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)



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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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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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

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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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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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.



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!



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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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.



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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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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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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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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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
Didache: complete
Epistle to Diognetus: 1-6
Epistle to Diognetus: 7-12
Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians: complete
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Ephesians: complete
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Magnesians: complete
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Trallians: complete
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Romans: complete
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Philadelphians: complete
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Smyrneans: complete
St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to Polycarp: complete
St. Justin Martyr: First Apology: 1-11
St. Justin Martyr: First Apology: 12-23
St. Justin Martyr: First Apology: 24-35
St. Justin Martyr: First Apology: 36-47
St. Justin Martyr: First Apology: 48-59
St. Justin Martyr: First Apology: 60-68
St. Cyprian: On the Unity of the Church (Treatise I): 1-9
St. Cyprian: On the Unity of the Church (Treatise I): Secs. 10-18
St. Cyprian: On the Unity of the Church (Treatise I): Secs. 19-21
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 1-10
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 11-20
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 21-30
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 31-40
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 41-50
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 51-60
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 61-70
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 71-80
St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 81-94
St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Catechetical Lectures: Lecture XIX
St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Catechetical Lectures: Lecture XX
St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Catechetical Lectures: Lecture XX1
St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Catechetical Lectures: Lecture XXII
St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Catechetical Lectures: Lecture XXIII
St. Ambrose of Milan: Concerning the Mysteries: 1-4
St. Ambrose of Milan: Concerning the Mysteries: 5-9
St. Leo the Great: Letter XXVIII (called the "Tome"): complete
St. Leo the Great: Sermon XXI (On the Feast of the Nativity I): complete
St. Leo the Great: Sermon XLIX (On Lent XI): complete
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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On Snake Handling

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

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

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

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



Whelby supports Bartholemew on ancient cathedral

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

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

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Truth in Beautiful Spaces: from CC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Case for Courtesy

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do some of you approach this issue?