"Giving Tuesday"

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



N.T. Wright on "the Rapture"

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

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

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

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

Labels: , ,


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

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

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

Labels: , , ,


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some additional sermon thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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



Lectures: John Milbank on the Collapse of Secularism

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

Labels: , , ,


Notes on Sundays' Bible readings (Oct. 18)

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

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

Hebrews 5

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

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

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

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

Mark 10:35-45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Lecture: David Bently Hart on the "New Atheists"

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

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

Completely fascinating lecture.  Well worth your time!

Labels: , , ,


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

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

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

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

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


Thoughts and Notes upon Sunday’s Bible Readings

For the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This passage asks us ‘What is wealth for?’

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

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

Labels: ,


Lectures: Rowan Williams on Christ's Uniqueness

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

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

Labels: , ,


Rule of Law and Freedom of Religion

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

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

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

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

Labels: , ,


Some more recommended articles

Higher calling, lower wages:

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

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

The phsycological benefits of walking in nature:

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

On a related note is this:

7 Ways Electronics Quietly harm our Mental Health:

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

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

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

Labels: , , ,


Articles on young people seeking liturgical worship

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

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

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

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

Labels: ,


'Liberation' in St. Luke's Gospel

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

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

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

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

Now that is a potent question...

Labels: , ,


What happens when a Christian dies?

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

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

Labels: ,


Becoming "Gospel Catholics" by lifting up the cross

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

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

Interesting and edifying stuff in here.

Labels: , , ,


Pyrotechnics versus tradition in growing the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: , , ,


Engaging Chesterton on doctrine

I enjoy reading the 'Conciliar Anglican' blog now and again; it is the place to go for thoughtful posts from an Episcopal priest deeply rooted in the ancient orthodoxy ("true and right belief") of the universal ("catholic") Church across the ages.  In this recent post he engages with the always provocative G.K. Chesterton on the virtues of firm doctrinal boundaries (much maligned by certain members and even leaders and bishops of the historic Protestant Churches these days).  Read the full post HERE.

I am convinced that the recovery of firm doctrinal boundaries is a key to the renewal of Christianity in our culture.  Not that the Church needs or must have a hard and fast rule or teaching on every possible issue - that kind of rigidity leaves little room for thinking through the implications of our faith; yet on the other hand an indifferent "anything goes" attitude towards Christian teaching and Biblical (mis)interpretation - which has prevailed in some circles of historic Protestantism - leaves churches with no identity, no message, and therefore no relevance, no prophetic challenge, and no gospel consolation for the world around us.

I am one who finds such boundaries exactly where they've always been: in the historic catholic creeds (such as the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds) and in the doctrinal standards of my own denomination.  The above statue of Chesterton is in the quaint town of Ponchatoula in my home state of Louisiana.  How it got there, I know not, but I think it is great.  

Labels: , , ,


I couldn't resist this cartoon

OK, this is (like all political cartoons) obviously over the top, but when I saw it I had a great laugh - the kind that is literally out loud - and felt compelled to share.

I don't know too much about the 'nuclear deal' with Iran yet, but from what I have heard
1) we get to inspect their nuclear facilities...but only after giving them 2 weeks prior notice (enough time to hide weaponizing equipment??), and also
2) we did not get any of our citizens back who are imprisoned in Iran (including Christian missionaries)
3) I worry about how Israel will respond if it goes forward - though they may accept it in the end
4) Also, some analysts are already saying that this deal does not actually prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but at best postpones it (presumably until the next Presidential administration, or maybe the one after that).

If all of this is correct (and I hope this is all overly pessimistic), then it sounds like a bad deal to me.  No doubt some will argue - as the administration has done - that what we got was as much as could be realistically hoped for and that almost any deal reduces the likelihood of war.  They are probably exactly right; certainly the diplomats have far more detailed knowledge than I (or the cartoonists) have on all this, and more knowledge of the major players in Iran as well.  And obviously averting even the possibility of a war with Iran or (yet another) conflict in the Middle East should indeed be a high priority.
One does wonder though if we might have been able to "realistically" get a better deal if American foreign policy and international influence did not look so sheepish in recent years.

In any case now the President will try to "sell" Congress on the virtues of this deal.  May the Lord give wisdom and insight to our Congress as they consider ratification.

Labels: ,


Charles Wesley quote

“Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.”- Charles Wesley

Labels: , ,


Bringing more BCP language into the UMC liturgy

After several years of membership in "non-liturgical", evangelical churches, it was at St. Alban's Episcopal Chapel at LSU that I began to get reconnected and reacquainted with the Great Tradition of the universal Church, especially our ancient liturgical and sacramental spirituality.  For this reason I've always had a bit of a soft spot for the liturgy and language of The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) of 1979 (the liturgy used at St. Alban's), though it is much maligned by some conservative Anglicans for various reasons.  What follows is a Eucharistic liturgy that incorporates much of the language of the 1979 Eucharistic liturgy (Rite II, Prayer A - with slight alteration) into the highly flexible Service of Word and Table III from The United Methodist Hymnal (p. 15-16).

The United Methodist Service of Word and Table III is intended to be a "bare bones" framework, into which a variety of liturgical material (including extempore prayers) can be incorporated without running afoul of the rubrics (red-letter instructions).  With this flexible rite a United Methodist pastor could incorporate language from, say, the Lutheran Divine Liturgy (especially appropriate since we are in full-communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), or (as I have done here) the Book of Common Prayer, while still honoring his ordination vow to accept and uphold the doctrine and liturgy of The United Methodist Church (UMC).  

If you are familiar with the UMC liturgy and the BCP liturgy you will see that I actually maintained the Words of Institution and the Epiclesis from the UMC liturgy, though technically Word and Table III would allow me to use the slightly different versions found in the BCP.  It is just easier for me to use the familiar phrasing at those points when I am handling the elements and therefore least likely to be looking at the page.

So, here is the Great Thanksgiving Prayer incorporating language of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (in italics), for use with United Methodist Word and Table III:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.

For you are the source of light and life; you made us in your image, and called us to new life in Jesus Christ our Lord.

And so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven we praise your name and join their unending hymn:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.  Hosanna in the highest.  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest.

Holy and gracious Father: in your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.  He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

On the night in which he gave himself up for us, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; he gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

[Likewise] when the supper was over he took the cup; gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples and said, “Drink from this all of you; this is my blood of the New Covenant, poured out for you, and for many, for the forgiveness of sins; do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.  Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.

By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast [with all your saints] at his heavenly banquet.

All this we ask through your Son Jesus Christ.  By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
All honor and glory is yours Almighty Father, now and forever.

Prayer after Communion:

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this Holy Mystery in which you have given yourself to us.  Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and you have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.  Send us now into the world in peace and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

For a similar post, click HERE.

Labels: , , ,


Recommended Reading Round-up

1) David Watson asks, "What is Christian Unity?"
Over the past couple of years the debate within United Methodism over sexual morality has been complicated by a number of clergy and even a few bishops who have openly broken with their ordination vows to uphold our Discipline.  This has led to a crisis of trust in the denomination and a sense among many that we may be heading toward a schism.  In more recent months there have been numerous proposals to restructure the church.  Some would create a separate jurisdiction for liberal clergy and churches that would have its own standards for ordinations and its own theology of Holy Matrimony separate from the rest of the church.  Other proposals would leave sexual morality issues and the question of whether to bless same-gender unions to each local church and each individual pastor (this would be a radical step towards congregationalism and raises questions about the viability of our itinerant system).  I have asserted that it is foolish to think that these compromises will actually satisfy everyone and "end the debate;" in fact some of them would, I contend, move us from an ugly fight every 4 years at General Conference to an ugly fight every year at Annual Conference.  Would this really deepen our unity?
At some point it is worth asking if these "compromise measures" are not themselves actually dismantling our unity, albeit in a more subtle way, as the connections and the covenant that bind us are deconstructed.  Who are the real schismatics here?  Watson also prods us to ask if the mere sharing of the same denominational name, pension system, and logo is sufficient to make us a truly "United" Methodist Church?  If real Christian unity of Spirit, of faith, and of covenant loyalty does not exist, what exactly is the point of bending over backwards and radically restructuring our inherited polity to maintain a mere institutional unity?

2) Why Religion will dominate the 21st Century:
This piece at The Week asserts that, while the 20th century was a highpoint for secularism and atheism, the great events of the 21st Century will be dominated by religious convictions.  This might sound counter-intuitive considering the rising numbers of "unaffiliated" in the USA today, but the USA is not the world, and even some of the comparisons between the religiousity of Americans today versus the 1950s might surprise you.

3) The new-old-fashioned conservatism of prince Charles:
I once read a blogger argue in favor of constitutional monarchy like this: elected officials (by the nature of their office) are always looking to the next election, while constitutional monarchs (by the nature of their office) are always looking to the next generation; they help balance the short-term political expediency of elected officials with a longer view on things.  This article at the week, examining the recent publication of Prince Charles' letters to government officials seems to bear that argument out.

4) Again from David Watson - "The Millennial Obsession"
Professor Watson examines the United Methodist church's "obsession" with asking what will help us reach "millennials" and also explains his skepticism about bloggers who claim to speak for this whole generation.

5) Obama's MidEast Failure is outlined in THIS article at National Review. Plenty of commentators (including me) have bemoaned that the 2003 invasion of Iraq is a primary reason that the MiddleEast is ungulfed in fire and blood today.  But the National Review points out that Obama inherited an increasingly stable Iraq and could have exerted tremendous influence there for good, had he not rushed to remove our troops as quickly as possible. Now we are beginning to hear talk of whether we ought to send troops back in to retake areas for which our troops already bled.  There was a reason we  did not remove troops so hastily from Germany, Japan, or Korea, but worked long and hard to stabilize and sustain what had been hard won.

Labels: , ,


Recommended Reading Round-up

1) The significance of ritual in and out of church:
This PIECE from a Lutheran blogger reflects upon the importance of ritual and formality in light of a firefighters' memorial ceremony and in light of the ways that "worship wars" are playing out in his own denomination.  Good stuff here that I wish more American Christians would consider.

2) The rise of the Intolerant Left:
Many have been commenting in recent weeks about how 'illiberal' liberalism seems to have become in our nation.  Was all that talk about tolerance and inclusion and respect for all peoples was just a smokescreen to disarm critics until the Sexual Revolution had gained enough power to simply impose its views and silence all dissenters?  Or will an empowered left reclaim the classic "progressive" values of freedom of thought, speech, and expression along with freedom and protection for dissenters and minorities?  A Christianity Today article explores these issues HERE.

3) Jeb Bush's comments on Religion and Freedom:
In connection with #2 above, THIS article at The Federalist discusses Jeb Bush's comments about the positive contributions that Christianity has made to American culture (quoting everyone from Chesterton to MLKjr) and the importance of freedom of religion, as he tries to court evangelical voters at Liberty University.

4) Memorializing a good Oak Tree:
THIS piece at the ever-thought-provoking Front Porch Republic site explores our human condition in connection to place and time as it reflects on what to do when an historic oak tree at the center of town dies.

5) Finally, Why ISIS is winning:
And what the world should be doing to stop it, HERE.  I've been saying in conversations and on this blog that I believe ISIS and its allies form the most purely demonic political and military movement in our world since the days of Hitler and Stalin.  What is perhaps even more shocking than the rapid rise and expansion of ISIS - which by some estimates now has some 100,000 fighters and controls a territory the size of Indiana - is the halfhearted response of the West.  I understand the reasons for caution.  Our ill-conceived adventures in the Middle East are likely one factor that contributed to the rise of ISIS to begin with.  Yet surely the world's most powerful nation cannot stand by wringing its hands while the Islamic State establishes itself as a permanent 'state of Terror,' founded on the blood of tens of thousands of innocents, and implacably opposed to human rights for anyone and everyone who does not share their own ideology of militant Islam?

Labels: , , , , , ,


Recommended Reading Round-up

I've made something of a commitment to myself to spend more time focused on fewer hobbies and activities, which is one reason I have not been blogging so much in recent months, and that blog posts are not as long as they often were in years past (this blog is actually approaching it's 10th Anniversary!!).

Though not writing as much on this forum, I still want this to be a place where serious ideas are shared.  Since I still read a good many (perhaps too many) online articles - from news and political analysis to theology and philosophy - I have decided to start a doing "Round-up" posts with links and brief summaries of the most interesting or significant articles I've read in recent days.  I've done this before, but now it will be a regular feature of this blog (or such is the plan).

So, here is today's Round-up of Recommended Reading:

1) Young adults and Church:
There has been much wringing of hands over the much-discussed decline of Christian faith among young people (or at least, the decline in the number who identify with traditional denominational labels when surveyed by pollsters - God only knows about faith).  Should we become more liberal on sexual morals since that is in fact where many younger people are on those issues?  Or should we become more conservative since it is in fact the more conservative congregations and denominations that are actually reaching and keeping younger people for Christ?  Along side this debate we've also seen on-going debates about whether churches should adopt more liturgical or more contemporary/rock-music type worship services in order to keep younger folks in church.

Yet, according to the Huffington Post, research has revealed many of these debates might largely be "adventures in missing the point."   The single strongest indicator of whether younger people will become and remain committed Christians is whether their parents take the Christian faith seriously and promote faith in Christ at home.  Check out the article HERE.
So as a pastor may I ask: is it time for your family to establish a home altar or a family prayer time?  Do you ever discuss the significance of the Bible around the dinner table with your children?

2) When support for Gay 'Marriage' turns ugly (and irrational):
After the somewhat hysterical, but not always well-informed (but nevertheless politically successful) reaction to the religious freedom law in Indiana and other states, we've (thankfully) seen a bit more discussion in public forums about freedom of speech and freedom of conscience for religious and social conservatives, who are now a new minority in this country.
One such article was THIS ONE at The Week.  Ryan Anderson, a prominent, young, and articulate marriage traditionalist has been "shunned" by his Alma Mater because a vocal group of marriage liberals insisted on it.  The author of this piece is himself liberal on the marriage question, but wonders if we are seeing a movement in the direction of suppression of free and open debate of freely-expressed ideas.  He also wonders whether the ability of future generations to debate ideas reasonably will erode and indeed whether we will in fact raise up a generation of "cry-babies" unprepared for the challenges of the real world should our great institutions always give way to those who shout most loudly and frequently how 'offended' they are about whatever it is they happen to disagree with or dislike.

3) David Brooks' new book on Virtue and Character:
I must confess that I have always found David Brooks to be a refreshing voice in the contemporary media world.  He is one of the very few calm, thoughtful, and articulate conservatives who regularly gets a hearing on NPR and PBS.  I have also been intrigued for a while by the fact that Brooks is also Jewish, a child of Abraham.  The Christianity Today editors also apparently like him, because they've featured his new book on character HERE.

4) The Lasting Influence of the Inklings:
Dad sent me THIS somewhat long but very engaging piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education celebrating the lasting influence of the Inklings of Oxford - a group of Christian authors including C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield among others.  Compared with their (at the time, more fashionable) secular counterparts in the literary world, the Inklings have had a greater influence on mainstream culture, and are coming to be more recognized in serious academic circles as well.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Prayers for the Bible-preacher

When I was in high school I attended a "non-liturgical" and fiercely evangelical Baptist Church.  I put "non-liturgical" in quotes because, though that is how we would have thought of ourselves over against Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, we certainly had a very regular pattern - so much so that certain words and prayers were actually exactly the same from week to week.  Even though it was not written down  in a book or bulletin in front of us, it was a ritual liturgy.

Each week the service began with words from Psalm 122, "I was glad when they said unto me let us go into the house of the Lord..."  The number of hymns and general order of the service was exactly the same each week.
Each and every week the minister said the same prayer invoking the Holy Spirit, and asking for "clarity of thought and mind" before he began to preach his (often fiery) sermon.

Now that I do a lot of preaching, I have found myself coming back to certain prayers again and again as I prepare to study Scripture and as I prepare to write sermons.  Even to the point that I've written a few of them in the front of the journals that I use for making notes and sermon outlines.  So, here are the prayers I use most frequently.  You will note they either come directly from Scripture, or are taken from the rich and ancient liturgical tradition that is shared in common by Anglicans and Methodists. What are yours?

Prayers before studying the Bible:

O Lord, Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.  Amen.
                                 -Psalm 119:18

Blessed Lord, you have caused all Holy Scripture to be written for our learning.  Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever.  Amen.
                                -United Methodist Hymnal, 602;
                                 taken from The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 236

Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.  Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart...Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you.  Amen.
                                -Psalm 119:33-34, 38

Prayers before writing the sermon:

O Lord, Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.  Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!  Amen.
                               -Psalm 90:16 & 17 (NRSV & ESV)

Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings, with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help, that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name, and finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
                               -United Methodist Hymnal, 705;
                                taken from The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 832

And, a reminder...
So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
(Romans 10:17, KJV)

Labels: ,


Thinking theologically about how we 'do church'

Here is a video that I really liked from the President of Asbury seminary encouraging graduating students and pastors to think theologically through practical ideas like having "different worship style options" at church, while pointing out the tendency - at least among evangelicals - to address issues like this (and there are numerous other examples we might come upon) simply in terms of consumerism or marketing ("what do people want/what is the demand"), which leads to the "commodification" of the Gospel.

Challenging stuff here for the 21st Century American Christian.

Labels: , , , ,


Did the Resurrection Happen?

One of the great issues - perhaps THE great issue - facing Protestant Christianity today is the loss of a coherent and unifying authority in some quarters of the church.  While Roman Catholicism has long since vested authority in the Magisterium of the church (that is, the popes and bishops), Protestantism was born precisely by an appeal to authority of the Bible (rightly interpreted) over and against fallible human authorities (like individual popes).

The challenges to maintaining the traditional Protestant appeal to Biblical authority (and even being clear on what that does and does not mean) are several and complex, and I'll not go into them all here.  One issue from early on has been agreeing on how to properly interpret the Bible even once we have agreed that it's teachings are the word of God and are therefore authoritative.  So even the first generation of Protestants - all pointing to Biblical authority - had some disagreements about the nature of the sacraments.  

In more recent generations (sometimes) well-meaning scholars have qualified and redefined and circumvented Biblical authority to such an extent that - for those under the sway of such scholarship, including many seminary-trained clergy - the Bible in practice no longer functions as a moral or theological authority to which we must submit our ideas and our lives.  This is why we now have arguments simmering in the various historic Protestant churches about not only sexual morality (that is merely the loudest argument, and not actually the most important), but also about the nature of humanity, sin, and salvation, and the uniqueness of Christian revelation, and of Christ as the only Savior.

Against this backdrop it is no surprise that some insightful scholars have given renewed attention to authority and how it functions - under the guidance of God the Holy Spirit - within the life of the church.

I am completely convinced - with Scholars like Tom Oden, Billy Abraham, and others - that God did not simply give us a Biblical revelation and then leave us "on our own" to figure it out (though a great many seem to operate as if that were the case).  A simple reading of the promises of Christ in the discourses of John 13-17 or of the whole Book of Acts clearly demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is the guide and teacher of the Church on earth.  The Holy Spirit helps the community to clarify confusing issues and to discern God's will.  This the Spirit has been doing for some 2,000 years now, and we need only pay attention to what "the Spirit has been saying to the churches" to gain clarity on how to interpret Scripture and understand what God is revealing to us.

Tom Oden wrote of a "rebirth of orthodoxy" - a return by contemporary Christians to a posture of humble listening to what the Spirit has been teaching the great saints and martyrs down through the ages.  Orthodoxy is that Spirit-led consensus across the church and across the ages on great matters of faith.  In my own United Methodist Church (as in the Anglican tradition in which Methodism first arose) the orthodox faith is enshrined and held forth in our established liturgy, our classic hymnody, our officially established standards of doctrine - such as the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith - and in our way of ordering the church, modified from the ancient model of a holy people led by bishops, presbyters and deacons, under the Lordship of Christ and guidance of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father.

These official doctrinal statements are examples of that Spirit-led orthodoxy that has been held in common across the churches and across the centuries precisely because they simply restate and elaborate upon the ancient ecumenical creeds and theological formulations, as well the major teachings of the Reformers (many of which have become accepted by Roman Catholicism as well in the last century).

I firmly believe that the only way to heal the wounds and disunity that now plagues Christianity - and historic Protestantism especially - is to recommit ourselves to Christian orthodoxy as a gift from the Holy Spirit.  So you can see why I am especially excited about the emergence of several movements among United Methodists today, such as the "Seedbed" video series and the new blog "United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy."

'UM Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy' (now linked on my sidebar) has a number of good articles exploring the basic doctrinal commitments of The United Methodist Church and of the universal (catholic) Church more generally.  A recent post: "Did the Resurrection Happen" is a great example of the kind of clarity amid confusion that the Spirit can give to us when we are willing to accept what he has been teaching down through the ages.  While some in the church have endeavored to "redefine" the astonishing claims of our faith so that these claims can "make sense to the (post)modern man," this post draws upon the historical understanding of the Spirit-led church to quickly and logically demonstrate why these "redefinitions" are inconsistent with the Gospels and why the "(post)modern man" should be able to find the Resurrection both plausible and enticing.

Labels: , ,


Christ is Risen!


Anglican Commentary on 'hot-button' issues

For some reason I get emails on occasion from the Anglican Church in North America, and even more occasionally I actually read them.  One such email linked me to a couple of recent articles on "hot-button" issues that - as a Methodist pastor and as a patriotic citizen - I am also very concerned about so I thought I'd share them with anyone who cares to think through these issues a little more.

The first is about doctor-assisted suicide being mandated by the Supreme Court of Canada.  The full article is HERE. I thought the commentary was very interesting, here is a quote:

Like previous legal decisions that have undercut the Judeo-Christian moral foundation of our society, this decision favours the few who have politically powerful advocates and whose stories have been given high profile in the media; but it ignores the harm that may come to the many who are politically weak, physically vulnerable, and have few if any advocates.
In anticipation of this decision, Father Raymond de Souza wrote in the National Post, “that to embrace euthanasia and suicide as constitutional rights involved three revolutions in jurisprudence: 
i) abandoning the legal principle that every life is always a good to be protected, 
ii) embracing the idea that suicide is a social good, and 
iii) removing the particular obligation of the law to protect the weak and vulnerable.”
Citing the experience of Belgium where euthanasia and assisted suicide were legalized in 2002 and where the safeguards have rapidly eroded and the categories of those eligible have grown to the point that even children can now be euthanized, Father de Souza, expects that soon “we will hear positive reviews from the telegenic advocates of expanding the number of suicides and people euthanized in Canada. They will have compelling stories to tell.  We will not hear from those who have no advocates — the isolated elderly, alone with no one to speak for them, judged to be burdensome to our health system. The disabled who will now wonder if their doctors are coming with counsels of death do not have fashionable advocates. The truly weak and vulnerable, the exploited and abandoned, do not hold press conferences. The Charter becomes a tool of the powerful against the weak, much like medicine will increasingly become in the age of euthanasia and suicide.” 
The piece goes on to suggest how Christians can pray and act given this situation.  Those of us in the US can make sure that our state and federal legislators hear our concerns as well.  As a United Methodist pastor, I am sworn to uphold the teachings of the United Methodist Church as expressed in our Book of Discipline; I've said before that if I could not in good conscience do so, I would not be a pastor in this particular denomination.  Certainly this is a difficult issue requiring careful distinctions, and that is reflected in our church's current statement on this issue, which makes a distinction between allowing death to take its course naturally on the one hand, and actively killing a person on the other:
There is no moral or religious obligations to use [medical technologies] when they impose undue burdens or only extend the process of dying.  Dying persons and their families are free to discontinue treatments when they cease to be of benefit to the patient...Even when one accepts the inevitability of death, the Church and society must continue to provide faithful care, including relief of pain, companionship, support, and spiritual nurture for the dying person in the hard work of preparing for death... We reject euthanasia and any pressure upon the dying to end their lives.  God has continued love and purposes for all persons, regardless of health.  We affirm laws and policies that protect the rights and dignity of the dying. (Para. 161.B, page. 109).
People sometimes appeal to our compassion in these cases - which is understandable because suffering can be so horrible - saying things like "You would put a terminally ill animal out of its misery, why not extend the same compassion to a human being?"  This seems a strong argument at first glance.  Yet there are many things we do with animals that we consider immoral to do to a human being, precisely because the dignity of a human life is of a completely different order: for example we lock animals in cages or keep them in zoos against their will, we force oxen to pull plows and horses to carry heavy burdens.  None of this we would do to people.  Our law assumes - as the Bible explicitly teaches in Genesis 1:27 - that human beings have a kind of sacred worth and dignity that sets us apart from the animals.  This truth is is the source of the legal principle, mentioned above, that every human life is a good to be protected.

The Second article is also about the possibility of (un-elected) Supreme Court Judges pushing a new legal standard on a nation without going through the messy process of democratic debate and decision-making; but this story relates to the United States.  In late April the Justices will hear arguments about forcing same-sex "marriage" on all 50 states, rather than allowing the states to decide this issue through our own democratic processes (it is my understanding that allowing states to regulate legal marriage has always been the legal tradition in this country - based on the 10th Amendment - and is the reason that age of consent has sometimes varied from state to state).  Again, here is a substantial quote from the Anglican Church's commentary (which you can read in full HERE):

The Alabama Supreme Court expressed the nature of marriage clearly in a recent ruling: “[M]arriage has always been between members of the opposite sex. The obvious reason for this immutable characteristic is nature. Men and women complement each other biologically and socially. Perhaps even more obvious, the sexual union between men and women (often) produces children. Marriage demonstrably channels the results of sex between members of the opposite sex – procreation – in a socially advantageous manner. It creates the family, the institution that is almost universally acknowledged to be the building block of society at large because it provides the optimum environment for defining the responsibilities of parents and for raising children to become productive members of society.”
Government has a strong interest in protecting children but very little interest in marriage under the romantic redefinition. The Alabama Supreme Court said, “In short, government has an obvious interest in offspring and the consequences that flow from the creation of each new generation, which is only naturally possible in the opposite-sex relationship, which is the primary reason marriage between men and women is sanctioned by State law.”
It would be hard to overstate the significance of what may come from the U.S. Supreme Court. “The only way one can establish the unconstitutionality of man–woman marriage laws is to adopt a view of marriage that sees it as an essentially genderless, adult-centric institution and then declare that the Constitution requires that the states (re)define marriage in such a way. In other words, one needs to establish that the vision of marriage our law has long applied is wrong and that the Constitution requires a different vision. There is, however, no basis in the Constitution for reaching that conclusion” (Memo to Supreme Court: State Marriage Laws Are Constitutional, by Gene Schaerr and Ryan T. Anderson).
Second, if we lose marriage, we lose religious freedom, as well. If the U.S. Supreme Court redefines marriage and, especially, if it declares that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are protected classes, then religious freedom protections will crumble.
If the Court rules that sexual orientation and gender identity are constitutionally protected (the legal term is “suspect class,” meaning that any laws negatively impacting persons in those categories are “suspect” and subject to the highest level of judicial scrutiny), then those who hold traditional views of marriage will be treated as equivalent to racists and vulnerable to legal sanctions.
If the Court issues an extreme “suspect class” ruling, we can expect attacks on every liberty and benefit which biblically faithful churches and believers now have under law, including tax exempt status, foster care and adoption rights, and school accreditation.
And we would see many more cases like that of Navy Chaplain Wesley Modder. This week, Chaplain Modder was relieved of his duties by his commanding officer for expressing traditional biblical views about marriage and sexual conduct. In fact, as a military chaplain, Chaplain Modder is required to uphold the doctrines required by the denomination that endorsed him (in his case, the Assemblies of God). Yet he has been disciplined for doing precisely what the Department of Defense requires! For more, see the Liberty Institute’s response to the action taken against Chaplain Modder.
All of this and more is at stake before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Once again the teaching of the United Methodist Church is substantially the same as that advocated by this Anglican Commentary, as the Book of Discipline currently states:

We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. (Para. 161.M, page 115).

I realize that these are indeed hot-button issues precisely because people of good-will disagree upon these issues, or disagree on certain aspects of them, and I respect everyone's right to think through these issues and make up their own minds.
However, I also am quite certain that (as with other political issues) many people do not really have well-informed or well thought-out opinions on these matters, but throw together a few ideas and slogans that they've picked up from TV or the internet or from a bumper-sticker without actually thinking carefully through the implications and the consequences of such ideas.  That is why I wanted to share these thoughtful comments from and Anglican author in light of the teaching of my own denomination of Christ's Holy Church.
I welcome any discussion and even disagreement from anyone who actually reads the articles (simple intellectual honesty demands that we should read and understand an article before presuming to engage or disagree with it) in the comments section below, provided that such discussion includes well-reasoned argument, not simply an exercise in name-calling, as is (sadly) so common on the internet today, especially when these sorts of issues are raised.

-Pax Vobiscum - Peace be with you all!

Labels: , , , , , ,