Thursday, December 30, 2010

Senior Fitness

There are more and more articles and books written about health and fitness. All the major media outlets have a special category called Health or Nutrition or Fitness. It is a big topic for our aging population which we all should be interested in because we are all aging. But, truth is most of us don't spend too much time thinking about it until we see ourselves as aging and old. Turning 60 has that effect on a person.

This morning I read an article about a woman who was morbidly obese at 45. Her doctor told her she was a heart attack waiting to happen. That did not make her change her bad habits but when she was unable to get into a boat on a family outing she realized she was electively crippled, as she called it. So, she started to walk and take more precautions about her diet. Then, she began swimming. At first, she could not make it across the pool and felt stupid but her instructor would not let her quit. So today, at 69, she competes in senior swimming competitions. Her husband, 73, is equally fit. We are reading more and more about seniors who are more fit now than they were in their younger days. It seems like it is never too late to change your diet and get more exercise. You will get a lot more out of life should you live into old age.

Our society does not make it easy to do that. Restaurants serve portions that are too large. And there is a lot of unhealthy food and cooking methods out there for our consumption. It is better to prepare your own food with healthy ingredients and downsized portions and if you want to eat out sometimes choose a place that takes healthy eating seriously. Exercise is the same way. You have to take charge of it yourself. Try to walk/run/swim or bike several times a week. Get to a gym to do some weightlifting a couple times a week. You can do pushups and ab work at home, too. The experts say that keeping your core (abs) strong is the key to balance and fewer back problems. Stretching is critical, too, as we age. It is not about winning a contest like it was when you were younger but just being able to take a hike with your kids or lift your 50 lb piece of luggage when you are traveling.

Competition is not bad. Some of us are wired that way. I may be looking for some senior bicycling competitions now that I am eligible to take my reduced senior lunch at the senior center. It may be time to start planning that long dreamed about cross country bike trip, too.

Week Old Bread and Sermons

Doing some end of the year tasks this week like writing my annual report for the annual business meeting. I wonder about that one. How much time do you put into a report that a small percentage of the congregation ever reads and when it is read it takes a few minutes, and is never discussed, and then filed away for perpetuity. Which means it is never looked at again. Then, there is the task of looking back over the year of preaching. What does one do with preached sermons? This past year I preached over twenty times from the gospels, mostly from Luke which was the lectionary gospel this year. I preached sermons from Habbakuk and Haggai which was fun because many people had never heard a sermon from those Bible books (one person confessed he did not even know Habakkuk was in the Bible but he read it and liked it.). Then, there were about ten other Old Testament sermons, mostly from Jeremiah. The epistles were the source for three sermons, Acts for one, and none from Revelation. I don't remember much from most of those sermons although as I looked through them some of the main points came back to me. As I said, the Biblical texts came from the lectionary this year. I haven't always followed the lectionary but I am finding I like to more and more. The text is already selected and it can be facing me as I get started on sermon work Monday morning. If forces me to consider passages in the Bible I would otherwise never think of like Habakkuk and Haggai. At this stage in my preaching I like not having to come up with a text, or a topic or a series on my own. I know I would probably preach on those themes I like the most. Still, I noticed my preaching is informed by my current reading and experiences both personal and what is going on in the community or the world. That is as it needs to be. Preaching is not a lecture or a course people are taking. It needs to speak to our lives as we live them. That suggests what to do with the past years sermons. I don't read preachers books of sermons. Old sermons are like week old homemade bread - stale and dry. However, there is nothing like a good piece of bread right out of the oven. Sermons are like that. They are best consumed on the day they are preached after a week of preparation. They are the fresh meal of God's word for that day. If you eat it weekly, it will sustain you over time. It is not so good served as leftovers. So, like I often do with my homemade bread that has become stale and dry, I will throw these old sermons out. It is not easy to do that with my bread and I find it just as hard to do that with my sermons.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Some Good Books 2010

This might seem like a strange place to start but one of the books I read this year was The Art of Dying by Rob Moll. It is a very wise and necessary book. You might think we would talk more about dying because we are all doing it but we don't. We act like we are going to live forever. When you pass a milestone like I did this past year - a 60th birthday - you are bound to get a bit more realistic about life. You have your limits in clearer perspective. Maybe not as clear as they need to be, but you are getting closer. You are not going to accomplish all those things that were options in your 20's. Probably no PH.D, and travel to far flung places, and all the money you were going to save by now - all these things as well as a host of others are out of reach now. You cannot physically do what you could even ten years ago. You stopped playing church softball so long ago it seems like another lifetime. Now, this is not morbid thinking. It is realistic. Limits. Deal with them. Recognizing our creaturely limits seems like a prerequisite for knowing God. We are dependent creatures. No matter what we think when we are younger.

Limits was a theme in many of the books I read this year. Probably that has been a theme in other years as well but I was more attuned to it this year. The Warmth of Other Suns has to be at the top of my list of books this year. Isabel Wilkerson spent years researching this book about the northern migration of Blacks in the Jim Crow years. She follows three main figures in their migration north to find a life that was their own. A life of freedom, and dignity, and opportunity. What they found was too often more of the same kind of limited life they knew in the South. There was job discrimination, housing discrimination, educational discrimination and a whole lot of racism hidden under the surface of life. In New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, they learned to make a life within those limits. As she follows those three lives, she also traces how a whole country changed during the era of increasing awareness of civil rights and greater freedom for all.

Eliza Griswold told a gripping story of religious limits as she traced the fault line between Christians and Muslims in places like Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia and the Philippines - along the tenth parallel. Most of the Muslim world is not in the Middle East but in these parts of the world. Here, there is an often violent clash of civilizations and cultures. Here, is where Christians and Muslims are fighting out their territorial claims and in some cases trying to see if they can work together for peace and to solve the larger social problems, ie poverty, the growing gap between the rich and poor, religious freedom, and terrorism. Here, is a part of the world that is volatile - and how these conflicts are dealt with will shape our world in the future.

Paul Among the People by Sarah Ruden is one of the most stimulating books of Bible interpretation I have read in years. She is a scholar in the Classics and she takes what she knows and interprets the Bible in the context of Greek and Roman literature and culture. In doing so she sheds much light on Paul's teaching regarding women, slavery, and sex and marriage. In recent times Paul has been criticized for being out of touch with these issues and not having a word to say for more modern times. In giving Paul another look against his culture, Ruden gives us a very different look at how far ahead of his times Paul really was.

History is a favorite subject of mine. I enjoyed reading about the years leading up to our civil war in Daniel Walker Howe's book What God Hath Wrought. Another special historical interest of mine is the early church. Peter Leithart's book Defending Constantine brings alive the fourth century and the impact of Constantine upon the Church and of his policies to Christianize the empire. Much has been written of Constantine and much of it assumes Constantine used the Church for his own purposes. When he made everyone Christian it is said he diluted the faith and vitality of Christianity. He made Christianity too easy and at the same time made it worth less. A shallow, commitment phobic, Christian Church today is the result of his policies or so it is said. Leithart says Not So Fast in many ways in a well researched and well written book that will give the reader many reasons to rethink Constantine and his impact on church and culture.

Jean Edward Smith does much the same for U.S Grant that Leithart does for Constantine. Grant has an unremarkable reputation as a drunk and corrupt politician who happened to be in the right place at the right time in the Civil War. From there he parlayed his fame as a Civil War hero to a two terms in the White House, an office he kept through an unscrupulous use of patronage. Smith takes these charges head on and in a highly readable style restores Grant's reputation as not only a great Civil War general but one of our better presidents, too.

Of course, I read "in my field" too. I enjoyed Ed Dobson's book The Year of Living Like Jesus. Dobson was a cohort of Jerry Falwell one time, long ago. He has since gone on to other pursuits. This one involved reading the Gospels and actually doing what Jesus said to do. Another book about a man learning to live like Jesus is Wisdom Chaser by Nathan Foster. His father is the reluctantly famous Richard Foster who has written several books on spiritual growth and formation. One was called Celebration of Discipline. Foster's son grew up knowing his dad was famous but not what for. He had no aptitude for what his dad was doing or teaching. He felt like his famous father's work took him away from home too much. He grew up rebellious and it took him until his 20's to get it. The way he got to know his dad and what his dad was all about was through climbing mountains with him. Reading this book gives us a chance to get to know Father and Son better too. James Davison Hunter wrote an important book that was reviewed all over the place. It was titled To Change the World. Christians are always about coming up with plans and slogans to change the world. Hunter demonstrates very clearly why this is so hard to do.

I always enjoy fiction for its insights into what makes us tick. This year I especially enjoyed Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and Noah's Compass by Ann Tyler and Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout.

I have a weakness for sports biographies. This year I bypassed one on my boyhood hero Mickey Mantle because it dished out so much trash on his life and I prefer to remain ignorant of the details and remember him as I thought of him as a boy. Willie Mays is arguably the best centerfielder of Mantle's era and his biography sends you to a world when players played for the love of the game and didn't play for the highest bidder. Mays was no A-Rod whose bio also came out. That's a good thing.

Hannah's Child is a memoir written by theologian Stanley Hauerwas who is hard to classify. He is anabaptist, Methodist, pacifist and catholic. He taught at Notre Dame and Duke. He is a prolific writer who bares his personal soul telling about a hard marriage and professional disappointments. He writes well and comes across as someone you would like to meet at the coffee shop and talk theology.

There were other books like Robert Webber's Divine Embrace which I wish I had read years ago and Rediscovering Values by Jim Wallis who was probably trying to figure out who the heck is Glenn Beck and why does he hate me. The Big Short tried to help me figure out what the heck is wrong with the economy but I'm afraid to admit I still don't get it and I sure hope someone does. Custer's Last Stand by Nathan Philbrick convinced we made the wrong man a hero. Too Small to Ignore is a moving memoir by the president of Compassion and a compelling challenge to continue to sponsor children around the world. Something we all can do right from where we live.

There is a limit to the number of books you can read in a year. And a limit to the number you can write about. I have reached mine.

The Bible App

I was sitting in a local coffee shop with a friend and I heard a familiar song on the sound system. I couldn't bring it up and so I asked my friend if he knew who the artist was. He said no and then wait a minute and pulled out his iphone and held it up to the music. I have this app he told me that matches any music being played to the artist and song title. Of course, you can also purchase it instantly from itunes. Apps are now a noun and a way of life. There are more apps than anyone can possibly even know about. Time, Wall Street Journal, and the NY Times all have apps and they all have articles describing the top 10 apps everyone needs to have, or the 10 coolest apps, or the best apps for whatever you are into. I confess I am app challenged. I only have a few apps and I don't even use most of them. I have an app for the weather and one to check the flight status of Alaska Air flights and other than those two I don't use apps much. Sad, I know. Funny how with all our apps most of us are still time challenged. Seems like the apps that are supposed to free up time end up taking more of our time. But we are into apps. We like applications. Applied life. Tell me something I can use, useful. It needs to be practical, practicable. I don't have time for stuff that does not help me today.

I have heard that before. Preacher, make sure your sermon has an application. People need to be able to know how to apply what you are saying to life. Or else they will not listen. They want to know how to use it. End your sermon with how to put what you said into practice. Preach "how to" sermons. People will love them. How to pray, how to raise good kids, how to keep your marriage alive, how to forgive, etc, you see there are a million of them. These kinds of sermons scratch where people are itching. They will keep them coming back. The worst comment a preacher can here is that she or he is not relevant, contemporary. Not an app.

I imagine you can get the Bible as an app. That's the way a lot of people use it anyway. A text for the day, or the crisis. If you feel this way, look up such and such. The Bible must meet our demand to be practical, too. Problem is there are large chunks of the Bible that are not. Like genealogies, Old Testament laws and lists of stuff and the Bible is filled with stories that don't seem to be getting anywhere, fast. What is the practical lesson we are supposed to derive from the story of David. Just tell me what it is so I can do it. I don't have time to read the whole thing! What about the story of Jesus! Do you mean I have to read the whole gospel, all four of them? Just break it down and tell me what to do. Get to the point, preacher!

Peter Leithart in his book, Deep Exegesis, writes, "God in his infinite wisdom decided to give us a book, a very long book, and not a portrait or an aphorism." "God reveals himself in his image, Jesus, but we come to know that image by reading, and that takes time." Then, Leithart says, "God wants to transform us into the image of his image, and one of the key ways he does that is by leading us through the text. If we short circuit that process by getting to the practical application, we are not going to be transformed into the ways God wants us to be transformed."

Hmm. Maybe the point is that He wants to know us. And He wants us to know Him. And that happens through a long, and deep and ultimately transforming encounter with His Story, the Bible. Through conversation and relationship. Which takes commitment, and lots of time. A lifelong pursuit to live Godly lives. And there is no app for that.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Randomness of Life

I was interested in an article by Gina Kolata who writes on health and fitness topics for the NY Times. She told how she fell on a bike ride recently and broke her collarbone. It so unnerved her that she thought she might never ride again. She had had other injuries from exercise before, for instance, a stress fracture from running but she never considered stopping her running. She wondered why. After talking to some other doctors and sports psychologists, she realized we tend to fear what we cannot control. A running injury is explainable. You run too much and you get a stress fracture. You take time off running and you heal. On her bike she was drafting off another cyclist and he swerved and she hit his rear tire and went down. She could not control the other cyclists movement nor what happened when she hit the tire. She was out of control and hurt. I have had that happen to me. When you hit a cyclists rear tire, you are the one who falls. It happens so fast there is no way to prevent it other than not riding so close but then you are not drafting. I was riding one Good Friday afternoon. It was an unusually warm Spring day and I was on my usual route for an hour long bike ride. I was on a main road and a car ran a stop sign at one of the intersections I passed. It happened so fast I could do nothing but choose what part of the car I was going to hit. I was not seriously hurt although I could have been. My bike was bent and my helmet was broke but I preached on Easter. That was many years ago but I am a more cautious rider today because of it. I have thought about that accident many times. If I had left my house a moment or two later or if I had been averaging a mile an hour slower pace or the person who hit me had chosen a different route home. If, If, If,... It's pretty common to second guess yourself after an accident.

Gerald Sittser was involved in a much more serious accident in 1991. Returning from a conference with his mother, wife and three children in their mini-van, they were hit head on by a drunk driver who crossed over into his lane going 85 mph. Gerry's mother, wife and their youngest child were killed in the crash. He wrote about the accident and how it affected his life in a book called A Grace Disguised. In one of the chapters, The Terror of Randomness, Sittser talks about how he fantasized for hour upon hour about all the little things he might have changed that day to avoid that accident. Any minor change to their schedule that day would have prevented the accident. He wrote that we expect life to be orderly because it usually is. There are certain natural laws life depends on. But, then accidents happen. A tornado interrupts the normal pattern of life. A man who watches his health all his life wakes up to find a lump on his neck. A woman who has enjoyed a normal life with a fulfilling career, and family decides to go for a run in a park on vacation and is assaulted by a stranger. Why, do accidents happen. Accident means something unplanned, unwanted happened for no reason. Accidents are random. Accidents, by definition, are out of our control. Sittser says Randomness mandates that we simply live as best we can, but in the end we must realize that what happens is often arbitrary. At such times the universe seems to make as much sense as a little girl who thinks her fleeting grudge against her brother is the reason he got measles.

Suffering, he says, may be at its fiercest when it is random, for we are then stripped of even the cold comfort that comes when events, however cruel, occur for a reason.

One day as Sittser was reliving that day and trying to think of how it might have been different if he changed one thing or another, his brother in law challenged him to reconsider whether he would really want the kind of power he was talking about. He told Sittser that life in this world is an accident waiting to happen and there is not much we can do about it. Common sense tells us to wear seat belts, and quit smoking, and exercise and good habits will minimize accidents but not eliminate them completely. Do you really, Sittser was asked by his brother in law, want to know the future so you could protect yourself from the accidents that inevitably and randomly occur in everyone's life. And he went on, if you could know the future and could alter your life in the present to avoid the accidents that were coming, would you want to know what accidents would befall you in your new altered life. What you want, he told Sittser, is to be God which is impossible. So, given that that option is closed the only other option would be to lock yourself in your house and put yourself in an antiseptic bubble for the rest of your life. But, who really wants to do that. Better, the brother in law said, to brace yourself for accidents and endure them the best you can. Better to give up your quest for control and live in hope.

Sittser went on to say that people who learn to live in hope seem to weather loss better than those who don't. Most of us don't live in absolute terror considering all the terrible accidents that may happen to us. We manage to live reasonably well and when it comes time to face the worst we can accept it as part of the bargain of living in a fallen world. We take our chances, all things considered, life is still worth living.

Sittser says he has been helped by two Biblical stories, Job's and Joseph's. Job learned that behind the apparent randomness of life is the existence of God whose greatness transcended Job but did not nullify the importance of his choices. Job found meaning in the ineffable presence of God which he could not fully comprehend but could experience in the depths of his being. Joseph's story helps us to see that our own tragedies can be a very bad chapter in a very good book. The terror of randomness is enveloped by the mysterious purposes of God. In the end, life turns out to be good, although the journey to get there may be circuitous and difficult.

Truth is we cannot see the bigger picture. But we choose to believe there is one and our lives and losses fit into the Great Story that has God for its author. That is our faith that life is not random, after all.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Constantine Defended

A common and simple outline of church history says that the purity of the early Church was lost during the era when Constantine was the emperor of Rome. Between the end of the Constantinian era and the Reformation, the Middle Ages muddled through the corruption of the Church with small groups of monks who preserved whatever purity of the early Church that was left. The Reformers recovered the purity of doctrine but not Christian discipleship or conduct because they were too closely allied with a National Church ( the Constantinian problem all over again). In Modern Times the Church is splintered, shallow and in some places serves to prop up a nationalistic idea of the state, ie, American civil religion or Dutch Reformed support of the state in South Africa. There are pockets of the "purer" version of early Christianity in places and some Churches seek to recover that purity but generally the Church today is in a "fallen" shape due to the Constantinian compromise. That compromise allowed the Church to exist freely as long as it supported the state. Before Constantine, Christians were known by their lifestyle because it was risky to be a Christian. After Constantine, there was no risk, everyone was just a Christian. Today, the Church is full of "just Christians" and no one really knows what it means to be a Christian. But, it doesn't mean much. Certain Anabaptists will say that the Reformation did not go far enough - it did not reform discipleship/conduct - and it did not overturn the Constantinian compromise. The purity of the early Church has been lost and so we are members of a "fallen" church today. John Howard Yoder is the main proponent of this view.

Peter Leithart has issues with this common, simple outline of Church history and with Yoder's analysis of the Constantinian problem. His book, Defending Constantine, is a richly researched history of Constantine and his era as well as a study of the theological and political implications of that history. It seems to me Leithart has shown that Constantine was a genuine Christian who had a positive impact on the history of the Church ( the common, simple outline suggests his impact was mostly negative). The generally accepted view of Constantine is cynical. He used the Church to further his political vision of a unified and ever expanding empire. And as he gave the Church privileged status, the Church reciprocated by supporting his vision for empire. That's the cynical view and Leithart has shown it to be wrong.

Leithart shows that Constantine was a man of simple but true faith. He was also a ruler and a military man, an emperor of his times. He tried to practice his Christian faith as best he could. He ended the widespread persecution of Christians which I assume most of them were grateful for. Although his policies favored the Church, he allowed for religious freedom. He did not have a policy of forced conversion and pagans retained high positions in his administration. He built many Church buildings and supported Church ministries of compassion and mercy. He appointed numerous Christians to leadership positions in his government but he did not attempt to Christianize the legal system. One of his acts that had the most far reaching implications was his decision to end the sacrificial system of Rome. As Leithart says, "Roman sacrifice was at the center of Roman civilization." "It was the chief religious act by which Romans communicated and communed with the gods, keeping the gods happy so Romans could be happy." Roman senators sacrificed when they made deals and decisions. Soldiers sacrificed to their gods for success on the battlefields. Citizens were required to show their devotion to the Roman gods and the emperor by sacrifice. Christians refused to sacrifice to Roman gods and so prior to Constantine they were sacrificed. Roman society demanded sacrifice. When Constantine eliminated sacrifice, Leithart says, he unintentionally sowed the seeds of Rome's eventual collapse, "and established that Rome's life now depended on its adherence to another civic center, the Church." The Church is based on Christ's sacrifice for us and he calls us to live a sacrificial lifestyle. Christ's sacrifice started a new city whose citizens live by mutual love and service. What Constantine probably did not see was that he was not just initiating a new religion ( cultus) into the Roman mix of religions, but he was welcoming another city (polis), the city of God, Christ's city, the body of Christ which cannot be co-opted by any human powers.

So in Leithart's view we can be hopeful about the Church's future. In his view, the Church never did "fall" in the Constantinian era. He sees a much more resilient Church than Yoder does. The Church is the model community of justice and peace that other political leaders should imitate. It is God's alternative polis. There never was a pure Church so there is no point trying to find it and get back to it. In every age, as the times and eras change, God has worked by His Spirit in his Church to show the world what a true city looks like and what the City of God will look like some day.

Modern politics does not welcome the Church, the true city. Modern states are happy to use the Church as long as it knows its place. It needs to remain out of the public sphere and focus on piety and personal faith, propping up the state and it's causes when asked. Modern states denounce the Constantinian system. Totalitarian states sacrifice Christians all over again. Democratic states marginalize the Church and only accept it as a cheerleader for its causes. However, all modern states depend on sacrifice too. Unwilling to accept the final sacrifice of Christ, they continue to offer human sacrifices through various pogroms and wars.

Leithart agrees with some of the radicalism of Yoder but he also counsels patience. Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, neither is the city of God. But it is coming and it can be seen and experienced in part, in many places in the world today. The Church is not either pure or apostate which are the only two options Yoder seems to recognize. There are are a number of other points on the spectrum. There have been historically and there are today. Augustine said that in "this middle time" between Christ first advent and the coming kingdom of God we must always pray, forgive us for our sins. Yoder and others don't think we can expect much in this middle time. But, Leithart says, not so. Through reevangelization, and forming a Christ centered politics and a fresh public confession that Jesus's city is the model city, his blood the only expiating blood, his sacrifice the sacrifice that ends sacrifice, we can witness to the City of God amid the cities of earth.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Strange Story of Arius

It was a scene very few of us in the Western Church today can imagine. In 325 more than 200 bishops, most from Asia Minor, gathered in Nicea. It was the first church wide council in history and it had been called by the new emperor Constantine who, it was reported, was a Christian or at least had Christian sympathies. From wherever Christianity had spread the bishops came. One was from Persia, one from Crimea and another from Armenia. There were a few who had already become well known for their theological acuity. But most of them were simple pastors. And they had been called together by the new emperor! What had happened to their world? Only a few years earlier they and their churches had been harassed by the empire and some of their brethren had been tortured and even killed. One of the bishops who had come to the council had had his eyes put out during the Great Persecution and when Constantine arrived at the council he made a point of bending low and kissing the pastor's empty eye sockets. What sort of new world was this?

They had come to settle a dispute that had riled up the Church. The Church, not a phrase that has the same meaning today when we have so many independent churches and not one Church as the Church was known then. This Nicean council was Roman, ecumenical and catholic. There was unity in the Church across ethnic and geographic borders. That's not to say there was agreement and harmony among all the churches but there was an attempt to preserve the unity of the Church. This council was an attempt to do that. In Egyptian Alexandria a conflict between the bishop Alexander and a popular leader named Arius had surfaced. By 318 it had spread throughout the Eastern Church. It was the first of many Christological controversies that consumed the Church during the fourth century. Arius, who was a strong leader and a good speaker, had the manner and bearing of a philosopher and was in charge of the devoted virgins in the Alexandrian church. He was a disciple of Origen who taught a subordinationist Christology which made Christ inferior to the Father. Arius took this one step further saying Christ was begotten and before that he did not exist. Arius had been condemned by a synod of Egyptian bishops and banished from the city. But another synod in Bithynia was more sympathetic and reversed the Alexandrian decision. A third synod in Antioch condemned and excommunicated the bishop (Eusebius) who called the Bithynia synod. As tensions escalated, Constantine chose to gather all the bishops at Nicea. This had never been done before. An emperor convening a Church council. There was no precedent to follow. Some historians have found a heavy hand in the proceedings and charged Constantine with rigging the outcome. However, he was invited to attend the meetings, and sat separately from the bishops and he had more than met his match if he thought he as going to railroad the outcome. Athanasius, for one, rebuked the emperor to his face.
True, this was a whole new ballgame for Constantine as well as for the bishops. Some were gunshy about being in the presence of the emperor since it was not so long ago they were being chased down and their churches closed down by the preceeding emperors. Some probably basked in the new freedoms Constantine offered. Many undoubtedly wondered if this was too good to be true and were waiting for a trap to be sprung. But they were not pushovers. They were used to suffering for their faith and managing congregations on very little. They would not be led astray by the new emperor.
At Nicea, the term "one substance" was introduced to describe the critical relationship of Father and Son. Arius was condemned, excommunicated and exiled. Only two bishops out of 250 or so did not sign off on the Nicene Creed. Unfortunately, Arius continued to stir up the pot. Even Constantine helped him do that since he lobbied to have Arius readmitted to the Alexandrian church (can't we just all be friends, you know, for the sake of the unity of the church). Athanasius was the new bishop of Alexandria and he was not having it. Constantine in a snit threatened to have him removed. When Constantine would not let the issue alone, Athanasius traveled secretly to Constantinople to confront the emperor and he successfully persuaded him to take his (Athanasius's) side (Athanasius may have done a little more than argue his position theologcially - he may have threatened to interrupt the transport of grain through his area to Constantinople). But it was not long before Athanasius's enemies met with Constantine and persuaded him to change his mind, again. Constantine exiled Athanasius to Trier. Arius continued to appeal to Constantine to be readmitted to the church faking an orthodox confession of faith which Constantine accepted as valid. However, on his way to church to be readmitted, he died, strangely, perhaps poisoned. Yet, Arianism lives on.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Church of Lepers

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is the true story of Neil White who was a successful Louisiana entrepreneur and magazine publisher. He was active in the community and his local church. He was married with two children. Then he was arrested and charged with check kiting and financial fraud. He was convicted and sent to a minimum security prison in Carville, Louisiana. Even though the security precautions were minimal he still lost his freedom, and had to work at a series of menial jobs. He was an inmate and had little privacy and dignity. Additionally, Carville was unique in that the prison shared space and facilities with the only remaining leper colony in the US. At first, White admitted to being afraid of coming into contact with one of the lepers or touching anything they had in common. Prison at the leper colony was nothing like the genteel Southern life he was used to. In the course of his year long imprisonment, his life changed dramatically. His wife divorced him and he had little contact with his children. This was devastating in itself but he also experienced inner changes, too. His pride was challenged as he worked alongside people he would never have associated with on the outside. And he got to know some of the lepers, especially one older woman in a wheelchair named Ella. She had lived at Carville most of her life. When she was younger it was common for a person with leprosy to be uprooted from their home and life and forced to live at Carville. Lepers were lepers and people did not understand the disease and were afraid of catching it. Conversations with Ella helped White face himself and confront the personal issues that landed him in prison in the first place. Since White attended church on the outside, he often attended the Catholic services in the prison chapel. There the lepers and the inmates broke bread together. It was a transforming encounter. For the first time, White experienced true Christian community. When he left prison Ella had some advice for him: find a church. He wanted to find a church like he had known at Carville. This is how he described it: "where the parishioners were broken and chipped and cracked. A place to go when I needed help. A place to ask for forgiveness. A sacred place where people were not consumed with image and money."

He didn't know if a place like that existed outside prison walls but he was determined to find it if it did.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Michael Vick and Second Chances

I am not sure what to think. As a sports fan it seems like every week I am being asked to cheer for a star player who allegedly sexually assaulted a young woman or was convicted of running a brutal killing farm for dogs or some kind of similar criminal misconduct. Michael Vick had one of the greatest games a quarterback ever had last Monday night. He has had several good games since he began filling in for the injured Kevin Kolb. He has made the Philadelphia Eagles a super bowl contender. He is being mentioned as a MVP candidate. He is also a convicted felon and out of prison for less than two years. Last year he saw limited action as a backup to Donovan McNabb. The Eagles were harshly criticized for giving Vick another chance at football so horrendous were the conditions of the dogs found at his dog fighting kennel. Yet, McNabb and Tony Dungy took him under their wings and advocated for another chance. For his part, Vick said all the right things, and has spoken of behalf of the humane society several times. He has owned his actions and called them wrong and been remorseful for what he has done. He served 18 months in a federal pen. What more can he do? There are many people who feel he has not done enough and cannot forgive him. Still, his football play is turning many of his critics back into his fans. Funny how that happens. Same thing happened with Ben Roethlisberger. And Kobe Bryant and ARod and on and on. The playing field becomes the field of redemption. Salvation through sports.

Or politics. We have seen the same scenario there. We are reminded that we need to keep a persons personal life separate from his public life. Political expertise and athletic prowess are what matters. Not how he or she lives their so-called private lives. But just how do we separate the two. Does that reasoning work with your spouse or children or parents. Would it work for a minister?

There have been some high profile cases of ministers where his personal life became an embarrassment to his family and his church. In some cases he stepped down and went through a process of repentance and counseling. In some cases, a group of advisers pronounced him ready to return to public ministry. That seemed to be a reasonable course of action. But that is the church. Not sports or politics.

When Bill Clinton went through his own personal/public sex scandal,he sought out ministers to help him get his moral bearings again. He has gone on to serve in the public sphere especially with the international rebuilding efforts in Haiti.

The Gospel is not for perfect people. We are sinners who stand in the need of grace. Daily. The public spheres of politics and sports play out the drama of redemption for each of us. Even in those spheres there are usually costly consequences for our sinful choices. Forgiveness and redemption, if they come, come at a price. Some people never forget. The path to redemption may be sloppy but it usually includes the steps of repentance, public remorse, penance and wise counsel or mentoring from elders. Who deserves a second chance? Probably none of us. Do we get second chances? Who wants to throw the first stone? That's called grace.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Constantine is a huge name in history, especially Church history. He lived around 300 AD and depending on who you talk to he was responsible for either: compromising the essentials of the Christian faith or enabling Christianity to grow into an influential world religion. As emperor of the Roman empire, he declared full legal toleration for Christianity in 313 AD in the Edict of Milan. Up to this point, Christianity had been harassed and persecuted by a series of Roman emperors. They belonged to a growing but still minority religious fringe group whose freedoms were severely restricted. Constantine's edict changed all of that. They were able to worship freely and all the former restrictions were removed. Constantine even built churches and clergy (Catholic) were given prestigious offices. In 323, he summoned a Church council to decide the Arian controversy and the Nicene Creed was the outcome. He moved the center of the empire from Rome because of its pagan past to the new city of Constantinople which he hoped to found on Christian principles.

Constantine is a controversial figure to this day and historians continue to debate his accomplishments and motives. One area of controversy is the genuineness of his Christian faith. Was he really a Christian? Why did he convert to Christianity in the first place? He placed his conversion in 312 AD at the battle of Milvian Bridge, north of Rome. Before the battle he claimed to have seen a vision of the cross of Christ that assured him of victory. He wore an emblem of the cross into battle and won. He became the protector of the Church of Christ although he was never baptized until right before he died. Some historians insist he was a megalomaniac who used Christianity for political and military purposes. He kept his distance from the Church but called himself the "servant of God" and the chief bishop of the Church. Yet, many of the decisions he made and the ways he used (and abused) power have raised many questions as to the validity of his faith. Either way, his Edict in 313 virtually made Christianity the faith of the empire.

In contrast to many recent studies that question not only Constantine's reasons for adopting Christianity but also whether it was good for the Church's long term growth and health, Peter Leithart has written a new book in which he defends Constantine from his critics. Called, Defending Constantine, Leithart argues that Constantine was a real Christian, who genuinely tried to apply his faith to life, living in difficult times.

One of Constantines main critics within the Church has been the Anabaptist theologian, John Howard Yoder. Yoder has maintained that Constantinianism changed Christianity from a minority faith that required courage and obedience from its adherents to a faith that was politically and socially privileged so that it was assumed everyone was a Christian. Yoder states that prior to Constantine you knew a Christian by how she lived but after Constantine church membership meant very little. Yoder, as a pacifist, also charges that before Constantine Christians were pacifists but after him, they were not. Christians now believed violence could be justified if history needed a nudge in the right way. Post Constantine the fundamental tension between the world and the church changed and the Church no longer followed a suffering Christ but now saw themselves as the victors.

Leithhart's book is a lively re- presentation of Constantine's life and beliefs and the consequences that we are living right up to this day. Constantine is an important figure for the issues he still raises today. We are very much living his legacy in the church. More on that legacy later as I get further into the book!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Jeter's Gold Glove

Now is the time for good New York Yankee fans to stand up and cheer. Even if you're not a Yankee fan you can still say a good word for Derek Jeter. Jeter just won another gold glove for his play at shortstop. What an outrage the sports journalists are shouting. According to some arcane, complicated statistical formula that purportedly showed Jeter not getting to groundballs he should have gotten to - the fact that he only had 6 errors while playing nearly every game and then a few in the postseason doesn't count- he oughta give the gold glove back and confess to being the fraud he is. One Yahoo sports commentator ( he really is a yahoo) suggested that Jack Wilson of the Mariners and Andrus of the Rangers ( nearly forgot his name because he had such a forgettable World Series) were much more worthy candidates for a gold glove than Jeter. Ridiculous. Like any GM is going to take Jack Wilson over Jeter if he has the chance. Wilson missed most of the season and when he was healthy he hit about 240 with maybe one home run. Jeter had an off year offensively and still hit 270 with 10 home runs. In the postseason he hit over 300. Now lets see, how many postseasons has Wilson been in? Jeter is a winner. A class act. His off field conduct has never been a distraction. He honors the game and plays it like it was meant to be played. Maybe he has slowed down a tad and doesn't get to a few grounders like someone else might. Still if you have a choice for any shortstop in the league, wouldn't you take Jeter? I would and I am not biased.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Oh Mamma Mia

So we went to Anchorage over the weekend. Flew out on Thursday night. Our main objective was to see Mamma Mia which was playing on stage for two weeks only. This morning I awoke with the catchy tunes playing in my head. Which was unfortunate. Not that I did not enjoy it - I did not exactly. I enjoyed watching my wife who enjoyed it. And the hundreds of other women who were there. Women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who screamed and sang and danced in their seats like they were at a rock concert. They came in groups of 5, 6, 7 and more. It was a girls thing. Men made about 20% of the audience and like myself were largely clueless. I had seen the movie when it came out on DVD. The 70s music by Abba is bound to get your feet moving but the lyrics will not get your mind moving very far. At least I didn't remember much about them. When I saw the play in person though I got some of the lyrics. The story is simple. Donna's daughter is getting married and she wants her father to give her away. Problem is she has never met her father, her mother has never mentioned him and she may not even know who it was. It could have been one of three men she knew at the time. So daughter invites those three after finding a journal her mother kept at the time which mentions those three men. All three show up unbeknownst to Donna. She is livid. Why are they coming around now. She raised her daughter by herself, she built a business and a life by herself. She does not need any one of the former possible fathers help now. When she stated that fact in the face of one of the possible fathers the audience of women erupted in cheers and applause. I looked for the nearest exit. Was I to be an object of this low grade rage toward men that Mamma Mia had brought to the surface. I looked to my wife. She did not seem to be sharing the rage. I felt safer; she would protect me in case I was made to stand in for all the men who had failed all these women in various ways. The show went on. There was some reflecting on how much better life seemed in the 70s when life was more laid back, love was free and drugs were handy. Before life got complicated and responsibilities intruded especially when you had to raise and support a child by yourself. Donna's daughter did not want to do it like her mother had. It was no fun not having a father so she was going to get married and do it right. Her boyfriend wanted to travel with her - and do the 70s thing for awhile- he was going along with the marriage for her sake. In a twist at the end, daughter and fiance decide they don't need to get married and Donna does. She marries one of the possible fathers. Who is divorced and has two kids who live with his ex. One of the other possible fathers discovered he was gay. And the third is a free spirit who has never settled down and is not ready too. Although he is pursued by one of Donna's friends (Take a Chance). So men don't come off too well in this story. Neither does marriage, faithfulness, or stability. Except in the way Donna has raised and supported her child. There was not much need for a man in this script. I was feeling a little vulnerable on the way back to our hotel. I tried not to look many women in the eyes on the way out. When I did I thought I saw looks of scorn and contempt. You Male, you're nothing but 0ne of Them! What good are you! When I tentatively expressed my thoughts on the play to my wife, she laughed. It was fun, she said. And you know I value you. Whew!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Amazing Grace

Mickey Mantle, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger.... and now William Wilberforce! After a squeaky clean bio and a movie came out about his life, you might think there was nothing more to say. You might think, ah finally a hero without flaws. You might think any dirt that was going to be found already would have been found. You might be wrong. Wilberforce was a real Evangelical hero. His was a great story of leading the fight in Britain to abolish the slave trade. Along with other members of the Clapham Sect he channeled his Christian faith into social action. His faith made a difference in the world in which he lived. Now a new book out on the Clapham Sect (The Clapham Sect by Stephen Tomkins) brings new information to light that shows us a Wilberforce who was forced to compromise his convictions for political gain. He was a politician, after all, and bringing social change is never a slam dunk. So it seems he looked the other way when the Sierra Leone colony in Africa, which he helped found, was practicing slavery while calling it another name. He knew what was going on but advised his handpicked governor there that there was nothing he could do and when the governor complained Wilberforce had him sent back to Britain. It was not a high point of Wilberforce's career. In fact, it showed an ugly side of this evangelical "superstar".

Should we be surprised? Sometimes we need heroes so badly that we are in denial and not only overlook flaws but pretend there are none. But, who of us does not have any? When we are kids we hear Bible stories in Sunday School and VBS in which the Biblical heroes are held up as role models. It's like the segment on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show called Reversed History. Someone sanitized those childhood Bible stories thinking it could not be a good thing for children to be exposed to the truth. And because we have a need for heroes. Then, when we get older and we read the real stories (which are so much better than the revised ones, anyway), we feel somehow manipulated - and either reject all the stories out of principle or settle in to rethink how and what we have learned about the Bible. Sadly, some people never outgrow their Sunday School years and never get back to the real reason for those stories in the first place. They hold onto their childhood stories all their lives and never find a faith to navigate the challenges of adulthood.

The only hero of the Old Testament my OT professor said is God. That's the point. He is the only hero we need. He is the only one who will stand up under pressure. Jesus is the only hero of the NT. Paul was a good guy and a brilliant theologian and a self sacrificing missionary - but as one of my NT mentors said, he was clearly a second class citizen when compared to Jesus. We follow Jesus not Paul.

Nor do we follow William Wilberforce. He was one of the saints, as we are, too. A flawed saint, as we are, too. He accomplished a great deal of good but he had his off days too, and so do we. We can learn from him and we can thank God for him. But like the title of the movie about his life he was able to do what he did because of God's Amazing Grace, and so it is with us.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

RIghtly Divide the Word

2 Timothy 2:15 says: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (NIV). The KJV has "rightly dividing the word of truth". In another place, the word of truth, God's word, is said to be sharper than any sword. But, this verse in Timothy has been used, swordlike, to skewer preachers who do not handle the word of truth the way their critics deem it rightly handled. In the preceding verse, Timothy is counseled to avoid word fights. The Greek word behind this translation is used only here in the New Testament but it means something like splitting hairs. To not put too fine a point on it, it is talking about fighting over minor things and turning them into the major things. It is dividing Christians over how they are dividing or handling the word of truth. Augustine said the preacher should make the truth plain, pleasing and effective. Chrysostom cautioned preachers to stick to the main thing and cut off whatever words are superfluous to it. In verse 15 Timothy is counseled to study to show himself approved. For Timothy as for all pastors, study has to be an ongoing spiritual discipline. A preacher needs to know the word and how to use his words to communicate the word. Correct handling or rightly dividing is a metaphor for a skilled craftsman building with an accurate plumb line. Rightly dividing is from the Greek word we get our word orthodoxy from. It is a hugely important word. It is outlined in the Apostles Creed. It is the outline for all preaching. It is the plumb line. Preachers holding to this line are not ashamed but proud of their work and have no reservations about showing it to the master for inspection. Still it is a hard and demanding task and one that calls for everything the preacher has and is. For it is not only taught but lived, tested in the daily life of the preacher. Matthew Henry, the great preacher, said the task is not to invent a new gospel but to rightly divide the gospel that is committed to their trust. Not to split hairs, not to focus on the minors, but to preach the great realities of the gospel: the birth, life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our salvation. To rightly divide or handle the word of truth was never meant to be negative, a criticism, as in she or he does not rightly divide the word of truth but an encouragement, a blueprint, a vision for what the great call to preach is all about.

Grant's Last Battle

U.S. Grant served the country as president for 8 years during the time called Reconstruction. Much of the South hadn't accepted the results of the civil war. In retrospect, Grant thought there should have been a long period - as long as 20 years - of military government only allowing the southern states back in the Union when they were they were ready to accept the terms of Reconstruction ie, national unity and the end of slavery. Instead, Grant fought a long, protracted battle with the South over the rights of Blacks. He authorized the use of troops to fight the Ku Klux Klan's reign of terror as well as many other terrorist attacks on former slaves. The 15th amendment adopted in 1870 was unenforced in much of the South and proved to be unenforceable. Grant, with all the resources at his disposal basically had run out of energy by the end of his second term. The North had lost the moral strength to keep the battle for civil rights going. By the Panic of 1873 most Americans were focused on the economy. Civil Rights in Congress and the North was a lost cause. Rutherford B. Hayes who followed Grant as president was compromised from the start. Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana were mired in nearly hopeless election fraud. There were reports of widespread election thuggery and violence designed to keep Blacks and pro- Republicans from the polls. In one Louisiana parish there were over 1500 fewer Republican voters than four years before (there was only "one" Republican voter reported in the Hayes race!). Hayes was unofficially one electoral vote behind his opponent, Samuel Tilden, who actually won the popular vote. Grant called for an election commission to try to sort out the election fraud and eventually Hayes was awarded the victory. But it came at a high price for Southern Blacks. Hayes pledged to withdraw the federal troops from the South, end Reconstruction and essentially hand the South back to the White Democrats. It was the presidency for Hayes but the beginning of almost 100 years of Jim Crow Laws for the former slaves who were technically free but wouldn't realize that freedom for years and years.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Grant and the Indians

Thomas Jefferson wanted to relocate the Indians west of the Mississippi. Monroe wanted them to be removed somewhere even further west near the Rocky Mountains. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 to appropriate money for the removal of the Indians to parts of Louisiana Purchase where no one was living. President Jackson pursued Indian Removal with a vengeance. By 1845, at the end of President Tyler's term it looked like the Indian Problem was solved. Most of the Indians had been forcibly moved out west. Indians were west of a boundary line drawn from Lake Superior to the Red River on the Texas border. The Indians were promised this land in poetic treaty language that said, "as long as grass grows and water flows." Trouble was as white settlement kept pushing west, treaties were ignored and Indians had be moved again. Gold was discovered, railroads built, buffalo hunters, farmers and cattleman -all headed to the American Frontier and their rights trumped whatever rights the Indians thought they had. Indians who were losing their land and their way of life fought back. It was a losing battle. Some in the American government and army were looking for a reason to exterminate them. Those who did not want to kill them wanted to "protect" them on a reservation where they could be "civilised" according to the white man's ways. Two large reservations were planned - pretty much all of Oklahoma and South Dakota. Most of the Indians submitted to the plan. Trouble was Congress failed to appropriate the funds. There were more Indian uprisings mainly because they were starving. The former Union Civil War Generals Sherman and Sheridan (who said infamously, "the only good Indian is a dead Indian") were in charge of putting down rebellions. President US Grant took office in the midst of all this unrest (1869). He had commanded Sherman and Sheridan in the Civil War so he was able to control them to a certain extent. Had Grant not been the president during this time his biographer, Jean Edward Smith, wrote, "tens of thousands (Indians) would have perished, and ethnic cleansing would have been the order of the day." Almost singlehandedly Grant changed the direction of Indian affairs in the country. Few others in government shared his conciliatory approach to the Indian Problem. Grant's principal advisor on Indian affairs was Ely Parker who had been his aide during the Civil War. Parker was a Seneca chief and helped Grant administer Indian policy. It was a tumultuous four years as Grant battled those within and outside his government who advocated a much harsher Indian policy. It was finally Custer's Last Stand that almost did his policy in. In the aftermath of the slaughter at Little Big Horn, the public wanted Indian blood. Even though Grant had no regard for Custer, his death made him into a national hero. Government and public opinion was against Grant and his policies toward the Indians. Still all was not lost and after the outcry over the Custer debacle blew over, some of Grant's good work toward the Indian was left to stand. Custer was avenged and what was left of the Sioux were driven to the reservation. Sheridan gloried in his mission to rid the west of the Indian and make it safe for the farmer, prospector, and emigrant. All in all, Jean Smith, concluded "Grant changed the way the United States thought about Native Americans and his decision in 1869 to pursue peace, not war, helped to save the American Indian from extinction."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

About Religious Surveys

So how concerned should we be about the new Pew US Religious Knowledge Survey. In results highlighted in major news media sources, the Pew Survey reported that self proclaimed atheists, Jews and Mormons knew more about Christianity and the Bible than self proclaimed Christians! The Pew Survey interviewed 3200 people and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and general Religious Knowledge. Atheists averaged 20 right answers, Christians 16-17 or about half right. 45% of the Catholics did not know their church teaches that the bread and wine of communion actually becomes the body and blood of Jesus. More than 50% of the Protestants did not know who Martin Luther was. Almost no one knew who Jonathan Edwards was. About half those surveyed thought the Golden Rule was one of the ten commandments and only about half knew the names of all four gospels. Overall, Mormons answered more of the questions from the Bible right than Christians did. The full analysis of the survey is at

I took the abbreviated quiz the NY Times had at its website today. Not too tough. But, then I wasn't surprised at the results of the survey. Seems like there is a similar poll about every year and it shows the same results. And I have been a pastor long enough to know Christian Education has fallen on hard times. Another of the survey's findings was this: few people read books about their own faith. While they may read the Bible once a week that's about the extent of their Christian Education. The survey found most people never read anything about other religious points of view. As the detective on Dragnet used to say, those are the facts, just the facts.

American Christians think that they don't need to think. Christianity is a relationship; we are saved by faith, not by thinking. Thinking leads to doubts and questions and life is too complicated as it is. We don't want to complicate our faith. Our minds are made up. What is there to think about, unless we are unsure of what we believe. Christian faith is supposed to make us feel better about ourselves, about life in general. So, if it is doing that, then it is doing its job. It is supposed to be a means of having a hope, a purpose in troubled times. If it is, why fix what ain't broke. So, do we really need to think. How concerned should we be when we hear about polls and surveys such as the one this week by the Pew Forum.

In the NY Times article, the president of the leading atheist organization in the country was asked to comment on how well atheists did on the survey. He said he was not surprised. He had always said atheists knew Christianity better than Christians did. He said he encouraged people to read the Bible, to study Christianity. Only then will they find out why they should not believe it. Interesting point.

Faith does not come by study, by thinking. It is a gift, the Bible says. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) believed that faith was the foundation for Christian thought. "I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand; for this also I believe, that unless I believe I will not understand." He went on to formulate the ontological proof for God's existence which is still useful today and he wrote Cur Deus Homo (why God became man), a seminal work on the atonement.

Knowledge does not save by itself. But faith seeks reasons. So the Church will always have a teaching ministry. The latest Pew Survey confirms what most of us already knew. There is still plenty of work to do.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

1 Corinthians 13

Sarah Ruden has written a new book that opened some new windows for me on Paul and his letters. Ruden with a background in Greek and Roman classics reads Paul against that background. It makes for a fascinating and exciting book. For instance, discussing 1 Corinthians 13 she says it's like he catches himself when he gets to v31 of ch.12. He has been talking about how the body of Christ works together with all its separate parts. He asks a series of questions that betrays some irritability on his part. Then, he catches himself, wait a minute, what's missing here. Its love, agape, in Greek, a selfless love. Ruden notes that Paul shifts to first person (after all the times I have read this chapter and preached on it, why did I never notice it is Paul speaking in the first person after he has just taught about the workings of the body of Christ?). He is writing that " he is worthless in all of his achievements if he does not have love." If he speaks in tongues, or does miracles or has a faith that moves mountains but does not have love, it is all worthless! It is an amazing revelation.

Then Ruden notes Paul shifts to the third person and writes this beautiful description of what love is. In our translations there are lots of adjectives but in Greek there is not a single one. It is all verbs; love is a verb. She says if love is not an ethereal, abstract standard .... could be it is the Living God who loves the ones who are loving others with his love. Suppose this is his love loving us so that we can love with the love that loves us. She says.

Then Paul shifts back to first person again. If we practice this love we grow up into who God wants us to be. If we don't practice this love, we remain children, we don't see ourselves clearly. But, when we get it and practice love, we can see the face of God.

In the church our attention is on so many things: worship music, the sermon, the offering, who is doing what behind the scenes so Sunday morning comes off with some kind of structure, etc. But none of this is worth beans, says Paul, without love. Agape love which is a selfless love. Which is a verb. Talking about love is worthless without loving. Without love being a verb.

It has been said I (we) talk about love too much ( and grace). There is some truth in that. Not that we talk about it too much, but that we need to balance out all our talking about love with much more doing love. In fact, I could stop talking about it altogether and just work on doing it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


The lectionary readings for this week were from Jeremiah 32 and Luke 16. I decided to go with the Jeremiah passage for preaching. The Luke passage was the story of Lazarus the beggar. I did some early work on that story before I changed course and went with Jeremiah buying the field in Anathoth as the Babylonians were storming the gates of the city. Both powerful stories.

Lazarus is the only named person in any of Jesus' parables. Think of that. A poor, hungry, beggar who was covered with sores and who sat at the gate of a rich man for years. His only friends were the dogs who came and gave him some relief. But of human aid there was none. The rich man knew his name, too, but he never gave him any help. We are supposed to see that the rich man was very rich and Lazarus was very poor. In death, the rich man ended up in Hades and suffering while Lazarus was at Abraham's side. He was carried there by the angels while the rich man was buried. So, the tables are turned.

I think we are to see that God knew Lazarus's name. He meant something to God even when he had little worth to human beings. From many Scripture passages we know God has a special concern for the poor and oppressed. That is what we see here.

People can make a name for themselves but those who no one knows and whose suffering seems to be invisible - are not forgotten by God. Here in Luke 16, Lazarus enjoys a rich afterlife while the rich man suffers.

I was reminded of a story from my early days as a pastor. I met a man who looked homeless but actually lived in an apartment house in one room subsidized by the government. He barely functioned. I don't remember how we met but I know we had him to our home for an occasional meal and even for Thanksgiving one year. He mostly sat in the corner mumbling. I would call on him at his room, sit on his bed, and try to talk to him while he rolled cigarettes with tobacco stained fingers and mostly mumbled. One day I tried his door and it was locked. I came back that same day and it was still locked. Thinking it strange, I got a hold of the building supervisor and he unlocked the door. The man lay face down on his bed, dead. Dead for several days the police figured. He had no family that I knew of. He had no money. Welfare had a paupers allowance to bury him with. I got some people from church and we had a graveside service for Frank. Frank was his name.

I read in the NY Times this week about an isolated tent camp in Haiti set up after the earthquake. Thousands of people have been living there for months. Someone put up a suggestion box for people to communicate with NGO's. The idea has taken off. There are some thank you's written to the many organizations which are still there providing aid. There are also desperate cries for help. "Please, do something! We don't want to die from hunger and also we want to send our children to school. I give glory to God that I am still alive - but I would like to stay that way! Signed, Ms. Saint Hilaire

1.3 million Haitians are homeless now in 1,300 camps which have suggestion boxes. Most of the suggestions are expressions of suffering like the one above. Some say, I can't sleep, or I am discouraged, or I had a baby who died and I have six other children who don't have a father, and my tarp leaks and the rain panics me and I don't have money to feed my family and I would really love it if you would help me. Signed, Marie Jean Jean

Most of the people sign their names. Hoping someone is listening.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

President's List part 1

The so called founding fathers were generally men of stellar character and intellect. Our founding documents were conceived in their minds and written by their hands. Other than John Adams they were all slave owners or believed that slavery could continue to exist in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Since they believed so passionately in freedom it is hard to believe they could have overlooked the freedom of so many people living in their own country. John Adams and John Q. Adams were the only ones to see the moral defect in the thinking of the others.

Andrew Jackson was the war hero of New Orleans and somehow that qualified him to be president. He was notoriously anti-native American and pro-slavery. Certainly the worst of our early presidents and one of the worst of all time. His reign - and it was a reign - he pretty much did what he wanted to do - was followed by several other war heroes - from border wars with Mexico and Indian wars. Van Buren was not but he continued Jackson's Indian Removal policies and sided with Spain on returning the slave ship Amistad. His claim to fame is called "the trail of tears."

Harrison was not able to continue the governments brutal Indian policies because he only lasted in office for 32 days. His main qualification for the post was fighting Indians.

Tyler, Polk, and Taylor were presidents during the war years with Mexico as their governments attempted to annex more territory for the United States. Taylor was a war hero under Polk. Indians continued to be removed, slavery continued to spread (Taylor owned slaves), and many Mexicans were killed in an unprovoked war over territory.

Fillmore was a western New Yorker and I used to go to a state park named after him that included a log cabin he supposedly lived in when he was young. He became very rich later in life. The log cabin was not much of a tourist attraction, it didn't even have a caretaker or charge a fee to visit it. It just stood there, ignored. Much like Fillmore's presidency. He was pro-slavery and anti-Catholic. He did found the University of Buffalo but they don't even have a good football team. He became president when Taylor died in office. He couldn't get re-elected.

Pierce was a northern Whig but his pro-slavery views appealed to the south. He fought in the Mexican war and beat Scott for the presidency who also was a war hero. Polk didn't like Scott and spread rumors that seriously damaged his reputation. By all other accounts he was a pretty decent guy. Almost certainly he would have made a better president than Pierce. Pierce saw slavery extended further west through the Nebraska-Kansas act of 1854. Historians have claimed that Pierce may be our worst president.

Hard to beat out Buchanan though for that dishonor. Another pro-slavery president he presided over the Dred Scott supreme court decision. Not that he decided it but he never said anything against it. Whereas, Lincoln derided it as the worst decision ever. Buchanan, presided over many disasters during his way too long four years - Bleeding Kansas, and the panic of 1857. He vies with Pierce for worst president.

Finally, we get to Lincoln. After such a run of poor presidents it was providential that our country got the right person for the time. Lincoln was elected even though the south was not happy with his anti- slavery views, so he was the first anti-slavery president elected in a long time. Pretty much up until Lincoln presidents needed the support of the South to win. Just how was he elected? Providence. My vote for the best US president.

Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination, was another low point in the US presidents list. A southerner, former Governor of Tennessee, he botched up Lincoln's reconstruction plan and made sure emancipated slaves knew they were still very much second class citizens.

U.S Grant, the Union Civil War Hero, has been much maligned for his ineptitude. A Pulitzer prize winning biography by William McFeely portrayed Grant to be a drunk and too tolerant of corruption in his administration. However, other biographers since McFeely believe his portrait to be inaccurate. His administration did elicit charges of corruption and nepotism was rampant, but he stuck to his guns in putting some federal firepower into the enforcement of reconstruction and fighting the Klan. He served two terms, reviving his popularity on a worldwide tour and writing a best selling memoir. One of our better presidents in my view.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bad Science

Marilynne Robinson is an important writer. She is a pulitzer award winning novelist ( check out her novels: Gilead and Home). She is a penetrating thinker, as well, on issues of contemporary culture. Her latest book is Absence of Mind. It is not a novel but a serious critique of modern popular science writers who "tend to reduce the person to brains, explaining away the strangeness and mystery of human experience." She calls it bad science, reducing the question of existence to the merely material. In her pointed criticisms of the genre of popular science writers ( ie, Wilson, Dennett, Pinker, Dawkins, etc) she expresses some concerns for people of Christian faith, as well. She says a Christian definition of the mind should be an openness to whatever the individual and collective mind reveals to us. And then this, " we don't know what we are. Nothing humanly wonderful could have been anticipated by us. Our own best moments or achievements surprise us. We know that, individually and collectively, we have never lived up to ourselves. And we know that, at moments, we have surpassed any hope we had of ourselves." She goes on to say, " I think the mind should inspire religious awe in Christians .... for human beings, as such. It saddens me that Christians need to be reminded of the awe that is owed to those who disagree with them, ... I am afraid this hardening toward "enemies", toward those images of God some of them are so ready to view as enemies, indicates the worst aspects of a body of thought they actually think they reject. Consequences follow for all of us when the individual is trivialized."

"Christianity has abandoned its intellectual traditions, ceding that ground to anybody in a white coat. ...we fear science... the more people know we think the less they are inclined toward belief... this is a central assumption of atheism."

"among my estimable students there is no way to distinguish those with a religious background from those whose experiences have been entirely secular, in terms of their sensitivity to allusion, or their familiarity with essential narrative, or with the basic terms in which the faith is articulated and pondered. In the great majority of cases they have been taught little or nothing."
"the assumption seems to be ascendant now that Christians in general have no interest in history or theology... unless they seek them out on their own they are unlikely to have had enough exposure to them to know whether they would find them meaningful..."

"Christians have not remembered our own strength over against the arguments that test it. It has not equipped people to realize that it has been the sponsor of a great intellectual culture. Where have the sciences flourished? where has freedom of thought and inquiry developed so powerfully, as in Christian civilization? These things are not new to us, not alien, not threatening, ... and we should honor and preserve them ... beginning with the local church."

"Christianity should be itself. Christians acting like Christians is the best response to the popular science writers, the new atheists. Living out the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 25 - these hard teachings that run against the impulses to judgmentalism and exclusivism which assert themselves so strongly when Christians feel threatened. If Christians believe what they claim to believe, that the church is the body of Christ, how can they think any "culture wars" are necessary to its survival? Its wars, past and present, are the most telling charge against it".

"Human beings tend to be religious. We must take care to protect the beauty, dignity, and integrity of Christianity so that people are not turned away by experience that makes it seem corrupt, hypocritical, subject to manipulation by other interests, or simply crude."

I will add my two cents. Amen and Amen

Friday, August 27, 2010

Tenth Parallel

Just finished my non-fiction book of the year (so far!). It is titled The Tenth Parallel and it was written by Eliza Griswold. She is a journalist who has written a book of poetry, too. This book is her story or stories - about her travels along the tenth parallel or ten degrees latitude north of the equator through countries like Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. She got started on this trek accompanying Franklin Graham's mission, Samaritan Purse, on a trip to Sudan where he wanted to meet with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir who was waging violent jihad against Christians and Muslims in southern Sudan and who would soon begin the genocide in Darfur. Griswold documents the clash of Christianity and Islam along the tenth parallel with research, interviews and stories about people who are caught up in the violence. And it is a violent world but she shows it is not as simple as Christian vs Muslim. It is a religious war but it is also a political one as the powers that be fight over oil, and land and identity. Sometimes it is just a matter of a job. If you have nothing else to do and no means of support, why not join the jihadists.

There is the matter of religious confrontations. Griswold, who was raised Episcopalian and whose father was the highest ranking bishop in the American Episcopal Church ( and who ordained the first openly gay bishop while wearing a bullet proof vest) is not Christian enough for Franklin Graham and other evangelicals, gives a balanced account of the religious warfare along the front lines. There are stories of massacres by Muslims and Christians along with the reasons they give to justify the violence. There are stories of many different kinds of Christians and Muslims, too. Islam is just as fragmented as Christianity. There is no monolithic Muslim movement against the west. Most Muslims in the Global South (and most of the world's Muslims live there and not in the Middle East) are not militant jihadists; they are only trying to survive. These are very poor areas.

There is a lot of confusion among Christians regarding Islam and its intentions toward the Christian world. Are they trying to take over the world and make everyone Muslim? Do they hate all Christians? Does the Koran teach death to all infidels? These are some of the questions Christians have. Christians are suspicious of the motives of Muslims. Few have read the Koran, and few know any Muslims. They know Islam was behind the destruction of lives on 9/11 and they are enraged that Muslim leaders would try to put a mosque on that site. Some even support the Florida pastor who says he is going to burn Korans on the anniversary of 9/11 this year because it is an "evil" religion.

Griswold's book helps us see that real life is not that simple. There are Muslims who are working with Christians to bring peace and reconciliation, teaching the next generation religious tolerance instead of hatred and violence (in some parts of the Global South Muslims and Christians have a history of co-existing peacefully). There are politicians on all sides who have used and are using religion to gain supporters for their positions which means more power for them. And there is oil. Each of the countries along the tenth parallel are oil producers and some of the religious conflict is a veiled fight for oil rights.

The mistrust and religious hatred between Christians and Muslims has a long history in this part of the world. In many of these countries Islam took root first so they see Christians as intruders. Both Christians and Muslims can be aggressively evangelistic and so they are competing for converts. It is a tense situation and violent confrontations are always possible. It has been a way of life for many years. Lately, though, since 9/11 and America's invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the conflict has taken on heightened tensions. Militant jihadists are actively recruiting poor Muslims and educating them in a hatred of all things western, especially, American. Christianity is seen as a tool of the West to subjugate Muslims. Some warlords are using jihad as a way to gain land and wealth for themselves. There are religious fundamentalists as well who interpret the Koran any way they want to make it right for them to do whatever they want.

Griswold tells stories of all sorts of Christians, too. There are many motives for Christian mission and there are many ways of doing it. One well known Christian evangelist is quoted saying, you gotta love Muslims but you can't trust them. There are stories of people with good intentions who have only made the situation worse and there are stories about people who are living a simple life following Christ, serving others. She tries not to make judgments or take sides but like a good journalist she lets the stories do the talking.

It is clear that the heightened rhetoric on the Christian right makes it more plausible that the clash of religious cultures may become violent here. When we lump all Muslims together and name them the enemy. When we ramp up the suspicion surrounding their every move. When we continue to remain in the dark about what Muslims really believe and what the Koran really says. When our first impulse toward Muslims is mistrust instead of respect - when these things are true - we are letting the media coverage of the wars of religion shape our attitudes and actions toward Muslims instead of the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is a Christian...

Some days are harder than others to own the name of Christian. Is a Christian someone who hates gays, and Muslims, and Democrats, and in general seems to hate more than love. Anne Rice thinks so and she publicly renounced Christianity but not her faith in Christ. In some ways, she sounds very much like an evangelical but she has had it with the church. Many of us have days like that. Is a Christian someone who will only have anything to do with people who they trust share the same detailed statement of faith including footnotes. Jim Wallis might think so. A Christian radio station withdrew its financial support of a huge Christian Music Festival in Wisconsin when they found out he was a key note speaker. On the station they are warning parents to keep their impressionable youngsters away from what is called LifeFest in Oshkosh. Wallis according to the station is guilty of fudging the lines between government and the church and preaching a version of humanistic "social justice". Wallis met with the radio people twice and made a public statement of his true beliefs but the station is not buying it. They 'stand by their stand". Wallis might be forgiven for wanting to do a Rice and follow Christ by himself. Then, there is President Obama. In a new poll by the Pew Foundation more people than ever think he is a Muslim. He has stated numerous times he is a practicing Christian but more and more people are not buying that either. Many of them are Republicans, the poll found. Probably some Christians there, too. Obama might consider joining Rice and Wallis. Then there would be a church of 3.

Some days its hard to stick with the church. Christians can do some dumb things, and sound like idiots. You just want to disassociate yourself from them. You find yourself protesting too much: "but that's not what I believe." And even with your own small group of Christians down at your local church, there are those days when you want to throw in the towel. Alright, I've had it. Pull a Rice and start your own church of 1. Simply follow Christ as you see fit. Not have to deal with other nosy and noisy Christians. Trouble is where ever you follow Christ, he is always attracting these other guys and if you are serious about following him seems like you have to try to get along with them.

Small Churches

I am the pastor of a small church. I have always pastored small churches. I have not intentionally chosen small churches. It's just that there are so many more of them than large churches. Small churches are like families. You can pretty much know everyone. You don't know everyone well but they are not strangers. In a small church the people of the church do most of the work that needs to be done. There are few staff. Maybe a secretary, a youth leader, a custodian, perhaps, but they are all part time. There are always maintenance projects, music ministries, ongoing Christian education and various caring and helping needs. These are filled by the people of the church who are all volunteers. Volunteers may not be a good word because a small church is like a family. You don't volunteer to do the dishes, or take out the trash or paint the bathroom - at your home. You are part of the family so when something needs to be done you chip in and do it. Ideally. Of course, we know there are no ideal families. Nor are there ideal churches. So, things go undone, sometimes important things and people are blamed for leaving things undone. Sometimes families don't communicate with each other very well and neither do churches. Sometimes families have high expectations of one another and so do churches. Sometimes families play all kinds of relational games - power games - with each other and so do churches. One power game that is played is to withhold yourself emotionally or physically from the family. One family member may refuse to talk to another or may refuse to chip in on the housework or even leave the household for awhile. It happens like that in churches, too. People get hurt, frustrated or think they are not being taken seriously and so exert their relational power. They may stay away for a few weeks, or conveniently forget they were assigned to do something, or stop giving financially, or in some cases, they just leave altogether. When that happens in a family, or a church it creates disequilibrium. The family dynamics are out of whack. We try to figure out what happened, what caused the rupture. It helps to explain it and it helps even more if we can find someone to blame. Then we can move on more easily. But, it is never easy. It is a relational breakdown. They happen in all families and in all churches. We should not be surprised when they happen but neither should we be unprepared. They are not fun to deal with but they are part of community. Because there is no perfect community. In large churches relational breakdowns are masked by the size of the community. People can be strangers. But not in a small church. Small churches experience life at its best and worst. We believe God is in the mix though. He brings healing and wisdom. Closure takes awhile. Sometimes it never comes. It helps to be honest and name the acts and feelings for what they are. It helps to pray even when the feelings feel raw. It helps to know God knows and he doesn't demand a perfection from us that we are incapable of. Family and church dysfunction is a necessary reminder of who we are. Sinners saved by grace. Lord, have mercy.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Church Questions

It helps to be something of an investigator, a private eye, if you are going to be a church leader. You want to be asking, why, a lot. Why isn't so and so coming anymore? Why did so and so leave to go somewhere else? Why did so and so just drop out? Why did Pastor so and so leave and go somewhere else? It's also helpful to investigate why someone joins a church. Why did so and so start coming, and why do they keep coming to the church? Why did so and so join the church? In a church we were part of in NY, one family who joined the church wanted to tell us why they chose to join our church. It was a helpful and affirming experience.

It does not feel like a positive and affirming experience when someone leaves, of their own choice. We are left with feelings of guilt, failure and self doubt. What did we do to cause this? When someone drops out, or leaves of their own choice, the fingers of blame point to us. And there is often a kernel of truth in what is being said although due to the heightened emotions at the time we rarely discover them.

We are a ragged bunch in the church. We are sinners who often have a higher view of ourselves than we ought. We get sanctification confused with justification and wind up thinking we are justified by our sanctification. God chose us, saved us, and created the church to put us into. Its supposed to be the place where we grow up in Christ, to maturity, attaining the full stature of Christ as the Scripture says. But in the meantime, we are often unbalanced, uncertain, and not blessed with perfect vision or understanding. Now, we see through a glass darkly, as Paul wrote. Best, not to act as if we have perfect clarity because we don't. We are very much a work in progress. But, so is every church.

We end up erring on the side of judgment or grace. Better grace than judgment, it seems to me. God is a good sorter of these things out. We can trust him. It seems a lot of the time we are stumbling along and not making much progress. We are making more than we think. It is a long process, this maturity business. It takes a lot of commitment, flexibility, and patience with others and yourself. It takes a body of Christ who is in it for the long haul, as well. Who is there for you when you may not be at your best, and we all have those days, or years. Better remember the words of Paul in Philippians: What I'm getting at friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you've done from the beginning ... live in responsive obedience... be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent, and sensitive before God. That energy is God's energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure. (from Philippians 2, The Message Bible)

Church, warts and all

"Church is the textured context in which we grow up in Christ to maturity. But church is difficult. Sooner or later though if we are serious about growing up in Christ, we have to deal with church. I say sooner. I want to begin with church. Many Christians find church to be the most difficult aspect of being a Christian. And many drop out - there may be more Christians who don't go to church or who go occasionally than who embrace it, warts and all. And there certainly are plenty of warts. It is no easier for pastors. The attrition rate among pastors leaving their congregations is alarming.

So, why church? The short answer is because the Holy Spirit formed it to become a colony of heaven in the country of death... Church is the core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not the kingdom complete, but it is a witness to the kingdom.

But it takes sustained effort and a determined imagination to understand and embrace church in its entirety. Casual and superficial experience with church often leaves us with an impression of bloody fights, acrimonious arguments, and warring factions. These are more than regrettable, they are scandalous. But they don't define church. There are deep communities that sustain church at all times, everywhere, as primarily and fundamentally God's work, however Christians and others may desecrate and abuse it. C.S. Lewis introduced the term "deep church" to convey the ocean fathoms of tradition that are continuously re-experienced at all times and everywhere.

It is easy to dismiss the church as ineffective and irrelevant. And many do dismiss it. It is easy to be condescending to the church because so many of its members are unimpressive entities. Condescension is widespread. It is common to become disillusioned with the church because expectations formed in the country of death and by the lies of the devil are disappointments. Disillusionment is, as a matter of course, common.

If the church is intended as God's advertisement to the world, a utopian community put on display so that people will flock to it clamoring to get in, it has obviously become a piece of failed strategy. And if the church is intended to be a disciplined company of men and women charged to get rid of corruption in government, to clean up the world's morals, to convince people to live chastely and honestly, to teach them to treat the forests, rivers and the air with reverence and children, the elderly, and the poor and the hungry with dignity and compassion, it hasn't happened. We've been at this for two thousand years now, and people are not clamoring to join us. Obviously, the church is not the ideal community that everyone takes one look at and asks, "how do I get in?" Clearly, the church is not making much headway in eliminating what is wrong in the world and making everything right. So, what's left?

What's left is this: we look at what has been given to us in our Scriptures and in Jesus and try to understand why we have a church in the first place, what the church, as it is given to us, is. We are not a utopian community. We are not God's avenging angels. Look at the church as it is right now and ask , Do you think that maybe this is exactly what God intended when he created the church. Maybe the church as we have it provides the very conditions and proper company congenial for growing us up in Christ, for becoming mature, for arriving at the measure of the stature of Christ. Maybe God knows what he is doing, giving us church, this church. (from Practicing Resurrection by Eugene Peterson, pages 13-14)