We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Gone Fishin'

This afternoon I'm headed for a conference in Syracuse, NY, and will be back in Lowville Wednesday evening.  This is a good time to take a week off from Rom Phra Khun.  Look for the next posting on Monday, July 2nd.  Herb

Attending Wholly to God

We must not rely too much upon ourselves, for grace and understanding are often lacking in us. We have but little inborn light, and this we quickly lose through negligence.

Often we are not aware that we are so blind in heart. Meanwhile we do wrong, and then do worse in excusing it. We take others to task for small mistakes, and overlook greater ones in ourselves. We are quick enough to feel and brood over the things we suffer from others, but we think nothing of how much others suffer from us.

If a man would weigh his own deeds fully and rightly, he would find little cause to pass severe judgment on others.

You will never be devout of heart unless you are thus silent about the affairs of others and pay particular attention to yourself. If you attend wholly to God and yourself, you will be little disturbed by what you see about you.

Thomas a Kempis
Source: The Imitation of Christ

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Interfaith Choices

Mother Mosque of America, Cedar Rapids, IA
If current trends continue, American Christians will increasingly be facing crucial choices concerning their neighbors of other faiths and no faith  Those choices are to embrace them, passively accept them, ignore them, passively reject them, or actively reject them.  While American churches are trending rightward and downward, growing numbers of Americans (especially younger Americans) are choosing "no faith" as their religious preference.  And the numbers of people of other faiths is growing, apparently rapidly in some cases.

For example, last year a group of research organizations issued a report entitled, "The American Mosque 2011," which indicates that American Islam is growing rapidly, is largely moderate theologically, and has become much more broadly accepted by the general public.  The number of mosques in the United States increased by some 74% between 2000 and 2011 while the number of worshippers also increased from roughly 2 million to 2.6 million, and increase of 30%.  The report estimates that there could now be as many as about 7 million American Muslims.  This survey also found that some 56% of mosque leaders practice a moderate faith that combines traditional approaches to Islam with a desire to adapt their faith to contemporary circumstances.  Only 11% hold to a very conservative and literalist faith.  Finally, where in 2000 some 54% of mosque leaders felt that American society was hostile to Islam in 2011 that number had dropped to 25%.  The report also shows that mosque leaders are overwhelmingly committed to active participation in American society and involvement in the political process.

Christianity is the faith of choice of the great majority of Americans and will remain so for decades to come, but it will be less and less so as those decades pass.  One way or another, we will have to decide how we want to relate to our neighbors of other faiths.  As usual "not deciding" is itself a decision.  Will they be our friends or our enemies?  Will we see in them our neighbor in the way that Christ saw the Samaritans as neighbor?  Decisions, decisions.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Where We Really Are

Jesus did not simply dip into our existence, wave the magic wand of divine life over us, and then hurriedly retreat to his eternal home. He did not leave us with a tattered dream, letting us brood over the mystery of our existence. Instead, Jesus subjected himself to our plight.... Jesus came to us where we really are--with all our broken dreams and lost hopes.... Christ showed us how to really become human beings. In him we see the unimagined heights and depths of our human lot.

Johannes B. Metz
Source: Poverty of Spirit (1968)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Revisiting Jesus & Dualism

A week or so ago, the Presbyterian news website, Church and World, picked up on a Rom Phra Khun posting entitled, "Jesus & Dualism," which generated  a spike in visits to this usually quiet, backwater blog.  Among the visitors was a sister Presbyterian blogger of a different theological persuasion, Viola Larson.  She did not like what she read and has posted a scathing critique of my blog entry (here).  She labels me, among other things, a heretic.  It's pretty blunt stuff.  One of her commenters even linked me to the notorious (on the Right) John Shuck of Shuck & Jive fame.

I only mention this because Viola's posting raises the important and fascinating question of the two natures of Christ, his humanity and divinity.  She accuses me of "rending" them apart.  This is an issue that has been debated intensely in Christian circles since the earliest days of the Jesus Movement.  Fairly early on, we settled on the formula "fully God, fully human" to express that affirmation.  But what does that mean?  Specifically, does it mean that the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth was all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful in a divine sense, which seems to deny his humanity?  Humans are by definition limited, creaturely beings.  Does it mean that God somehow became limited, which seems to be a fundamental denial of divine nature?  God by definition is Beyond human or even cosmic limitations.  How do we put these two natures together in one physical body?

The truth is that faithful Christians frequently tend to lean one way or the other in their view of Christ.  Those on the "high Christology" side emphasize his divinity while struggling to contain that divinity in his humanity.  Those on the "low Christology" side are big on Christ's humanity while struggling to fit his divine nature into his humanity.  Viola holds to a high Christology, while I hold to a low one.  Were I so inclined, I suppose, I could accuse her of rending apart Jesus' two natures, too.  To do so would be to miss the point that the person of Jesus, human and divine, is important to both of us—profoundly meaningful and worthy of our life's commitment.

I accept the two natures of Christ formula, which for me means that God the Beyond was incredibly present in Jesus of Nazareth, but not in a way that was immediately obvious to those around him.  The gospels, particularly Mark, portray Jesus as a man who could grow tired, didn't know everything, could lose his cool, and shared some of the prejudices of his age.  The gospels clearly associate Jesus with God to such an extent that the early church soon enough worked out the two natures doctrine to explain that association, but it is worth noting that the struggle was not with Jesus' human nature.  That was always the easy part.  It was with figuring out how one man could also be God incarnate.

For myself, it makes most sense to see Jesus as being a real-time, actual human being with the full set of human qualities.  In fact, the point of the incarnation is that God humbled God's self, stooped down to our level, and became one of us.  "One of us" is not all-knowing and all-powerful.  "One of us" feels pain, grief, and struggles with human limitations.  If God the Beyond did not shed such divine attributes, the incarnation was not a risk and not truly a sacrifice.  Jesus was God With Us in his intense compassion and courage, a spiritual and moral Presence that I associate with the Holy Spirit.  The gospels seem to me to make that same association in their descriptions of Jesus' baptism.

It is helpful to remember the fact that those who knew Jesus the best in his own time did not come up with any clear formulation of his two natures.  Indeed, apparently, they seem to have thought of him primarily (again, esp. according to the oldest gospel, Mark) as the Messiah, which didn't at first mean he was divine.  Then, the dominant wing of the early church came to think of Jesus as a "super" Messiah, which belief eventually evolved into the two natures doctrine.  We should not forget that important segments of the early church saw Jesus either as "just" a man or as God who only appeared to be a man.  Both of these views were eventually deemed heretical.

So, I am in Viola's debt.  She has brought Rom Phra Khun increased attention, which can't be all bad.  She has taken my own thoughts on the person of Jesus very seriously, which also can't be all bad.  And she has afforded me the opportunity to slow down and think again about Jesus and our shared faith in him as Lord and Saviour, which is all to the good.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Faith & Works

In the white heat of theological conflict, the early Reformers rejected the notion that we can be saved by our actions.  Drawing especially on Paul, they argued that we are saved by "faith alone, grace alone."  They set faith over against works, Paul against the Book of James.

It's a false choice that is both unfaithful and unworkable.  People of true faith will truly work at their faith.  Faith virtually demands action.  Faith for followers of Christ means trusting God in  Christ and seeking to live as God in Christ creates us to live.  Heart and mind are wrapped up in the quest faith sets us on.  Faith teaches us to slow down and "be still," which is a form of works that is not-doing rather than doing.  Faith also impels us to service, which is godly doing, another form of works.

We don't "get faith" before we "do works".  The two come together as a package deal.

And, most precisely, it is also not quite correct to claim that we are saved by faith when we consider that faith is a gift rather than an achievement.  We're not saved either by faith or works, but by the grace of God in the guise of the Spirit.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Stay Open

There is a profound ground of unity that is more pertinent and authentic than all the unilateral dimensions of our lives. This we discover when we keep open the door of our heart. This is one's ultimate responsiblity, and it is not dependent upon whether the heart of another is kept open for us.

Howard Thurman
Source: The Inward Journey (2009)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Undocumented Political Rhetoric

A recent study by Drs. Peter Dreier of Occidental College and Christopher R. Martin of the University of Northern Iowa is entitled, "“Job Killers in the News: Allegations without Verification”. According to their report on their research findings, this study "analyzes the frequency of the term "job killer" in four mainstream news media since 1984." How was the term "job killer" used by the Associated Press, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post? Did these four media outlets verify claims that certain programs or policies would "kill jobs"?  Dreier and Martin found that the charge "job killer" is used largely for political purposes.  Its use has nothing to do with whether the economy is in decline or not.  The conservative Wall Street Journal "was the most likely of the four news organizations to deploy 'job killer' as conventional wisdom, with no attribution."

Most often, the term "job killer" was used by Republicans and business against governmental measures to regulate business.  And, "in 91.6% of the stories alleging that a government policy was or would be a 'job killer,' the media failed to cite any evidence for this claim or to quote an authoritative source with any evidence for these claims."  Some "job killing" news articles posted by these news agencies spread rapidly across the Internet.  The authors concluded that these four news agencies were actually promoting a Republican and business political agenda in their use of the term "job killer" without verifying or documenting the truth of their political allegations.

Nine times out of ten the charge that a bill, law, or policy "kills jobs' there is no substantiation to back up the claim—no data, no facts, and no authoritative sources are cited.  It is enough for political pranksters to shout, "job killer" in the crowded room of American politics to send the media, at least, stampeding for the doors.  Perhaps we should focus less on the supposed dangers of undocumented workers to our economy and give more attention on the very real danger of undocumented political rhetoric to our politics.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Source: texaswiseman.com
Why should anyone believe in God today?  What might compel us to believe that there is an objective reality that we can appropriately call God?  This is not a question about whether there is or is not a God.  In any objective sense, we cannot answer that question knowing what we know now or with the research tools at hand.  God as God is objectively beyond our ken.

So, why believe there is a God if we cannot know with any reasonable degree of certainty that there is one?  That is the question.

There are reasons to believe.  Some find them compelling.  Some don't.  One of the least valued and most overlooked is the sheer fact that in American society most of us have been raised to believe that there is a God.  Even today, many long decades after Darwin, the vast majority of Americans believe there is a God.  The vast majority of Americans, even those who are not Christians, value the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  He is, as more than one scholar has pointed out, an American icon.  For those not inclined to engage in doubtful reflection, the very fact that they were raised to believe in God is a compelling reason for doing so.

There is another consideration.  Our socially-based belief in God is not "merely" heedless and superficial.  While that belief says nothing about whether or not an objective reality called God does exist, it suggests a good deal of social reflection and, perhaps, even some wisdom.  Our socially bred belief in God, for example, is rooted in the immigrant experience of several peoples and groups fleeing religious persecution.  Belief was important enough to them for them to remove themselves to North America rather than give up that belief.  Our belief in God is also rooted in the revivalist movements of colonial times, which eventually bred liberal social justice movements as well as conservative evangelistic movements.

The point is that our American social commitment to theism cuts both ways.  Yes, it does suggest a superficiality and a herd mentality.  It also embodies, however, the experiences, deep thoughts, and even wisdom of our society as well.  For tens of millions of Americans, those experiences, thoughts, and that wisdom is compelling.  They believe, whether deeply or superficially, that there is a God.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Herod vs. Jesus

Dore, "Jesus Walking on Water"
Source: Gutenberg.org
Matthew chapter 14 tells three stories.  The first story is about the death of John the Baptist, who was beheaded at Herod's order to please a dancing girl he favored.  When Jesus heard that John was dead, he went away to be by himself, but a crowd followed him, and he fed the crowd with five loaves and two fish.  Then, Jesus again went off to be alone while his disciples climbed into a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. In the dead of night, Jesus walked on the sea in high winds.  Peter started to walk on water, too, but then lost faith and nearly drowned.  At the end of this third story, "The people in the boat worshipped Jesus," and they avowed that he was truly God's son.

The three stories can be seen in different ways, and they can be read separately to communicate several different meanings.  Taken together, however, they contrast the way in which empires and rulers exercise power with Jesus' use of power.  The first story portrays Herod as lustful, vindictive, power-hungry, capricious, unjust, and violent.  He took John's head on a whim.  By way of contrast, Jesus fed 5000 hungry people, and "everybody ate and was satisfied" (Wright, The Kingdom New Testament, 29).  Then, Jesus walked across a stormy sea, symbolic of chaos, invited Peter to overcome the chaos as well, and saved him when he failed.  In the process, he told the people in the boat to not be afraid.  They worshipped him as they would God.

Herod was the agent of chaos.  Jesus was the master of that same chaos.  Herod behaved unjustly while Jesus showed compassion.  Each exercised power, but they did so to different ends.  The contrast between the power of empire and of God is stark, and early Christians listening to readings of Matthew's gospel surely heard a contrast between the power of Rome and that of Jesus looming in the shadows of these stories.  God, they heard, was greater than Rome.  Jesus used power to different ends than Rome.  Amen.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The SBC a Year Later

Just one year ago, I reported (here) on the continuing membership decline of the Southern Baptist Convention.  In 2011, the SBC marked its fourth strait year of decline.  As I said then, the decline was modest compared to that of several mainline denominations, but it was real and continuing.  Now, a year later, SBC decline continues and is increasing.  Ed Stetzer of LIfeWay Research reports on his blog (here) that not only is this accelerating trend clear, but it also replicates the pattern of decline seen in mainline churches such as the United Methodist Church.  He writes that he has been warning the SBC year after year that the decline has to be addressed, but his warnings have largely fallen on deaf ears.  In the past, there has been some denial over the weight of the data, but Stetzer claims that such denial has to come to an end.  The facts are clear.

The decline in SBC membership becomes more and more significant the longer it continues.  It suggests that the national decline in organized religion is spreading to the South, the most religious region of the nation.  It also suggests that institutional religious decline is a growing reality across the nation.  From the perspective of mainline churches, it points to a third important reality.  Church decline is not a function of theological position, liberal or conservative, and specifically it is not related to a declared commitment to evangelism.  In the case of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the point is that those churches that are leaving the denomination because of its supposed lack of commitment to evangelism and an evangelical theology are not themselves going anywhere significant.  Withdrawal into evangelical ghetto denominations offers no assurance whatsoever that they will discover new growth.  Indeed, the likelihood is the opposite.

The SBC apparently is also following in the footsteps of the mainline church in another way.  The mainline has been declining for fifty years, that's two generations.  Everyone knows it is declining.  A vast literature of decline has emerged.  A ton of research has gone into studying the phenomenon.  There are a large variety of programs and approaches designed to reverse the decline.  And yet it continues.  While not a few mainline churches are growing, they are the minority.  Most are not.  Something much larger is going on, and I don't think we really understand it for all of our books, studies, journals, seminars, and programs.  We certainly have not learned how to contend with it.  If any denomination in the United States today has the size, resources, ideology, and commitment to transcend decline, it is the SBC.  And the SBC is headed in the same direction as the rest of us.  Something is going on.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Jesus & Dualism

Source: Wikimedia.org
The "parable of the weeds" (Matthew 13:24-30) and its explanation (Matthew 13:36-43)  is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, and it poses something of a problem.  Jesus' allegorical interpretation of the parable is intensely dualistic.  It distinguishes good people from evil, the children of God from the devil's children.  It describes a day of judgment when Satan's children will be thrown into a "furnace of fire" (13:42) while God's children will "shine like the sun" in God's kingdom (13:43).  The problem is that dualistic thinking simplistically divides humanity into opposite categories of good and evil, saved and damned, which categories easily morph into us against them.  Prejudice of every kind is built on dualistic thinking.  Dualistic thinking can be dehumanizing and lead easily to violence.  It is disconcerting, thus, to realize just how dualistic Jesus himself was—and hardly surprising since he was a man of his dualistic times and his culture.

Taken at face value, the parable of the weeds promotes a set of values that are problematic at best and downright dangerous at their worst.

It helps, at least somewhat, to remember Jesus' description of the judgment day when the sheep (the righteous) will be divided from the goats (the unrighteous) in Matthew:25-31-46.  There, Jesus makes it clear that the sheep were those who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, accepted strangers, clothed the naked, ministered to the sick, and visited prisoners.  Again, taken at face value, God doesn't divide us according to our beliefs or anything else other than our care for people in need.  That helps take some of the sting out of the dualism.  Mercy, compassion, and care are the measures of salvation and righteousness.  An atheist-lesbian-black-female-leftist Arab has as much of a shot at the Kingdom as does a believing-straight-white-male-conservative Christian.  That helps.

Jesus' attitudes towards marginal people in general also makes a difference.  He had a heart for the poor and marginalized, and he believed that they were the ones who would inherit the kingdom.  His standards of measure were again mercy, compassion, and justice.

In sum, there are three things we can do with the parable of the weeds and its explanation.  First, we can acknowledge the parable's down side.  It can be used to promote injustice, violence, hatred, and prejudice.  The parable is divisive and invites misuse.  Second, in order to avoid the down side of the parable, we do well to put it in the context of Jesus' "larger body of work" including both his teachings and his ministry with the marginalized.  Third, acknowledging the dangers in these passages, they do remind us of the fundamental issue that all of the Bible addresses: human brokenness.  The God of the Bible is persistently committed to creating clean hearts in us and filling us with a new and right spirit (Psalm 51:10).  While the human Jesus reflected the dualistic heritage of his time and culture, the Spirit that filled him turned his teachings and his ministry in a different direction.  It is that Path we seek to follow today.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Joan Niesen's posting, "There's an unfair bias against WNBA" is worth a read.  I've commented here before on the shabby treatment the Minnesota Lynx receive from the media (here).  At the moment, the Lynx are 9-0 and playing great basketball, but you would hardly know it from the sports news websites.  Niesen, writing about the Lynx, makes the larger point that women's professional basketball generally is treated as a second-class enterprise that is compared unfavorably and unfairly to the NBA.  She makes good points.  This prejudice is particularly galling, however, when it comes to Minnesota professional sports where, right now, fans are feeling "better" about the baseball Twins because they almost don't have the worst record in the American League—almost.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


In many parts of the world and even in the most "advanced" societies, people believe in spirits, which inhabit their landscape and can have a real impact on their lives.  Traditionally, these spirits have been seen as capricious rather than inherently evil.  They are not to be trusted, which means that they must be placated with gifts and prayers.  Some spirits, however, are evil.  They are demons, if you will.

Demons are real—not as separate spiritual beings, but as inner realities that touch us deeply and hurtfully, they are real.  They infest our inner landscape with anxieties, self-doubt, mistrust, insecurity, resentment, and the worst of them enjoy causing pain in others.  They are the source of racism, sexism, and the deep-seated fear of anyone who is different.  These deep dwelling inner demons teach us to be hardhearted.  They encourage us to walk on by.  They are real, and even the very best of us experience them.

Demons infect our relationships with the seeds of destruction.  They are insidious in undermining our better natures and good qualities.  They can turn our political systems dysfunctional, and at their worst they drive nations to war—masking horrible irrationality with a veneer of false sanity.  It is our demons that turn crowds into mobs.  Demons may not have a reality outside of our hearts and minds, but they are real nonetheless, and the very best single word to describe them is "insidious".  They are subtle, so much a part of us that they feel natural to us.  When Jesus taught that we are all to capable at seeing the splinter in another's eye while missing the plank in our own (Matthew 7:1-5), he was pointing to the demons that reside in us.  Author Frank Herbert in his classic novel, Dune (1965), assigns to a quasi-religious sect of powerful women, the "Bene Gesserit, the following Litany Against Fear: "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."  He, too, was pointing to the demons within us, assigning them the name fear.

The thing is our demons cause us to act in ways that are as much hurtful to ourselves as anyone else.  A true goal of all religions is to quiet these demons to such an extent that they cease to be.  In coming to center, learning to truly relax, and discovering the quiet peace that rests in the heart of our hearts, we put our demons to rest.  We can't beat them by fighting them.  We can only discover peace by letting be and letting go or, which is another way of saying, "Letting go and letting God."  Only then do our demons lose their reality.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Jumping Jehoshaphat

History and societies do not crawl.  They make jumps.  They go from fracture to fracture, with a few vibrations in between.  Yet we (and historians) like to believe in the predictable, small incremental progression.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb,
The Black Swan (Random House, 2010), page 11

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Case for Relativism

"Relativism" has a bad name in many U.S. Christian circles.  In a recent posting entitled, "Evangelicals: We Must Stand Firm on Biblical Authority, Exclusivity of Christ," Dr. R. C. Sproul referred to "relativism" as being the idea "that says it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you're sincere."  In other words, relativism amounts to a lack of standards, commitment, and serious faith.  It is nonchalant, blithely saying that when it comes to beliefs "it doesn't matter."  In that posting, relativism is associated with contemporary social values inimical to the Christian faith, ones that have to be overcome with a determined stand for an exclusive gospel that preaches a salvation limited to Christianity.

Relativism as such has nothing to do with indifference to or a nonchalant attitude about beliefs.  Relativism doesn't say that beliefs don't matter. It says, rather, that beliefs have a context and the believer should be keenly, carefully aware of that context.  How and what we believe depends in part on the context in which we hold our beliefs.  Culture shapes how we believe.  History shapes how we believe.  Our personal experiences powerfully impact how we believe.  Our inherent (perhaps partly biological) tendency to be liberal or conservative in our thinking shapes how we believe.  Interestingly enough, philosophy has a particularly strong impact on our beliefs.  In an American Protestant context, the early church's experience with Greek philosophy continues to powerfully shape our understanding of God.

The choice we have to make about our contexts is the degree to which we ignore or acknowledge their influence over the ways we believe.  Many American Christians choose to ignore that influence and reject the idea that human beliefs are relative.  They seek to absolutize their beliefs.  Fewer, but still a significant number of believers, embrace the fact that faith is dependent on many factors and is not absolute.  Each choice is dangerous.  The "true believers" are seriously in danger of confusing what they believe about God with God.  The "relativists" are seriously in danger of losing sight of the importance of sharing their faith with others.  The relativists are apt to put their candle under a bushel.  The absolutists are liable to put their candle at the feet of something that is not God.

The middle way (via media) is to hold one's faith firmly, share it where appropriate, and understand that others can choose other faithful paths, which are spiritually viable but not our own.  What we believe matters.  Realizing that we are fallible in what we believe and that all human belief systems are relative also matters.  Otherwise, we tend to confuse our beliefs with the One we believe in.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

In For the Long Haul

In a report entitled, "Beliefs about God across Time and Countries," Tom W. Smith concludes on the basis of extensive data that, "while there is a drift towards lesser belief in God consistent with secularization theory the changes are modest in magnitude and mixed in scope. Countries have shown and are likely to continue to show huge differences in levels and trends about belief in God and a homogenization of belief (or disbelief) is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future."  Belief in God is decreasing, but it is doing so only slowly at different rates in different countries and with different intensities.  Consistent with data from many other sources, Smith finds that the U.S. ranks among the highest nations in belief  in God and the lowest in unbelief.  Table 1 in the report shows that in 2008 only 3.0% of Americans agreed with the statement, "I do not believe in God," while 60.6% agreed that, "I know God really exists, and I have no doubt about it."  Smith's analysis of the data also found that 35.0% of Americans were "Strong Believers in God" (Table 4) and only 1.2% were "Strong Atheists" (Table 5).  Only two nations ranked higher than the U.S. in their number of strong believers and just four countries showed fewer strong atheists.  For the years 1998-2008, Smith shows a very slight decrease in atheism in the U.S. and a slight increase in the number who are certain God exists (Table 6).

In sum, religious faith is not going away any time soon, but the context in which we speak about faith is changing.  In the U.S., that change seems to be relatively slow when it comes to belief in God as such.  Participation in religious organizations, however, is declining and at a much higher rate than the decline in belief in God.  As I noted in a recent posting (here), even in relatively conservative Lewis County, NY, almost 60% of the population is "unclaimed" by any church.  The context churches face today is that faith in God's existence is no longer a given, such as it once was.  Trust in churches as places of importance is also no longer a given.  The importance of "going to church" on Sunday morning is similarly no longer a given.  The challenge we face in the church today, in any event, is not to get people to believe in God.  It is to get people to believe in churches.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Lectionary Rant

Yesterday's posting quoted Jesus as asking scribes who were critical of his forgiving the sin of a paralyzed man, "Why let all of this wickedness fester in your hearts?"  I took it from N.T. Wright's recent translation of the New Testament,  The Kingdom New Testament (HarperOne, 2011).  The quotation comes from the story of Jesus' healing a man virtually in defiance of the religious authorities, and it concludes with the people feeling fear of Jesus while thanking God for him (Matthew 9:1-8).  It is a beautiful story and an important one, but here's the thing: it is not in the Revised Common Lectionary, which (for the uninitiated) is the list of weekly scripture readings used by most denominations and a large percentage of mainline Protestant preachers.  The Catholic Church has its own lectionary.  The common lectionary runs through a three-year cycle, and if a passage, such as Matthew 9:1-8, isn't in the lectionary it won't be preached on in that cycle.  For preachers who stick to the lectionary, this means that they will never reflect on this passage with their congregations—this one and many other important passages that failed to "make the cut" of the lectionary.

Evidently, mainline seminaries are pushing the use of the lectionary, and many liturgical resources websites tailor their contents to the lectionary.  It has become almost ubiquitous in the mainline denominations.  That means that in a pastoral career of 30 years, a preacher will "work through" the lectionary 10 times, basically going over plowed ground again and again.  There are two things that I personally really, really don't like about the lectionary: first, as I've already suggested, it leaves out much of the Bible including many important passages; secondly, it focuses the preacher's attention on the text in the context of the lectionary rather than the context of the congregation.  Preaching should always be in, to, and for the congregation hearing the sermon.  There are times when a church needs to hear a particular message, and sometimes the lectionary passages for that particular week might prove useful to that end.  Other weeks, the preacher has to ignore the needs of the church, or mangle scripture to make it fit those needs, or ignore the passage.  All of these are bad choices.  They are lazy choices.  The lectionary, if used slavishly as evidently many do, can create a barrier between the preacher and parish.

It can also relieve the pastor of the necessity of wrestling with the meaning of the Bible for the church.  The Monday morning question is not what parts of scripture are relevant but rather what are the lectionary readings for this week?  Now, it is true that one rationale for the lectionary is that it keeps preachers from just going back to their favorite passages and narrow parts of the Bible week after week.  It "forces" preachers to  preach from many parts of the Bible.  That is a problem,  but this particular solution is no better than the disease itself.  In fact, it is a palliative approach.  It also limits the preacher to what parts of the Bible are used for preaching, and because it always includes passages from the gospels, the rest of the New Testament, and the Old Testament, preachers can focus on what type of material they like to preach from—the popular choices are the gospels or the letters of Paul.

At the end of the day, however, the key point is not whether or not to use the lectionary.  The point is, rather, that preachers preach a message relevant to the current life and needs of the congregation based on relevant passages.  It is not "wrong" to use the lectionary frequently or even regularly so long as the option to ignore it for a week or a year is always on the table—and so long as the preacher is ready to use non-lectionary passages that are equally as valuable and pertinent as those contained in the lectionary.  Used circumspectly, the lectionary can be an aide to worship rather than a crutch or like blinders.  That's the point.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Festering Hearts

"Why let all of this wickedness fester in your hearts?"

Jesus of Nazareth
From: Matthew 9:4 (N. T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament, p. 15)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Birth of the Remote Control

1st wireless remote (from the Detroit Free Press)
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts recently published a column entitled, "The remote control that revolutionized our ‘fat assets’," which was published under other titles by other papers, such as, "Leonard Pitts Jr.: TVs and sofas, never the same again," in the Detroit Free Press and, "A Tribute – By Remote Control" in the Yankton Press & Dakotan.  The man who invented the TV remote, Eugene  Polley, died at the age of 96 on May 20th, and Pitts column partly pays tribute to Polley and his invention and partly laments the fact that the TV remote was ever invented.  Pitts recalls the old days of the 1950s when TV watchers had to get up and go to the set to change channels—or send one of their kids to do it (children being the original TV remote).

 It is easy to see how the wireless remote, which is now used for all sorts of things, can be a metaphor for the benefits and evils of technological society.  It singlehandedly created generations of couch potatoes, thus contributing to the obesity epidemic sweeping the globe.  On the other hand, the TV remote is a key element in the TV revolution that to a degree has put the world at our fingertips.

The deeper lesson is equally easy to see.  We have an uncanny ability to turn the good things we invent and discover to unhappy purposes.  TV remotes are two-edged swords, and so is just about everything else that we consider good.

And the theological point is just about as obvious.  The central fact of our lives is that God's creation of us remains unfinished.  We are a "work in progress" and as such have a long way to go before we see the Kingdom.  The story line of the Bible is the way in which God (wearing the mask of the Spirit) wrestles with us, works on us, and seeks to herd us toward the future, a task that is far, far worse than trying to herd cats.

Actually, the TV remote is a good sermon illustration, one well worth using for that purpose.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Small Victories

"Ike's Creek, Bloomington, Minnesota
Although the world continues to stand on the edge of ecological catastrophe with the oceans dying and rain forest dwindling rapidly, there are success stories and victories, some larger and some smaller.  The Minneapolis Star Tribune website carries a posting entitled, "Trout return near MOA," MOA referring to the Mall of America.  The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has recently removed a 1920s dam from the creek, restored its original course, stocked it with brook trout, and created a series of steps that the trout can pass over as they move up and down the stream.  The posting notes, "The clear water flows through a verdant ravine bordered by watercress and wildflowers to the Minnesota River. The creek is less than a mile long, but pure enough and cold enough to offer a rare opportunity: restoring native brook trout that flicked through the water decades ago."  The stream doesn't have an official name evidently, but those involved have started calling it "Ike's Creek" in honor of the Izaak Walton League, which formerly owned the property along the creek.  DNR officials are not sure whether or not the stream will ever be open for fishing or just how the restoration of the creek is going to turn out.  Still, it the stream in future years will be more like nature intended and probably house brook trout again as it once did.

The restoration of little Ike's Creek is a small victory, but not unimportant for that.  It reclaims one tiny corner of the planet for nature, offers a bit of nature to city dwellers, and it reflects the fact that in many places in North America restoration of natural habitats, especially forests, has been going on for decades.  So, it is a small victory but a victory nonetheless.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Nikumaroro & Amelia Earhart

The famous flier, Amelia Earhart, and Fred Noonan, her navigator, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937 while attempting to fly around the world at the equator.  Ever since, her fate has remained a mystery.  Now, however, it seems that researchers of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) have compiled enough data and onsite research findings to strongly suggest that Earhart and Noonan landed their aircraft on remote Nikumaroro, an atoll now part of the Republic of Kiribati.  Two recent news postings, one on CNN (here) and the other on Discovery News (here) describe the case for Nikumaroro, but perhaps the most interesting description of the island and the reasons for interest in it are contained on the two video clips below.  The first one is especially fascinating as it provides a 25 minute aerial tour of the atoll, a close up look at one of the most remote bits of land in the world.  The second clip is an interview with one of the participants of one of TIGHAR's expeditions to Nikumaroro.  Enjoy!

If you are interested in still more information on the search for Amelia Earhart, you might want to look at a posting entitled, "Amelia Earhart's Fate: The Archaeological Investigations" (here). 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Lewis County Churches, 2000-2010

According to the Association of Religion Data Archive's (ARDA) data base for the churches of Lewis County, NY, (here) evangelical Protestants number 2,693 adherents (9.9% of the population), mainline Protestants number 2,155 (8.0%), Catholics number 6,443 (23.8%), and "unclaimed" number 15,681 (57.9%). There are also 115 individuals listed as "other".  This data is for 2010.  The United Methodist Church was the largest Protestant body with 1,242 members in 11 churches.  The Conservative Mennonite Conference had 1,005 adherents in 6 churches, and the Mennonite Church USA had 715 members in 3 churches.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) had 266 members in 2 churches.

The ARDA data base shows that between 2000 and 2010, the largest church in the county, the Catholic Church, lost 45.4% of its total adherents, and the second largest church, the United Methodist Church, lost 31.1% of its members.  Only the Mennonite Church USA recorded substantial growth, growing by 110.3% with the addition of two churches.  For the record, the two Presbyterian churches in Lewis County lost 37.6% of their members, more than a third.  The general decline in church membership was not, however, limited to the mainline churches.  Among the evangelical denominations, the Wesleyan Church lost 77.7% of its members in the ten years from 2000 to 2010 while the Assemblies of God church lost 61.2%.

Of all of these figures, the one that is most striking is the fact that nearly 60% of Lewis County is not "churched".  The county has a reputation for being one of New York's more conservative counties with many of its people worshipping on a Sunday morning.  The county may lean to the conservative, but involved in organized religion most of the county is not.  It is figures like these that should cause mainline folks to begin to think more seriously about evangelism.  IF the faith we profess is what we claim it to be—a better way to live one's life—then it is worthy of being shared, which is all evangelism is at its best.  Faith-sharing.  We can "do evangelism" in ways that are not obnoxious and really are a sharing of good news rather than an attempt to impose a religious ideology.  Given the data, it would seem that there is plenty of opportunity for that kind of faith-sharing in Lewis County.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


I take criticism so seriously as to believe that, even in the midst of a battle in which one is unmistakably on one side against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critical consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for... Criticism must think of itself as life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom.

Edward W. Said
The Word, The Text and the Critic

Friday, June 1, 2012

Salt, Light, & Irony

"Sermon on the Mount" by Laura James (laurajamesart.com)
It is almost as if the gospel writers stashed these two sayings away for the 21st century mainline (aka oldline) churches.  According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said to his disciples that, "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?" (Matthew 5:13)  He also taught them they were "the light of the world" and observed that, "No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all the house." (Matthew 5:15)

Looking at the two sayings themselves, it seems clear that they are ironical and even humorous, maybe not quite as humorous as modern day biblicists trying to prove that salt can lose its taste or the philosophical debate about whether salt can lose its taste and remain salt—but still humorous.  Jesus' point was that tasteless salt is useless, and so is a covered lamp.  The two images of tasteless salt and a covered lamp are memorable for the ironic way they so aptly make their point, which is why they were remembered.

The point is, of course, that the disciples were called by Jesus for a purpose, and if they failed that purpose they were of no more use than tasteless salt or a lamp placed under a basket.  And when they fail to live up to their calling, they like the tasteless salt will be thrown away.  Instead, they were to "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16).

There are many reasons why churches decline, some of them having little to do with the quality of the life of the church itself.  Populations migrate, and churches are closed in one locality while new ones are founded in others.  But, where you find a declining church in the midst of a large population, there is something else going on.  That church in that locality has usually lost is savor and stashed its light under a basket.  This is the case even when the church does good things and maintains an active institutional life.  As long as such churches fail to ask what they can do to restore their savor and light, they will decline.  That is a hard lesson the last fifty years have taught the mainline churches.  The good news is that in many places new expressions of the mainline church are emerging—not as large, structured, and financed as the old mainline, but with a vibrancy also unlike those churches.  In some instances and in some places, we are learning how to put the taste back into salt and discovering that the lamp is a lot more useful if we take it out from under the basket.  To pick up on Jesus' third image, we're beginning to learn how to be the city on the hill again—the one that can't be hid.  Decline thus is both threat and opportunity.