11/21/14

Cardinal and Anglican bishop pray for martyred family

In what may be a more common occurrence in the future, more and more Christians are coming together across denominational lines to pray and speak out on behalf of our persecuted brothers and sisters.  Recently a Muslim mob in Pakistan burned to death two young Christian parents and their unborn daughter as well (the mother being pregnant), for allegedly insulting Islam.

After these despicable acts, acts that do indeed cause many in the civilized world to look at contemporary Islamic culture with suspicion to say the least, a Roman Catholic cardinal and an Anglican Bishop joined together, not to hurl stones at Muslims, but to pray for the victimized family and speak out for the rights of religious minorities everywhere.  I hope and pray that as we become more aware of atrocities against Christians around the world we will see more and more unity among the church in prayer, in compassion, and in advocacy for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience and speech around the world.
I hope that statesmen and political leaders will be invited to these events to be reminded of the great needs and injustices that exist in these days and their duty as leaders to address them.

You can read the full story here.

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11/15/14

Young women (still) becoming nuns

This past Memorial Day I took a trip down to the old city of New Orleans to visit some friends. While I was in this heavily-Roman Catholic part of the state, the local NPR station played a great story interviewing young ladies (those much-discussed 'millenials') who have chosen to become nuns. Their descriptions of following God's vocation for their lives, even in counter-cultural ways, are applicable for Christians of all stripes, especially those who (despite potentially poor pay and increasing social isolation in a secular age) devote themselves to lives of full time service, prayer, preaching, or mission work. Here is the Link.
Or listen using the player below:  

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11/10/14

A middle way..?

The Anglican concept of Via Media is one I've long admired, even aspired to in my ministry.  Though initially used in different ways, Via Media eventually came to be almost universally understood to mean that Anglicanism sought to be a "Middle Way" between Roman Catholicism and the various forms of Protestantism - it was, in other words, a "Reformed Catholicism."  In our own accent, Methodists (having sprung up in the Anglican tradition) have tried to maintain that vision, so that today the 2012 Book of Discipline describes the Wesleyan heritage of The United Methodist Church as at once "catholic, evangelical, and reformed" (para. 103; pg. 63).

The idea of a 'middle way' has been picked up and much used (like the idea of "moderation") as a kind of rallying cry by many in The United Methodist Church in our conversations about sexual morality and church unity.  "Surely," it is said, "we can find or embody some kind of middle way to go forward between the extremes on the liberal left and the conservative right."  This is an admirable attempt, I believe, to "stay above the fray" and seek to remain friends of all and enemies of none.

The problem is that defining such a middle way is as impossible as defining the words "liberal" and "conservative" - they do not actually refer to any single definable reality, but are at best useful for making comparisons.  While "Protestantism and Roman Catholicism" are relatively definable things, so that a Via Media that runs between them (presumably sharing some qualities of each) can also be more or less definable and identified (though there are many possible configurations or forms it might take).  On the contrary, cultural attitudes towards moral questions are constantly in flux...indeed they even vary from one region to another, so that what it means to hold a "via media" position will mean quite different things depending on who is talking and with whom they speak (and therefore mean nothing at all that is recognizable to everyone).

For example, I currently accept Biblical arguments in support of women preachers.  According to some of my Southern Baptist brethren, this makes me a theological Liberal.  On the other hand I also currently accept that the Bible clearly states that same-sex intercourse is sinful, and that all Christians are called to submit to the Bible's teachings on sexual morality.  According to some of my Mainline Protestant brethren that makes me a theological Conservative.  So which am I?  The answer is..."Yes"...or "both"...or "neither."

Here is the problem with speaking of a "Via Media" as the way forward for the United Methodist Church.  Between what and what exactly is it a Middle Way?  The official position of our church on sexuality is already "a middle way" between, say Fundamentalists and liberals...  On the other hand it can look rather "un Via Media" if one's vision is restricted to looking for a middle way between, say, a center-left and far left religious group on the one side, or looking for a middle way between a center-right and far right group on the other.  There simply is no such thing as "the Left" view and "the Right" view on sexuality, and consequently there is no single Via Media running between them.

I propose that it  would be more helpful if we speak of seeking not a 'Via Media' on sexuality  but rather of a "Gracious Orthodoxy."  It is Orthodoxy in that it submits to the plain words of Scripture as they have been understood by the universal/catholic tradition of the whole  church across the Ages; orthodoxy in that it affirms that sexual activity must by God's design be kept within the bounds of a monogamous, life-long, natural marriage covenant between a man and a woman as God created in the beginning.  It is Orthodoxy in warning of the dangers of sin in this (or any) area of our lives.
It is Gracious because it seeks to reach out to all people - including especially those who identify as homosexual or their loved ones - with the love and grace of Jesus Christ; Gracious in that it refuses to use "orthodoxy" as a club with which to beat upon wounded souls with no real attempt to help them; Gracious because it affirms the great principle of Sola Gratia - only God's Grace is the source of salvation, and we are all fallen, all sinners, all "in the same boat," all dependent upon the same grace, the same cross.  It is gracious in that it sees the debate through the lens not simply of "being right" or "winning the argument" but in terms of what ultimately tends toward the healing and salvation of souls, whatever their sexual desires and temptations may or may not be.

So what is the future for the United Methodist Church?  I don't know.  I'm praying for, preaching for, and working for a Gracious Orthodoxy.  In fact I believe that is precisely what is already embodied in our official teachings...if only we will now live it out.

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11/4/14

Bonhoeffer quote

"My thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and more like those of the Old Testament.  It is only when one knows the unutterability of the name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ; it is only when one loves life and this earth so much that without them everything seems to be over that one may believe in the resurrection; it is only when one submits to God's law that one may speak of grace..."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Letters and Papers from Prison 

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10/27/14

Fears of Presidential Over-reach

I recently listened to what I believe is an important conversation on NPR's "To the Point" show - a radio show which purports to include informed voices from all sides of an issue (though it seems to me that both the framing of topics and selection of experts nevertheless tends to "skew left," politically speaking).

This show featured a discussion of Presidential over-reach in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling (one in a string of such rulings, actually) that the Obama White House had overstepped its authority in appointing "recess appointments" of government posts while the Congress was still technically (if only nominally) in session.  Presumably the appointed officials are too far to the 'political left' to be approved by the politically-balanced Senate, and so the President made this move simply to "go around" the Congress and get his picks in place.

What I found refreshing about this discussion was its candor - even some of the experts who were supposed to be representing the "liberal perspective" were frankly concerned about the behavior of the President (and as they all pointed out - rightly in my view - the previous President as well); it was even suggested that the actions of our chief executive were more befitting a King or Monarch, rather than a President.

When Bush was in office, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. revised and re-released his book The Imperial Presidency tracing the rise of presidential power over the decades.  It seems that neither of our two major political parties is much interested in diminishing presidential power, but only in having one of their own wear the crown; many of the so-called "third parties," on the other hand, from Libertarians to the Constitution Party (and perhaps Tea Party Republicans as well) seem agreed about the need return to the model that is actually laid out in The Constitution, though they envision this rather differently. 

Having been reading a nice volume of the Founding Fathers as one of my side projects (something every voter ought to do), I am increasingly convinced that our national Founders would be astonished and horrified at the extent of executive power as it now exists; and I believe that we the people are right to be concerned and that NPR's conversation is very timely.  (Note: they would also be appalled at the extent to which our democratic processes are corrupted by money at every level of government, but that is another discussion for another day).

Consider the following: As everyone now knows, our President orders robot drones to assassinate enemies of the state even within the borders of foreign lands; our President oversees a government whose spy-network has been collecting data and even phone and email conversations from both American and foreign citizens without warrant, transparency or accountability; our President has pushed a health care law that (as initially envisioned) forced Roman Catholic and other Christian Church institutions to buy birth control - even measures that many contend are abortifacient - despite their long-held religious convictions on these issues and despite the First Amendment's guarantee of Free Exercise of Religion (there is no such provision in the Constitution guaranteeing that one's employer must provide one with free birth control); many in the media have also expressed concerns about this Presidential administration's violating the First Amendment's guarantee of a Free Press as well.  On certain culture war issues - such as the decision by this White House that its Justice Department will no longer enforce federal laws enacted by Congress that ban the use of marijuana - the President has clearly over-stepped his role, which is to enforce the laws made by Congress, not decide whether or not he wants to do so (this is the stated reason why Republican Leader John Boehner announced that he wanted to sue the President back in June).


While the Republicans have talked of suing, President Obama has appealed directly to the American people to support him.  But under our Constitution it is the House of Representatives that is most directly an expression of the will of the people since the House can be Re-elected or Un-elected every 2 years.  This is the time-table on which accountability in our form of government works.  November will tell us what the will of the voters indeed is.

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10/16/14

A Secular Case Against Redefining Marriage

This post, as the title should make clear, deals strictly with the debate over the legal definition of the word "marriage."

The official position of The United Methodist Church is that "We support laws in civil society defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman."

Some today label our church's conviction as unjust, even 'bigoted.'  I have watched this "marriage debate" play out online and on TV with great distress because of the amount of name-calling, slogan-slinging, and plain old logical fallacy.  The fact that the presentation in the video below was accused by some activists of being "hate speech" (which presumably they would like to criminalize) is a perfect example of our collective failure in this country to think and debate in a logical manner, and to do business with the logical arguments of others.

I suggest that anyone willing to voice an opinion on this issue of the legal definition of marriage should grapple with the questions raised in the video below.  This is one of the most articulate presentations I've run across so far defending the classical definition of marriage as a positive good for society and warning against the consequences of redefining marriage to include same sex unions (or any other redefinition).  As the speaker says early on, this argument is not religious, but based entirely in philosophy and sociology, looking at marriage from a public policy stance.

Of course, as a pastor in the church, I share this video in an attempt to show that there can indeed be a coherent reason for our church's teaching (and the general catholic consensus on this issue), if only we stop to ask what marriage is and why the government has any interest in regulating this relationship at all (there are plenty of emotionally intense consensual relationships that the government does not take part in regulating - the government does not, after all, issue "friendship licenses" - ever asked why this difference?).





You may ask, in light of recent Court rulings, if the arguing in favor of the traditional stance is a lost cause.  As far as many are concerned, this debate is over.  Yet there are still some 20 states that uphold natural marriage (including my home state, which has been the first in some time to win a federal court case on this issue) and we may yet be allowed to govern ourselves at the state level on this issue (as is in keeping with the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution); furthermore, if our church's position is correct, and if the presenter in the video making the secular case is also correct, then surely it is always worthwhile rallying around the truth and advocating laws that tell the truth about marriage, family, and society.

And here I must also be sure to add that I do believe - and perhaps my home state can still make some progress here - that same-gender couples should be able to gain access to certain legal protections in terms of property-sharing, visitation rights, medical decision making, and the like.  Either some kind of civil contract providing these benefits is needed, or some education for using existing legal tools to protect them (such as powers of attorney, living wills, etc.).  As I've said before, this seems to me a basic case of "do unto others as you would have them do to you" while setting the "marriage debate" to the side.

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10/12/14

Reports of Lambeth's demise greatly exaggerated...

It has been reported and repeated on Anglican blogs and websites over the last couple of weeks that the anticipated 2018 Lambeth Conference was cancelled.  This rumor began with an interview with the Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church who said as much.  It seems Presiding Bishop Katherine has not got things quite right.

HERE is an article with excerpts from an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, stating emphatically that the event was not cancelled - how could it be, since it has not even been called yet, no date was ever set, and no invitations have been sent - but that he would decide in conjunction with the other primates (presiding bishops and archbishops of Anglicanism's nearly 40 provinces) when and where to hold the next Lambeth Conference, rather than unilaterally controlling the schedule and the agenda as if he were an "Anglican pope."
The previous Archbishop's tight control over the agenda at Lambeth 2008 ensured that the Conference would make no major decisions and, as a result, a large portion of the world's Anglican bishops declined to even attend (a very costly enterprise for many from poorer nations).

The second part of this same interview also addresses a report that had emerged recently that Justin Welby was actually an agnostic.  When you read the full context of what the Archbishop said after he said "Yes" to the question, "Have you ever had doubts?" then the idea that the reported could turn around and report that Welby was agnostic is quite ridiculous; and that this reporter did so (and that other news outlets picked the story up and repeated it) will reinforce once again how the secular press often is either deliberately mis-representing someone's words for the sake of a "juicier story" or simply having no idea what theological and philosophical categories (like 'agnostic') actually even mean.

As the saying goes, "the press...just doesn't get religion..."  The saying has certainly proved true in this instance, and raises the whole question of responsible journalism since there will be folks who will read that headline about Canterbury being an agnostic, and that is what they will believe for life - and it may even affect decisions like whether they would ever consider attending an Anglican Church.

In fact, when Welby speaks of the tough - sometimes angry - questions hurled at God's feet by the Psalmists, when he speaks of asking "Why?" in the face of losing a child, yet still finding God to be faithful, what Welby actually upholds is a Biblically-grounded and moving account of a grown-up faith that lives in the real (very fallen) world and can ask the hard questions that come with that.

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10/7/14

On Matthew 22:1-14 (for this coming Sunday)

I remember being on a retreat with a group of Anglicans once, at a beautiful retreat center at Sewanee Tennessee.  While Methodist retreat leaders tend to pick "feel-good" or thematic Scriptures for our retreats, these folks (being good Anglicans) simply read whatever was in the daily lectionary for our Morning Prayer gathering, and it happened to be the text that we have set before us this coming Sunday in the Lectionary, Matthew 22:1-14. That is the first time that I remember ever really meditating upon this text, and - while I cannot remember what Father Patrick Smith said about it, I do remember thinking that the passage was very bizzarre, especially the bit about the wedding garment at the end.  Why would the original invitees kill the messengers?  That seems extreme to say the least.  Why would the king throw out the man at the end of the parable for wearing the wrong clothes?  That also seemed extreme and disconnected from his previous wish to invite anyone and everyone.  Had he switched from being a King who wanted to include everyone in his wedding feast to one who was now exclusive and elitist based on the most inconsequential of externals?

I've since come to realize that "the wedding garment" is nothing other than the New Life we have in living, covenant, communion with Christ and his own life.  In baptism we "put on Christ" (Gal. 3:27); in our daily living we are to "clothe ourselves with the new life" (Eph. 4:24 - also picking up on the ancient baptismal tradition of putting on a new robe after baptism).  In a similar Biblical image, the "robes" of our lives are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14).  One cannot be a part of a Kingdom that is characterized by Compassion, Holiness, Righteousness, Love of God and neighbor while at the same time obstinately refusing to be clothed with the new life that brings these qualities to us.

My fellow Methodist clergy (and Anglicans who have a "Wesleyan accent") may find John Wesley's Sermon 120 - "On the Wedding Garment" useful food for thought on this text (which looks to be unusually short for a Wesley sermon).

Here are also a few comments from N.T. Wright's Matthew for Everyone (Part 2) on this text, that struck a chord with me:

"...this parable...often bothers people because it doesn't say what we want it to.  We want to hear a nice story about God throwing a party open to everyone.  We want (as people now fashionably say) to be 'inclusive,' to let everyone in.  We don't want to know about judgment on the wicked, or about demanding standards of holiness, or about weeping and gnashing of teeth...

But there was a difference between this wide-open invitation (that the King eventually gives in the parable) and the message that so many want to hear today.  We want to hear that everyone is all right exactly as they are; that God loves us as we are and doesn't want us to change.  People often say this when what they want is to justify particular types of behaviour, but the argument doesn't work.  When the blind and lame came to Jesus, he didn't say, "You're all right as you are."  He healed them.  They wouldn't have been satisfied with anything less.  When the prostitutes and extortioners came to Jesus...he didn't say, "You're all right as you are."  His love reached them where they were, but his love refused to let them stay as they were.  Love wants the best for the beloved.  Their lives were transformed, healed, changed.

Actually, nobody really believes that God wants everyone to stay exactly as they are.  God loves serial killers and child-molesters; God loves ruthless and arrogant businessmen; God loves manipulative mothers who damage their children's emotions for life.  But the point of God's love is that he wants them to change.  He hates what they are doing and the effect it has on everyone else - and on themselves, too.  Ultimately, if he's a good God, he cannot allow that sort of behaviour, and that sort of person, if they don't change, to remain forever in the party he's throwing for his son." 

While it may seem a scary parable - a warning of judgment for those who reject the freely-offered invitation (and I suspect some will avoid preaching it for exactly that reason, or will try to "explain it away") - it nevertheless has within it much wonderful news:  The King invites everyone and (when seen in light of the wedding garment as the new life in Christ) the King's Son himself provides the wedding robe for anyone who wants to be a part of the party that is the Heavenly Kingdom - all we have to do is have enough sense (and humility) to accept his offer, rather than demanding to be let in on our own terms, or demanding that his welcome should conform to our expectations.  He, after all, is the one throwing the party.  And we are invited!


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9/30/14

Secular Politicians touting the goodness of Islam?

When I was in high school, our school was sued by the ACLU because each Monday a student would pray over the intercom.  This was deemed by the ACLU an unacceptable promotion of religion as such by an arm of the government, and the court agreed.  It has come to be accepted orthodoxy in our legal circles that government organizations or representatives should not favor or promote one religion over another, or over non-religion.  So this raises the interesting question asked in THIS ARTICLE at The Economist blog:

"SHOULD democratically elected leaders in more or less secular countries ever say that this or that religion is essentially good or essentially bad?"  

Are they not acting as theologians when they claim that Islam is a good and beautiful and peace-affirming faith?  Are they not promoting one religion over another?  I've never heard our President make such sweeping positive claims about United Methodism - though I would be happy if he did.  Could it be that they do not trust the general public to think for ourselves and come up with the "right" decision regarding the relative merits of Islam?  Here are a few more quotes from the article:

"In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11, arguments about the fundamental nature of Islam caused some acrimony between George W Bush and his evangelical supporters. The Bush administration's line was that Islam as such was not the adversary. On the contrary, it was worthy of respect as a great and inspiring religious tradition in which millions of people found comfort....
Meanwhile Tony Blair went through a phase of carrying a Koran around with him, and arguing passionately that Islam in its truest self was an inspiration to peace and altruism. He seemed convinced that his own passionate Christian beliefs gave him some insight into the problem of scriptural interpretation. A few days ago, it was Barack Obama's turn to make a solemn distinction between Islam itself and people who claimed to be waging a terrorist war in its name. In a speech to the UN General Assembly, he said:The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam. Islam teaches peace. Muslims all over the world aspire to live with dignity and a sense of justice...

The article goes on to raise the issue - always an important one in any theological statement or statement about theology - of authority or credibility.  Presidents Bush and Obama and British Prime Minister Tony Blair all claim to be practicing Christians who have never been practicing Muslims.  Do they really know more about Islam than those "Islamic State" militants who have been practicing Muslims all their lives?
As the article states: 


...it is somehow odd for a Western politician to be telling anybody, however horrible and unworthy of respect: "You don't understand your own religion, but I do..." 

Perhaps it would have made more sense for President Obama to point to the recent Open Letter from 120 Muslim scholars denouncing The Islamic State as "un-Islamic."  The problem is that there is disagreement and diversity of opinion among Muslims themselves as to what their religion requires or allows - what Allah desires - when it comes to the use of violence in the name of Islam.  So again we are left with a prickly question about what a supposedly secular leader should do?  Is it appropriate for a President or Prime Minister to promote certain understandings of Islam as actually more faithful to Allah or to "the true spirit of Islam" than others?  Or to swing the question around, would it be appropriate (though it has certainly happened before) for a President or Prime Minister to tell us that either Protestantism or Roman Catholicism was more true to Christ than the other?  

The suggestion at the end of the article actually makes good sense to me:

Almost exactly the same rhetorical effect could have been be achieved if Mr Obama had confined himself to saying something like: "We know that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims in America and across the world who share our abhorrence of Islamic State..."  That would be a statement about political science or religious sociology, rather than theology...

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In other news the Islamic State recently destroyed one of Iraq's oldest Christian Churches in its continued campaign of persecution against the followers of Christ.  As a pastor and Bible-teacher rather than a politician, I am quite sure that the Islamic State represents the most viciously evil and demonic political ideology that we have seen since the days of Stalin or Hitler; it is without a doubt "anti-Christ" in its aims and its actions.  


I'll leave it to Muslims (who know far more about the Koran than I) to debate whether the Islamic State is a legitimate expression of Islam.  It seems to me that the great majority of Muslims say that it is not true to Islamic teachings, but a sizable minority obviously believe that it is - which I suppose is what an outside observer would have to say if asked whether any particular Christian denomination is a legitimate expression of Christianity.  

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9/16/14

Scottish Independence?

Christene and I recently returned from a trip to Italy.  While there I was able to grab an "International Edition" of the USA TODAY (a rather flimsy paper that could have used a few more pages, considering the cost) to keep up with the news.  The paper had 4 different stories about "separatists" in various countries: a group in Spain that wants independence for their region, the Pro-Russian Separatists in Ukraine (who seem to me likely to accomplish their goal of independence), an Islamist movement in the Philippines that was seeking greater autonomy for their region of that country in order to govern themselves by Islamic Law, and finally the coming vote by the people of Scotland on Thursday on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I've got some Scottish as well as English roots myself (descended from both McLains and Hixons) and as someone who has visited both places (and hopes to do so again) I hope that they exercise their freedom to choose to remain part of the United Kingdom.  Though I'm just an interested observer.

Flags of the countries making up the UK and the Union Flag
While polls have shown the "stay with the UK" side leading, HERE is an NPR audio story discussing the recent surge in the numbers supporting succession so that the vote now looks (as they say) "too close to call."  Interestingly, the leaders of the US and Australia - both of which have gained independence from Great Britain - have expressed hopes that Scotland will remain with the UK.

When I visited Scotland on a mission trip back in 2010, I had some interesting conversations with some elderly men (though we were primarily there to help with a Christian youth-center).  I remember sitting up one evening talking with a fellow who spoke of being a child during World War II, when the German Blitzkrieg was a horrifically real danger for him and his family.  He also lamented that many of the younger generation saw themselves not so much as "British" like his generation, but more as "Scottish" or "English" and so on.  He seemed a bit baffled (or at least annoyed) by that, after all the trials that the UK had faced and surmounted as a unified, British, people.

I told someone a couple of years ago that in an age of globalization, I expect we will see a trend towards greater global unity on an economic level, but (because a one-size fits all approach to law-making will not be acceptable to many people in an increasingly diverse society) a corresponding trend towards more local-ism and regionalism - even tribalism - on the political level.  All of the movements mentioned above are, I believe, good examples.  I would also not be surprised to find more electoral victories here in the US by Libertarian or - perhaps in conservative areas of the country - old fashioned "states' rights" Republicans in our own country; but we shall see.

Though I'm firmly opposed to the break-up of the US (growing up in the South, I think I've known a few secessionists - though they are apparently far more numerous in Scotland), I certainly would like to see greater autonomy for the states - especially on "culture war" issues - and greater allowance for diversity of laws, government structures, and regulations within the broader unity of country (which is exactly what the framers of our Constitution had in mind to begin with).

Thinking on all of this while travelling caused me to notice that, while in Italy, whenever people asked where we came from, the answer that came most readily to my lips was "Louisiana" - and if they looked confused I would add "in the United States."

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8/18/14

John Adams on Government and Virtue

It is nice to have a couple of on-going "side-project" books, that I can pick up here and there between novels or books of theology.  Currently one such is a beautifully bound volume entitled, The Constitution of the United States of America and Selected Writings of the Founding Fathers.  It has been a wonderful read so far - and yes, for those whose minds immediately jump to this issue, this reading has demonstrated how misleading is that oft-repeated statement (among some of my college professors at any rate) that "all the Founding Fathers were Deists, not Christians."

For those interested in this "hot-button" topic, some of the Founders do indeed appear to be Deists (who hold a general belief in the Creator God, but not in Christ or the Bible); some are quite emphatically Christian - and emphatically Protestant Christian at that (which is a major foundation of Samuel Adams' speech, "American Independence"); and some who are often held up as 'Deists' might be more accurately described as Unitarian quasi-Christians (18th Century Unitarianism, like Arianism of the 4th Century, was a distortion or confusing of Christian theology, whereas Deism has no particular connection with Christ or the Bible).

Their religious beliefs are no secret, however, and their words speak plainly enough if we listen to them rather than project our own beliefs or expectations onto them (and this warning is for Americans of all political and religious persuasions).

Yet I'm reading this book more particularly attuned to their ideas about government: why Government exists, how far it should intrude upon our lives, and other questions relevant to this age of domestic spying, healthcare mandates, and accusations of government encroachment upon the freedom of speech, religion, and the press so clearly guaranteed in the 1st Amendment.
So I found very interesting the following from "Thoughts on Government" - a letter from John Adams to George Wythe in 1776:

"...the divine science of politics is the science of social happiness, and the blessings of society depend entirely on the constitution of government...

We ought to consider, what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form.  Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man.  From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity consists in virtue.  Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mohammed, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this.

If there is a form of government then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form?"

John Wesley, the Anglican priest and leader of the Methodist revival movement of the 18th Century, would no doubt agree with Adams' statement that happiness consists in virtue, since he liked to say there is no happiness without holiness, and holiness yields the true happiness.

It could hardly be more clear that American society today believes that happiness consists in pleasure, not virtue.  We pursue pleasure as our birthright and look to it to fulfill our lives; we even construe the Declaration's great phrase "the pursuit of happiness" to mean the pursuit of pleasure, rather than the pursuit of that excellence and blessedness that comes in connection with a virtuous life.  Should anyone dare to tell us that our pleasures are in fact vice and immoral (and will ultimately lead to unhappiness or even spiritual death), we shout them down calling such people narrow-minded, intolerant and whatever other nasty names we will.

Yet we, as a society, are clearly also less happy than we used to be.  Depression, addiction, substance abuse, pornography, divorce, suicide, school-shootings, isolation, political discord, and loneliness have all exploded in the last couple of generations.  Why?  I believe the driving factor behind it all is the false belief that happiness consists in pleasure rather than in virtue and holiness.  This the the great lie that the diabolical Enemy of our souls has fed to us.  This is the mistake that leads us to waste away our lives in front of glowing screens.  This is the falsehood that leads people into shallow, self-indulgent relationships that end badly leaving regret, bitterness, and loneliness in their wake (not to mention fatherless children who will in all probability repeat a cycle of poverty, poor educational attainment, crime, and unhealthy relationships).

In short, this notion that happiness consists in pleasure is the enemy of our true happiness and joy.

True happiness, as not only the Founding Fathers, but also the saints, teachers, and Scriptures of the Christian tradition, those "authorities really sacred," all agree will instead be discovered only by the person seeking virtue, seeking holiness, and ultimately seeking things that really matter: seeking the ways of God.  

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8/11/14

Ministry Matters: Gay, Christian, and Celibate?

I've been (mostly) enjoying reading Ministry Matters, which is a Methodist-based online forum for church leadership, evangelism, and growth.  Here is a recent article they ran called "Gay, Christian, and Celibate: the Changing Face of the Homosexuality Debate."

The article covers an often-overlooked (or deliberately ignored for ideological reasons?) segment of the population that identifies as "Homosexual" in terms of experiencing consistent attraction of persons of the same sex, but who have also deliberately embraced a celibate lifestyle because of they also identify as Bible-believing Christians.  Another such group of Christians who experience same-sex attraction, but who live in holy celibacy (these mostly in the Church of England) contribute to the Living Out website.  These many stories of struggle and faithfulness and spiritual discipline deserve an important place in contemporary conversations about sexuality and Christian faith.

Since the Reformation, with Martin Luther's strong objections to vows of celibacy (himself a celibate for many years as a monk and priest), Protestants have largely ignored or downplayed the significant and ancient Christian tradition of celibacy as a lifestyle and even a spiritual gift from God (Greek: "charisma" - see 1 Corinthians 7:6-9).  "Focus-on-the-family" style evangelical Protestantism has lifted up marriage as the essentially universal vocation of all good Christians.  Yet the gift of celibacy as a form of Christian obedience and self-dedication to God is rooted in our Lord's own words.  When the Apostles objected (as many do still today) that his teachings on marriage were too strict (one man and one woman for life; no divorce except when the marriage vows have been broken), the Lord Jesus replied to them, "...there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Let anyone accept this who can." (Matthew 19:12); which is to say, some have sworn off marriage and sex, embracing a celibate lifestyle instead for the sake of being dedicated to God's mission.  St. Paul the Apostle was one such (see 1 Cor. 7 above).

There have actually been a great many Protestant clergy, laity, and missionaries who have chosen a life of celibacy to devote themselves more fully to the Lord's work - many Evangelicals, Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists (including early Methodist circuit riders, bishops, and more recent luminaries such as Methodist Bishop William R. Cannon) and others.  I hope and pray that our conversations around the nature of human sexuality as ordered by God can create an opening for those of us in the Reformational churches to recover some of the deeper, older, and more "catholic" (universal) ideas about the positive gift of celibacy in the life of the Church of the Lord Jesus.  This might even go hand-in-hand (one can only hope and pray) with our also recovering an understanding of the value of monastic communities and intentionally establishing new such communities.

As the Ministry Matters article describes, some Christians don't know what to do with or what to think about such "gay-but-celibate" (or any deliberately celibate) believers in our midst.  We should start by listening to their stories.  We can also take a lesson from the Early Church.  Since ancient times the church has celebrated and encouraged the unique spiritual gifts, discipline, and ministry of such celibate-for-the-Kingdom people as exemplary and as a gift from God to his church; I think we must do so again - especially when people choose celibacy as a holy way forward that both affirms the reality of their same-sex attractions, but also the even higher reality of their identity as baptized believers who find Christ himself and his Kingdom to be their true orientation.

The full Ministry Matters article can be found here.

See also this older post.

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8/4/14

The Presbyter's Vocation

These excerpts I ran across at the Catholicity and Covenant blog (of an Episcopal priest); they are originally taken from the ordination sermon preached by the Bishop of Woolwich in the Church of England when ordaining new priests (presbyters) for that church.  The sermon is evidently based upon the Road to Emmaus text in Luke 24:13-35, a favorite of mine.

The bishop's words to these new clergy strike a chord with me and apply just as clearly to all the presbyters (elders) in my own communion, The United Methodist Church, and other branches of Christ's holy universal church as well.  He says that a good presbyter (elder/priest) must be a person of Scripture, a person of the Eucharist, and a person of prayer:

The person of Scripture:

The words [Jesus] spoke were no mere small talk; he expounded the scriptures to them, as he spoke of himself. As priests you are to share in the Lord’s ministry of teaching, and if you are going to teach it’s always a good idea to learn first. That’s one reason that it’s your heads that we lay hands on: because we are commissioning you to a lifelong programme of learning, and that involves putting your grey matter to work. ‘Will you be diligent … in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen you faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?’, I will ask you, and you will say: ‘By the help of God, I will’. I hope that when you say that you will really mean it, because priests do not always find it easy to keep up a commitment to learning. In part this is because we live busy lives, and we are tempted to get by with the bare minimum we need – well, if we fall for that, we will find that the minimum becomes barer and barer as the years go by ...

You need to make sure that the assaults of doubt do not keep you from engaging everyday with the scriptures, for they are a treasure of infinite riches, never exhausted. Let yourselves be shaped by them more and more, so that you in turn can share with others the excitement of exploring the mind of the God who has made himself known to us. 

The person of the Eucharist:

When Jesus has walked with his disciples and expounded the scriptures to them, he turns aside to sit at table with them. Taking bread in his hands, he blesses and breaks it for them, and it is then that he makes himself known. And you as priests are called to do the same, to bless and break the bread of life in the Eucharist – not so as to make yourself known, but to show the risen Jesus present with his people ...

If at any time this begins to feel routine to you, and you become over-familiar with this most blessed sacrament, why not take yourself off to the National Gallery, and spend some time looking at Caravaggio’s wonderful picture of the meal at Emmaus. As Jesus breaks the bread, the faces of his companions are struck with awe and wonder; the very food on the table hangs improbably on the edge, a sign that we are on the brink of a mystery which topples us over into a world we could not imagine; the whole scene is shot through with a mysterious and startling light.

The person of prayer:

All we do today we do immersed in fervent prayer springing from the heart; and without always coming back again and again to pray you cannot be a priest. Why is that? Simply because being a priest is not about techniques you can master; it’s not about processes you can follow; it’s not about strategies you can adopt; it’s about trusting entirely in God and the grace of his Spirit to do what we would have no chance of doing on our own. A priest is not a technician of the sacred, not a manager of a church, not even a leader of a community – a priest is a Christian who knows in her heart that, like every Christian, she once was lost but now is found, has been brought with a price, depends for all she is on the grace of God, and without that can do nothing at all of any use to anybody. Of all the sad sights in the world, there are few sadder than a priest who has given up on prayer – so don’t do that! ... keep praying from your heart, now and every day, praying earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit as you are accepted into this enormous and wonderful calling. And we will pray with you and for you, our hearts on fire with yours as we all walk along the road, hear the scriptures, break the bread together.





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7/28/14

a Kempis on Humility

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  - Romans 12:3

The saints who are highest in God's sight are the least in their own: and the more glorious they are, the more humble they are in heart, full of truth and heavenly joy and not desirous of vainglory.
Being grounded and confirmed in God, they can in no way be proud.  They who ascribe to God whatever good they have received do not seek glory from one another, but only that glory which is from God; and the desire of their hearts is that God be praised in Himself and in all his saints, and to this end they always tend.

-St. Thomas a Kempis (14-15th Century spiritual writer)

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7/22/14

Christians persecuted in chaotic Iraq

The CNN headline from this week: Facing fines, conversion, or death, Christians flee Mosul.

A couple years ago our media and political leaders were rejoicing at the "Arab Spring" that - everyone quite naively said - would bring a wave of (Western-style) freedom and democracy across the Middle East.  Instead we've got violence in Lybia, Egypt, and Iran, and all out civil war in Iraq and Syria.

Today there is much suffering among the civilian populations of these countries, but especially among our brothers and sisters in Christ, who have often been singled out for violence, and have been forced to flee their homes.  In the case described in the CNN report, Christians are compelled to convert to Islam, or pay a fine, or leave town.  Most seem to be choosing the last option (since they don't really know how safe they will be if they stay under the ISIS regime if they do pay), but it seems their homes and all their possessions are being stolen from them by ISIS.  This situation is all the more outrageous since Christians were living peacefully in these communities centuries before Mohammed or Islam were ever born.

What can we do who believe in Christ when we hear of such stories of persecution in the news?

First of all, we should pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Pray that they will be safe; that the hearts of their enemies will be turned away from violent ideologies; pray especially that the followers of Christ will be strengthened by the Holy Spirit to boldly hold fast to the Savior of our souls, even in the face of persecution.  Pray that they will not respond to hate and violence with more hate and violence, but will dedicate themselves to truly following the Prince of Peace.

We should also remember that Jesus warned his disciples repeatedly that we would be hated on account of his name, and we shouldn't let platitudes about "the progress of freedom in the 21st Century" distract us from the fact that his words are proving true all around the world - and there is no immutable guarantee that we too, who currently live in free countries, will not one day face similar situations.

We should also urge our elected officials to speak out and seek to uphold freedom of religion and freedom of speech all for all peoples around this world (including right here as they pass laws that affect us).  I am trying to get in the habit of writing more actual 'stamp and paper' letters to my representatives - what good is having a voice, after all, if I don't use it to speak up?

I think that we should also urge our elected officials to take a less hawkish and more cautious approach to foreign policy goals - just because a tyrant is oppressive it does not necessarily follow that the country will become a haven of peace and freedom if we forcibly remove that tyrant from power.  Today we might seriously ask the question of whether the Iraqi people would have been better off had we left Saddam Hussein in power.  Without any doubt, the Christians of Iraq would have been (not to mention the tens of thousands of Iraqis who died in the war).
To be clear, I do not stand for isolationism, I do not hold that we should give up engagement altogether, or stop advocating for the God-given rights of all people (see above) - but it seems to me that we have been far too optimistic about what can really be accomplished through military means, and far too optimistic about the ability of the West to impose our values on other cultures, or the willingness and ability of Islamic culture to welcome our Western-style free democracy, since even the best real world examples have a questionable record when it comes to protecting minorities, and especially religious minorities.

We can also urge our church leaders and church mission organizations to respond - as best they can - to the needs of refugees in all of these countries, as in fact The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is actively doing in the Middle East.

Any more ideas that you have?  What else can we do?

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7/4/14

Religious freedom news

It is Independence Day in the USA and we Americans celebrate our freedoms in this great country.   When the Founding Fathers ratified the Constitution of the United States they also amended to it The Bill of Rights - the first 10 Amendments - laying out the basic rights of every US citizen.

The very first of these Amendments in that Bill of Rights deals with Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, and Freedom of Assembly.  Of these most fundamental rights for a free and open society, Freedom of Religion is the very first one that is addressed.  It is at the very top of the list of the most fundamental civil rights.  This is appropriate for a nation that had been settled and founded in the early days by Puritan Pilgrims looking for freedom from an English Government that had sought to impose certain religious beliefs and practices on all its subjects.

We know that in many places today Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech are denied to many peoples; this is the case in Communist Countries, virtually all Muslim-majority countries, and other localities as well.

Many people within the Christian churches in the US are concerned that there is growing intolerance of and inflexibility towards religious practice even in the (mostly free and democratic) Western Nations as well.  Some of this concern may be based upon fear-mongering on the internet with no real basis to it; but I believe some is legitimate and well-founded.

SO as we ponder these serious subjects in the coming days, here are two news stories that connect to them.
First, I celebrate that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby and another family-owned (Amish) company.  Both of these companies objected to the new requirements under "Obamacare" (the Affordable Care Act) that they be required to pay for artificial contraceptives (even those which kill an already living human embryo) that the owners of these companies object to on religious grounds.  A common analogy I've heard in conversation about this issue is, "It would be like the government requiring Jews to buy pork for people."

For those who want contraceptives, they are widely available and quite cheap - no one is saying that employees cannot purchase their own contraceptives (plus there is always the common-sense and Biblically-based notion of not having sex if one is not in a position to support children).  Yet the government of a free society should not force people - including people of a family or religious group who band together to form an economic enterprise - to violate their own religious principles.

On the other hand, in Europe, the European Court of Human Rights has upheld a French ban on face-coverings commonly used among Muslims.  The logic of the decision, that face-coverings make "living together" in society "more difficult" is quite vague and seems to me more than a little bit flimsy since one would expect a very specific safety risk would be necessary to justify a law that will in fact limit the freedoms of a small and rather despised religious minority (in this case, French Muslim women).

In my view Europeans are right to be concerned about radical strains within Islam (which seem rather common, even among Muslims raised in the West).  And as a general rule, agree it is indeed a good thing not to live in a society in which people regularly wear masks (though I wonder about the unintended consequences of this ban for wearing masks in public for traditional French All Hallows Eve or Carnival celebrations).  But in a truly free country a religious exemption should have been provided (especially since we are talking about only a couple of thousand Muslim women in all of France) - even if such an exemption itself had qualifications and limitations 'built in' to address the public safety concerns.

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6/28/14

In Memoriam - June 28

The following is copied from a blog at Chronicles Magazine a Paleo-conservative publication (with which I have some agreements and some disagreements, but always find food for thought); I believe we are still discovering just how catastrophic the First World War indeed was for Western Civilization:

By:Tom Piatak | June 28, 2014
 Archduke_Franz_Ferdinand_in_Sarajevo,_June_1914_Q91848










One hundred years ago today, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotek, the Duchess of Hohenberg, visited Sarajevo. Waiting for them was a band of would be assassins, who planned to use bombs to kill the heir to the Habsburg throne. The bombs failed. Unfortunately, the driver of the Imperial couple took a wrong turn, and one of the assassins, Gavrilo Princip, saw his chance and fired his pistol at the Imperial car. Both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were killed. The heir's last words are particularly poignant: "Sophie dear, Sophie dear, don't die! Stay alive for our children."

From this one small act of barbarism sprang a century of barbarism. World War I was, as a wise teacher commented long ago, when Europe decided to commit suicide. Direct results of World War I include Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and World War II. After tens of millions of corpses in both world wars, the supremely confident European civilization of the turn of the 20th century was replaced by the decadent and dying European civilization of today. We may never recover from the catastrophe that resulted when the statesmen of Europe proved incapable of stopping the march to war that began on June 28, 1914.

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6/22/14

Jeremy Taylor on the Kingdom in our hearts

Here is a good reflection for us as we've recently celebrated Pentecost and Trinity Sunday:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God...?
-2 Corinthians 6:19 (NRSV)

...for behold, the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you
-Luke 17:21 (ESV)

...For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.  Amen.
-Matthew 6:13 (KJV)

God is especially present in the hearts of his people, by his Holy Spirit: and indeed the hearts of holy men are temples in the truth of things, and, in type and shadow, they are heaven itself.  For God reigns in the hearts of his servants: there is his kingdom.  The power of grace has subdued all his enemies: there is his power.  They serve him night and day, and give him thanks and praise: that is his glory.  This is the religion and worship of God in the temple.  The temple itself is the heart of man; Christ is the High Priest, who from there sends up the incense of prayers, and joins them to his own intercession, and presents all together to his Father; and the Holy Ghost, by his dwelling there, has also consecrated it into a temple; and God dwells in our hearts by faith, and Christ by his Spirit, and the Spirit by his purities; so that we are also cabinets of the mysterious Trinity; and what is this short of heaven itself, but as infancy is short of manhood, and letters of words?  The same state of life it is, but not the same age.  It is heaven in a looking-glass, dark, but yet true, representing the beauties of the soul, and the graces of God, and the images of his eternal glory, by the reality of a special Presence.

-Jeremy Taylor (17th Century Anglican bishop and spiritual writer)

Methodists out there should note that Jeremy Taylor's work was much-admired by John Wesley who included Taylor in his essential Christian Library.

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6/17/14

Don't have enough time?

In ministry, you hear - explicitly or implicitly - this complaint a lot from your parishoners.  You also say it a lot yourself: "I just don't have time."  I don't have time to attend/plan that additional church event.  I don't have time to read Scripture/pray/meditate like I know I should; I know God wants me to and I know I'll feel good if I do, I just don't seem to have time.

Of course, many of us feel like this when we work: we just don't seem to have enough time to get everything done that "needs doing" - and so we walk around (even when we are off work) with this monkey on our back, this unsettled feeling that things are "up in the air" (and out of control) somehow.

Here is an excellent article on productivity at work, but it bleeds over (as the article itself mentions) into issues of really relaxing in our "non-work" time and enjoying our volunteerism as well.  I originally got linked over to the following article from the Ministry Matters site - a great resource for pastors and church leaders.  So if you feel like your time is pressed, take a few moments to stop; breathe deeply; pray for inner peace; and then read this piece:

6 Subtle Things Highly Productive people do Every Day.

5/30/14

Ascension

Yesterday (Thursday) was the Feast of our Lord's Ascension, which many churches will celebrate this coming Sunday.  As we read in Acts 1, Christ Ascended from the earthly realm into the heavenly to sit at God's right hand and share in the Father's rule over Creation.  "All authority has been given to me" says Jesus in Matthew 28 and John 17.  The Ascension is part of Christ's victorious exaltation over the death-dealing powers of this age and it is also connected with the sending of the Holy Spirit to empower the Church for making disciples of all the nations.

These themes are subtly present and hinted at - prophetically - in the Psalm that is listed for this great feast day in our United Methodist Book of Worship, Psalm 47:

Psalm 47 - English Standard Version
1 Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy! 2 For the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth. 3 He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. 4 He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah 5 God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet. 6 Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! 7 For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm! 8 God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. 9 The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted!



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5/5/14

Social Media is anything but...



I believe that this video has a critically important message for our era - one that is not only important for mental health of individuals, but for the health and freedom of whole societies (for democracy does not function well when whole swaths of the population are living in perpetual distraction).

The sort of anecdotal evidence of the negative suggested by this video has also been vindicated by academic studies as well.  I personally try to use social media as a communication tool - rather like email - combined with a sort of "online" magazine in which I may find interesting articles or videos about (usually ministry-related, but sometimes hobby-related) significant subjects;  I certainly try to avoid "living my life" through posts; and am becoming more and more aware of my need to limit how much time I spend "chasing links."

I'll not forget my days in campus ministry going to eat with a dozen students and watching some of them looking down at their phones the whole meal, and missing out almost entirely on the real life camaraderie that was happening all around them.  If that sort of thing becomes more predominant - then perhaps the church can be a life-giving and counter-cultural influence precisely by embodying a non-digital, real, and local fellowship.

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4/29/14

So True!







Since seminary, I've had to acquire several more bookshelves to hold all my little treasure troves of knowledge and imagination.  I appreciate this on several levels.

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4/14/14

Prayers for Holy Week

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

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4/6/14

Bishop Jones on Unity in a tense time

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

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

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

You can read the whole address (it is not all that long) HERE, and I hope you will because I believe his words are an important call to "recenter" ourselves as a church during this tense time.  We must remember that there can be no unity and no trust built upon broken promises.

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

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3/28/14

St. Justin on Pre-determinism

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

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

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

Chapter XLIII.—Responsibility asserted.

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

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3/21/14

What is the endgame in Crimea?



What has happened so far?

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

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

Where are we now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3/5/14

Lenten discipline: Reading the Fathers or the New Testament

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

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

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

Reading the Fathers through Lent:

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


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

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