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

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Paul Says that Salvation is Not by Faith Alone

Since Luther, we Protestants have repeated the dictum that salvation is by faith alone and not by works.  We have selectively quoted scripture to prove that point and largely avoided reading those parts of the Bible that don't support our insistence that we cannot be saved by what we do but only by what we believe.  The thing is there are many places in the scriptures that say exactly the opposite, even in the writings of the Apostle Paul.

Take Galatians 6:1-10.  It states in the clearest language possible that Paul's readers were to pay attention to their works, change them, and then test them. He urged them to do what was right and to give up things of the flesh for things of the Spirit.  In verse 9, we read, "So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up." (NRSV, italics added)  In verse 7, Paul invokes the law of karma, warning his readers that they will reap what they sow.  In context, it is clear that he was writing about their behavior as verse 9 demonstrates.

In Galatians, Paul expressly warns his Christian audience that they cannot be saved by the Law.  Nowhere does he state that their "works" are not part of the equation of salvation.  I've said it before—(here), (here), and (here)—but let me say it again.  The life of faith involves both putting our trust in God in Christ and living accordingly.  Faith and works are not really two things.  They are two sides of the same coin.  We both believe in the Kingdom by God's grace and work to create it as co-conspirators with God.  It is Christ in us and us in Christ.  Amen.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Religion (not) vs. Science

In light of the fact that nearly half of Americans believe that evolution is false and that creation took place just a few thousand years ago, it comes as something of a surprise that, according to MIT physicist, Max Tegmark in an article entitled, "Celebrating Darwin: Religion And Science Are Closer Than You Think," "only 11 percent of Americans belong to religions openly rejecting evolution or our Big Bang."    On his personal website (here), Tegmark summarizes the research he himself conducted on the official position of American churches and religious organizations concerning evolution and science.  Many of them officially embrace what he calls "origins science."  Many others are officially silent or allow for a diversity of personal views.  Only a relatively small number reject origins science including the Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, and the Presbyterian Church in America.

Tegmark argues that a root cause of the apparent conflict between science and religion is a failure in scientific education.  If a failure in science education is one of the key reasons for the disparity between 46% of Americans believing in creationism while 89% of them belong to religious bodies that allow for origins science, then we have to say that it is also a failure in religious education.  It seems entirely likely that we are not hearing enough science from our pulpits and in our Sunday schools classes.  There are not enough adult education courses on faith and science, teaching the compatibility between biblical and scientific worldviews.

Tegmark's conclusion in his article should give us pause to reflect.  He writes, "I feel that people bent on science-religion conflict are picking the wrong battle. The real battle is against the daunting challenges facing the future of humanity, and regardless of our religious views, we're all better off fighting this battle united." That is, the supposed conflict between religion and science distracts good people from the real issues facing us and pits them, instead, against each other.  And that matters.  It matters a lot.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Contemplative Option

Much in the spiritual life depends on where we place our attention and what we allow to take up space in our minds. One ought never to underestimate our horrible external and internal resistance to the contemplative option. By contemplative option I mean the choice to respond contemplatively and prayerfully to ourselves and the world. The contemplative option awakens the power of Christ in us that allows us to be reconciled and to enter into right relationship with creation and one another--a relationship of gentleness, love and forgiveness. Contemplation is a choice about what we will have on our minds. Sometimes contemplation is a choice to step back, wait and to tolerate the withdrawal of not satisfying every appetite and desire. The contemplative option may be a choice to face into our own insatiability and discern what truly satisfies from what leaves us numb, jittery and still hungry. There is no getting around it. The contemplative life is a sacrifice. Our yes to God is likely to mean a no to something else.

Loretta Ross
Source: Holy Ground (newsletter of The Sanctuary Foundation)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Weight Loss as Cultural Change

One key reason that it is so difficult to lose weight permanently is that it requires the losers of weight to go through a change of their eating preferences, habits, attitudes, and values, all of which taken together amounts to a significant change in a key part of their culture.  Those of us who have lived for significant periods of time in another culture understand that personal cultural change is not easy even when we are living in another culture where all of the cues around us encourage and sustain that change.  Trying to change our eating culture in the midst of the culture of obesity that we encounter every day is considerably more difficult.  Our culture encourages us to eat the way we always did, the way that massively encourages us to put on the pounds we want to shed.

It is not "natural" for us to moderate our eating habits.  It is not "natural" to avoid refined sugar and refrain from consuming it.  It is not "natural" to eat things like pine nuts and drink things like green tea while not eating quantities of  "natural things" like breads, cheeses, and pizzas.  We grew up with soft drinks.  Most of us didn't drink tea until we were adults, if we do now.  What makes it so difficult to change is that all around us society goes on consuming what we should not consume and encouraging us to do so in many different ways from advertising to coffee hour at church.

Medical science may yet come up with a way for us to lose weight without giving up our culturally driven bad eating habits—probably will.  But, until that time comes, we best be working on changing our eating culture collectively.  We need the same cultural changes in attitudes and behaviors that have transformed smoking from desired to disgusting.  Amen.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Sounds of the Universe

The 11 minute video clip below, "Honor Harger: A history of the universe in sound," is a fascinating introduction into the sounds of the universe.  Honor Hager, originally from New Zealand, is the Artistic Director Lighthouse, "a digital culture agency" based in Brighton, England, that supports, commissions and exhibits work by artists and filmmakers.  If you do meditations and/or prayers of any sort, this clip is worthy of inclusion.  Be sure and stay to the end, which is the best moment of all.  Enjoy!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Two Presbyterian Roads

In a recent posting entitled, "An essential Presbyterian conflict: Reformed versus Celtic faith," the Rev. N. Graham Standish argues that one facet of the conflict among Presbyterians today is our dual heritage of a dualistic Reformed-Augustinian theological tradition and a more holistic Celtic spiritual tradition. He writes, "Certainly there are other ways of analyzing the conflicts we have in the PC(USA), but looking at these roots is one way. And if this analysis is true, then we may be in conflict because our Reformed side regards human nature as essentially tainted, while our Celtic side regards human nature as essentially good." He goes on to flesh out the difference between these two traditions: "The more Reformed we are, the more we tend to gravitate towards an Augustinian, fall theology, interpreting Bible through the story of Genesis 3. We embrace the idea that original sin has tainted all of humankind, leaving us depraved and requiring God’s grace to forgive and redeem us...The more Celtic we are, the more we interpret the Bible through Genesis 1, gravitating towards a “goodness” theology grounded in God’s declaration that all in creation are “good. This theology recognizes the power of sin, and the need for grace. But it is tempered by a belief that our natural inclinations are good, and become sinful when gratifying these inclinations turns them into false gods to be appeased. Grace restores us to our natural, essential goodness."

The website, Celtic Christianity Today, contains a page on "Celtic Theological Attitudes," which provides a good orientation to the Celtic tradition.  For a longer description of Celtic spirituality see (here).

The extent to which PC(USA) and other American Presbyterian denominations are heirs to Celtic spiritual traditions is not clear to me.  A brief article by J. Philip Newell with the title, "Celtic spirituality listens for the heartbeat of God: Presbyterianism is influenced by ancient Celtic and Mediterranean traditions," actually seems to indicate that we have not been influenced by that tradition but should be.  It seems more likely that the un-evangelical wing of PC(USA) might become more interested in Celtic spirituality because that spirituality more nearly expresses the temper of our times, which as is becoming less and less dualistic, than because it is a part of our Scottish Presbyterian heritage.  In any event, Standish does touch on a central difference and source of conflict between Presbyterians today.  On the one hand, those who are leaving the denomination in increasing numbers tend to begin with a generally clear dualistic theology and work toward a consistent spirituality.  On the other hand, at least some of those who are staying tend to begin with a less dualistic spirituality and work toward a more inclusive theology.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Christian Non-self

Yesterday, I shared with you the thought that the Apostle Paul in Galatians 2:15-21 didn't go far enough in working out his profound spiritual insight that we are not reconciled with God by keeping the Law.  He was still seeking a legal state, justification, but proposes a non-legal remedy, faith.  The problem is that faith can too easily be turned back into a work of the Law because at some level we have to do something to be justified.  We have to believe, which is too often taken as the same thing as faith.

The concern for justification, thus, can obscure the most important consequence of Paul's insight, namely "For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (2:19-20, NRSV, italics added)  If we live in faith, it is no longer "us" who lives at all but Christ who lives in us.  This does not seem to be a kind of self-nullification, however.  It is self-fulfillment, which when achieved merges "us" with the One who created us.  In an almost Buddhist way, "we" become a non-self and the "space" formerly occupied by our unfaithful "self" is now occupied by that One, by Christ.

In our walk of faith, we discover that I Alone is empty of meaning and purpose, that I Together is better but still filled with hurt, and that Not I But Thee is the surest way to a life of meaning and purpose.  As Paul says, "It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me."  For all but a few, that is a goal and a possibility more than a reality, but it is the goal or a path on which we  seek to walk in faith.  Amen

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Getting Beyond the Law

It was the Apostle Paul's amazing spiritual insight that humanity cannot be justified in the eyes of God by keeping the Jewish Law.  As Christians, we are justified by our faith in Christ.  This is the point he makes in Galatians 5:15-21, which has become settled Christian theology and ethics.  In all of the standard English-language versions (for example), the same language is used to make Paul's point: humanity is not justified by works of the law but by faith (2:15-16).  The Message and Today's English Version translate "justified" (see here) as either being put right or set right with God, which seems slightly different but not that much so.  All of these translations retain Paul's legal terminology of justification, being proven not guilty in a court of law.  Yes, "justification" can mean more than that (see here), but its legal sense lingers in the other possible meanings.

The problem here is that if we are justified by faith rather than the law, we are still being justified.  We are still operating in a legal framework.  Our understanding of how faith operates in our personal faith is still tinged (tainted, if you will) by the idea that we need to be justified in the eyes of God.  And while it was surely neither his experience or intent, Paul's insight that we are justified by faith too often fails to free the faithful from the Law.  Indeed, it can turn faith into a form of law.  Faith becomes something we have to achieve in order to be justified.  Yes, yes, it is not supposed to be that way, but generations of faithful believers have and many still do worry about whether or not they have been "put right" with God.  Is their faith genuine?  How do they know?  The surest indication that faith has been sucked into the legal realm is how closely it is tied to judgment and judgmental attitudes.  There has long been a huge cottage industry among Christians aimed at judging who is "really" a faithful follower of Christ and who is not according to one measure or another of what is "real faith."  And that is a legal concern.

Interestingly, the Laughing Bird paraphrase of Galatians 2:15-16 manages to remove the matter of faith and works from the legal realm.  It has these two verses saying, "We ourselves are not lawless Gentiles, but 'born and bred Jews'—people of the law.  However, we now know that this gives us no particular advantage, because God's approval is not a reward for careful compliance with the law, but a gift to those who entrust themselves to Jesus Christ."  Here, the issue at stake is the gift of God's approval and the route to that approval is faith.  We are not longer standing in a court of law before God the stern Judge but in the kitchen with God the loving Mother.

Paul gives us the freedom to no longer hold to the legal metaphor for understanding our relationship with God and to discover other metaphors for that relationship instead, such as one centered on our experience of family.  Historically, I assume that Paul did mean for us to stick with the legal metaphor but it also seems to me that his insight that justification is by faith freed him from the Law and by implication allows us to be freed from the legal metaphor—to see our relationship with God is a fundamentally different way, one that is not at all outside of the biblical tradition.  God is "Abba" (Mark 14:36) not Judge.  Faith really is a matter of trust in God, not of measuring up to God's expectations.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Listen to your life.

Frederick Buechner
Listening to Your Life (HarperOne, 1992), p. 2

Monday, February 18, 2013

On the Horns of a Dilemma

In a world that is increasingly inclusive, it is difficult to maintain the integrity of an exclusivist Christian faith.  The problem is this: those who hold to an exclusive gospel—that is that only Christ saves—often care deeply about those who do not share their faith.  They are convinced that "non-believers" are going to hell.  They want to communicate with non-believers about their plight and help them escape it.  Communication is important.  However, in a world that  increasingly rejects exclusive ideologies, it is all but impossible for exclusivists to communicate across the boundaries of their exclusive message.  Fewer and fewer people find any kind of exclusivism to be "good news."

This is a real dilemma.  A recent example of it has engulfed the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in controversy over the participation of one of its pastors in ecumenical services held at the time of the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, CT.  As widely reported (here), the pastor of Newtown's Christ the King Lutheran Church was reprimanded by the president of the Missouri Synod church, for taking part in an ecumenical service in Newtown in spite of the fact that one of the children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary was a child of Christ the King Church.  The pastor did apologize for upsetting the denomination although not for his action.  Now, the president in his turn has felt compelled to apologize to the denomination for his own actions (here).  His letter of apology can be found on the Missouri Synod website (here).

The president's letter articulates the dilemma he and his denomination face in their exclusivist approach to the Christian faith.  In the letter, he states,
As the nation struggles with increasing violence and tragedy, we as a church body have struggled and continue to struggle with how to respond to civic/religious services in the midst of such events and to do so in a way that is in accord with our core convictions about the uniqueness of Christ. There are strong differences of opinion on this issue within the Missouri Synod, and that is because we all take our commitments to the Bible and to serving the neighbor very seriously. One view is that by standing side-by-side with non-Christian clergy in public religious events, we give the impression that Christ is just one path among many. Others view participation as an opportunity to share Christ and to truly love a hurting community, which may not happen if we are not participating. We struggle with the tension between these two views. We all deeply want to support our hurting communities in ways consistent with our religious convictions. (italics added)
That's the dilemma: engaging with those in need while remaining disengaged from those who believe the wrong things when those in need and those who don't believe are one and the same.  So, sitting on a stage with other clergy is wrong, but sitting with clergy ministering to a community in deep pain is not.  For a consistent exclusivist, sitting with the other clergy is always wrong and cannot be done, which seems to have been the initial position of the Missouri Synod president.  In an increasingly pluralistic, inclusive age, his reprimand of the pastor is widely seen as hurtful—among Missouri Synod members as well as in the public.

In sum, in an increasingly inclusive and pluralistic American culture exclusivist versions of the gospel are increasingly seen as bad news.  Exclusivism builds walls, encourages judgmentalism, and forces its adherents to behave in ways that others find unloving.  And often enough it is its own "reward," as can be seen in the case of the controversy sparked by Missouri Synod narrowness in the face of the Newtown tragedy.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

"Something" Really Seems to be Happening

A Couple of weeks ago, I posted an entry here that posed the question, "Is "Something" Happening?"  It played with the idea that certain trends in social attitudes and behavior suggest that there is a fundamental transformation quietly taking place in the world.  One of the clearest shifts in this family of social changes is our rapidly changing attitudes in the U.S. towards the gay community—which reflects ongoing changes in attitudes regarding race and gender.

Add to these changes yet another one, which was recently reported on in an article posted on the Christian Science Monitor website (here).  The article draws on statistics from the Bureau of Justice (here), which show that, quoting the DOJ, "From 1994 to 2010, the overall rate of intimate partner violence in the United States declined by 64%."  The article attributes this significant drop in domestic violence to "a broad shift in attitude toward domestic violence."

It is hard to measure in real terms what this drop in partner abuse means because it describes an absence of evil.  It points to  lives not destroyed and families not maimed by violence.  This statistic is about sad, hurtful stories that can't be told because they never happened, apparently tens and hundreds of thousands of such stories, if not millions.  While it is true that the absence of violence is not peace, reducing domestic violence in such a large measure is surely a step in the right direction.

This doesn't mean that all of sudden everything is sweetness & light, but still I'm tellin' ya, there is "something" going on in our world today—a very good "something".

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Danger of Dualism

For an illuminating, succinct commentary on the consequences of religious and political  dualistic thinking, check out the following brief video.  Enjoy!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Reality, Truth, & Scripture

Jacob Set Up a Pillar at Rachel's Grave (Gen. 35:20)
 Genesis 35:16-21 comes after the famous story of Jacob's dream of a ladder between heaven and earth and recounts the birth of Jacob's son, Benjamin, and the death of his wife Rachael.  The passage concludes in verse 21 with the statement that, "Israel [Jacob] journeyed on, and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder." (NRSV)   Of this verse and passage, Walter Brueggemann observes, "As though to stress the historical reality of this family, that it must face death and move on, the narrator ends with the brief report, 'Israel journeyed on...'" (Brueggemann, Genesis, 284).  As I understand it, Brueggemann himself is not claiming that there was a "historical Jacob" but that the narrator believed that to be the case and was highlighting that assumption with the words, "Israel journeyed on..."

The Wikipedia article on "Jacob" states, "Most biblical scholars and historians of ancient Israel today view the patriarchical narratives, including the life of Jacob, as late (6th and 5th centuries BCE) literary compositions that have ideological and theological purposes but are unreliable for historical reconstruction of the presettlement period of Israel’s past."

The average reader and some professional historians might conclude, thus, that the Genesis stories about Jacob (and more generally) are "not true" and have no historical value.  That is a wrong conclusion.  In a very important sense, whether or not there was a "historical Jacob," is neither here nor there.  The story is historically accurate and even factual—in the sense that it accurately reflects the real religious experience of ancient Israel and truly reflects the nature of the life of faith in a given historical period.  Now, that  period may not be the "presettlement period" before the Hebrews took possession of Palestine.  It may well be that it reflects the time of the Exile and post-exilic era, the time when scholars think these stories were stitched together into the Book of Genesis.  Nonetheless, the book of Genesis is a reliable document in the historical reconstruction of ancient Israel's life and faith.

Historians ask two kinds of factual questions.  First and more precisely, did the events recounted actually happen?  Second and more broadly, what does the account tell them about the past?  In this case, the historian has every reason to doubt whether the events recorded in Genesis actually too place.  Many of them seem improbable, and there is no corroborating evidence.  What the historian can safely assume, however, is that the form and content of the Book of Genesis story do reflect the real world of ancient Israel.  In this more general sense, Genesis is historical and a valuable historical document.

As scripture, then, we have confidence in the story of Jacob in at least two ways.  First, we know that it accurately reflects a moment in our faith tradition that remains important to us today because of its influence on the course of our history and because of what we can learn about our faith from it.  Second, scripture for us is inspired, that is the Spirit speaks through it to us.  For most Christians, it is important that the voice of the Spirit be grounded in historical reality.  Ours is an incarnational faith.  We know from the study of the past (history) that this portion of scripture is grounded in historical realities.  In faith, we trust in the spiritual fact that the Spirit thus speaks through these stories across the span of generations to us.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Paul's Four Commandments for Church Life

Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, as we have it in the New Testament, closes with a brief set of injunctions on how the Jesus community in Corinth should carry forward.  Working from several English-language translations and paraphrases, however, II Corinthians 13:11 seems confusing.  The translators and paraphrasers render the verse in quite different ways.  For example:

  • American Standard Version (ASV): "Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfected; be comforted; be of the same mind; live in peace: and the God of love and peace shall be with you."

  • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): "Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you."

  • Today's English Version (TEV): "And now, my friends, good-bye! Strive for perfection; listen to my appeals; agree with one another; live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you."

  • The Message (MSG): "And that’s about it, friends. Be cheerful. Keep things in good repair. Keep your spirits up. Think in harmony. Be agreeable. Do all that, and the God of love and peace will be with you for sure. Greet one another with a holy embrace. All the brothers and sisters here say hello."

  • Laughing Bird Paraphrases (LB): "Sisters and brothers, I finish my letter by wishing you every joy and offering these last words: ........- get everything on track; ........- take courage from what I’ve said; ........- seek consensus; ........- live in peace."
To take just the first injunction: being perfected (ASV), putting things in order (NRSV), striving for perfection (TEV), keeping things in good order (MSG), and "getting everything on track" (LB) are not all the same thing at all.  Wright's Kingdom New Testament translates this injunction as "put everything in order."  The old J.B. Phillip's translation takes a different tack, "live in harmony."

The other injunctions are similarly variously translated or paraphrased.  Taken together, however, we come out with something like this:  (1) Paul called on the brothers and sisters in Corinth to get their act together and move from a disorderly life together to one that is more orderly.  (2) He enjoined them to pay attention to his advice to them and take comfort from his words.  (3) They were to reach a meeting of the minds on the key issues facing them in their life together.  They were to live in peace with each other.

We might call these Paul's Four Commandments for Church Life and summarize them more briefly as: [1] strive for a clean political process; [2] pay attention to scripture; [3] work for consensus; and [4] in all things behave peaceably.  Do these things, and the God of peace and love will be manifest among you.  That is, first, as a church works through differences it should do so openly and without political games, attempts to coerce members into a forced agreement, or dividing into contentious factions.  Second, just as Paul called on the Corinthians to heed his advice, which should have carried the weight of apostolic authority for them, so we should pay special attention to the Bible as our source of authoritative guidance.  Third, the goal of the members of the church is always to seek a meeting of the minds where points of difference or even conflict occur.  We can take this to mean that church members seek to understand each other's viewpoints and concerns, seek to discover consensus in their differences, and not allow differences to  destroy their deeper unity in Christ.  Finally, the fourth commandment sums up the intent of the first three: live in peace.  Where churches follow these four commandments, the Spirit will be clearly present in them.   Amen.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Jesus & the Successful Pastor

The Christian Post website recently posted an editorial entitled, "The Recipe for a Successful Pastor," which caught my eye because I knew instinctively even before I read the posting that I would find it a "challenge".  There is a huge literature out there today dedicated to unlocking the secret(s) to a successful pastorate, and I have to confess that I have given up on it for the most part.  In my experience, capable pastors generally don't benefit from all of the insights, real and supposed, contained in the literature while less than capable ones are usually not able to apply those insights.  And there are some things you can't teach, such as when to address conflict and when to leave it alone, which is one of the most important skills any pastor has to develop.  So, a brief article purporting to provide the recipe for pastoral success can inspire only skepticism from the get-go.

In this case, the author contends that the key to pastoral success lies in heart of the pastor. The article states, "The pastor must be enthralled by, in awe of, and in love with his Redeemer so that everything he thinks, desires, chooses, decides, says, and does is propelled by love for Christ and the security of rest in the love of Christ."  Or again, "Only love for Christ can defend the heart of the pastor against all other loves that have the potential to kidnap his ministry." That is, "Only the glory of the risen Christ will guard him against the self-glory that tempts all and destroys the ministry of so many." The article concludes, "Thankfulness for the grace of Christ expresses itself in grace to others. Gratitude for the patience and forgiveness of Christ enables you to be patient and forgiving of others. Your daily experience of the rescue of the gospel gives you a passion for people experiencing the same rescue. This is the soil in which true ministry success grows."

In short, the recipe for a successful pastorate is to be profoundly in love with Christ.  That love will flower into humility, patience, a forgiving heart, and a passion for service that is the bedrock of pastoral ministry.

There is no little truth in this recipe for success so far as it goes, but the problem is that it doesn't take us very far.  There are any number of pastors, even some whose churches are overflowing with members, who profess this love of Christ and yet are not successful in their pastorates.  That is, they demonstrate that arrogant "humility" and self-important "selflessness" that is always the danger of the intensely pious pastor.  The very intensity of their apparent love of Christ is a mask for an underlying idolatry that transforms that love into self-love.  Such pastors can do immeasurable damage to people because they appear to be selfless servants of the Lord but aren't.

Let us grant, however, that there are pastors who do feel this deep love of Christ in a liberating way.  They are humble, patient, forgiving, and passionate in their ministry.  This is all to the good, but it does not guarantee success in pastoral ministry.  This love of Christ may be a condition for a successful pastorate, but it is not a recipe for one.  There are times when one must put humility aside and not wait on patience.  There are times when passion for ministry is a recipe for burnout rather than success.  And there are times when a pastor has to confront bad behaviors that have been forgiven too often.

This injunction to have a heart filled with love for Christ can lead pastors in one of two dangerous directions.  In some (perhaps many) it can breed self-doubt, anxiety, and a feeling of inadequacy.  Love of Christ is like all loves, stronger some days and weeks weaker on others.  We can't maintain intense emotions, such as expected in this posting, for long periods of time.  The question will haunt the honest pastor, "Do I really love Christ so deeply?"  In others, as mentioned above, the sense that the pastor deeply loves Christ can breed the arrogance of one who "has it made" with the Lord.  I'm not sure that the level of enthrallment proposed in the article is even healthy, mentally or spiritually.  It sounds almost like an addiction, and we are not called to be addicted to Christ.  Addictions are self-destructive whatever the substance abused might be.

Finally, the article does not address at all the question of what "success" means in pastoral ministry or how it is measured.  One of the truths that drives many out of pastoral ministry is that both the measure and the assurance that one is serving successfully is an illusive, ever-receding mirage.

In sum, in a literature that is generally not helpful articles like this are particularly unhelpful.

Monday, February 11, 2013

In the Spirit—and Liberal

Anugrah Kumar's recent editorial, "How Should a Reformed Pastor Be Charismatic?" raises important questions for liberal pastors and moderately not conservative churches, namely the role of the Holy Spirit in vital church life and how we perceive that role. Kumar's editorial reports and reflects on a speech given by a pastor from the U.K., Tope Koleoso, who opened his speech with the claim that church leaders should "understand and exercise the gifts of the Holy Spirit while shunning fanaticism." He then raised the question, "why would anyone who is Bible-believing, Christ-centered and theology-loving be hesitant, cautious or resistant to the Holy Spirit?" Koleoso wants pastors and churches to engage in faith-healing, teach the power of the Holy Spirit, deliver people from "demonic forces," and rely more explicitly on the power of the Spirit. He cited the example of the early church, which "did not know discipleship that was apart from the filling of the Holy Spirit." He concluded that it does not matter what faith tradition a pastor comes from; pastors and churches need "to be filled with the Holy Spirit daily."

To be filled by the Holy Spirit, Koleoso claimed, "means to be restored to the initial intention so that you once again have the relation and resources." It is an ongoing process that puts God at the center of things. In the Spirit, one longs for God's presence as the one central concern of ministry and preaching. And when pastors and churches are filled by the Spirit and long for God, "things begin to happen … [God] begins to speak to the people … give gifts to them … the gifts begin to come forth … the word of knowledge, the word of wisdom, prophecy, tongues, interpretation, gifts of healing, gift of faith."

Protestant church culture in America today is heavily influenced by the evangelical and charismatic/pentecostal wing(s) of American Protestantism.  That influence has a dark side for those of us who are not part of that wing.  But it also has its beneficial side, if only we have the wit to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Among other things, evangelicals and pentecostals have brought the Holy Spirit into prominence, and they are correct when they insist that a church cannot be healthy without the Spirit.  In mainline churches, we may not engage in faith-healing of physical ailments or speak in tongues, but it still takes the work of the Spirit to infuse our worship with life, small groups with enthusiasm, and individuals with spiritual healing.  It takes the Spirit to turn conflict into reconciliation.  It takes the Spirit, frankly, to restore healthy vibrancy to declining mainline churches.

Whether interpreted literally or liberally, the Spirit still can speak through the Bible—inspire it.  The work of the Spirit is not limited by our theologies.  The Spirit persistently lurks in mainline sanctuaries as much as it does in pentecostal ones and tugs at liberal hearts as insistently as it does evangelical ones.  The story of the early churches in Acts is the story of the Spirit at work among those churches.  Our story can be and should be but another chapter in that same tale of the Spirit.  The thing is liberal-ish preachers and moderately not conservative churches need to begin to focus on the theme of the Spirit and even go so far as to pray for its manifest (rather than latent) presence.  And things do happen.  Amen.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Good Pastor Makes for a Happy Church - Really?

The Christian Post recently posted a column entitled, "Nine Characteristics of Happy Churches," which is little short of eye-opening.  Of the nine characteristics listed, five have to do with the pastor, one with the way business meetings are conducted, and one other has to do with the church staff.  That is, seven of the nine are about the pastor and/or her leadership team.  Only two are directly related to the church's members distinct from its pastor, namely involvement in ministry and in a small group.  When a substantial number of members are engaged in those two activities, the church is more likely to be happy.  Otherwise, the person and style of the pastor is the key to a happy church.

If only it were that easy.  There is no question but that the leadership style and the personality of the pastor is one important factor in church health.  That statement, however, is equally true of the followership style and personality of the congregation she serves.  Churches are a blending of personalities, sometimes inherently quite healthy and sometimes not so much.  Thus, the same pastor with the same personality can have a healthy, happy relationship with one church and then move on to a relationship in the next church that turns out to be dysfunctional.  A church, by the same token, can get along very happily with one pastor but then not the next.

Interestingly enough, the listed characteristic overlooks the presence and influence of the Spirit in a congregation's life.  Before all else, a church where the whole leadership of the congregation, including pastoral,  is mutually committed to spirituality is a church that is more likely to be healthy and happy.

It is lists like this, to be frank, that infect pastors with both hubris and anxiety.  In spite of this list's fixation with pastoral leadership, church health is not all about the pastor.  It is about a healthy relationship between a church and its pastor grounded in the Spirit.  That is a three-way relationship.  In this relationship, church members exercise significant leadership, the pastor knows when to lead and when to follow, and the Holy Spirit is a Presence in the interpersonal and institutional dynamics of the whole congregation.  Things are not all sweetness and light in such a church, but on any given Sunday morning its sanctuary will hum with health and its singing will be infested with the Spirit.  Without a good pastor, a happy church will not happen.  Without a good church, it will not happen.  Without the Spirit, it cannot happen.  Amen.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The God That Is Not God

"God the Father" by Ludovico Mazzolino (1480–1530)
Source: Wikipedia
Michael Dowd's book, Thank God for Evolution, raises one of the key theological issues of our day, namely our understanding of the nature of God.  Dowd especially points to a God that resides within the Universe and is the Sum Total, the Whole of the Universe.  He argues, "From a holy evolutionary perspective, God is no longer envisioned as a supreme landlord residing off the planet and outside the Universe.  This ancient view of the divine is now much too small to embrace the vast, intricate, and nuanced realities that have been revealed by science in the past few hundred years." (paperback edition, p. 87).

While word meanings can be fluid and change over time, the usual definition of the word, "God," is, "the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe."  In 2013, we can agree that God is indeed not "a supreme landlord," nor is God a Santa/Grandfather like figure peering over the rim of the Universe and pulling our strings.  It seems, however, that envisioning a God that does not reside outside of the Universe is pretty much throwing the baby out with the bath water.  It begs the question of origins, that is the question of how All Of This came to be.  It also gives too much hermeneutical power to science, which for Dowd is the chief vehicle of "divine revelation" in our age.  That is to say, at the moment we are aware of an amazing set of parameters in our Universe that make it uniquely suited to life on Earth and which, otherwise, defy odds so great as to make the existence of this universe virtually miraculous.  We are aware of an incredible set of evolutionary processes within the Universe, which exhibit an almost holy level of ongoing creativity that on the face of it has direction and feels purposeful.  Finally, embedded deep within us is an equally holy sense of awe at the Beyond, however we name it, a sense experienced by those who deny any possibility of a Supreme Being as well as by those who have faith in One.

For me, personally, our religious traditions and the findings of science together point to God, who/that is at once Beyond and Present.  Meta-science may one day attain a better understanding of God than is possible for us today—assuming, of course, that the human race survives its own creative but chaotic evolutionary experience long enough to move beyond science to whatever will come next.  Until such time as we discover a deeper understanding of God than is now possible to us, we live in faith.  (Once we find that "deeper understanding" what we may also find is that faith is still the only way to live because faith is not believing in something we can't see - it is a life-orientation).

The idea that God does not transcend the Universe feels like a detour down a dead end street.  We can affirm that God is not a great big landlord in the sky.  God is not a bearded Granddaddy or Santa Writ Large.  Still, given what we know now living in faith that there is a Creator, both Beyond and Present, is a viable option validated by our sense of God's Presence in the Spirit in our life of faith.  Anything less feels inadequate to the Created nature of the Universe and our deepest experiences of the Holy.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Keep 'Em Honest

19th c. Indian pandits
Source:  Kamat's Potpourri
Here's a fun website that I came across just recently: PunditTracker: Bringing Accountability to the Prediction Industry.  You can select your favorite pundit and find out how well she or he does at predicting the future.  It has two tracks, one for political pundits and one for sports.  Check it out, if you want to add a bit of entertaining distraction to your day.

According to Wikipedia, the term "pundit" comes from a Sanskrit word, pandit.  In English, it refers to "...someone who offers to mass media his or her opinion or commentary on a particular subject area (most typically political analysis, the social sciences or sport) on which they are usually knowledgeable (or can at least appear to be knowledgeable)."  In modern Indian usage, it means a, "...scholar and a teacher, particularly one skilled in the Sanskrit language, who has mastered the four Vedic scriptures, Hindu rituals, Hindu law, religion, music, and/or philosophy under a Guru in a Gurukul or has been tutored under the ancient vedic Guru Shishya academic tradition."  In Thai, pandit (บัณฑิต), is widely used in education circles to signify someone who has received a college or university degree. Its wider meaning recalls its Sanskrit origin, i.e. a person of wisdom and learning, a sage.

According to dictionary.com (here), the British introduced the word into the English language from Hindi in the late 17th century, and it did not begin to take on its current meaning until the later 19th century—perhaps beginning with a social club at Yale.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Choice of Our Times

In all of the major issues currently being debated in Congress and in the nation, our choice is not essentially between liberal and conservative answers to those questions. The choice we face, rather, is between a politics of engagement and one of imposition.  Engaged politics can be rough and tumble, but in the end it consciously works for solutions arrived it out of the engagement of many viewpoints in a process of give and take.  At its best engagement politics rests on mutual respect and shared concerns, no matter how differently expressed or even perceived those concerns might be.  Imposition politics is one-sided, ideological, and built on disdain. It appears to be the stronger of the two approaches, because it seems to be grounded on unbending principles and unalterable attitudes.  In fact, it totters uncertainly on the shifting sands of our worst political natures while engagement politics, for all of its uncertainties, tends to find solid ground in an underlying unity of purpose.  Engaged politics creates partners, however shaky their alliances might be, while imposition politics sparks intense, angry, and even bitter resistance.

The tea party, so called, represents one of the clearest expressions of imposition politics in recent American politics.  As such, it offers Americans an important opportunity to reaffirm our core shared commitment to a constitutional form of government built on engagement with each other regarding the great issues of our day.  Just as an infection can leave a body with enhanced antibodies, so resistance to the tea party movement could well strengthen our democracy and make us better practitioners of a more honest, open, and engaged politics.  Amen.

Monday, February 4, 2013


Black Elk & Family, ca. 1910
Source:  Wikiquote
The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Tanka [Great Spirit], and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this. The second peace is that which is made between two individuals, and the third is that which is made between two nations. But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until there is known that true peace, which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men.

Black Elk,
The Sacred Pipe : Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux (1953)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Sad, Sad Headline

Darlene Sitler (1959-2012)
This morning, the Huffington Post opens the day with a sad headline, "THE PRICE OF 'FREEDOM'," along with the photos of 100 individuals who have died from gun violence in America since the Sandy Hook murders. The article to which that headline links is entitled, "U.S. Gun Deaths Since Sandy Hook Top 1,280."  The article itself chronicles just a handful of those shooting deaths.

The list of  dead does not include Darlene Sitler, choir director of First United Presbyterian Church, Coudersport, PA, who was murdered while playing the organ during worship on Sunday, December 2, 2012, twelve days before Sandy Hook. See reports of her death, at the hand of her ex-husband, (here),  (here), and (here).  Darlene was a local music teacher and by all accounts loved and respected.  She was 53 at the time of her death.

The gun control laws now being discussed probably would not have her life as her killer used a handgun and the shooting was without any prior warning that he would do such a thing.  But, that does not mean that we as a society should not continue to try to reduce and reduce again the havoc we are wrecking on each other with guns.  As is being noted in the current debate over gun control, it is true that guns do not kill.  It is also true that violent, angry, demented, or just plain heartless people use guns to kill—by the tens of thousands every year in America.

It already seems clear that in the current political environment only a limited amount can be done to curb gun violence legislatively.  That is sad.  One fears that it is going to take another Sandy Hook and one after that and perhaps one after that to move legislation along. How much heartache we are going to endure before even a minimum of common sense moves us to begin the task of bringing gun violence under control?  The Second Amendment was intended to preserve our right to form militias not provide the opportunity to gun each other down in the streets.  Its modern expansion to include exactly that by its more radical "defenders" defies all spiritual as well as humane common sense.  Sadly so.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Is "Something" Happening?

There is a lot that is wrong with the world.  It can be depressing sometimes and with reason.  But...at other times it feels like just maybe "something" is happening—a fundamental change is taking place that might bode well for the future.  There are trends, such as the drop in crime rates in the United States, and the significant decrease in international warfare since the end of the Cold War, that suggest that maybe "something" is happening.  In various parts of the world, there are a growing number of projects aimed at preserving and even restoring natural biodiversity including some successful projects in island restoration.  Back in October, the Christian Science Monitor reported (here) on an ambitious international project aimed at protecting "10 percent of coastal and marine waters [of the world's oceans] as marine-protected areas by 2020."  Scattered across the media, there are many, many little indications that "something" larger may be happening.

The latest tidbit (for me, anyway) is a Time NewsFeed article entitled, "Beer Drinking in Germany Hits a Record Low," which reports exactly what its title says: beer drinking in Germany is declining.  The article suggests that Germans, who traditionally have consumed huge amounts of beer, are becoming more health-conscious, exercising more, and drinking beer less.  This is true of younger Germans as well.  While other forms of alcohol have become more popular, the overall trend seems to be toward less fattening consumption.  On a global scale this is not a big deal, but it suggests larger changes in values and attitudes that may be a big deal.  One thinks of the rapidly growing acceptance of the LGBT community in the United States as another one of those trends, more significant than a decline in German beer drinking, but also suggestive of a change in attitudes and values—a good one, leading to better personal and social health as a decline in beer drinking leads to better physical health.

Other trends may overwhelm the "something" that is happening, especially the continued decline of our global biosphere and the increasing ravages of global warming.  But, maybe not.  Maybe, just maybe, the in-spirited waves of evolution are carrying us forward to "something" new.  Amen.