Friday, October 29, 2010

Why Christians Should Celebrate Halloween, Part 3: Racism & Incarnational Ministry

It's hard to believe in 2010, but there once was in the United States a tremendous amount of racist energy directed at people of Scottish and, especially, Irish descent. Today, it seems that these British subcultures are so much a part of the fabric of America that we may not remember what it was like for those first poor immigrant farmers who came to a new world after severe famine (in the case of the Irish) or after being cleared off their land for political and racial reasons (in the case of my own Scottish ancestors). Those of us more historically minded might recall the "Nativist" movement of the 19th century and political drives such as the so-called "Know Nothing" Party. Racism remains an ugly aspect of our society, a grave sin which permeates so much of Church and culture; it has been so for many, many years.

It bothers me, therefore, when Christians are able to look at German pagan traditions, such as what we now call "Christmas trees", and adapt them for our own use. The claim is that these are harmless practices which are worthy of salvific grace, and can be transformed into something positive. Most churches will happily include a tree in their holidat celebrations; the Advent wreath, too, has its roots in pagan practice, but most congregations will use them come December.

Many are willing to transform German pagan traditions, or English, or Italian, into proper Christian practices, but refuse to do the same for the traditions of my own ancestors. The Scottish and Irish traditions are, for many, not worthy of salvation or transformation, and ought to be damned. Apparently, for many, the Irish are worth just that...damnation.

This is racism. Why are German, English, or Italian traditions viewed as superior in some way? Racism. Some sins die hard.

In our family, I insist that we mark Halloween, out of respect for our heritage. True, it is now, for us, a celebration of Christ's victory over the powers of darkness, but we mark it as a part of our own family tradition, as my ancestors did years and years ago, in their own way.

My prayer is that the racism inherent in rejecting Halloween while embracing the pagan pasts of other racial groups will soon fade away and be fogotten.

The final reason Christians should celebrate Halloween may be, from a ministry perspective, the most important. Children in most American communities will be trick-or-treating on or near Halloween. This is a wonderful time for the young, as they dress up in fantastic outfits, walk throughout the community, and gather candy. What memories I have of Halloween nights past!

As God became incarnate in human flesh in order to save, so we as Christians must become incarnate in our communities if we are to assist in the divine mission. The Amish have a wonderful witness, but, in my view, we are called to be in the world...though, truly, not of it. Far too many congregations view themselves as so separate from a sinful community that they are unable to truly incarnate the grace and love of the Almighty.

Halloween offers a great opportunity to practice our calling to incarnational truly be a part of our community. An act as simple as smilingly handing out candy to children can demonstrate the awesome love of God in exceedingly powerful ways. This can be prevenient grace in action. The Christians who offer safe candy to children are doing a wonderful thing, for we all need to be conscious of safety on Halloween night, as on every other night of the year.

Or...we can fail to take advantage of this opportunity. We can even encourage our sisters and brothers to boycott this "night of darkness". I've known Christians who have done this. This is certainly an option, but, in my opinion, we're sending a truly wicked message if we do so. If we do so, we are saying to the children of our communities, "This is not a safe house. Look elsewhere for someone to offer a smile and candy." God forgive us.

I have endeavored to show that celebrating the once pagan Halloween is no different in many ways from celebrating the once pagan Christmas and Easter...that we have strong Biblical and theological reasons for embracing Halloween...that we should oppose the historic racism which still permeates our culture...that we have a holy obligation to minister to the children of our communities. It is my prayer that thosewho might reject Halloween would prayerfully ponder these points and come to a change of heart, and that my pastoral brethren who are approached about Halloween might have some information and starting points for discussion.

It is my sincere prayer that every person who reads this post has a wonderfully blessed Halloween. God bless us, every one!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why Christians Should Celebrate Halloween, Part 2: The Lordship of Christ & Colossians 2

"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

"When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

"Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 'Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!'? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence."
- Colossians 2:8-23 (NIV)

The first and most important fact established in Colossians 2:8-23 (indeed, in the entire epistle) is the Absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ. Jesus, who is fully divine though incarnate in human flesh, is the Lord of All There Is; there is nothing over which he does not reign supreme. This fundamental truth is one of the foundations of Christianity; many would say it is the foundation. Certainly, Christians can agree on the central reality of Jesus' Lordship.

Second, the passage teaches us that Jesus has already triumphed over the "powers and authorities" of evil, having "disarmed" them by the power of the Cross. In other words, the evil, demonic powers of the world - call them sin, Satan, Beelzebub, Death, demons, disease, hate, war, country music, etc. - are defeated enemies who simply have not yet admitted defeat, and are trying to take out as many of us as possible before they are completely stripped of power. But, ultimately, these evil powers are subservient to the first theological point established here...the Lordship of Christ. They have no power over Jesus.

Third, we learn in this passage that Christians have been "given fullness in Christ", have put off "the sinful nature" by being circumcized into the Body of Christ through baptism and faith. Having experienced the New Birth, we are now alive in Christ and forgiven, no longer bound by "the written code with its regulations". Essentially, this means that the evil powers and authorities of this world are not our lords. They have no power over Jesus; they have no power, therefore, over those who are one with Christ.

Presumably, these three theological points are aspects of Biblical faith with which most Christians find agreement.

But the writer of Colossians, whom I believe may well have been St. Paul (despite the doubts of many scholars), "fills in the blanks" beautifully with some tasty little details, which can affect how we note Halloween.

"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ...And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross...Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day."
St. Paul writes that we are not to heed human tradition which flies in the face of the theological truths already established about our Faith...namely the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the defeat of the evil powers of the world, and our participation in Jesus' victory.

Why, then, are Christians reluctant to celebrate Halloween, some calling it "the Devil's Day"? Let me be as perfectly clear as I can be: the Devil has no day. Jesus is Lord of every day of the year, including October 31. To claim that evil has some kind of extra power on that one night is nothing short of apostasy, for it denies the absolute Lordship of Jesus. Definitionally, for the Christian, Halloween is no more or less sacred or holy than Christmas, Easter, or Super Bowl Sunday; Jesus presides over every day of the year. Evil has no authority over Jesus, nor over his saints.

The apostle goes on to write that, on the Cross, Jesus so humiliated the powers and authorities of this world that he "made a public spectacle of them". Were it not for the horrors of Good Friday, one can almost picture the Heavenly Host openly laughing at the demonic hordes, who believed they had triumphed but had actually suffered the greatest defeat in history. Jesus embarrassed the evil powers, he humiliated them, he made a public spectacle of them. What a great truth!

It seems to me that Christians have a tremendous opportunity each Halloween to remember and mark Hell's humiliation. By donning masks, we are openly mocking the evil forces which would seek to destroy us but are powerless to do so. We are saying to the satanic minions of the underworld, "There is nothing you can do to me; Jesus has won the victory! I openly mock you, as my Lord did, and, like him, I make a public spectacle of you!" Viewed as an opportunity and not a hurdle, it's a wonder that more evangelical Christians don't dress up on Halloween.

Finally, we learn a lesson that can help us in our darkest days. St. Paul writes that we should not worry about being judged by what holidays we keep or fail to keep. Those who would judge based on whether or not we celebrate Christmas, or Easter, or Pentecost, or All Saints, or Halloween, are engaged in what the apostle refers to as "false humility". Are we more or less holy because we don a mask, play with children and eat candy? Hardly; we are sanctified by the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Already made holy and, hopefully, growing in holiness daily, no mask or holiday can alter what Jesus has done for us.

So, if on Halloween one chooses to celebrate Jesus' Lordship and his victory over evil, the complaints of detractors should not be a concern. Likewise, if someone is struggling with issues surrounding Halloween, whether it is questioning the Lordship of Christ, doubting the completeness of his victory, or because of racism, those who have chosen to celebrate should not actively attack those who have chosen to abstain. Prayer is a far more appropriate and effective response.

You may not agree with this exegesis of Colossians 2 which, I confess, contains some eisegesis. But I urge you to ponder these issues and pray on them.

My final post will deal with issues of racism surrounding Halloween as well as the incarnational ministry to which we are called each day, even on October 31.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why Christians Should Celebrate Halloween, Part 1: A Holiday History

In ancient times, a grand celebration was held to remember the coming of salvation into the world. A god had been born as a human baby, enfleshed in the very stuff of creation, and had brought with him hope, joy, and rebirth. Eventually, this holiday, marked on or near the start of winter, was celebrated with wonderful feasts, the exchanging of gifts, lovely music, and the lighting of candles.

The holiday, known originally as "Saturnalia", became better known as "Dies Natalis Solis Invicti", or "The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun God", and was one of the most anticipated days of the Roman year. Families would gather and celebrations would extend from the temples to the homes of kinfolk. It was, by all accounts, a wonderful day.

Years later, with the spreading of Christianity throughout Europe, people who had come to accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ were reluctant to abandon this lovely celebration. After all, family gatherings and giving gifts to children were good things, and surely the Church could affirm these practices. Indeed, the Church could have, should have, and did. Soon, the pagan celebration of the sun god was syncretized with the traditions of Matthew 1 and Luke 2 to create the holiday we now celebrate as, of course, Christmas. This blessed day, thoroughly Christian, has distinctly pagan roots.

Easter comes to us in similar fashion. The name of this, the most important day in the Church year, is derived from Eostre, an ancient sun goddess of the Anglo-Saxons whose rebirth was celebrated in spring, at roughly the same time as the Jewish Passover and the Resurrection of Jesus. The name itself is strikingly similar to related figures in other Indo-European mythological traditions, such as Astarte (Canaan), Eos (Greece), Ishtar (Babylon), and Ushas (India), and even the Hebrew Esther. Upon the Christianization of Britain, the Resurrection was commemorated each spring and quickly adopted many of the symbols associated with the pagan celebration, such as feasting, rabbits, and eggs. This holy day, thoroughly Christian, has distinctly pagan roots.

Among the last Europeans to be converted to Christianity were the Celts of Scotland and Ireland, who celebrated a holiday known as Samhuinn (Scotland) or Samhain (Ireland). Essentially a New Year's harvest festival, it was the time when the gathering was complete and the people were ready for winter. It was also a bit frightening, for it was the one night of the year when the veil between this world and the "otherworld" was lifted; ghosts, the undead, and all sorts of terrible creatures might roam free, bringing with them terror and potential disaster. To ward them off, people carved scary faces into turnips, hoping to scare the evening ghouls. As a form of protection, some folks dressed as creatures of the night (a practice known as "guising"); children were sometimes given sweets and treats to keep them calm.

Samhuinn/Samhain practices became associated with All Saints/All Souls celebrations, just as Christmas and Easter had adopted pagan concepts. In the 19th century, Scottish and Irish families began emigrating en masse to the United States, and they brought many of their traditions with them, which were soon Americanized and largely softened. By the mid-20th century, Halloween was a major American holiday, many of its pagan roots transformed into more "kid friendly" practices such as trick-or-treating or the carving of Jack O'Lantern pumpkins.

In upcoming posts, I plan to look at the reasons Christians should celebrate this great holiday we call Halloween. Issues of Biblical faith, racism, and incarnational ministry will be on my agenda. This post establishes some of the historic background I'll be working from. Much of this information comes from research for sermons, teaching opportunities, or presentations past. I love Halloween, and hope you do as well.

Bannatyne, L.P., Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History. 1998.
Bourke, Joanna, Fear: A Cultural History. 2006.
"Christmas." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007.
Hutton, Ronald, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, 1993.

Kelly, Joseph, The Origins of Christmas. 2004.
MacMullen, Ramsay, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries. 1997.
Tighe, William, "Calculating Christmas". Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. Dec 2003.

Uselton, Bill, Trick or Treat: The History of Halloween. 1997.
Venerable Bede, On the Reckoning of Time.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Greatest Classic Monsters (2010 edition)

1 - Vampires
(best: Schreck, 1921; Lugosi, 1931; Lee, 1958)

2 - Frankenstein's Monster(s)
(best: Karloff, 1931; Karloff & Lanchester, 1935; Boyle, 1974)

3 - Werewolves
(best: Chaney Jr, 1941; Naughton, 1981; Picardo, 1981)

4 - Kong
(best: 1933)

5 - Witches
(best: LaVerne, 1937; Hamilton, 1939; Lake, 1942; Hayes, 1969; Huston, 1990; Robertson, 2007)

6 - Ghosts
(best: Scrooge, 1951; The Haunting, 1963; Beck, Poltergeist II, 1986;
Blair Witch Project, 1999; The Ring, 2002)

7 - Mummies
(best: Karloff, 1932; Parker, 1955)

8 - Zombies
(best: Romero films, 1968 ff; 28 Days Later, 2002)

9 - Godzilla
(best: Toho films, 1954 ff)

10 - Phantom of the Opera
(best: Chaney, 1925)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Worst Trick-or-Treat items to receive (2010 edition)

1 - Necco wafers

2 - Bible tracts denouncing Halloween as Satanic (just turn off your porch light and don't participate, folks; it's 2010, not 1310, after all)

3 - Good and Plenty

4 - Home-baked cookies (it's 2010; there's no way parents will let their kids eat these unless they know the baker personally)

5 - Pixie stix (they're good, but they're useless when wet)

6 - Those little wax bottles with weird juice in the middle

7 - Bit-o-Honey

8 - Oh Henry!

9 - Bite-sized candy bars (is it too much to expect the real thing?)

10 - Fruit of any kind (come on...what kid wants fruit when there's so much candy around?)

11 - Circus peanuts

12 - Raisins

13 - Anything coconut

14 - Mallo Cups

15 - Zagnut

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Willimon words

"The pastor is [often] reduced to the level of the soother of anxieties brought on by the dilemmas of affluence, rather than the caller of persons to salvation. My colleague Stanley Hauerwas has accused the contemporary pastor of being little more than 'a quivering mass of availability [emphasis mine].' Practicing what I call 'promiscuous ministry' - ministry with no internal, critical judgment about what care is worth giving - we become victims of a culture of insatiable need. We live in a capitalist, consumptive culture where there is no purpose to our society other than 'meeting our needs'. The culture gives us the maximum amount of room and encouragement to 'meet our needs' without appearing to pass judgment on which needs are worth meeting… In this vast supermarket of desire, we pastors must do more than simply 'meet people’s needs.' The church is also about giving people the critical means of assessing which needs give our lives meaning, about giving us needs we would not have had if we had not met Jesus."
- from Pastor: The Theology and Practice of
Ordained Ministry (2002)
by William Willimon

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Tweets from Wesleyan Leadership Conference, Day 3 (10/16/10)

Day 3 featured a roundtable discussion with Taylor Burton-Edwards (@twbe), Sandy Jackson, Scott Kisker, and Don Woolley, mediated by Steve Manskar of GBOD.

"There's something about a story..." Rev Katie Wilson of West OH Conf, during a breakfast conversation (love the quote!)

Don't try to fix the God & your neighbor. @twbe

Discipleship begins with humility. Sandy Jackson

Re: Discipleship in a Wesleyan context: There are standards. There are expectations. Meet them. @twbe

We can't manufacture the fruit of the spirit...but make yourself as vulnerable to the Holy Spirit as you can. Scott Kisker

Be relentlessly committed to the mission. Don Woolley

Working theme for UMC 2012 General Conference in Tampa, FL: Dicipleship by the Sea. (Not yet approved by Council of Bishops)

Unfortunately, the UMC has reserved Wesley's historic questions for the clergy; they're for ALL Methodists. Steve Manskar

What are your gifts? What is your passion? Practice it...use it to the utmost. Sandy Jackson

Church as we have it now is largely NOT set up to make people more like Jesus. Scott Kisker

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Tweets from Wesleyan Leadership Conference, Day 2 (10/15/10)

Day 2 speakers included Taylor Burton-Edwards (@twbe) of GBOD, Alabama pastor Don Woolley and Sandy Jackson of GBOD (and a native of the Western PA Conference!).

The UMC is suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. @twbe

We don't call him the HOLY Spirit for nothing. @twbe

The Church is a network, not a congregational unit or Conference unit. @twbe

Research shows that most UM clergy & laity do not take time to pray daily. Most do not know how to pray. @twbe

Our system is designed to reward non-performance of holiness. @twbe

Among people on the margin, there's not just apathy toward the Church out there; there is outright hostility. Don Woolley

Church "success" repels the unchurched. Don Woolley

Jesus Tribe was not a traditional "church plant" & got discontinued because it wasn't a congregation.

Mobile, AL is the place where Christendom will breathe its last breath. Don Woolley

God is a missional God...a sending God. Don Woolley

Methodism 1.0 was movement; Methodism 2.0 institution; Methodist 3.0 reclaiming the missional, movement identity. Don Woolley

This is a chance to rediscover who we were always meant to be. Don Woolley on the end of Christendom

Being missional = being in relationship, long term, on their turf. Don Woolley

If we put on the best show then we get the best market... consumeristic. You can't move beyond that. Don Woolley on the "attractional church"

The megachurch is a Baby Boomer has plateau'd...younger people need a new model. Don Woolley

2nd reference to the Borg today. We are all Trekkers now.

Many of the cages pastors live in have been built by their own hands; we have great freedom to do what we have to do. Don Woolley

Being missional would change UM appt process; "what does this community need to share Jesus", not focused on pastors or congregations needs. Don Woolley

"It's not our job to survive. It's our job to serve, even if it means we don't survive." Don Woolley

What if we measured success by how many 3rd graders in community can read @ a 3rd grade level, not how many people in pews? Don Woolley

What we count/measure (attendance, apportionments, etc) has more to do with institutional survival than mission. Don Woolley

There is no such thing as Christian community outside of mission. Don Woolley

It's easier to learn than it is to apply. Don Woolley // Amen.

Jesus came to us as a missionary; if we're to follow him, we must be a missionary people. Don Woolley

If you're only 5 people, go make a difference in 5 lives. Don Woolley

Instead of being the "aroma of Christ" we (UMs) smell like everyone else. Don Woolley

I'm very influenced by N.T. Wright. Don Woolley

There is a disconnect between Sunday morning life & Monday life. Sandy Jackson

Sandy Jackson talking about the doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers. 1 Pet 2:9

There are some good things in the Book of Discipline...mostly in the front part. Sandy Jackson

Sandy Jackson referring to Philippians 2, having the mind of Christ...holiness...discipleship.

If we're not careful we find ourselves following the teachings of Jesus that suit our temperament & avoiding those that don't. Sandy Jackson

Love that Sandy Jackson pauses to pray after making a point. Shows her humility & desire for obedience.

When you make dinner, make the best dinner you can (Col 3:23)...but sometimes you get burned. Sandy Jackson

Sandy Jackson has now referred to the doctrine of Christian perfection 3x in presentation. Our ignored UMC doctrine! Kudos!

The Holy Spirit will do what the Holy Spirit does...sometimes unexpectedly & quite inconveniently. Sandy Jackson

Monday, October 18, 2010

My Tweets from Wesleyan Leadership Conference, Day 1 (10/14/10)

Most of these are from Dr Scott Kisker, professor of history @ Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC. He was the conference's keynote speaker and his book Mainline or Methodist?: Rediscovering Our Evangelistic Mission was in large part the inspiration for the conference.

The hope is to develop a network of leaders who are committed to the Wesleyan way. Steve Manskar

"We are about people being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit...and that means an encounter with Jesus." Scott Kisker

The church's main job is to be the aroma of Christ...but too often we smell like everyone else. Scott Kisker

People in a consumer capitalist society generally don't wonder how they can win the approval of an angry God. Scott Kisker

Our love of God & neighbor is a direct reflection of whether or not we are saved. Scott Kisker

God made you & he made you to be happy in him & nothing else can make you happy. Scott Kisker quoting John Wesley

According to Wesley, the love of God & the grace of God are the same thing; grace is God's love. Scott Kisker

Before we do ANYthing, the love of God runs out to meet us. Scott Kisker on prevenient grace

Methodism has backslid. Scott Kisker

There is a real danger in thinking we can have a holy society w/o having a holy people...Methodism has lost that vision. Scott Kisker

Instead of spreading scriptural holiness, the UMC has focused on building a denomination with influence in society. Scott Kisker

We have allowed ourselves to be co-opted by the issues in the culture. Scott Kisker

The American dilemma: we have both malnutrition & obesity. Scott Kisker

We're the Church of England now..."state church mentality" Scott Kisker

You DO have something to offer; it's JESUS! It's not about having a better cinnamon roll than the next guy. Scott Kisker

The lie of the world is that we're OK. We're NOT OK; we're utterly dependent on Christ. Scott Kisker

Wesley said nothing original his entire life; praise the Lord! Theology that's original is heresy. Scott Kisker

Sanctification is about complete dependence on God and NO dependence on yourself. Scott Kisker

Consumeristic marketing is not evangelism. Scott Kisker

"I submitted to be more vile..." Wesley on field preaching, which he learned to love.

Wesley believed that if field preaching ceased, so would revival. Scott Kisker

The very nature of grace is that it always invites us into deeper relationship with God. Scott Kisker

"Attend upon all the ordinances of God" is not necessarily the same as "stay in love with God". We've lost something. Scott Kisker

The class meeting is little more than a memory for most of Methodism. Scott Kisker

Being in a Methodist band meant being priests for one another. Scott Kisker

It is amazing what power confession can have with human beings. Scott Kisker

The road to holiness is through confession. Scott Kisker

Class mtgs weren't for Christians but for servants of God..."good Pharisees". These are the Methodists. Scott Kisker

You cannot love God & neighbor without a neighbor; we need community. Scott Kisker

Unless you understand the gravity of sin, you don't know the full power of the love of God. Scott Kisker

If we're only meeting physical needs, we're not meeting needs. Scott Kisker

God's love was incarnate so that we might become God's love incarnate. Scott Kisker

Holiness means forsaking one's woldly identity & accepting Christ's identity. Scott Kisker

Contemporary mainline Methodists have become Pelagian. Scott Kisker

The education standards for Methodist ministers are too deforms people. Scott Kisker

Monday, October 11, 2010

Broadening & Focusing the "Bullying" Conversation

There has been a good deal of discussion on the social networks and in the media recently about bullying. The conversation, while appearing sporadically in the last few years after various incidents, really took off after the tragic suicide of a young man at Rutgers University, whose homosexual behavior was revealed by his roommate via an inappropriate video of the victim engaging in the behavior.

Wikipedia defines "bullying" as:
"...a form of abuse. It comprises repeated acts over time that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power with the more powerful individual or group abusing those who are less powerful. The power imbalance may be social power and/or physical power."
Without question, bullying is a terrible "form of abuse", and can scar people for life. People are bullied for all sorts of things, at many times in life. It's never good, and it hurts.

As a child and well into my teenage years, I was a victim of bullying. I was generally much smaller than most of my classmates, and was, in many ways, very, very different from most of them; I wasn't athletic in any way and preferred music and reading to physical competition. I was shy and extremely introverted; I was socially awkward and uncomfortable around strangers, and had a real problem with self-esteem. As a result, I was often a target of both physical and verbal abuse, and it hurt deeply. I often felt isolated and alone. My sixth grade year was particularly painful. In so many ways, I still see myself as that bullied young boy who doesn't quite "fit in" (feel free to psychoanalyze now!).

Bullying is real, and though it likely has been around as long as humanity itself, it continues to be a real issue for people of all ages.

It is a real tragedy that the bullying of the Rutgers student resulted in his suicide. We should not take this death lightly, and if this event can be used to jumpstart real conversation, then perhaps this young man's life will be honored in some way.

But I have serious concerns about how the conversation has been going.

First, the primary tragedy is not that a closeted homosexual was cruelly "outed"; it is that a young man is dead. Reducing any person to their sexual choices or opinions masks the worth of each human life. This young man was of infinite value in the Kingdom of God, and his untimely death is a catastrophe for all of us, for many, many reasons. My fear is that we incorrectly see this as a "gay issue" and not as a "human issue", which is far broader and even more painful. My friend Joe Miller boldly discusses this issue on his own blog; it's worth a look.

Second, I have been somewhat taken aback by the way many United Methodist Christians have approached this conversation. Too many United Methodists seem to have embraced this death as a "gay issue" (I mean no disrespect by the use of this phrase; it just seems the most concise rendering). This bodes badly for us all. Aside from the fact that it looks as if many of us may have missed the dehumanization of the victim in reducing this to a "gay issue", we may also be failing many people who still suffer from bullying, and others who are engaged in sexual behaviors which the Church does not condone.

The United Methodist Church, for good or ill, has a position on human sexuality. While it may not be a perfect statement, it nevertheless communicates to the world who we are and how we as a Church view these issues. While the entire statement from our Book of Discipline can be viewed here, pertinent pieces for this post include:
"We deplore all forms of the commercialization and exploitation of sex, with their consequent cheapening and degradation of human personality...We insist that all persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured. We recognize the continuing need for full, positive, age-appropriate and factual sex education opportunities for children, young people, and adults. The Church offers a unique opportunity to give quality guidance and education in this area.

"Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God's grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons."
An additional statement (which can be read in full here) makes clear that United Methodists are to stand against practices of fear or prejudice toward those engaged in homosexual behavior.

United Methodists (particularly clergy) need to live into these statements as best they can. This means, in my view, standing against the bullying of persons engaged in homosexual behaviors. These are persons to be loved, not feared or harmed.

Additionally, however, we are to help folks engaged in all kinds of behaviors - sexual and otherwise - to recognize that they can know redemption and deliverance in Jesus Christ. I'm reminded of something shared by Bishop William Willimon during a visit to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2007, in which he shared with those present some words we will never hear from God: "I love you just the way you are; promise me you'll never change." While we are to unequivocally stand against the bullying of persons who are targeted because of their sexual choices, this does not mean we should simply affirm their choices or behaviors. We should show them through love that Jesus has a better way for us. To do otherwise is to not only fail to live into our United Methodist covenant, but more importantly to miss an opportunity to share the unbounded grace of a merciful God who desires the best for each of us.

It is my sincere prayer that as the conversation in social media and the media continues regarding this subject, that we who are blessed to call ourselves United Methodist Christians will do our best to fully communicate the tragedy and hope surrounding the sad death of the Rutgers student and the blight that is bullying.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Ambition & Success

"I am convinced that personal pastoral ambition, and a pastoral ethic centered around productivity and success is brutal to our souls and destructive to the souls of the people we lead. I believe there is a better way. But it requires us to walk right into the messiness of our own ambitious hearts, ready to die to those ambitions. We must become skilled at detecting the odor of personal ambition, then flee from it as if the church's future depends on it. For I believe it does."
- Kent Carlson

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

"Who will go for us?": Henotheism & Isaiah 6

"And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' Then I said, 'Here am I! Send me.'"
- Isaiah 6:8 (RSV)

Who is the "us" mentioned in Isaiah 6:8?

In traditional Christian theology, this has typically been interpreted as a pre-Incarnation reference to the Holy Trinity. Certainly, John Wesley's Explanatory Notes take this view. While that is certainly a legitimate interpretation, I'm not convinced that it's entirely accurate.

Isaiah of Jerusalem's ministry took place in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. The world was unquestionably polytheistically pagan at that time. It was taken for granted, in fact, that there existed many, many gods.

Other nations found Israel odd largely because they were at least officially devoted to one god, YHWH. But early Hebrew religion did not claim that YHWH was the only god; the claim was made simply that YHWH was the sovereign god, and that the Hebrews were allowed to worship no other god.

The belief that while there are many gods only one should be worshiped is called "henotheism" by scholars, "monolatry" by theologians. Personally, I prefer the former term, as it seems less aggressive and more merciful to our ancestors in the faith.

I believe that the Hebrews were orginally henotheistic...perhaps the first true henotheists in the world. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses...they all seem to have been willing to accept the idea that other gods existed (or at least other divine beings), but were adamant in their devotion to YHWH as their unique covenantal god.

The first of the Ten Commandments seems fairly henotheistic to me, as the sole worship of YHWH is strongly endorsed without denying the existence of other divine beings. Some of the more repulsive stories of sin in the Old Testament refer to human sacrifice (especially of children) to terrible gods such as Chemosh and Molech...evidence that Israel at times practiced actual polytheism, and not even true henotheism.

In short, I believe that to be a faithful Jew for many centuries meant being a faithful henotheist. Isaiah of Jerusalem certainly qualifies. I believe that when the prophet hears and records God's words in Isaiah 6:8, he hears them through the lens of henotheism. God revealed his presence, truth, and salvation gradually, preparing us for his Incarnation.

When we read the words, therefore, "...who will go for us...", "us" refers to the other members of the heavenly court...the "hosts of heaven".

This is one reason why one of my favorite titles for God is "YHWH Sabaoth"... "the LORD of hosts" (used powerfully by Martin Luther in verse two of the first great Protestant anthem "A Mighty Fortess Is Our God"), and why I often use Bible translations which retain this translation, such as the RSV, NRSV, and ESV (the NIV and TNIV translate the phrase as "Sovereign LORD" which, while true, doesn't capture the full thrust of its historic meaning).

It's also a reason why perhaps my favorite creation story in the Old Testament is Psalm 89, which is really a masterpiece of henotheistic thought, recounting the tale of "YHWH Elohim Sabaoth", the Divine Warrior, who presides over his heavenly court and defeats the monster of chaos ("Rahab") to construct the world. Very Near Eastern, very mythological, extremely beautiful (though, like the more famous stories in Genesis 1 and 2, not meant to be taken completely literally).

Henotheism is a very strong part of our faith heritage, but Hebrew religion did not remain henotheistic. At some point, likely during the period of the Babylonian captivity, the Jews made the transition from henotheism to monotheism. Psalm 89, formulated in the Davidic era (but likely perfected at a later date), portrays creation from a henotheistic perspective; the first of the two creation stories in Genesis, largely an Exile era work, is a masterpiece of monotheism.

Even in the Book of Isaiah, we can see the transition. Whereas Isaiah of Jerusalem (or "First Isaiah") operates from a henotheistic weltanschauung, "Second Isaiah" is decidely monotheistic, as these verses demonstrate. By the time Jesus was born, the Jews were strongly monotheistic...the first true monotheistic faith in the world (despite the highly inaccurate claims of Zoroastrianism scholars such as Mary Boyce).

What does this mean for us, practically? Not much. Judaism is today a monotheistic faith, as is Islam. Christianity is a modified monotheistic faith (though Trinitarian is a better term). Henotheism survives today among the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as among Zoroastrians. While a part of our faith history, it is not a part of the Church's present or future.

Still, as a lover of history and as someone who eagerly desires to understand how our faith grew into its current form, henotheism remains a fascinating subject for study.

- modified from original post made on 1/31/07