Sunday, December 31, 2006

2006 in Review, Part 3

In Western PA Conference, what were the big stories of 2006?

Those of us who moved to new appointments, of course, would make that our de facto #1! And, of course, each of us in our specific appointments dealt with issues of great import.

But the following issues tended to be the ones (in my view) which dominated our connectional conversations in our Conference. I've chosen 6, for 2006.

6) Pittsburgh Steelers win the Super Bowl
Our people were certainly affected by the celebrations and joy surrounding the team's first Super Bowl championship in 26 years. Excitement was in the air, and, for many of us, it seemed that Christmas 2005 didn't end until Super Bowl Sunday! What a wonderful distraction!

5) Jeff Greenway & Asbury
Rumors abounded, and much of the rumor mill was surely sinful. In my view, we were given a reminder of the importance of prayer and support for a colleague (and his family); this is part of why we have a connection! I would encourage all of us in Western PA to keep Jeff and his family on our prayer lists in 2007.

4) Celebrating 50 years of ordained Women Clergy in American Methodism
Bishop Violet Fisher was a wonderful leader at our gathering in Grove City. I found the celebrations to be extremely moving, and the recognition of what our female colleagues deal with and have accomplished to be long overdue. I pray we can continue to find ways to fight the rampant sexism in our connection and in the Church Universal, which can prevent women from answering the the Lord's call to pastoral ministry, offend the Spirit of God, and deny the Church some of its brightest possibilities.

3) The "Believe Again" strategic plan
None of us can know if the plan will bear fruit, but I think most of us appreciated the attempt to do something. It's an imperfect plan, to be sure, and will require much tweaking as we move forward, but - Hallelujah! - we're trying.

2) Ongoing mission efforts, esp. regarding Hurricane Katrina
What a blessing to see people mobilized for ministry...real ministry! Hopefully, we learned from our Spirit-led efforts in 2005 and 2006, and will continue missional involvement. I have great hopes for VIM (Volunteers in Mission) in our Conference. This can, and ought to be, be a key to revival in western Pennsylvania.

1) Bishop Bickerton's continuing optimism
We are blessed to have Bishop Bickerton as our episcopal leader. Truly blessed. We may not agree with all of his decisions; we may not agree with every idea he supports. But I believe we have a leader who is really interested in ministry, in trying new things, and in taking risks for the Kingdom. As we move into 2007 and the horrors of General Conference elections and legislation, let's continue to give thanks to the Lord for Bishop Bickerton, and promise to keep our bishop, his family, and his Cabinet in prayer every day.

May God bless each of us and our connection in 2007!

Back to Part 1 (Crosswalk) or Part 2 (Barna).

2006 in Review, Part 2

Far more interesting than Crosswalk's 2006 review is George Barna's list of the 12 Most Significant Religious Findings in 2006. I don't always agree with Barna, and sometimes find him quite irrelevant, but here are some gems in his report:

* "Although large majorities of the public claim to be “deeply spiritual” and say that their religious faith is “very important” in their life, only 15% of those who regularly attend a Christian church ranked their relationship with God as the top priority in their life. As alarming as that finding was, its significance was magnified by research showing that on average pastors believe that 70% of the adults in their congregation consider their relationship with God to be their highest priority in life."

* "The notion of personal holiness has slipped out of the consciousness of the vast majority of Christians. While just 21% of adults consider themselves to be holy, by their own admission large numbers have no idea what “holiness” means and only one out of every three (35%) believe that God expects people to become holy." (This should be particualrly alarming to those of us of Wesleyan tenor, who have for 250 years emphasized the idea of "scriptural holiness".)

* "Evaluating spiritual maturity remains an elusive process for clergy as well as individuals. Across the nation, the only measure of spiritual health used by at least half of all pastors was the extent of volunteer activity or ministry involvement. Adults were no more consistent in their self-examination of their spirituality."

* "Seven out of ten parents claim they are effective at developing the spiritual maturity of their children, but the Barna survey among 8-to-12-year-olds discovered that only one-third of them say a church has made “a positive difference” in their life; one-third contend that prayer is very important in their life; most of them would rather be popular than to do what is morally right. In fact, “tweeners” (those ages 8 to 12) deem their family to be vitally important in their life, but just 57% said they look forward to spending time with their family and only one out of every three say it is easy for them to talk to their parents about things that matter to them."

* "Relatively few people – just one out of every six – believe that spiritual maturity is meant to be developed within the context of a local church or within the context of a community of faith." (As Sting sang in 1991, "Men go crazy in congregations; they only get better one by one.")

There are some real challenges here. I don't think the institutional Church is of much help in addressing these issues; our Charge Conference forms and statistical reports don't ask how we are dealing with these and other substantive issues, being far more concerned about the minutiae of how much money was collected in loose change as opposed to offering envelopes, and the like.

Thankfully, in Western PA Conference, our bishop seems to have the desire to lead change. He doesn't seem to want to free us from institutional shackles as much as redefine those "shackles" to include freedom, creativity, and a recapturing of the missional heart.

The concern, of course, is that we simply redfine the institution while still being shackled by its heavy responibilities (not all of which are negative, of course). So, a new year's prayer for Bishop Bickerton and the Conference is in order. Let's keep praying in 2007!

On to Part 3 (Western PA Conference) or back to Part 1 (Crosswalk).

2006 in Review, Part 1

Crosswalk News, a Christian news outlet, has made a list of the Top 10 Religion Stories of 2006, and it seems to me to be a bit problematic. It should be qualified that the perspective is distinctly American conservative evangelical.

10) Navy chaplain’s fight to pray in Jesus’ name
9) Darfur conflict ongoing; some Christian ministries leaving the area
8) Christian movies keep coming (End of the Spear, The Nativity, Facing the Giants)
7) Israeli/Lebanese conflict
6) Gnosticism Returns (Gospel of Judas & Da Vinci Code film)
5) Muslims offended by Danish cartoons; Pope’s speech
4) Episcopal Church divisions & losses
3) Rick Warren in the middle of divisive issues (global warming, AIDS, etc.)
2) Ted Haggard steps down from pastorate and Nat'l Assoc. of Evangelicals
1) Amish response to Pennsylvania schoolhouse shooting

I am pleased with their #1 choice, which should teach the Church a great deal about vengeance and forgiveness, but I am curious about a few omissions.

Certainly, Iraq was still a major faith issue in 2006. Where is it on the list?

How about the 2006 elections, in which evangelicals bolted the GOP in large numbers to hand Congressional control to the Democrat party?

Or the global warming debate, which was all over the news as never before?

Or the ongoing waste of time that is the "intelligent design" debate"?

Or the continuing problems associated with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

Or the ongoing problems with global poverty and AIDS?

I suppose no list is perfect, and if Crosswalk's list helps to spur reflection, then it may yet be a positive list.

On to Part 2 (Barna) or Part 3 (Western PA Conference).

A New Year

"Blow ye the trumpet, blow! The gladly solemn sound
let all the nations know, to earth's remotest bound:
The year of jubilee is come!
The year of jubilee is come!
Return, ye ransomed sinners, home!

"Jesus, our great high priest,
hath full atonement made;
ye weary spirits, rest; ye mournful souls, be glad:
The year of jubilee is come! The year of jubilee is come!
Return, ye ransomed sinners, home!

"Extol the Lamb of God, the all atoning Lamb;
redemption in his blood throughout the world proclaim!
The year of jubilee is come! The year of jubilee is come!
Return, ye ransomed sinners, home!

"Ye slaves of sin and hell, your liberty receive,
and safe in Jesus dwell, and blest in Jesus live:
The year of jubilee is come! The year of jubilee is come!
Return, ye ransomed sinners, home!

"Ye who have sold for nought your heritage above
shall have it back unbought, the gift of Jesus' love:
The year of jubilee is come! The year of jubilee is come!
Return, ye ransomed sinners, home!

"The gospel trumpet hear, the news of heavenly grace;
and saved from earth, appear before your Savior's face:
The year of jubilee is come! The year of jubilee is come!
Return to your eternal home!"
- Charles Wesley

Thursday, December 28, 2006

What I Got for Christmas

Robyn got me a harmonica. I played years ago, and not very well, but I've wanted to master the "mouth organ" for some time now. I'd love to sit with my guitar and "blues harp" and be like Bob Dylan. Ahh, to write songs half as good as Dylan! At any rate, I'm looking forward to this new musical venture. Robyn also got me a pedometer as I try and get myself in better shape in the new year, and she also cooked a fantastic Christmas dinner.

Christian got me a John Wayne / Maureen O'Hara DVD (Rio Grande, their first work together, the finale in director John Ford's excellent "cavalry trilogy", and arguably the trio's best collaboration)...Kate got me a pumpkin spice candle...Claire got me a reading light for late night reading...Elliot got me a Steelers pen. All nice stuff.

My mother got me a Barnes & Noble gift card, which I used yesterday to pick up Michael Crichton's latest book, Next. I've always enjoyed Crichton's style of techno-thriller. While I read a lot of theology and "practical" ministry stuff, I also read a lot of fiction, and would love to someday (maybe in retirement) write a novel.

My brother and his wife got me U2's Wide Awake in America on CD, which I actually purchased on vinyl record on the day of its release in 1986; aside from two good studio songs (including the super-fun "Three Sunrises"), it also has killer live versions of "Bad" and "A Sort of Homecoming". I've always loved Wide Awake in America because I saw U2 for the first time on their Unforgettable Fire tour, and having these live recordings from that tour takes me back. My niece got me a "world peace" magnet for my car.

Robyn's folks got me an IUP hoodie and an Edinboro shirt, both neat. The hoodie is really comfortable and warm. They also got us a "Netfix" membership, which we'll really enjoy. Robyn's sister got me several gift cards for Sheetz and Subway (meatball subs rock).

All in all, a good Christmas.

This week, I'm on vacation, so it's been very nice to just spend time with Robyn and the kids. We've seen some family, and will visit with some friends in the days ahead. Relaxation and rest, it seems to me, can be necessary, almost sacramental practices which we don't practice enough!

"He leads me beside waters of rest." - Psalm 23:2

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas Conference

This week in 1784, Methodist preachers in America met at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore at the now famous "Christmas Conference". Francis Asbury wrote in his Journal:

"Friday, December 24, 1784: ...[I]t was agreed to form ourselves into an Episcopal Church, and to have superintendents, elders, and deacons. When the conference was seated, Dr. Coke and myself were unanimously elected to the superintendency of the Church, and my ordination followed ...We spent the whole week in conference, debating freely, and determining all things by a majority of votes... We were in great haste, and did much business in a little time."

Thomas Coke, already ordained in the Church of England, had been previously consecrated to the "superintendency" by John Wesley. Under the leadership of Bishop Coke and (especially) Bishop Asbury, American Methodism grew to become the largest religious movement in the United States, a role it lost in the twentieth century.

Christmas is thus an especially important holiday for American Methodists, since we celebrate not only the birth of Our Lord, but also the formalization of Methodist organization in the United States.

Theologically, there is much to be discussed concerning the ordinations which took place in Baltimore two hundred twenty-two years ago. Were these ordinations and Asbury's consecration valid? Was "apostolic succession" broken, and does that matter?

Here are some interesting resources regarding apostolic succession in American Methodism...

* UM Bishops Ordination Chain (PDF) from the General Board of Archives & History

* Methodism & Apostolic Succession by Gregory Neal, senior pastor of First UMC of Seagoville, TX

Using these two pieces of information, an ordained United Methodist pastor can trace his or her ordination through Asbury, Coke, and Wesley and back to the apostles.

NFL Rankings - Week 16

1 - San Diego Chargers (last week 1)

2 - Indianapolis Colts (last week 2)

3 - Baltimore Ravens (last week 4)

4 - Chicago Bears (last week 3)

5 - New England Patriots (last week 5)

6 - New Orleans Saints (last week 6)

7 - Philadelphia Eagles (last week 10)

8 - Seattle Seahawks (last week 8)

9 - New York Jets (last week unranked)

10 - Cincinnati Bengals (last week 7)

Honorable mentions:
Dallas Cowboys (last week 9), Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it...
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,
who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth."
- John 1:1-5, 10-14 (NRSV)

Farewell James Brown

God bless James Brown, one of the 20th century's most dynamic and important musicians. The "Godfather of Soul" influenced just about every musician who came after him, and earned the epithet "the Hardest Working Man in Show Business". The world is a better place for his music, and I thank God on this Christmas Day that we'll enjoy the music of James Brown for as long as the human race survives.

Thank God for James Brown.

The Christmas Miracle

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.'
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!'"
- Luke 2:1-14 (KJV)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas from U2

Top 10 Christmas movies

1 - It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

2 - A Christmas Story (1983)

3 - Scrooge / A Christmas Carol (1951)

4 - Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

5 - Die Hard (1988)

6 - Holiday Inn (1942)

7 - Scrooged (1988)

8 - The Santa Clause (1994)

9 - The Preacher's Wife (1996)

10 - National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

Honorable mentions:
Batman Returns (1992)
Love Actually (2003)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The Polar Express (2004)
White Christmas (1954)

Top 10 Christmas TV specials

1 - Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

2 - A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

3 - Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

4 - Frosty the Snowman (1969)

5 - The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

6 - Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

7 - Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town (1970)

8 - 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (1971)

9 - Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too (1991)

10 - The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

Honorable mentions:
Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978)
Jack Frost (1979)
Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Top 10 Christmas Albums (CDs)

1 - We Wish You a Merry Christmas by the Ray Conniff Singers (1962)

2 - Merry Christmas by Johnny Mathis (1958)

3 - Christmas! The Beatmas by the Rubber Band (1996)

4 - A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio (1965)

5 - Christmas with the Chipmunks, Vol. 1 (1962) & Vol. 2 (1963)

6 - A Very Special Christmas by various artists (1987)

7 - Time-Life Treasury of Christmas by various artists

8 - Now That's What I Call Christmas! by various artists (2001)

9 - When My Heart Finds Christmas by Harry Connick, Jr. (1993)

10 - A Christmas Album by Amy Grant (1983)

Friday, December 22, 2006

Merry Christmas from Harry Reasoner

"The basis for this tremendous annual burst of gift buying and parties and near hysteria is a quiet event that Christians believe actually happened a long time ago. You can say that in all societies there has always been a midwinter festival and that many of the trappings of our Christmas are almost violently pagan. But you come back to the central fact of the day and quietness of Christmas morning - the birth of God on earth.

"It leaves you only three ways of accepting Christmas.

"One is cynically, as a time to make money or endorse the making of it.

"One is graciously, the appropriate attitude for non-Christians, who wish their fellow citizens all the joys to which their beliefs entitle them.

"And the third, of course, is reverently. If this is the anniversary of the appearance of the Lord of the universe in the form of a helpless babe, then it is a very important day.

"It's a startling idea, of course. My guess is that the whole story that a virgin was selected by God to bear His Son as a way of showing His love and concern for man is not an idea that has been popular with theologians. It's a somewhat illogical idea, and theologians like logic almost as much as they like God. It's so revolutionary a thought that it probably could only come from a God that is beyond logic, and beyond theology.

"It has a magnificent appeal. Almost nobody has seen God, and almost nobody has any real idea of what He is like. And the truth is that among men the idea of seeing God suddenly and standing in a very bright light is not necessarily a completely comforting and appealing idea.

"But everyone has seen babies, and most people like them. If God wanted to be loved as well as feared he moved correctly here. If He wanted to know His people as well as rule them, He moved correctly here, for a baby growing up learns all about people. If God wanted to be intimately a part of man, He moved correctly, for the experiences of birth and familyhood are our most intimate and precious experiences.

"So it goes beyond logic. It is either all falsehood or it is the truest thing in the world. It's the story of the great innocence of God the baby - God in the form of man - and has such a dramatic shock toward the heart that if it is not true, for Christians, nothing is true.

"So, if a Christian is touched only once a year, the touching is still worth it, and maybe on some given Christmas, some final quiet morning, the touch will take."
- TV news commentator Harry Reasoner
(quoted in "Illustrations Unlimited",
J.S. Hewett, ed., Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988,

Merry Christmas from Sting

Merry Christmas from Nat King Cole

Thursday, December 21, 2006


I wanted to post a blog about a subject I don't blog about too frequently, perhaps not often family.

I am exceedingly proud of my family.

My wife Robyn is absolutely stunning, too beautiful for words, and her compassion, merciful spirit and nurturing ways defy description. After having four children (she can't keep her hands off me), she worked hard (and continues to do so) to get into shape, and...oh, my. Incredibly, her physical charms pale in comparison to her emotional and spiritual strengths. She is the finest wife and mother anyone could ever hope for, and many times I've been asked, "How on earth did you land her?" (That started back in 1989, when Dayton asked that question when Robyn and I started dating.)

Our four children are a blessing (in every sense of the word...), and have brought great joy and exhaustion to our lives. Christian is now 16 (I can't believe that) and will soon be driving, and is very active in the high school band (trumpet) and in the drama department. He's looking forward to driving...God help us...and the school musical this spring, assuming his grades are acceptable. Kate is 12 going on 25, and loves New York City, Broadway, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and several movie stars. She sings and plays both violin and flute, excelling in music in every way she's tried. She's also very interested in politics and history, and follows the election cycles with great interest. Claire is 9 and is still in love with being a little girl. She's sweet, but has a temper that would scare the devil himself, and can be unbelievebaly loud for such a little thing! She loves playing piano and also loves her guinea pig, Cookie. Elliot, 5, is our little madman, who can also be sweet but often has no time for that. He has a devilish twinkle in his eye and is a really cute little boy. He loves cars (he loved the Pixar movie), dinosaurs, and animals of every kind. Thankfully, all of our children look like Robyn, which makes them good looking kids. Their obnoxious sides come from me.

We have three pets...the guinea pig Cookie, the rabbit Snowball, and, the main man, our dog (a minature poodle) Twister. Twister is now 10. We got him while serving near Punxsutawney, PA, from a breeder in...ironically...Jefferson Hills. While driving through the area, I said to Robyn, "Wouldn't this be a nice place to serve?" The Spirit moves in surprisingly humorous ways. At any rate, Twister is a great dog and a true, valued member of the family. There are two kinds of people in the people, and people who believe in God. Dogs rule!

We've been attending holiday concerts at our children's schools, and while it has been tiring at times, it's been very nice. I'm very, very thankful to have my family, and, despite the typical growing pains which most families experience, to be generally free of major problems (other than the horrible taste in music my children seem to have). I thank God this Christmas for the blessing of my family, and pray his protection upon us all, and the persevering grace of the Holy Spirit, that my children would grow into people who know, love, serve, and walk with Jesus, all the days of their lives and into eternity.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Blessed Virgin

"Behold, from henceforth all generations
shall call me blessed;
for he who is mighty hath done for me great things,
and holy is his name!" - Luke 1:48-49

Mary's song (traditionally known as "the Magnificat") is rich with ideas and theological points. Surely, among the reasons the Father chose Mary and Joseph to raise Jesus was their extreme piety and close walks with the Lord. If it is the writer/editor of the Gospel of Luke who is primarily responsible for this wonderful song, then kudos to him (either way, it is the Holy Spirit who is ultimately responsible for the contents of Scripture).

In verses 48-49 of Luke 1, two things strike me, particularly as I prayerfully prepare to preach on this pericope (Sunday 9:30 AM).

First, being "blessed" by the Lord may not always be a "walk in the park". Elizabeth said to Mary in verse 42, "Blessed art thou among women...", and in this passage, Mary affirms the blessing. Think of it: Mary was probably 12 or 13 years old, single, poor, pregnant though not married, and living in a culture where this sort of thing meant at least ostracism, and possibly worse. This blessing could have turned into the end of any hopes she had of living a relatively normal life as a productive member of society. Blessings are not always what they seem.

The second thing that strikes me is that Mary is blessed not because she is pregnant, but because she is being used by the Holy Spirit to help accomplish God's plan. Though it's unlikely Mary understood all that was to happen in the future - what exactly her child would do and how he would liberate Israel - she walked in faith (a wondrously frightening thing to do) and chose to not only accept her role in God's plan, but to praise God for the blessing of being a part of the salvation story.

Mary stands as a shining example of a faithfully-lived life; she lived in humble obedience to God, and truly embodies (for me) John Wesley's covenant prayer...

"I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt,
rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing,
put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee
or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee
or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things,
let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen. "

NFL Rankings - Week 15

1 - San Diego Chargers (last week 1...still the Super Bowl favorites)

2 - Indianapolis Colts (last week 2...they played very well on Monday night, but I don't think they can get past San Diego)

3 - Chicago Bears (last week 3...still the best in a woeful NFC)

4 - Baltimore Ravens (last week 6)

5 - New England Patriots (last week 5...Brady, the most successful QB of the 21st century, was ROBBED of a trip to the Pro Bowl)

6 - New Orleans Saints (last week 4...still second best in the NFC...Drew Brees is the only challenge LT has for MVP, and Coach Payton is clearly Coach of the Year)

7 - Cincinnati Bengals (last week 7)

8 - Seattle Seahawks (last week 8)

9 - Dallas Cowboys (last week 9...TO should be banned from the NFL)

10 - Philadelphia Eagles (last week unranked...Coach Reid and QB Garcia are doing a TREMENDOUS job of keeping them in the mix since McNabb's injury)

Honorable mentions:
Atlanta Falcons (who are imploding), Buffalo Bills (who are showing real promise for next season), Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants (who, like the Falcons, are imploding), New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers

Gold stars to:
San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans...two teams whose good coaches are keeping them from the league basement

Hat tip to:
Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers...quite possibly the toughest man ever to play team sports, and certainly one of the most entertaining athletes to watch, I hope he plays at least one more season

Monday, December 18, 2006


"...Mary sang,
'My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the low estate of his servant!

Behold, from henceforth all generations
shall call me blessed;
for he who is mighty hath done for me great things,
and holy is his name!

And his mercy is on those who fear him
from generation to generation!

He hath shown strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he hath brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of low estate;
he hath filled the hungry with good things,
but the rich he hath sent away empty.

He hath helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever!'"

- Luke 1:46-55

Mary's song in Luke 1, traditionally called "the Magnificat", emphasizes the fact that God has, through the miracle of the Incarnation, "brought down" the proud and "exalted those of low estate". Looking closely, we see that through the child in Mary's maidenly womb, God has reversed the status systems that humankind created. Suddenly, the lowly, the oppressed, the marginalized are saved, liberated, and embraced by heaven, though they have experienced rejection and alienation on earth.

How are we exalting the lowly this Christmas season? If the season is to be more than lovely music and pretty images, isn't Mary's inspirational song a wonderful challenge for the Church? In what ways are we living the "reversed" life, recognizing that the marginalized are to be exalted? How faithful is the Church to the hopes of the Magnificat?

Am I a heretic?

Another quiz. Thanks to Chris Kindle.

You scored as Chalcedon compliant.
You are Chalcedon compliant. Congratulations, you're not a heretic.
You believe that Jesus is truly God and truly man and like us
in every respect, apart from sin. Officially approved in 451.

Chalcedon compliant




























Are you a heretic?
created with

Merry Christmas from Brenda Lee

Merry Christmas from George Harrison

Thursday, December 14, 2006

And So This is Christmas...

In October 1971, John Lennon wrote and recorded (with Yoko Ono, the Plastic Ono Band, and the Harlem Community Choir) "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)", which is perhaps the best modern Christmas song. The secondary refrain of the song features the phrase, "War is over if you want it", a phrase most people of my generation didn't fully appreciate until recent years.

The song begins with the now classic phrase, "And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?"

Christmas is, among other things, an opportunity to review our lives and our ministries in the waning year, and to evaluate how faithful and effective we have been. It's an opportunity to celebrate the successes...whether strong spiritual growth, increased worship attendance, or facility improvements (all of which Jefferson church can celebrate this year).

It's also an opportunity to be honest about the imperative Jesus gave to us. That imperative is often summed up by many in Matthew 28:16-20, a wonderful passage which, frankly, needs to be "fleshed out" a bit in order to fully graps its meaning.

For me, this is where Matthew 25:31-46 comes into play. How do we make disciples? It's the mission of the Church, after all, and rightly so. How do we do it? What does it mean to make disciples?

Jesus tells us in Matthew 25.
"Truly, I say to you,
as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren,
you did it to me."

Faithfully making disciples (which is synonomous with faithfully being disciples) means, in some way, serving those to whom Jesus referred as "the least of these".

Who are "the least of these"? According to Jesus in Matthew 25, these are folks who are are hungry, who are thirsty, who need clothed, who are strangers and outcasts, who are in prison, who are poor. What are we doing for "the least of these"?

It seems to me that if we are not doing enough to meet their needs, which communicates to them the love God has for them, then we are failures. In the big picture...the "Kingdom picture" simply doesn't matter if strong spiritual growth, increased worship attendance, or facility improvements are present. These things don't matter to God; what matters is how we have communicated the love of God to "the least of these", because Jesus relates not to the affluent or the comfortable (as Matthew 25 makes clear), but to the outcast, the poor, the disinherited (to borrow Howard Thurman's wonderful terminology).

If we fail? Jesus says we get "eternal punishment". If we are faithful? "Eternal life". In fact, Jesus is pretty clear on this point, and doesn't leave us very much wiggle room. It's not just a matter of not doing evil; it's also a matter of actively doing good.

As commentators Ralph Earle and Walter Wessel state, "The judgment of the righteous is based not on an intellectual faith but on a faith that demands loving action toward others." Let me risk heresy: it may well be that despite our traditional evangelical appeals to salvation by grace through faith, that how faithful we are in serving "the least of these" determines our eternal destiny, at least in part.

I get so tired of American materialism, which absolutely infects the Church, especially in white suburbia (I don't know who coined the phrase "affluenza", but it's spot on correct). It infects the Church Universal, the United Methodist Church and Western PA Conference (I'm still waiting for that new church start in downtown Pittsburgh or rural Appalachia, as opposed to a wealthy white suburb...). We are just too comfortable.

I am tired of Charge Conference forms and statistical reports which ask for terribly mundane and ultimately meaningless details such as the amount congregations collected in loose change offering. That's silly. Even recording the number of people in Sunday School is ultimately pointless (with all due respect to my well-meaning colleagues who value that sort of information). What we should be held accountable for...particularly those of us in affluent the number of hungry people we fed...the number of children who recieved winter clothing...the number of inmates we visited at the county prison or the regional hospital or the local personal care home...and what we did to stand with those who suffer from racism, AIDS, or hate.

The Church has misplaced its priorities, and the world is suffering for it. May God have mercy upon us.

Thankfully, in this season of new life, miracles can still happen. Led by the Spirit, we can reclaim the mission, and begin to take Matthew 25 seriously. We can know penitence, forgiveness, and second chances...or third...or fourth. It's not too late to seek faithfulness. It's not too late for us to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" (as was said about Eleanor Roosevelt).

"And So This is Christmas, and what have we done?" John Lennon sang in 1971. May we search our hearts this holiday season and promise our Lord that at Christmas 2007, we will have a more faithful answer to that question.

Sunday's preaching text

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.

Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'

Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?'

And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'

Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'

Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?'
Then he will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.'

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
- Matthew 25:31-46 (RSV)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Merry Christmas from Paul & Linda (& Wings)

NFL Rankings - Week 14

1 - San Diego Chargers (last week 2...LT, likely soon to named the year's MVP, makes them the new Super Bowl favorites)

2 - Indianapolis Colts (last week 1...the worst run defense in the NFL will probably cost Peyton Manning his last best shot at a Super Bowl)

3 - Chicago Bears (last week 4...still the NFC favorite, despite QB issues...though the Saints are coming...)

4 - New Orleans Saints (last week 8...they just get better every week)

5 - New England Patriots (last week 3...what the heck was that?)

6 - Baltimore Ravens (last week 7)

7 - Cincinnati Bengals (last week 9)

8 - Seattle Seahawks (last week 5)

9 - Dallas Cowboys (last week 6)

10 - Jacksonville Jaguars (last week unranked)

Honorable mentions:
Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos (last week 10), Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Friday, December 08, 2006

On this day...

In 1980, John Lennon was murdered outside his home in Manhattan. Lennon was the leader of the Beatles, who unquestionably reign as the most significant musical artists of the twentieth century. Lennon's voice remains one of the most searingly honest and powerfully raw musical instruments ever recorded, and his songs remain among the greatest ever written. His example as an unbearably honest artist and as an activist for peace continue to inspire people all over the world.

Like millions of others, my life was changed by the life and especially the music of John Lennon. So much of my "embedded theology" comes from his music and the imperfect but exceedingly genuine way he lived his life. So, as the world remembers those dark events of twenty-six years ago, I thank God for John Lennon.

"You say you want a revolution,
Well, you know we all want to change the world.
You tell me that it’s evolution,
Well, you know we all want to change the world.
But when you talk about destruction,
Don’t you know that you can count me out?
Don’t you know it’s going to be alright?
You say you got a real solution,
Well, you know we’d all love to see the plan.
You ask me for a contribution,
Well, you know we’re all doing what we can.
But if you want money for people with minds that hate,
All I can tell you is, brother, you'll have to wait.
Don’t you know it’s going to be alright?
You say you’ll change the Constitution,
Well, you know we all want to change your head.
You tell me it’s the institution,
Well, you know you'd better free your mind instead.
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao,
You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.
Don’t you know it’s going to be alright?"
(Lennon/McCartney, 1968)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Farewell J. Kenneth Grider

I was saddened to learn today of yesterday's passing of J. Kenneth Grider. Grider was a long-time professor at Nazarene Theological Seminary and an ordained pastor in the Church of the Nazarene. He specialized in the field of Christian perfection / entire sanctification and also served as a translator on the "Committee on Bible Translation" which produced the New International Version of the Scriptures.

His book A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology is perhaps the best one volume summary of evangelical theology from a Wesleyan perspective currently in print, and has had a profound influence on my own theological development, introducing me to the "governmental model" of Atonement theology, which Grider (along with the great John Miley and others) argued was the proper Wesleyan view of this essential doctrine.

I praise God for the ministry of J. Kenneth Grider, which likely will continue to bless the Church and touch Christians everywhere until our Lord returns.

NFL Rankings - Week 13

1 - Indianapolis Colts (last week 1...they hold on to the top spot by a thread...their typically efficient offense is paired with a horrific defense which could sabotage their Super Bowl hopes)

2 - San Diego Chargers (last week 2...RB Tomlinson is the best player in the NFL, and, with the very effective Rivers at QB, could earn a Super Bowl title this season)

3 - New England Patriots (last week 3)

4 - Chicago Bears (last week 5...they need to solve the problem of QB Grossman's

5 - Seattle Seahawks (last week 6...with Alexander and Hasselbeck back, NFC teams better start worrying about them)

6 - Dallas Cowboys (last week out for Parcells' team, which could break a lot of NFC hearts)

7 - Baltimore Ravens (last week 4)

8 - New Orleans Saints (last week 9)

9 - Cincinnati Bengals (last week unranked)

10 - Denver Broncos (last week 8)

Teams on the Bubble:
Atlanta Falcons (if QB Vick can learn to pass effectively), Carolina Panthers (if they can learn to be consistent), Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs (last week 10), New York Giants (the collapse of the year), New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles (though I think this bird is cooked)

Worst in the NFL:
Arizona Cardinals (goodbye, Denny Green), Cleveland Browns (their "Super Bowl" is tonight at Heinz Field), Detroit Lions (the Ford family needs to fire ineffective GM Matt Millen post-haste), Oakland Raiders (Al Davis needs to give up power to an effective GM and hire a good coach...maybe Jeff Fisher if the Titans make a mistake and fire him at season's end), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (the miserable loss to a bad Steelers team which was without its two best players is not a good sign for Gruden's team)

Heisman watch:
It's got to be Ohio State QB Troy Smith...though Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn will likely go before Smith in the NFL Draft.

About Pitt:
I'd advise giving Coach Dave Wannstedt one more year to turn things around...then, if there's no decent Bowl bid, cut him loose.

High School:
Tomorrow night, the Thomas Jefferson Jaguars play General McLane in the AAA semifinals. TJ is heavily favored to win and advance to next week's state championship. Go TJ!

My brother and I will be at Heinz Field to see the woeful Browns play the disappointing Steelers. It promises to be a cold evening, but, hopefully, one with a victorious Pittsburgh team.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I Believe in Santa Claus

In the month of December, much is focused upon one of the biggest superstars in our culture. I'm not talking about Elvis Presley, the Beatles, John Wayne, or Joe Montana; there is at least one superstar bigger than even those talented folks...Santa Claus.

Each year, images of Santa are our music, in our stores, on our televisions...everywhere. This doesn't bother me in the least; after all, Santa Claus is very real, and, if we remember who this man is, we should be more thankful for him and his ministry, which continues to touch people today with the love and peace of Christ.

"Santa Claus" is the Anglicized/Americanized name of Nicholas, a fourth century bishop in what is today referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church, in what is now the nation of Turkey. Known for his great generosity and prayerful devotion to the Scriptures, he was at one point imprisoned for his faith, but was eventually freed and participated in the critical Council of Nicea, which did so much to define, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, what entailed Christian orthodoxy.

It upsets me when I hear Christian sisters and brothers making the claim that Santa Claus doesn't exist. Imagine if in six centuries people claimed you never existed! Just because someone lived a long time ago doesn't mean they are fictional.

This is upsetting for a few reasons. First, Jesus had a special place in his heart for little children (Mt 19:13-25), and to hurt a child by claiming that Santa isn't real is not very Christ-like (see also Lk 17:2).

Second, human beings need fairy tales...we need to hold onto a sense of the fantastic. I posted briefly about this subject in May 2006, and it is a firm truth. To quote G.K. Chesterton, "Fairy tales are more than true - not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." We need this important concept, because the notion that "dragons can be beaten" is crucial to an understanding of the Christian faith; Jesus proclaimed an extremely powerful apocalyptic message (I refer you to Dale Allison's 1999 book on the subject). For a Christian to deny Santa's existence because his story is fantastic and filled with magic is to risk denial (for the same reasons) some pretty important aspects of the gospel which are also fantastic...such as the virginal conception and the Resurrection of Our Lord.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we believe that disciples of Jesus Christ have a future (Jer 29:11), that death is not the last word (1 Cor 15:54-57; 1 Thess 4:14-18). We believe that in some way as yet not perfectly known, the dead in Christ are with God (I'll leave it to others to argue about the specific nature of the "intermediate state"). If we believe that, then is Santa Claus - Bishop Nicholas - with the Lord? If not, then are Grandma, Aunt Bessie, and your old Sunday School teacher with the Lord? John Wesley? Mother Teresa? Saint Paul?

Of course, in some mysterious way, we believe that the dead in Christ are in the presence of God, even if we cannot know the specifics of what that looks like or feels like. And, since the dead in Christ are experiencing the divine presence in a wonderful way which we cannot yet fully comprehend, they are very much alive in Christ (Lk 20:38; Phil 1:23).

Bishop Nicholas - Santa Claus - is real. And, in the bosom of the Father, he is very much alive.

He stands today as he did centuries ago as a disciple of Jesus Christ committed to prayer, the Holy Scriptures, and (remember Nicea?) Christian orthodoxy.

He stands today as he did centuries ago as a disciple of Jesus Christ committed to remaining faithful to God, even at the risk of suffering and persecution.

He stands today as he did centuries ago as a disciple of Jesus Christ committed to standing with those who suffer, those who hurt..."the least of these".

He stands today as he did centuries ago as a disciple of Jesus Christ committed to sacrificial giving and sharing, both materially and spiritually.

Let us thank God for Santa Claus and his ministry, which continues to touch the world and inspire the Church; and let us use his example to inspire us to be more faithful as disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Preaching texts for Advent 2

"...little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray.
The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them,
but Jesus said,
'Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them;
for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.'
And he laid his hands on them and went on his way."
- Matthew 19:13-15 (NRSV)

"Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary
by the blood of Jesus,
by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain
(that is, through his flesh),
and since we have a great priest over the house of God,
let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith,
with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience
and our bodies washed with pure water...
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.
Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.
By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God,
so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible."
- Hebrews 10:19-22, 11:1-3 (NRSV)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Here we go...

The Steelers' hopes for a Super Bowl repeat may be significantly dimmed, but we are blessed to have this fine team in western PA. This afternoon, Robyn and I will be attending the game against Tampa Bay at Heinz Field...a kind couple in our congregation gave us their tickets. Yay God!

I'll also be at Heinz Field Thursday night for the game against the Browns (I'm taking my brother that evening). We're praying for victories!

God is good, good, good!

Update at 9:45 PM: Steelers 20, Tampa Bay 3

Friday, December 01, 2006

World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day, a day to raise awareness of the AIDS crisis which is devastating children, women and men around the world, particularly in Africa.

It seems that every Christian denomination has its own AIDS task force, but all in all, the Church ought to be embarrassed regarding its response to this global pandemic. The American Church has been so preoccupied with other issues that we have allowed this particular issue to take a back seat. Some of these issues are important and shouldn't be taken lightly...human rights issues such as abortion, poverty, and war. Other issues which have preoccupied the Church should be viewed as nowhere near as important as AIDS...issues such as homosexuality, gay marriage, and presidential politics. Both the Left and the Right have been obsessed with these issues, to the detriment of our mission concerning AIDS response and other ministries.

In our Conference, a relatively small group of pastors (led by my good friends Randy Roda and Bob Zilhaver) formed a compassion ministry for folks who suffer with AIDS several years ago in the Brookville area; other than that, I can't think of a single Conference-related AIDS ministry here in Western PA. I'm sure that many local churches are reaching out to persons in their communities who are dealing with this disease, but if our Conference is a microcosm of the denomination (and, indeed, of the Church Universal), then we are sinfully falling short of God's hopes for us.

World AIDS Day is a day to raise awareness of the AIDS crisis; sadly, this awareness needs to be raised in the Church, who ought to be the group raising the awareness!

I commend Baptist pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California, who hosted a conference concerning how the Church should be responding to the crisis. Shame on those evangelicals who chastised Pastor Warren for inviting Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois to participate. Sen. Obama's support for legal abortion is troubling, to be sure, but that doesn't mean he can't be helpful in combatting AIDS, any more than Pres. Bush's troubling support for capital punishment means he can't help fight poverty. No politician is Christian is perfect (Obama nor Bush...and certainly not me!)...but let us go on to perfection together, all the while faithfully addressing important crises such as AIDS.

The truly startling realization is that the great world issues of our day...AIDS, abortion, economic justice, education, health care, poverty, terror, war...are all intimately related, and to faithfully address one means addressing all of them in afar more holistic fashion than the Church has done to date. I believe that we need to be in prayer as to how we might more faithfully approach these issues. I have failed, to be sure, and do not write from a position of superiority.

I pray that "compassionate conservatives" and "compassionate liberals" can band together to be the Church in this chaotic hour.