Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Auditors and Christian Culture
Work has kept me unusually busy the last couple of days. In my job as a financial analyst, I wear many hats. I float between accountant, analyst, auditor, coffee boy, sherpa. This week I'm the dreaded internal auditor. I show up (unexpectedly!) at various departments and count their petty cash. Thankfully my organization is full of honest people or exceptionally good thieves.

I heard an interesting observation today. I was watching a video promoting a somewhat alternative Christian college (Gutenberg College) here in Oregon. One of the faculty said that most traditional Christian colleges view Christianity as a culture that you need to be socialized into, whereas, they see faith and your relationship to God as primary. They teach a "Great Books" curriculum, in which, they argue, students learn to think critically in a Christian context.

As I haven't ever attended any sort of Christian college, I have no idea if it is true or not. Interesting idea though...


Monday, June 28, 2004

Big day at SCOTUS
The Supreme Court of the United States issued several very important decisions today. Probably most importantly, the court ruled in Rumsfeld v. Padilla and Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld v. Padilla concerns Jose Padilla, the supposed "dirty bomber" from Chicago. The Supreme Court dodged this decision by ruling that Padilla challenged his imprisonment improperly. He now needs to refile his lawsuit. However, in dissenting, Justice Stevens (joined by Ginsburg, Souter, Breyer) had this to say:

At stake in this case is nothing less than the essence of a free society. Even more important than the method of selecting the people's rulers and their successors is the character of the constraints imposed on the Executive by the rule of law. Unconstrained Executive detention for the purpose of investigating and preventing subversive activity is the hallmark of the Star Chamber. Access to counsel for the purpose of protecting the citizen from official mistakes and mistreatment is the hallmark of due process.

Executive detention of subversive citizens, like detention of enemy soldiers to keep them off the battlefield, may sometimes be justified to prevent persons from launching or becoming missiles of destruction. It may not, however, be justified by the naked interest in using unlawful procedures to extract information. Incommunicado detention for months on end is such a procedure. Whether the information so procured is more or less reliable than that acquired by more extreme forms of torture is of no consequence. For if this Nation is to remain true to the ideals symbolized by its flag, it must not wield the tools of tyrants even to resist an assault by the forces of tyranny.

In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the court ruled that Yaser Esam Hamdi is entitled to challenge his detention. Hamdi is an American citizen who was captured in Afghanistan. Hamdi's father argues he was an inexperienced relief worker, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The government argues he was fighting for the Taliban. Justice O'Connor, writing for the majority, said,

Striking the proper constitutional balance here is of great importance to the Nation during this period of on-going combat. But it is equally vital that our calculus not give short shrift to the values that this country holds dear or to the privilege that is American citizenship. It is dur-ing our most challenging and uncertain moments that our Nation’s commitment to due process is most severely tested; and it is in those times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.

We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens.

Justice Scalia dissented from the majority opinion, but agreed that Hamdi had the right to challenge his imprisonment. Scalia argued that Hamdi, as an American citizen, has the right to challenge his imprisonment with a writ of Habeas Corpus. Scalia believes that Americans charged with waging war against the United States are properly charged with treason in Federal court. Nothing in the Constitution or Federal law gives the President the right to detain US Citizens without charges indefinitely. Scalia stated,

Many think it not only inevitable but entirely proper that liberty give way to security in times of national crisis—that, at the extremes of military exigency, inter arma silent leges. Whatever the general merits of the view that war silences law or modulates its voice, that view has no place in the interpretation and application of a Constitution designed precisely to confront war and, in a manner that accords with democratic principles, to accommodate it.

These decisions should send a strong message to President Bush. When Justice Scalia is a sitting Republican President's strongest critic, you know you're in trouble.

Links courtesy of SCOTUSBlog.


Saturday, June 26, 2004

Why do I read Christianity Today?
This is why I should stay away from Christianity Today. The title of their weblog yesterday was, "Bishops Should Excommunicate Supporters of Iraq War, Says Sojourners." Swell title, except that it isn't true. Read David Batstone's open letter to Catholic Bishops and see for yourself.

What I thought was an especially nice touch was trying to slander Batstone (and impeach his credentials to speak about Catholic theology) by mentioning that one of his faculty colleagues at the University of San Francisco is openly gay and teaches marriage and family therapy (Dear God! The end must be near!). Now that's stand-up journalism. Way to go Christianity Today!


Thursday, June 24, 2004

I read in the New York Times that the Messiah was crowned in Washington D.C. on March 23rd and we missed it. Oh crap!

In case you were curious, the Messiah is Reverend Sun Myung Moon. In his remarks, he said emperors, kings and presidents had "declared to all heaven and earth that Reverend Sun Myung Moon is none other than humanity's Savior, Messiah, Returning Lord and True Parent.''

I'm glad that's cleared up.

Full Story (free registration req'd)


Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Democracy in Iraq?
This is from an interview with Stanley Hauerwas at Beliefnet.

To try to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy is absolutely crazy. Islam has no understanding of the separation between church and state because they don’t understand Islam to be a church. The very idea that you could have separation between mosque and state from Islam's perspective is the imposition on them of Christian practice. Islam doesn't really have a place for state. They are a universalistic faith like Christianity, but they think there is no country that bounds Islam.

Karen Armstrong also mentions that it is difficult to envision a church and state separation in Islam in her book, The Battle for God. Presuming that Hauerwas and Armstrong are right, what in the world were we thinking? Or were Bush and Company so busy planning the parade where we going to be welcomed as liberators that they didn't have any time to actually learn anything about Islam and Iraq? Sorry, that wasn't very nice of me.


Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Sorry for the lack of blogging. We have an exchange student with us for a couple of days and a lot of other stuff going on. I'll get back to it soon.


Prayer Request
Matt over at Matthew 25:40 has a prayer request. Some of the youth at his church are going on a mission trip soon and he'd appreciate some prayers from the blogosphere. Stop by his blog and let him know you're praying for the youth.


Monday, June 21, 2004

Denny Pennies
Frank, who is 82 years-old, is one of the snowbirds in our congregration. He always seems really upbeat, even though he's outlived a lot of his family and friends. At a church function on Saturday night, my wife and I were sitting down when Frank walked by. He noticed a penny on the ground and bent down to pick it up. He turned to us and displayed the penny. I thought he was going to say something about how valuable pennies are and why we should pay more attention to them. But Frank surprised me.

Frank looked at us and said, "I call these Denny pennies. My son Denny was killed in a car accident when he was 20 years-old. Whenever Denny got change, he'd go through it and throw the pennies into the street because he didn't think they were worth anything. So whenever I find pennies, I wonder if they're pennies from heaven, from Denny." Then he smiled and walked away.

I don't want to imagine ever losing a child. I can't begin to imagine how hard that would be. But I'm amazed by Frank's sense of peace and his grace. So thank you, Frank, for sharing your story. Andy I'm going to be keeping my eyes open for "Denny pennies."


Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Modern Prophets
This is from the commencement address Jim Wallis delivered at Stanford University:

New options for public life, and even political policy choices, can be inspired by our best moral and religious traditions; especially when present options are failing some fundamental ethical tests. The eight - century Micah has become my favorite prophet of national and global security. Listen to his prescriptions:

"He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid."

Micah is saying, you simply cannot and will not beat "swords into plowshares" (remove the threats of war) until people can "sit under their own vines and fig trees" (have some share in global security). Only then will you remove the fear that leads inextricably to conflict and violence.

Several millennia later, Pope Paul VI paraphrased Micah when he said: "If you want peace, work for justice." The prophet's insight is that the possibilities for peace, for avoiding war, even for defeating terrorism, depend also upon everyone having enough for their own security - having a little vine and fig tree. The wisdom of Micah is both prophetic and practical for a time like this. If the tremendous gaps on our planet could be leveled out just a little, nobody would have to be so afraid. Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams says it well, "There is no security apart from common security." The developed world will never be secure until the developing world also achieves some economic security; America will not be safe until the injustice and despair that fuel the murderous agendas of terrorists has finally been addressed.

Poverty is not the only cause of terrorism; it's more complicated than that with roots that are also religious, cultural, and ideological. But unless we drain the swamps of injustice in which the mosquitoes of terrorism breed, we will never overcome the terrorist threat.

Micah is pleading with us to go deeper, to the resentments and the angers, the insecurities and injustices embedded in the very structures of the world today.

Micah knew we will not overcome violence until everyone has their own vine and fig tree - their own little piece of the global economy, their own small stake in the world, their own share of security for themselves and their families. Because when you have a little patch upon which to build a life, nobody can make you afraid. And it is fear that leads to violence. That spiritual reality is truer today than ever before. Our weapons cannot finally protect us; only a world where most people feel secure will truly be safe for us and our children.

Complete address here.

This is from an interview of Wendell Berry in Sojourners Magazine:

The gospels, and sometimes the epistles, are pretty revolutionary. They propose a revolution of about 180 degrees.

One of the popular versions of the Bible has in the back an index of great stories and great chapters, and not one of them from the gospels.

But Christ was quite explicit, for instance, about his pacifism. You can't be more explicit than "Love your enemies." He did run those people out of the temple, but he didn't kill them.

People are always talking about the first church. The real first church was that gaggle of people who followed Jesus around. We don't know anything about them. But he apparently didn't ask them what creed they subscribed to, or what their sexual preference was, or any of that. He fed them. He healed them. He forgave them. He is clear about sin, but he was also for forgiveness.

Complete interview here.

Links courtesy of SojoMail.


Do numbers matter?
As I mentioned last week, the 2004 Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference took place last week. One of the news bulletins contained this news:

The not-so-good news is that 72% of our churches are either declining in attendance or staying the same; 12% of our churches are declining by more than 25%. In addition there are 11 churches declining or staying the same though they are located in areas that are exploding in population by more than 50%.

My guess is that our church is probably in that 72% and probably in one of those areas with a rapidly growing population. But what does that mean for us? Real Live Preacher has a great story on the subject. Check it out.

I think the underlying question here is what are the measures of success that churches should use? Is it attendance? Willow Creek Community Church and Saddleback Church are two of the biggest in the United States. Does that mean that they are two of the most successful churches in the country?

Having an excellent graduate education in quantitative analysis and program evaluation I can think of all sorts of ways to measure church success/effectiveness. Attendance, baptisms, giving, etc. are called "output measures" in the program evaluation/performance measurement field. But we could also measure things like spiritual growth/development, average length of membership, congregational involvement in outreach and leadership activities, etc. We'd call those effectiveness measures.

I'm not suggesting we necessarily start measuring these things. As an amateur social scientist, part of me wants to do it just because I'm curious to know what the answers would be. But do any of those things really measure what matters? In program evaluation it is critical to know what an organization is supposed to be doing before you can figure out if it is doing whatever that thing is, right.

My church's mission statement is: A beacon of hope and a community of faith transformed by God's love to be disciples of Christ. And I think we do a pretty good job of trying to be faithful disciples. I struggle, though, with the implication that we're failing simply because we're not growing or not growing quickly enough. We've been adding 2-3 new members every six months or so but we're also losing 2-3 members every six months to death or disability (that prevents them from being an active part of the church).

One of the reasons I struggle with the numbers issue is because of the "Great Commission" found in Matthew 28:19-20.

Here it is in the New Revised Standard Version:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Here is Eugene Peterson's version from The Message:

Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I'll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age."

Jesus has given us a challenging task - making new disciples while we continue to grow in our own discipleship. How do we balance the task of growing in our faith, nurturing our community of faith, and reaching out to the world? Not that it can't be done, but I think we need to judge our success in all of those areas.

I'm not against growing our church. But when we focus primarily on the numbers we can alienate people in our church because they don't feel valued or cared for, and those that we're trying to make disciples can feel used because it seems like we only care about the numbers (and maybe we do). So what makes us successful? I think that if we're active in the community, faithful about helping our members grow in spirituality and discipleship, and live like we're really a "Beacon of hope", we'll grow. What I'm saying is that if we continue to live like a "community of faith transformed by God's love to be disciples of Christ" people will come to us. Our best sales pitch is simply living and acting like we say we want to. In my mind, the best way to make disciples is to be disciples.


Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Crazy Times
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that several people left our church (and the denomination) over the homosexuality issue. One of those people was our Lay Leader. I don't know about other denominations, but the UMC the Lay Leader is an important person in the church.

Last night, our minister asked me to be the new Lay Leader. I had hoped to be asked, but didn't think it would actually happen. I have to say that I am very excited and really looking forward to the opportunity. It should be a great opportunity to develop my leadership skills and really focus on servant leadership.

I'm just amazed at how I've been blessed with so many opportunities to serve our church. God is good!


Scripture Reading
In case anyone was curious, the Scripture reading for Sunday was Galatians 2:15-21 (The Message).


Monday, June 14, 2004

Finding Faith

Here's my sermon!

I didn’t every really go looking for God. For most of my life I didn’t need to. When I was a kid, a family down the street always took my sisters and me to Vacation Bible School. As I got older I would go to church with friends, usually because it was a prerequisite for doing something fun later. In high school I attended the youth group at a mega-church in Boring. What attracted me to the youth group was the presence of a few key members of the opposite sex and the opportunity to play basketball after the worship service was over.

When I first started attending my friends witnessed to me vigorously. After it became apparent I wasn’t going to give in easily, they more or less gave up on me. The main reason I wouldn’t pray the sinner’s prayer with them and accept Jesus as my savior was that it seemed to me that their desire to witness to me and others was rooted more in concern for their soul than it was for mine. I felt like converts were nothing more than notches on their Bible, so to speak. I didn’t think they really cared that much about me as a person.

Eventually after striking out with the aforementioned girls, the basketball wasn’t enough to keep me there. My next major experience with Christians and Christianity was during my junior year of high school. In the fall of 1992, Oregonians were voting on Ballot Measure 9. It was the first of several anti-homosexual measures sponsored by the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance. Growing up in Sandy, which is a pretty small town, I didn’t have any particularly strong feelings on the issue. However, many of friends were very strongly opposed to the ballot measure. They were harassed relentlessly in the name of Jesus Christ by many of the conservative Christians I had grown up with. In my limited experience, I began to believe that Christian was synonymous with “hateful bigot.” At that point, I was done with religion.

After high school I went to Willamette University. As many of you may know, Willamette has a historical affiliation with the Methodist church. That affiliation is so cleverly disguised now that I didn’t pick up on it until I’d been there for several months. At Willamette I got to know some Methodists. And because of several people that cared about me I got involved in the First United Methodist Church in Salem. There I realized a couple of really important things: First, a faith community can be a safe place to ask questions. Second, Christians are not all of one mind. “Hateful bigot” is no more descriptive of Christians as a group than it is any other group.

It was in this place that I began to think about faith and to develop a relationship with God. I hadn’t realized that I even wanted a relationship. That was one of the reasons that I wasn’t successfully converted in high school – I felt like a whole person. Despite the repeated message that I was wretched sinner and empty without God, I didn’t feel that way. I guess I can blame my parents for that – I was raised with the idea that self-esteem is a good thing.

Though even after I started regularly attending First Church in Salem I still had trouble shaking the messages I’d heard growing up. There were two issues I’d been struggling with. The first is what does it mean to have faith?
Growing up I’d heard over and over that faith is belief. Belief in Jesus is the only route to salvation. And that’s the second issue – what does it mean to be saved? I’d always understood the Christian notion of salvation as heaven. If you believe the right things you’ll go to heaven when you die. If you don’t believe the right things, well we best not think about that.

Now some of you may be thinking, “what’s the problem here?” Is this guy crazy? What was Beth thinking? These are seemingly pretty basic Christian doctrines. Except that for a lot of people, they aren’t. What I’ve come to understand is that how we see salvation greatly influences how we see faith. In the traditional view (for lack of a better term), salvation is spending eternity in heaven as a result of our belief in Christ. Thus the essential characteristic of faith is belief. Belief is that which is necessary to assure our salvation.

But there’s another idea out there. It’s not necessarily a better idea, or the right idea, but rather a very different way to experience the risen Christ that is rooted firmly in Scripture. Let’s go back to the reading for today. Remember that Paul is concerned that the churches he established are going to go back to teaching the Mosaic law and reject his teaching – in this case justification by faith.

Galatians 2:20 (MSG)
Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not "mine," but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Paul is writing here about dying and being “born again.” This is most famously found in the gospel of John.

John 3:3-8 (MSG)
3Jesus said, "You're absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it's not possible to see what I'm pointing to--to God's kingdom."
4"How can anyone," said Nicodemus, "be born who has already been born and grown up? You can't re-enter your mother's womb and be born again. What are you saying with this "born-from-above' talk?"
5Jesus said, "You're not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation--the "wind hovering over the water' creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life--it's not possible to enter God's kingdom. 6When you look at a baby, it's just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can't see and touch--the Spirit--and becomes a living spirit.
7"So don't be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be "born from above'--out of this world, so to speak. 8You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it's headed next. That's the way it is with everyone "born from above' by the wind of God, the Spirit of God."

What I think here is that by being born again or “born from above” we are transformed. Through Christ we are changed. Marcus Borg, a professor at Oregon state and internationally renowned Jesus scholar, has this to say about Paul’s vision of a “new life” in Christ.

It is marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love, four of his favorite words: freedom from the voices of all the would-be lords of our lives; the joy of the exuberant life; the peace of reconnection to the what is, the peace that passes all understanding; and love – the love of God for us and the love of God in us.

One of the problems I had with the theology I heard when I was growing up was that it didn’t make sense to me. I regularly heard this argument for becoming a Christian: “If you accept Jesus into your heart, and it turns out we’re wrong, what you have lost? If we’re right, and you don’t accept Jesus, you’ll be sorry.” I couldn’t articulate it then, but the problem for me with that argument is the belief that you can become a Christian and have absolutely nothing change. That welcoming Christ into your life can have absolutely no impact on who you are and what you do.

Through being born again in Christ, God can transform our lives and our communities. As followers of Christ our lives can and should be marked by freedom, joy, peace and love. That is what salvation is – it is being redeemed through the grace of God and transformed as followers of Christ. I think where we go when we die is less important than the lives we lead while we’re here. Jesus wants more out of us than just believing the right things – Jesus wants us to radically alter our relationships with God and the world.

But even as began to understand salvation, I was still struggling with what faith means. How does this vision of salvation affect how we see our faith? Again, I’m going to turn to Marcus Borg.

Borg argues that there are four meanings of faith. The first is faith as belief. This is the idea of faith that I grew up with. Next is faith as trust. Borg describes it as a radical trust in God. The third meaning is faith as faithfulness. This is about “loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at its deepest level, the commitment of the ‘heart.’” Faithfulness is connected to his idea of spirituality, which he describes as “becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.” The final meaning is faith as vision. This is about how we see God and the world. We can see God as hostile and angry, indifferent, or life giving and nourishing. When we recognize the glory and wonder of God’s creation and also rejoice in our creation, we are led to radical trust. We can accept the power of God’s amazing grace.

Borg believes that ultimately faith is about our love for God. Jay Voorhees, a United Methodist minister in Nashville, puts it this way:

Christian community is not built on belief, but on love; it's not built on knowledge but in the embrace of one another as creatures of God's making.
What makes a community live and breathe, I believe, is not discerning the answers, but 1) the willingness to stand beside one another in the midst of our questions; and 2) the ability to have faith for another person who isn't able to make that jump yet. "Bear one another's burdens (questions, doubts, etc)," Paul wrote, "and this is the way you live out Christ's teachings."

So what’s the connection here? When we trust in God and work intentionally to deepen our relationship, our lives can be transformed. But does it stop there? Are we just, as Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners Magazine said, “self-help Methodists?” Wallis says “God is always personal, but never private.” Wallis also wonders, “What happened to the biblical imperatives for social justice, the God who lifts up the poor, and the Jesus who says he will judge us, and the nations, by how we care for "the least of these"?”
That should be a very serious question for all of us who call ourselves Christians. Our faith needs to be about more than just improving our lives.

Christians and the church need to be powerful and prophetic voices for the radical grace of God. We need to believe and act like we have the ability to make our communities into places of freedom, joy, peace and love.
And so that’s where I’m at. I didn’t go looking for faith, but I found it anyway. I’m worrying less about answers, thinking more about the questions, trying to be intentional about my relationship with God, and letting God work in me and through me. I’ve realized a couple of things. Everyone has their big questions and ultimately they need to answer them or not answer them in a way that is meaningful to them. And at its best, church is a place where that can happen. As for me, I’m not sure right now where God is going to take me – but I do know this: I’ve placed my trust in God and my faithfulness is the result of that trust.



Reflections on preaching
I preached on Sunday and I liked it - a lot. According to my seminarian friend I made several classic first-time preacher mistakes: I talked too fast and tried to cover too much. But I heard from a lot of people (including my friend) that I did well. To be honest, I was pretty surprised to hear that.

The reason I was surprised was that I didn't think I was really saying anything all that crazy. I also assumed that people had heard it all before. But I think that I was able to articulate my "journey of faith" in a way that really reasonated with some people.

I'll post my sermon later today or tomorrow. But what I did was try to explain how I answered some of the big questions that were holding me back as I explored my faith. I guess I realized that a lot of the people I worship with every week have been asking the same questions and it is comforting to realize that we're not alone.

I think that is what Jay is talking about when he says Christians should be engaged in a "ministry of presence." I realized yesterday what a powerful tool preaching can be for sharing our stories. I hope I can do it again soon. Do you think its beneath me to beg?


Ducking the issue or an elegant solution?
The Supreme Court today reversed the lower court decision that banned the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The Court did not issue the reversal on the merits of the case (though three justices Rehnquist, Thomas, and O'Connor filed a dissent arguing that the pledge is not unconstitutional). Rather, the Court reversed the decision because Newdow (who argued the case on behalf of his daughter) does not have custody of his daughter and therefore cannot speak on her behalf. In legalese, he has no standing to contest the use of the pledge in his daughter's classroom.

It looks to me like the Court is dodging the issue. The majority of the Court has put off actually having to decide whether the pledge is unconstitutional. Seems a bit cowardly to me. The practical consequence of this is that the other cases making their way through the lower courts may eventually make it to the Supreme Court and the issue will be decided then. Or the ACLU or the Americans United for Separation of Church and State will find a test case somewhere else and push it through the courts.

Now we're going to have to tolerate this discussion for a couple of more years. If the Supreme Court had actually made a decision we could move on to more important discussions like resurrecting the Federal flag-burning constitutional amendment...

For the legal junkies out there, check out the SCOTUS Blog (Supreme Court of the United States) for more analysis.


Site Feed
For those that care about such things, I'm letting the world know about my Atom site feed.

Can anyone suggest a good, free aggregator?


Friday, June 11, 2004

Annual Conference
Today I'm heading down to Salem for the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference's Annual Conference. I was on staff about five years ago, but I didn't really get to see much of what happened. I spent a lot of time helping ministers and laity find their rooms in the dorms at Willamette University. I had fun, but I'm looking forward to observing more of the "action" this year.

On Sunday I preach. The sermon is complete. I need to remember to talk slowly.


Thursday, June 10, 2004

Blogging as a spiritual practice?
I started blogging on February 25th, 2004. I think it has been very good for me, both intellectually and spiritually. I've tried to blog everyday, except on the weekends. Making that happen has been a challenge - not for a lack of content, but more a lack of the necessary self-discipline. Another challenge is actually making my posts good. There are a lot of incredible writers out there. Jumping to mind are Hugo Schwyzer, Jay Voorhees, Jenell Paris, Father Jake, and Real Live Preacher (among many others). They seem to always be on, while I definitely tend to be hit or miss.

So what's the point here? As I mentioned above, blogging has been good for me. But does it actually qualify as a "spiritual practice?" Tim Bednar at e-Church says yes. He suggests several reasons that blogging can be a spiritual practice:

:: Blogging can be a frequent, intentional habit that aids in spiritual formation.
:: Blogging interrelates with the corollary discipline of spiritual reading.
:: Blogging can be used to practice the presence of God.
:: Blogging is practiced in community.

These all make sense to me. What I wonder is at what point does blogging become a spiritual practice rather than just another way to waste time online? Is it a question of discipline? Or of content? Or intent? Do we even need to try to find out?

If you were going to recommend blogging as a spiritual practice to someone, what would tell them? How would you suggest going about it? If you are a minister or a leader in your congregation would you recommend it to the people in your community?

I'm not trying to suggest rules that bloggers need to follow for it to be a spiritual practice. I'm just wondering if there are ways of blogging that lead to greater personal and spiritual growth than others? Or is it a very individual thing? What do you think?

Here's an interesting link I found today - Practicing our Faith.


Thieving Bastards
Someone broke into our church yesterday morning or the night before. Thankfully there wasn't much damage but we lost a new computer we'd purchased and our projector that we use in worship. One one hand I want to believe that whatever they took they needed more than we did. But to be honest, I hope that they trip and break a leg or an arm. I don't want them to die, just to suffer a little bit. I think feeling violated is very normal. What I really wish is that we lived in a world where people didn't need to steal to feed their drug habits (probably meth around here). The reality is that we can replace everything that was taken. I think rebuilding trust will be harder. I hope that we don't feel the need to turn our church into a fortress.

Being half-serious, this break-in shows the lack of religious awareness in the Pacific Northwest. No reasonably well-informed burglar would break into a Methodist around here looking anything of real value, much less cash. They should have tried the megachurch across town that just built an addition (to their already massive complex) probably twice the size of our church. Of course, they probably have attack dogs, a fully automated electronic security and surveillance system, and a heavily armed elite attack force standing ready. That was kind of mean, but that church has better a/v equipment than most movie theaters.


Wednesday, June 09, 2004

The natural consequence of moral absolutism
I've been told over and over that moral absolutism is necessary to be a Christian. Without absolute moral authority how do you know what's right and wrong? As much as conservative Christians like to talk about moral absolutism, I don't think many of them are really absolutists. The problem for people living in the real world is that absolutism is pretty much untenable for anyone living in a diverse society.

The unfortunate reality for absolutists is that not everyone agrees with their set of moral principles. That creates a problem for absolutists because not following those moral principles is wrong. Like burn in hell for all eternity wrong. Like God will smite you, wrong. But after they've converted the half-dozen people in the world who will easily change their minds they're still stuck with the rest of us who aren't going to change.

So what are the absolutists going to do? I think that ultimately they don't have a lot of choices. Choosing to let people be is basically implicit moral relativism (which is very, very bad). So what's left? Locking people up or killing them. Throwing people in prison works well for certain crimes - like those based on behaviors or actions. But what about crimes of the mind? Locking up heretics and apostates doesn't do much. If you think about it, what other avenue does a serious moral absolutist have to deal with an unrepenting dissident?

Thankfully I'm not making this stuff up. I have recently been reading about Christian Reconstructionism. Related concepts are Dominion Theology and Theonomy. Religious Tolerance.org describes the concepts this way:

Christian Reconstructionism - Followers believe "that every area dominated by sin must be 'reconstructed' in terms of the Bible."

Dominion Theology - Dominion theologians believe that that this verse [Genesis 1:26] commands Christians to bring all societies, around the world, under the rule of the Word of God.

Theonomy - Thus, each of the 613 laws given to Moses and recorded in the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures) are binding on people of all nations, cultures, and religions forever, except for those laws which have been rescinded or modified by further revelation.

Here is another summary of Christian Reconstructionism. This is from an article by Edd Noell, a professor at Westmont College, titled "A Reformed Approach to Economics: Christian Reconstructionism."

Reconstructionists follow Calvin in seeing man’s task as fulfilling the dominion covenant through devotion to God’s particular calling.

Reconstructionists understand this task in terms of bringing the whole world under the rule of God’s law. This understanding is derived from two other principle doctrines associated with Reconstructionism: ts postmillennial eschatology and its theonomic approach to ethics. Postmillennialism contends that prior to the Second Coming of Christ, his kingdom will be manifested in a worldwide conversion
to Christianity. The theonomic doctrine affirms that every detail of God’s law as given through Moses is explicitly binding on Christians today. Reconstructionists who espouse theonomic postmillennialism assert that worldwide victory for the gospel will result in adherence by all nations to the standards found in Biblical law.

Advocates of theonomy believe that bringing back Mosaic law also requires bringing back the death penalty. They believe the following crimes worth of death (based on the Old Testament): adultery, blasphemy, heresy, homosexual behavior, idolatry, prostitution, evil sorcery. From "Christian Reconstructionism" at The Public Eye, "The Biblically approved methods of execution include burning (at the stake for example), stoning, hanging, and "the sword." Gary North, the self-described economist of Reconstructionism, prefers stoning because, among other things, stones are cheap, plentiful, and convenient."

Now this is moral absolutism. If you reject their ideas (i.e. heresy), they'll kill you (or just wish that they could). I would argue that this is the natural consequence of moral absolutism. Eventually you get to the point where there is no other alternative than killing people who disagree with you.

Thank God there aren't very many true moral absolutists out there.

Here are some links on Christian Reconstructionsim, Dominion Theology, and Theonomy. Some in favor, most opposed.

Moral Absolutes?

Religious Tolerance.org - Christian Reconstructionism

Religious Tolerance.org - Recent developments

Religious Movements Homepage Project

Christian Reconstructionism

"Avenging Angel of the Religious Right" - Originally published at Salon.com

Free Books from The Institute of Christian Economics (founded by Gary North)

Christian Reconstructionism - The Foundation of Modern Conservativism

The Despoiling of America

R. J. Rushdoony - One of the main guys behind Christian Reconstructionism


Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Of brick walls and words...
I had another interesting discussion this weekend with my sister-in-law and her boyfriend. We were talking about "Letters from a Skeptic" which I blogged about last week. My sister-in-law asked me what I had thought about it. My response was that it didn't do much for me. I didn't think it was a great tool for evangelism because I don't think Christianity is just about believing facts. The boyfriend responded that if we don't know the facts (in this case the absolute truth of the Bible), how do we know what's right and wrong? Without the TRUTH, we don't have any absolute moral authority in our life.

I don't think I had a very good response at the time. But I wonder - is absolute moral truth really the cornerstone of our faith? The need for absolutism would suggest that christianity is religion of rules and rewards (and their associated penalties). I think the problem in these discussions with my family is that we're coming from completely different hermeneutics. We're trying to discuss complex issues of theology when we have radically different notions of the nature and authority and Scripture. We understand salvation and faith in different ways.

The consequence of this is that after our discussions I feel like I've spent the whole time pounding my head into a brick wall. I'm frustrated not that they continue to disagree with me, but that we can't even seem to speak the same language.

So how do we even start these types of discussions? Even agreeing on the language we use may not be possible. A good example of this is the recent disinvitation of the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles from a meeting of the American Anglican Council (a conservative group within the Anglican church). Rev. J. Jon Bruno refused to sign the group's faith statement which reads (in part), "I believe in and accept Jesus as Savior and Lord and that He is the only way into the heavenly kingdom."

Bruno said that line "basically excludes all people of Judaism, Islam and Buddhism as being within the love of God. I'm not willing to say that God has made that decision. I know that Christianity is the way for me, that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. But I cannot say that God will make that decision on the last day. I don't know what God's decision will be"... (story courtesy of Father Jake)

In this case the language was a stumbling block. How do we start conversations when the use of certain words (or refusal to use) constitutes heresy in the minds of some? And it isn't just conservatives that are the problem -liberals/progressives can be just as unforgiving in their use of language.

I don't know how to fix this. I just wish when I was talking to my family there was a way to make it feel less pointless.


Friday, June 04, 2004

Interview with NT Wright
Here's an excerpt of an interview with NT Wright in the National Catholic Reporter. This answer is in response to a question about whether abortion is the central religious issue of our time:

This is where I really would get quite angry with that point of view. Though I happen to agree with the stance on abortion, it seems blindingly obvious that it is not the big moral issue of our time. Global debt and the economic systems that were set up in 1944 with the Breton Woods Agreement, to slope the table so the money slides into the pockets of the Western banking system, at the cost of keeping most of the world in unpayable debt, seems to me as big a moral issue as slavery was 200 years ago. I and others intend to bang on about it until we achieve something. I just don't think we can say, "abortion is the issue."
Yes, abortion matters, but all this matters much, much more. Just in terms of sheer quantity, there are millions more people whose lives are totally blighted by it. That's where I would go for starters. To play around with your Democratic presidential candidate, for example, seems to me to play with one particular pawn without noticing what's happening on the chessboard as a whole. When you see the whole, I think you have to say, let's try to address the big issues. If you haven't got the courage to do that, addressing the little issues of one particular person and his views on this or that looks like a displacement activity. It looks like something you do rather frantically in order to avoid having to talk about the elephant in the living room.

I would encourage reading the whole interview. It is a powerful commentary that articulates an ethic of life much more meaningful than anything in our current political environment.

There's also a lengthy discussion of homosexuality and the Anglican church. While I don't agree with his position on the issue, I have a great deal of respect for his thoughtful approach to it.

Link courtesy of Get Religion.


Thursday, June 03, 2004

I've been thinking about pacifism and violence lately. Father Jake has had some great posts on the subject. I'm too lazy right now to link to them all, but they are definitely worth reading. I've also been enjoying The Gutless Pacifist the last couple of days.

Then yesterday out I was out walking during a break at work. A school bus drove by and some elementary school kid yelled out the window at me. He was making fun of me about my weight. I was shocked at how this 10 or 11 year-old punk could make me feel so bad about myself. It brought back a lot of feelings about my own elementary school experience. I was frequently the target of bullies and it wasn't uncommon for me to come home crying. I don't feel like I was scarred permanently by my experience, but it has shaped me.

Then I started thinking about a particular experience in fifth grade. One guy in my class was making my life miserable. His name was Ray. I feel no particular need to disguise his name because he was a total asshole. Eventually my dad and my teacher got sick of me complaining about him. My dad told me that I should just take him down on the playground and tell him to stop messing with me. He even showed how to do it. What shocked me was that my teacher agreed. So one day, near the end of recess, I did. Out of sight of the playground monitors I knocked him down and pinned him on his back. I told him to leave me alone. Then I got up and went inside.

You know what, he did leave me alone. And you know what else? It felt good. Really good. I felt like I had a little more control over my life. And I've never hit anyone intentionally again (there's an unfortunate story from seventh grade about an unintentional blow, but I'll leave that for later). But I've struggled to understand what to take away from that experience. Now I wonder what I'd tell my children if they were in the same situation. Of course today, if they did what I'd done they'd probably end up in a maximum security prison for the the rest of their life.

Is the message here "better living through judicious use of violence?" Is it that you should stand up for yourself when the peope who are supposed to protect you, don't? Did I just lower myself to the bully's level and debase myself by speaking his language?

I think that maybe the message is that our society is seriously screwed up. Even in this day of metal detectors and drug dogs at schools, kids aren't safe there. Kids aren't safe at home. They aren't safe on the streets. We've created a world where power is the only thing that matters. We see this modeled from the President on down. Is it any big surprise then that some kids work the same way? Should we be shocked that the one concept kids seemingly master in school is how to use physical and emotional violence to their advantage?

I know a lot of people on the right hate Michael Moore with a passion. Maybe they're right. But I thought Bowling for Columbine was a great movie. What I really liked was how he pointed out that the day of the Columbine shooting was also the day of the single largest bombing offensive in the Bosnian "conflict." We live in an incredibly violent society - from state-sponsored violence to domestic violence. Is it any surprise that our kids act the same way? I think it would be more surprising if they didn't.


Or is it just a matter of willpower?
Michael Toy has written a great post that (among other things) talks about his struggle with his weight. I'm in the same boat. I'm overweight and I know what I need to do to lose weight. I need to: 1) exercise more 2) eat less. Why is it so hard to do these things? Why is it such a struggle to do those things that we know we need to do?

This makes me think of my daughter Claire. She is four months old on Saturday. She is an incredible, delightful, beautiful person. But she has a little problem - when she's tired she doesn't like to go to sleep. She has a distinctive "tired" cry that is more of a cross between moaning and crying. She knows that she's tired. She knows that she needs to sleep. But she doesn't want to. Sarah and I like to think that she doesn't want to miss anything. She's been doing this since she was a couple of weeks old. Sometimes we can rock her to sleep. Sometimes not.

This makes me wonder - is this part of the human condition? Is there something hard-wired into our DNA that makes us resist doing the things we know we should do? Is this the curse of independence? Or the blessing? Maybe that we have to choose to do what is right or good is not just what makes us human, it is how we are human. The act of choosing and agonizing over choosing is one of our major avenues for personal, intellectual, and spiritual growth. If we were made to always do the right thing, maybe we wouldn't be as interesting. Skinnier perhaps, but less interesting.


Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Makes sense to me!
Jenell Paris had this to say (quoted below) in response to Javier Sampedro's great thought (also quoted below).

Doesn't God live within us? If so, we ought to honor the God within, as well as honor him in heaven and in nature. I think it's an insult to say that you've asked Jesus into your heart, but then say you're still a worthless piece of crap. It's an insult to God, and to ourselves.

Here's one of Javier Sampedro's great thoughts:

I think that this constant debasing ourselves may do more to cripple the Kingdom of God than many other things. We have this theology that tells us that we are no good and then when times come that we should be revealing the Kingdom, we feel unworthy or incapable of doing it. So the Kingdom of God stays there, shrouded. Waiting for someone that doesn't feel the need to remind God for the 567th time that he is not whole.


Tuesday, June 01, 2004

It wasn't really, but it almost felt that way. On Sunday, before church, I told my pastor that I had been seriously thinking about going into the ministry and that I wanted to talk to her about it. She looked at me, smiled, and said, "I wondered when you were going to ask me." She also told me that she'd thought the same thing, but didn’t want to scare me off by saying something before I was ready to hear it.

It's really nice to have something like this validated by someone that I trust. We had a really good talk and she helped me to understand the labyrinth that is the United Methodist Church's process to ordained ministry. The first step was talking to her. The next step is to read The Christian as Minister. Then I need to go through the Ministry Inquiry Process with an Elder or Deacon. The only downside is that our pastor is leaving our church this month. So I'll go through the Ministry Inquiry Process with our new pastor, but that should be a really good opportunity to get to know her.

So I'm excited, a little scared, and really looking forward to wherever this journey takes me!


Isn't there more?
For the last several months, the book, Letters from a Skeptic has been sitting around at my in-law's home. Every time we’re over there I read a couple of the letters. The book documents a conversation between Dr. Gregory Boyd (a professor of Christian apologetics at Bethel University) and his father, Edward Boyd. The younger Dr. Boyd is trying to convince his father (the skeptic) to become a Christian. Of course in the end, Dr. Boyd's father becomes a Christian (it wouldn't have been much of a book otherwise, I guess - or least it wouldn't have been a book that evangelical Christians would have bought).

Part of me wants to critique this book for what it is not. It is not a lot of things – but it is an apologist's best "Case for Christ" (to borrow the title of another book that annoys me). The book does address a lot of the tough questions like, "why is there suffering in the world?" I don't even necessarily disagree with some of the answers that Dr. Boyd provides. I just wonder about his method (though it is hardly unique to him). I don't think it would be a mischaracterization to say that he is trying to win believers through an assault of (seemingly) overwhelming evidence. In the face of such evidence, atheists would have no choice but to believe.

But as I was reading this last night, I just wondered, "Is this all there is? Isn't there more?" Is the sum of our faith just a collection of data? So now his father believes the Bible is inspired, Muslims are probably going to hell, and the world can be a pretty crappy place for a lot of people and this all-powerful God doesn't seem to care. So what? What's next? How is his father a changed person? How is this assault of evidence allowing God to work in him?

Obviously my problem is that I don't agree that belief is our end-game as Christians. We are called to a relationship with God and in that relationship we work towards transformation (personal, social and institutional). The focus on the truth of particular scriptural or doctrinal claims takes us away from God. I also think that the need for establishing the truth of these claims has a lot more to do with our own insecurities and fears than on any need of God to have us believe them.