Friday, December 19, 2008

On the Virgin Birth

"It may be admitted, of course, that the Virgin Birth is not flatly identical with the Incarnation, just as the empty tomb is not flatly identical with the Resurrection. The one might be affirmed without the other. Yet the connection is so close, and indeed indispensable, that were the Virgin Birth or the empty tomb denied, it is likely that either the Incarnation or Resurrection would be called in question, or they would be affirmed in a form very different from that which they have in Scripture and historic teaching. The Virgin Birth might well be described as an essential, historical indication of the Incarnation, bearing not only an analogy to the divine and human natures of the Incarnate, but also bringing out the nature, purpose, and bearing of this work of God to salvation. Hand in hand with its biblical attestation as a fact, it thus has a theological necessity which not only supplies its vindication, but also warns us that its repudiation will almost inevitably be accompanied by a movement away from truly evangelical teaching."

- from "Our Lord's Virgin Birth: Why It Matters that
'a Real Son of a Real Mother' did not have a Human Father",
a Christianity Today editorial 12/7/1959

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Wise Words from Mona Charen

He Did Good:
But the Left won’t give Bush credit

By Mona Charen

I can see it now. The world will be very different. The president of the United States will receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his lifesaving aid to victims of disease in Africa. Government and civic leaders from Europe and Asia will express their admiration. Americans will walk a little taller. Barack Obama will bow his head as the ribboned medal is extended …

But wait. The president who deserves such an honor is in office now. It is George W. Bush who has devoted so much time, energy, and money (well, our money, but it was legal) to fighting AIDS and other diseases in Africa.

From the beginning of his administration, President Bush has pushed for more aid to Africa. Motivated perhaps by his deeply felt Christian faith (relieving poverty in Africa has become a major charitable push among evangelicals), the president has pressed for greater aid to Africa across the board. The original PEPFAR legislation (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), which passed in 2003, was the largest single health investment by any government ever ($15 billion). At the time the initiative was launched, only about 50,000 sub-Saharan Africans were receiving antiretroviral treatment for AIDS. Today, 1.7 million people in the region, as well as tens of thousands more around the globe, are receiving such treatment. PEPFAR has also funded efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the AIDS virus, provided compassionate care to the sick and dying, and cared for 5 million orphans. One aspect of the program has been to reduce the stigma of the AIDS diagnosis in Africa.

In July of this year, the president requested that funding for PEPFAR be doubled to $30 billion. The new funding will be used to train 140,000 new health-care workers. It would also address other illnesses, like tuberculosis, that often complicate AIDS.

The president also backed a malaria initiative that has provided an estimated 25 million Africans with nets, spraying, and other prevention and treatment options. Separate from the AIDS funds, the president has tripled development assistance and humanitarian aid to Africa since taking office.

When he traveled to Africa earlier this year (his second trip to the region as president), President Bush was greeted by enthusiastic crowds and grateful heads of state. Of the ten nations around the world that expressed the most positive feelings toward the U.S.A. in a recent Pew poll, eight were in Africa. (The other two were Israel and the U.S.) President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania paid tribute to Mr. Bush, saying, as the Christian Science Monitor reported, “Different people may have different views about you and your administration and your legacy. We in Tanzania, if we are to speak for ourselves and for Africa, we know for sure that you, Mr. President, and your administration have been good friends of our country and … of Africa.”

“Bush Has Quietly Tripled Aid to Africa.” So headlined a Washington Post story from 2006. But the president has been trying not to be quiet about it. On the contrary, he’s been touting it as often as he can.

But he gets precious little credit. Yes, Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church has awarded President Bush the “International Medal of Peace” for his humanitarian efforts in Africa. And a few agitators for international aid like Bono and Bob Geldof have put in a few good words for the man. Actually, Geldof was pretty interesting. He said George Bush had done more for Africa than his predecessor and was “pissed off” at the press for failing to report it.

But for the most part, the beautiful people in America — the Hollywood and university types, the book and magazine publishers, and of course, the major media — have shown complete indifference to George W. Bush’s dedication to a cause they purport to value. In fact, they’ve pointedly ignored it. It goes without saying that if Obama does even half of what Bush has done for AIDS sufferers in Africa, he will be — in the eyes of those same people — a candidate for canonization.

Of course the Left can say whatever they like about George Bush and the war in Iraq and the war on terror. But when he does something completely in line with their own stated principles and values, it is simply mean-spirited of them to deny him his due.


Friday, November 28, 2008

Friday Top 10: Best Things About Thanksgiving

1 - An Excuse (as if one is needed) to thank God

2 - An Excuse to spend time with family

3 - Lots and lots of football

4 - Turkey (yum!)

5 - Dressing (yum, yum!)

6 - Potatoes (more yum!)

7 - Gravy (seriously...good with anything)

8 - Pumpkin pie (how can you not love this?)

9 - The Macy's parade & the unofficial start of the Christmas season!

10 - Indians & Pilgrims (It's the only day of the year when Calvinists are actually cool.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thanksgiving Letter to JUMC

I am a firm believer that God is very active in today’s world, still moving in exciting ways and often doing the unexpected. Because I believe this to be true, I can say that it is no accident that Thanksgiving Day is celebrated during the same month as All Saints Day.

"I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!

“I sought the LORD, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.

“Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the one who takes refuge in him! Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack…
The LORD redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”

- from Psalm 34 (ESV, adapt.)

We have many things for which we should be thankful to God: family, friends, food, shelter, and, above all, Jesus himself, through whom we can share life eternal and abundant.

But as the smells of potatoes and gravy mix with the cool autumn air, do not forget that we celebrate our national day of Thanksgiving in the shadow of All Saints Day. This is a reminder to us that in addition to the familiar experiences of the holiday, we are to be exceedingly thankful for our loved ones in the faith who have already been received into the arms of our Heavenly Father. This is a reminder to us that in Jesus Christ, by the prodigious, unexplainable power of the Holy Spirit, we are united with these saints in a way we cannot yet fully comprehend, and in a way this broken world in which we live can never understand. In a very real way, these saints – with Jesus – are present at our tables of celebration.

Look around you as you share the holiday meal….see the turkey, the dressing, the pumpkin pie…hear the sounds of football, clanging silverware, and pleasant conversation…smell the bounty of excellence before you…and know that you are not alone in your joy. Sitting with you, enjoying the day more than you ever could, reveling in the delight of family laughter, delighting in the gathering of love, smiling energetically at the wondrous festivities, is Jesus, the one who loves you most of all. And, as is often his way, he is not alone; he has brought guests with him to the table, who are also filled with gladness and the kind of peace that defines eternity.

Know that the love you experience at this banquet is but a foretaste of glory, and that the One who makes it all possible is filled with joy as you give him richly deserved thanks. So, light a holy candle this Thanksgiving in honor of the guest of honor, that crazy, loving preacher from Nazareth. And light another to honor those who in the past have shared the meal with you…and continue to do so because of the life, death, and resurrection of that preacher. And may this holiday find you to be truly, abundantly thankful.

In Jesus,
Pastor Keith

Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday Top 10: Study Bibles

1 - Reflecting God Study Bible (NIV; Zondervan/CHP, 2000) - out of print

2 - Wesley Bible (NKJV; Nelson, 1990) - out of print

3 - Oxford Annotated Bible (RSV/NRSV; Oxford, 1977) - I prefer the first two editions to the third

4 - ESV Study Bible (ESV; Crossway, 2008)

5 - Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible (NRSV; Harper, 2005)

6 - New Interpreter's Study Bible (NRSV; Abingdon/Cokesbury, 2003) - I'd place this higher if it weren't so bulky and unwieldy

7 - NIV Study Bible (NIV; Zondervan, 1985)

8 - NLT Study Bible (NLT; Tyndale, 2008)

9 - Spiritual Formation Bible (NRSV/NIV; Upper Room, 1999)

10 - Life Application Study Bible (NIV/NKJV/NLT/NASB/KJV; Tyndale, 1987)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Excerpts from Church Conference report

Church Conference for JUMC
held at First Bethel UMC, 7 PM,

“…holiness befits your house, O LORD, forevermore.”
– Psalm 93:5

It is a joy to be a part of the family of Jefferson United Methodist Church as we celebrate our 165th year of ministry. The congregation has a wonderful legacy of love and mission, and I feel blessed to be a part of her story. Our area is growing, and our circle of influence grows with it.

Some exciting things have been happening in our congregational family:

* While numbers are rarely a primary indicator of missional faithfulness, our average participation in Sunday worship has increased significantly in the past 2 ½ years; our baptisms and our new members are vastly outpacing funerals and transfers, which is a positive “turnaround trend”;
* We continue to get more visitors each week, and are retaining most of them;
* We have completed a bold building plan to improve and modernize our physical facilities, connecting our worship center with our education building and making some much needed repairs;
* Our new folks have been getting very active in the life of our congregation, in study groups, leadership opportunities and mission;
* We utilize our technological capabilities more efficiently, making use of power point and video in worship and in study;
* In the community, I have been meeting with area clergy in the hopes of gaining greater cooperation in ministry, and our West Jefferson Hills Ministerium continues to do wonderful things, from worship gatherings to collaborative missional efforts.

It has been a busy and positive year! And yet, there are even greater things in our future...

2009 will be my third full year in ministry at Jefferson church, unless our Bishop and his Cabinet determine that a change is in order (which is always a possibility in our connectional system). As I prepare for my third year, the number “3” has been running through my mind. With my love of music and respect for the great hymnody of the Church, the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy!” has been a frequent refrain. This beautiful classic, with an 1826 text by Reginald Heber, extols the glory of the Triune God:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.

Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,
though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
only thou art holy; there is none beside thee,
perfect in power, in love and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea.
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
I have been reflecting on this hymn for the past several months, praying it several times a week as part of my devotional life. I believe we are being challenged by the Spirit to focus in 2009 on “holiness”…the holiness of God and our own calling to be holy for Jesus’ sake in the midst of a broken world. Holiness, after all, was a crucial aspect of John Wesley’s ministry and the early Methodist message, and is an important part of our faith heritage.

Holiness is more than just living simple, healthy lives (though that’s important); it is being fully devoted to Jesus. The Kingdom of God is described as ‘the Way of Holiness’…

“…a highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Way of Holiness.”
– Isaiah 35:8

How might we be more holy? Spend more time in prayer with our Heavenly Father? Read and study Scripture more effectively? Be more intent about our marriage and family commitments? Serve the poor, the lonely, and the lost with greater passion? Be more obedient regarding our attendance and participation in congregational worship? Stand against societal sins such as racism and sexism with more vigor? Love one another and our neighbors with less compromise?

Rather than listing goals for the next ministry year, I will be urging us to reflect on the theme of holiness in 2009 - what it means to serve a holy God and what it means to be a holy people. My expectation is that as we reflect upon this theme, the Spirit will open to us new possibilities for growth and effective disciple-making. We serve a God who honors faithful, honest reflection!

My only goal, then, for 2009, as a pastor and a leader of this wonderful congregation, is that we “take time to be holy”, and seek Jesus’ holy character in our own lives. I believe that we will be transformed in significant ways, as will our community.

May God continue to bless the people of Jefferson United Methodist Church and all that we do to build Christ’s Kingdom.
Pastor Keith H. McIlwain
November 4, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday Top 10: Best Records in Rock and Roll History

1 - "Good Vibrations" (1966) by the Beach Boys

2 - "Be My Baby" (1963) by the Ronettes

3 - "Like A Rolling Stone" (1965) by Bob Dylan

4 - "Strawberry Fields Forever" (1967) by the Beatles

5 - "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (1968) by Marvin Gaye

6 - "Johnny B. Goode" (1958) by Chuck Berry

7 - "Runaway" (1961) by Del Shannon

8 - "River Deep - Mountain High" (1966) by Ike & Tina Turner

9 - "Reach Out I'll Be There" (1966) by the Four Tops

10 - "Respect" (1967) by Aretha Franklin

Note: This is not a "Best Songs" list, nor it is a list of "Most Important Records"; those would be decidedly different lists.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Home from Jumonville

I returned home today from Jumonville, a beautiful camp and retreat center which is an important part of the ministry of Western PA Conference. I was facilitator for a retreat of our newest pastors (those commissioned to ministry in June), focusing on worship, liturgy and sacramental theology and practice in the United Methodist tradition.

It's a good group of pastors, and I'm encouraged that the future of the United Methodist Church here in western PA has talent, diversity and theological seriousness. I'm also encouraged that this is a group - like my own - which takes mission seriously but don't take themselves too seriously. They like to laugh and have fun, which is half the battle in ministry, in my opinion.

It's always good to get back to Jumonville. In June of 1983, I knelt at the altar of Whyel Chapel and surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus. This weekend, I was able to facilitate discussion of Christian worship in view of what for me is the planet's holiest spot. Way cool.

In addition, I was able to spend some time with the Right Rev. Randy Costolo, who serves in Hopwood (where Jumonville is located). Randy is a good friend and true brother in Christ, and he's also one of our Conference's best pastors; we served together in Dawson, PA several years ago. We ate junk food together, talked a lot, and watched the Cardinals/49ers game on Monday Night Football. Good times.

Tomorrow, it's off to beautiful downtown Reynoldsville, PA for a meeting with my accountability group...Thursday to Slippery Rock, PA with my oldest son for a college visit. Busy, busy week.

Not a very theological post, I know, but time for reflection is a luxury I haven't yet had this week! Nevertheless, God is very, very good!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Friday Top 10: Best U.S. Presidents

1 - Abraham Lincoln

2 - George Washington

3 - Theodore Roosevelt

4 - Ronald Reagan

5 - Franklin Roosevelt

6 - James Polk

7 - Andrew Jackson

8 - Thomas Jefferson

9 - John Adams

10 - Grover Cleveland

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Prayer for Presidential Leaders

Gracious Heavenly Father, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to your merciful care, that, being guided by your Holy Spirit, we may dwell secure in your peace. Grant to President George W. Bush, President-elect Barack Obama, and to all in authority the wisdom and strength to know and to do your will. Protect them and their families; fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Halloween 2008

Christian, Kate, Claire, Elliot (2),
and our Jack O'Lanterns

Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday Top 10: Greatest Monsters

1 - Count Dracula / Vampires

2 - Frankenstein's Monster

3 - Werewolves

4 - Kong

5 - Wicked Witch of the West / Witches

6 - Ghosts

7 - Mummies

8 - Zombies

9 - Godzilla

10 - Phantom of the Opera

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Top 10: Scariest Movies Ever Made

1 - Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

2 - Psycho (1960)

3 - Jaws (1975)

4 - The Blair Witch Project (1999)

5 - Phantom of the Opera (1925)

6 - The Exorcist (1973)

7 - The Amityville Horror (1979)

8 - Deliverance (1972)

9 - The Haunting (1963)

10 - Race With The Devil (1975)

Saturday, October 18, 2008


I attended a retreat near Ligonier, PA this week with other United Methodist pastors from Western Pennsylvania Conference. Entitled "The Great Escape", the leader of the retreat was Gil Rendle, a consultant from eastern Pennsylvania whom our Bishop praised as one of his ten biggest influences since entering the episcopacy. Rendle is author of several books, including Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations and Leading Change in the Congregation, which I've read. Fellow retreat attendee Bob Zilhaver has accurately described the retreat in his own blog as, "...not as much a retreat as a workshop on systems theory led by Gil Rendle."

And, while it was wonderful reconnnecting with sisters and brothers in Christ, worshipping together, experiencing Eastern Orthodox vespers, communing together, enjoying the spectacular beauty of autumn in Appalachia, and being touched by the word as preached by the consistently inspiring Eric Park (whose own retreat reflections are detailed on his blog), I left feeling a bit of a spiritual vacuum. Perhaps I went to Ligonier with unrealistic expectations. I had hoped to find some holy time and space for directed spiritual renewal. Instead, I got advice about how to change my congregation. These are not unrelated results, of course, but they're not identical.

Systems theory itself is not something to be wholeheartedly rejected. This "study of complex systems and relationships", which originated as a philosophy of biological study sometime during the early twentieth century, has done well in pointing out many issues in church and society. It really became the "sexy choice" among analytical theories among church consultants around 1995, a few years (I believe) after it entered the business world. It's sleak, professional, and modern.

The problem is that we are in a postmodern era, and systems theory in this "new world" has limited ability to speak proficiently and prophetically, being so rooted in a twentieth century worldview. Gil Rendle's presentation pointed out the ways in which the world, the church, and ministry has changed, and for the most part, he was correct. But the information and approach is now quite dated. There was little that he shared that wasn't already well known by those if us under, say, 45 years of age. It was old news. It was modern in an age of postmodernity.

In postmodern Christianity, theological language and symbols have a powerful and important place. In systems theory, theology simply doesn't matter.

This - in my humble opinion - has become a mantra in The United Methodist Church, certainly in our own Conference. We can't agree on doctrine, how to interpret it, or how to incarnate it, so we find other ways of uniting and building the church. But while systems theory may help us build profitable businesses or stronger institutions, it can do little in helping build the Kingdom or even in helping pastors become more "relevant". "Pastor as CEO" 1985. And this is a model that is lifted up? In an age when CEOs are blamed for wrecking the nation and enjoying "golden parachute" escape packages? This gives new (unintended) meaning to the title of our retreat.

The notion that theology simply doesn't matter was reinforced for me in two instances in which Gil Rendle - whose theology I don't know and whose integrity I do not intend to question - discussed his consulting work with a large Unitarian congregation. Unitarians? Aren't those among the folks we're trying to convert? Why help them build stronger congregations? Why take their money for helping them? Well, if theology doesn't matter - then why not?

Theology matters. Inasmuch as our leaders ignore this, we will continue to stumble and decline as a denomination. Why are afraid to talk about salvation, or holiness, or perfection? Aren't these theological emphases among the reasons there is such a thing as Methodism? Are we so afraid of conflict and struggle, so eager for consensus, that we want to avoid issues which - important though they may be - might arouse the passions of folks in every corner of the theological spectrum?

As the perfect capper to the retreat, I learned near the end (over a meal) that our Rules Committee may suggest a new Conference Rule which may disallow campaigning or endorsement of any kind when it comes to electing delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference. My prayer is that we defeat this sub-Christian idea. Why would we be so afraid of free, open, respectful debate that we actually ban it? Let's talk about the issues and deal with them, rather than ignoring them in the hopes that when we lift our heads up from the dirt, the danger will be gone.

I pray that in the future, we hold retreats which center on prayer, Scripture, spirituality, and renewal. Why not center on a theological theme at Annual Conference, encouraging respectful dialogue and, if necessary, teaching us how to do it in a faithful, loving manner? Why must we retreat from the theology which has birthed renewal movements throughout the history of the Church, including our own?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday Top 10: Best Trick-or-Treat items to receive

1 - 3 Musketeers

2 - Hershey bar

3 - M&Ms

4 - Bottle caps

5 - Kit Kat

6 - Pop rocks

7 - Peppermint Pattie

8 - Plastic spider rings

9 - Fun dip

10 - Plastic vampire teeth

Monday, October 13, 2008

Western PA Conference Clergy retreat

Tomorrow, I'll be heading out of town for a few days in order to participate in a retreat with our Conference clergy, entitled "The Great Escape". The retreat will be held at Antiochian Village Retreat Center in Bolivar, PA, about 30 minutes or so from where I grew up. Former Alban Instititute consultant Gil Rendle will lead us, and the Conference is also bringing in a comedian for entertainment. I'm not sure what the retreat theme will be, but it's good to get away and de-stress with sisters and brothers in Christ.

I'm especially looking forward to three things:

1) There is nothing like the beauty of western Pennsylvania in autumn, and I am quite familiar with the breathtaking scenery of the Laurel Ridge this time of year. The greatness of God's work in creation will be sure to inspire.

2) While I am looking forward to seeing so many of my pastoral colleagues, I am particularly pleased that all the members of my covenant group will be at the retreat together, and we're using the time to catch up, pray, and hold our monthly accountability meeting. Good folks all. Always good to spend time with them.

3) I love worship, and there are several worship opportunities during the week. Included in the schedule is participation in an Eastern Orthodox worship gathering, and I'm giddy just thinking about it! Eastern Orthodox worship is the antithesis of contemporary, consumer-driven "worship lite" compromises, with great Scriptural, historical, and sacramental depth, and I'm certain that our Blessed Triune God will be praised in meaningful, powerful ways!

"The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth quake!
The LORD is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name!
Holy is he!
The King in his might loves justice.
You have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the LORD our God;
worship at his footstool!
Holy is he!
Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel also was among those who called upon his name.
They called to the LORD, and he answered them.
In the pillar of the cloud he spoke to them;
they kept his testimonies and the statute that he gave them.
O LORD our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them,
but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
Exalt the LORD our God,
and worship at his holy mountain;
for the LORD our God is holy!"

- Psalm 99 (ESV)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Natural Church Development

Western PA Conference has used the "natural church development" program extensively in the last decade or so. Pioneered in western PA by former church consultant Rev. Sharon Schwab (now superintendent of the Indiana District) and supported wholeheartedly by Bishop Thomas Bickerton and the "Believe Again" staff (put together by our Bishop to lead the restructuring of our Conference), this program has inspired many disciples in our Conference and has seen some success. The program is based on a 1996 book by Christian Schwarz. Personally, I see much good in NCD, though it appears to be an imperfect model (what's the role of doctrine in NCD, for example, or doesn't theology matter?). I am providing a link to a friendly review of the book, found at the "More than Cake" blog. The review is written by my old friend Joe Miller, with whom I was confirmed at Westmont UMC in Johnstown, PA in 1984 and who is today a church planter in the Pacific Northwest. It's an interesting take and worth a read.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday Top 10: Worst Trick-or-Treat items to receive

1 - Necco wafers

2 - Bible tracts denouncing Halloween as Satanic (just turn off your porch light and don't participate, folks; it's 2008, not 1308, after all)

3 - Good and Plenty

4 - Home-baked cookies (it's 2008; 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

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Friday, October 03, 2008

Friday Top 10: Paul Newman movies

1 - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

2 - Cool Hand Luke (1967)

3 - Hud (1963)

4 - The Sting (1973)

5 - The Hustler (1961)

6 - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

7 - Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

8 - Cars (2006)

9 - Slap Shot (1977)

10 - Hombre (1967)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Caesar, mammon, and all that

News outlets have inundated us with coverage of the current financial and economic woes of Wall Street and other world markets; it's beyond saturation level at this point. Personally, I'm not convinced that Ragnarok is just around the bend. In the midst of seeming global chaos and an uncertain economy, the Spirit of the living God speaks to us. God has not abandoned us; Jesus is still The Answer to the most vital questions of life. The world ponders the serious losses in the world markets this week, and the cries go out that doom approaches. Caesar preoccupies us all.

The truth is, however, that we who serve the one true Lord have already made decisions pertaining to loss, gain, and real security. The epistle lesson from this week's lectionary speaks to us loud and clear:

"...whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ - yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead." - Philippians 3:7-11 (TNIV)

This is not to suggest that we do not need to be in earnest prayer for our world and for all those who will be affected by the financial events of these trying days, particularly the poor; quite the opposite. What it should suggest is that those who number themselves among Jesus' disciples should not be so preoccupied with the doings of Wall Street or Congress that we forget that we have already surrendered everything to our Lord, and that our peace and security will never be found in mammon. Ever. Perhaps God is calling us to a new kind of faithfulness we have never considered, and would prefer to avoid. Perhaps this is an opportunity to refocus, reaffirm, and recommit.

I'm sure of this: if the Church had the same sense of urgency for making disciples that the media and politicians have for "fixing" the economy, we would have a very different Church and live in a very different world.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Farewell Paul Newman

God bless Paul Newman (1925-2008).

Paul Newman was one of filmdom's greatest actors. Nominated for bunches of Oscars (he was awarded 3), he was hugely influential on other actors and helped make several excellent films into iconic movie moments with his astonishing craft. My mother, mother-in-law, and wife all loved him for his physical traits. He died today of cancer.

Some of Newman's best roles included boxer Rocky Marziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler (1961) and The Color of Money (1986), the title characters in Hud (1963) and Cool Hand Luke (1967), Henry Gondorff in The Sting (1973), Reg Dunlop in Slapshot (1977 - filmed in Johnstown, PA), Doc Hudson in Cars (2006), and - my personal favorite - Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

His great performances are only part of his legacy. Newman was one of the first big Hollywood liberals, who donated to and campaigned for various liberal causes through the years, even making it onto Nixon's "enemies list". In our era, when so many obtuse celebrities try to make insipidly vapid "contributions" to the political arena, Newman evermore seems like the real deal. He walked the walk and talked the talk, doing more for charity than perhaps any other celebrity in history with the exception of Jerry Lewis. Additionally, the late Gil Kane, a comic book legend, modeled his character Hal Jordan (the second "Green Lantern") on Paul Newman.

Newman's greatest legacy is his family. When his first marriage ended after 10 years, he married actress Joanne Woodward, and they remained together for fifty years. He had six children; his only son died in the late 1970s from a drug overdose.

I'm sad that Newman has passed and I thank God for his life. He was an inspiration as a family man and as an activist; he helped the lives of so many people through his charitable work; he has left a rich film legacy matched by few other actors in screen history; he will continue to challenge and inspire for years to come.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Bono on the Bailout

Food for thought: "It's extraordinary to me that the United States can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can't find $25 billion to save 25,000 children who die every day from preventable diseases."

Friday Top 10: English Bible translations

1 - RSV - Revised Standard Version (1952/1972)

2 - ESV - English Standard Version (2001)

3 - HCSB - Holman Christian Standard Bible (2003)

4 - NRSV - New Revised Standard Version (1989)

5 - NKJV - New King James Version (1982)

6 - NIV - New International Version (1978)

7 - TNIV - Today's New International Version (2002)

8 - KJV - King James Version / "Authorised Version" (1611)

9 - NLT - New Living Translation (1996/2004)

10 - NET - New English Translation (2001)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Wesley Study Bible

A friend in the Virginia Annual Conference (W. Clay Knick of Kernstown UMC) has informed me of the upcoming publication of the Wesley Study Bible (NRSV). Due in February 2009, this looks like something that every United Methodist pastor will want to check out.

I am a "Bible geek" who is always checking out new translations, editions, and study Bibles. Clay follows the scene even more closely than I, and I have been grateful for his tenacity and his willingness to share information; he was able to get me an advance copy of the HCSB Psalter a few years ago, which I have come to believe is the most beautifully effective translation of the Psalms since Thomas Cranmer put together the Book of Common Prayer.

Many Bible translations have a bias. The NRSV is left-leaning, mainline; the NIV is right-leaning, Calvinist premillenialist. I like both translations, mind you, and don't mean to denigrate either of them. My old chum Joe Miller has some strong feelings about Eugene Peterson's The Message, which Joe believes to be a commentary, rather than a paraphrase (as it has been advertized). The primary translation I am using now is the ESV, a 2001 revision of the RSV that is a mite more "literal" than the NRSV. Picking up on the biases of the translators can really help the way we exegete (of course, for serious exegesis, turn to Greek and Hebrew editions...there's a good reason they pounded these languages into our heads during seminary!).

Study Bibles can be useful tools. I don't recommend that pastors or laity exclusively use any particular study Bible, but as concise references, they can be excellent. Some are certainly better than others.

In 1989, Thomas Nelson published the Wesley Bible (NKJV), a study Bible put together from a Holiness perspective. It was very good, and I still refer to it. But, it didn't last long and is now difficult to find.

A few years later, Zondervan published the Reflecting God Study Bible (NIV), again featuring a Holiness perspective. This Bible was a revision of the very popular NIV Study Bible, released to counter many of the notes, which contain a Calvinist bent (as does the NIV). Despite its high quality, generally good notes and articles, and similarities to a top selling edition, this study Bible failed to catch on with readers of Wesleyan persuasion. Like the Wesley Bible, it can now be difficult to find.

I am very excited about the February 2009 publication of the Wesley Study Bible. Cokesbury describes it thusly:

"With a warmed heart and active hands...

"The Wesley Study Bible helps persons experience God in fresh ways and grow as more faithful disciples. The Wesley Study Bible gives inspiration and practical examples to live your faith with a warmed heart and active hands.

"Written for everyone in: African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Church of the Nazarene, Church of God (Anderson), Free Methodist Church of North America, The Salvation Army, Wesleyan Church, United Church of Canada, and The United Methodist Church."
So, for the first time, we have a mainline Wesleyan study Bible. And the scholarship looks excellent. The General Editors are Joel Green and Bishop William Willimon. Prominent contributors include Thomas Bandy, Ted Campbell, Bishop Kenneth Carder, Paul Chilcote, Kenneth Collins, Maxie Dunnam, Western PA alumnus Jeff Greenway, Adam Hamilton, Western PA alumnus Richard Heitzenrater, Zan Holmes, Bishop Rueben Job, Gregory Jones, Bishop Scott Jones, F. Belton Joyner, J. Ellsworth Kallas, Michael Lodahl, Russell Richey, Theodore Runyon, Bishop Robert Schnase, Michael Slaughter, David Lowes Watson, Bishop Timothy Whitaker, Ben Witherington, Charles Yrigoyen, and many others. That's a heck of a list!

I'm sure there will be more news about it as its release draws near. My fear is that it is too "mainline compromised" to be very useful; my hope is that these excellent scholars, leaders and theologians have crafted a truly useful Wesleyan resource. The Cokesbury page is here. You can view some excerpts as PDF files here, including the Letter of St. James.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

For Better, For Worse: 5 Ways Blogging Changed My Life

Allan Bevere has tagged me from a meme created by L.L. Barkat. Here are the rules should you decide to keep them:

1. Write about 5 specific ways blogging has affected you, either positively or negatively.

2. Link back to the person who tagged you.

3. Link back to the parent post (L.L. Barkat is not so much interested in generating links, but rather in tracking the meme so she can perhaps do a summary post later on that looks at patterns and interesting discoveries.)

4. Tag a few friends or five, or none at all

5. Post these rules — or just have fun breaking them

How blogging has changed me:

1. Blogging has enabled me to converse with folks from across the United Methodist Connection, as well as with folks outside of our Connection. It was very, very interesting to follow the blogosphere a bit during General Conference 2008.

2. It has been a special blessing to connect more regularly (at times) with sisters and brothers in my own Annual Conference who don't live too far away but whom I get to see far too inconsistently.

3. I've managed to pick up some neat ministry ideas and get acquainted with some new worship resources and approaches and am still learning a good deal.

4. I am continually impressed by the great senses of humor out there. We have some extraordinarily funny people in the blogosphere. Thank God for that!

5. I've learned that the best of the blogosphere is inherently relational and generally respectful; the worst of it is nasty beyond all understanding.

I now tag the following individuals:

Bruce Alderman
Michael Daniel
John Meunier
Joe Miller
Dayton Mix
Eric Park
Anyone else who would like to participate

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Pirates game

On Thursday (9/18/08), I was able to attend a Pittsburgh Pirates game with tickets (obtained through JUMC secretary Debbie Moatz) courtesy of Pittsburgh District Superintendent Don Scandrol.

Here is beautiful PNC Park,
where the Pirates lost a close one to the L.A. Dodgers...

Here is the Rev. Gary Bailey, who attended the game with me;
Gary serves Brush Run UMC in Beaver Falls, PA
with his wife & four children
and is in the midst of PhD studies in Old Testament...

Here is Gary's food tray near the end of its usefulness...

Here I am the next day;
I had worn a bandana to protect my head from the sun...
it worked...

I'll look just great for the wedding at which I'm officiating
this weekend.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Friday Top 10: Best Music Videos Ever

1 - "Take on Me" (1985) by a-ha

2 - "Billie Jean" (1983) by Michael Jackson

3 - "Sledgehammer" (1986) by Peter Gabriel

4 - "Hurt" (2002) by Johnny Cash

5 - "Thriller" (1983) by Michael Jackson

6 - "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991) by Nirvana

7 - "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (1965) by Bob Dylan

8 - "Vogue" (1990) by Madonna

9 - "One" (1989) by Metallica

10 - "Addicted to Love" (1985) by Robert Palmer

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Christology, Not Just Sex

"Both conservatives and liberals shy away from debating the real issues that have divided United Methodism for decades: scriptural authority and the identity of Jesus Christ. Conservatives believe that the Bible is God’s wholly reliable, revealed authority. They believe that Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God, the supernaturally born son of a Virgin, who was boldly resurrected, the Savior of the whole world, who was dispatched by God the Father to redeem fallen humanity. Liberals, in contrast, see the Bible as human stories that illustrate humanity’s search for God. For them, Jesus is a social liberator, giving hope to oppressed peoples, much as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi did.

“Conservatives see homosexual behavior as a consequence of humanity’s innately sinful nature. For conservatives, Jesus Christ is the Good News, who can break the bondage of all sin. Liberals see people as basically good, and therefore sexual preference is God-ordained and meriting affirmation. For liberals, good people do not need salvation from a Savior so much as affirmation from a Liberator.”
- Mark Tooley,
Taking Back the United Methodist Church (2008)

I completely agree with the first sentence of this passage from Mark Tooley: the current debate in The United Methodist Church is Christological; sex and connectional covenant issues are simply manifestations of this debate. The fundamental problem we face has to do with how we affirm (and if we affirm, I suppose) the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and what it means to do that.

I would take issue with Mr. Tooley's depiction of conservatives viewing Scripture as divine while liberals view it as a human document. We affirm that Jesus is both divine and human; surely, we can do the same for Scripture, without losing sight of the fact that it is our primary authority. Jesus, then, is both Savior and Liberator. For conservatives or liberals to forget this would be (and has been, at times) painful for the Church.

That said, in all honesty, it is my opinion that in recent years it has more often than not been the theological Left which has forgotten these truths. Many on the theological Left (not all) seem to be more agenda-driven than mission-driven, doctrine-driven, Scripture-driven, or Christ-driven. I believe the reason for this has to do with a failure to craft a Christology which is faithful to the authoritative truth of revealed Scripture and the Great Tradition of the Church, favoring other models with foundations that are less sure.

United Methodists affirm a variety of Christologies; not all are compatible.

The prescription for our current illness, it seems to me, must derive from sincere, painful Christological debate. Every pastor should lead Christological discussions in their appointed parish; every Conference should be engaging in these discussions. Talk and planning about goals, visions or hopes will ultimately prove fruitless if we do not first clarify what tree we are part of and determine what is the taste of the fruit we hope to help produce.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Friday, September 12, 2008

Prayer for Those in the Path of Hurricane Ike

O merciful Father, who has taught us in your holy word that you do not willingly afflict or grieve humankind: Look with pity on the sorrows of the people and communities in the path of Hurricane Ike, for whom our prayers are offered. Remember them, O Lord, in mercy, nourish their souls with encouragement, comfort them with a sense of your goodness, lift up your countenance on them, and give them peace; by the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to be in continual prayer for all those afflicted, to have the wisdom, strength and resources to help them when the storm has passed, and to faithfully witness to our Risen Savior throughout this trial, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
- Book of Common Prayer (adapt.)

Friday Top 10: Current NFL Receivers

1 - Randy Moss (New England Patriots)

2 - Terrell Owens (Dallas Cowboys)

3 - Steve Smith (Carolina Panthers)

4 - Hines Ward (Pittsburgh Steelers)

5 - Plaxico Burress (New York Giants)

6 - Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis Colts)

7 - Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona Cardinals)

8 - Marvin Harrison (Indianapolis Colts)

9 - Chad Johnson (Cincinnati Bengals)

10 - Santonio Holmes (Pittsburgh Steelers)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Thinking About Race

WASHINGTON (AP) - Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said Tuesday that African-Americans are better served by colorblind programs than affirmative action. Thomas, addressing leaders of historically black colleges, said affirmative action "has become this mantra and there almost has become this secular religiosity about it. I think it almost trumps thinking."

A longtime opponent of race-based preferences in hiring and school admissions, Thomas said, "Just from a constitutional standpoint, I think we're going to run into problems if we say the Constitution says we can consider race sometimes."

Thomas, 60, has voted on the court to outlaw the use of race in college admissions and in determining which public schools students will attend. He wrote with evident resentment in his autobiography "My Grandfather's Son" that he felt he was allowed to attend Yale Law School in the 1970s because of his race and took a tough course load to prove he was as able as his white classmates.

"My suggestion would be to stop the buzz words and to focus more on the practical effect of what we're doing," he said Tuesday.

"I can tell you when you have fudge words, it leaves a lot of room for mischief," he said. "People have a tendency to read their personal opinions into fudge words. You want, when it comes to the issue of race, absolute words."

Thomas also reminisced about his childhood in Savannah, Ga., when his sports heroes played at the historically black institutions because the flagship state universities in the South—with their big-time athletic programs—remained segregated.

He recalled as a seminal moment the night in 1966 when five black starters led Texas Western to the NCAA basketball championship over an all-white Kentucky team. "I remember sitting alone at the end of that game and saying something has changed dramatically in society," he said.

The coach of the winning team, Don Haskins, died Sunday.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Friday Top 10: Current NFL Running backs

1 - LaDainian Tomlinson (San Diego Chargers)

2 - Adrian Peterson (Minnesota Vikings)

3 - Brian Westbrook (Philadelphia Eagles)

4 - Willie Parker (Pittsburgh Steelers)

5 - Maurice Jones-Drew (Jacksonville Jaguars)

6 - Willis McGahee (Baltimore Ravens)

7 - Marion Barber (Dallas Cowboys)

8 - Joseph Addai (Indianapolis Colts)

9 - Reggie Bush (New Orleans Saints)

10 - Steven Jackson (St. Louis Rams)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Gridiron Wisdom, Part 1: Tom Brady

a "back-to-basics" series which uses football -
a prominent part of life in Jefferson Hills & Pleasant Hills,
the two communities I consider to be
the JUMC "parish" - as a "hook";
it will be "fleshed out" later in the week)

"...they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."
- Acts 2:42-47 (ESV)

Many of us have been amazed in the past decade or so while watching the football career of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. This California native was an excellent athlete who grew up idolizing Joe Montana, and was actually drafted out of high school to play professional baseball for the Montreal Expos. Preferring football - and who wouldn't? - Brady went to the University of Michigan where he was seventh on the depth chart, and worked his way up slowly. By 1998, he led the Wolverines to a Big Ten title; the following year, he led his team to an Orange Bowl victory over Alabama.

Tom Brady was drafted in the sixth round by the Patriots, pick #199, which some consider to be the biggest "steal" in the history of the NFL Draft. He was the team's fourth string quarterback when he started; eventually, he had worked his way up to become the lead back-up for then-starter Drew Bledsoe. In September 2001, Bledsoe was severely injured in a game against the New York Jets, and Brady took over, winning 11 of 14 games. He was named to the Pro Bowl and, more importantly, led the Patriots into the playoffs.

You may recall the Super Bowl that year, when the Patriots played against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, who had won it all the previous year. Just a few months removed from the horrors of 9/11, it seemed appropriate, somehow, that the "Patriots" would be involved in the biggest sporting event on the planet, led by a young upstart who had virtually stumbled into his leadership role. I remember watching the extremely emotional halftime show that year, in which U2 - the best and certainly the most important band since the breakup of the Beatles - rocked the stadium with a powerful musical tribute to the victims of the 9/11 tragedy; it remains the best halftime performance in Super Bowl far.

Then, Tom Brady led the Patriots to victory against the mighty Rams, whose offense had been dubbed "the Greatest Show on Turf". Brady was named the MVP of the game and a football superstar was born. Since that time, Brady has appeared in three more Super Bowls, winning two of them - only his hero Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw have won more. He has won another Super Bowl MVP and last year had the greatest statistical season ever for an NFL quarterback, being named the MVP of the entire league.

Most impressively, for the past two years he has been dating supermodel Gisele...proof that God indeed loves Tom Brady.

What has made Tom Brady the most successful NFL quarterback of the 21st century? He may, in the end, be considered the best ever to play the game. How did this happen?

Certainly, a monstrous competitive streak has helped. He is as intense a player as any on the field.

But it can't be denied that he lacks the unearthly leadership gifts of Peyton Manning, the superheroic toughness of Brett Favre, and the explosive cannon arm of Terry Bradshaw. How did Tom Brady get to be perhaps the best ever?!

I believe that Brady is the leader of the pack because he is an expert at "working the system". Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has been justifiably condemned for cheating, has nevertheless devised a system that requires complete devotion for success. The offense utilizes multiple confusing formations which, in the end, run only a few relatively simple plays. Bill Cowher ran a similar offensive system in his early years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The defense is designed to maximize the freedom of aggressive linebackers...also a pretty "Steelers-friendly" idea.

Tom Brady is a master at the system put in place in New England. When he has been hurt and the team has relied on back-up leadership, they have faltered. The system needs Tom Brady in order to succeed, and no one "works the system" as well as this future Hall of Famer.

How does this relate to our faith journey in Christ?

We have in the Scriptures a "system" for success. Being United Methodist, perhaps it would be better to say that we have a "method" for success given to us in Acts 2. When we prayerfully and faithfully adhere to the system, we experience personal growth in the Spirit and are better equipped to help build the Kingdom of God. When we lose focus on the system, things don't go nearly as well.

Our system - the Acts 2 system - consists of devotion to the apostles' teaching (reading, studying, living out the Scriptures; doctrinal faithfulness), fellowship (intentionally spending time with sisters and brothers in Christ), the breaking of the bread (faithfully and regularly celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion), prayer (as individuals, couples, families, small groups, and a congregation), doing signs and wonders (performing any number of acts which point to Jesus Christ and the transforming truth of his could be something supernatural, as many of our charismatic and Pentecostal sisters and brothers believe, or it could be something as simple as sharing a hug with someone in pain or a sandwich with someone who is hungry), and sharing (being obedient in our tithes and offerings).

This is our system. Simple? Perhaps. But it can be difficult to master with the distractions of life continually knocking at our door. We need to be intentional about our system. Tom Brady, knowing that he lacked many of the gifts of Manning, Favre, or Bradshaw, chose to master the Patriots system, and has become the best quarterback in the NFL.

Isn't our devotion to Jesus and our journey of faith more important than how many Lombardi trophies the Patriots or Steelers win? Isn't Jesus worth our best efforts? I think so, and I'm sure you do as well.

The end result of faithfully mastering our system is even better than winning a hundred Super Bowls: "The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." But we as individuals, as a congregation, as a Conference, as a denomination, as the Church of Jesus Christ around the world, need first to work the system provided for us, to be devoted to it, to work hard at it, to do our best to be the people that God has called us to be on the journey toward holiness and perfection. Jesus is worth it, and the stakes are high.