Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year

The year 2006 is winding down. In a few hours (PST) we will bid good bye to 2006. Much has happened in these past 12 months, some good, some not so good. The war in Iraq continues unabated with no end in sight. But a change of fortune comes with a new Congress, one that hopefully will hold the President accountable. Barry Bonds passed the Babe, but being that he's under a cloud of suspicion, only we Giant fans want him to pass Hank! We witnessed the fall of two Colorado pastors and a Florida congressman because of homosexuality. A woman was elected Presiding Bishop in the Episcopal Church triggering rebellion. Yes, 2006 has been interesting.

Of those who have died this past year, no one in the US ranks with President Gerald R. Ford, although in some circles the death of James Brown is a challenger.

As for the coming year, well, I'm hopeful. Many are pessimistic, but I'm always optimistic about a new year. New Year's Day offers an opportunity to start afresh, and so we begin again. The past, well it stands behind us. We cannot change what has gone before, but we can commit ourselves to being an agent of change and of hope in the days to come.

Let us do so!

Miroslav Volf on Denouncing Mischief-Making God's

Is there anything new being said by the "New Atheists" or are they just shouting louder. My experience from reading Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins is that their repeating much of the same stuff as previous critics, only their megaphones have gotten bigger. That being said, the gods of today need critiquing, especially the ones that promote violence, consumerism, totalitarianism, and incivility. These gods are legion and as a Christian, I'm beholden to join those who would decry their inroads into modern life.

Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale, former professor at Fuller Seminary (my alma mater), student of Jurgen Moltmann, etc., offers a response to this new challenge. It's brief, but worth examining.

From Newsweek's "On Faith"

Mischief-Making False Gods Need To Be Denounced

There is nothing surprising in the recent resurgence of atheist and anti-religious thinking. The wave, which has not yet crested, is greatly a consequence of the massive abuse of religion in recent years.

In the world today, it does sometimes seem that gods have only terror on their minds. To the extent that this is true, atheism and critiques of religion are not enemies of
true faith.

To the contrary, the mischief-making false gods seen in much of both private and public religious imaginations need to be smashed; they have usurped the place of the one true God, the ultimate source of human flourishing.

The gods many critics of religion deny deserve denying; they are not the gods in whom believers ought to be believing. It is no accident that early Christians were derided as “atheists.” Along with Jewish prophets, Jesus and Paul, we Christians ought to be the sharpest critics of religion, foremost of our own.

What is a bit surprising about the “new atheism” is how “old” it feels. I have not read all the new critiques of religion, but what I have read feels very much “recycled and repackaged.” With all due respect toward contemporary critics of religion, will somebody tell me what intellectual contribution they are actually making? Are they saying anything that the great critics of religion from the past haven’t already said?And saying it in a more subtle and compelling way? And, notwithstanding all the advances in sciences in recent decades, are they saying it also with a more sophisticated understanding of both religion and reality?

How Old is the Grand Canyon?

I've never been to the Grand Canyon, but I've seen pictures. In fact, I've seen several good documentaries on the canyon. If you've seen the pictures or read the background, you know that it was carved over millions of years by the Colorado River. Apparently there is another story that is told, one that can be found in a book sold in the gift shop that offers a "biblical" view point. So, instead of millions of years, it was formed as a result of Noah's Flood.

The park superintendent wanted to remove it and allow rangers to answer questions about the canyon's age, but despite park service requirements to make use of the best scientific data, Bush appointees overruled sound science and required this to be sold instead == for more on this see this web site:

Such actions further the agenda, not of the Christian faith, but of people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, who can use this as evidence that Christianity and religion in general stands contrary to reason. There is no reason why we can't believe in God and affirm the scientific theory (which isn't a hypothesis) of evolution. It's not "just" a theory, it is the only available scientific theory.

For another side to all of this, be sure to check out the Clergy Letter Project and it's celebration of Evolution Sunday!

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Value of Interfaith Conversation? 5 Views

The Boston Globe published on Christmas Eve five essays on the value of interfaith dialogue. Contributors included Harvard's Diana Eck, who has written about the value of religious pluralism; Alan Wolfe of Boston College; Notre Dame's Mark Noll, formerly of Wheaton College; Reza Aslan, author and graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, and Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things.

I would characterize the five essays as reflections on the Christian-Muslim conversation and its implications for peace in the world. Of the five Neuhaus' is the most guarded. Tolerance is needed, but it must be rooted in reason. Aslan, the only Muslim in the group (and a liberal one at that) provides a caveat that sometimes from the Muslim perspective, interfaith dialogue is seen as coercive. Of the five, the one I found the most interesting was Alan Wolfe's. His point is quite simple, really, let's broaden the conversation partners to include more than religious leaders.

Wolfe writes that generally it's the leadership/the elites that stir up trouble not the general populace. He points specifically at Iran, noting that while the people may have no love for Israel, Israel isn't at the top of their list of important issues, though apparently it's important to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

He writes further that "Religious tolerance is frequently found among ordinary people because, at least in the United States, religious pluralism is a fact of life." Religious leaders, however, must worry about keeping their religious traditions together and have more to lose.

Thus, the key to dialogue isn't to bring together religious leaders, but lay people from varying religious traditions. "Find yourself face to face," he says, "with a person from a different faith than your own, and it is hard to conclude that your truths are infallible and those of others are heretical." Such is good advice!

By the way, thanks to Melissa Rogers for the link.

Saddam's Execution -- A Reflection

It looks as if Saddam Hussein, former leader of Iraq, and by any measure a tyrant and dictator, will be executed on Saturday, December 30th. There is no doubt that Saddam was responsible for the deaths of thousands, if not millions of Iraqi's and Iranians (though in regard to the latter it was a war and we supported Saddam against Iran). He was a brutal dictator and if anyone qualifies for the executioner, it is him.

But, is it the right thing to do? Only history will tell us the effect his execution will have on Iraq's stability. I don't think that Saddam is beloved by anyone besides family and a small cadre of followers. It' s more likely that he was feared than loved. That being said, for many Sunni's and many Christians Saddam represents a time of stability and prominence. With a Shiite majority in ascendancy there is the fear on the part of both Sunni's and Christians that their rights will be curtailed. I think you could argue on pragmatic grounds either way -- for or against execution.

Arguments for execution are quite simple. He's a murderer and he deserves to be executed. His death will, it is argued, will bring closure to the families of his victims. It could also be said that his death removes him as a center of the insurgency -- though at this point he is likely irrelevant to it.

The news I've read is that Saddam is taking all of this in stride. That's not surprising as he has been on the other side plenty of times -- ordering the execution of opponents and enemies.

But, what about the "rightness" of the act of execution. I'm on record as opposing the death penalty. Consistency requires that I remain committed to that position even now. I still believe that the death penalty is an ineffective act of vengeance. Serving as I do a Lord who was the victim of state execution, I want to listen for the voice of Jesus here. Everything I know of Jesus, his teachings on mercy, grace, compassion, tell me that he would, indeed, does oppose the execution of Saddam Hussein. Saying this does not excuse his actions. I would rather he spend his life in prison, reflecting on what has happened and see what he let loose on his nation by his intransigence (this is not to say that George Bush was right in declaring war, because I don't believe he was) in the face of international pressure to change his regime and turn over power to others. As big a mistake as Bush and company made in going to war, Saddam must share considerable blame for the morass that's developed in Iraq.

So, I remain committed to the principle of life and must declare my opposition to this act of vengeance.

Christian Crusaders in Iraq?

Robin Hayes, a Republican congressman from North Carolina, following in the footsteps of Ann Coulter, made news before Christmas for suggesting to a Rotary group that the solution to the mess in Iraq is Iraqi conversion to Christianity. Now that we have "control" of the nation, isn't it time to pacify them by bringing them to Christ.

Robert Parham in a piece on Ethics Daily (Friday, 12/29/2006) offers a differing solution. Why not have Americans, like the church going congressman, convert to Christ first.

The problem with this view is American Christians themselves. In America everyone knows about the birth of Jesus Christ and the accompanying message of peace on Earth. That knowledge is escapable, especially at Christmas. But that knowledge hasn't changed the bloodlust of the Christian Right, who see America as the Christian nation that it is not and violence as a missionary strategy that it isn't.

The knowledge of Jesus Christ hasn't turned fundamentalists, evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants and quasi-church attendees from their self-righteous commitment to holy war.

No, Christian conversion hasn't converted America's pro-crusade churchmen.

Why do some American Christians think that converting others to Christianity would do for non-Christians what it hasn't done for them?

I have no problem with the idea of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, but I do have a problem with the linkage of Christian faith and American foreign policy. Mr. Hayes needs to do some reading of missionary history to see how well that went!!! Colonialism and Christianity went hand in hand in the conquests of Africa, Asian, and South America. It was tried on the American frontier as a way of pacifying the Native American populace. Many died in the name of Jesus -- so I agree with Mr. Parham, that we Americans need conversion before we worry about converting the Iraqis. Mr. Hayes, who is apparently a member of a Presbyterian Church needs a bit of converting himself, along with Mr. Virgil Goode, Hayes' colleague from Virginia!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Remembering Gerald R. Ford

President Gerald Ford will be greatly missed. Though today I'm a strong Democrat, I've always admired President Ford. In fact, my first presidential vote was cast as an 18 year old in 1976. Ford lost that year to Jimmy Carter, but despite my political sea change, I'm not sorry I voted for Ford.

At a time when a political crisis threatened to bring down the presidency, when for the first time ever a sitting President resigned, he stepped in and brought the nation together. He was the right person for the job for the precise reason that he had never sought and never intended to seek the Presidency. In fact, as I've heard it, his greatest ambition was to become Speaker of the House (that would have required a change in party control, which wouldn't happen until 1994). His pardon of Nixon likely destroyed his re-election hopes, but it was the right thing to do (and history has shown that his courageous act was the right thing to do).

Ford was an old-style Republican. He was of course pro-business and all, but his was a limited but efficient government vision. It was interesting to read about his pride at his one Supreme Court nomination -- John Paul Stevens -- one of the court's most liberal members.

In an age of polarization and political incivility, the political scene could learn something from the graciousness and the humility of President Ford. Would that the next President had some of his defining characteristics!!!
Let us therefore with grateful hearts remember a man of faith, vision, compassion and grace.

Clergy Letter Project -- Science and Faith

A battle seems to be raging between science and religion. Nearly half the nation ascribes to a young earth creationist perspective; this despite the evidence! But not everyone has bought into the war. Some of us believe that it is possible to affirm the existence of God and affirm evolution as the scientific explanation for how things have come to be.

More than 10,000 clergy, biblical scholars, and theologians have signed the Clergy Letter Concerning Religion and Science. I'm among those signers and will again lead my congregation in the recognition of Evolution Sunday (February 11, 2007).

The letter is posted below. If you'd like to know more about the project or become a signer yourself, check out the website:

Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible - the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark - convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as "one theory among others" is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God's good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God's loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

Signed by 10,418 Christian clergy member as of 26 December 2006

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!!

It's Christmas morning! Last night we gathered at the church to celebrate Christmas Eve with songs, Luke's story of the shepherds attending to the baby born in Bethlehem, and at the Lord's Table. That is the true foundation of Christmas, the rest is merely trappings. It's fun of course, but it's not the reason we celebrate.

I'll be off doing family things for a few days, so no posting for a bit.

Have a most joyous Christmas celebration!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Shepherds Watch by Night

Luke 2:1-20

When it comes to casting a Christmas pageant, shepherds rank low on the list of favorite parts. Mary and Joseph are, of course, the prime parts. Then there’s the magi. They get to wear fancy robes bring gifts to the baby Jesus and meet with Herod. Angels don’t rank with wise men, but at least they have more star power than shepherds, who get to wear bathrobes and towels on their heads. No crowns and no wings. No gifts and no songs. Instead of singing about the good news in the skies, they hang out in the hills with the sheep and the dogs. There’s nothing too exciting about these roles, except that Luke seems to think that they’re important.

You might notice that this telling of the birth story doesn’t have any wise men, kings, or magi – whatever name you want to give them. That’s Matthew’s version, and he has a different agenda. Maybe he knew that Christmas pageants would need some staring roles. But Luke doesn’t seem impressed with star power.

Although David was called the shepherd king and the 23rd Psalm calls God our shepherd, shepherds were really outcasts. They were dirty, smelly, rough and tumble men. This may explain why no one really wants to play a shepherd in the Christmas play – except maybe Pigpen and he’s specially equipped for the role! On this particular night, however, their boredom is broken by a great light in the sky and a heavenly song. The good news comes first to this little group of shepherds. They get to hear the good news that the savior, Christ the Lord, is born in the city of David.

When we think about important births, we don’t expect that shepherds will be the first to hear the news or even that shepherds will be the first to share the news. Of course, no one would have expected that the savior would be born in a feeding trough. But that’s the story that Luke tells.

As unlikely as this story is, there’s a message for us in it. It’s a message about the kind of God we’ve come to worship tonight. This morning we heard Mary sing of God’s "preferential option for the poor" and about God’s willingness to bring down the high and the mighty. Now we discover that God is calling shepherds to proclaim this good news to the world.

If it were up to me, and it isn’t, I’d have turned to Larry King, Anderson Cooper, or maybe Neil Cavuto to tell this story. If I was God and I was going to reveal myself to the world, I’d come from the sky riding on a chariot, resplendent in glory, and surrounded by the host of heaven. That would be more impressive, but that’s not Luke’s story. Instead, Emmanuel is born in a manger, surrounded by animals, and a few dirty smelly shepherds. Yes, there are angels singing, but they sing to the shepherds and not to Mary and Joseph or even Herod.

I enjoy a really joyous Christmas, just like everyone else. The more decorations the better. I even dress up for the occasion in a robe and a stole. No shepherd’s cloak for me. Luke’s choice of shepherds to star in this story, however, fits his broader message. As I said this morning, Luke tells us how Jesus went to the synagogue one day and turned to Isaiah. When he read that God’s good news must be proclaimed to the poor, the lame, the imprisoned, and the marginalized, he said to the synagogue: this is my calling. The only time Jesus got to visit Herod or Pilate, he was on trial for subversion. Jesus didn’t take up residence in the Temple, but instead he preached from the hill tops and boats. He hung out with a rough crowd of Galilean fishermen, reviled tax collectors, and most shocking of all, with women.

This Christmas, as we gather around our trees and open our presents, let’s remember whom we’ve come to honor. It’s not the king of glory, but the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, surrounded by lowly shepherds. Remember too that this is only the beginning of the story. We must not leave Jesus in the manger, lest his cuteness lull us to sleep and we forget his purpose in coming.

In a few moments we’ll gather at the Lord’s Table. This Table stands as a reminder that although the journey begins in a stable it must go through a cross. There is no glory, it would seem, without first sharing in suffering. The end result, however, is a transformed life and a transformed world. And so, may the Spirit of Christmas move in our hearts, making us all new persons. Merry Christmas!

Robert D. Cornwall
Lompoc, First Christian Church
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2006

Christmas Story: Hope for "lowly and forgotten"

From the Lompoc Record
Dr. Bob Cornwall
Faith in the Public Square
December 24, 2006

Harry Truman said “the buck stops here,” while George W. Bush declared that he was “the Decider.” Such states exude strength and power, and it seems that the stronger and more powerful the leader is, the more apt we are to listen (and obey) to their pronouncements. As history has shown, the demagogue will try to manipulate our emotions and prejudices in order to control us, and the charismatic figure will seek to gain our acquiescence through a cult of personality.

Since today is Christmas Eve, it's appropriate to consider a different view of power. Tonight, many Christian communities will celebrate the story of a baby born to a young mother in a stable (Luke 2:1-20). The backdrop is an insignificant town in a backwater part of a powerful empire. When read against the stories of the greats of the ancient world such as Caesar, Alexander, and Augustus, it's surprising that we would pay attention to this telling of Jesus' birth. As Luke tells it, God chooses to speak to and through the lowly and the forgotten, not to or through kings and potentates.

In a passage that precedes the birth story, a pregnant teenage girl named Mary sings a song of praise to God; in this song, known as the Magnificat, Mary declares that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” and God has filled the “hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:46-55). It would seem that God has a “preferential option for the poor.” (Click here to read the whole column)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Muslim in Congress!

I want to share with you this article entitled: "A Muslim in Congress -- What's the World Coming To?" It has been published in the online journal: SoMA Review. Thanks to John Spalding for his quick work in getting this up.

In it I give my take on the controversy over the election of Keith Ellison (D-MN) and celebrate this important marker in America's religious and political history. I hope you find it challenging and intriguing. These are interesting times and in light of all the blabber about protecting our civilization, maybe it's time to protect the Constitution!

Vital Christianity

What does it mean for a church to be vital? Is it the programs? The preaching? The music? It has been a mantra for the past several decades that Conservative churches grow and liberal churches don't. Just look at those Episcopalians, they're falling apart because they're so liberal. But if you read some of the things coming from some corners of Evangelicalism, the future isn't too promising for them either!

Maybe not everything is as it seems. Maybe we need some new definitions of what it means to be vital as a Christian community. Diana Butler Bass in a book I've been talking about here in several posts provides a helpful reminder that Mainline Protestantism has only recently begun to emerge from its Country Club status. It needs to be remembered that at the height of Mainline Protestant dominance, being a church member was considered important to upward mobility and community influence. Being a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian counted for as much in the board room as in heaven!

So what does it mean to be vital? This piece from Diana's book is helpful:

Vital Christianity is not about being conservative, about being foot soldiers for the religious right. It is about being responsive to people's spiritual longings and experiences, and drawing from tradition and history to help make sense of it all. A congregation grows when it draws its worldview and practices from scripture, engaging the Bible as Marcus Borg so memorably says, "seriously but not literally." Mainline churches decline when the neglect scripture and prayer, discernment and hospitality, contemplation and justice. I have witnessed the old mainline recovering faith through an emerging set of practices of passionate Christianity, in communities that are both spiritual and religious. (Christianity for the Rest of Us, Harper Collins, 2006, p. 45).

So, I join Diana in celebrating a vital Christianity that is passionate, committed, biblical without being literalistic about it, and hospitable. It is both spiritual and religious, with being religious having to do with walking together in community as pilgrims. Too often we're content to remain spiritual tourists pursuing our own private spiritual fulfillment. Vital Christianity not only transforms the individual it is world changing!

Church and Change

Churches don't like change. Whether it's music, liturgy, or the carpet, we like things the way they have always been. We've all heard the adage: "We've never done it that way." But change is a fact of life and as Diana Butler Bass demonstrates it is at the heart of Jesus' message.

Since we're on the eve of celebrating the birth of Jesus, maybe it is worth considering his message. Diana writes:

In the New Testament, Jesus asks everyone to change. With the exception of children, Jesus insists that every person he meets do something and change. The whole message of the Christian scripture is based on the idea of metanoia, the change of heart that happens when we meet God face-to-face. Even a cursory knowledge of history reveals that Christianity is a religion about change. The Christian faith always changes -- even when some of its adherents claim it does not." (Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, p. 24).

We live in an ever changing world, and if the church is to navigate its waters, it must change. And change it will! Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Bigot in Congress

Keith Ellison has been gracious in his response to Virgil Goode's rants against immigrants and Muslims. One must remember that Ellison isn't Arab, isn't an immigrant, but is an African American convert to Islam. He has rightfully affirmed that the Constitution is the deciding document in American life.

Virgil Goode apparently hasn't figured that out. Mr. Goode also hasn't been listening to Jesus either. So I'd just as soon that he remove the Bible from his office and take down the 10 Commandments, because he hasn't understood them either.

This morning's Washington Post editorial offers a needed response to this affair. They note that Goode's "dimwitted nativism" isn't new. But they go on to note the more dubious consequences of his rant:

No, the real worry for the nation is that the rest of the world might take Mr. Goode seriously, interpreting his biased remarks about Muslims as proof that America really has embarked on a civilizational war against Islam. With 535 members, you'd think that Congress would welcome the presence of a single Muslim representative. Whether it can afford a lawmaker of Mr. Goode's caliber is another question.

I'm still waiting for the GOP to repudiate his remarks, but I'm afraid that will be a long wait. Apparently the GOP is now the party of xenophobia and intolerance. For more on the story see the LA Times article.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Virgil Goode's news conference

Virgil Goode's news conference reveals he has no clue what it means to be anti-Muslim. I find it difficult to wipe away the critics as being politically correct because the question his reasons for reducing legal immigration. If your purpose in reducing legal immigration is to keep out Muslims, how can that not be discriminatory. In the news conference he repeatedly asked people to read the letter. I've read the letter and it's anti-Muslim. There is no other way to take it. I'm just glad that my congressional representative is smarter!

More on Virgil Goode's Reactionary statements

It's a good thing we have Virgil Goode serving in Congress. He wants to make sure that Muslims don't become a majority in congress. Therefore we must restrict immigration dramatically, or else. I mean if you have 1 Muslim in Congress, by 2010 there will be hundreds of them. Isn't that wonderful logic.

Anyway, Goode appeared on Neil Cavuto. Didn't catch it and for some reason it won't replay on my computer. But FoxNews does provide a written article, though I'm not sure this describes the content of the conversation. I'm waiting for more news.

Virgil Goode would have made a great member of the American or Know-Nothing Party of the 1850's. This was an anti-immigrant party that was worried about the invasion and dominance of CATHOLICS. I guess they knew what they were talking about because today a majority of the Supreme Court are CATHOLICS! Before you know it . . . well ... you know what I mean.

Bigotry is bigotry -- so I'm waiting for the GOP to say no to good ol' Mr. Goode.

Obama -- The Anti-Bush

I don't know if Barak Obama will run and I really don't know if he's experienced enough. But who is? George W. was governor of Texas and as we've seen that didn't help him much. LBJ had served in the Senate for years and later was VP before becoming President and it didn't help in Viet Nam. Of course Lincoln didn't have a lot of experience, though he chose people like William Seward, the former governor of New York to serve in important posts.

Personally, I'm excited by Obama. As a Christian who believes that faith and public life are inseparable (though the institutions are separate) Obama's willingness and ability to speak from the heart about faith and his ability to connect his faith to public policy in a non-coercive, non-dogmatic way is not only impressive, but is very attractive. No Democrat that I know of has been better at this. There is a long time between now and election time and we don't know if he'll run and if he'll be able to sustain the star-power he currently has. I kind of believe that there is such authenticity there that he won't flame out. I also realize that there are other more established possible candidates like Hillary. But there is time and besides everyone seems to know who he is!

This morning in the LA Times Michael Tomasky writes a column entitled "Obama the anti-Bush." Tomasky is editor at large of the American Prospect. He makes the point that Obama more than anyone else is the opposite of George Bush and we as electors look to opposites when making changes.

"The most reliable guide to presidential winners over the last quarter of a century is not ideology or charisma or any of the other established factors. It is instead what we might call character typology. That is, after four (or especially eight) years of one type of person, American voters tend to turn their affections toward someone who is that person's opposite — someone whose
personality and affect provide a direct contrast to the fellow who's leaving office, who has something the other guy lacked."

So, how is Obama different? Besides being able to speak with eloquence, fluidity, and grace! Tomasky writes:

"If my theory is correct, then 2008, coming directly off of Bush's tenure, will be exactly the right time for Obama to run. His themes and his personality — his agreeable nature and penchant for self-contemplation, so utterly unlike the incumbent's petulant, unreflective swagger — will be uniquely in demand in 2008 in a way they just might not be in 2012 or 2016."

So the time is now. He's not too young -- He'll be 46 or 47 by the time he'd be inaugurated. He'll have 4 years of the Senate under his belt. And, I expect he'll choose a governor like Tom Vilsack or Mark Warner as a running mate.

Only time will tell, but Obama seems well poised to take the crown!

Accountability or Recognition

Would Ted Haggard and Paul Barnes have been spared their recent troubles if they had had better accountability measures -- ones that would allow them to share what's going on inside. That's quite possible. Being a pastor can be lonely and stressful. Burnout is common (when my first issue of Sharing the Practice comes out -- probably in February -- we'll have an excellent article on burnout and its causes). Having a group of fellow travelers who can listen and affirm and guide one in ministry is a great idea.

Such is the focus of this morning's LA Times article by Stephanie Simon (Melissa Rogers beat me to posting and commenting on the article). Simon writes:

"No one has proposed rethinking the theology that homosexuality is a sin. Instead, there's a growing consensus that the church must do a better job of helping pastors resist all immoral desires, such as a lust for pornography, an addiction to drugs or a lifelong same-sex attraction."

"Seminary professors, Christian counselors and veteran clergy say the best way to help pastors fight temptation is to get them talking — even about their most shameful secrets. They don't want a sordid tell-all from the pulpit each Sunday. But they would like pastors to bare their weaknesses and admit their lapses before a small group of "accountability partners" — friends committed to listen with empathy, then rebuke or advise as needed."

But, once again, is that the issue? Is it just an issue of accountability? Or is it a matter of theology and the need to change it. Interestingly the one example they provide of accountability shows a pastor, another Colorado pastor, who ultimately embraces his gayness. The person quoted from the ex-gay ministry Exodus International reinforces this through his own denial. I realize that sex can be addictive and that there are sex addicts groups, and I'm assuming that gays can be sex addicts, but the issue here isn't one of addiction but of shame. If one feels shame that is reinforced by society (and religion) they will not admit to who they are and likely will end up in trouble.

So, while accountability is important, recognition of reality is even more important. Then we can deal with the culturally imposed guilt and come to an understanding that will bring wholeness to people, to churches, and to society as a whole.

Congressional Bigot won't Apologize

Since the reports are that Virgil Goode won't apologize or back down from his anti-Islamic statements, I must once again register mydisgust and angst. If we are to be a place where freedom of religion then such attitudes and statements are inappropriate at best.

A Direct Response to Sam Harris

Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins continue to make waves challenging the intellectual moxie of Christians. I've written a couple of responses, but I don't think I've written anything quite as direct as Jason Byassee of the Christian Century. In the most recent issue Byasee takes Harris on and wonders out loud if Harris has ever run into any real live Christians, especially Christians of the moderate to liberal type.

Harris's book would be stronger if it offered evidence that he has ever spoken with any living, breathing Christians. He frequently refers to Gallup polls, to standard storylines from the New York Times and to angry e-mails he receives in response to his work. He knows enough to be aware that self-professed liberal and moderate Christians exist, but he attempts to keep at arm's length such milquetoast believers, who simply lack the courage of conviction of their fundamentalist brethren—who, in fact, enable the destructive tendencies of irrational belief by dressing it in a cloak of respectability. Harris is in this sense comfortable with fundamentalists, for both he and they loathe moderates. "Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't. Either Christ was divine, or he was not." That Christ might be both divine and
human, that scripture might be both inspired and humanly authored, as Christians both fundamentalist and liberal believe, seems not to have occurred to him.

Byasee also points out some danger signs in Harris's agenda.

At times Harris slips from the grating and smarmy to the chilling. "One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering." Once the alleviation of suffering is the chief moral goal, however, it is a short step to the elimination of sufferers, as Harris's blithe dismissal of prenatal moral concerns and his heartless comparison of lost nasal cells to the Holocaust suggest. America's believers "should be obliged" to present empirical evidence for their belief. Obliged by whom? Harris decries the failure of schools "to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand"—an illiberal policy on religion in schools if there ever was one. Harris is blissfully unaware of how close his rationale is at points to those of Stalin and Mao: religion causes suffering; ergo, elimination of religion will eliminate suffering. When Harris asks (in one of his few, always unsuccessful efforts at whimsy), "When was the last atheist riot?" any number of bloody revolutions, from the French to the Russian to the Cultural Revolution in China, come
immediately to mind.

The atheist response has gotten bolder and stronger, but as Byassee also says religion is tenacious. Just look at China, where religion is actually booming after years attempting to stamp it out. So, read the review, especially if you've already read the book.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A New Way of Being Church

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of reading "how to books" about church growth. Just do this and you'll be successful. Usually these purveyors of successful programming are big mega-church pastors. But when you're a small congregation with a limited budget, such "success in a box" guides leave you a bit flat and even discouraged. I'm more interested in reading books and attending conferences that allow me and my congregation to explore ways of being authentically who we're called to be. When we're able to be such a congregation then perhaps growth will be in store for us.

Pastors of big churches are often entrepreneurs, but in time they become CEO's. Having been a local pastor for the last 8 years, I will confess I'm not CEO material. Oh, I do my share of administrative stuff, but I'm no CEO. I'm more the jack of all trades, small business person.

That's why I so appreciate Diana Butler Bass's Christianity for the Rest of Us (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006). It's suggestive rather than prescriptive. It describes new ways of being church that are focused on being community -- a spiritual community -- that is called to be agents of transformation. Institution is not the end of all ends. Rather, church is about transformation, of becoming all that God would have for us. It is also a needed response to those who say only Conservative churches can grow. Not true, says Diana. And that's good news!

But, this isn't just good old fashioned liberalism, that is more social than gospel. This is a way of being church that is deeply spiritual, and not just "spiritual" in some nebulous way. It's a spirituality that is rooted in the traditions and practices of historic Christian faith.

If you want to buy yourself a Christmas gift -- buy this book (just click here and go to my Amazon bookstore)!

Congressional Bigotry?

Melissa Rogers provides an excerpt from what should be a controversial letter from Rep. Virgil Goode (R. VA). With Keith Ellison (D. MN) about to take office, Goode calls not only for staunching of illegal immigration but reductions in legal immigration that would most specifically keep out Muslims. He fears that Keith Ellison won't be the last Muslim in Congress, but if we don't stop them from coming in to the country, there might be more! Oh. my! He can put up the Ten Commandments on his wall and swear on the Bible, but Mr. Goode's "Christianity" seems at odds with the biblical position of welcoming the stranger. Here is the excerpt:

Thank you for your recent communication. When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing In Day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Koran in any way. The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will
likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran. We need to stop illegal immigration totally and reduce legal immigration and end the diversity visas policy pushed hard by President Clinton and allowing many persons from the Middle East to come to this country. I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.

The Ten Commandments and “In God We Trust” are on the wall in my office. A Muslim student came by the office and asked why I did not have anything on my wall about the Koran. My response was clear, “As long as I have the honor of representing the citizens of the 5th District of Virginia in the United States House of Representatives, The Koran is not going to be on the wall
of my office.” Thank you again for your email and thoughts.

I hope that other do not take up the "Virgil Goode position on immigration," because it would stand contrary to what I believe is the true American spirit of welcome. If this isn't bigotry, what is? Melissa is oh so correct when she writes in response: "It's one thing when a right-wing columnist says things of this nature. It's quite another when a sitting member of the U.S. Congress does so."

Oh, by the way Keith Ellison isn't an immigrant, he's a born in America convert to Islam.

The Middle Way

This is a few days old -- well almost a week old-- but I did find this God's Politics post by Diana Butler Bass helpful. She talks about two middle alternatives -- progressive pilgrims and emergent conservatives -- who walk less defined and more nuanced paths. This isn't neutralism or disengagement, but learning to listen and work together. More I suppose of the purple way (after all we're still in Advent).

The following statement, Diana shares, was originally part of a Washington Post on-line chat.

I do not believe that there are only two sides in this dispute - I can identify five distinct groups.

Yes, there are two parties in tension: Old-line liberals and radicalized conservatives. This is the fight we most often read about in the media. However, you point out a third possibility, a centrist party that is trying to navigate between the two extremes. The extremes aren't the
whole story.

However, there are two additional groups, and these two are far less noticed. I refer to these groups (they don't have a clear "party" identity) as "progressive pilgrims" and "emergent conservatives." These two groups tend to see "issues" like this one as secondary concerns to the practice of Christian faith and are more concerned with things like hospitality, living forgiveness, practicing reconciliation, learning to pray, feeding the hungry, caring for the environment, and maintaining the Anglican practice of comprehensiveness (being a church of the "middle way"). They may lean slightly left or slightly right on "issues," but reject partisan solutions to theological problems. Both progressive pilgrims and emergent conservatives are far more interested in unity than uniformity, and they appreciate diversity in their congregations as a sign of God's dream for humanity to live in peace.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Changing Political Fortunes

With only 2 years before the next presidential election, what does the future hold? Which direction will the country go? For the past two decades we've been going rightward. Maybe that has to do with an aging baby boomer generation settling down and saying no to its earlier flings. But now the children of the baby boomers are beginning to make their claim on our attention. And the question is, what direction will they send us?

E.J. Dionne suggests that an under 30 crowd energized not by Rush but by Stephen Colbert and John Stewart are going left ward. And it is this crowd that helps set the tone for the future. Dionne writes:

Nowhere is the evidence of change more striking than among the young, whose attitudes and behavior are usually leading indicators of social transformation.

In 1984 three exit polls pegged Ronald Reagan's share of the ballots cast by Americans under 30 at between 57 and 60 percent. Reagan-style conservatism seemed fresh, optimistic and innovative. In 2006 voters under 30 gave 60 percent of their votes to Democratic House candidates, according to the shared media exit poll. Conservatism now looks old, tired and ineffectual.

I don't know if Barak Obama will be the next president, but I don't think it will be John McCain either. I'm not sure if Hillary and Al will carry it either. So, it will be interesting to see what happens. But if Dionne is right and the under 30 crowd voted overwhelmingly Democratic, then 2006 may be a hinge year in history.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Walling Off A School for Peace

I understand the Israeli need to feel secure, but this wall their building has become more than a security fence. It has become a means of destroying lives and undermines peace.

As we near Christmas Eve, word comes that a school for peacemaking that brings together Jewish, Christian, and Muslim young people is facing closure and demolition -- or at least parts of the school are.

Read the story and pray for changed hearts.

Ibrahim Issa, the Hope Flowers School's co-director says:

In a message sent to supporters to mark the Christmas season, Mr Issa explained: "[Our] school needs your support, like never before. The school is a beacon of light within a harsh reality. Today the 'Little town of Bethlehem' is imprisoned behind a giant concrete wall and a winding electronic fence."

He concluded: "Huge Israeli checkpoints surround the area completely restricting the freedom of movement for Palestinians, preventing them from reaching the outside world, from gainful employment, from their agricultural lands, from pursuing higher education, from adequate medical treatment or worshipping where they choose."

Schism in Virginia

Seven Episcopal Churches, including two historic and large congregations, Truro and Falls Church, have voted to sever ties with the Episcopal Church in the USA and link with the Anglican Church of Nigeria.

Ostensibly this is over ordination of gays and same sex blessings, but if you read the article in the Washington Post closely you'll see that this is a broader issue -- that can be traced back to traditionalist rejection of the ordination of women. With a woman as Presiding Bishop, they're heading out.

Evangelical and Gay -- new trends

As the two most recent "outings" have come in Colorado, it's not surprising that the Denver Post is covering the issue of homosexuality in the evangelical community. This piece by Eric Gorski, the reporter who has been covering the Paul Barnes situation, that is dated December 16 (Saturday) is quite interesting.

Gorski begins by telling the story of one such evangelical who was/is evangelical and gay.

Sheila Burris tried to pray it away. She would lock herself in her dorm room closet with her Gospel music, Bible and the belief she was going to hell.

If this is a choice, Burris thought, I'd be the last one to choose it. She was a Pentecostal youth minister and Sunday school teacher. God meant everything to her.

Only after a long journey that included re-reading the Scriptures and advice from her grandmother that she listen to God, not people, did Burris conclude that two important aspects of her identity were not at odds. She was a lesbian and an evangelical Christian.

"I never stopped loving God," said Burris, 43, of Littleton. "I thought I had to change and live a lie. I realized I didn't have to make that choice. I could be who I was and God would still love me."

The experiences of gay and lesbian evangelicals - and how the broader evangelical community responds to homosexuality - is back in the public eye after two Colorado pastors fell from grace over an issue that has divided Christianity for decades.

The church continues to wrestle with this issue that has major political and cultural ramifications. As we do this, we must also recognize that there is a broader issue that must be addressed and that is: what is family? If, we believe, that monogamy is proper, that promiscuity isn't, that adultery should be discouraged, how do we develop a consistent sexual ethic? Much work needs to be done before we're done.

"Atheist Chic"

That's what Dan Neil calls the new interest in atheism. Neil makes the claim that he's an atheist, just like Dawkins, Harris, Sagan, and the rest, but he's a bit uncertain about the tenor of recent turn to an almost evangelical atheism. Though he recognizes that as an atheist, he's part of a "despised minority" -- despite being a bit WASPish.

I do appreciate the company, and the ammunition in these books, and the occasional exchanged glance of solidarity in the bookstore. But I'm just slightly alarmed. The new atheism is pretty hard-core, militantly insisting we challenge religiosity wherever we meet it, or else enable its darker extremist tendencies. In other words, the new atheism is on a quest for conversion. Having insisted on tolerance of our non-faith, Dawkins and Harris' take-no-prisoners orthodoxy would have us be intolerant of others' faith. Oh boy, just when I was beginning to enjoy being an atheist.

I can't bring myself to confront others on the truth-data of their religious beliefs, even if they do involve some strange convoluted myth of Old Testament prophesy and Hellenistic blood cults. I was brought up better than that. Believe what you like, insofar as it does not interfere with my lack of belief. Believe in Thor's mighty hammer, for all I care. Tell me Merry Christmas when I'm coming out of Wal-Mart. And happy holidays right back at ya.

Not-so-true believers

That's the title of Jonathan Chait's LA Times op-ed piece today. It reminds me of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? (Owl Books, 2004), a book that describes how Kansas social conservatives who are largely blue collar vote against their own economic best interests by aligning with a Republican Party that gives lip-service to their social issues but never deliver -- only to pass lots of laws that benefit the rich and powerful -- or something like that.

In Chait's essay, he talks about how GOP candidates such as John McCain and Mitt Romney pander to the Religious Right to get their votes. The focus here is on Mitt Romney who is apparently running for President as the social conservatives great hope -- but back in 1994 he sounded pro-choice and pro-gay, but now he's to be taken as the champion of the right. So which is the true Mitt Romney, the moderate son of a moderate Michigan governor who walked out of the 1964 Convention when extremist Barry Goldwater was to speak. Of course Goldwater was greatly concerned about the takeover of the party by the Religious Right. Surely these are confusing times.

I'll leave you with this comment by Chait:

The GOP primary is indeed a sorry state of affairs for the religious right. Sen. John McCain of Arizona once described religious-right leaders as "forces of evil" and has mused that he would not support the repeal of Roe vs. Wade. More recently, McCain, like Romney, has backed off his moderate statements (not surprising, given the furor they provoked). But McCain is even less credible in his new found conservatism; only a total naif could believe him now. A general rule of political life is that when a candidate says something unpopular off the cuff and then takes it back in prepared remarks, you can be sure that the original statement is what he really thinks.

"Let us Prey" -- More on Left Behind Game

You know, I thought true believers were supposed to be raptured when Jesus returns, so why is there a born-again Tribulation Force that's fighting the Anti-Christ's minions? I guess I'll have to read the Left Behind books, or maybe I can play the video game. I don't plan on purchasing the game. In fact, I'd just as soon that my son doesn't play War Craft. But you know I'd rather he play War Craft than Left Behind, because Left Behind carries a theological message that I can't get on board with.

I earlier posted my misgiving and added a review of Barbara Rossing's excellent book: Rapture Exposed. In reading the LA Times today, I came across a short piece by Stephanie Simon that offers an interesting take on the game and its supporters and detractors. Though there isn't any blood or gore in the game, and you get more points converting than killing your opponents, it's still that idea that when push comes to shove, a muscular Christianity will defend itself by the sword. I find it interesting that the game's creator, Troy Lyndon, is quoted as saying that the game's purpose is to "spur teens to start thinking about 'matters of eternal importance,' such as the fate of their souls." Of course Focus on the Family, in its ever vigilant support of the culture wars is an enthusiastic backer of the game. Still, the real problem is the theology and what I consider a serious misreading of Scripture. The rapture isn't the center of the New Testament -- Jesus is.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Episcopal Divide

I grew up an Episcopalian. I was baptized and confirmed, served as an acolyte and a lay reader. My mother remains a die-hard Episcopalian to this day. Growing up Episcopalian I heard all the old saws about them, the best being: "in all things moderation." Episcopalians have been known for their tolerance, their etiquette, and their primacy of place in America's civil religion. Ronald Reagan's state funeral was held in Washington's National Cathedral and was presided over by former Senator John Danforth, himself an Episcopal Priest -- this despite the fact that Reagan was born and raised Disciples of Christ and in his Hollywood years and later attended a Presbyterian Church.

Schism is anathema to Episcopalians. My own research area is the Nonjuror movement, which was a schism movement, but it always understood itself to be the righteous remnant. When the Episcopal Church says the Creed they put emphasis on the word Catholic, as in "one holy catholic and apostolic church." That it is in the throes of division now is incomprehensible. This is the church of Bp. James Pike after all. The tent has always been big, but now the fabric of the tent is being torn asunder. Though I'm no longer Episcopalian, it pains me to watch these events.

A New York Times article today speaks of the current travails within the church, which has led two historic Episcopal Churches in Virginia to secede and place themselves under the leadership of a controversial Nigerian Bishop. This in itself is anathema to Episcopalians who believe that diocesan and provincial boundaries are not to be crossed. To invade the diocese of another is to create schism and is therefore tantamount to sin. And such is the case now. The issue at hand is supposedly homosexuality, but I think it's more than this. The real issue is the status of the Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori You see most of the churches and dioceses that are up in arms also believe that women shouldn't be priests.

You see there is now a Presiding Bishop who is a woman heading a church that has bishops who refuse to ordain women. That, I think, is the real issue. But Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire is the scape goat. Only time will tell what will happen, but perhaps this schism has been in the making for thirty years.


Bob Cornwall
Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
December 17, 2006

I consider myself to be a pretty decent person. As for my religious proclivities, I can't find anything in my life and theology that's particularly dangerous. As a pastor of a Mainline Protestant church I try to present to the world a faith that is welcoming, generous, gracious, and that seeks the transformation of the world.

When I think of bad religion I usually have someone like Osama Bin Laden and Fred Phelps in mind; on the other hand, I expect that they might say the same thing about me. So, maybe it's really a matter of perspective.

We religious people want to believe that our religion is good, and we're not always sure about anyone else's. Maybe this is why I find Sam Harris' bestseller “Letter to a Christian Nation “(Knopf, 2006) so disconcerting. Harris is, if you don't know already, a very vocal atheist. In his mind religion may have had some evolutionary value, but whatever benefit human evolution may have gained from it is outweighed by its downside. In his words: “That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.” Yes, our continued insistence on raising our children to be Christians, Muslims, or Jewish, needs to be recognized as “the ludicrous obscenity that it is.” (Read the whole column)

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Religious Tests for Political Office

Back in the 18th century, Great Britain had to deal with the question of religious tests. You see, to serve in Parliament, you had to be a member in good standing of the Church of England. Evidence of such standing required taking communion/Eucharist in the Church of England. The way of getting around this rule was for non-Anglicans to occasionally conform to the Church of England. In order to protect Anglican dominance, some high church Anglicans sought to ban the practice and were able to enact such a ban. Later in the century efforts were made to eliminate these tests. A final solution to this problem didn't arrive until 1829 and the repeal of the Test Act.

The Founders resolved this issue by placing a ban on religious tests right in the center of the Constitution. To those like Dennis Prager, Roy Moore, and the American Family Association and their supporters -- check it out. Article Six of the Constitution says:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

The Founders got it right! Let's not regress now as we get ready to welcome the first Muslim into Congress -- Mr. Keith Ellison.

Best Defense Secretary Ever?

You wouldn't know it by the grand send off that Donald Rumsfeld bears large responsibility for the mess in Iraq. His good buddy, the VP, called him the best defense secretary ever. Maybe the first time around, but not this time.

He alienated Congress, the military, and just about everyone else. Despite the 19 gun salute and grand gathering of important politicos, we can't forget the mishandling of the war and an Iraq that's now left in shambles. He's gone,which is good, but others will have to clean up the mess.

Now we must watch and hope that cool heads will bring some order to an already unstable region. Consider for a moment the Middle East now. Israel and Palestine are in difficult straits, Lebanon, which was recovering, is again in disarray, Iran is now a power with an ideologue as President, and the US isn't talking to either Syria or Iran. Afghanistan is still roiled in something akin to civil war.

But I'll hope for something better.

Jimmy Carter, the Palestinians, and Apartheid

Jimmy Carter has been roundly criticized for his recently published book on the Palestinian issue. The book's title uses the inflammatory term -- apartheid. This word conjures in our minds the racial policies of the former White rule in South Africa. Carter has written an open letter to the Jewish community in America clarifying his use of the term and insisting he has no ill will toward Israel. A group of Rabbis from Phoenix who had informed Carter that they would protest his appearance at a book signing, invited him to discuss the book and its charges in person. In his letter he clarifies his use of the term:

We discussed the word "apartheid," which I defined as the forced segregation of two peoples living in the same land, with one of them dominating and persecuting the other. I made clear in the book's text and in my response to the rabbis that the system of apartheid in Palestine is not based on racism but the desire of a minority of Israelis for Palestinian land and the resulting
suppression of protests that involve violence. Bishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and prominent Israelis, including former attorney general Ben Yair, who served under both Labor and Likud prime ministers, have used and explained the appellation in harsher terms than I, pointing out that this cruel oppression is contrary to the tenets of the Jewish faith and the basic principles of the nation of Israel.

Carter makes clear again he does not believe apartheid is practiced within Israel proper, only within the occupied territories, mainly as a way of aiding the settler movement, a movement that is a thorn in the side of any real progress within Palestinian territory.

Whether one agrees with Carter or not, hopefully he's raised the issue in a way that will move peace talks along. As Americans our own interests are affected by this ongoing conflict. As Christians we affirm our Jewish parentage and recognize too that we have Christian coreligionists among the Palestinians. A week from tomorrow we will celebrate Christmas Eve, but Bethlehem is essentially cut off from the outside world. Not much merriness there.

In concluding his letter Carter makes a statement that I hope we can all affirm:

I have spent a great deal of my adult life trying to bring peace to Israel, and my own prayer is that all of us who want to see Israelis enjoy permanent peace with their neighbors join in this common effort.

Hanukkah Greetings

Christians often find it difficult to balance the spiritual and the cultural dimensions of the Christmas season. We insist that Christmas must wait for Christmas Eve and that we must attend to the call of Advent to prepare ourselves spiritually, but the demands of the season and all the commercial enticements prove difficult to resist.

We aren't alone. The American Jewish Community must do much the same with Hanukkah. In an intriguing LA Times article, Tami Abdollah shares how a Jewish festival that is meant to celebrate those who resisted assimilation has become a symbol of American assimilation. In other parts of the world, Hanukkah isn't a major festival, but in the US it has taken on the aura of American Christmas. Thus, being that it falls in December it has become the Jewish equivalent -- especially in regard to the gift giving.

So, on this first full day of Hanukkah I give my greetings and best wishes to my Jewish friends. May we together, Christian and Jew, work to keep that which is spiritual spiritual. May we remember that God is present in our lives and hear the challenge to resist the commercialization of faith.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Did Jesus Exist?

Being that it's Christmas and I'm busy (when I'm not blogging or reading blogs) getting ready for the happy occasion of Christmas Eve/Day. As it's Advent I'm trying to prepare myself appropriately (though again I'm spending too much time blogging -- I think I'm addicted). Anyway, I was approached by email from a person seeking a debate partner for Earl Doherty. I must confess I'd never heard of him, but apparently he's a Canadian Humanist, who argues that Jesus never existed. That is a fairly surprising assertion that has little scholarly support. Obviously there are many scholars who discount the orthodox Christian affirmation that Jesus is God incarnate. The idea of a virginal conception is rejected by many good Christians.

Remember that the Jesus Seminar hasn't argued over whether Jesus existed, but over which verses can be traced to him. The bold Red verses are few, but they're there. Though honored to be asked, I chose to decline. I simply do not have the time to spend on such an adventure.

And so the real debate isn't over whether Jesus lived, but over who he was. Was he a prophet, a revolutionary, a sage, a hippie, a Superstar, a philosopher, or God Incarnate. For the last one, you have to ultimately operate on faith. It is unlikely that anyone but a Christian would affirm this position. Muslims honor Jesus as a prophet, but not as the incarnate Son of God. So, although I've become more "liberal" in my thinking but I'm not ready to jettison this particular defining doctrine. By faith I confess that in Jesus of Nazareth, the one we call the Christ, is truly the Revelation of God in the flesh. The manner in which he incarnates God to us, is of course another matter for discussion.

Where Will the Church Go? Concerning Homosexuality

I'm amazed at the interest there is in the recent resignations by Ted Haggard and Paul Barnes. I'm not sure if this is voyeuristic curiosity in something "sexual" or if it's people glad to see evangelical leaders fall. There is something in us that likes to crow when we think we detect hypocrisy -- though there's plenty to go around for everyone, whether you're religious or not.

It's interesting to see the evangelical Christian response to the most recent resignation -- that of Paul Barnes. A follow up article published yesterday, I believe, in the Denver Post quotes several leaders calling for compassion and an end to gay bashing. But, there's no sign that there's any change in belief/understanding. Leith Anderson, who replaced Ted Haggard as President of the National Association of Evangelicals made that point clearly:

I honestly don't think there is significant rethinking on evangelical positions on homosexuality, but I think there may be greater compassion" . . . "Those who don't have homosexual inclinations can be judgmental towards those that do. When you discover people you know and respect are struggling with homosexuality, suddenly you're more compassionate because they are real people who are around you, members of your church and community, and the compassion level rises. It should."

The key is knowing people personally, but that's not the final straw. I don't see this issue letting up any time soon. The culture is changing, but the church is standing pretty firm. But I do see signs of change, especially among younger people. I never thought I'd be spending so much time addressing the issue, but like I said, it won't go away.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Being Biblical and Emergent

Brian McLaren entitles one of his chapters in Generous Orthodoxy: "Why I Am Biblical." It's not surprising given the evangelical context within which he is "emerging." As I read this chapter, I found someone seeking to remain reverent while at the same time seeking to learn from critical scholarship. His embrace of critical scholarship doesn't keep him from assuming that Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles. His is a very cautious understanding. But I understand where he's coming from. He wants to be true to Scripture without becoming a biblicist. He's open to things like evolution, the equality of women, and I think on homosexuality (but here I may be reading more into what he says than is there). McLaren isn't Marcus Borg, but he's also not J.I. Packer. He likes Walter Brueggeman and N.T. Wright.

His is a practical understanding of Scripture -- it's useful for equipping God's people -- rather than dogmatic. Remember also that he has affirmed a non-foundationalist/post-modern world view. Thus, one must read Scripture as narrative and not in propositional fashion. There's nothing especially new here nor is it all that radical -- even for evangelicals.

Thus, the key point of the chapter is that he wants to remain within the fold! But he wants to read Scripture in a way that is inclusive rather than exclusive.

Although I've moved farther beyond McLaren in my journey with Scripture, I find much to connect with. Karl Barth was the key to my own journey. Once I could place the Bible under Jesus (in terms of Word of God) I could breath easier and not get so uptight about every jot and title.

But what does it mean to be Biblical. I get that question as a pastor, is yours a biblical church? I want to answer yes, but I keep wondering what they mean by that adjective. Do I believe in inerrancy? No. Do I believe in recent creation? No. Do I believe . . . I like Borg's phrase about taking the Bible seriously without taking it literally, except I don't go as far as Borg in seeing the Bible as metaphor. I guess my evangelical roots keep me believing that there are parts that are historical and merely metaphor. So, I guess I'm somewhere in between Tom Wright and Marcus Borg. All of which is day to day.

So, are you biblical?

Scientism Revival

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and more, have taken up the cause. Banish religion and all will be fine. Religion has a lot to be ashamed of, but would we really be better off without it? Both Dawkins and Harris accuse religious parents of something tantamount to child abuse for indoctrinating them into the Christian faith.

And so on radio, TV, in symposiums and mass rallies the non-religious faithful have taken up the cause. Of course, if you listen closely what you'll discover is a straw-man. It's not your normal church or mosque goer, it's something akin to Fred Phelps or Osama Bin Laden.

This week's edition of Sightings, an on-line newsletter from the Martin Marty Center wrestles with the challenge. Philip Hefner's article is entitled: "Going Beyond Belief" It concerns a symposium held at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies in La Jolla.

A number of the most articulate anti-religious self-proclaimed atheists were among the stellar group of scientists assembled there. Physics Nobelist Steven Weinberg spoke of religion as a "crazy old aunt, who tells lies and stirs up mischief," but whom he will nevertheless miss when she is gone. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins confessed that he is "fed up" with the tendency to respect religion, especially by secularists. A number of their peers took strong exception to the anti-religion message, including biologists Joan Roughgarden and Francisco Ayala. Anthropologist Melvin Konner asked sarcastically, "Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"

The New Scientist report spoke of the "fervour of a revivalist meeting ... [with] no hallelujahs, gospel songs or swooning, but plenty of preaching, mostly to the converted, and much spontaneous applause for exhortations to follow the path of righteousness. And right there at the forefront of everyone's thoughts was God."

Hefner doesn't reject the critque out of hand, but instead gives some helpful responses that can help the church/religious community be true to its faith principles and not send the scientific community into a tizzy. There is another possible response, and that is for the religious community to recognize the contributions of science and say no to the anti-intellectualism that pushes so many away. One way of doing this is to celebrate Evolution Sunday on February 11th.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Judge Roy Moore judges Keith Ellison unfit to serve

Keith Ellison (D-MN) was elected as the first Muslim to serve in Congress. I've already made some comments about this and responded to the silliness of Dennis Prager. Now comes a blast from that defender of the Constitution -- Judge Roy Moore. You might know him from his days on the Alabama Supreme Court and his demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in the court room. He lost his job when he refused to remove a marble monument to the Commandments.

So, what does he have to say about Keith Ellison? The headline of his column at WorldNetDaily says it all:

"Muslim Ellison should not sit in Congress." Why is this? Well, "can a true believer in the Islamic doctrine found in the Quran swear allegiance to our Constitution? Those who profess a sincere belief in Allah say 'no'!" I'm not sure where Judge Moore got his information, but Mr. Ellison has served ably in the Minnesota legislature and has a law degree, and apparently his district didn't think him unfit or unwilling to abide by the US Constitution.

So, I think it's time to say no to the silliness of Moore and his ilk who believe that one can't be a Muslim and a law abiding, freedom loving, American. But then, in Moore's mind were at war with Islamic terrorists, and most assuredly Ellison must be one, because he wants to swear his oath on the Koran instead of the Bible of America's God!

I think I'd be more afraid of Moore than Ellison serving in Congress.

Religion in the Military

There is much controversy over a Campus Crusade related Video for the Christian Embassy, a ministry to political and military elite. Melissa Rogers's blog has been highlighting this growing controversy. But today she offers a chart that shows that 40% of Active Military personnel are evangelical, though only 14% of Americans are evangelical. At the same time 60% of chaplains are evangelical.

What are some of the explanations? The post doesn't postulate, but I guess there could be a few easy explanations. Is it possible that a large percentage of military personnel come from the South? Baptists are big down there. A sizable number of personnel are African-American, and most Black churches would fall under that same purview. Military personnel tend to be Republican, and evangelicals are a significant block in that group. Interesting statistics, but perhaps not surprising. Besides Jewish groups and Mainline Protestants tend to be more ambivalent about such things as war and military.

Are We Ready?

Barak Obama could be the first African-American President (he's more specifically Kenyan-American). There are many questions about whether the nation is ready for such a bold step. I mean, we're only a century and a half beyond slavery! Then there's his name, which kind of sounds Arabic. A right winger called him recently Osama Obama. I'm sure people will have a field day with that, especially since we're in a clash of cultures -- but Barak Obama isn't Muslim, he's Christian (United Church of Christ). So, as has been reported, Obama is seeking to make the case that the nation is ready for such a big change.

But Obama isn't the only one who could be a first. There is also the possibility that Hillary Clinton could be the first woman President. Now that would be a major change, wouldn't it. Of course Pakistan, Bangladesh, Britain, Germany, Israel, and India, among others have already beat us to that cross-roads.

Then of course, there's Mitt Romney. Are we ready for a Mormon President?

My, 2008 might be a very interesting election year!

GOP and Gays -- Is there room in the Inn?

I've been following with some interest the travails of Mitt Romney and the gay rights issue. Romney, being a member of the LDS Church (Mormons), wants to be President and with Conservative Evangelicals making up a sizable and vocal voting block within the GOP he has to show his conservative social credentials if he hopes to win them over to his campaign. Thus, gay rights is a key issue, and as the former governor of a liberal New England state that allows gay marriage, he must show himself to be truly "red state" savvy.

Well he has come out strongly in recent days against gay marriage and has decried the Massachusetts's' Supreme Court decision to allow them in that state. The only problem is that in 1994, in a senatorial campaign against Ted Kennedy he sought out the gay vote and in 2002 his supporters distributed fliers at a Gay Pride parade in Boston offering his support. So, which side is he on? That's what the SBC and Focus on the Family want to know. Are you with us or against us.

Thus, we're at a point where don't ask, don't tell is no longer possible. Oh, it was easier when people lived in the closet, but now the closet is becoming more and more transparent.

The times, they are a changing!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Rapture Exposed

The following is a review of Barbara Rossing's The Rapture Exposed, which appeared in an issue of Sharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. In the light of the release of the Left Behind Game, I thought it might be helpful to consider Rossing's important book.

Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, (Basic Books, 2004), $15.

The best-selling Left Behind series has put Christian fiction on the map and has heightened interest in end times scenarios. But, do these books provide a good reading of Scripture or offer a truly Christian world view? Barbara Rossing, Professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology, says absolutely not.

Rossing’s book critiques the dispensationalism that underlies this series and similar books, while at the same time offering a different and more biblical view of our future. The dispensationalism of Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, and Pat Robertson appears at first glance almost scientific in the way it arranges biblical texts so that reader of Scripture can interpret world events through the lenses of Scripture. For those who find Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation unintelligible dispensationalism seems to make sense of seemingly bizarre texts. LaHaye’s books then makes it even more real through dramatic presentation.

The linchpin of dispensationalism is the rapture – I remember as a teen having “rapture practice,” and wondering when it would happen (Hal Lindsey led me to believe it would be around 1988). The idea of the rapture, which, as Rossing argues convincingly, is not a biblical term, suggests that Jesus will return at the end of the age to take up (rapture) all Christians prior to the “tribulation” and “Armageddon.” It offers Christians the promise that they will be spared the horrors of the tribulation and bloody world war that non-Christians will endure.

What is important about Rossing’s book is that she demonstrates clearly that this theology is not only not biblical but it does not ring true to the character and nature of God. Instead of a God of love, the God of “Left Behind” is a God of vengeance, who wreaks havoc on all who do not obey. She leads the reader through the disputed texts and offers a more coherent and “peaceful” vision of the Bible. In place of LaHaye’s vision of wrath, she offers a vision of hope. In place of the Lion, she points us to the Lamb of God who brings peace and safety.

Instead of offering a “prophetic vision” of the 21st century, Revelation offers hope to 1st century Christians facing horrible persecution from a militant Roman government that demanded total allegiance. The victory promised by the Lamb of Revelation is not the result of military action, but of a willingness to lay down one’s life for the other. Instead of leaving people behind, it promises the reign of Christ on earth, a reign that brings peace and justice for all. That is a message that we need to hear, especially as we watch Iraq ravaged by human induced violence and New Orleans and Biloxi ravaged by nature.

Rossing’s very readable book offers a broken world a strong word of hope and reminds us that the way we read the Bible can influence political action – such as an uncritical support for Israel in the hope that an intransigent Israel will trigger war, questionable environmental and economic policies (why plan for the future if the future is short), and support for unbounded militarism (the tools of Armageddon). It is also easy to read into Revelation one’s favorite enemies, whether they are the Roman Catholic Church, the “Communists,” or Muslims. With so much at stake, Rossing makes an important read.

Robert Cornwall, Ph.D., APC
First Christian Church
Lompoc, CA

Gay and Evangelical -- A Dilemma

With the outing of Paul Barnes, former pastor of the Denver area Grace Chapel, following so closely on the heals of Ted Haggard's fall, the question seems to be who's next? The question is: can you be evangelical and gay? The answer on the part of most evangelicals is no, but that doesn't mean there aren't significant numbers of gays who consider themselves to be evangelicals.

Well, this morning in the NY Times there is an interesting article that focuses on just this question. The article shares the dilemma that self-described gay evangelicals feel as they look for a community that will accept them as who they are and yet are sufficiently evangelical in their theology:

But even when they accept themselves, gay evangelicals often have difficulty finding a community. They are too Christian for many gay people, with the evangelical rock they listen to and their talk of loving God. Mr. Lee plans to remain sexually abstinent until he is in a long-term, religiously blessed relationship, which would make him a curiosity in straight and gay circles alike.

Gay evangelicals seldom find churches that fit. Congregations and denominations that are open to gay people are often too liberal theologically for evangelicals. Yet those congregations whose preaching is familiar do not welcome gay members, those evangelicals said.

You'll have to register to read it, but there's no cost and I think you'll find it rewarding!

Monday, December 11, 2006

More on the Paul Barnes story

A fuller report on the Paul Barnes story appears in the Denver Post. In that report we learn that Barnes was a soft-spoken Dallas Seminary graduate who largely stayed out of politics -- unlike his more famous fellow pastor Ted Haggard. This included the recent Prop 43.

From the article the pastor confessed that he'd had infrequent liaisons, none recently.

As for his views of homosexuality, he doesn't believe they're inborn -- but rather they're environmental. I expect we'll learn more as the days go on.

Another Pastor Falls

I just caught wind of this story from Andrew Sullivan's blog. Apparently, as is being reported in the local Englewood, CO paper, D. Paul Barnes, pastor of the 2000 plus member Grace Chapel, has resigned for sexual misconduct. More specifically, for engaging in a homosexual relationship. I don't know anything about him and he doesn't have the exposure of Ted Haggard, but this underlines the need to have an honest and open conversation.

The article quotes Barnes, who had pastored the church for 28 years, as saying:

“I have struggled with homosexuality since I was a 5-year-old boy,” Barnes,
54, said in the videotaped message. “... I can’t tell you the number of nights I
have cried myself to sleep, begging God to take this away.”

Again, it's time to have this conversation before we hear of more revelations. Since I know little about him, I don't know his stand on homosexuality. That he is married and has struggled with homosexual impulses since childhood suggests that his theology made it difficult to be open about who he is. I'm sure more will come out as the days go by. So, I guess I'll recommend reading my SoMA Review essay on Ted Haggard.

A Generous Orthodoxy -- a Mid point review

I think I've read enough of Brian McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy, (Zondevan 2004), to give a sense of where I think he's going.

McLaren's "Generous Orthodoxy" is post-modern eclectisicm. Now some people might find this to be a negative, but I actually like this direction. Perhaps that's because I too am a bit of an eclectic thinker. My roots are in the Episcopal Church, but I spent nearly six years hanging around Foursquare Churches. I've been part of Presbyterian and Baptist churches, and I'm of course an ordained Disciples of Christ pastor. I expect that something from all these experiences has influenced my life and my thinking. Add to that the fact that I have two degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary, which is the largest multi-denominational seminary in the world. Note that I used the word "multi-denominational" and not "non-denominational." Non-denominational is carries an anti-denominational connotation, and Fuller isn't anti-denominational, it just welcomes people from across the spectrum, though the tenor is evangelical Protestant.

I've finished chapter 9, which is entitled: "Why I Am Mystical/Poetic. I think that this chapter is quite revealing, because it gives a sense of McLaren's starting point. He admits, with almost a degree of pride, that he has no formal theological training. You can tell at points! Instead, his academic training is in Literature, and you can tell he's at home in this world. Though not to the degree that Marcus Borg adopts the metaphorical starting point, McLaren nonetheless finds the road forward going through poetry, mysticism, and metaphor.

Thinking of the challenges posed by defenders of Enlightenment rationalism, such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, it's interesting that McLaren's emergent Christianity transcends rationalism and embraces mystery. Historical proof won't get the job done, some sense of experience of the divine is necessary. From G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, McLaren offers this intriguing statement:

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity
is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess players do.

Poetry, Chesterton suggests, "is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion" (p. 165). In the discerning of theological propositions, there is also great mental exhaustion, because it seeks to reduce the mysteries of God to bite size morsels!

My thoughts so far is that McLaren is an interesting conversation partner. As I read elsewhere, he is definitely a provocateur. He's not looking to provide all the answers, but he wants people, especially evangelicals, to rethink their faith professions. More will come as I digest the book.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Heroes with Feet of Clay

Clint Eastwood's movie, Flags of our Fathers, which is based on a book by James Bradley, highlights the complexity of war and its effects on the soldiers who fight it. The book and the movie, for those who don't know, tells the story of the six Marines (actually one is a Navy corpsman) who raise the flag on Mt. Surabachi. It is actually a very good movie and worth seeing.

I took the image of the hero in the movie and hopefully raised questions about how we treat and understand our own young men and women who are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. I read recently that there have been very few medals given during this conflict -- only 2 Medal of Honor winners. Perhaps we're my cynical these days and heroes aren't part of our world view.

In any case, take a look at what I've written in my Faith in the Public Square column this week for the Lompoc Record.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Jimmy Carter and the Palestinians

Jimmy Carter has a new book out on the Palestinian situation -- Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. It has been both praised and condemned. Opponents and critics raise the specter of Carter being out of touch, loony, anti-American, anti-Semitic, the worst President ever (GW is making a good run at that title). Carter has been since leaving office a thorn in the side of American presidents, Republican or Democrat. He's his own man and has gone where most ex-presidents never go. He is definitely a gadfly, but much good has come of his work.

The current debate focuses on the use of the word apartheid. Though Carter insists that he is not speaking of Israel proper, he does believe, and I think rightly so, that current Israeli policy in the occupied territories is apartheid like. A wall is being built that snakes through Palestinian territory, Palestinian movement within the West Bank and Gaza is controlled by the Israelis, Palestinian trade is controlled by the Israelis. Whatever word you use for it, the Palestinians live under the thumb of the Israelis. Jewish settlements in the West Bank threaten the viability of a self-governing Palestinian state as well.

Carter defends his book in an LA Times op-ed piece. There he says:

"The ultimate purpose of my book is to present facts about the Middle East that are largely unknown in America, to precipitate discussion and to help restart peace talks (now absent for six years) that can lead to permanent peace for Israel and its neighbors. Another hope is that Jews and other Americans who share this same goal might be motivated to express their views, even publicly, and perhaps in concert. I would be glad to help with that effort."

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, writes in support of Carter's efforts, pointing out that Carter has been the one US President who has actually delivered for Israel. It may be a minority voice within the American Jewish community, but it proves to be a challenge to those like Alan Dershowitz who consistently charge critics of Israeli policy with being anti-Semitic. Here are the concluding paragraphs of Lerner's response, which are worth considering.

"Jimmy Carter is speaking the truth as he knows it, and doing a great service to the Jews.

"Unfortunately, this peace is impeded by the powerful voices of AIPAC and the mainstream of the organized Jewish community, who manage to terrify even the most liberal elected officials into blind support of whatever policy the current government of Israel advocates. Ironically, this blind support has had the consequence of pushing many morally sensitive Christians and
Jews to distance themselves from the Jewish world, which makes blind support for Israeli policies the litmus test of anti-Semitism. Younger Jews cannot safely express criticisms of Israeli policy without being told that they are disloyal or “self-hating,” and elected officials tell me privately that they agree with Tikkun’s more balanced “progressive Middle Path” which is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. But we’ve found that even Jews in the mainstream media have
ignored or condemned our new organization, The Network of Spiritual Progressives, which is, among other things, trying to be an interfaith alternative to AIPAC.

"It’s time to create a new openness to criticism and a new debate. Jimmy Carter has shown courage in trying to open that kind of space with his new book, and he deserves our warm thanks and support. "

I am one who, like Lerner, wishes to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. It's a difficult path to walk, and few in the American political scene have been willing to walk it with any consistency. But as the Iraq Study Group report notes, peace in the Middle East requires a resolution to this conflict. That is my prayer and my hope!