Monday, July 27, 2015

The Cost of Proclaiming the Gospel

A reminder that Jesus and his gospel are offensive even to many religious people:

filled with the power of the Spirit,
returned to Galilee,
and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.

He began to teach
in their synagogues
and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth,
where he had been brought up,
he went to the synagogue
on the sabbath day,
as was his custom.
He stood up to read,
and the scroll of
the prophet Isaiah
was given to him.
He unrolled the scroll
and found the place
where it was written:
'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.'
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he began to say to them,
'Today, in your hearing, this scripture is fulfilled.'

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words
that came from his mouth.
They said, 'Is not this Joseph's son?'

He said to them,
'Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb:
Doctor, cure yourself!
And you will say,
Do here also in your hometown
the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum

And he said, 'Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.
But the truth is,
there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah,
when the heaven was shut up three years and six months,
and there was a severe famine over all the land;
yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.
There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha,
and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.'

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.
They got up, drove him out of the town,
and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built,
so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way."
- Luke 4:14-30 (NRSV, adapt)

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Episcopal Malfeasance

In the days since the Supreme Court of the United States rendered its decision in the Obergefell v. Hodges case which has made same gender marriage legal in all 50 states, there have been various reactions from Church leaders. Notably gracious responses were lodged by the Wesleyan Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Anglican Church in North America, and the President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. These thoughtful responses have much to teach the Body of Christ in these trying times.

Several United Methodist Bishops have also released statements. Some, such as that of Bishop Lindsey Davis of the Kentucky and Red Bird Conferences, are brief and serve as effective reminders of our commitment to the vows we have taken before Almighty God.
Other United Methodist Bishops have responded in ways that are less than satisfactory. Several episcopal leaders have issued statements urging pastors, laity, and local congregations to remain faithful to our covenant while offering loopholes that might enable us to avoid prosecution while still affirming practices contrary to Church teaching. Heartbreakingly, many of these sad statements come not solely from Bishops in the Northeast, North Central or Western Jurisdictions, which have histories of unfaithfulness to our covenant, but from episcopal leaders in the Southeast and South Central Jurisdictions, such as Bishop Bill McAlilly of the Memphis & Tennessee Conferences, Bishop Mike Lowry of the Central Texas Conference, and Bishop Gary Mueller of the Arkansas Conference.

Bishops are called according to Chapter Three of our Book of Discipline - 2012, " guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine and discipline of the Church." They are to lead, "...using scripture, spiritual disciplines, our Wesleyan heritage, and the history and doctrines of our Church" (emphasis mine). They are to, "...teach and uphold the theological traditions of The United Methodist Church." In my view, they are to embody our covenant, that clergy and laity have faithful examples to hold before the Church and the world.

If a Bishop (or a pastor, frankly) cannot support, proclaim and live into the teaching of The United Methodist Church, there is no shame in stepping away from the clergy role. To continue in a key leadership role (such as that of a Bishop) while being unable or unwilling to embody our covenant (as defined by the General Conference and outlined in our Discipline) is shameful.

What would a Church look like if Bishops stated, "Here is the teaching of the Church; here is why we believe this to be correct; here is how disciples of Jesus live into this teaching"? Instead, we have Bishops essentially ignoring their teaching office, saying, "Here is how you can 'get around' Church teaching while avoiding any legal ramifications." That, in my opinion, is nothing less than episcopal malfeasance and is unworthy of the episcopal office.

Almighty and everlasting Father,
you have given the Holy Spirit to abide with us forever:
Bless, I pray, with the Spirit's grace and presence,
the Bishops of The United Methodist Church,
that they would grow in faith and wisdom
and lead your people with faithfulness,
that your Church,
being preserved in true faith and godly discipline,
may fulfill all the mind of him who loved her
and gave himself for her,
your Son Jesus Christ our Savior;
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Prayer for Annual Conference 2015

O gracious God,
we pray for your holy Church in western Pennsylvania,
meeting this week in Grove City,
that you would be pleased to fill her with all truth,
in all peace.

Where she is corrupt,
purify her;
where she is in error,
direct her;
where in any thing she is amiss,
reform her;
where she is right,
strengthen her;
where she is in want,
provide for her;
where she is divided,
reunite her.

Fill Bishop Bickerton with your Spirit,
that he would preside with justice and obedience.

Guide all who will be leading in various ways,
that their gifts would bear good fruit.

Be with the sessions staff and the youth,
who will be working tirelessly for your glory.

Above all,
lead your people by the power of your Holy Spirit,
that each vote cast, every decision made,
would be in accordance with your perfect will,
that the people of western Pennsylvania and the world
might know your forgiving mercy and your holy justice,
for the sake of him who died and rose again,
and ever lives to make intercession for us,
Jesus the Messiah, your Son, our Lord. Amen.

- adapt. from UM Book of Worship #501

Monday, May 04, 2015

I Took A Vow

In July 1991, I took a vow.

I stood before God at the altar of the local church in Johnstown, PA which had first nurtured my faith and I vowed to God and to a breathtakingly beautiful young woman that I would live with her in holy marriage. I took a vow that I would love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others be faithful to her as long as we both shall live.

The striking lady who miraculously became my wife that day and the presiding pastor both graciously affirmed my vow and permitted me to enter into a new covenant.

At various points in the 1990s & 2000s, I took a vow.

I stood before God, my wife, and gathered disciples of Jesus Christ at the altars of three different United Methodist churches and I vowed to nurture the children with which God has blessed me in Christ's holy Church, raise them in the Christian faith, teach them the Holy Scriptures and give reverent attendance upon the private and public worship of God, that they might be guided to accept God's saving grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly and to lead Christian lives.

My wife and the various presiding pastors all graciously affirmed my vow and permitted me to enter into a new covenant

In June 2003, I took a vow.

I stood before God and the clergy of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church and I vowed that I would preach, support and maintain the doctrines, teachings and polity of The United Methodist Church.

The presiding Bishop, Hae Jong Kim, and the gathered clergy members of the Conference all graciously affirmed my vow and permitted me to enter into a new covenant.

A few days later, I took a vow.

I stood before God, my wife and children and extended family, clergy colleagues, and members of various United Methodist congregations as Bishop Kim charged me "to serve rather than to be served, to proclaim the faith of the Church and no other, to look after the concerns of God above all." I confessed, among other things, that "the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life."

I vowed "to lead the people of God to faith in Jesus Christ, to participate in the life and work of the community, and to seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people," - not as I define those terms, but as the Church defines those terms. I went on to vow "to be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word," and committed to be accountable with those serving with me, and to the bishop and those appointed to supervise our ministry.

Bishop Kim along with the gathered clergy and laity members of the Conference all graciously affirmed my vow and permitted me to enter into a new covenant.

A vow is, "a solemn promise, pledge, or personal commitment made to a deity, person or group of people committing oneself to an act, service, or condition." It is a reflection of a person's character. One's keeping of vows demonstrates how trustworthy one is.

If I deliberately, unrepentantly break one of the sacred vows I have willingly made, all of my vows may be called into question, as my word would become utterly worthless. My wife and children would have every right to distrust me and to be filled with shame that I am their husband and father. I would be completely without honor as a man and as a human being.

There is no reason to believe that if one breaks their marriage vows, they will be faithful to their ordination vows.

There is no reason to believe that if one breaks their ordination vows, they will be faithful to their wedding vows.

There is a crisis of vow-keeping in the world today as persons freely break vows which they made before God at their wedding.

There is a crisis of vow-keeping in the United States today as persons freely break vows which they made before God at the baptism of their children.

There is a crisis of vow-keeping in The United Methodist Church today as clergy at every level of ecclesial life freely break vows which they made before God at their ordination and/or consecration.

This is the case whether one is teaching that homosexual behavior is acceptable (in clear violation of Church teaching), presiding at a wedding between two persons of the same gender (in clear violation of Church teaching), denying the efficacy of infant baptism (in clear violation of Church teaching) or rebaptizing a person who is already baptized (in clear violation of Church teaching).

The paramount issue is not whether homosexual behavior, gay marriage, infant baptism or rebaptism are theologically acceptable; the issue is whether one will be true to the vows they have made before God, even when they may struggle with those vows. This isn't just a question of inadequate or at times even non-Christian theology; this is a question of a person's character.

May God grant me grace to keep the vows I have made, that my wife and children might know I am a man of my word, and that Jesus will be proud of me. May God grant me grace to stand strong in the vows I have made, to hold accountable in love those who struggle with their own vows, and to maintain a heart of mercy and reconciliation when working with sisters and brothers who have broken their vows.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Celebrating Marriage on Valentine's Day

My Pastor's letter in the church's February newsletter...

“A bowl of vegetables with someone you love
is better than steak with someone you hate.”
Proverbs 15:17 (NLT)

Among the great holidays that mark our cultural year, Valentine’s Day can sometimes be easily dismissed. After all, it isn’t connected to a great theological event (Easter, Christmas) or associated with ethnic heritage (St. Patrick’s Day) or sentimental about our parents (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day) or wrapped up in patriotic ribbon (Independence Day, Memorial Day). For many, it’s just a reason to buy a card or flowers.

But we miss an opportunity when we treat Valentine’s Day so lightly. This day has become a celebration of romantic love, one of God’s great gifts to humankind. It is also, therefore, a chance to honor & celebrate the covenant of marriage, an institution which the Church believes in & cherishes.

Marriage is perhaps the best example we have to understand the relationship between God & his covenant people. In marriage, a husband and a wife promise to stand with one another in difficult times and in joyous times. That’s not easy! It takes hard work over many, many years to make a successful marriage. When a couple in the church celebrates an anniversary, we should shout for joy and celebrate with them! Marriage is a significant achievement made possible by grace.

Likewise, we read in the Scriptures:
“Be strong…it is the Lord your God who goes with you;
he will not fail you or forsake you…”
Deuteronomy 31:6 (NRSV)

God has promised to stand with his covenant people! It takes hard work, even aided & driven by grace, for us to be faithful and for God to be merciful; it took the work of Jesus on the Cross. But, like marriage, it is worth it.

So, this Valentine’s Day, celebrate love. If you are married, thank God for your spouse! If your spouse has passed away, you have every reason to thank God for the love you still share. If you are not married, then praise God for those in your life who are celebrating.

And know that God loves you with a love more wonderful than the best Valentine chocolate!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism:
Getting Our Terms Right

In today's American discourse, in both culture & religion, the terms "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" are often used interchangeably, both of them contrasted to terms used to designate those who lean to the left regarding faith issues, who are often termed "liberal" or "progressive". I believe there are stark differences between "evangelicals" & "fundamentalists" & that this distinction is vital to understanding today's Church, particularly in America.

Christian fundamentalism as a formal movement arose in the early 20th century as a reaction to modernism in both Church & culture and to Protestant liberal theology, which by the early part of that century was coming to dominate mainline denominations. An attempt to stress what early fundamentalist leaders considered essentials for Christian faith, fundamentalists stressed the inerrancy of & literal interpretation of the Bible, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the bodily resurrection & physical return of Christ & a version of substitutionary atonement theory. It wasn't very long before this "circle the wagons" mentality became genuine animosity toward those who disagreed with the movement, and it seemed that the wrath of God (a legitimate topic in Scripture) was proclaimed far more passionately than the love of God (also a legitimate Scriptural topic). Fundamentalists became stereotyped as mean, uneducated, separatist, and shallow, rejecting most Biblical scholarship, science, historical/archaeological discoveries & even at times aspects of the Great Tradition of Church history & doctrine.

The evangelical movement (or neo-evangelical movement) was birthed out of fundamentalism in the mid-20th century. Originally known as fundamentalists who were willing to cooperate with non-fundamentalist Christians for evangelism & mission work, the movement quickly broadened & soon began gaining adherents in the very mainline denominations fundamentalism was founded to fight.

Because of the breadth of evangelicalism, identifying core principles in this
trans-denominational movement can be difficult. Wesleyan evangelicals, for example, stress the importance of God's prevenient grace, Lutheran evangelicals stress Luther's delineation of law & gospel, Presbyterian evangelicals stress the sovereignty of God, Catholic evangelicals stress proper celebration of the sacraments, Pentecostal evangelicals stress the gifts & activity of the Holy Spirit, Baptist evangelicals stress their particular understanding of baptism, etc. These & other differences are not unimportant.

But what evangelicalism has become, essentially, is a movement which strongly adheres to the core principles of orthodox Christianity as it has been proclaimed for more than 1500 years. The doctrines of the Trinity & the Incarnation are important, as are the Resurrection of Jesus & the authority of Scripture. Evangelicals may disagree as to which atonement theory is to be preferred (ransom, Christus Victor, Anselmic satisfaction, Calvinist satisfaction & governmental approaches have all been taught by evangelical theologians at one point or another) or which style of worship is most faithful or what is the correct understanding of the sacraments or which polity is best, but they are united in that core doctrines such as Trinity, Incarnation & Resurrection are vital to being Christian.

Fundamentalism has also broadened a bit, but not in terms of cooperation. There are Catholic fundamentalists, for example, who insist that unless one is a faithfully practicing Catholic, one is not a Christian even if adhering to the core doctrines of the Great Tradition. Some go further & believe that unless one is a faithful "traditionalist Catholic" rejecting Vatican II & everything which followed, one is not a Christian. There are similar movements in, say, Reformed Baptist circles, where some teach that unless one adheres to Dordt Calvinism, one is not Christian (which begs the question of how any Christians could have existed prior to 1619). Fundamentalism is thus still generally known as an at times nasty approach to culture & the Church, misunderstanding or even ignoring completely the love of God & the fullness of his grace. Put another way, too often our fundamentalist sisters & brothers "major on the minors".

To understand the full breadth of evangelicalism / orthodox Christianity, perhaps no work has been more important than that of theologian Thomas Oden, who has endeavored for decades to gather the wisdom of the ages for the Church to learn & enjoy again. I highly recommend his Classic Christianity as perhaps the best one volume summary of the Great Tradition in the English language. Here, we read of the fullness of orthodox Christianity & rejoice in its diversity as well as its unity.

I am an evangelical Christian in a Wesleyan context. It's a wonderful thing to be.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Bounds of Christianity

"A community with no boundaries can neither have a center
nor be a community." Thomas Oden

"Boundaries aren't all bad.
That's why there are walls around mental institutions." Peggy Noonan

Orthodoxy: of, pertaining to, or conforming to the approved form of any doctrine, philosophy, ideology, etc.; of, pertaining to, or conforming to beliefs, attitudes, or modes of conduct that are generally approved.

The loudest debate in the American arm of The United Methodist Church over the past several decades has been over the issue(s) related to chosen sexual behavior. Specifically, many United Methodists have disagreed with the Church about whether or not active homosexual relationships are valid within the framework of Christian discipleship in a United Methodist context.

The Church maintains in Article IV of our Constitution that, "...all persons are of sacred worth." That is vital to understanding United Methodist exegesis of Scripture through the lens of Wesleyan theology.

The Church also maintains in paragraph 304.3 of our Book of Discipline, "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." This is equally important to understanding United Methodist exegesis & is in line with the rest of the Church Universal and her teachings on sexual ethics and behavior. The United Methodist position is hardly unique or groundbreaking.

The "conversation" has been marred at times by various acts of ecclesial disobedience from pastors & bishops which has forced the Church to strengthen its prohibitions against homosexual choices rather than have any meaningful dialogue. Many faithful United Methodists hope & pray that these acts will cease in order to facilitate a real conversation.

And there IS a conversation that is not only worth having but necessary for the Church as we engage 21st century American culture. It may not be the conversation many want to have, but it is nonetheless vital if we are to speak to one another in any meaningful ways.

The question which must be asked - in as loving & as gracious a way as possible - is this:

Is affirmation of homosexual behavioral choices still within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy or is it essentially a new Christianity-like religion, such as the Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists or the Jehovah's Witnesses?

Certainly, historic orthodox Christianity, of which the United Methodist tradition is a part, has not affirmed sexual behavior outside the covenant of a marriage between a man & a woman. There is biblical precedent for this teaching as well as theological support throughout the 2000 year history of the Church; there's no need for me to
re-present that here. This is simply the default teaching of Christianity, and is founded on faithful biblical exegesis by many intelligent, well-meaning saints over many years.

Breaking with the Christian faith on this issue - which progressives admit is vitally important - may be quite dangerous for The United Methodist Church.

Other faith movements have broken with orthodox Christianity in the past. The history of the Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists, Jehovah's Witnesses and other groups are filled with well-meaning persons who were and are very sincere about their faith and who wholeheartedly believe that they stand in divine favor. They should be respected as persons of integrity and conscience...but that does not make them orthodox Christians.

Mormonism, for example, has been dealt with by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church which in 2008 stated that, "...the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints presents itself as a faith tradition outside the parameters of historic, apostolic Christianity," and that Mormons seeking to become United Methodist must first receive the sacrament of Christian baptism as their LDS membership is not considered within the bounds of orthodoxy (see Resolution #3149 in our 2008 Book of Resolutions & the related teaching document Sacramental Faithfulness: Guidelines for Receiving People from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).

There is also precedent for considering social issues & behavioral choices to be outside orthodoxy. Few would consider Westboro Baptist Church's extreme hate speech as perfectly orthodox, in spite of their faithful adherence to Dordt Calvinism. Likewise, most people on both sides of the political aisle would agree that pederasty is unorthodox behavior.

The wisdom of the Church, then, teaches us that allowing theology or practices deemed outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity to be accepted or normative within the Church is a threat to our identity as the covenant Body of Christ. At the point of acceptance of non-orthodox theology or practice, that branch of the Church ceases to be the Church & becomes a new religious movement, perhaps utilizing Christian language & concepts but distinctly non-Christian.

The question is thus a crucial one for us to discuss. Is affirmation of homosexual behavioral choices still within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy or is it essentially a new Christianity-like religion, such as the Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists or the Jehovah's Witnesses?

Surely, the Safe Sanctuaries policies of the Church have reminded us that boundaries matter; not every behavior is acceptable in every context. The Church has the responsibility to determine what is appropriately Christian behavior and what is not.

The imperative debate, then, is not about whether the Church should bless weddings of persons who have chosen homosexual behaviors or partners, nor is it about whether the Church should ordain to the pastorate those who are actively engaged in homosexual behaviors. The debate concerns the very nature of the choice of those behaviors & whether they can be deemed at all to be within the bounds of Christianity...ever.

I take very seriously my ordination vows & the doctrinal standards which I swore to teach & uphold. Not only must I as a United Methodist pastor teach the Church's position on the appropriateness of homosexual behavioral choices, but I also personally agree with the Church's position which, as I've stated, is based on 2000 years of Spirit-led, Spirit-driven quality Biblical exegesis by faithful saints & should not be dismissed lightly.

Nevertheless, I am happy to engage in this critical discussion with friends who disagree with the Church. I am willing to listen & consider. Granted, the witnesses of Tradition, Reason, Experience & (especially) Scripture make it very, very difficult for those who disagree with the Church to change my mind (and the minds of other United Methodists who are much smarter than I am & are equally committed to orthodox Christianity), but I am willing to engage.

But let us not debate the wrong questions. Let us consider instead whether or not it is even possible for the Church to approve of chosen homosexual behaviors while still remaining faithfully a part of the covenant Body of Christ. That is a conversation worth having.