Saturday, March 31, 2007

What I've Been Reading

* The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis

I actually just finished Gaddis' book and enjoyed it tremendously. Most of my undergraduate work at IUP focused on Cold War popular culture, so it was nice to revisit those roots, and Gaddis is one of the world's top Cold War scholars, a professor at Yale.

One of the things I ended up really appreciating about the book is what Gaddis said about leadership. He lifted up brave leaders such as Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa, and John Paul II; he may not have always agreed with their politics or policies, but he attributed their courage in standing up to radical evil to contributing powerfully to ending the Cold War and liberating hundreds of millions of souls from bondage. In short, courage matters, and it's always right to take a stand against wrong, though the Church has weapons far more potent than guns and bombs.

* United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center by Scott J. Jones

I've admired Bishop Jones since he was elected to the episcopacy; he is one of the few real theologian-bishops of the Church (I'd include Timothy Whitaker and William Willimon on this all-too-short list). This book, which I'm still reading, is OK, but doesn't really present any new perspectives or insights. In fact, in my view, better summaries of Methodist doctrine were written by several others, including Ted Campbell, Randy Maddox, Thomas Oden, Albert Outler, Charles Yrigoyen, and even Nazarene Kenneth Grider. It's not bad, mind you; it's just not as well written or well presented as some other volumes. Maybe I'll change my mind before I'm finished with it.

* Standing in the Margin: How Your Congregation Can Minister With the Poor (and perhaps recover its soul in the process) by Mary Alice Mulligan & Rufus Burrow

I appreciate the basic approach of Burrow and Mulligan, even though I disagree with some of their theological assumptions. The truth is that we mainline Protestants have done a sinfully terrible job of ministering to and with "the least of these", a subject concerning which I post often. There is a radical disconnect between the Church (certainly in Western PA Conference) and those "on the margins"...the poor, minorities, the powerless, etc. In fact, I've found that the larger the congregation, the greater the disconnect, which is the opposite of what should be. We often do things for the poor without actually living with the poor in any meaningful way.

How do we minister in this area without either being too paternalistic ("Have no fear, the Church is here; we'll take care of you") or doing things that primarily make us feel good, while really making very little difference? Burrow and Mulligan have some ideas.

* The World-Shattering Ministry of Jesus by Anne Crumpler & John Gooch

I'm reading this to prepare spiritually for summer, especially for my summer preaching. Not a lot of new insights yet (which isn't surprising, given that it's a Cokesbury resource, which tend to be extremely safe, predictable, and bland...nothing like Jesus), but some good reminders.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Palm Sunday

"As Jesus drew near to Jerusalem...the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, 'Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!'

"And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, 'Teacher, rebuke your disciples!'

"Jesus answered, 'I tell you, if my disciples were silent, the very stones would cry out!'"
- Luke 19:37-40 (ESV, adapt.)

I like this snippet of the Triumphal Entry as recorded in Luke's Gospel, and it may be because, relative to the average age of pastors in our Conference, I'm young.

Sometimes, older, "more seasoned" pastors are amused when those of us who are younger get excited about things. Being naive, I suppose, we tend to take very seriously the call of Jesus to spread the feed the comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We can get very excited about Jesus and about mission, about justice and about what's right. We tend to take doctrine and ethics very seriously, even while we are gracious and fluid in our dialogue and understanding.

The Pharisees in this passage remind me of some of the more experienced pastors in our Conference who "don't get" us, and who have become so wrapped up in the institutional side of things that the fire in their bellies is significantly cooler. We sometimes refer to this ladder-climbing group as the "Old Boys' Club"...a well meaning bunch of pastors who have maybe become a little too respectable, forgetting that Jesus and his gospel were (and are) quite subversive and countercultural.

When the Old Boys' Club requests that we calm down or slow down or stop taking things so seriously, it can be likened to the Pharisees: "Hey, calm down; shhh!"

The only reply must be, "We can't calm down. If we don't do these things...get excited...take all of this so seriously...God will raise up someone else!" I have no way of knowing for sure, but this could be one reason we see our Bishop raising up so many younger pastors to more prominent appointments in the last year or two...passion. I know plenty of more experienced pastors who ooze passion, but that isn't universally so.

My prayer for all younger clergy, particularly in Western PA Conference, is that on Palm Sunday (in just a few days), we view the palms we wave as signs of our excitement, as subversive symbols, reminding us that we have been called not only to make disciples in the communities to which we have been sent, but also to continually light the fires of passion in our Conference, serving the mission of Christ among the poor and the lost as well as among our colleagues in pastoral ministry.

"'Hosanna in the highest!' that ancient song we sing,
for Christ is our Redeemer, the Lord of Heaven our King.
O may we ever praise him with heart and life and voice,
and in his blissful presence eternally rejoice!"

- "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna" by Jeanette Threlfall
(The United Methodist Hymnal #278)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Quiet Ministry

Today, I took some time for some pretty important ministry. I spent the morning with my wife.

We don't get much time alone together; there are usually kids everywhere or church people in abundance. It was nice to just relax, talk, and run errands together. She is such a great lady, filled with grace and compassion, and hot, hot, hot.

When Elliot got home (he attends morning kindergarten), we took him to lunch. Then, Elliot and I put Mommy down for a much needed (and rarely obtained) nap. We had a good time throwing a football and then a baseball in the backyard. Finally, before the other kids got home, we watched The Nativity Story together (Elliot had lots of questions).

A nice day; we rarely have quiet days such as this.

In a few hours, I'll be off to the airport to pick up the Rev. Dennis Lawton, a former member of our Conference who is coming in this week for a take-in at a UM church here in western PA; he and his family will be returning to us this summer after spending a few years in the Irish Methodist Church.

Thank God for days like this, which are so important for "recharging"!

Monday, March 26, 2007


"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient
to the point of death -
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father."
- Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV)

This is my favorite passage in all of Scripture, and it is absolutely loaded with Christological claims...

  • it presumes Jesus' pre-existence and "equality with God";
  • it affirms that Jesus became incarnate in human flesh;
  • it emphasizes Jesus' humility and obedience to God, even to the point of a gruesome death on the Cross;
  • it clarifies that, on the Cross, Jesus really died, there was no pretending, no "show";
  • it proclaims Jesus' subsequent exaltation and universal Lordship.
What a powerfully important passage!

Verse 7 has always intrigued me...particularly the phrase "emptied himself", which may have serious implications in Christology. The Greek root word used is "kenosis", which means, "to empty" or "to be emptied". While some translations render the phrase "made himself nothing" (NIV, ESV) or "made himself of no reputation" (KJV), I believe that these are attempts to interpret a difficult concept, that of the Son "emptying himself", rather than simply translations of the text.

It seems to me that in the Incarnation, the Son "emptied himself" of something, according to Philippians 2:7. The question is, "Of what did Jesus empty himself?"

I believe that Jesus emptied himself of the glory of divinity. If God were to appear to us in all of his glory, how could we survive? So, Jesus emptied himself of God's glory, while remaining fully God. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, in stanza 2 of his "Oration 37" speaks of it as a "...reduction and lessening of his glory".

Retaining the divine nature, being emptied of divine glory also meant that Jesus emptied himself of the "omni" qualities of God. Pre-Easter, Jesus, in my view, was not omniscient, was not omnipotent, and was certainly not omnipresent.

If he were omniscient, then why do we have these words in Mark 13:32, in which Jesus is speaking of the eschaton in the so-called "Marcan Apocalypse"...

"But about that day or hour no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven,
nor the Son, but only the Father."

Additionally, why do we have the claims of Luke 2:40 and 2:52 that Jesus grew in wisdom? It seems to me that, like every human being, he was learning ...about God, about himself, and about his calling. That's one of the most human of qualities, and, if Jesus didn't need to learn and discover his calling, he may not have been fully human.

If he were omnipotent, then why do we have these words in Mark 6:5-6, during a visit to his hometown of Nazareth...

"...he could do no deed of power there,
except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.
And he was amazed at their unbelief."

Faith seems to be required in some way in order for Jesus to perform a miracle. This suggests that Jesus was limited in some way, and not all powerful.

I suppose I don't need to make the case that Jesus emptied himself of omnipresence. For one to make the claim that Jesus was omnipresent during his earthly ministry is to not only demonstrate a misunderstanding of human nature, but to seriously question Incarnational doctrine, which clearly affirms that Jesus lived in a definite place and time as a human being.

If Jesus had not emptied himself of these divine attributes, then he could not have been fully human. Imagine the baby in the Bethlehem manger. Now, picture that same baby as knowing everything, as being absolutely all powerful. He'd simply be playing human...toying with Mary and Joseph. This beautiful image can become very frightening, if the "baby" in the manger isn't really a "baby" in any sense that we would recognize; he's really quite monstrous.

So, Jesus emptied himself of divine glory, which includes the "omni" attributes, in order to become fully human. But, he remained fully divine. How can this be?

Our God is a god of paradoxes. The first shall be last, the last first. The God who never changes changed by becoming incarnate in human flesh. God is a god of wrath and mercy.

The Incarnation is a holy mystery. We can know in part, but not entirely (at least not yet). We may not be able to fully understand how it all works, but we can know that God does understand it, and that his reasons for doing things the way he did come out of his deep, abiding love for us.

It is a touching sign of grace that God is self-limiting in his love. This is part of the beauty of Philippians 2:5-11, and why I am thankful that it appears in the lectionary each year on Palm/Passion Sunday. It provides an excellent means to discuss not only the horrific tragedies of Holy Week, but also to talk about the greatness of God's love, and what the ways in which God modeled this love, to prepare us for heaven.

I am reminded of Charles Wesley's wonderful words...

"He left his Father's throne above
(so free, so infinite his grace!),
emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam's helpless race.
'Tis mercy all, immense and free,
for O my God, it found out me!"
- "And Can It Be that I Should Gain"
(The United Methodist Hymnal #363)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Funny but Good

"The good news is that Jesus is coming back. The bad news is that he's really pissed off.”
- Bob Hope (1903-2003)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Remembering Thomas Cranmer

One of the most important Church leaders of the second millennium was undoubtedly Thomas Cranmer. He served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the English Reformation, and was martyred on this date in 1556 by the delusional Bloody Mary, Queen of England.

Archbishop Cranmer's finest achievement was the writing and initial editing of the first Book of Common Prayer, the official worship book for the Church of England. This book is without question the best English language liturgical resource ever put together. In the history of the English-speaking world, only the King James Version of the Bible and the writings of Shakespeare have had a more significant influence on language and culture. John Wesley said of the prayer book, "I believe there is no Liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety than the Common Prayer of the Church of England." I use the Book of Common Prayer quite often when preparing for worship; usually, I utilize it each week. In fact, my own personal prayer order is largely adapted from the orders for daily prayer found in this wonderful book.

It is miraculous that 458 years after its initial publication, the words, prayers, and orders in Archbishop Cranmer's masterpiece are not only still elegantly powerful, but are among the most relevant liturgical pieces in the contemporary Church. In fact, I urge everyone to read through the Psalter as found in the Book of Common Prayer; the version found in the prayer book remains the most beautiful ever translated (though the 2004 publication of the Holman Christian Standard Bible, which contains a truly lovely Psalter, gives Cranmer a run for his money).

At any rate, I'm thanking God today for the ministry of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who left a rich missional legacy which continues to bless the Church and, through the Church, the world. If you don't own a copy of the Book of Common Prayer (shame on you), you can order a relatively inexpensive copy here, or read it online here.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Was Jesus "punished" for us?

"...he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the suffering that brought us peace,
and through his wounds we are healed."

- Isaiah 53:5

This wonderful verse is crucial in Atonement theology, yet it is often, in my view, mistranslated and misunderstood. This can lead to some views of the Atonement which are not Wesleyan and, perhaps, not even Biblical.

The misunderstood word is the Hebrew word "musar". This is a word that traditionally has meant
"correction", "chastisement",
"instruction", "suffering", "rebuke", or "discipline", as from a loving father. In fact, "musar" is used 50 times in the Old Testament, and the King James Version always utilizes one of these English words. The ASV followed suit, as did the RSV about 50 years later.

According to Isaiah 53:5, then, and assuming a messianic perspective, Jesus suffered for us. The verse does not teach that Jesus was punished for us; "punishment" comes from an entirely different Hebrew word which is not used in reference to atonement.

This is an important distinction, because punishment and forgiveness are not synonomous, and salvation hinges on forgiveness in Wesleyan theology. When a person is found guilty of a crime, they are sent to prison, the imprisonment being their punishment. Let us assume that they have been sentenced to two years in prison. At the conclusion of those two years, they freed from their cell, having served out their punishment. It would be inappropriate for a judge to then s ay, "You have been in prison for two years; now, you are forgiven." The criminal was not forgiven; he took his punishment. The same would be true if a person received a fine for a parking violation. If they pay the fine, they have received their punishment, they have paid their debt.

Conversely, if a judge were to say to the criminal, "You don't need to serve two years; you are forgiven", or to the parking violator, "You don't need to pay the fine; you are forgiven", then there would be no punishment. Punishment and forgiveness are not the same thing.

In the 1970s, the Good News Bible (also known as "Today's English Version") appeared, translated quite loosely, a style known as "dynamic equivalence" (as opposed to the more literal KJV and RSV). In this translation, "musar" was rendered in Isaiah 53:5 as "punishment". Still, this can be forgiven, since the Good News translation itself was fairly paraphrastic and not really intended for academic or theological use.

The New International Version (NIV) emerged in 1978 as a legitimate translation alternative to the KJV and RSV. This wonderful translation made the mistake of translating "musar" as "punishment". Why?

Calvinists have held to a particular view of Atonement theology which states that Jesus, on the Cross, received our punishment. Thus, the demands of divine justice were satisfied by the death of Christ. The NIV was translated primarily by Calvinist scholars, so it is only natural that Isaiah 53:5 reflects their theological bias, even if translating "musar" as "punishment" was truly innovative, and without real precedent in the history of the English Bible. Surprisingly, the NRSV followed the NIV upon its release a decade later, as did the HCSB in 2004. I am grateful for the ESV (2001), which renders "musar" as the more traditional "chastisement".

Wesleyans should not forget the actual meaning of the verse. Jesus suffered for us, thus reminding us of the importance of suffering and the terrible pain inflicted upon our loving Lord...not that any debts would be paid through punishment, but rather that we might be truly forgiven. Jesus' suffering was substitutionary in that his suffering, "...became a substitute for something else that would otherwise occur" (in the words of the late J. Kenneth Grider). In other words, Jesus' suffering served as a substitute for our punishment.

In the words of Gordon Olson, "The sufferings and especially the death of Christ were sacrificial, were not the punishment of the law but were equivalent in meaning to it, were representative of it and substituted for it. The demands of the law were not satisfied by it, but the honor of the law was promoted by it as much as this honor would have been promoted by inflicting the legal penalty upon all sinners. The distributive (or vindictive) justice of God was not satisfied by it, but His general (or justice for the public good) as a responsible Moral Governor was perfectly satisfied."

This is more than simply a "moral influence", intended to show God's love and break our hearts, as much of traditional Protestant Liberalism maintains. Jesus suffered and died for a uphold God's moral sovereignty and to make real forgiveness possible, that we might know salvation. This is truly good news. We can know real forgiveness! Without question, due to our sinfulness, we deserve punishment - but are forgiven, because of the faithful suffering of Our Lord.

I urge my Wesleyan brethren to ponder this perspective as we approach the darkness of Good Friday and the glories of Easter Sunday.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


Indiana University of Pennsylvania, better known regionally as "IUP", voted last year to change its nickname from "Indians" to "Crimson Hawks" in order to comply with new NCAA regulations (the other finalists were, I believe, the "Gray Wolves" and the "Crimson Thunder", which received my vote). Earlier this month, IUP has settled on a new mascot image, which you can see to the right.

I am a proud graduate of IUP, earning my B.A. in History in 1996. I don't get back to Indiana, PA very often, but I cherish my years at IUP, from the beauty of the Oak Grove to the excellent education I received. The people of Trinity UM Church in Indiana, who sent us into ministry, will always have a special place in our hearts. Also, my cousin is now a professor at IUP (in many ways, my dream job), which makes for a neat connection.

At any rate, I just wanted to post this image of the new mascot...go IUP!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Happy Birthday Jerry Lewis

Today, comedian/filmmaker/activist Jerry Lewis is 81 years old. I have seen a few of his films, and they're OK, I suppose. What really makes me a fan of Jerry Lewis is his annual Labor Day Telethon, held since 1966, which raises money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA).

Every Labor Day, I try to watch with my family at least a little bit of the telethon. In the past 40 years, Lewis has helped raise over two billion dollars for MDA. That is a staggering number.

So many celebrities seem to hitch their wagons to the "hot charity of the day", and if that raises money and awareness, then great. But Jerry Lewis has worked for decades to help these precious people. In fact, my generation doesn't really know him as an actor or comedian, but as an activist and advocate for those who suffer from neuromuscular disease. He's a cut above the rest of Hollywood, in my view.

From time to time, the Academy Awards give a worthy person the "Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award" for work on charitable issues and causes. Worthy recipients in the past have been Audrey Hepburn, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, Paul Newman, and Elizabeth Taylor. Despite his obvious success and dedication, Lewis, who has probably done more for charity and humanitarian causes than any person in Hollywood history, has never received this honor. My hope is that Hollywood wises up (in more ways than one, I suppose) and awards Jerry Lewis a statue for his philanthropic work. It is well deserved and long overdue.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Collaboration with the Enemy

One of the items in the national news lately has been a story about General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen. Pace, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, said recently that he feels that homosexual behavior is immoral, and that gays should not be permitted to serve in the U.S. military.

As a Roman Catholic, one could expect Gen. Pace to have the opinion that he has regarding sexual practice. We can surely allow Roman Catholics to be Roman Catholic. Certainly, the United Methodist Church holds a similar position, though it is (thankfully) worded a bit more graciously.

I don't understand, however, the General's view regarding gays and military service. What is it about a person's sexual behavior that makes it easier or more difficult to kill? If we believe that murder is a sin, then shouldn't Gen. Pace want an army of gay people, who in his mind are already immoral? Why shouldn't gay people be permitted to kill for their country?

Stanley Hauerwas has an excellent essay found in the book The Hauerwas Reader which the recent story brought to my mind. Entitled "Why Gays (as a group) are Morally Superior to Christians (as a group)", Hauerwas writes,
"I see no good reason why gays and lesbians should be excluded from military service; as a pacifist, I do not see why anyone should serve. Moreover, I think it a wonderful thing that some people are excluded as a group. I only wish that Christians could be seen by the military as being as problematic as gays...However, until God works this miracle, it seems clear to me that gays, as a group, are morally superior to Christians."
Hauerwas makes a point that is powerful and dripping with truth. Why aren't Christians ostracized by the military? Why doesn't the Army say, "We can't have Christians in our outfit; they won't kill another human being!"

Human beings are created in the image of God - all human beings (even terrorists) - and Jesus died for all people. How can a Christian kill someone for whom Jesus died? How can a Christian collaborate with Death, the last enemy of God?

We have compromised the Church and soiled the Faith. The early Church would require someone returning from military service to serve a probationary period of penitence before being permitted readmittance to the congregation. Now, we actually celebrate those who have served, ordain some of them, and (appallingly) American flags take places of honor in most local some cases, they are more prominent than the Cross. I was actually in a church one day when the pastor led the people in the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. Flag.

Why is this not viewed for what it is...idolatry?

So, I say, let homosexuals serve in the military. They can kill just as easily as a straight person. And I pray for the day when the military sees Christians as trouble, as people who value human lives too much to actually destroy one.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Demonization games

I recently attended a meeting with pastors and lay people from throughout western Pennsylvania. Wonderful people, doing wonderful work for the Kingdom of God. But one aspect of the meeting bothered me: demonization.

Some of the good folks at this meeting spoke of some kind of battle between Right and Left, between Conservatives and Liberals. While some at the meeting were trying to be sincerely gracious concerning those with whom they have strong disagreements, others found this more difficult. In many ways, I believe I was the most "liberal" person at the meeting, both politically and theologically. I felt a bit isolated.

Part of my problem was that the group seemed to be missing out on the real battle in the Church, which isn't "Biblical faithfulness" vs. "liberal heresy", or anything that simple. The real battle involves the proper and improper use of institutional power, and what that means for the disciplemaking mission of the Church. But I digress.

The group (in my view) suffered from some other misconceptions, including some very basic definitions. "Evangelical" is not a synonym for "conservative". I have often been called "evangelical left", meaning, I suppose, that I'm on the "left wing" of the evangelical movement. Those who know me know that I am strongly anti-war (all war, not just in Iraq, which it seems "hip" to oppose these days), anti-guns (no civilian should own one), and anti-death penalty (why collaborate with God's Enemy?)...hardly traditionally "conservative" positions. Nevertheless, I consider myself a firm evangelical Christian.

Do you believe in the Incarnation? That Jesus was born of a virgin? In the Trinity? In the Resurrection of Jesus? That the Church is the united and Spirit-empowered Body of Christ? That the Bible is an authoritative voice for the Church (though not the only authoritative voice), and that it "...containeth all things necessary to salvation"? These (and perhaps a few other points) are what makes one an "evangelical" (a term which, we must remember, essentially means, "one who believes the good news").

Completely unrelated are a person's positions on the Creation, the End Times, the nature of the soul, proper polity, gun control, the sacraments, or even sexuality. These are all important issues, to be sure, but they are not and have never been "essentials" of the Faith. To make non-essentials suddenly "essential" is to become a type of fundamentalist, something very, very different from "evangelical". I know evangelicals in almost every Christian tradition; my brother is, I believe, an evangelical Roman Catholic (though he may object to this term as he might define it), a term which may seem oxymoronic to some, but is not, in any way.

What concerned me at the meeting was the manner in which some of the folks demonized those with whom they shared disagreements. To demonize is basically to dehumanize, and, when that happens, it's easy to dismiss altogether, and perhaps even to hate.

Look at the ways in which many on the far Right have demonized, dehumanized, and then hated homosexuals. A Christian response (synonomous here with an evangelical response) should be to love a homosexual person, even if one disagrees with their behavior. They are children of God for whom Jesus died. Look at the ways in which the far Left has demonized, dehumanized, and then hated George W. Bush. A Christian response should be to love the President, even if one disagrees with his decisions or policies. He is a child of God for whom Jesus died.

There's simply too much demonization in the Church today. I've been guilty of this sin; I confess. But I've had enough of that bad taste in my mouth. There are real evils out there, and so many people who need touched by the love and mercy of Our Lord; I'm tired of listening to (and playing) demonization games. I can disagree with someone (powerfully) but still find room in my heart to love them as Jesus does. This doesn't mean orthodoxy is any less important, nor that we simply "give it up", but this has to be a more fruitful approach...certainly one that is more faithful. If Jesus could love the Pharisees and the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the lawyers, so can I.

"Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will."
- 2 Timothy 2:23-26 (ESV)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Music Man

Our oldest son Christian has had a dream for years perform in a musical. Both Robyn and I took part in musical productions in high school and had great fun; Robyn also performed in college and later choreographed a community theater production. Knowing how much fun we had, and admiring the very talented people who perform so well, Christian couldn't wait to be a part of a show.

I'm thrilled to say that last week, Christian was able to fulfill this dream. He was part of the barbershop quartet in The Music Man, staged by Thomas Jefferson High School . He sang the high tenor part (likely for the last time) and did a fine job with his lines, his singing, and his dancing. Most importantly, he had a wonderful time.

I'm very proud of Christian, who was recently inducted into the National Honor Society and overall has done very well both academically and in his musical pursuits (in addition to singing, he also plays trumpet in the marching band, concert band, and jazz band). He's also a pretty good kid with a good head on his shoulders (most of the time!). It really is one of the biggest joys a parent can have, though, to see a child fulfill a dream. I'm so happy for him, so proud of him, and so thankful to our Heavenly Father for this blessing.

Next on Christian's agenda will be getting a job (it looks like two interviews this week) and getting his driver's permit; please pray for us!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Jacob's Trouble

My favorite Christian band of all-time is Jacob's Trouble. The group was around in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and made music heavily influenced by the Beatles, the Monkees and U2...which, naturally, caught my attention.

Loved their work. I still listen to it often and it gets the juices flowing. If I were ever to be in another band (I played the amateur musician in my teenage years and early 20s), it would without question be modeled after Jacob's Trouble.

I recently discovered their blog, set up for a reunion show they're doing in Atlanta (wish I could be there!). Love their stuff!

Here's a live video of their great song "Wind and Wave", if you're interested...

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Anything I could post on this blog pales in comparison to THIS!

Vision projects

This Sunday, I won't be preaching. Instead, our Trustees / Finance Committee / Vision Team, with the blessing of our Church Council, will be presenting the details of our upcoming building project. Lord willing, work will commence within the next few months.

A few years ago, under the inspired leadership of my predecessor, the Rev. Dr. Douglas Heagy, the people of JUMC revamped what was a very dated, worn sanctuary (and the entire church building) and made it an absolutely beautiful, intimate chapel, with diverse possibilities.

After that project was completed, the plans were laid for further "updating". The church's education building was built in about 1960, and it looks like it. Both the exterior and interior need serious work. Work is needed not only to modernize, but also to repair and maintain. The plans for the project are great, and include a connecting corridor between the two buildings, a lovely garden behind the facility, and a more suitable look.

Jefferson church is a wonderful community of faith, with lovely people and great opportunities in a quickly growing suburban area. By making these physical improvements, we'll be setting ourselves up well to accomodate what God has for us in the future, while honoring our heritage.

Our Lenten Bible study is focused on "prophetic ethics" God calls us to speak to our time, live a disciple's life in the 21st century, and reach the people in our part of the world. Later this month, our Church Council meeting will be devoted exclusively to the seeking of God's vision for our ministry. Where do we believe the Spirit is calling us in the next 3 years...5 years...10 years...and beyond? What do we need to do to get there?

Monday, March 05, 2007

Hospital calls

One of the most important aspects of pastoral ministry, certainly in the minds of most laity, is the pastor's responsibility to make hospital visits. We would all love it if our laity made their own visitation ministries more of a priority, but that shouldn't negate our pastoral responsibilities. While I am pretty faithful in hospital visitation (when I know that a parishioner or friend is in the hospital), too often I don't consider these visits among the most important parts of my ministry.

But they are. These are real moments of grace, when relationships are powerfully forged in the midst of crisis.

This morning, I visited an elderly lady connected with JUMC. In Jefferson Regional Medical Center now, she normally lives at a nearby Alzheimer's Care Unit, where they help take excellent care of her. As I spoke with this dear lady, I knew that she didn't grasp more than a word here or there. It was a precious visit. I read some Scripture to her, we talked, and we prayed (I normally anoint with oil as well, but didn't feel comfortable doing that unless she could clearly grant permission). I thanked her for allowing me to visit with her and told her I'd see her again tomorrow. Though she didn't really know I was there, who I am, or what was happening, did the visit make a difference?

I'm fairly certain that nothing I do today will be as important or meaningful as what I did this morning. There was grace in that room; it was a sacramental time, in many ways. The words of Scripture may not have been fully understood (are they ever, by anyone?), but the Spirit was doing what he does best...moving in a human heart.

I am blessed in that my office (and home) are 5 minutes from Jefferson Hospital, where I do the bulk of my visitation. Home for lunch now, this afternoon I'll be headed to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Oakland, making another call (for those unfamiliar with Pittsburgh, Oakland is the section of Pittsburgh which contains several large hospitals as well as the main campus of Pitt). I pray God's blessings upon my visit later today, that grace would be all-present and that the Spirit will move, and I pray once again for my elderly friend at Jefferson Hospital, that throughout this day she would feel the presence of the merciful God who loves her so dearly.

(Incidentally, an excellent book which has a wonderful chapter on the theology of visitation is Thomas Oden's Pastoral Theology, which I heartily recommend to everyone in ministry, as I do all of Oden's work.)

Friday, March 02, 2007

What is the "emerging church"?

At the behest of a friend, I've been reading up lately on the "missional", "vintage", "authentic", "emergent" or "emerging" church. While doing the research, I've discovered some things about the Church, this movement (or "conversation", as some call it), and myself. Some of these discoveries have been surprising, others not so.

What is the "emerging church", in my humble opinion?

D.A. Carson, a critic of the movement, believes that the movement began as a reactionary protest against the Baby Boomer style of Church (itself a reaction against the staid traditionalism of mainline Christianity), which has sought to be "seeker sensitive", "current", and "relevant", emphasizing "contemporary worship" and the now prominent "praise band" style of worship music. These churches, exemplified by Saddleback and Willow Creek, were viewed by many postmoderns (born after about 1968, perhaps a bit later) as being as compromised and institutionalized as their predecessors (the stereotypical "First Church" in what used to be the center of the community).

Emergent leaders sought something else from Christianity, something with more depth, something with more history, something with more transcendence. At the same time, they had no desire to simply return to the older compromises offered by mainline traditionalism.

Thus, a new "conversation" or "movement" was birthed, or is still in the process of being born. What exemplifies this new movement? A few traits follow.

* The emerging church is centered around a postmodern or post-"Baby Boom" worldview. This isn't to say that everyone involved in the movement was born after a certain date, but that the way that they view and process the world differs from the dominant worldview of the "Constantinian Church" (as defined by folks such as Hauerwas, Willimon, and Mead, well before the current movement began). Accordingly, emergents learn differently than their predecessors, they absorb information and process it differently; they are far more experiential than those who came before.

* The emerging church is centered around the concepts of dialogue and conversation rather than traditional apologetics or strict dogmatic statements. This isn't to say that "anything goes" in the movement; in fact, it seems to me that there is a real move to emphasize traditional ecumenical doctrinal positions among emergent participants. These positions tend to be very simple, consensus-based, and non-denominational, relying on what Roger Olson refers to as "the Great Tradition" (actually, his book The Mosaic of Christian Beliefs could emerge as a key text for emergent folks). Beyond these relatively few doctrinal keys (Incarnation, Trinity, Atonement, Resurrection, etc.), there is great room for discussion. Even outright heresy is not to be condemned if it is honest and open to change. Absolutes, in other words, don't have the same value they had for previous generations. Narrative theology is far more prominent than propositional Christianity (not that these two are necessarily in conflict).

* The emerging church often views its faith journey through the lens of popular culture. John Calvin and John Wesley remain strong voices, as do more recent thinkers such as Richard Foster and Stanley Hauerwas, but they vie for attention with U2, Yoda, Forrest Gump, Saturday Night Live, Homer Simpson, and Jerry Seinfeld. This isn't to suggest that emerging thinkers are necessarily shallow; far from it. It is merely to say that they paint from a much broader palette, and take into account a great many more voices when developing theology, including voices which may not be intentionally theological at all.

* The emerging church has little patience with "solitary Christianity". Community is celebrated as a primary value, and the idea that one can be a "private Christian" is largely rejected. The faith is to be lived in community. The emerging church affirms few ecclesiological guidelines. One can have a bishop or not, be in an episcopal system or not, be congregationally-based or not. All of this is subservient to the idea of community, wherever it may develop. As opposed to the "megachurch" bodies, community for emergents is best celebrated in much smaller units, which provide more intimacy, accountability, and relational opportunities.

* The emerging church is strongly interested in both "ancient" and "modern" models for Christianity. Older hymns, liturgies, and symbols are utilized, as are guitars and chorus-singing. "High church" and "low church" blend. There tends to be a high view of the sacraments, as opposed to the lower views held by many of the "Baby Boomer" bodies (such as Saddleback and Willow Creek).

* The emerging church is intensely political. Rejected, however, are the often shallow claims of the Religious Right and the Secular Left, as well as any strict devotion to a political party. Emergents tend to be both anti-abortion and anti-capital punishment; they tend to be anti-war and anti-poverty. Poverty and AIDS, in fact, seem to be two significant issues among emergents, with the Iraq War becoming more important every day. My reading has shown that emergents tend to reject the leadership of both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and are looking for a political leader to inspire them and emphasize emergent issues (many seem to have high hopes for Barack Obama). It is key to note that emergent politics are lived politics...emergents aren't just interested in voting for someone to do something about poverty, they're interested in feeding the poor themselves...emergents aren't just interested in voting for someone to do something about AIDS, they're interested in loving AIDS patients personally. Again, emergents are very experiential.

* The emerging church loves technology, and much of the conversation is Internet / blogosphere based.

Key influences have been Walter Brueggemann, Richard Foster, Hans Frei, Stanley Hauerwas, Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, George Lindbeck, Jürgen Moltmann, William Willimon, and the Taizé Community.

Key figures include:
* Rob Bell (Velvet Elvis)
* Bono (U2)
* Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution)
* Dan Kimball (The Emerging Church)
* Scot McKnight (Jesus Creed)
* Brian McLaren (A Generous Orthodoxy, A New Kind of Christian)

One of the things I discovered while conducting this research is that I am, in many ways, "emergent". That surprised me, and still does, since I don't really see myself as very "current". Yet, I have developed (quite independently of the emergent conversation, the existence of which I was largely unaware) an emergent approach to ministry. That said, I'm not gifted to begin a new community of faith...not at all, not even a little bit.

A concern is that, if this is an important aspect of the future of the Church, Western PA Conference is largely lacking in both emergent leadership and emergent communities. We have a plethora of traditional congregations (including the one I serve), and some "Baby Boomer"-style congregations (such as Charter Oak, New Stanton and Concord).

I can think of only Hot Metal Bridge as a real "emergent" United Methodist community in our Conference, although I think Concord may be birthing a new piece of the conversation. There may be others; I plead ignorance. How can Western PA Conference intentionally adapt to this new generation and effectively enter the future into which God is calling us?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Farewell Arthur Schlesinger

"If we are to survive, we must have ideas, vision, and courage. These things are rarely produced by committees. Everything that matters in our intellectual and moral life begins with an individual confronting his own mind and conscience in a room by himself."

God bless Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007).

Schlesinger is being euologized today for being one of JFK's key aides, but his most important work had little to do with his time in the Kennedy Administration.

He was one of the most important historians of the twentieth century. What made his work so special wasn't his exhaustive research but rather his writing ability; Schlesinger knew how to take all of his research and utilize it to tell a good story, writing from the heart from a personal perspective, and in the process establishing firmly the American political liberal interpretation of twentieth century events...his first book on FDR was dedicated to Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Schlesinger believed to be the most important liberal ethicist/theologian of the times (until pacifist John Howard Yoder dismantled Niebuhrian thought in his classic The Politics of Jesus).

I heartily recommend Schlesinger's work to anyone. I often have disagreed with him and his interpretations, but, as someone who appreciates good writing, I've really admired him. You may want to take a good Schlesinger read to the beach, which could make for a fine afternoon.

Some of his best works are...

The Age of Jackson (1945 - Pulitzer prize winner)

"The Age of Roosevelt" series
* The Crisis of the Old Order: 1919-1933 (1957)
* The Coming of the New Deal: 1933-1935 (1958)
* The Politics of Upheaval: 1935-1936 (1960)

A Thousand Days: JFK in the White House (1966 - Pulitzer prize winner)

Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978)

The Cycles of American History (1986)

The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (1991)