5/20/15

Recommended Reading Round-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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5/13/15

Prayers for the Bible-preacher

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

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

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

Prayers before studying the Bible:

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

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

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

Prayers before writing the sermon:

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

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

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

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5/6/15

Thinking theologically about how we 'do church'

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

Challenging stuff here for the 21st Century American Christian.


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4/28/15

Did the Resurrection Happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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4/5/15

Christ is Risen!

3/31/15

Anglican Commentary on 'hot-button' issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Pax Vobiscum - Peace be with you all!

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3/17/15

Happy St. Patrick's Day 2015!

St. Patrick is known for introducing the Trinitarian faith and the Lordship of Christ to the ancient people of Ireland. In tribute to the Feast Day of St. Patrick, here is an hilarious video that actually does explain the orthodox faith of the Christian Church.


 

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3/7/15

Jesus and religion

Not sure who created this "meme" (I guess?).  But it is a good reminder for would-be "un-religious" Jesus-followers...


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2/6/15

Some interesting recent news and commentary

As you can see I've slowed down a good bit in my blogging as I've tried to attend not only to my duties as a clergyman but my dozen or so other hobbies as well.  The line between "renaissance man" and "unfocused" is a rather blurry one, isn't it?  So I may be on a bit of a (partial) blogging hiatus for a while.

Yet I still run across interesting news and commentary that hits on the major themes discussed on this blog (theology, paleo-orthodox church-renewal, political philosophy, religious freedom, etc.).  So I just thought I'd share a few things that I've been reading recently.

1) One is "Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed" by Austin Fischer at the Patheos blog.  He discusses the relationship between truth and beauty and God (an important topic to "catholic" Christians of all stripes) and why he is no longer a Calvinist.

2) Another that I recently read was at NPR, "Attracted to Men, Pastor feels called to Marriage with a Woman."  Many Christians who experience attraction to members of the same sex (or ambiguous attractions that are hard to label) have been arguing for years that they have some very real and Biblical lifestyle options, such as holy celibacy.  Another option that has perhaps been getting more attention lately is entering into the Biblical marriage covenant (one man + one woman) and settling down in a traditional family.  Some might see this as some kind of betrayal of the true meaning of marriage - but I suspect that is because our culture has so romanticized marriage that we have forgotten the very down-to-earth reasons for which it was created (so eloquently rehearsed toward the beginning of the traditional Anglican wedding liturgy).  

It seems to me that liberals in the various Christian churches who constantly argue that we must change our historic teachings on sexuality and marriage to include gay individuals have been systematically ignoring the voices of these self-identified gay Christians who themselves are also committed to historic and Biblical orthodoxy when it comes to sexual morality and marriage.  There are actually quite a few of them and their experiences also need to be accounted for in our conversations.

3) I've been very interested in numerous pieces written since the Muslim radicals rampages in France last month on questions of secularism, multiculturalism, cultural integration, and religious freedom/persecution in Europe.  The BBC has run several stories - such as this one - suggesting that most European Jews are seriously considering relocating (either to the USA or Israel or elsewhere) because they feel their communities and values are endangered by secularism on the one side and Antisemitism (of the old neo-nazi kind and now the newer Islamic kind) on the other.

4) Some other good pieces - such as this one - have asked whether Islam, a fundamentally public religion, is even capable of conforming to the expectations of European secularism, which developed in connection not with "religion" in the abstract but with Christianity in particular.  It is a question worth asking.

5) Personally I'd like to see a more informed debate about the relationship between Islam and violence.  Many political leaders simply shut down the conversation by asserting that "Islam is a religion of peace" yet studies show that the most violent and intolerant places on earth also tend to be Muslim-majority places as well - as even some Muslim writers have recently pointed out who are willing to have an honest discussion about the good AND the evil of contemporary Islam.  I think that discussion is worth having without the conversation being shut down by platitudes that are politically correct but practically useless if we want to understand what feeds extremist Islam and how it might be countered.

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1/5/15

Newsweek's expose' on the Bible

Newsweek Magazine kicked off the new year by running an expose' on the Bible entitled "The Bible: So Misunderstood It's a Sin." Ministry Matters offered an excellent response and critique of the Newsweek piece, which can be found HERE

I suppose, as a committed believer in Christ and as a clergyman of his holy Church, I am about as much of a religious "insider" as one can be.  So perhaps I'm more "irked" or bothered than the average person when secular (and supposedly "objective" or "neutral") news media outlets publish stories on Christianity, the Bible, or religious issues that so often misrepresent the church's belief, or just plain "don't get it."  I think there is a certain irony about the title of this Newsweek article.

Very often these stories demonstrate a seriously flawed understanding of what grown-up and intellectually vigorous evangelical Christians actually think and feel, leaving the audience with caricatures rather than insights.  Such stories, when combined with sensationalized headlines and publication dates timed to correspond with the high holy days of the Christian faith (like Christmas and Easter), can even leave one with the feeling that a secular organization is using its massive influence and resources to deliberately sabotage the faith of Christian believers.  One also gets the sense that Christianity is being singled out - targeted - for more critical scrutiny than would be given to any other of the world's venerable world religious traditions.

Perhaps I really should be thankful that topics like Christ and the Bible are still so central to the national conversation in my country and, as the Ministry Matters article points out, these types of stories do afford the church an opportunity to respond with grace and also with thoughtful clarity about what we Christians actually do believe.  It is really true that many church-members (in addition to secular news editors) do not have a very full-grown or nuanced understanding of the Bible.  There really is opportunity here.  Yet one cannot help feeling at least a little bit frustrated when the loudest voice in the room is also the one that is misrepresenting one's own beliefs.  

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1/1/15

"Act of Faith" Prayer

On one or two occasions when flipping past a (Roman) Catholic TV station or looking into a church, I've run across a prayer known as the "Act of Faith" or "Act of Faith Prayer."  There is nothing at all in the content that a Reformational Christian who can affirm the Apostles' Creed would find objectionable.

In fact, I'm not too sure why this Act of Faith developed, since everything in it is basically already found in the Apostles' Creed and certainly in the more comprehensive Nicene Creed (though the Creeds affirm some other things not found here, as this Act of Faith is actually even shorter than the Apostles' Creed).  But as a short confession of faith in the form of a prayer, it is impressive.

Maybe Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans and other "Reformed catholic" Christians would profit from using this prayer devotionally.

 O my God, I firmly believe that you are one God in three divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I believe that your divine Son became man and died for our sins, and that he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe these and all the truths which the holy catholic church teaches, because you have revealed them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. Amen.

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12/24/14

Merry Christmas!

"For unto us a child is born; for unto us a Son is given..." Isaiah 9:6

For your Christmas pleasure and inspiration here is:
1. The choir of the Hyde Park United Methodist Church singing the old Bach Christmas hymn, "Break forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light" with the lyrics below; I love to point out fine examples of evocative traditional church architecture.



Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light, and usher in the morning;
O shepherds, shrink not with affright, but hear the angels warning.
This child, now weak in infancy, our confidence and joy shall be,
the power of Satan breaking, our peace eternal making.

-------------------------

And then,

2. Today is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of peace - the famous Christmas ceasefires that spontaneously broke out along the Western Front in 1914.  For a couple days soldiers chose to set aside the orders of the great Powers of this World in the name of the Prince of Peace.  This video is a wonderful reminder of what really can and does happen when we let Christ's agenda take precedence over the agendas of this world.  Some of the video comes from the film "Joyeux Noel" (and looking at those prices, maybe I should sell my copy!).

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12/8/14

N.T. Wright on Creation, New Creation, and Marriage

N.T. (Tom) Wright, professor of New Testament at St. Andrew's Scotland, former Anglican Bishop of Durham, explores the Bible's connections between Creation and New Creation and Marriage along with how these great truths inform how Christians are called to live in the midst of a confused world as sign-posts of something true and good and of God.

My understanding is that this is the lecture he gave at the Vatican's recent "Humanum Conference," with speakers from Judaism, Christianity, and other religions - convened by Pope Francis - on the beauty of traditional marriage and family values.


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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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