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

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Broad Ideas

One’s ideas must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature.

Mr. Sherlock Holmes
"A Study in Scarlet"

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Long Past Tipping Point

A Presbyterian commentator, writing about the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which met earlier this month, referred to it (here) as a "tipping point."  His point is that the growing departure of the conservative wing of the denomination will leave the denomination impoverished and lacking in balance.  Perhaps, he is correct—to a degree.  In actual fact, however, the old United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church U.S. passed the real mainline Presbyterian tipping point back in the 1960s, largely ignorant at the time that they had done so.  The 1960s were a time of significant cultural change, and the churches did not change.  They increasingly lost their privileged place in American culture, but they behaved as if they were still privileged.

Today, we are more and more a remnant people, and the ongoing battle over homosexuality is but a fight over the remnants.  Our evangelical brothers and sisters can go off to their own enclaves, but all they accomplish by doing so is to speed the decline of the remnant.  They become just another piece of the remnant, leaving it still more shredded and weaker.  Their departure changes nothing worth changing one way or the other.  It is way too late then to be talking about "tipping points" and will remain so until such time as the mainline reaches a point of resurgence that tips it upward, a time that seems still far off and may never come.

For us, the concept of a "tipping point" is a set of historical events and developments that we see through the rearview mirror rather than a contemporary experience.  Until we accept that fact and learn to adapt to changing times, it will remain so.  Our prayer should be for and the goal we work for must be another tipping point, one that carries us upward in the Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Save Yourselves

Among Protestants there is less debate about whether we are saved by grace or works than there should be.  Since the time of the Reformation, our pulpits have thundered with the essentially anti-Catholic preachment that we cannot save ourselves.  We are saved by faith alone, by God's grace alone.  Sola fide, sola gratia.  This, our preachers have long claimed, is the message of the Bible.  The problem is, as I've argued before (here and here), that is only part of what the Bible says.  In other places, it says, assumes, or implies that we are indeed saved by works.

One of the most famous works righteousness passages is Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus famously divides the sheep from the goats at the last judgment, sending the sheep to eternal reward and the goats to everlasting punishment.  The standard of judgment is strictly moral.  If you do good things for those in need, it is the same as doing them for Christ, and you gain reward.  If you don't, punishment is your lot.  That seems clear enough.  We are rewarded for what we do and punished if we don't do it.  I suppose that we could rationalize the matter by saying that it is only by God's grace that we can do these things, but then we could also rationalize that it is only by God's grace that we can do anything, even the ugly stuff we do.  It is better not to play that kind of game with the passage.  It says we are saved by works.

It turns out that Matthew 25 isn't the only passage in the New Testament that makes salvation so dependent on works.  In a similar passage, Luke 3:7-14, John the Baptist makes the same point.  John was in the wilderness preaching the message that people must repent in order to be forgiven for their sins.  He called the people who came to hear him preach "a brood of vipers" and warned them that being the children of Abraham did them no good at all.  In verse 9, John is quoted in the NRSV as saying, "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."  In response, the crowd asked him what they should do, and John replied that they were to clothe and feed the needy.  He told tax collectors to collect only what they legally should.  He told soldiers they should stop extorting the public and learn to live on their salary.

"What should we do?"  Our Protestant answer has been that we should go through a process of repentance that includes becoming aware of our sin, feeling remorse for it, confessing it, and then receiving God's gracious forgiveness.  Then we should live faithful lives, which includes presumably helping others.  But, we insist—after having to do all of this work of repentance—that salvation is by faith alone.  Sometimes we will say that the good we do is actually God working in us and that this includes the work of repentance.  OK.  But, at some point we are involved, otherwise the whole process of salvation is nonsense.  Matthew 25 and Luke 3 are both clear.  Our salvation depends on our behaving with generosity toward those in need.

If by salvation, we mean here a full and meaningful life, then it is best to say that we are saved by God's grace and our own responses to that grace, which are measured in our generosity to those in need.  The choice between grace and works is a false one.  Faith and works come as a package deal.  We can't have one without the other.  Amen.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Transitional Ministry & Cleaning Up the Campsite

Transitional ministry is a form of pastoral ministry, which is usually limited to a more or less brief period of time.  Interim pastors are normally transitional pastors, called or appointed for anywhere from a few months to usually no more than two years.  But, other pastors also carry out transitional ministry including, sometimes, ones who thought they were called to a more permanent situation only to find that the past still weighs heavily on the church they serve.  In all cases, the transitional pastor's task is to assist a church that is undergoing significant change in dealing with that change.  Interim pastors, in particular, serve churches who have lost a pastor and are preparing to call a new one.  The situation of the church, its level of grief, its conflicts, and its dysfunctional aspects set the tone for the ministry of the transitional pastor.

In general, the goal of a transitional pastor is to leave a clean campsite for the next pastor.

Transitional pastors thus don't start things they can't finish.  They focus on short-term problems.  Where possible, they deal with dysfunctional situations and personalities.  They leave behind as little conflict as possible.  Transitional pastors, by definition, begin to plan to leave on the day they arrive and never let the people they serve forget that fact.  Their job is to solve problems without creating new ones.

The thing is that increasingly all pastoral ministry is transitional ministry.  Churches, especially mainline churches, are always between times even during long pastorates.  The line between transitional ministry and longer pastorates was never as sharp as the definitions make it appear, and it is growing still more fuzzy as the years go by.  In particular, the future is no longer the friend of mainline churches.  Every church is always in transition.  All pastors have to consciously seek to leave a clean campsite for those who follow.  The one difference is that pastors called or appointed to longer transitional situations generally start things they know they can't finish, and they focus less on fixing things and more on discovering new directions and possibilities.  Still, it is best to think of all pastorates as being transitional, some are just longer than others, that's all.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Real Listening

Real listening is a kind of prayer, for as we listen, we penetrate through the human ego and hear the Spirit of God, which dwells in the heart of everyone. Real listening is a religious experience. Often, when I have listened deeply to another, I have the same sense of awe as when I have entered into a holy place and communed with the heart of being itself.

Morton Kelsey
Source: Through Defeat to Victory (2002)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Penn State & Idolatry Revisited

Israel worships the golden calf (Exodus 32)
It turns out that the football scandal at Penn State involving Sandusky's repeated abuse of young boys over many years has sparked serious and healthy reflection on the nature of idolatry and how best to deal with it—and this among sports writers!  A previous RPK posting (here), noted the emergence of what amounts to the theological analysis of how Joe Paterno in particular and the Penn State football program more generally became false gods.  What seems to be happening is that the sports application of the idea of idolatry and theological-like reflections on it have become increasingly widespread.  Witness an op-ed piece by sports writer Tim Keown entitled, "NCAA offers losing solution," which criticizes the way in which the NCAA imposed sanctions on Penn State that only serve to perpetuate obeisance to the false idol of winning & losing.  In the posting, Keown refers to Joe Paterno as a "false god" and Penn State's football program as an idol.  He argues that the sanctions are an act of retribution that punish Penn State merely by turning its winning program into a losing one.  The emphasis is still on winning and losing.  The idolatrous culture that enabled Sandusky remains in place.  Keown feels that it would have been better to shut down the program for a year and let it deal with its deeper problems out of the glare of the public eye—and away from the necessities of winning & losing.  Suspending the football program for a year would have sent the message that more is at stake than winning or losing.

Keown may be correct in his analysis—or maybe not.  The matter is debatable.  The point here, however, is that as a sports writer he is looking for a way to deal with idolatry, that is to bring it to an end.  He writes, "You can't tell us the problem is with the idolatry that comes from winning and then make decisions that are based solely on the importance of wins and losses."  He is taking the concept of idolatry seriously and using it to deal with a real-world issue that has important social implications.

In the church, we make one additional critical observation that does not appear in the sports analysis of idolatry.  That is, idolatry is essentially a spiritual issue.  It happens whenever we elevate the mundane to the status of God.  And, ultimately, the only effective antidote is faith in God, Creator & Lord of the universe.  The worship of anything else—Joe Pa, for example—will one sooner or later collapse in on itself, sometimes with devastating repercussions.

(For another thoughtful piece on the Sandusky scandal see the Christian Science Monitor editorial, "NCAA sanctions on Penn State football: Why only penalties?" Although it doesn't use the theological language of idolatry, it is similar to Keown's analysis in calling for fundamental cultural changes in college football.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Evangelical Liberalism: What It Could Be

In yesterday's posting (here), I suggested that the "way out" for declining mainline churches may be what others have called "evangelical liberalism" or "ecumenical evangelicalism."  What would such a thing look like?  What would it be?

In most general terms, evangelical liberalism (use "progressivism" if you like) would be at once warm hearted and broad minded.  It would be committed to a deeply personal saving faith and to social justice.  On Sunday mornings, evangelical liberals would sing with gusto, pray enthusiastically, and worship vigorously—whatever their particular style of worship might be.  Evangelical liberal churches would no longer take a kind of "whatever" attitude toward membership and participation.  Their members would no longer shy away from a commitment to faith-sharing (read evangelism) and to personal spiritual development that includes an active prayer life.  Evangelical liberals would be committed to biblical Christianity, albeit they would not mean quite the same thing by "biblical Christianity" as evangelical conservatives mean.

Evangelical liberals would love Jesus and be inspired by the Holy Spirit.  They would take part in small groups that study the Bible, discuss personal faith, and engage in meaningful prayer time.  They would also continue to welcome homosexual Christians into their number without equivocation.  They would double down on insuring that women have a fully equal voice and place in their congregations.  They would reject a dualistic, I'm saved-you're damned approach to spirituality.  They would affirm the value of other faiths and the importance of interfaith dialogue.  They would continue to work for social justice, but they would balance that commitment with a deeper commitment to personal piety.

Evangelical liberals will be a remnant people, the vital left-overs of declining denominations.  They will remain Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and UCC'ers, but their denominations will be much smaller, less centralized, and increasingly focused on that balance of piety and social justice described above.  And it may be that they will be the seeds of something new, growing, and exciting in the future just as the evangelical conservatism of the 1950s and 1960s was the seed for today's all but dominant branch of American Protestantism.  Evangelical liberals will draw from the fresh expressions movement in Britain and the emerging church movement here in the U.S.

Evangelical in spirit.  Ecumenical in vision.  Committed to social justice.  Warm hearted and open minded.  That is the potential of an evangelical form of liberal Christianity.  Amen!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Evangelical Spirituality & the Saving of Liberal Christianity

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat wrestles with the question, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?"  Focusing on the Episcopal Church, Douthat describes two parallel trends that seem to be connected.  On the one hand, the denomination has become increasingly liberal.  On the other hand, it is in steep institutional decline.  He observes that among Catholics as well as Protestant, liberal Christianity is failing to maintain the health and vigor of liberal religious institutions.  Douthat also cautions religious conservatives that they should not take any pleasure in the accelerating decline of progressive Christianity.  For one thing, conservative churches are seeing their own decline, and for another the liberal social gospel has made an important contribution to the life of the nation. He concludes, "No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right."  Douthat argues that either the Episcopal Church and like minded denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) recapture some of the vitality of Protestant liberalism of an earlier era or they will continue to change and change and die.

In a sense, there is nothing new here, but in another sense Douthat's ruminations on the state and fate of the mainline churches demonstrates how important their decline is to American society generally.  Indeed, something important is being lost with the increasing loss of the social gospel churches.  Indeed, it is tragic to think that American Protestantism will fall entirely into the hands of the right wing.

Douthat's piece contains a hint of a hint at "the way out," which seems to be a return to the liberalism of an earlier time.  He cites a much longer article by Gary Dorrien entitled, "American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity," which makes the case that a vital liberal theology was once based on a more warmly spiritual and personal liberal Christian faith.  In his article, Dorrien writes,
To put it bluntly, liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God's holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. That is not how a great deal of liberal theology has spoken over the past generation, to the detriment of liberal theology as a whole. In the past a spiritually vital evangelical liberalism sustained religious communities that supported the entire liberal movement. What would the social gospel movement have been without its gospel-centered preaching and theology? What would the Civil Rights movement have been without its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good?
I added the italics to "evangelical liberalism" to call attention to a growing personal conviction, namely mainline churches in decline can maintain and regain vitality only as they rediscover a vital spirituality that is lacking in most of them.  Liberal Christianity reflects the person of Christ, but somewhere along the line in all of the change we have flung ourselves into as liberal Christians we have lost a spiritual vitality.  We have lost our strand of the evangelical heritage, one that goes back to abolitionism and the emergence of settlement houses and urban ministry.  I should add that this idea of recapturing a liberal evangelicalism is not in any means original with me; it is something I've been learning from others over the last couple of years.

Evangelical liberalism - a thought worth thinking about.

(Interestingly enough, I found the illustration for this posting, above, at a blog named Living Wittily where it illustrates a brief piece entitled, "Being an Ecumenical Evangelical.")

Monday, July 23, 2012

Idolatry in the "Real World"

Penn State campus statue of Joe Paterno
(AP photo)
By and large, the "secular" world is not much interested in theology  and looks on it as largely specious speculation about things we only think we know about.  It is not a field of knowledge most academics and scientists would consider a candidate for critical thinking.  They are wrong. Theology, in practice, engages in critical reflection at least as much as supposedly more empirical fields, and one of the most powerful tools for critical theological reflection is one we've highlighted before here: the concept of idolatry.  Idolatry is false worship, the worship of the created as if it were the Creator.

Once-in-awhile, however, the world "out there" unwittingly discovers the value of this critical theological concept and appropriates it for its own analysis of contemporary events.  Sports analyst Evan Barnes in a posting entitled, "Penn State Scandal: What We Can Learn from Joe Paterno, Penn State's Failings," thus repeatedly charges Penn State football fans with practicing idolatry in their (false) worship of the late Nittany Lion football coach, Joe Paterno.

Commenting on Paterno's complicity in the tragic and reprehensible Sandusky child abuse case, Barnes opens with this theological observation, "College football has long created gods who tower over the sport."  He then analyzes the consequences of turning sports into a religion and sports heroes into idols.  He speaks of the danger of turning "ordinary men into gods," which leads to a fall from grace that is a consequence of the worship given them by their fans.  He observes that Paterno was elevated to the status of a deity and writes, "The danger in creating an idol isn’t in adoring it. It’s how far we go to protect it." (Theologically, Barnes is not correct here. You can't separate the adoration from the desire to protect the idol, hence the adoration is part of the danger.)  The worship of these false sports gods involves people's feelings, passions, and identity, which morph into a lust for victory and a moral failure to hold to what is right.  In places like "Happy Valley," Centre County, PA, a culture arose that mixed hero worship with an unwillingness to hear fair-minded criticism of the hero.  (I lived in Happy Valley for three years in the 1970s, and even forty years ago local folks laughingly referred to Joe Paterno as a member of the Trinity.  It was a joke, but pointed even then to a growing feeling that Joe could do no evil.)

At the heart of our dark side as human beings lies our deeply ingrained inclination to worship things that are not worthy of worship.  Almost anything can become an idol, including our heroes and our sports.  Were that not the case, Jerry Sandusky could not have continued to abuse young boys year after year protected by an idolatrous system that put the vaunted Penn State football program above child abuse.  That, friends, is how powerful idolatry can be and why it is roundly condemned time and again in scripture.  One wishes that "the world" would take the reality of idolatry more seriously and that bibliolatrous Christians would see it as a danger especially to the Christian faith itself.  That's a prayer.  Amen.

By the way, in case you missed it, Joe's statue has been taken down.

(While the author doesn't use language that is all but theology as Barnes did, interested RPK readers would do well to look at the posting entitled, "Let's Talk a Bit About the Penn State-Paterno Debacle," at the Daily Gopher blog.)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Meaning of Peace

Mogadishu runners
Al Jazeera
Peace is a quality we can easily overlook and take for granted when it is built into everyday life.  In a relatively peaceful place like Lewis County, NY, life is fairly orderly, violence largely hidden and private, and the fields and forests instill a measure of quiet in a largely rural setting.  In spite of personal tragedies, noisy motor vehicles, some poverty, abusive relationships, and just plain human orneriness, it is fair to say that Lewis County is a relatively peaceful place.  We take the peace for granted and don't really think about all of the advantages relative peace gives us.  If we want to run, for example, we can run.

Until very recently, the Somali capital city of Mogadishu has not had this kind of quiet, daily, unobtrusive peace, but now things have changed—a state of affairs described briefly in a news posting at Al Jazeera's English-language website, entitled, "Fragile peace bolsters Somali Olympic hopes."   Mogadishu was a violent place where a small contingent of track & field athletes, runners, found it all but impossible to run, let alone train.  African Union troops now control the city, and a modicum of peace and order has returned.  For these athletes, that peace means they can run, train, and hope for a chance to compete in the Olympics in London.  Peace is a precious thing because it makes such things possible.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Fact & Truth

Icon of Christ the Healer
Mark 6:56 says that in the course of Jesus' ministry and wherever he went people brought the sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the hem of his robe.  The verse claims that all who did so were healed.  What do we do with such a claim?  Is it fact or fiction?  How do we decide?

If we take a historiographical approach, we are faced with a serious problem.  We lack the evidence we need to verify or disprove the claim.  Mark is our oldest, most reliable gospel source.  We have no other documents, no evidence closer to the events of Jesus' life than Mark (written probably ca. 70).  Secular historians are, of course, highly skeptical about the claim of Jesus' healing powers, partly because it is otherwise undocumented and partly because it does not fit with their understanding of how things work.  Historians, however, are in theory supposed to set aside their own values and beliefs, as best they can, in order to get at the facts whatever those facts may be.  Truth is, they often don't put aside their own biases, something that is incredibly difficult to do anyway.  In this case, all the historian can do is to note that this one source makes this claim.  It sounds unlikely, but then many of the things that happened in the past were unlikely—"unlikeliness" alone is not a sufficient cause to discount the data.  As unlikely as it seems, it could have happened that (many) people were healed by touching the hem of Jesus' robe.  We don't know.

Or, we can take an allegorical approach.  The truth of the claim is that if people will come to Christ in faith, Christ will give them healing.  The claim then points to the power of God in Christ.  It tells us how God acts in our own lives.  The story is thus true as it stands and its truth can be tested by putting one's trust in Christ.

A third possibility is to acknowledge, as a matter of reasonable faith, that the claim has an important kernel of historical truth in it, which reflects deeper spiritual truths.  Jesus, that is, was a man who accomplished some astonishing things.  By whatever means, he healed at least some sick people, enough to make a strong impression.  More generally, his charismatic personality made a deep, lasting impression on people, so deep and lasting that claims like this one naturally arose.  To this point, we walk a line somewhat similar to that of the secular, unconvinced historian, conceding only that the claim made in the Gospel of Mark may well reflect some historical facts.  And then, we walk beyond the skeptical scholar to acknowledge that for followers of Christ something more than "mere facts" is involved.  Empirical truth is one form of truth.  Truths of the heart and Spirit are another form.  Faith in Christ acknowledges that the historical facts are sketchy and unreliable at best, and then says, "Still, I trust."  Faith finds something deeply persuasive in the church's witness to the truth about Jesus of Nazareth that transcends the critical historiographical method.  Jesus remains a powerful, astonishing, and wise figure in himself, and the embodiment of God's love for us as best we can understand that love.

There are facts, and then there are facts.  The critical historical method does not have a corner on the fact market, no matter how much its practitioners would have us think otherwise.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Who Are We, Then?

If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you!

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (The Kotzker Rebbe)
Source: Wikipedia

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lessons from NATO

In May, the Atlantic Council published a report entitled, "Change Management and Cultural Transformation in NATO: Lessons from the Public and Private Sectors," written by Nancy DeViney and Edgar Buckley. It discusses and evaluates reforms being made by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in response to NATO's changing mission in a changing world. This report is also a good reminder that organizations and institutions other than mainline American churches faces substantial challenges in our ever-fluid 21st century world. In many cases, the challenges are similar. DeViney and Buckley could have been writing about mainline denominations when they state of NATO that,
Culturally, NATO’s default behavior patterns no longer match its vocation and mission. The fundamental cultural problem is that it has not adapted its political approach and military means to match its modern role as an international security  organization with responsibilities going beyond simple defense.

It remains a bureaucratic organization which prioritizes process over substance, hierarchy over results, and accounting over value-for-money. It is far too inflexible and resistant to change–a constant source of frustration to successive NATO Secretaries General, who have had responsibility for organizational efficiency but little power to manage in the business sense. The entities’ business is also a key consideration: what is the mission, what are the key assets, where does the value reside?  (p. 2)
That's us!  Culturally, the Presbyterian Church (USA), its agencies and councils, and most of its local churches behave according to a set of "default behavior patterns" that no longer reflect the realities of their callings.  They have not adapted to their modern role as a counter-cultural movement rather than cultural institution.  PC(USA) remains massively bureaucratic in its approaches and thinking and continues to give inordinate amounts of attention to process, hierarchy, and budget.  Although there is clearly a desire and struggle to change in many corners of the denomination, it remains markedly inflexible and resistant to change.

In terms of addressing the need for NATO reform, the report advises that, "NATO can learn from best practice in the public and private sectors, where the central tenet of organizational efficiency is that structure, mission, and culture should be appropriately aligned." (p. 3)  So easy to write, so difficult to achieve—at least, when it comes to church renewal.  It is true, however, that mainline denominations and their churches can learn from the best practices of other agencies and institutions.  It is also true that their denominational structures, mission, and culture need to be in alignment.  Speaking more precisely, they need to be aligned with the person of Christ described in the gospels and with the spiritual realities of the 21st century.  So easy to write!  So difficult to achieve!

One thought: it is likely that church renewal starts best with spiritual rather than institutional renewal.  It is very difficult to re-form the church by reforming its structures.  It is more likely that we will discover new life for the churches by focusing on their spiritual re-formation.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Monumental Tragedy Revisited

Yesterday, I reported on the actions of a small sect group, located in Lewis County but led and funded by an Ohio-based group, which destroyed a historical monument dedicated to the memory of a church and community located at Stow Square, NY—a place that no longer exists except in memory.  This group owns the land on which the monument stood.  It was, legally, theirs to destroy.  And, in the larger scheme of things the loss of a humble, otherwise unremarkable bit of the past is insignificant—except to local residents who saw in the Stow Square Monument a piece of their own story.

The intention, willful destruction of the Stow Square Monument was above all else an act of physical violence, which exposes the violent core of radical right-wing religion.  The hard core religious right exists to impose its ideological version of the Christian faith on the rest of us, who are deemed to be "unbelievers".  It does not respect differences of thinking or conscience.  What does not conform to its standards, so-called, it must force to conform.  When it gains political power, thus, it is eager to use the coercive powers of government to force its dogma on the public.  What it does not agree with it demonizes, and what it demonizes it feels necessary to destroy.

Thus a harmless, humble, and obscure little historical monument unobtrusively located in a farmer's field is violently destroyed because it reminds these hard core right-wing religionists of ancient Egyptian cult objects.  The link is so tenuous as to be laughable, but for the violence with which it is made.

This group, led from outside of the county and funded from outside of the state, visited its violent ideology not just a piece of physical property.  It visited its violence on the memory of a church and community, long vanished.  It visited its violence on neighbors who cherished the monument as a link to their own past.  It visited its violence on other residents of Lewis County who also valued the Stow Square Monument as a witness to local history and a memorial to "those who went before".  It visited violence on the Christian message, which is a message of peace, reconciliation, and love ultimately defined by Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ and the Prince of Peace.  Perhaps most sadly of all, this small sect group has visited its violence on itself.  It is one of the central principles of the Christian faith that a good heart is its own reward and a violent one its own punishment.  The anger, anxiety, self-righteousness, arrogance, disrespect for others, and almost impressive lack of love for neighbor that went into this act reveals what truly lies in the hearts of its perpetrators.  Such a group will not prosper, not in true faith nor in loving service.  Amen.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Monumental Injustice

At some time within the last month a small sect group located in Lowville, NY, took it upon itself to destroy a historical monument located on property about two miles north of town that it purchased some four years ago.  The stone monument was erected at the end of the 19th century by the  First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, in memory of a small Congregational cum Presbyterian church located in Stow Square, a small early 19th century community that has long since vanished.  The monument stood in a privately owned field on Highway 26 where the front steps of the church building had been located.  It was a small monument in the shape of an obelisk and had been respected by a series of owners of the property down through the decades—respected that is, until this small sect group acquired ownership of the property and the monument.  It purchased the land with funds provided by an Ohio-based cult group dedicated to the veneration of an obscure figure from the Second Great Awakening of the earlier 19th century, a certain Daniel Nash, who happened to be pastor of the Presbyterian church at Stow Square, 1816-1822.

The leaders of this sect found the monument offensive because of its obelisk shape, which they associate with pagan cult objects condemned in the Old Testament.  It was to them a sacrilegious object not fitting as a memorial to a man like Nash or to a church.  Thus, they took it upon themselves to destroy the monument beyond repair.

It takes your breath away.  Their action was in every sense legal, according to the letter of the law.  It was also religious.  And it was wrong.  In all honesty, the destruction of a small, unassuming, not well-placed monument to a church and community that have long since disappeared is not important as the world measures important events.  It is, however, important to any number of local people for whom the past is important.  The farm families that have long lived in the vicinity valued the monument because it tied them to their own past.  Members of First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, valued it for a similar reason.  Others in the Lowville community valued it because it reminded them of a part of the county's  history—indeed, was a physical piece of that history.  For these local folks, the destruction of the Stow Square Monument is indeed a monumental injustice.

This act calls to mind the ugly sect group in Kansas, which has picketed the funerals of soldiers as a religious act of judgment on the nation. It calls to mind the Florida group that advocates Koran burning.  It calls to mind the "pro-life" murderer who assassinated Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas physician who performed abortions.  In all of these cases, including the one here in Lewis County, radical religious leaders impose their will on their neighbors for reasons that make no sense to the rest of us.  Thus, to destroy a 19th century monument dedicated to a church and community because it was shaped like ancient Egyptian "pagan" cultic pillar is a senseless act based on an equally senseless, obscure connection between objects separated in time by thousands of years.

We can hear them reply, "Time doesn't matter.  If it was wrong in ancient times, so it is wrong now."  That logic is as senseless and violent as the act of destruction itself.

It takes your breath away.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Quiet God

Like [Elijah], we need to be silent in order to be attuned to the quiet God.  We often make a lot of noise, speak a lot of words—even to God and about God.  If we would stop shouting or even talking sometime, we might hear a gentle sound of love, or simply realize that we are together with God, embraced by the divine Presence.  If we are going to be aware of God, touched by God, hear God's Word, we need to be silent sometimes.  We need to develop a place of solitude in our hearts.

Don Postema,
Space for  God (1997)
page 114

Saturday, July 14, 2012

North Woods Meditation

The common loon (Gavia Gaviidae Gaviiformes)
Two or three mornings a week, weather and life in general permitting, my wife, Runee, and I get up early and spend an hour to two hours or more canoeing on Beaver Lake, which is about a 30 minute drive east and north from Lowville.  From east to west, the lake is about a mile wide and it is roughly the same north to south.  The Beaver River flows into the lake on the east and out of the lake on the north.  One can paddle down river for something under two miles but upriver only less than half of a mile.  There are dams both east and north.  There are at least 40 cabins, probably more, and two church camps located along the lake and down the river, although there are portions of the shoreline that are truly wild.  There is also a creek that flows into the river beyond the north end of the lake, which you can get a canoe up for a half-mile or so.

Beaver Lake is a northern lake.  It has loons, as any self-respecting north woods lake does.  In the morning, before the local folks get too active and the big boats come out, a humble canoe owns the water.  It is usually calm.  The breeze is generally gentle.  And occasionally we see wildlife, mostly birds.  Maybe one time in five, a loon will call.

There is a spiritual quality in these times on the water.  And it's not just in the forest or in the presence of the water.  That quality is embedded in the act of sitting in and paddling the canoe itself.  We use an old beat up 17 foot  Grumman, a beast on land and a queen on the water.  Canoes are about balance and timing.  They are about two people sharing the load, pulling together in a single rhythm.  In the stillness of the morning, the canoe runs silent and responds quickly to the gentlest turn of the paddle.  One sits still, centered in the canoe, and concentrating on the rhythms of paddle.  The shore glides by, always and never the same.  The quiet seeps in, and for long minutes there are no mechanical noises—especially none of the whirring and buzzing of the typical house at all hours.  Silence.  Balance.  Concentration.  A sense of the sameness & uniqueness of each moment.  All shared.  One rests in the moment and for the moment.  And that is precisely what eastern meditation and western prayer disciplines are intended to inspire—silence, balance, mindfulness, insight, and profound stillness.

Allow me to bring this posting to a close.  We are headed for the lake again this morning.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

It is already hard to remember that the United States ever engaged in a decade long armed conflict in Iraq.  Our troops have left.  And so have most of the reporters and news agencies that kept us informed of events in that nation.  We really have no sense of what has been happening in Iraq recently—no sense that unrest continues and terrorist violence is increasing once again.  The truth is we shouldn't be allowed to forget so easily.  Each time we make the mistake of  involving ourselves militarily in the affairs of nations like Vietnam and Iraq, our own nation pays a heavy price in lives lost, lives ruined, and treasure wasted.  Violence always begets violence and not just physical violence.  If we forget the pain we caused in the Middle East and in North America by our second war with Iraq, we only increase the chances that sooner or later we will make the same mistake again...and again...and again.  Robert Deryfuss' news posting, "Remember Iraq? Still A Mess, but the US Needs to Stay Out," reminds us of the importance of remembering Iraq and knowing what is going on there now, lest we forget.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Some Things Never Change

Fourth Century Christian art
According to Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (pp. 16-19), one of the hot button issues of the ancient church was the relationship of culture and classical learning to the church and its faith.  In the second century, Justin Martyr took what we would call today a liberal position on the question.  He was willing to draw widely and deeply from culture, writing "Whatever all people have said well belongs to us Christians."  He wrote that, "those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists." (First Apology, 46)  In the third century, Tertullian articulated the opposite position, namely that the church must divorce itself from "pagan" culture and learning.  These things only lead the church into error.  Eventually, St. Augustine (354-430) arrived at a formulation that became the default western Christian approach to culture, which McGrath describes as a "critical appropriation of classical culture."  Augustine's perspective was that, "whatever was good, true, or beautiful could be used in the service of the gospel." (McGrath, p. 19)  Augustine also believed, however, that these good, true, and beautiful elements of pagan culture had to be freed from that culture and grafted onto the tree of the Christian faith.  In modern terms, Augustine leaned toward a conservative position but mixed a bit of a more liberal approach in with it.

The ancient fathers of the church, thus, staked out three alternatives to the relationship between faith and culture;  One could largely embrace culture and use it to express faith.  One could largely reject culture and see it as an enemy of faith.  Or, one could pick and choose elements of culture useful to the faith.

These three choices are still with us today.  In fact, they stand at the heart of the ongoing controversy among Christians concerning culture in general and science in particular.  However, in early 21st century America the matter is slightly more complicated.  In fact, evangelicals in some ways are closer to Justin Martyr, the ancient "liberal," than either Tertullian or Augustine.  They tend to equate certain American values with the Bible and their faith and to conflate patriotism with their Christian faith.  We have even coined recently a new name for some of these folks; they are "teavangelicals."  In the U.S., on the other hand, progressive Christians tend to be critical of social and patriotic values while open to more liberal aspects of culture including science.  In fact, Tertullian's option hardly comes into play these days.  Augustine seems to have won the day for Christian conservatives while Christian progressives tend toward Justin's position that "anything said well" is Christian.

From a liberal perspective, however, we do well to be more precise about what we mean by anything being said well being Christian.  It doesn't mean that we take over or claim as our own all that is good, true, and beautiful.  Where we find value in the teachings of other faiths, for example, we recognize that we do not "own" those teachings just because we find them helpful for our own Christian faith.  Thich Nhat Hanh can speak powerfully to Christians, but he is not a Christian.  His writings are not Christian.  We insist on that for the sake of his integrity as much as our own.

At the end of the day, Christians of all stripes are still called upon to evaluate contemporary culture and make critical choices about what is good, true, and beautiful in light of Christ.  He remains the measure of culture.  Our failure across the theological spectrum is that we too often confuse him with culture and chain him to ways of thinking and behaving that aren't Christ-like.  Idolatry remains a threat, although today it more often takes the form of ideology rather than images.  In any event, some things never change.  The challenge of Christ and culture is one of those things.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Thinking & Doing

Biblical faith is never cerebral.  It is always lived and acted.

Walter Brueggemann
Genesis, p. 155

General Assembly Summary

The 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), meeting in Pittsburgh, has been adjourned after a long week of debate over contentious issues as well as carrying out the regular business of the biennial General Assembly.  Those who might be interested can find summaries of the G.A. at The G.A. Junkie website (here).  If you want a quick summary, go to the G.A. Junkie's one page wrap up (here).  The 221stg General Assembly will meet in 2014 in Detroit.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Hero

I first became aware of Tammy Duckworth when she first ran for congress in Illinois in 2006 and narrowly lost to her Republican opponent.  I don't think I'm alone in finding Duckworth's story a compelling one.  She served in Iraq as a major in the army and a helicopter pilot who lost both of her legs after being shot down.  An added attraction for me personally is that she was born in Bangkok, Thailand, and like my own daughters has a farang (Western) father and a Thai mother.  She's only a decade older than our oldest daughter.

Duckworth is now running for Congress again, this time against a tea party radical by the name of Joe Walsh (R - IL).  The race has gained some national attention because Walsh has criticized Duckworth for supposedly constantly mentioning her military service and sacrifice (see here).  In the process, he has called her heroism into question.  In light of his criticism of Duckworth, reporter Rick Newman has posted an article entitled, "What Joe Walsh Needs to Know About Tammy Duckworth," which describes her true heroism.  Being shot down, Newman writes, is not what qualifies her for that title.  Rebuilding her life in the face of horrific pain and daunting challenges does. I would recommend readers of Rom Phra Khun take a few minutes to read Newman's description of Tammy Duckworth's heroic struggle to regain her life.

 In my humble opinion, the United States will be better off if the voters of the Eighth District of Illinois replace Joe Walsh with Tammy Duckworth.

If Duckworth does unseat Walsh, she will be the second person of Thai descent to have served in the U. S. Congress.  The first, interestingly enough, served only briefly in 2010.  He is Charles Djou, a Republican who won a special election in Hawaii's First District in 2010 but then lost his seat in the general election of 2010.  He is running for it again this year.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Getting On With It

The 2010 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) appointed a "Commission on Mid Councils" to study and recommend ways in which to adapt the structures of the denomination to current realities. The commission completed its report prior to the meeting of this year's General Assembly, which you can read (here) if you are interested.  It is a long, detailed report, which will certainly be important to future historians when they write their histories of the mainline church in the early 21st century.

On page 14 (lines 7-13), the report states, "Our data clearly shows that many Presbyterians are calling for a shift from the top‐down model of our current structure to a model that is characterized by a church‐wide commitment to build up and support local congregations. Generally, congregations do not feel well supported by General Assembly agencies. Only 26% of session‐level respondents rated the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) "excellent" or "very good" and only 33% gave those ratings to General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC). There is a significant disconnect between local congregations and the agencies of the General Assembly."

I should say before anything else that it is easy for me as one who has not been involved in this process to stand on the sidelines and comment.  A great deal of time, effort, and prayer went into the report, which was devoted to listening to the concerns of Presbyterians across the church.  It is not fair to simply dismiss that time, effort, and prayer as wasted, even in the face of the fact that the 2012 General Assembly rejected the recommendations of the commission almost entirely (see here).

That being said, it seems to me sitting here in a quiet, distant corner of the denomination that investing huge amounts of effort in trying to reform national and regional church structures almost certainly isn't going to get us anywhere.  Where the PC(USA) and the other mainline churches will live or die is in the trenches of their local congregations and nowhere else.  It is time, then, that congregations and their leaders work out for themselves the relationships, connections, and real-time structures best suited to their needs.  As a humble example, four churches at the northern end of Utica Presbytery, New York, have taken action in the last 18 months to develop a cooperative partnership that may lead in the near future to a formal agreement to share resources.  All it took was for the two of the pastors involved to decide to "do something" and begin the process of consultation with their own sessions and the other churches.  In fact, these four churches are creating their own "missional structure" without benefit of General Assembly studies, reports, and debates.

One of the recommendations of the commission report was to establish experimental "non-geographic" presbyteries, something more conservative Presbyterians would like to see happen so that they can work together in like-minded presbyteries.  Instead of going through a big institutional struggle, those folks who want to start working more closely with other churches of a like theological mind should just start doing so.  Get together.  Do things together.  Start your own projects and programs.  Don't waste your time trying to change a whole denominational structure, which unsurprisingly is refusing to be changed for your convenience.  It is well past time that church leaders at every level of the church stop investing vast amounts of time doing things that don't really matter any more.  It is time to do what needs done and not worry about how those things fit into the larger structures of the church.

Saturday, July 7, 2012


Gratitude as recognition, receptiviity, and response is a basic attitude and action of the Christian life.  We not only recongize and are aware of God's gifts to us, but also continually find ways of saying thanks to God in worship, prayer, and "whatever we say or do."  Our aim is to live our whole life as a sacred gesture of thanksgiving, a deep bow of gratitude solidifying our relationship with God.

Don Postema
Space for God (1997)
page 76

Friday, July 6, 2012

Gung Ho for God

St. Theophan the Recluse
Theophan or Theophanes the Recluse (1815–1894) was a Russian Orthodox monk and bishop who is now considered a saint. His biography on a website dedicated to him (here) speaks of his goodness, meekness, and willing trust of others, qualities that he felt equipped him for a life of seclusion, study, and spiritual writing. He is thus especially known for his piety and his teachings on Christian spirituality.

That being said, there seems at times to be a quality to his spirituality that suggests a less meek and gentle side to him—or, at least, to his understanding of the Christian life.  One of his quotations in the Wikipedia article linked above, for example, states, "A Christian without zeal is a poor Christian."

Is it possible to be a truly spiritual person and zealous?  The word "zeal" implies a narrowness of mind, an almost obsessive fixation with an object, person, or cause.  It denotes ardor and an unwillingness to be deterred, which can morph into blind prejudice.  Zeal as a spiritual quality is very much not in keeping with the quintessential description of Christian spirituality found in Galatians 5:22-23.  Zeal is hardly peaceful, generous, kind, or patient.  When one thinks of Christian zeal, the Crusades come to mind, which ae not among our finer moments as a people of faith.

Wiktionary defines "zeal" (here) as, "The fervor or tireless devotion for a person, cause, or ideal and determination in its furtherance; diligent enthusiasm; powerful interest."  Although less objectionable than the "feel" of the term, there still seems to be elements of questionable spirituality.  Faith is not passionless, but faith's passion is less self-involved and fixated than seems to be the case with zeal even at its best.  Can one be a faithful follower of Christ and also a zealous one?  The answer is not certain but seems to be, "In theory, possibly,'Yes,' but in practice, more likely, 'No.'"

Thursday, July 5, 2012

True Self & False

I heard a presentation recently that made much of the distinction between "true self" and "false self".  True self is what we as Christians should cultivate and pursue.  False self is the thing that trips us up and has to be overcome.  The speaker urged that false self should be treated with a degree of gentleness, but it remains a problem to be dealt with.  Christian spirituality, at its best, moves us away from false self and toward true self.  It turns out that the concept of true self and false self, according to Wikipedia (here) is a fairly recent idea, introduced by a psychoanalyst in 1960.

OK.  It's a paradigm.  It may have its uses, but there are also some weaknesses involved—things to think about, at least.  There seems to be quite a literature on true and false selves, so those who promote the paradigm may have thought through some of these issues, but they are worth putting "on the table" in and of themselves.

The true-false self paradigm creates a division within us that, first, provides us with the chance to claim that the "bad" things we do are not the true us.  They are not the real us.  It affords us the opportunity to not take ownership for a part of what we are, to deny that part of ourselves as being really us, and to avoid responsibility for what actually is a part of what we are.  Our failings are not a false self.  They are part of our true self, but the true self-false slef paradigm seems to deny that fact.  Second, the paradigm also denies the fact of grayness in our souls.  We aren't day and night "down in there" but twilight, a mixture of dawn and dusk, the good and bad tangled together inseparably.   Third, our mixed nature means that as a rule our strengths can also be our weaknesses.  Stubbornness can, for example, at one moment be a strength seeing us through a  troubling situation and helping us to stand firm in the face of injustice.  It can in other moments be a scary weakness, causing us to visit injustice on others and ourselves.

     Finally, and to me most worrisome, the paradigm of true-false self encourages us to treat a part of ourselves as "the other," which is one of the grave weaknesses of modern human nature.  In the dim past of our evolution, distinguishing "us" from "them"  was evidently a necessary trait valuable to our survival.  Now, it is a mixed bag, but always carries the threat of destruction.  Much of our politics this year is driven by the political Right's fear of the other, embodied in the President of the United States.  In the church, the failure to treat the other who does not think or believe as we do has become a dominant motif of 21st century American Christianity.  It seems unwise and even unhealthy to turn this same dualistic paradigm lose on our inner life, our self.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

On Being Great

The greatest among you should be your servant.  People who make themselves great will be humbled; and people who humble themselves will become great.

Jesus of Nazareth 
Matthew 23:12
The Kingdom New Testament

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Did Jesus Walk on Water - or Ice?

One of the consequences of biblical historical literalism is a cottage industry devoted to explaining seemingly impossible biblical events.  Recently, the MSNBC website posted an article entitled, "Did Jesus Walk on Water?  Or Ice?", concerning an international team of climate researchers, which has found that in ancient times under certain conditions ice could possibly have formed on certain parts of the Sea of Galilee.  Their research findings are published (here), if you are interested.

There are three passages in the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus walking on water: Matthew 14:22-33, Mark 6:45-52, and John 6:16-21.  In Matthew's version, Peter also stepped out of the boat and momentarily walked on water until he realized what he was doing.  These passages tell an amazing story about the power of Christ over chaos, which has been partly ruined in these latter days by the skeptical question of whether or not he actually, historically, really and truly, on a given place & time walked on water.  The researchers themselves note that this ancient "spring ice" (water from springs flowing into the sea) would have been small in area, fooled people into thinking someone was walking on water only at a distance, and apt to happen only once every 30 to 60 years.

This latest explanation of how the story could  be "real" makes no sense at all.  Taking the story as the factual recounting of a historical event, the boat the disciples were in was apparently well out to sea, beyond where the ice could have formed.  And if the forming of ice was so freakish, requiring precise conditions, would it have been thick enough to walk on even close to the shore?  Then, there's the problem that Jesus walked all the way to the boat and got in.  So, if there was ice, the disciples would have known it and not been so entirely astonished at Jesus walking out to them.  And the weather was bad, the waves high according to the story.  How did the ice remain stable enough to be walked on?

Biblical-historical literalism demands that stories like Jesus walking on water must be true or false (we're back to the dualism thing).  Given that demand, either these stories describe a miracle or a natural phenomenon, and usually it is a stretch to explain them naturally—as in this case.  We are left with this story either being an account of a miracle or a lie.  And that is a false choice, one that obscures the true power of the story itself.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Liberal Via Media

Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (p. 103), summarizes theological liberalism this way:
At its best, liberalism may be regarded as a movement committed to the restatement of Christian faith in forms which are acceptable within contemporary culture.  Liberalism has continued to see itself as a mediator between two unacceptable aternatives: the mere restatement of traditional Christian faith (usually described as "traditionalism'" or "fundamentalism" by its liberal critics), and the total rejection of Christianity.  Liberal writers have been passionately committed to the search for a middle road between these two stark alternatives.
The search for a "middle way" is an ancient and honorable theological enterprise that even has its own Latin term, via media.  As I've argued here repeatedly, in our day and age the liberal agenda requires that we engage science—learn from it, dialogue with it, and thereby stake out a viable faith alternative for the 21st century.  My only concern with McGrath's description of liberal theology is that it sounds as if liberalism is defined by what it is against, namely traditionalism and non-theism.  In fact, it is the positive, creative, and faithful search for a contemporary faith in Christ that puts progressive Christianity in the middle between these other ways of searching for faith or non-faith, as the case may be.  In other words, the key concern is to discover a relevant, viable way of living and understanding the faith in the Age of Science, which concern leads us to walk the via media.