5/19/19

Beauty will Save the World...

I spent years as a child attending mass at my Roman Catholic School.  Each week we entered a church, fragrant with with candles and hints of incense.  Before us were statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and a statue of Christ crucified, as well as a priest wearing colorful robes.  Surrounding us were dazzling stained glass windows depicting numerous Biblical stories and saints and Christian symbols, much of which I did not understand...but it clearly meant something.

Later in my youth I joined a fervently evangelical Baptist Church.  Many evangelical churches - especially those with roots in the Puritan and Anabaptist traditions - have mostly eschewed iconography and art...though it does have a way of sneaking in from time to time anyway.
Indeed, when the church I attended remodeled its sanctuary (about the time I moved away for college), I was pleased to see that they replaced their opaque purple windows with far more colorful and attractive stained glass windows, each with identical images of the Cross.

These two churches point toward the different approaches Christians have taken to sacred art.  Some Christians (those in the Puritan traditions) have looked with suspicion on all sacred art as potential idols that break the Second Commandment, which says: "You shall not make for yourself a carved image [or 'idol']...you shall not bow down to them..." (Exodus 20:4-5).

Other Christians have pointed out that later in the Book of Exodus itself God instructs his people to build a beautiful tabernacle of Gold and fine cloth and carpentry in which to worship Him, complete with images of plants and angels and golden statues of angels as well.  These Christians (including Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and others) have to varying degrees embraced sacred art as an important reminder of the creativity and beauty of God.

I too have come to believe that works of artistic Beauty actually have profound theological significance.  You may note that this is a theme running through my recent posts since the Notre Dame fire.

Not only do I believe works of Beauty have profound theological significance, but also that they will be an important pointer to the reality of God for some who may not be swayed by Reason or logical arguments for God's existence.

I've heard that Dostoyevsky, a Christian author who wrote the profound and theologically significant novel Brothers Karamazov (among others), once said "Beauty will save the world."  I think there is truth in that.

In the beginning, the Bible tells us, God created the Heavens and the earth and all that is in them. "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).  The word for "good" in the Greek version of the Old Testament that was used by many of the early Churches is 'kalos' which means "good, excellent, and beautiful."

But no one who has ever gazed upon the stars, or stood on the rim of a great canyon, or watched the setting sun needs a Greek or Hebrew word study to tell them that God's creation is beautiful and that He is a wondrous creator.  And note: Man was formed in God's image, which accounts for our tendency to create beautiful things as well.  J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Christian whose magnificent work The Lord of the Rings contains a great many Christian themes, quite consciously saw his work in creating a fictional world as a reflection, however small and imperfect, of the world-creating work of the Living God whose image Tolkien was created to bear.

We have a good and beautiful God who creates a good and beautiful world (though it later became distorted by sin), and he populated it with people created to bear his own image who are themselves blessed with great creativity and love to make wondrous art to the glory of God.  This is why Christians across the ages have written amazing works of literature, composed lovely music, crafted intricate statues and gorgeous stained-glass windows, painted icons, built inspiring sanctuaries and cathedrals.

Even among Churches of the more Puritan traditions you will almost invariably find quite handsome pulpits and very nice leather-bound Bibles with gold-gilt page edges, and will hear lovely hymns being sung, which are all types of sacred art.  We humans cannot get away from this because we are embodied creatures who are creative by nature.

Fr. Patrick Smith, an Anglican priest who was a mentor to me in college (in explaining why his own Episcopal Church put such emphasis on beauty and artistic excellence, and was willing to commit resources to them) pointed out that God certainly does not disapprove of the material world or physical beauty - in fact he created it; and in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ he brought the very Life of God into the world of material stuff, transforming it forever.

This is the theological basis for embracing sacred art.

But such an embrace of beauty also strengthens the mission of the Church as well, which brings me back to the quote from Dostoyevsky: 'Beauty will save the world.'

There are many compelling logical arguments to believe in God.  Yet Beauty has a persuasive power that transcends logic and reason; Beauty has the power to resonate with us on a very deep level; beauty stirs our longing for Him who is the fount of all the beautiful things, the source of all songs and wonder.  We glory in all this beautiful sacred art not simply for its own sake, but also because it serves as a pointer to Him whose life is forever a Dance of supremely Beautiful, Sacred, and Divine Love.

It is into that Triune Dance that we are called by the same Christ who is also the true Way for us to get there.

I had an experience a few years ago that powerfully brought this all together for me (again).  I went with a group from the church I was pastoring to Saint Joseph's Abbey in Covington, Louisiana for a quiet retreat.  Our group was invited by the monks to join with them in chanting the Psalms at their prayer offices sprinkled throughout the day.
On our last night of the retreat, a storm rolled in after we had attended Vespers (Evening Prayer) and eaten dinner.  At first there was no rain, only a howling wind, and distant flashes of lightening and sounds of rumbling thunder.  I decided to walk to the glorious Abbey Church rather early before Compline (Late-Night Prayer), in order to beat the rain.  I found the church very dark - lit by a single candle in the sanctuary - with flashes outside occasionally lighting up the whole place.  When the rain started it came down hard and loud.  I sat down to pray and, after a few minutes in the quiet, turned on my MP3 player, and this is what I heard (close your eyes and imagine you are sitting in the vast, dark Abbey, with the storm raging outside):



Actually, the exact recording I heard was this one (which is even better, but has an annoying commercial before it).

I tell you, this experience was like another conversion.  In that moment I felt that even had I been a militant atheist I would have been converted to faith in Christ by the sheer transcendent beauty of the experience.

Indeed the words of the repeating chorus are the traditional Ave Maria ("Hail Mary") - half of which is taken from Luke chapter 1.  The other words of the more plain-chant sounding verses are also taken from the Birth narratives of Christ (such as Luke 1:38 and John 1:14).  The song tells of the embodiment of the Good and Beautiful Creator God in the flesh, through the Virgin Mary, taking up residence in this material world.  The song was not only about the incarnation of God in Christ in the world, but the beauty of the song, and of the Abbey where I sat, were indeed embodied, that is incarnate, witnesses to this same spiritual reality.  It is hard to fully put into words how Beauty and Truth came rushing together upon my soul in those moments of meditating upon the beauty of the Incarnation of Jesus.

By comparison, the worldviews of atheism and secularism and the kind of "generic popular culture" that secularism produces is utterly incapable of producing anything like this kind of sublime experience of deep soul-stirring beauty.  They can entertain, but they cannot inspire anyone with a genuine experience of transcendence; indeed, for these worldviews, there is no actual transcendent Reality beyond our own feelings.  For this reason, they simply haven't the spiritual depth and mystical freight that is necessary to drive men to erect cathedrals or to inspire the writing of Mendelssohn's "Lift Thine Eyes," or to sustain our Civilization into the future.

The fact that such timeless works of art exist at all, points us to the truth that there is indeed a Transcendent reality - a Divine Logos - And that Word, that Logos, says the Christian faith, was became flesh, and dwelt among us, and his name is Jesus.

So let the people of Jesus - in word, deed, character, and work - be people of creative and life-giving beauty.

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5/14/19

Why is (much) Modern Art so bad?

As I mentioned in a recent post, I've run across Brian Holdsworth recently, a web designer, graphic artist, and lay Roman Catholic apologist.  I've really been enjoying his thought-provoking videos on various topics, which are his attempt to do his part to help renew Christian Civilization.

Here is one really insightful example:



I must hasten to add, as with all things, there are exceptions to this generalization - there are works and styles of modern art that are quite good (indeed, numerous different styles fall under the heading of 'modern art').  But a great deal of modern art (contemporary abstract art in particular), and a great deal of modern architecture really is...ugly.  And for that reason, is loathed by the masses of common men who have not taken college courses on appreciating modern art.

I believe the intuitive reaction is quite instructive: A 'common man' intuitively understands that a gothic cathedral is beautiful; the same with the ancient Greek Parthenon in Athens, or Leonardo's Mona Lisa, or Michelangelo's Pieta, or the Mayan Pyramids of the Yucatan, or the knot-work carvings of the ancient Scandinavians.  No one needs to take a university class be taught to appreciate these things.
We all see immediately they simply are beautiful; in some small way they share in and communicate the reality of Heavenly Beauty and Harmony.

On the other hand, I have certainly had the experience of visiting a University Art School's exhibition or (worse still) standing in a museum, looking at some crumpled up pieces of metal or some random smears of color across a white canvas, and said "Why is this considered art?  I could have done that when I was 4..."

Maybe you've had that experience as well.  Why is it that so much unintelligible rubbish passes for art among wealthy or well-educated elites?
I suspect part of the issue may indeed be elitism itself: 'We who have taken courses on modern art are insiders, we get the reference, we are in on the joke, while the poor uneducated folks on Main Street just don't get it.'
But despite the ridiculous prices that some of these works can fetch at auction, it seems to me that more people are waking up the fact that the emperor has no clothes.

Cy Twombly's "Untitled" sold for $46,437,500 in 2017.
It was created by putting a brush on the end of a pole. 

I think Holdsworth, in his video above, puts his finger on the core of the issue: there was a shift in our culture from Artist as expressing praise to the glory of God, or even praise to the nation, or even celebrating another human being, to the Artist as practicing self-expression.  In many (obviously, not all) cases, art has gone from looking out at the world and celebrating something 'other than me/bigger than me' to a kind of navel gazing.

But then the question has to be raised, why is this artist's self-expression so exceptionally valuable?  If there is no objective artistic excellence in the work itself, then why should I pay money to go see this work in a museum or to buy it to hang in my home?  After all, I am every bit as much a 'self' as the artist, and I am more than capable of crumbling up my own tin-foil if that is what I feel like doing to express my own angst or whatever...and it is much cheaper than paying for the expression of some other person I'll never meet.

On the other hand, the more public nature of the classic understanding of what art is all about (not only my own expression, but also celebrating real objective beauty) necessarily puts an emphasis on excellence, which gives such art wider appeal.  The result is that Michelangelo has produced something that I most emphatically could not have done myself - there is a wonder to the fact that another human being created this kind of excellence.

I've heard glad rumors of a renewed interest in representational painting in European schools in recent years, and I expect time and the changing of generations will sift out the more bizarre forms of modernist self-expression.  I also expect quite a few cities will in decades to come begin to wonder how they might be able to remove the huge pillars of polished twisting metal from in front of their otherwise beautiful courthouses.  But people will still travel across the world to crowd shoulder to shoulder in the Sistine Chapel and behold timeless art, and that is a hopeful sign.

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5/5/19

Bishop Barron on Jordan Peterson Interview

Two of the "internet intellectuals" whom I've been attending to of late are Jordan Peterson the (agnostic? secular Christian?) Canadian Psychologist and professor and also Bishop Robert Barron, who seems to me one of the most winsome, intellectually compelling, and interesting Christian (and specifically Roman Catholic) voices in the Public Square today.

So, thanks to YouTube algorithms, I ran across this video.  Catholic podcaster Brandon Vogt is interviewing Bishop Barron and asking him to reflect upon the (much longer) conversation that Bishop Barron recently had with Jordan Peterson.  This interview is fabulous and well worth your time.

I love Bishop Barron's observation, when reflecting upon Jungian archetypes and the "hero's journey" that plays so prominently in world literature, that in the Bible people are called on an adventure, a hero's journey with God - Abraham is called to leave his home and follow God; Jesus calls us to leave all and take up the cross and follow him.  Yet in an even deeper sense, Bishop Barron points out, the Bible is the story about God making the hero's journey in order to find us. Also, I now need to go back and re-watch True Grit...


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4/29/19

It turns out, The United Methodist Church is basically Traditionalist/Evangelical

The United Methodist Church, though often described as progressive, or Mainline Protestant, is actually an evangelical and traditionalist denomination on the whole.*
That is the inescapable conclusion that we can now draw, not only from the recent General Conference's decision to endorse the "Traditional Plan" as the way forward through disagreements on sexuality, but also from a Nationwide survey conducted earlier this year by United Methodist Communications.

This survey is quite significant, and you can read the entire article that I'll be referring to on the UMC's official website HERE.

First we must note that The United Methodist Church is a world-wide denomination and this survey was a survey only of American Methodists.
Any attentive observer of trends in the UMC is aware that overseas Conferences are overwhelmingly conservative, traditionalist, and orthodox (and, in some cases, charismatic as well).
Furthermore the Church is now almost evenly divided between American Methodists and International Methodists.  This would mean that if even a small minority of American Methodists were traditionalists or conservatives, that would still mean that the world-wide church was mostly traditionalist.

But, as it turns out, however, the new study of American Methodists reveals that there are far more self-identified Traditionalists/Conservatives than there are Progressives/Liberals in the American Church.

Here is how it breaks down according to the article linked above:
Of those contacted, 
44 percent identified themselves as conservative/traditionalist in religious beliefs
28 percent as moderate/centrist
20 percent as progressive/liberal

Many will immediately be wondering what are the "political" ramifications (which is itself a sad commentary on how much fighting we've been doing).

Conservatives and Traditionalists are, far and away, the largest group.  This runs counter to the common narrative (often repeated in the run-up to the recent General Conference) that Centrists form the large majority of the UMC in America.  Rather it is likely that, when it comes to any particular moral or theological question or dispute, a majority of United Methodists in America would tend to line up behind the more traditional understanding.
Even supposing that you took the 28 percent that self-identify as Moderate and split them 50/50 between aligning with Traditionalists and aligning with Liberals on any particular issue, a significant majority of the American church (to say nothing of the Central Conferences overseas) would lean conservative/traditionalist.

Now, you might say, "Well, we should add all the Moderates together with all the Liberals, to see where the majority of the American church really is."  However, what the study actually found is that those who self-identified as Moderates tended to be closer to Traditionalists than they were to Progressives:
"The self-identified moderates generally ended between conservatives and liberals in the results for specific questions.  But often they were closer to the conservative position." 

This also raises the question about representation at General Conference.  I saw many progressives on social media saying that upwards 60% of American delegates to the recent General Conference voted for the One Church Plan, rather than the Traditional plan.  I think it is very possible that a few Conservatives actually did so as well, choosing institutional unity over their preferred theological understanding.
Nevertheless, if it is really the case that almost 2/3 of American GC delegates were Liberals/Progressives, then this would suggest that American Traditionalists are greatly under-represented at the General Conference level.

What about are the ramifications for the theological character of the Church?  On the whole, for those of us who are concerned with upholding and proclaiming the classic Biblical faith - the faith of the 'one holy catholic and apostolic church' - in United Methodism, the survey findings are very encouraging.

"The survey dug into United Methodists' views on various theology-related subjects, including the Bible, Jesus, salvation, the Resurrection, and the afterlife...
On some matters there was broad agreement.  For example, large majorities of all three self-identifying groups believe in Jesus' birth from a virgin,  his crucifixion in order to reconcile humans to God, and his resurrection in bodily form.  By big margins, conservatives, moderates, and liberals understand God as creator of heaven and earth and believe God's grace is available to all..."

So on the matters of basic theological orthodoxy, as articulated in the Apostles' Creed (for example), the vast majority of American Methodists are basically orthodox.  This is great news for the future health of the Church!

On the other hand, there was significant disagreement over the doctrine of Hell:
"But only 50 percent of liberals believe in a literal Hell, compared to 82 percent of conservatives and 70 percent of moderates..."

I do wonder if the phrase 'literal Hell' might have been a hindrance to some, and if a different phrase (like "an actual hell" or "eternal separation from God") would have yielded slightly higher numbers.
Nevertheless, we are pretty firm on our belief that Jesus really is the only Savior, and the only way to the Father:
"An overwhelming majority of conservatives, 86 percent, said a relationship with Jesus is the only way to salvation.  64 percent of moderates agreed with that and 54 percent of liberals did."

Again I'm pleasantly surprised to find that the numbers are this high (even among liberals) for this decisive orthodox and evangelical doctrine.

Finally, "The survey showed that women are more likely than men to hold liberal/progressive views and that church attendance is strongest by conservatives." 

Many have bemoaned the lack of involvement in the church by men, which has been a long-standing problem (even Karl Marx noted this almost 200 years ago).  But this survey would suggest that moving the church further in a liberal direction, if it did anything, would actually exacerbate the problem.

Because of the way Traditionalists interpret the Bible and understand its authority (including the 10 Commandments), I'm not surprised to find that conservatives are strongest in church attendance; I would also not be surprised to find that (because of their more traditional interpretations of the Bible) they are also more likely to give 10% of their income to the church, but apparently that question was not included.
It would indeed be interesting to see another survey that follows up by asking about the spiritual disciplines and practices of all these people, and seeing how that may (or may not) correspond to their self-described religious beliefs.

United Methodism is a big and diverse denomination, and I think (and hope) it always will be a place where everyone is welcomed and embraced (as is certainly appropriate for a world-wide Church); but we clearly do have a theological identity and the evidence shows that, on the whole, the UMC is a theologically traditional and orthodox denomination as well being diverse - both in the USA and, even more so, across the world.

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*I always feel the need to note that by Traditionalist and Evangelical, we do not mean Fundamentalist in the usual sense that word is now used.  The average Evangelical United Methodist will be open to things like Ecumenism or the Ordination of Women etc. things which are generally rejected out of hand by Fundamentalists.

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4/27/19

Dear Lord, save Notre Dame from modern architects

I think there was a collective groan heard round the world - and perhaps in France especially - when French President Macron announced that there would be an "international design competition" to build a new spire for Notre Dame Cathedral after the recent fire.

For one thing, why not get a Frenchman to design it?  This isn't really a big deal to me, but it seems like it ought to be a big deal to the French people: Notre Dame is after all the national church of France.  The old spire, and indeed the whole church were achievements of the French.  Are they no longer capable of such feats?

But my bigger concern is that some kind of "cool", Post-modern steel and glass spire will be shoe-horned onto this gorgeous Medieval gothic cathedral.  And it will look cool...at first...state-of-the art...for a while, until trends change.

My attitudes toward "improving" upon classic architectural idioms by "supplementing" them with modern forms were firmly set during my time at LSU.  If you go to the main quad in the center of campus, all around the Quad are stucco-covered, Italian-esque buildings, with matching red tiled roofs, fountains, and rows of beautiful arches all around the quad.  Except on one end.  There is Middleton Library.  An orange and green cube, that apparently fell from outer space and landed in the center of the quad.

At the time it was built, Middleton library was the latest and greatest, the cutting edge in architectural trends.  But now, while the rest of the quad continues to look timeless, the Library just looks dated.  And ugly.

The same phenomenon is clearly visible a short walk away.  The old LSU Law School is a Classical building, very much resembling the US Supreme Court, modeled after Greek and Roman architecture.  Attached to the back of it is the new Law School, a modern hulk of concrete and glass that makes no attempt whatever to blend with the old building.  While many people still admire the beauty of the old Law School, again, the new school looks strikingly '60s or '70s.  It looks dated.

Why?  Why do the various classic idioms remain timeless while Modern architecture - while initially admired - ultimately looks dated, even ugly, within a few decades?

This video explains why quite well, and I hope and pray that if any new spire is added to Notre Dame, it will be in the gothic style, and fit seemlessly with the rest of the structure so that - in a few generations - rather than looking like a strange (and very "2020's looking") addition, it will instead be taken for something (like the 19th Century spire) that could have been a part of the original construction all along.


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4/23/19

Hope among the Ruins (Easter Sunday Sermon)

This video remains one of the most powerful and heart-rending things I've ever seen:


Luke 24:1-12

Church fires have been in the news lately. We’ve had the 3 historically Black Baptist churches deliberately burned, not far from here, in Opelousas. Monday morning I got a text message that the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was on fire. Now, a few years back a prominent cathedral, St John the Divine in New York City, had a fire that didn’t amount to much; so I didn’t think much of it. Later in the day I got online and started watching the news. Then I watched in total shock as Notre Dame burned; the great spire – holding up the sign of the cross high over the city – fell down, breaking, collapsing into a roar of smoke and cinders. I saw videos of French Christians gathering to pray and sing in the streets as the fire roared through the night, and heard how the church bells all across the city of Paris began to ring and ring, as a call to prayer, or perhaps a sign of grief. As I watched, I thought, ‘We may lose the whole church. It has stood for nearly 900 years – survived the French Revolution and two World Wars – and this will be the generation that lost Notre Dame.’

Watching the great church burn stirred up so many mixed feelings in me. One was just that sense of futility. Maybe you’ve seen something like this in your life, your health, your relationships or your work. You work so hard to build something up, to preserve it, maybe even pass it on from one generation to another, for a thousand years even…and then in a single afternoon it can literally go up in smoke. What once was full of light and life is now a pale, gray ruin. Frailty and decay seem to have the last word.


Notre Dame, like the Twin Towers, is far more than just a building or unique work of architecture. It is a symbol. Perhaps as much as any building anywhere in the world Notre Dame is the Symbol of our Western, CHRISTIAN, Civilization. It is a symbol of Christian faith, the faith-motivated cultural and technical achievements of our ancestors, and of the yearning of human hearts for a transcendent beauty and harmony that can ultimately be found in God alone.

I’ve heard stories of people with no particular faith in God who visit some of these great Cathedrals as tourists, only to leave the place haunted by the sense of beauty and glory they’ve encountered, asking questions they’ve never asked before that send them searching, until they finally come to find that their longings are satisfied in the embrace of Jesus Christ. A gothic cathedral is not just an auditorium where one goes to hear a teacher…the building itself is a teacher of the depths and riches of our faith. Everything about it, from the cross-shaped floor plan, to the Bible stories depicted in stain glass windows, even the number of windows, the mathematical proportions of the building, everything about it is designed to express the truth and beauty our Christian faith.

It also struck me as very…interesting…that Notre Dame burned during Holy Week, during Passion Week: This week when we remember Jesus’ betrayal…his arrest…we remember how Peter denied Christ…we remember his suffering…his pain…his crucifixion…and finally his death upon the cross to take away our sins.

And during THIS week, one of the World’s most significant symbols of Christian faith, Christian civilization suffers a devastating fire.

I couldn’t help but wonder what it means. Many countries with a strong Christian heritage – and France especially - have increasingly embraced an aggressive secularism that has no time for God, that denies Christ, and has no confidence in any unchangeable Truth. We don’t generally spend 200 years building gothic cathedrals anymore; we build shopping malls and sports arenas surrounded by acre upon acre of gray asphalt (temples to consumerism and entertainment).

I watched the glorious cathedral – built during the ‘Age of Faith’ – burn in the midst of a fiercely secular city, and I wondered, ‘Could it be a sign, even a warning?’ What good is it, asked our Lord, to gain the whole world and yet forfeit your SOUL? (Mt. 16:26; Lk. 9:25). I believe many people in our secular societies are desperately hungry for something that you cannot buy on Amazon or win in the playoffs, you cannot find it in a political cause or even in a romance; we are looking for truth, for justice, for beauty, for a Spiritual Harmony, for a Meaning and a Mission which we can without reservation or regret give ourselves to completely. We are hungering for God, the Living God (Ps. 42).

Could this somehow be a sign for our times of the spiritual desolation and emptiness that comes when faith is lost? Or could this event, in the midst of Passion Week, somehow spark a re-awakening?

In college I went with some friends to London and Paris one year for Spring Break. On EasterSunday, 2004 (15 years ago today) we went to worship in Notre Dame Cathedral. There we heard the old story again. You’ve heard the story: What once was full of light and life was a pale and gray ruin. The body of Jesus sealed in a cold tomb. He taught the way of holiness and love in a way that captivated the crowds; his words amazed humble fishermen and learned philosophers alike; he healed the broken, and touched the untouchable. His life was good and true and beautiful, and called for our total allegiance in a way that challenged everything in this sinful, broken world.

And so we killed him.

But today we hear the announcement of the angel. The women came to the tomb in grief, thinking at best to find a cold and dead body to anoint with burial spices. Instead they found an empty tomb. Instead they saw the glorious angels, and heard their words: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen!” (v.5)

Our injustice, our foolishness, our short-sightedness has simply been overwhelmed by God’s power, God’s love, God’s Truth.
This is Easter; this is Resurrection Day – there is Hope springing up in the ruins; there is Life bursting forth from the grave, and His Name is Jesus, and He is Lord. This is the Last Word!

Then the Angels said to the women, “Remember!” Remember Jesus! Remember his words! Remember how he told you…that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again. (v.7).

‘Then,’ says verse 8, ‘they remembered his words!’ They remembered!

I pray that people all across this globe will remember Jesus, remember his words, will rediscover the faith that inspired our forefathers to build Notre Dame; will remember that there is a Solid Truth that has given hope to millions across the Centuries, even in the face of death and loss. There is a divine order to things, a solid rock you can build your life upon. There is a Heavenly Love, a glorious vision of God – this Lord who loves you enough to come and die to win your heart and save your soul – that vision has the power to transform and sustain your life, and even the life of a whole civilization. He Lives! And He offers his own Risen Life to you as a gift!

Do you remember? Was there ever a time when His Truth set your heart ablaze? When you gave your heart to Christ? And does that faith burn in you, or has it grown cold? Now is the time to remember, to consider, to ponder this old story, to believe and to find Life anew in Him!

Whether you’ve been a committed follower of Christ for decades, or are just here today as a seeker asking questions, we have Good News. Today we remember His promises of forgiveness and new life; we remember his Goodness and Love, and today remember his power to bring Hope even among the Ruins!


You can contribute to the rebuilding of Notre Dame HERE.
You can contribute to the rebuilding of the 3 Louisiana churches burned by arson HERE.  

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4/2/19

Toxic vs Redeemed Masculinity (Once more unto the breach!)

I want to revisit a topic I took up a few months ago, when I shared my concern that many seemed to be trying to address the (very real) problem of toxic masculinity by trying to toss aside or radically redefine 'masculinity' itself, rather than addressing what turns it toxic.  I also, in that same post shared the great CS Lewis Doodle video about Chivalry.

As I noted in the previous post, the personal redemption of any particular man begins with surrendering our lives to Jesus Christ, accepting the gracious forgiveness of sins that he alone can provide, receiving the promises of Holy Baptism, and beginning to live a new life, walking by faith in the Son of God.
But what about redeeming masculinity, the ideal of masculinity, itself in our culture?
Is there even a coherent ideal of masculinity in our culture anymore?

I've been thinking a good deal more about this in recent months.  I agree that there is a crisis of masculinity, and a crisis that leaves boys not really being sure what it means to 'be a man,' and without the rites of passage needed to know that they have become men, and that this confusion may (I suspect) contribute to everything from the sexually libertine hook-up culture, to domestic violence, to gender-identity confusion.  I've said before this may be why so many young people (including young ladies) are more comfortable calling the men in their life "guys" rather than "Men."  That little verbal habit may speak more volumes than we know.

It seems even more clear to me now that a solution to "Toxic Masculinity" is to be found by drawing on the Biblical message and the Christian traditions.  That Solution to "Toxic Masculinity" is not "Less Masculinity" (or, Heaven help us, "No masculinity").  Rather, the Solution to Toxic Masculinity is Redeemed Masculinity...better known to our Western culture as 'Chivalry.'

Chivalry presents the ideal of a man who fights for the Right and is fierce in battle, but gentle and courteous at the banquet table; he is meek and reverent (and regular) in worship, and also assertive and dedicated in doing his duties and actively pursuing noble goals; Chivalry presents us with the ideal of a man who is a saintly soldier.
Their dedication to this ideal (at least in principle) is why knights - and the monastic knights such as the Templars and Hospitallers in particular - were so highly esteemed in Medieval Christendom.

As the literature of the Medieval Romance reminds us, the Chivalrous gentleman - or knight - was supposed to always speak the truth, always keep his word, always uphold justice, always respect the honor of women, and always defend those who were weak.  Do you begin to see why chivalry is the proper antidote to the sort of Toxic Masculinity that has been in the news?

Yet some strands of feminism have objected to the very concept of Chivalry, because (they say) it assumes (and therefore perpetuates) a power dynamic in which men are more powerful than women.

Of course, on the purely physical level this is generally true (and always has been and always will be): Men tend to be taller and stronger, with more muscle mass and greater bone density than women.  Men have a hormone called testosterone which can cause us to be more physically (and sexually) aggressive than women.  If you took a man and a woman with very similar genes, similar physical activity, nutrition, and so on, the man will usually be more physically threatening to the woman than the other way around.  This is simply a fact, and it is a fact that Chivalry has attempted to account for and deal with in a constructive way, while merely pretending that 'all people are always equal in every way' does not really help us deal with this fact in any useful way at all.

But I think this particular feminist critique misses the point of Chivalry on a much deeper level.  I'll illustrate this with a story.
When I was living in Dallas I went bowling with a group of young adults from my church.  On the way into the bowling alley, I held open the door for a young woman from the group.  She told me that she did not need a man to hold the door open for her, and that she was perfectly capable of doing so herself.  She might have even used the words "liberated" and "modern woman" in the little chastising that she gave me, I don't recall.
This was quite a shock for this Louisiana boy.

But as I've reflected on her response I've come to ask this question: What makes her think that my holding the door was primarily intended to benefit her?  What if it was primarily intended to benefit ME?

Could it be that those powerful men out in Hollywood, those powerful men in TV stations and movie studios whose abuse of women has come to light in recent years, could it be that they might have benefited by having MORE, rather than less, of these little Chivalrous habits in their lives?  Could it be that such habits help form the affections and the character of the men who engage in them in small yet cumulative ways, so that we more fully internalize the ideals of how a chivalrous gentleman "ought to behave toward a lady"?  Could those small little bits of training in habits of Chivalry have helped steel these men to choose the better way whenever the vile temptation presented itself?

Someone once said that "He who is faithful with a little, will be faithful with much."   (hint: It was our Lord)

The classical education movement reminds us of what the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the Biblical writers and the Medieval Christians all knew: a man or woman has to be trained to love what is lovely and desire what is good.  This does not always come naturally for us, it has to be taught and it has to be ingrained through habitual behavior, such as the courtesies of Chivalry.

So, what does the world need if we want to counter "Toxic Masculinity"?  Not less Masculinity (that is not possible even if it was desirable); no, what we need is more Chivalry!
It does no good to wish that men were not powerful creatures; we must channel that power in a way that is Good and Beautiful and Just.

Where can today's young man raised in some a-cultural cosmopolitan urban landscape that is largely secular, individualistic, and suspicious of anything 'old fashioned' or 'formal' turn to learn more of the virtues of chivalry?

First, you can turn to the Bible to learn from the triumphs (and failures) of such figures as King David in the Books of Samuel (and the Psalms); you might turn to look again with fresh eyes at the Great Requirement in Micah 6:8, or the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, or the exhortations of Paul to Timothy to be a 'good soldier for Christ,' or the call in Philippians 2:4 to put the needs of others above our own, or the command of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount to "Let our 'Yes' be 'Yes'," or turn to Peter's rule on how men ought to treat the women in their lives in 1 Peter 3:7, or the Heavenly command expressed in Psalm 82:4 to 'rescue the weak and the needy...from the hand of the wicked', and so on.

Indeed, the Code of Chivalry that a knight was expected to live by, is fundamentally based upon the Bible and, as an ideal, is one of the great moral achievements of Western Christendom.

To learn more of the spirit of Christian Chivalry you could look at other primary texts such as The Song of Roland, or Morte D'Arthur, or Shakespeare's Henry V.  Even the history of St. Joan of Arc may be instructive: if she really is a saint and really did hear the voices of Heaven in her visions, then she must have a great deal indeed to teach us (men and women) about the ideal of a genuine 'saintly soldier'.

There are a great many websites (and indeed upstart 'knightly orders' that you can join) dedicated to rekindling the flame of Christian Chivalry in Western cultures.  One interesting website working toward the recovery of the "gentleman" is The Art of Manliness.

There are plenty of modern books about learning to practice the virtues of Chivalry, such as Knights of Christ: Living today with the Virtues of Ancient Knighthood, and books about how fathers can raise their sons up in these virtues, such as Raising a Modern Day Knight (which gives great attention to intentional character-formation and the importance of rites of passage).

I'm just discovering a lot of this myself, and I'd love to hear other resources you may have stumbled upon as well.

The way to address 'toxic masculinity' is not trying to somehow get rid of masculinity; the way to address it is to finally reach back into the treasure house of Western Civilization and recover Chivalry: the ideal of a Redeemed Masculinity.  As Tennyson has it in Idylls of the King: "Follow the Christ...Live Pure, Speak True, Right Wrong, Follow the King!"

I'll end with the ultimate goal of all Christian Chivalry (and the motto of the Templar knights):
"Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory!" - Ps. 115

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3/25/19

Interesting-looking blog...

I just wanted to briefly post to share a link to a blog from a like-minded Methodist thinker working to recover and promote Methodism's rich liturgical and sacramental heritage: High Church Wesleyan: Rumination by Dr. Ryan N. Danker.

Also, though his blog, I've discovered The Charles Wesley Society, which just had its annual meeting in Washington DC (missed it!).  I think religious orders and religious societies are wonderful tools that God has used to strengthen and defend and renew the Church and her faith over the centuries, so I'm always excited to discover more of them.

Not sure how much blogging I'll do in the future, though I do have at least a couple more posts-in-formation.  Having a busy pastorate, a family, a ridiculously long reading list, and even a few other hobbies has certain forced me to cut back on blogging, but life is full with blessings and I'm content.  Thanks be to God.

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2/6/19

United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 7: The Other Plans

At long last here is my final post commenting on The United Methodist Church's upcoming (in just 3 weeks!) General Conference and the options before it.  In previous posts I've summarized the current situation in the world-wide United Methodist Church as well as several possible paths for a "way forward."  I've shared material from both supporters and opponents of the "One Church Plan" ("local option" for sexual morality and the definition of marriage), and explained in detail my own concerns about this plan, which are serious indeed.

As I've been discussing this issue with laity in my local congregation, I've come to realize that, should any of the 3 options that have been sent to General Conference pass, a decision would have to be made at the local level.

Under the One Church plan, for example, local churches would have to decide whether or not to host same-gender wedding ceremonies in their church-houses.

Now I want to look at bit more at the other two plans that were crafted by the Commission on a Way Forward for the General Conference to consider.

1) The Traditional Plan.

The Traditional Plan is by far the simplest to execute because it makes no changes to church teaching, nor requires any constitutional amendments.  This alone is a huge selling point.  Beyond that, I believe that it is also the most likely to preserve the largest degree of institutional unity within the denomination simply because it maintains the current teaching.  If people found our teachings on sexual morality absolutely intolerable, then presumably they would not have joined our churches or received ordination to join the ranks of our clergy.  While a great many conservatives, evangelicals, and traditionalists have signaled that they would leave the denomination if the teachings are changed in a more liberal direction, it seems likely that most of our progressives and liberals will remain within the denomination if the current teaching is retained, since (for the most part) they have already been able to live with that teaching for years.

What will the traditional plan change?

The main thrust of the Traditional plan is to increase accountability for those clergy and bishops who refuse to live in accordance with Church law, despite their own freely-accepted ordination vows to uphold the same.  This failure to, as our Lord says, "let our yes be yes" has caused a crisis of trust in the leadership and is a major reason we have come to the very brink of schism.  The Traditional plan aims to put in place serious consequences for clergy and bishops who break their vows.

I fully support the increased accountability in this area.  My concern (shared with many liberals, I would expect) is that we become too overzealous and heavy-handed in a rigid enforcement of doctrine.  That outcome seems relatively unlikely in a denomination that prides itself on a "theology of grace," but I have heard one or two of our more conservative colleagues make comments about "running the liberals out" and I think that is an attitude contrary to the spirit of Christ's teachings (remember the parable of the wheat and the tares?).  Rather our aim should be, in my view, to simply and clearly hold everyone accountable to the same standards that they originally signed up for.  There can be no "purifying" of the church (church history is full of disastrous attempts in that direction), nor any peering into men's souls to hold them accountable for their feelings (which are prone to change over time in any of us) but simply a commitment to uphold the rules and apply a consistent standard for all who freely choose to become clergy.

I've heard some people saying that the Traditional plan would require clergy and bishops to certify, in writing, that they believe in the church's teachings.  This seems to be based upon misinformation.  I have spoken with one of the drafters of the plan, and he assures me that it does not focus on inward beliefs but simply on outward adherence to the standards set forth in the Book of Discipline, which should be no great problem, since we have already agreed to that in our ordination vows.

My other main concern about the Traditional plan is that only about half of it has been declared to be "constitutional" under the UMC's constitution by the Judicial Council.  Some aspects of the plan were declared unconstitutional and had to be dropped or reworked, so that what is really coming before General Conference is a modified Traditionalist plan.  It could be that the changes that have been made by the crafters of the plan still fail to pass constitutional muster, in which case General Conference will have passed only a 'partial Traditional plan' or 'Traditional plan lite' which may prove ineffectual in addressing our problems.

What would the local church have to decide under this plan?

One aspect of the Traditional plan that intrigues me is the "gracious exit clause" which would allow congregations who are willing to agree to certain stipulations to leave the denomination and keep their property.  Currently if congregations cut ties with the denomination the property reverts to the Annual Conference.

So, if the Traditional plan passes congregations would need to decide whether to stay within the UMC or to leave (though presumably, unlike the other plans, it is safe to say that there would be a firm "default" position, namely, staying in the UMC).  The gracious exit clause is fiercely opposed by the bishops who (rightly) see that larger churches (including many of our evangelical churches) are both greater contributors to and also less dependent upon the denominational institutions than smaller churches.  These larger churches could more easily leave and become self-sufficient but what would become of the churches that remained?  Would they find the weight of the denomination's institutions far too heavy to maintain?

Yet the argument for a gracious exit clause is simple: congregations can leave anyways, and churches that feel betrayed, rejected, or embarrassed by their denomination, churches that no longer have a heart to support the institutions should not be 'held hostage' in a denomination for which they no longer have any love.  What good is having that sort of 'unity' anyway?  Just to squeeze money out of people?  Another argument is one of simple fairness and justice: if the local congregation members paid for the property and maintained it, is it really fair that the fruits of their own labor be taken from them if they dis-associate from a denomination that (they believe) no longer represents them?

My view is that even a Traditional plan Lite would still be a good option.

2) Connectional Conference Plan

The final plan being recommended for the consideration of the General Conference is the Connectional Conference plan.  This plan is the most cumbersome to enact and, for that reason, has been dismissed by many people I've spoken with as a non-starter.  Though in more recent weeks I have seen some delegates pledging to support it.  There are several things about this plan that interest me.

Strictly on a political and institutional level, the Connectional Conference Plan is the truest "compromise" between Traditionalists and Liberals.  If the Connectional Conference Plan passes then nobody "wins," and I can see a certain appeal about that, perhaps as a way to try to "bear with one another in Christ."

Because the Connectional Conference plan actually segregates conservative clergy and bishops in one conference away from liberal clergy and bishops in another (and centrists or "unsure" in a third), it actually eliminates the problem (or perceived problem) of clergy being 'punished' for their convictions by bishops or cabinets who hold an opposing view, which I do not believe that the One Church plan can really guard against, despite its best efforts.

I also suspect that the Connectional Conference plan is actually a plan that most of our committed liberals and perhaps even most of our committed conservatives could "live with" if enacted, though I expect neither would be enthusiastic about it.  I am quite confident that it could at least keep more people within the "big tent" of the denomination than the One Church plan.

At least in the short term.

One main question about the Connectional Conference plan is whether it would in fact be a stepping stone along the path to full schism.  Would the (now segregated) liberal and conservative "conferences" have less and less to do with each other, functioning as 'de facto' separate denominations until, at some point in the future, they cut what few tenuous ties remain?  That seems quite plausible to me.

Now there are plenty of people who say that a full split is inevitable (or indeed, has already, in fact, begun), so perhaps enacting the Connectional Conference plan would be a way to manage that split in a careful and gracious way.

There are some other concerns about this plan:
One is that it would be expensive because it would duplicate some offices and institutions 3 times over (where currently there is one, there might be three), which means fewer United Methodists contributing to support each church institution, thus raising the cost.  This seems a realistic possibility, though I'm not sure exactly which offices or institutions would supposedly be duplicated.

Another real concern is how the Connectional Conference Plan would work "on the ground."  I heard a colleague joke a few years ago that if a conservative jurisdiction and a liberal jurisdiction were created, and clergy and churches given the choice which to join, most all of our ordained clergy would join the liberal jurisdiction and most all of our churches would join the conservative one.  While certainly an exaggeration, his joke has some truth to it, and raises in general the question of uneven distribution of clergy who need jobs versus churches who need pastors.  Would pastors and congregations decide which jurisdiction to join in coordination with one another?  This surely will raise new challenges that would need to be addressed.

Again the local church is forced to make a decision:

Like under the One Church plan the Connectional Conference plan would ultimately force each congregation to "choose a side" which could potentially devastate the unity of the local congregations.  Unlike under the One Church Plan, however, once the choice had been made there is very little possibility that a new pastor with the opposite view would be appointed who wanted to revisit the decision.  This is a major improvement, in my view, from the One Church Plan.

Yet the Connectional Conference Plan also has the same theological problems as the One Church plan: The United Methodist Church would claim to be one church (sort of) with one message, yet teachings regarding the definition of marriage, which behaviors are sinful, and what God's will is for your sexuality would be officially contradictory from one United Methodist Church to another.
That problem would, I think, "feel" more distant, however because all Methodists (conservative and liberal alike) could say to themselves, "At least in my Conference everyone teaches the truth (as I understand it)."

But it would be a compromise, and one wonders if a compromise is tenable in the long run for people (both traditional and progressive) who understand themselves as trying to follow a Lord who chose to be crucified rather than compromise with falsehood.

This plan may be a bit of a 'shot in the dark' to preserve institutional unity, but (for all its serious flaws) I think I would personally be willing to at least give it a try, that way at least we will not have run hastily into schism, and will have actually been willing to make sacrifices (on both sides) to preserve unity.

I realize that I have left out a great deal and glossed over many details in this discussion: Time constraints have prevented me from going into more detail about either of these plans.  I am happy to have finished, and 7 posts seems a nice number.

What will happen?  God only knows.  Maybe some of you have some insight.  I'm praying.

I invite you to pray for United Methodists.  Pray for the delegates to the upcoming General Conference.  Pray that whatever decision is made that we will treat one another with Christian love, even if (as will likely happen) many feel that they can no longer be a part of the denomination depending upon the decision that is reached.
I am praying for spiritual unity, for fidelity to the Bible and the classic Christian faith, and a spirit of charity under the Lordship of Jesus.
And, quite frankly, I'm praying that there will be a way forward for me in my vocation and for my family that does not involve the loss of my employment, my pension, and the roof over our heads.  It is a stressful time for United Methodist clergy and we could use prayers too.

But I believe that in the long run 'the Lord does provide' (Gen. 22:14) and can even use this particular season of uncertainty to sharpen within us the spirit of holiness and conform us more fully to the image of his beloved Son, our Lord and our Savior (Rom. 8:29).


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12/12/18

United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 6: My concerns about the One Church Plan

"Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD..."  Isaiah 1:18 (ESV)

For the rest of this series, I wanted to share my concerns about the Way Forward process, the decisions facing the General Conference (GC) of 2019, as the GC attempts to discern if and how we can move forward together given our significant differences not only over the morality of homosexuality and the definition of marriage, but also the nature of Biblical authority, Biblical hermeneutics (especially the role of church tradition in interpreting the Bible), the extent of ecclesiastical authority, church discipline and the keeping of ordination vows.

Because the Council of Bishops has chosen to promote the 'One Church Plan', my attention in this piece will be devoted to it, though I'll say a bit about the others as well (in a later post).

I have friends and colleagues whom I respect that believe that the One Church Plan really is the best hope, the best way forward for the church.  I invite anyone who reads this post to consider the reasons for the critiques I offer; come reason with me.  I am looking at the evidence provided by the experience of our own and other denominations to support my points below.  There may be good reasons to think I am wrong on some of these points.  This post is not 'aimed at' any person or group in particular, just my own assessment of the One Church Plan's problems and the probable fallout were it adopted.

While I have concerns about all three of the plans that may be considered by General Conference as a 'Way Forward' for us in our division (see Post 1 in this series for a description of the plans), the One Church Plan is, in my view, the worst.  Why?

A. PRACTICAL PROBLEMS:

I do not believe the One Church Plan (OCP) will actually serve the Unity and Mission of the Church as proponents hope

1) The ugly fight that now happens once every 4 years at General Conference will become an ugly fight that happens always and everywhere

a. Divisiveness will grow at the Annual Conference Level:

This is the biggest practical problem with the One Church Plan.  The most likely outcome if the General Conference were to adopt the One Church plan is that an ugly, shrill, and rancorous debate that now happens once every four years, far away at General Conference, would get passed down to the local level and would become an ugly, shrill and rancorous debate every year at the Annual Conference level.

We have all seen General Conferences get bogged down, devoting ever more time to debating the issues mentioned above.  Protesters from the left wing of the church have made a regular habit of interrupting the proceedings at General Conference, further slowing the work, and at each General Conference ever more work simply goes unfinished as the Conference ends and delegates must leave. 
Is there any reason at all to expect that we would not see the exact same thing repeating itself over and over again at Annual Conferences all over the nation each and every year?  And what would be the toll on our relationships if it did?

If, as most agree, General Conference's ability to "focus on the mission" has been severely hampered by this debate, surely multiplying the debate many times over would have a paralyzing effect on the system. 

I can see the beginnings already in my own Conference as more and more delegates (including myself) have for the first time ever chosen to attend the meetings of the Traditionalist and Liberal caucus groups over the last two years.  Events that used to be rather small affairs in tucked away locations have grown tremendously in just a couple of years as more and more of us feel the need to "band together" in preparation for what may be coming to the Annual Conference floor very soon as a result of the Way Forward process.    

Passage of the One Church Plan will certainly exacerbate this growing division as “battle lines are drawn” at the Annual Conference level and our collegial relationships, upon which our connectional system depends, will suffer.

b. The divisive debate will also be passed down to the local church level with disastrous results:

Not only will the work of the Annual Conference become more deeply mired in the sexuality/authority debate, so too will the meetings of increasing numbers of local churches.  The authors of the One Church Plan suggest that most United Methodist churches will not even need to make a decision on these issues, but I cannot see how that will be the case.  As time goes on, and more and more congregations “choose a side”, there will be increasing pressure for others to do so as well.

Imagine a local church with one or two prominent families pushing the church council to adopt a more liberal approach to the definition of marriage; imagine that the same church has one or two families with a very strong and traditional view of Biblical authority.  Imagine that all of these families are big givers and volunteer contributors to the ministry of the church.  Church members who, up till now, have paid little if any attention to the sexuality debate, will suddenly be forced to take a stand against people that they've worshiped with for years, even generations.

Far from being passionately debated once every 4 years, this debate could happen every month!

Up till now these decisions were made by General Conference so there was not much reason for local church members to debate them.  We are all committed to do what The Book of Discipline says, regardless of our own views, so why get in a fuss fighting about it?  Under the OCP, that "shield" protecting the unity of our congregations will be removed.

Eventually families on the 'losing side' would likely leave their congregations, and the schism that we congratulate ourselves for having avoided at the General Conference level would (continue to) take place at the local level.

2) The OCP would increase the stress on our itinerant system and hurt recruitment

Can you imagine the complicating factors if the hypothetical congregation I've just described was assigned a new pastor who had views contrary to that of the previous pastor?  Or suppose that a new pastor who passionately disagreed with the stand taken by the church wanted to revisit the issue with church leaders?

It is very easy for me to imagine, when I look at some of the pastoral changes that have happened in my Conference.  There is not an unlimited supply of pastors, of liberal pastors or of conservative pastors, and a local option will add a destabilizing ingredient to our already stressed itinerant system.

This will also add a significant new source of stress to our pastors themselves, who already have high rates of burnout, and will surely hurt recruitment of new pastors. 

3) The OCP will not prevent schism, and may well trigger one:

Since the Commission on a Way Forward began its work in 2016, some Methodist pastors and congregations have chosen to align themselves with advocacy groups in support of or opposition to certain plans.  By far the largest and best-organized of these groups is the traditionalist group called the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) which includes several bishops and pastors of some of our largest and fastest growing congregations (and many smaller ones).  Long before the Way Forward Commission published its recommendations, the WCA has been on record for some 2 years now saying that a "local option" was not an acceptable option for their members, and that WCA churches and leaders could potentially leave the denomination en masse if such a local option were adopted.  Based on the experiences of other denominations, there is no reason at all to believe that this is a bluff.

This point is not really a fault with the One Church Plan itself, but a political reality attached to it.  Knowing (surely?) that this is the case - and knowing that the conservative wing of the church is both larger and faster-growing than the liberal wing - it seems strange, to say the least, that of the three possible plans the bishops chose the endorse the one most likely to "run the conservatives off."  This does not seem to be a good way to support the long-term vitality of the denomination.

If churches and pastors do attempt to leave en masse this will, in turn, trigger costly legal battles as the denomination attempts to retain possession of local church properties (just as we have seen in recent years with Episcopal and Anglican Churches), which will certainly not serve our unity.  Or, if legal battles are avoided and congregations simply give up their claim to properties, then Conference Boards of Trustees will be overwhelmed by the financial burdens of huge backlogs of now empty church buildings.  Either scenario will drain further resources away from the Conference's budget for mission and ministry.  
This scenario could be avoided if the GC includes a "gracious exit" procedure in passing the plan. 

The loss of apportionment dollars from large conservative churches, however, will be the most devastating blow to the mission budgets across the whole connection.  To say nothing about the effects on the sustainability of health insurance or pension plans.

4) The OCP does not go far enough for committed progressives, so the same fight will continue in a new form:

If conservatives are likely to reject the local option, many even leaving the church over it, experience shows that progressives will not, in the long run, be satisfied with a local option either.  

In churches around the world that have so far adopted some form of ‘local option’ on the morality of homosexuality, we have seen that progressive members of those churches, having successfully pushed a local option to allow gay weddings, then begin pushing to remove the local option for churches and clergy to refuse them. 
The logic of their position is both clear and consistent: if indeed a refusal to perform gay ceremonies or ordain 'self-avowed practicing homosexuals' is a form of discrimination that is sinful and contrary to the will of God, why then should it be permitted as a perpetual feature of the life of the church?  It should not.  That logic is sound.

That is precisely why The Episcopal Church's recent 2018 General Convention voted on a rule that would effectively end the ability for bishops to forbid same-gender unions within their dioceses. There had been a local option for the bishops of each diocese, as the chief pastor, to determine whether such rites would be used.  Now the rites are required in every diocese and every church, with some allowances for bishops and priests to be un-involved who personally object, but it is clear that the "local option" was only a step along the way to a new standard for all dioceses.

We can also see the example of the Lutheran Church of Iceland.  After deciding to allow gay union ceremonies in the church, priests were initially given the option to refuse to officiate such ceremonies for reasons of conscience.  But within only a few years, that "local option" was taken away, and now all priests are compelled to officiate gay unions, based on the logic of the liberals' interpretation of the Gospel, the will of God, and the meaning of marriage.  So we have the experience of other churches to indicate to us that local option would only be a temporary stop on the way to liberals’ vision of "full inclusion" (conservatives have a quite different understanding of what this phrase should mean).  A mass exodus of conservatives (#3 above) would also make this scenario more plausible.

5) The OCP will not help the United Methodist Church to reach new people, but will certainly result in further decline

We have the recent history of other, rather similar, denominations in the US to look at to help us understand what would surely happen if we accepted actively gay clergy and same-gender unions.  We have for evidence the developments within the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and The Episcopal Church among others.  Every one of these "mainline" Protestant denominations was in decline before it decided to liberalize its teaching (or eliminate its teaching in favor of a local option) on marriage and sexual morality.  After making this decision, in hopes of reaching new people and younger people, every single one of these churches saw their decline accelerate. 
Every single one. 

As it turns out, there is no crowd of progressives waiting at the door to rush in and join our churches if only we would change our teachings on sexuality.  But there are plenty of traditionalists for whom the move to redefine holy matrimony is 'the last straw.'

It is folly to assume, based on no evidence at all, that The United Methodist Church's experience would be dramatically better than these other churches.  Most of the parts of our denomination that are actually growing are in culturally conservative areas, many of them overseas.  Indeed, because the UMC has far more conservative overseas constituents than any of these other denominations we are uniquely poised, of all the ‘mainline’ churches, to suffer far more decline, and far faster, than any of these other denominations has experienced.   

We have the experience of history to show us what 'local option' does to denominations, because we've seen it play out already in other churches. 

B. THEOLOGICAL PROBLEMS

6) The OCP represents a failure of the church's prophetic voice on a culturally relevant issue

If The UMC rejects our own traditional teaching on marriage and sexuality it will represent a loss of nerve, and a loss of our prophetic voice to speak on an issue that is relevant in our sex-obsessed (American) culture. 

Based on what we are told by media and pollsters (though, as the 2016 Presidential election revealed, they are not always accurate and may be prone to confirmation bias) many Christians have the sense that our American culture is increasingly hostile to the church's teachings on marriage and sexuality.  Though only a slim majority of United Methodists actually live in ‘our American culture’, this perception has been a major reason why many within the church now advocate changing our position in order to remain relevant to ‘our culture’.  This is called "contextualization" and is a key feature of the OCP.

But we've been here before.  History teaches us that there was a time when early Methodism was profoundly opposed to the institution of slavery.  But as the church grew it came more and more to reflect the broader culture: in those places where the culture was broadly supportive of the institution of slavery, so too were the Methodists.  That is Contextualization at work.  But as the example of slavery shows, adapting to our cultural context does not mean we are necessarily following God's will (compare Romans 12:1-2), which brings us to the biggest problem of all:

7) Moral and theological relativism undermines the firm foundation upon which the Church stands:

The issue of the meaning of Christian marriage touches every single family in the church.  This is a big issue, and our differences are not 'hair-splitting' theological minutiae, but quite significant.  One side says that a sexual relationship between persons of the same gender should receive the blessing of the church, while the other side says it is clearly revealed in Scripture to be a sin, and contrary to God's purposes for sexuality.

The local option essentially gives up on answering the question.  We have no word from the Lord on this issue.  The local option allows a situation where "all people did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 21:25).  That is Moral relativism at work.  But if you read the Book of Judges you see that this is emphatically not a good thing.  The situation had degenerated into moral chaos.  Everyone did what was right in his own eyes precisely because "In those days there was no King in Israel." 

What about us: Do we have a King, or don't we?  Do we have a word of the Lord, and a way of discerning his will for us, or don't we?  Do we have a message that we can lift up in a culture of relativism and moral chaos and say 'THIS is TRUE', or don't we? 

If we surrender to the spirit of our age, so characterized by isolated individualism and moral relativism, how can we ever say "Thus saith the Lord" with confidence about anything?  
And what is the use of a church (especially a Protestant Church) that has no ‘word of the Lord’; that cannot discern what God wants for his world in the midst of confusing times?

The truth is that sexual morality is not the only serious issue about which our clergy (and seminary professors who train our clergy) disagree.  Despite the fact that we have clear teachings about these issues in our Doctrinal Standards I can guarantee you that there is sharp disagreement, even mutually-exclusive positions held, among our clergy and seminary professors about the reality of original sin, and about whether the cross is actually redemptive.  There is profound disagreement about the importance of the bodily resurrection of Christ (and of his church at the end of this age), there is serious disagreement about how salvation works and who will be saved (and who may not be).  There is disagreement surrounding Trinitarian theology, and what 'holiness' and 'justice' even mean.  
These are not peripheral issues.

Here is the question that really faces United Methodism: Will the church return to our classical doctrinal foundations and confidently reassert them as life-giving truth for a world drowning in relativism and confusion...or will we embrace relativism in order to 'get along'?    

How can the church teach with confident authority on any of these issues if we are willing to embrace moral relativism as our way of 'resolving' our deepest disagreements?  The rock of solid teaching will have been replaced by shifting sands (see Mt. 7:24-27). 
We will indeed end up with the pastoraly confusing, and theologically untenable, situation where two Methodist congregations in the same town proclaim contradictory teachings about “God’s plan for marriage and family and sexual holiness;” they would have contradictory teachings about what it means to live a righteous and holy life, and yet both would the official blessing of the denomination.

How could this not be a continuous stumbling block for both members and future seekers (especially if successive pastors with divergent views get assigned to the same churches)?  

The word of God revealed in Scripture tells us that is not a God of confusion and disorder, but a God of peace (see 1 Cor. 14:33).  The word also says "Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you" (Phil. 3:15).  God clearly promises that he will lead us to unity and agreement, if only we are willing to submissively listen.  So also, Romans 12:1-2 tells us that when we present ourselves - our bodies even - in reverent submission to God, when we refuse to conform ourselves to the surrounding culture, it is then that our minds will be renewed so that we will be able to discern the will of God.

God clearly does not view gay unions as both a sin and simultaneously as holy matrimony.  This is contrary to logic and reason.  One position or the other is false and wrong.  To endorse the "local option" means we know that we, as a church, are officially condoning falsehood.  And yet in this case we will be shrugging and saying, "We know one of the positions we are endorsing is wrong, but that is the best we can do."

But, when we consider the promises of a Living God, is it really?  

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12/5/18

United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 5: Theologian Critiques 'One Church Plan'

When I was in seminary, my first year Greek class was taught by David Watson, who was at that time writing a doctoral dissertation on the Gospel of Mark, and was easily one of my best teachers in my time at Perkins.  Today Dr. Watson is the dean of United Theological Seminary, one of our official United Methodist schools of theology, which has seen a renaissance under his leadership.  Dr. Watson is a clear thinking scholar who loves the Lord, the Church, and the Word of God.

Dr. Watson has also recently published a critical piece pointing out some major problems with the "One Church Plan" that many of our bishops hope (see previous post) will be adopted by General Conference in February as a way for the United Methodist Church to preserve its institutional unity in the midst of our disagreements over how to apply Biblical and traditional authority in the church, in particular as it relates to the issues of sexuality and the meaning of Christian marriage.

I heartily encourage you to read his full post: The One Church Plan: Problems of Governance and Theology.
As I let the bishops "speak for themselves" in the last post, I'll be making generous use of quotations in this one, so that Dr. Watson can speak for himself, with some comments of my own, of course.

As the title makes clear, Dr. Watson sees two major types of problems with the One Church Plan (OCP).  The first is a problem of governance.  In any large and diverse denomination, there will be some disagreement among the members about almost every issue.  The imperative thing for maintaining institutional unity, then, is to have a clear system for addressing these disagreements.  For United Methodists, that is the General Conference.  We have a clear system of authority in the UMC, but because the General Conference has consistently re-affirmed that classical teachings on sexual morality and the definition of marriage (and is likely to continue to do so under the current way of doing things), the authority that holds us together in the midst of our diversity is itself now being rejected by many Progressives and Liberals who have grown impatient with what they see as injustice in the system:

Yes, United Methodists disagree about homosexuality, but we have ways of dealing with disagreement. The threat of division is not the result of disagreement. Rather, the threat of division comes from the rejection of our processes for resolving disagreement by some segments of the church, including some of our bishops. I understand that those who have rejected our processes for the resolution of disagreement have done so out of a deep sense of moral obligation. We should be clear, however, that what we are facing is not simply a clash of ideologies, but a crisis of governance.

I believe that the Bishops, as a group, have greatly contributed to this crisis by continuously affirming as a group that they will uphold church teachings and church law, but then being apparently unwilling or unable to follow through when clergy (or even other bishops) choose to ignore church teachings as affirmed by the General Conference.
If General Conference itself can be discounted, how then can the diverse institution be held together?

The OCP's 'Local Option' offers a new approach to this problem.  I wonder, after reading Watson's assessment, if he believes we are moving toward a congregationalist polity (moving us closer to how Baptists operate), and away from the connectionalism that has historically been a defining feature of Methodism:

The solution they offer changes our governance, moving some decision-making authority to local churches, individuals, and annual conferences....Noteworthy is the move toward a polity based on individual conscience, rather than on the collective decisions of the church. One might object that the OCP shifts decision-making power only with regard to matters related to homosexuality, but its basic principle, clearly spelled out in its “Theological and Biblical Foundations,” is that our deep disagreement necessitates this shift. Were we to follow this same principle moving forward, whenever there is deep disagreement at the level of the General Conference, we should simply move decision-making power to local levels.

The One Church Plan involves moving decision making authority to a more local level in the church as a way of moving forward and helping to resolve our denomination-wide conflicts over human sexuality and theological authority.  I have long argued that I believe this will simply move us from an ugly fight that happens once every four years at General Conference to an ugly fight that happens every year at Annual Conference, and potentially even more frequently in the local Church.  Watson agrees:

I have particular concerns about the OCP at the local church level. It specifically states, “Local churches are not required to vote. Most would likely make no changes in practice at the local level” (15). It also affirms: “This plan minimizes disruption in the local church (in most cases) and gives freedom to churches to adapt in order to minister to the LGBTQ community in context” (15). This picture of the effects of the OCP on local churches is optimistic, to put it kindly. It would only take a very small vocal minority to push for a vote in any church. Most United Methodist churches represent a diverse array of opinions about matters related to LGBTQ persons. In time, most will likely vote if the OCP passes. This plan avers that it is merciful to allow churches to debate and decide issues related to LGBTQ people internally, rather than relying on the duly elected representatives to the General Conference. I would argue that this is not mercy, but cruelty. The church I attend, like so many others in United Methodism, would be torn apart were it forced into such a decision. Shifting the locus of authority from the General Conference to the Annual Conference, local church, and individual would not resolve our disagreements or bring peace, but rather metastasize the rancor and division that so characterizes our quadrennial gatherings.

Beyond issues of governance (church polity), the One Church Plan, says Dr. Watson, raises significant issues of theology.

There are also numerous theological problems. For example, a proposed amendment to ¶105 reads, “As we continue to faithfully explore issues of sexuality, we will honor the theological guidelines of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, acknowledging that God’s revelation of truth and God’s extension of grace as expressed in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) may cause person of good conscience to interpret and decide issues of sexuality differently” (20, italics mine). By this rationale, our disagreement results from God’s revelation of truth and grace. How God’s revelation and grace have led us into this confusion is unclear, as is God’s rationale for doing so. Apparently, God is in fact the author of confusion (contra 1 Cor 14:33). 

This is an interesting point.  In the italicized sentence "God's revelation" is what "may cause persons of good conscience" to disagree.  How can the Church officially affirm such a thing?  Surely it is our finitude or limitations or sins that "cause" our disagreements, and not God's own revelation?

So too Watson then suggests:
Perhaps a better rationale would be, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12, NRSV). In other words, in our human brokenness and finitude, we may not be able always to perceive God’s truth with clarity. This would mean, however, that some people in our denominational debate have perceived God’s will more clearly than others, which the OCP is loathe to concede.

That some people are right and others are wrong is a concession that the OCP is not willing to make, but logic demands that it is clearly true in this case:
If there is a God who did indeed create marriage for his own purposes,
Then it cannot follow logically that our mutually-contradictory interpretations of what marriage means are both correct and both equally in harmony with the one Divine Will.  Such an assertion runs contrary to Reason.

Watson then goes on to note that the OCP document does not offer a theological rationale for its new revised definition of marriage, which means it could be an unstable definition resting (potentially) shifting sands.  What if, for instance, advocates of "open marriage" begin to assail the revised definition, if there is not a theological and Biblical rationale for why marriage must be monogamous?

While the promoters of the One Church Plan have described it as "generous" in allowing people with differing interpretations to stand together in unity, Watson does not believe that the OCP actually creates the "Neutral Ground" that it claims to make:

It is important to note that the OCP implicitly affirms same-sex marriage. By eliminating the stipulation that marriage is between one man and one woman, we are not simply creating space for a broad range of positions. We are implicitly stating that we recognize the validity of gay marriage as a denomination, even if some members of our denomination do not agree with our doing so. In other words, we have a case of addition by subtraction. Crucial to this point is that there is no local option attending the redefinition of marriage. It is a redefinition for the entire denomination. Committed traditionalists should not be happy with this.
Yet the OCP also allows clergy, local churches, and Annual Conferences to reject and even prohibit same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexual people. Following the line of argument that progressives have made since the earliest days of our denomination, this is simply the continuation of a longstanding pattern of discrimination. It will allow United Methodists in some areas to act in ways that progressives have long claimed to be unjust, bigoted, hateful, and harmful.
All this is to say, the OCP does not create a neutral ground where all can stand in unity. Rather, it offers us a picture of the church in which the way we understand and practice marriage just is not all that important. Those who do think our understanding of marriage is a crucial part of our life together – those who hold deep theological and ethical convictions about marriage – will never be satisfied with this proposal.
Finally, Watson criticizes the way the One Church Plan document deploys the language of 'religious liberty'.  Long time readers of this blog will note that I have, along with many Libertarians, long been an advocate of addressing some hot-button culture war issues in the United States at the State and Local levels whenever possible, instead of forcing upon us a one-size fits all approach from the Federal Government which inevitably does not take into account the very real differences in cultures among the states.
Some may find it odd, then, that I oppose moving decision making about how the church will handle some of the same theological issues to a more local level.  But the difference is rooted in the vast difference between a nation (into which you are born, and which has the power to compel you to obey its laws - even by using physical violence) on the one hand, and a Christian Church on the other, which one freely joins on the other.  Watson explores this same issue in the final section of his piece:

Religious liberty is a notion at home in the sphere of civil government. It protects religious groups and individuals from restrictions and interference by the government in the expression of their beliefs and practices. As an ecclesiological concept, religious liberty is as out of place as a pig in a rose garden. Churches are communities of faith and practice. In the United States, joining a church is, in and of itself, an expression of religious liberty. The decision to order one’s life in keeping with the teachings of the church is also an expression of religious liberty. Such liberty is necessary so that people of faith can live out their convictions in a society that does not always share those convictions. But should people of faith be protected from the convictions of the communities of faith they have freely chosen? The use of “religious liberty” in the OCP betrays a deep confusion about the difference between a church and a civil society. This confusion, moreover, runs through the entire plan like a foundational crack that will eventually result in the collapse of the entire structure.
To be honest, I am not entirely sure what the best way forward is for our denomination. I do believe, however, that the OCP is too deeply flawed on too many levels to move us forward in faithfulness and integrity. 
I appreciate Dr. Watson's tireless work to revitalize the church and its theological education (much-needed work that has borne some fruit already), as well as is less-well-known work to make the church more accessible to individuals with disabilities and learning disorders.  I hope people will consider well what he has written.  Again, the FULL Article is HERE.

In my next article, I will offer my own concerns about the One Church Plan and my assessment of the other two plans as well.

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