13

Just in Time for New Years: Christians and "Drink"

I recently read a piece at Christianity Today about prominent conservative Evangelical Christian colleges relaxing their rules about alcohol for staff and students.  I think this is basically a good development but, perhaps from spending too much time with members of my own generation who are probably more permissive than our elders as a general rule, I was rather surprised to read the accompanying research that only 22% of all Protestant pastors and 39% of all Protestant laity say they drink alcohol.  This reminded me of a recent conversation with an older (early 60s) clergy colleague who said he thought it was inappropriate for a pastor or a church volunteer to keep lots of alcohol at home.     

When I attended LSU we were rated (according to the Princeton Review) the #1 "Party School" in America the preceding year.  The word on campus was that we got this distinction because a student and drunk himself to death (i.e. died as a result of acute alcohol poisoning) that year.  That is probably just hear-say, but it does tell you a bit of the attitude that then existed (and no doubt does today) among many college students: the party is "better" if people drink more so as to engage in more extreme and dangerous behavior.  This attitude is both common and also morally deplorable. 

As a young evangelical Christian on LSU's campus who wanted to be a good example to others and who wanted nothing to do with the death-dealing party culture of the modern college campus (and as someone who was under the legal drinking age for much of my college experience), I resolved never to drink any alcohol while in school and, apart from the Communion wine at St. Alban's, I never did.  

I had good Biblical reasons too: the Scripture clearly tells us that drunkenness (and "getting smashed" seemed the only purpose in drinking among my fellow undergraduates) is the behavior of a fool (Proverbs 20:1) and, if one thinks about it a bit it should be clear that God created humans in particular as rational creatures - creatures capable of reflection and creativity - and this aspect of what it means to "bear God's image" is precisely what is inhibited by alcohol intoxication.  More pointedly, God's Word commands us not to be drunk, and implies that our doing so can hinder our openness to the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18).  So, due to over-consumption of alcohol, there is the danger of potentially missing our full human potential as divine image-bearers and vessels of the Holy Spirit and (connected to this) we also have a positive command to abstain from intoxication (and breaking God's commands is sinful - though we are obviously not at this point talking about medical scenarios wherein alcohol intoxication is used in lieu of anesthesia).


There are also common-sense reasons, social/family cohesion reasons, and good medical reasons to avoid excessive drink, that I'll not list here, beyond saying that everyone who looks can see that drinking too much is bad for your body, bad for your family, bad for your business, and bad for your community.  Because of excess drink women and children are abused, cycles of poverty are perpetuated, crimes are committed. 

But avoiding excess drink is not the same as total abstinence from alcohol (or "tee-totalism" as it is called).  Many Christians have insisted that total abstinence is the only right way to go, and I think they are quite wrong (a classic case of avoiding one extreme by running straight into its opposite). 

When I got to seminary, I did take up drinking a beer (and later, a glass of wine) on occasion.  Now some might attribute this simply to the deleterious effects of a liberal mainline seminary on my soul. But in reality my context had changed.  My classes were now filled with mostly older students (30s-50s) who had no interest in "the party scene" (both by reason of their season in life and also their commitment to Christian discipleship).  Of course, I was now legally old enough to drink, so breaking the law or encouraging others to do so by my example were no longer considerations.  Plus we had a great, and really classy, Irish Pub called Trinity Hall (named for God himself?) within easy walking distance of the seminary, so this was a natural place for some of us to get together over fish-and-chips and a pint to talk about (as we in fact did) the nature of the baptismal vows or the nuances of Trinitarian theology.  This was, indeed, a very life-giving experience; a celebration of fellowship among brethren and indeed of God himself. 

It is said that Martin Luther once told his scrupulous friend, Philip Melanchthon, "You can worship God, even while drinking beer."  And that is true.

So today you will often (but not always) find beer and wine at the parsonage.  I do not drink every day, or even every week, but I do enjoy a glass of beer or wine and am coming to appreciate the some of cultural traditions associated with these drinks.  I never drink liquor - only beer and wine (more wine lately as it offers greater health-benefits).  I am very aware that my own position as a pastor does indeed mean that I am an example to others and this is one reason that I generally limit myself to a single drink and I do not serve alcohol at events that have been promoted from the pulpit (like the meals we served in our first year here).   

For me the question is still one of what promotes "Scriptural Holiness" both in myself and in others - a holiness that avoids Pharisaical legalism on the one side or self-indulgence and excess on the other (both of which the New Testament repeatedly warns against).  Indeed, I believe that my being open about my drinking occasionally yet within certain boundaries and never to the point of intoxication provides me an opportunity to model the true (and original) meaning of "temperance."  I respect that other Christians (a great many US Protestants, if CT's statistics are accurate) prefer total abstinence for themselves (the official position of The United Methodist Church applauds, but does not require, this); and I myself sometimes choose to abstain for particular time periods as a type of fast.

How do some of you approach this issue?  

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12/15/13

Doing theology with Wesley

"Scripture and indubitable antiquity are the authority we appeal to; thither we refer our cause; and can heartily conclude with that [saying] of Vincent of Lerins, 'That is to be held, which hath been believed everywhere, always, and by all.'"

- Rev. John Wesley; final line of his "Reply to the Roman Catechism" (Works v. X, p. 128)

Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, following the example of John Wesley here, has made this saying of Vincent of Lerins something of a rallying cry for what is being called "paleo-orthodoxy" (or just plain "orthodoxy").  There really is a great historic and ecumenical consensus of the faith that is shared across denominational lines and cultural boundaries and across the ages.  You can find this faith expressed in the creeds and hymns, the liturgical practices and teachers which have been most widely embraced across the whole church across time.  It is in holding to this faith, this "Mere Christianity," that Christians find unity with one another and with the great communion of saints across time. 

Oden is quick to point out that he fears 'theological revisionism' leads us away from this great consensus of faith, and so his ongoing project to call fellow Methodists and Christians of all stripes back to the consensus of the early church (what Wesley above calls "indubitable antiquity" - that which was held without doubt by the ancient church) to help us rightly interpret sacred Scripture. 

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12/6/13

Protestant or Reformational Catholic?

I've said before that there are two ways to think of the word "Protestant."  One is "Protest against" - as in we are in continual protest against Roman Catholicism; whatever they do, we Protestants must do something different and eventual unity is out of the question since Roman Catholicism as such is seen as corrupt-by-definition.  On this view a Protestant is by definition a "non-Catholic" ("Catholic" is assumed by these folks always to mean "Roman Catholic" instead of the original meaning: "universal").

The other way to think of the word Protestant is "pro-testament" (pro= "for" in Latin) - as in giving a testimony for something, in this case the Good News of Christ Jesus.  On this view one might even be Protestant and Catholic at the same time, since we are no longer talking about denominational affiliation (or lack thereof) but giving testimony for the Good News of Jesus Christ.

First Things recently ran a good piece called The End of Protestantism  ("end" in the sense of "purpose" and also "end point") in which being Protestant (in the first sense mentioned above, "not-catholic") is contrasted with being a Reformational Catholic.  A Reformational Catholic is truly "reformed" because he embraces the major teachings of the Reformers (salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone; a rejection of universal papal authority; the embrace of married priests & vernacular liturgy; rejection or prayers to saints, etc.) while also embracing the universal (or "catholic") Christian tradition, the ecumenical creeds, the liturgical and sacramental piety, and the whole communion of saints.  A Reformational Catholic can also allow that Roman Catholicism is not corrupt "by definition" and that the Roman Church is capable of change, and has in fact changed a great deal since the Medieval Period and has brought on board many of the very reforms sought by the original Protestant Reformers (and may indeed accept more of those reforms - such as married clergy - in the future).

Upon reading this description of 'Reformational catholicism' (at least some) Anglicans might be scratching their heads and exclaiming "That is what we've been saying for centuries!" and now it seems others are catching up to ideas that the Protestant Reformers themselves actually held.  Indeed the Book of Discipline describes United Methodist theology as catholic and reformed and evangelical all at the same time, and I am proud to be what this essay calls a "Reformational Catholic."  I have long since found the idea that we should not do something in church because "that is too Catholic" ridiculous since Roman Catholics also believe in prayer, reading the Bible, preaching the cross, and worshiping the Trinity.  Taken to its logical extreme this "don't do anything catholic" approach would have us all convert to Islam or something very near to it.  As a bit of a "high-church Methodist," I have at times run into this "don't do it if it's Catholic" attitude serving in Louisiana, though not as frequently as I might have expected.

It must also be pointed out that any 'Protestantism' that defines itself based on what some other group is doing ("We are the people who are not Catholic") has no positive substantial identity of its own but only a derivative identity that relies for its very existence upon Roman Catholicism.  In other words, if "Protestant" simply means "not Catholic" then you can never know what a Protestant is until you find out what a Catholic is first.  Yet surely no church that is dependent for its very existence upon some other (and supposedly false) church can truly claim to be the one holy church founded by Jesus Christ that is united to him in eternity; surely Jesus did not have to set up a false church first before he could establish the true one.  This is why it makes no sense to define a church's whole ecclesial identity as a contrast to what some other church is doing (Protestant as "protest against" whatever Rome happens to be doing).

Instead there must have been a substantial identity for the early church long before the Medieval corruptions crept in that created a need for Reform.  Church as bearer of the apostolic message (Protestant as giving testimony for the Gospel) is a substantial identity all its own.  Since it is not by definition contrary to whatever Roman Catholics are doing, then there always remains the possibility of future reunion with the Roman Church in keeping with Jesus' own desire that his followers should all be one (John 17), if in fact such Protestants/Reformational Catholics were to find that the Roman Catholics were also clearly bearers of the same apostolic message.

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12/1/13

Study theology (even if you don't believe?)

Interesting post a few weeks ago from The Atlantic: why Theology (and not just Religious Studies) should have a core place in the Humanities at major Universities.  Here is a good bit of it:
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When I first told my mother—a liberal, secular New Yorker—that I wanted to cross an ocean to study for a bachelor’s degree in theology, she was equal parts aghast and concerned. Was I going to become a nun, she asked in horror, or else one of “those” wingnuts who picketed outside abortion clinics? Was I going to spend hours in the Bodleian Library agonizing over the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin? Theology, she insisted, was a subject by the devout, for the devout; it had no place in a typical liberal arts education.

Her view of the study of theology is far from uncommon. While elite universities like Harvard and Yale offer vocational courses at their divinity schools, and nearly all universities offer undergraduate majors in the comparative study of religions, few schools (with the exceptions of historically Catholic institutions like Georgetown and Boston College) offer theology as a major, let alone mandate courses in theology alongside other “core” liberal arts subjects like English or history. Indeed, the study of theology has often run afoul of the legal separation of church and state. Thirty-seven U.S. states have laws limiting the spending of public funds on religious training. In 2006, the Supreme Court case Locke v. Davey upheld the decision of a Washington State scholarship program to withhold promised funding from an otherwise qualified student after learning that he had decided to major in theology at a local Bible College.

Even in the United Kingdom, where secular bachelor's programs in theology are more common, prominent New Atheists like Richard Dawkins have questioned their validity in the university sphere. In a 2007 letter to the editor of The Independent, Dawkins argues for the abolishment of theology in academia, insisting that “a positive case now needs to be made that [theology] has any real content at all, or that it has any place whatsoever in today's university culture.”


Such a shift, of course, is relatively recent in the history of secondary education. Several of the great Medieval universities, among them Oxford, Bologna, and Paris, developed in large part as training grounds for men of the Church. Theology, far from being anathema to the academic life, was indeed its central purpose: It was the “Queen of the Sciences” the field of inquiry which gave meaning to all others. So, too, several of the great American universities. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton alike were founded with the express purpose of teaching theology—one early anonymous account of Harvard's founding speaks of John Harvard's “dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches”, and his dream of creating an institution to train future clergymen to “read the original of the Old and New Testament into the Latin tongue, and resolve them logically.”

Universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton no longer exist, in part or in whole, to train future clergymen. Their purpose now is far broader. But the dwindling role of theology among the liberal arts is a paradigmatic example of dispensing with the baby along with the bathwater.
Richard Dawkins would do well to look at the skills imparted by the Theology department of his own alma mater, Oxford (also my own)....

Read the whole story here.

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11/25/13

Worth a ponder...

The one principle of hell is - "I am my own."
- George MacDonald

Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone..."
- Genesis 2:18

I am no longer my own, but Thine...
- John Wesley

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11/21/13

Lewis honored at Westminster Abbey

Tomorrow, 22 November, the great Christian author, thinker, educator, sometime preacher, and poet C.S. Lewis will be honored with a place among the spires and gothic arches in the "poets' corner" of Westminster Abbey.  "A service will take place on 22 November 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.  Lewis will join such greats as John Keats, William Blake and TS Eliot in a tradition going back 600 years."  Read the full BBC article here.

Lewis is one of my great spiritual and theological mentors, and I'll have to make sure to stop by poets' corner next time I'm in London.

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11/15/13

Survey Says: Women are for Life

This is a fascinating and well-researched article showing the contrast between the actual attitudes of women and the way that "women's interests" are sometimes (though not universally) presented by the press, the academy, and the political left.  Those who have opinions about abortion, "sexual liberation culture," and related issues (and who doesn't?) would do well to ponder carefully this article, because I believe it has a very important contribution to make on these issues.

I believe that the research clearly supports my thesis that the collapse of Christian sexual morality (which means reserving sexual intimacy to the protections of the marriage covenant) is bad for women and children in particular, so that the various "sexual liberations" that were supposed to empower women, have ironically exposed women to deeper loneliness, more manipulation by men, and a culture that sets women up for frustration.  The article begs the question of what a truly woman-respecting culture would look like; what changes in our entertainment industry, fashions, cultural assumptions and norms would be needed for that sort of pro-woman culture to emerge?  I believe it would, in large part, mean a renewed commitment to chastity, marriage & family, and respect for women as whole persons (not just bodies), and all this from men and women alike.

Highlights are presented below:
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In contrast to the rhetoric of a “war on women,” recent polls reveal that the majority of American women support abortion restrictions and regulations. This is unsurprising, since unfettered abortion access hurts women and gives men a sexual advantage...

A Quinnipiac poll found that 60 percent of women supported the twenty-week ban, while an additional 8 percent stated that abortion should never be legal. That represents a full 68 percent of women who would be supportive of the twenty-week ban. Among men, only 50 percent supported the twenty-week ban, and only 6 percent stated that abortion should never be legal. That represents a 12-point gender gap on this issue, with women being much more likely to support abortion restrictions. The poll is hardly an outlier, since a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 71 percent of women favored at least a 20-week ban on abortion, while only 63 percent of men did....

Ironically, it turns out that women are much more supportive of the fictitious “war on women” than men. This seems counterintuitive, at least to those immersed in radical feminist politics. However, when one considers how abortion on demand alters the fundamental sexual dynamics between men and women, it starts to make sense...

While feminists champion this leveling of the sexual playing field, the altered sexual calculus has actually placed women at a significant disadvantage. If women are more willing to engage in sexual activity, men are more than willing to play along—but they are likely to provide very little in return.
No-strings-attached sexual encounters have become the norm for young adults on college campuses, while dating and long-term commitment continue to fall by the wayside. Whom does this benefit?
As more sexually active women enter the marketplace, it is the young men that seem to be reaping the benefits, not women. For example, Regnerus and Uecker found that on college campuses in which women outnumber men (meaning there are more sexually active women in the marketplace), the women had a more negative view of the men on campus, they went on fewer dates, and received less commitment in return for sexual relations. What was meant to be the triumphant sexual liberation of women has turned college campuses into something that resembles a frat boy’s fantasy world. It is a world that leaves women isolated and lonely.

In work done by sociologist Paula England, more than half of college women surveyed reported feeling less respected by men after casual sex. Meanwhile, college men are less interested than women in a relationship both before and after sex. In addition, more women reported highly unsatisfying sexual encounters, often feeling that they were treated as sexual objects by the men involved.

Yet they continued to have casual sex anyway, because when the cost of sex is low, women feel enormous pressure to give in. Many men even expect this—so much so that survey data indicate 3-5 percent of college women are victims of rape or attempted rape every year.

Yet the victimization doesn’t end there. When contraception fails, whether after consensual casual sex or an alcohol-fueled dorm-rape, men turn to abortion as a way to mitigate their responsibility. In fact, more than 60 percent of women who have an abortion report being under pressure to do so. In the majority of cases, it is the male partner who is applying that pressure. Workers at crisis pregnancy centers see this physical intimidation or emotional manipulation routinely.

In one widely read article, the author touts how he manipulated two of his girlfriends into getting abortions...

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11/10/13

Insults from Luther

I first read some of Martin Luther's writings in college, and more in seminary, and I (like all Protestants, and indeed all Christians) am indebted to his theological insight and genius - especially his reassertion of the teaching that we are justified and made right with God by faith in Christ, not any laundry list of good works.  Yet if you have read much Luther, you probably have quickly discovered that he is a rather...colorful...debater.  He often heaps scorn upon his debate opponents, and has no problem resorting to simple name-calling and insulting.  In fact, Martin Luther is not a nice guy; he is kind of a jerk.

So, to mark this 530th anniversary of his birth (on November the 10th, 1483) in a light-hearted way I am happy to share with you the "Luther insulter."  Just press the button and receive a genuine insult from the writings of Martin Luther!  Then do it again!  And again...  It's funny...in a "make you want to cry when you really think about it" kind of way.        

Insult me, Martin Luther!

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11/8/13

C.S. Lewis honored at Methodist college

In these days leading up to the 50th anniversary of his death, C.S. Lewis' work and teaching is being celebrated at the United Methodist-related Centenary College of Louisiana.  The schedule of events is here.  I will be participating as the Methodist clergy representative on a panel discussion of Mere Christianity on Tuesday the 12th of November at 7pm. 

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11/5/13

Wisdom with Lewis: Religion and Literature

All the books were beginning to turn against me.  Indeed, I must have been blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader.  George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity.  He was good in spite of it.  Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity.  Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough he had the same kink.  Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too.  Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found.  The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed.  On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete - Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire - all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called "tinny."  It wasn't that I didn't like them.  They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more.  There seemed to be no depth in them.  They were too simple.  The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books.

Now that I was reading more English, the paradox began to be aggravated.  I was deeply moved by the Dream of the Road; more deeply still by Langland: intoxicated for a time by Donne; deeply and lastingly satisfied by Thomas Browne.  But the most alarming of all was George Herbert.  Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had ever read in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment, but the wretched fellow, instead of doing it all directly, insisted on mediating it through what I would still have called "the Christian mythology."  On the other hand most of the authors who might be claimed as precursors of modern enlightenment seemed to me very small beer and bored me cruelly.  I thought Bacon (to speak frankly) a solemn, pretentious ass, yawned my way through Restoration Comedy, and, having manfully struggled to the last line of Don Juan, wrote on the end leaf "Never again."  The only non-Christians who seemed really to know anything were the Romantics; and a good many of them were dangerously tinged with something like religion, even at times with Christianity.  The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland's great line in the Chason -

Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores.

The natural step would have been to inquire a little more closely whether the Christians were, after all, wrong.  But I did not take it...

C.S. Lewis, from Surprised by Joy, chp. XIV

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10/31/13

Marriage: a key to surviving cancer

According to this USA TODAY article, married patients are more likely to survive cancer and cancer treatments.
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Scientists say they may have found the key to surviving cancer: marriage.
Married people with cancer were 20% less likely to die from their disease, compared to people who are separated, divorced, widowed or never married, according to study published online Monday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Married people in the study fared better than singles no matter what type of cancer. In certain types of tumors — prostate, breast, colorectal, esophageal and head/neck cancers — the survival benefits of marriage were larger than those from chemotherapy.

"Improving social support for our patients may be equally important as providing effective therapy, and it is less costly to develop and implement," said senior author Paul Nguyen, a radiation oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, in a statement....
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I am glad to see a growing awareness in our medical industry that each of us is a unity of body, mind, spirit, and emotions, and that if the medical industry is really are interested in healing us that there is more involved in this than simply bio-chemical treatments of certain isolated bits of our bodies (such limited ways of thinking no doubt reflect the highly fragmented, and compartmentalized world in which we live).

I am convinced that marriage is one of God's great gifts to Mankind - to strengthen our ability to love (and to learn what "love" really means); to enter into "deep community" with one who is truly an "other" as woman is to man and man to woman; to grow in personal maturity; and to experience healing in our souls and bodies.  Though I (with all Methodists) don't consider it a Dominical Sacrament on the level of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, I do believe Holy Matrimony is a divinely-instituted rite and institution with a sacramental character, that really can be a means of God's grace in our lives.  In fact I personally had a minor ailment that spontaneously cleared away when I got married.

I also firmly believe that the decline of marriage in our culture is a sign that we are not more mature, more courageous, and more loving than previous ages, but (if anything) less so.  It takes virtues like charity, justice, temperance, patience, chastity and courage to make a marriage work over the long haul, and I am afraid that as a society we have not been trained up in these virtues, but rather in consumeristic individualistic indulgence and instant gratification ("obey your thirst" and "have it your way" and "just do it" are the marketing slogans I was perpetually bombarded with growing up).  Teaching the virtues required for deep relationship in a society of individualistic consumerism and social media is, I believe, one of the great vocations of the church in this era (which is related to my opposition to "online communion" that has been much discussed of late: because it adds an element of artifice and thereby makes more shallow what has always been a face-to-face experience).

It is also worth noting that divorce is bad for the environment, but marriage is good for the economy.  These are, I believe, further indications that Marriage is a key to the Shalom (holistic Peace) that the Lord intends for his whole creation - which in turn is another reason we should not take lightly the meaning and definition of Marriage itself.  

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