Sunday, April 29, 2007

NFL Draft, Day 2

The big news today was that the Oakland Raiders traded wide reciever Randy Moss to the New England Patriots for a fourth round pick. Moss has more raw talent than any receiver who ever played the game, but character issues have prevented him from becoming a truly outstanding player. He is a real threat on the field, however, and if the Patriots can transform him, he could still emerge as the NFL's best. Most analysts yesterday believed that this move immediately made New England the favorite to win a fourth Super Bowl.

The Steelers traded up in the fourth round, which led to some real excitement for a moment. They traded up to select Daniel Sepulveda, a punter out of Baylor. That's right...a punter. By all accounts, he has been an excellent punter in college, and I appreciate the Steelers' attention to special teams, but I'm not sure I'm sold on the idea of taking a punter this high in the draft, particularly when the team really lacks some depth in other areas.

In the fourth round, they also selected Ryan McBean, a defensive lineman from Oklahoma State. This pick I like a lot. The name "McIlwain" is a derivative of "McBean", so I have to hope that somehow I am related to this 6'5", 280 pound Jamaican-born giant. He is extremely mobile for such a big guy (who will likely get even bigger), has overcome a lot of hardship in his young life, and has tremendous potential, if coached properly. With my cousin McBean shoring things up on the inside, I have great confidence in the future of the Steelers' defensive line.

The fifth round saw the team select Cameron Stephenson, an offensive guard from Rutgers. An Australian immigrant with Tongan blood (I dig the international flavor the Steelers are developing), he will bring some depth to the offensive line, and will likely practice at both right guard and center. A good choice. They also took William Gay, a cornerback out of Louisville. Rather small, my fear is that he will get burned in the NFL, facing the likes of Calvin Johnson and Randy Moss. This may be in essence another special teams pick. Finally, in the seventh round (the team had no pick in Round 6), they Steelers selected Dallas Baker, a wide receiver from Florida. It's hard to tell if he'll even make the team, unless it's on special teams.

While I think the Steelers had a solid Day 1 of the draft, there are a lot of questions concerning Day 2. Trading up for a punter? There are crucial areas in which the team is in need of depth, such as fullback, offensive line, and defensive secondary. I'm not sure these were the best decisions. But, I'm willing to give Coach Mike Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert the benefit of the doubt. I, for one, cannot wait until training camp begins in the summer!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

NFL Draft, Day 1

The great day has arrived; it's Christmas in April! On my 13th annual celebration and "personal day", Robyn and the kids went to visit my in-laws for the day, and I have had my four-alarm chili and breadsticks for every meal so far. I already feel sick; life is sweet!

The draft began with the two most poorly run teams in the NFL making their picks. The Oakland Raiders, run by owner Al Davis, selected LSU QB JaMarcus Russell, and the Detroit Lions, run by retired player Matt Millen, selected Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson. Both Russell and Johnson have the makings of excellent players, and Johnson has everything needed to become perhaps the best wideout in NFL history, but I have real concerns. These gifted young men are headed for two teams which have killed the careers of other talented players. These teams are so poorly run, so poorly coached, that we may look back at these picks someday as busts. I pray that this isn't the case.

The other big story of the day was that Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn, whom many had thought might be the #1 overall pick, slid all the way to #22. Initially passed over by many teams, including two which really need help at the QB position (Cleveland and Miami), the Browns traded up to finally obtain him. I believe that the Miami Dolphins, in particular, will really regret this decision to bypass a player who will likely be a very solid passer. At least Quinn was being consoled by a very cute of the perks of being QB at Notre Dame, I suppose.

With the 15th overall pick, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Lawrence Timmons, an outside linebacker from Florida State. I really like this pick. With good coaching, I think Timmons can develop into one of the NFL's best linebackers. He has the reputation of really disrupting the game (i.e., "being mean") and getting to the opposing quarterback quickly. He also has the ability to play in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense, and he'll need that versatility in the Tomlin-era Steelers.

The first round began at noon and ended at about 6:20 PM, making it the longest first round in the history of the NFL Draft.

In round two, the Steelers selected LaMarr Woodley, a defensive end from Michigan. He served as defensive captain on his college team, won the Lombardi Award for Best Defensive Lineman in the nation, the Hendricks Award for Best Defensive End in the nation, and was named the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year. He's big, strong, and tough, apparently relentless in chasing opposing quarterbacks, and, while the Steelers will convert him to outside linebacker (opposite Timmons), he has experience in the 4-3 defense Coach Tomlin loves.

The third round saw the Steelers select Matt Spaeth, a tight end from Minnesota. He was voted his college team's MVP and won the Mackey Award for Best Tight End in the nation. The massive Spaeth seems to be a good blocking tight end, which the Steelers usually love, but can also catch well. His character, team spirit and leadership skills were emphasized by all who have known him, which is great. Presumably, he'll back up starter Heath Miller, and may see a good bit of playing time.

All in all, I think the Steelers did well on the first day of the draft. They picked up two strong defensive players, which points to Coach Tomlin's vision of keeping the "steel curtain" tradition alive. These picks are two extremely aggressive young men. Spaeth looks to be a good fit on offense.

Tomorrow, I'd love to see the team get an offensive back to assist Willie Parker (this year's draft is pretty deep in that area), a cornerback, and some offensive line depth.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Henderson Lectures

Today, I attended the Henderson lectures at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This year, the speaker was Bishop William Willimon of the North Alabama Annual Conference. He was Dean of the Chapel at Duke for 20 years, was named one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world by a Baylor University study, and is the second most widely read writer by mainline pastors according to a Pulpit & Pew study.

Bishop Willimon is one of my primary contemporary influences, and it was great to hear him talk about "The Miracle of Preaching". Before his third (and final) lecture, Dr. John Burgess of PTS made the claim (with which I agree) that the 1989 book Resident Aliens, which Bishop Willimon wrote with Stanley Hauerwas, is one of the most significant Christian books of the last twenty years. I highly recommend it as a nice, simple intro to the work of both men.

Some of my notes from Bishop Willimon's presentation...

The modern world has a stake in keeping God silent.

We preachers don't like to admit that God has given us power; the preached Word is God's Word.

If God can even use the book of Proverbs to proclaim grace and change hearts, he can use anything. The book of Proverbs is like being trapped in a car on a road trip with your mother.

Preaching is a debilitating activity; preaching is hard, and most of your work is invisible.

The difference between a living God and a dead God is that the dead God will never surprise you.

God constantly reassures us, saying, "Hey... don't worry - you've got a college degree, it's North America, it's the twenty-first century, it's the Bush Administration - by comparison, anything you share will be good news."

We are in the business of teaching people a new language - the gospel.

In spite of Robert Schuller, self-esteem is not the same as salvation.

Our trouble began when we were no longer called preachers, but pastors, and our job became more therapeutic than proclamatory.

He went into an extended critique of Rick Warren and Joel Osteen and what he referred to as "power point preaching". He wasn't opposed to the technology as much as the style of preaching which usually accompanies these presentations, which he identified as sermon series' on "How to Cope" or "Principles for a Fulfilling Life". The Bishop felt that this kind of preaching reduced the gospel to a few simple principles and emptied it of its countercultural power. He felt it was too accomodating, too American middle class, and had little to do with the crucified and Risen Jew named Jesus. At one point, I whispered to a friend, "Bishop Willimon's been reading my blog!" Jeff Vanderhoff did not agree with Bishop Willimon's take on this style.

The preacher is the one who is called to love God more than he/she loves the congregation.

Words we'll never hear from God: "I love you just the way you are; promise me you'll never change."

Albright-Deering Lectures

Each year at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the Albright-Deering lectures on United Methodist Studies are held in April in honor of the Rev. Pat and Betty Lou Albright. They are wonderful people and friends of mine; Pat is pastor emeritus at Mt. Lebanon UMC. I try and attend each year out of love for the Albrights; they've also had some dynamite United Methodist scholars in years past, including Randy Maddox and Richard Heitzenrater.

Yesterday, Bishop Kenneth Carder spoke about "Friendship with the Poor: A Wesleyan Means of Grace". Readers of this blog will know that ministry to, for, and with the poor is a subject close to my heart, so I was excited about the subject. I was also able to connect with some sisters and brothers in Christ who were in attendance, which is always good...Dave Coul, Chuck Prevot, Deb Rogosky, Lola Turnbull, George Tutwiler, Jeff Vanderhoff, and Michelle Wobrak were just a few of the folks I had an opportunity to spend some time with.

Today, I'm heading back to PTS for another lecture series, this one presented by Bishop William Willimon, one of my favorite contemporary theologians. I had the chance to meet and speak with him briefly during General Conference 2004; today, I'm hoping to get my picture taken with him.

Some of my notes on Bishop Carder's presentation...

Ministry with the Poor - Why do it? Why make it a priority?

According to John Wesley...
1) It is the only way in which we can imitate Jesus.
2) It is the means through which God has ordained we can achieve sanctification and perfection.
3) It is the only way to be practicing what you ought to be preaching.

"Every pastor should be as familiar with the local jail as with the local hospital."

So much of what we do in the UMC is so middle class...from our worship styles to our clothes to the parliamentary procedure we use during Annual Conference; we've lost touch with the poor and need to reconnect.

Too often, when we talk about reaching out or church growth, we're talking about reaching out to those who are like us. We like to start new churches in white, middle class suburbs rather than in urban areas or rural trailer parks. (Note from Keith: I've said this many, many times, and this is especially sinful for our Conference because new faith communities in trailer parks or a downtown storefront would be relatively cheap to obtain, if we took the time to train our clergy and pledge to support the ministry no matter what.)

Most of us have seen the famous painting of Jesus knocking at the door. We often teach our children that this is an image of Jesus knocking at the door of a person's heart, and one needs to open the door to allow him to enter (the doorknob, after all, is on the inside). But maybe we ought to instead look at this as an image of Jesus knocking at our church doors saying, "What are you doing in there? Get out here!"

Remedies for our neglect...

1) We need to form relationships with people "on the other side of town"...the impoverished, inmates, AIDS patients, immigrants, drug addicts, minorities, trailer parks, public housing projects, etc.

2) Learn to access and utilize the gifts and talents of the poor...don't just minister to them - find ways to use their own precious gifts; exegete your ministry context.

3) Stay focused on Jesus Christ.

4) Develop an accountability and support community; you cannot do it on your own.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Struggling with Our Theology of Worship

...from the InterLink, the newsletter of the Western PA Conference, 4/27/07:

"'Worship is about inspiration – finding and discerning the inspiration that God is sending,' said the Rev. Steve Morse, who chairs the Conference Sessions Worship Team."

Let me say first that I have met and conversed with Steve Morse, and find him to be an extremely gifted musician and a theologically sound pastor. It is not my intention to discern his complete theology of worship based on a single off-hand quote in a Conference propaganda mailing.

But the quote does point to a serious problem in the Church - we suffer from an inadequate (and unbiblical) theology of worship.

The English word "worship" means "paying reverence to a divine being". The OT Hebrew word we translate as "worship" means "to prostrate oneself before God"; the NT Greek word we translate as "worship" also means "to prostrate oneself", also having the meaning of kissing the ring of a superior in subservience.

At no point does the context of "finding inspiration" enter the Biblical meaning. As a matter of fact, the Christian moment of inspiration par excellence, found in Acts 2, doesn't happen during a worship time, nor does St. Paul's great inspirational moment on the Damascus road in Acts 9.

Worship, in the Biblical sense, is to be focused upon the greatness and goodness of God, not our own search for inspiration. The Eucharist is referred to, in part, as "The Great Thanksgiving", not "The Great Inspiration". While our experience of God is certainly important, elevating "experience" to the top of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral has always resulted in a sub-Christian understanding of the faith.

I do not want to discount inspiration. Worship should be both inspired and inspiring, but orchestrating worship to be inspirational first essentially means that it ceases to be actual, Biblical worship, instead becoming something else, which may be very nice, but isn't necessarily Christian worship.

It also isn't about traditional vs. Baby Boomer vs. Emergent, or hymns vs. choruses, or organs and pianos vs. guitars and drums. That's all important but peripheral.

If worship is primarily designed to please people or to fill the pews, it isn't worship; it's an evangelistic inspirational time. Far too many congregations "go contemporary", adopting a Baby Boomer "praise band" style, in the hopes of attracting a crowd. As a result, they may end up with all kinds of evangelism (which is a good thing) but very little worship. My question would be, at that point, is the congregation still a "church", or is it some sort of para-church ministry?

We need to structure our worship so as to maximize not the crowd, but our sense of thankfulness to, reverence for and awe of God. This can be done in any number of styles, with many different kinds of liturgies. I believe the Basic Order found in The United Methodist Book of Worship is an extremely Biblical and effective Order, faithful to our heritage and looking to the future, but it is not the only Order which can be effective. Faithful worship done well can utilize any number of styles; the trick is to not be so distracted by the prospect of pleasing people and drawing crowds that one doesn't forget what Biblical worship is all about. The Steelers draw 60,000 people each Sunday, but that doesn't make it "Church".

Something I'd written previously still holds true...

Does our worship reflect...reverence? Are we awed by the presence of God?

Are we overcome with unworthiness and inadequacy as we enter into the presence of the Holy One of Israel?

Do we remember that the God who is with us and is immanent is also far beyond and above us and is completely transcendent, entirely different from us, "wholly Other"?

Are we too comfortable with Almighty God?

Is he too much "our buddy" and not enough "the LORD God of hosts", whose very name is too holy to speak?

Too often, we enter worship as a routine...traditional worship gone stale.

Many enter worship gleefully, as if the Super Bowl party is about to begin...contemporary worship gone mad.

While joy and celebration are certainly proper Christian practices, we should never allow our worship to be so "Happy, happy, happy" that we forget "Holy, holy, holy".

Monday, April 23, 2007

Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us...

"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."
- John 10:27 (ESV)

"The LORD is my shepherd..."
- Psalm 23:1 (ESV)

This week's lectionary readings refer to the images of sheep and shepherds.

Many Christians are captivated by the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The shepherd, after all, cares for the sheep...leads them to water and guides them to tasty pastures...protects the sheep from danger...shears the sheep of excess wool, helping the sheep to remain healthy and comfortable...and seeks out those sheep who have strayed. What a lovely, warm image, and it contains some precious truths.

But there are other aspects of the shepherd's role we don't like to talk about in polite company.

The shepherd also slaughters the sheep, and the Good Shepherd is no exception. In Biblical times, sheep were slaughtered for both religious sacrifice and food; even shepherds have to eat! Are you an acceptable sacrifice? Or do you taste a bit gamey?

Are we always ready to die? Certainly, some are called to physically die and suffer martyrdom for Christ. But all sheep are called to follow the Shepherd to some kind of slaughter. How is it that the Good Shepherd might be calling you to die (at his hands) today?

Jesus is our Good Shepherd, and we must try and follow his voice, wherever it is he leads us. But we must also remind ourselves that, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

Do we really mean it when we gruesomely sing...

"Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way!
Hold o'er my being absolute sway..."
(Adelaide Potter, 1902 - UMH 382)

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Which Methoblogger are you?

You scored as Keith McIlwain.
You are Keith McIlwain!
You abhor all violence,
except the savagery of the gridiron.

Keith McIlwain


Lorna Koskela


Abi Carlisle-Wilke


Theresa Coleman


Jonathon Norman


Art Ruch


Allan Bevere


John the Methodist


Gavin Richardson


Which Methoblogger Are You?
created with

Gracious, laughing thanks to John at Locusts & Honey.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Pittsburgh District Conference 2007

Our District Conference will be held this Sunday at Anne Ashley church in Munhall.

Traditionally, these are among the most boring of connectional meetings, and not much happens of any import. This year, things are a bit more important, as we will (presumably) be nominating folks for election to General Conference.

My name is on the list of potential nominees, but my selection as a candidate from Pittsburgh District is awfully slim; it's my first year on the district and I am (I think) relatively unknown. I have also been nominated for election to our District Committee on Ministry, and I'm excited about that, having really enjoyed my experience on the Connellsville District Committee.

Concerning nominations to represent Western PA at General Conference, it is important for our Conference to send the right persons to Texas in 2008, the right persons being those whom the Spirit chooses. Also important is the slate we send to Jurisdictional Conference, and we need to be serious about that as well. My prayer is that the Spirit will guide our district this Sunday to nominate the best candidates we can from among both clergy and laity, and that through our faithfulness, the Church is blessed.

Almighty and everlasting Father, you have given the Holy Spirit to abide with us for ever: Bless, we pray, with his grace and presence, our superintendent the Rev. Dr. Donald Scandrol, and other clergy and the laity of the Pittsburgh District soon to be assembled in your Name, that your Church, being preserved in true faith and godly discipline, may fulfill all the mind of him who loved it and gave himself for it, your Son Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
- Book of Common Prayer (adapt.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Prayer for Virginia Tech

"I've already run for dear life straight to the arms of God. So why would I run away now when you say, 'Run to the mountains; the evil bows are bent, the wicked arrows aimed to shoot under cover of darkness at every heart open to God. The bottom's dropped out of the country; good people don't have a chance'?

"But God hasn't moved to the mountains; his holy address hasn't changed. He's in charge, as always, his eyes taking everything in, his eyelids unblinking, examining Adam's unruly brood inside and out, not missing a thing. He tests the good and the bad alike; if anyone cheats, God's outraged. Fail the test and you're out, out in a hail of firestones, drinking from a canteen filled with hot desert wind. God's business is putting things right; he loves getting the lines straight, setting us straight. Once we're standing tall, we can look him straight in the eye."
- Psalm 11 (The Message)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Open hearts, Open minds, Open doors...

How would you react if Osama Bin Laden showed up in worship this Sunday? How should we react?

Certainly, this man represents radical evil in today's world in a way few others ever could. Bin Laden, most of us would likely say, hates God and all for which God stands, even while mistakenly believing that he is acting in a faithful way. He is, after all, an extremely religious man. He is also responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of thousands, and his actions have been nothing short of satanic.

So...suppose he showed up in worship on Sunday, and claimed to have met Jesus. Suppose he claimed to be completely penitent and that he had received forgiveness in Jesus' name, and now desired to praise the name of the Lord with you. Would you be uncomfortable? Confused? Frightened? Unconvinced? Would you immediately call the police or (for those who believe in "just war") hold him at gunpoint before the altar while waiting for the authorities to arrive? Would you break the bread and share the cup with him? Would you pray with him, anointing him with holy oil? Would you call Bob Zilhaver and ask, "What does the Book of Discipline say about this?"

There are no easy answers to these hypothetical questions. BUT...this is similar to the problem experienced in the first century when Saul suddenly professed to have met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and these hypotheticals suddenly became very real.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of St. Paul's conversion story isn't the blinding vision or the transformed heart...both very impressive, to be sure...but the fact that Saul found a Church which was willing to receive him. Though his conversion (and eventual claim to apostolic authority) met with great skepticism, Ananias, one of the finest examples of a Christian in all of history, set his fears and confusion aside to faithfully answer the Lord's call to minister to this new Christian, and to receive him into the Church of Christ through baptism.

Are we as faithful? If Ananias and the Damascus church could receive a well known assassin, could we do the same? Are we truly "open" to even the most undesirable of persons? Ananias surely didn't agree with Saul's behavior, but was still willing to embrace him, hoping that through the Spirit's power in baptism, the disobedient behavior might change. Are we listening for the Lord's voice, and seeking ways to be faithful even in the midst of confusion and uncertainty?

Are we like Saul, extremely religious and committed to the letter of the law? Or are we like Ananias, moving beyond religious words and forms to a lifestyle of vulnerability, compassion and grace?

"Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision...'Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.'

"But Ananias answered, 'Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.'

"But the Lord said to him, 'Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.'

"So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, 'Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.' And immediately something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and his sight was restored.

"Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, 'He is the Son of God.'"

- Acts 9:10-20 (NRSV, adapt.)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Farewell Kurt Vonnegut

God bless Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007).

The Benefit of the Doubt

"...Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, 'We have seen the Lord.'

"But he said to them, 'Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.'

"A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you.'

"Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.'

"Thomas answered him, 'My Lord and my God!'

"Jesus said to him, 'Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.'"
- John 20:24-29 (NRSV)

Thomas is a personal hero of mine. I really relate to this particular apostle, and feel he's gotten a bad rap in Church history.

This was a brave man, ready to die for his Lord. When Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem, it was Thomas, not Peter or John, who said to the other disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." (John 11:16, NRSV) After being confronted by the Risen Christ, it was Thomas who made one of the first great claims of orthodox Christianity, proclaiming Jesus to be "My Lord and my God!"

Thomas doubted that which was beyond his own experience. This tells me that he was human. I also doubt. I am inquistive and have many, many questions about life concerning which I'd like to get God's answers. I also have a good number of theological questions for God, and ponder these questions often.

But, like Thomas, I'd like to think that I am willing to die for Jesus. Additionally, though my doubts are real, I absolutely affirm the orthodox claims of the Church, trusting in her wisdom. At the same time, I'm happy to debate, discuss, and dialogue concerning Pilate's query, "What is truth?"

I believe there is a difference between normal, healthy, human doubt, which is a part of us as persons created in God's image, and full-fledged skepticism, which is inherently pessimistic and definitionally incapable of affirming any dogmatic claims. For me, doubt is exciting and positive, because it propels me to question and to learn and to ask in every situation, "What is this saying, theologically?"

I thank God for Thomas, through whom God gives me permission to have my doubts, to ponder, to question authority, and to struggle with issues both large and small. I give thanks to God for doubt, which is not the opposite of faith, but its ally.

(By the way, it's good that I'm allowed to doubt; right now, I doubt that the Pittsburgh Penguins will turn their first playoff game of the year into anything other than a terribly ugly experience for Penguins fans. I feel like I'm watching the Pirates, not the Penguins, and, therefore, I am naturally filled with doubt. Lord, have mercy.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Which Superhero are you?

Your results:

You are

You are intelligent, witty, a bit geeky
and have great power and responsibility.

Green Lantern
The Flash
Iron Man
Wonder Woman

Click here to take the "Which Superhero are you?" quiz...

The Business of Forgiveness

"On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, 'Peace be with you.' When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

"Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.'

"And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.'"
- John 20:19-23 (ESV)

We read of an incredibly powerful and important Christian practice in this brief passage from John's Gospel. Jesus has commanded his disciples to be about the business of forgiveness. We are to be a forgiving Church; we are to proclaim the assurance of pardon.

Evangelical Christians have traditionally been very good at talking about penitence and the need for confession of sin. We have not always been as effective at offering real forgiveness and, more than that, assuring a penitent sinner of forgiveness.

In corporate worship in many United Methodist congregations, "Confession and Pardon" are often viewed as antiquated practices of a Church which is "out of step" with modern sensibilities (nevermind that all ordained United Methodist clergy took sacred vows before God to be loyal to the "order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline" of The United Methodist Church, which includes Confession and Pardon in her Service of Word and Table).

The truth is that we need this liturgical practice in the Church; it is, according to Jesus, an important part of who and what we are as his disciples. As we see in John 20:23, the authority to forgive sins was intimately connected from the very beginning of the Church with the reception of the Holy Spirit. Additionally, Good Friday and Easter are bound up with the proclamation of forgiveness, for Jesus said that, "...Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead...that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations." (Luke 24:46-47, ESV)

And yet many Christians - even faithful Christian leaders - are hesitant to offer forgiveness and declare that a person is forgiven, afraid that we might step on the toes of the Almighty. Forgiving sins is, to be sure, inherently the prerogative of the Father, which he subsequently shared with the Son. Jesus, in turn, granted this authority to his disciples. Indeed, declaring forgiveness is one of the most apostolic acts we can perform.

Our United Methodist liturgy has a wonderfully simple act for Confession and Pardon, adapted (as is so much of our liturgy) from The Book of Common Prayer, the finest English language liturgical resource on the planet next to the Bible.

After a corporate confession of sin, the pastor is directed to lead in this powerful exchange...

"Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God's love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
Glory to God! Amen."

This is no relic from an archaic institution; it is an incredibly meaningful act to say to a person, "In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!" Often, this declaration can mean the difference between an unsound religiosity and an authentic experience of the transforming grace of God.

It is important for Christian leaders (esp. clergy) to be ready to offer and declare forgiveness in Jesus' name to any penitent sinner on an individual basis, to be sure. Some of the most momentous pastoral moments in my own experience have been with persons nearing the end of their lives in this world, who tearfully and warmly receive the assurance that they have indeed been forgiven.

But let us not abandon the corporate confession and pardon; we are, after all, redeemed as a community of faith, not as individuals of faith, as parts of the living Body of Christ, not dismembered pieces of a corpse. Personally, this simple liturgical act is one which I cherish as part of my own pastoral leadership, and am extremely humbled each time I offer forgiveness on behalf of Our Lord, and am quite moved when I am subsequently forgiven by the congregation in Jesus' holy name.

"God forgave my sin in Jesus' name,
I've been born again in Jesus' name,
And in Jesus' name I come to you to share his love as he told me to.
He said, 'Freely, freely you have received; freely, freely give.
Go in my name and because you believe, others will know that I live.'
All power is given in Jesus' name, in earth and heaven, in Jesus' name;
And in Jesus' name I come to you to share his power as he told me to.
He said, 'Freely, freely you have received; freely, freely give.
Go in my name and because you believe, others will know that I live.'"
- Carol Owens, 1972
(The United Methodist Hymnal #389)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Easter postscript

"...Mary Magdalene turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, 'Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?'

"Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, 'Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.'

"Jesus said to her, 'Mary.' She turned and said to him in Aramaic, 'Rabboni!' (which means Teacher)."

- John 20:14-16 (ESV, adapt.)

Ah, the distractions of life. We are distracted by culture, work, family, ministry, news, and, of course, self. At one time or another, we allow one or all of these things to keep us from focusing on what matters most...Our Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

At the tomb, Mary Magdalene was distraught and confused, for the body of the Lord seemed to be missing. So consumed was she by her own grief, she was unable to recognize the presence of the Risen Christ before her. Certainly not expecting to hear the beloved voice of her dead leader, she assumed him to be the gardener. (In her defense, Mary wasn't the only Scriptural hero to make this error; we read of other disciples making the same kind of mistake in Luke 24 and John 21.)

How many times I have done the same! I get so preoccupied and busy with myself, and with the many concerns of life and work, that I forget that my living Lord is right before me, in my very presence.

His presence is a wonderful thing! At Easter, we see the (partial) fruition of the ancient prophecy that in Jesus, truly, "God is with us". Yes, sometimes the distractions of life cause us to miss his presence, but he nevertheless remains with us.

This is wonderful news for our age. I am convinced that our society suffers from an epidemic of loneliness. So many people feel alone and utterly disconnected from those around them, even though they may be surrounded by love, that anyone who cares about people needs to be seriously looking for ways to help.

Alan Moore, one of the world's most important postmodern (or perhaps "pre-postmodern") fiction writers, wrote these words in 1987, which capture well this modern feeling of alienation:
"Crazed with helplessness, I cursed God and wept, wondering if he wept also. But then, what use his tears, if his help was denied me? My own sobbing had frightened the gulls. They departed... and in the terrible silence I understood the true breadth of the word 'isolation'."
What a wonderful promise, then, is the presence of the Risen Jesus! We need not "bring Christ" to people as much as help them to recognize that Christ is already with them, already loving them, already at work in their lives.

As Alfred Ackley wrote in his great 1933 Easter hymn, "...just the time I need him, he's always near." There is a dark night of the soul, and it is pervasive in Western civilization, but in the midst of the night is the light of the Risen Jesus. Today, I'm thankful (and a little distressed, to be honest) that Jesus is still with me and will remain with me " the end of the age."

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Sunday 2007

It's difficult to improve upon these wonderful words written by the premiere poet of Methodism...

"Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!
Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!

"Love's redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!

"Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!"

- Charles Wesley
(The United Methodist Hymnal #302)

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday 2007

"He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

"Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

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

"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned - every one - to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all."
- Isaiah 53:3-6 (ESV, adapt.)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Which Church Father are You?

You’re St. Melito of Sardis!

You have a great love of history and liturgy. You’re attached to the traditions of the ancients, yet you recognize that the old world — great as it was — is passing away. You are loyal to the customs of your family, though you do not hesitate to call family members to account for their sins.

Find out which Church Father you are at The Way of the Fathers!

Thanks to Rick Mansfield of THIS LAMP...and that's all I need.

Holy Thursday 2007

"Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.'

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.'"
- Matthew 26:26-29 (ESV)

It's always been a big deal for me that Jesus said, "...this is my body..." and "...this is my blood...". Nowhere does he say, "This represents my body" or "This symbolizes my blood". Despite that, far too many Protestants are quick to make the claim that the Eucharist is only a memorial meal, albeit one in which grace may be imparted to those who partake in faith.

That is nothing short of textual eisegesis, which should always be avoided, especially by those who value the authority of Scripture.

Methodism has historically rejected transubstantiation, the Thomistic doctrine which has become the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Also rejected have been ubiquitarianism, taught by Lutherans and sometimes erroneously referred to as consubstantiation; virtualism, taught by Calvin; and memorialism, taught by Zwingli.

What's a Methodist to do? The answer is simple: trust Jesus. Take him at his word, and don't worry about how it all works. Sacrament, after all, is the Latin translation of the Greek word "mystery". We are free to let it remain a mystery. The Eucharist is a sacred meal to be celebrated and enjoyed, not a puzzle to be solved.

Aside from that, sacraments are, according to Article XVI, "...not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they are certain signs of grace...". There is a difference between a sign and a symbol.

A symbol is a stand-in, a replacement. A sign, on the other hand, is a mark, an image, or a seal...something which confirms, and/or something which directs one in a certain way. The word is rich with meaning.

So, when we share the sacrament, we become a part of the story, and the Spirit is among us doing miraculous things. The bread, as Jesus claimed, is his body; the cup is his blood. Let us partake faithfully as we celebrate this holy evening.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Dayton Mix is a fellow pastor in Western PA Conference and has been my best friend for nearly two decades. He's one of the people I most respect, this side of heaven.

He's been having some health problems lately (please lift him up in your prayers), and has also been dealing with some connectional headaches, which he bravely details here.

Do This; Remember Me!

In 2003, I wrote a hymn text on the theme of Our Lord's Last Supper, entitled “Do This; Remember Me!” I've used it in worship every Holy Thursday since then; this will be the first year I've used it at Jefferson church. Other congregations have also used it.

The hymn has been featured on the worship site of the General Board of Discipleship (see here), and is listed again this year as one of their "official" recommendations for Holy Week use. The hymn is also part of the great Cyberhymnal site (see here), which in my opinion is the top hymnal on the web (I use it often in my planning and prep, along with the more UM-oriented Hymnsite).

I share this info here because I really like the hymn, which, as with most things in my life, is more a result of God's grace and Robyn's patience than any gifts of mine. I think the text effectively communicates, in a very simple way, the barest meaning of the Blessed Sacrament, and can be used in a traditional or contemporary setting any time the bread and the cup are shared, not only on Holy Thursday. If anyone is interested in obtaining the sheet music for the hymn, let me know, and I'll get it to you.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Some Questions Regarding the Poor

If we're serious about "incarnational ministry", as well as "solidarity with the poor", then should we...

...only wear clothes obtained from Goodwill or the Salvation Army, where we expect the poor to get their clothes?

...only eat the relatively cheap, sometimes outdated food often offered at local food pantries?

...use primarily public transportation, which we expect the poor to utilize?

...deny ourselves restaurant meals or Steelers tickets or other fringe benefits of being "middle class"?

...refuse better health care, making use instead of only emergency room care?

If not, then what does "incarnational ministry" mean?

And how then do we practice and embody our belief in the Doctrine of the Incarnation (which, for United Methodists, is defined simply in Article II and Confession Article II)?

Would it be fair to ask these questions of ministerial candidates? Or candidates for election to General Conference? Or the episcopacy?

No answers; just questions.

"We must see another's poverty as our own
and be convinced that the poor can wait no longer."
- John Paul II, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 1992

What a tangled web we weave...

President Bush has demanded that Iran release the British sailors being held by the Iranians for an alleged security threat.

The question comes to mind whether or not President Bush has the moral authority at this time to make such a demand. Though I have serious disagreements with him, I like the president and believe him to be a well meaning man and a sincere Christian trying to do his best during excruciatingly difficult times.

But, we have kept prisoners at Guantanamo Bay for years, held as alleged security threats. I have no doubt that at least some of the Gitmo prisoners are terrorist combatants; I also believe that the British sailors were likely just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that the scary Iranian leadership is using this situation (and these sailors) as an excuse to further its own bizarre ends; I am reasonably certain that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a lunatic.

Still, President Bush has made some questionable decisions which have now resulted in at least ethical ambiguity, and potentially a complete lack of moral authority.

President Bush wants to secure his nation; President Ahmadinejad wants to secure his nation.

President Bush has been willing to detain individuals indefinitely he claims are potential threats to national security; President Ahmadinejad has been willing to detain individuals indefinitely he claims are potential threats to national security.

Mind you, I don't believe the two presidents to be morally equivalent. But I also believe that President Bush has put himself in an awkward situation by blurring the ethical lines in Gitmo, and now in the odd position of denouncing the same act when it's committed by someone else.

Of course, for me this points out the strange and inconsistent road that is "just war" philosophy. First we make one compromise, then another, and, before we realize it, we're even violating "just war" principles by demanding "unconditional surrender", dropping atomic bombs on civilians, or holding prisoners indefinitely, without any resolution in sight.

We need to be in prayer for both presidents, for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for the British sailors now held, and for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. And, of course, we need to be in prayer for the Church, that in a day when people seem desperate for moral clarity, we might faithfully be the voice of God.

Almighty God, kindle, we pray, in every heart the true love of peace, and guide with your wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth, that in tranquility your dominion may increase until the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)