Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Public Prayer and the Name of Jesus

I'll start by saying that I've never taken the opportunity to pray for a government function; in fact, I'm not totally comfortable with the idea in the first place. I've always wanted to preface my prayers, by asking the gathered leaders whether they will actually be listening for God's direction? That said, I have prayed at numerous interfaith gatherings -- so I have some experience in public prayer when others that are not Christians are present.

The question that always arises when one prays on such occasions is how one should frame a public prayer -- that is, when you pray in a public setting do you see yourself offering a blessing on behalf of God as you see God, or are you carrying the prayers of all the people to the divine?

This issue will likely emerge once again when the already heavily criticized Rick Warren takes the podium and offers his invocation at the Barack Obama inauguration. The critics are already after him, believing that Warren's likely use of the phrase "In the Name of Jesus" should disqualify him. Now the invocators/benedictors at the GW Bush inauguration used just such a phrase and it raised the hackles of many. The response is that when one prays in public, one should pray as one always prays, in accord with one's religious views.

As a sidebar to this discussion, I want to first say to those who are clamoring for a rescinding of this invitation -- don't get your hopes up. It ain't going to happen!!! If he were to comply he would not only show weakness, he would likely inflame the passions of others. As to the use of the phrase, "in the name of Jesus," I think we must first give Rick Warren the benefit of the doubt that he will pray in a way that recognizes the nature of the event. Maybe he won't, maybe he will. We won't know until January 20th.

Now, as to the prayer. I've taken the view that when you are praying in a public setting like this, you are leading prayer. Thus, you need to be cognizant of everyone present. That means that you should give your prayer in a way that would allow everyone present to give their affirmation, their Amen. If you're Jewish or Muslim, and I pray in the name of Jesus you will find it difficult to give your Amen.

I know that even here there will be those unable to participate, but I think you have to be as broad as possible in your appeal. At least that's how I'd do it.

The Plight of Palestinian Christians -- who know no peace

As we ponder this ongoing battle between Israel and Hamas, one that seems to be headed toward a lengthy foray that will likely do nothing more than further radicalize the Palestinians, make martyrs of Hamas and further undermine the security of the Israelis. As we American Christians contemplate this situation in the Middle East we often forget that this isn't just a Jewish-Muslim issue. There has been a small but significant Christian presence in Palestine for centuries, one that goes back to the earliest days of the Church. Today it takes a number of visages, from Orthodox to Catholic to Protestant. These are the people who worship in the historic churches of the region. But the ongoing conflicts, especially as a result of the ever tightening grip of the Israeli occupation, have led to a continued exodus of Palestinian Christians out of the region. Many of them live in the Metro-Detroit area.

Julie Schumacher Cohen, a Christian and daughter of Jewish Israeli converts to Christianity, and a staff member of Churches for Middle East Peace, writes in a Sojourner's God's Politics essay about her own enlightenment as to the plight of these Christians, who know not peace in their own homeland.

She writes:

Palestinian Christians, particularly Dr. [Bernard] Sabella, have provided me with a special window into the Palestinian experience and the search for Holy Land peace. A small, forgotten community enmeshed in what is often viewed as a Jewish-Muslim conflict, Palestinian Christians play a critical role in maintaining a pluralistic Palestinian society and in contributing to Palestinian peacemaking efforts. However, Christians are leaving the Holy Land at an alarming rate, caught in the violence, political upheaval, economic hardship, religious extremism and social decay that are the bitter mill of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Senators Kit Bond (R-MO) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said in a Christmas letter to President Bush a year ago, “If this trend does not change, the sacred sites of Christianity will soon be reduced to museums for visiting tourists — and Jerusalem, with its universal and sacred importance, will cease to be the home of three living faith communities.”

Timothy Weber notes in his book On the Road to Armageddon that America's dispensationalist Christians have shown virtually no interest in the Palestinian Christian community. These are the "'living stones' that cry out a continuous Christian testimony throughout the centuries but now face near dissolution due to a massive Christian exodus from the middle east" (pp. 246-247).

Why are American dispensationalists so neglectful of their Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters? One reason is that American evangelicals do not seem to have much in common with them. Most Palestinian Christians belong to one of the Eastern Orthodox families -- Greek, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, and even Russion. Roughly one-third of Palestinian Christians are Roman Catholic (called Latin Catholic in the Middle East). The uniate churches, the Marionites and Melkites, recognize Roman primacy but retain their own distinctive Eastern rites. In the minority are Protestant Christians of various kinds, Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, and other independent evangelicals. Thus, American dispensationalists would find only a small number of Palestinian Christians whose style and beliefs are similar to theirs. As a general rule, American evangelicals do not engage in ecumenical enterprises. Therefore, they steer clear of the Middle East Councile of Churches, which attempts to speak with a united Christian voice in a conflicted and dangerous context" (Timothy Weber, On the Road to Armageddon, Baker Books, 2004, p. 247).

Weber notes that even Palestinian evangelicals would not find much in common with their American siblings. Indeed, Palestinian Christians are befuddled as American Christians come and treat their holy sites as museum pieces rather than living communities of faith.

It is important that we who are Christians see the full picture, and recognize that we have brothers and sisters in Christ living under great duress in this region. Their voice is crying out to us, hoping that we will hear it.

Ghost Town -- DVD Review

Last night we watched the recently released DVD of Ghost Town, a film starring Ricky Gervais as a prickly, a-social dentist, named Bertram Pincus, who has a near death experience, one that allows him to see ghosts -- including a recently deceased philanderer named Frank, played by Greg Kinnear. The ghosts discover he can see them, and they decide they need him to run some errands for them. Kinnear wants Dr. Pincus to break up his wife's engagement, but Pincus will resist the request -- he doesn't like people after all -- but ultimately gives in, and falls in love with Gwen, played by Tea Leoni.

Don't let the title fool you, this is a comedy and not an episode of Ghost Whisperer. It is a comedy, but it does have a little message tucked inside. It's a movie about relationships, about letting go when death takes a loved one, about moving on with life, and about overcoming our reticience to make friends.

Here is a trailer for the movie from IMDb --

If you want to see a really funny, but thoughtful movie about real life (among adults), check it out!

Ducks Rule

I may be in Michigan, but I can root for my Oregon Ducks anywhere.

Last night I got to watch the second half of the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. It was a most entertaining, hard hitting, free flowing football game between #13 Oklahoma State and #17 Oregon. When I turned on the game, it was half time and the Ducks were behind 17-7. Not a good omen, but the Ducks returned the opening kickoff to within the 5 yard line, and from there took it in on a quarterback sneak. That was the first of three Jeremiah Masoli rushing touchdowns.

Last year, the Ducks ran out to a #2 ranking in the nation behind the running and passing of Dennis Dixon. When Dixon went down the Ducks were left without an experienced play caller who could run a system designed for Dixon. That meant that their season kind of collapsed. But this year they ended up #2 in the conference and finished with a 10-3 record. Not bad for a rebuilding year, with a junior college transfer, who started out #3 on the depth chart, at the helm.

Last night Masoli ran for 106 yards and 3 touchdowns, and passed for 258 with 1 touchdown. Jeremiah Johnson, a senior tailback added over 100 yards in his final game as Duck.

Oh, and the Pac-10 is 3-0 so far in bowl games.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On the Road to Armageddon -- Review

ON THE ROAD TO ARMAGEDDON: How Evangelical’s became Israel’s Best Friend. By Timothy P. Weber. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004. 336 pp.

Years ago, as a teenager, I came across Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth. This was at the early stages of my spiritual explorations, explorations that led me to leave the Episcopal Church for what I thought was a more biblically-sound church. I took Lindsey’s book, and others like it, very seriously. I didn’t know anything about dispensationalism at the time, so I just assumed that Lindsey’s interpretation was the proper one. To me, the biblical message seemed clear: Jesus was coming soon, and the establishment of Israel as a nation in 1948 was a prominent precursor of his coming to judge the “quick and the dead” (to use an old Episcopal saying). Now, this was 1973 or 1974, not long after Israel had expanded its borders (1967) and defended these new borders (1973). According to what I read in the book, the rapture was supposed to occur within the generation that followed the reestablishment of Israel – as the prophets had foretold. According to Lindsey’s interpretation, a generation was around 40 years. That meant that the end should come sometime around 1988. As you can see, I’m still here, as is Hal Lindsey. If I missed the rapture, then so did he, along with Tim LaHaye, John Hagee, and other dispensationalist preachers.

I could be flippant about dispensationalism, and its claims, but it’s a deadly serious issue. Dispensationalism may not be an ancient form of biblical interpretation, but it has many adherents, and in recent years has gained influence at the highest levels of American government. dispensationalists have, as Timothy Weber contends, become the state of Israel’s best friend. No group, not even the American Jewish community, is as adamant about supporting Israel – right or wrong – as the growing numbers of dispensationalists and Christian Zionists.

On the Road to Armageddon was published in 2004, so this isn’t a review of a recently published book. Indeed, I picked up on the discount rack at the Baker Book House store in Grand Rapids. I had read Weber’s earlier treatise on this subject, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming, (Oxford University Press, 1979; rev. edition Zondervan, 1983), years ago, and so I knew him to be an excellent historian as well as a person of deep faith. He is a critic who is also an evangelical.

I believe that On the Road to Armageddon is necessary reading at this very moment in history. It is readable, scholarly, and informative as to the nature and aims of the dispensationalist movement in America, from its beginnings to the present (as of 2004, that is). Reading it will help us better understand the nature of dispensationalism, and its current interpreters and populizers. He introduces the reader to the context in which books like Late Great Planet Earth and the best selling Left Behind series of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins emerged.

Weber is a historian, and it’s as a historian that he tells the story of dispensationalism, from its origins in 19th century British evangelicalism to the present. The lead character in the early part of the story is John Nelson Darby, who brought into being a new form of millennialism, one that offered a very detailed reading of the future through a system of biblical interpretation. It was premillennial, in an age dominated by postmillennial thinking, which made it pessimistic in an optimistic age. It was born at a time when prophetic movements were in some disrepute – consider the failure of William Miller to accurately predict the coming of Jesus in the 1830s and 40s. Darby had been a Church of Ireland (Anglican) priest who turned to the Plymouth Brethren. There he found a reading of scripture that made sense of prophetic passages that appeared to need fulfillment in the future. Among the theological inventions of Darby was the pretribulation rapture of the church. Darby’s ideas would later be taken up by C. I. Scofield, whose study bible would revolutionize conservative evangelicalism.

Dispensationalism, as a system, Weber suggests, assumes that the Bible is “‘progressive revelation’ through which people could understand the flow and development of God’s ways in the wold over time” (p. 20). One of the important contributions of this book is the way in which Weber lays out dispensationalism as a system. Consider:

“As an exercise in biblical interpretation, dispensationalism sought to present the complexities and apparent contradictions of biblical revelation as a coherent and consistent system. By dividing history into distinctive eras, dispensationalists hoped to understand why the divine-human encounter kept moving in new directions. In short, dispensationalism was an intricate system that tried to explain the stages in God’s redemptive plan for the universe” (p. 20).

This system made much of the prophetic literature, interpreting it in highly predictive and futurist ways. The book of Daniel and the book of Revelation figure prominently, as well as books such as Ezekiel. In their minds, much of this prophetic word has yet to be fulfilled, and that it points to Jesus’ second coming to judge the world and rule. It assumes that God has two plans for humanity, one involving the Jews and the other the Gentiles. The church is the means by which God will reach the Gentiles (and some Jews), but the assumption is that while Israel will eventually accept Jesus as Messiah, that won’t happen until after they go through a horrifying time of tribulation – one that will make Hitler’s holocaust look like child’s play.

The book begins with the history of dispensationalism’s arrival and reception in America (chapter 1), and then moves on to explain its “practical logic” (chapter 2). This is an important chapter because it explains why a pessimistic form of premillennialism, one assumes that the future is written, and that Armageddon is in our future, can at the same time involve themselves in movements social reform and foreign missions. The days may be drawing to a close, but in the meantime, the church can make the devil’s life difficult. It is especially in the area of missions that dispensationalists have been influential. Many of the key leaders in the mission movement at the turn of the 20th century, including Robert Speer, A.T. Pierson, and A.B. Simpson were committed dispensationalists. Dispensationalists were also strongly involved in the creation of the faith mission movement. The world may be perishing, but the word can still be preached.

With its futurist focus, dispensationalists look to the Bible for a roadmap of God’s activity. As they read this text in a dispensationalist fashion, some took a passive approach. They simply waited and watched to see what God might do – you can’t change it, so just watch. Others, however, took a much more active role in pushing the events of the future forward. They watched the signs of the times, and found encouragement (if you can say that) in world events – such as World War I, which seemed to fit well their paradigm. They also were looking for evidence that the Jewish people might return home and reestablish a state and rebuild the Temple. This is where the story gets really interesting, and it’s the story hinted at in the title. That is, the role Israel and the Jews play in this scenario.

For dispensationalists, the Jews are and remain God’s chosen people. They may be experiencing God’s judgment (there is, as Weber notes, a variety of understandings of Israel’s post-70 AD history), but they are the keys to the system. The Jews must return and rebuild their Temple if Jesus is to return. They were hoping for the restoration of Israel long before Zionism was born in the 1890s, but until early in the 20th century, there were very few signs that this was in the offing. There was a small Jewish population in Palestine, but it was ruled by the Ottomans and there was little movement toward resettling there by Europe’s Jews, who were either trying to assimilate or survive by keeping separate from the broader society. Weber does a nice job of introducing us to Zionism, which was and is a movement that gave hope to dispensationalists. While many simply sat back and watched to see what would happen, others sought to influence the process. William Blackstone, for instance, worked hard to help Jews return to Palestine. These early efforts were aided by the Balfour Declaration and the fall of Jerusalem to the British. The British promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine, and they now had the means to bring that to fruition. Unsurprisingly this wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm by the Arabs – both Christian and Muslim – living in the region. But for dispensationalists, this was an answer to prayer. This fit their system.

Although the Jews and Israel figure prominently in the dispensationalist scheme, there is a mixture of views held by them toward Jews themselves. Although, dispensationalists might be Israel’s best friends, that’s not necessarily true of the Jews themselves. In earlier days, many held views that were influenced by anti-Semitism, including the conspiracy theories spun off by the infamous The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Some saw the Jews as standing under judgment for their rejection of Jesus – the idea of Jewish blood guilt. There was also the issue of conversion. Although they believed that surviving Jews would come to faith as a result of the Tribulation, many thought it appropriate to convert as many Jews as possible beforehand. As Weber lays out the issue, we discover that this is a very complicated picture. They “showed their support for Jews by affirming Zionist aspirations and telling them about Jesus, their true Messiah” (p. 127). The dark side to all of this was the ambivalence that dispensationalists showed to Jews themselves.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to exploring the interaction between dispensationalists and the Israelis, how they became supporters and enablers. It is in the 1980s, as conservative Christians began to move out of their previous political passivism and into active participation, they took on the role of advocate for Israel. Figures such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson actively sought out Israeli leaders, and the Israeli’s returned the favor. This was an era in which tour groups were set up to bring in dispensationalists to tour the country, meet and greet, and learn more about dispensationalism – on the ground. Weber makes it clear that these tours steered clear of the Palestinian Christian community, and by and large the dispensationalists had little concern for their Palestinian brothers and sisters. They essentially didn’t count in the prophetic scheme of things. While the Palestinian Christians may have been pushed aside, they were all too eager to encourage, support, and promote the immigration of Jews from Russia and Ethiopia and settling them in the West Bank – which they called Judea and Samaria. All number of institutions were born to sustain this relationship, and it benefitted the Israeli’s politically. At the same time, the growing ambivalence toward the Israeli state on the part of Mainline Protestants gave them greater access to important political figures.

Dispensationalists not only gave their political support to Israel, but many of them became increasingly eager to help things along. That is, rather than passively waiting to see what would happen, they began to encourage and support efforts that might get the ball rolling. Much of this centers around efforts to rebuild a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount. Dispensationalists have been involved at many levels in this regard. Some have simply engaged in and supported archeological efforts to find the location of the original Temple. Others have winked at or encouraged the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, which stands on top of the most likely sight of the Temple (though some have suggested alternative spots where a Temple could be built without destroying the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock). Still others have supported and encouraged the creation of Temple implements, and perhaps most interestingly, have been involved in producing a pure red heifer, which according to some will signal the end. Apparently the ashes of a red heifer are needed to purify those who would go to the Temple Mount and then rebuild the Temple.

The future of the Middle East is at stake. There are elements within Jewish society and the Christian community that would push events to the edge. Any of these efforts would likely inflame an already inflamed situation, especially if someone blew up the Dome of the Rock. If we are to understand and act responsibly, then we need to know the whole story. If we’re to turn to Scripture, then we must interpret it wisely and responsibly. Timothy Weber offers us a most important guide. As he was writing this, George Bush had been just reelected President. We are now at a very similar place, but with a new administration about to take the helm. Now is the time to read this book.

A Call for a Ceasefire

I have been writing with deep concern about the escalating violence in Gaza. The death toll has risen well past 300. Gaza is a small, tightly packed area, so even if the Israeli's are not targeting noncombatants, the likelihood of collateral damage is large. There is strong evidence that the Israeli's are preparing to enter Gaza with ground forces. This will likely increase the numbers of civilians killed, including women and children.

I received an email today from Churches for Middle East Peace calling on American Christians to urge our leaders to push Israel to stand down, while insisting that Hamas do the same. I have already signed the letter the organization has prepared to send to President-Elect Barack Obama calling for him to make the peace process a priority. That has become even more imperative at this time, considering the situation we find ourselves in.



CMEP Calls on President Bush to

Work for a Renewed Ceasefire in Gaza

~December 29, 2008~

December 29, 2008

The Honorable George W. Bush

President of the United States

The White House

Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

During your presidency, we have often written to you, both recognizing the important steps you have taken to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and asking you to do more to achieve peace. As representatives of twenty-two U.S. national churches and church organizations we write today with an unprecedented sense of urgency and foreboding because of the current Gaza violence.

As people of faith, we care deeply about the welfare of both Israelis and Palestinians and deplore the violent deaths of those caught in this conflict. We reject all justifications for the unconscionable Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into Israel. We similarly reject the Israeli response as disproportionate and believe that it is likely to strengthen extremists and undermine moderates in the region. While we appreciate Secretary Rice’s statement of December 27 calling for an immediate cease-fire, there must now be prompt action by your Administration to help bring about an end to the violence.

It is not enough for the United States to urge “Israel to avoid civilian targets,” particularly in light of Israel’s stated intention to continue, expand, and intensify its current offensive. If this spiraling violence continues, both Palestinians and Israelis will suffer and the risk of a broader confrontation will increase. There can be no military solution to this conflict. Only a political solution will bring a durable peace to both Palestinians and Israelis.

In addition to the escalating hostilities, the continued closure of Gaza with the cutoff or delay of vital food, fuel, electricity and adequate access to medical attention for the residents of Gaza must be addressed quickly and responsibly. We are confident that U.S. engagement, together with international partners including Egypt, can help restore the cease-fire, end the border blockade, and establish real security at Gaza’s borders.

We recognize that while the immediate renewal of a ceasefire in Gaza and southern Israel is essential, in the long-term only the realization of a just and lasting two-state solution can provide a secure and prosperous future for all the people of the Holy Land. That is the vision of peace you began with the Road Map and continued at Annapolis over a year ago to which we continue to be committed.

Our prayers are with you as well as with all those Palestinians and Israelis who are suffering, living in fear or have lost loved ones in this difficult time.


Warren Clark Maureen Shea

Executive Director Chair, Executive Committee

Churches for Middle East Peace Churches for Middle East Peace

CMEP Home CMEP Members E-mail Alerts Government Contacts CMEP Letters Statements

~ Churches for Middle East Peace -- 110 Maryland Ave., NE #311 - Washington, DC - 20002 -- 1-202-543-1222 ~

Monday, December 29, 2008

Dispensational Readings of the Bible and the Current Conflict

I hope to post tomorrow a review of Timothy Weber's On the Road to Armageddon (Baker Academic, 2004). The book sets in context the growing conservative Christian support of Israel -- right or wrong. It also helps us understand why they oppose any efforts to partition Palestine.

In the conclusion to the book Weber writes:

For the dispensational community, the future is determined. The Bible's prophecies are being fulfilled with amazing accuracy and rapidity. They do not believe the road map will -- or should -- succeed. According to the prophetic texts, partitioning is not in Israel's future, eve if the creation of a Palestinian state is the best chance for peace in the region. Peace is nowhere prophesied for the Middle East until Jesus comes and brings it himself. The worst thing the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United States can do is force Israel to give up land for a peace that will never materialize this side of the second coming. Anyone who pushes for peace in such a manner is ignoring or defying God's plan for the end of the age. (p. 267).

Interestingly enough, though George W. Bush has much in common with this group, he has chosen to follow a different path. Oh, he's sided often with Israel against the Palestinians, but he's always given at least lip service to a two-state solution, something that is anathema to dispensationalists. We should not be encouraging Israel to make peace. Indeed, they need to subjugate the land so that the course of history can continue on as the Bible suggests.

Now I completely disagree with this interpretation. I believe it is wrong in many ways. It imposes on Scripture a system that is foreign to the text, but it's also dangerous to our future. It has the possibility of influencing American foreign policy in ways that are inappropriate, but many dispensationalists have made common cause with some of the most radical elements in Israeli society. They would love nothing more than to see the Dome of the Rock destroyed. That would, of course make it possible to restore the Temple to the Temple Mount, but it also would likely trigger a devastating war. Of course, they hope to be raptured first!

This is why it's important that we learn to read the Bible responsibly!

Violence isn't the Answer to Violence

For decades we have watched the cycle of violence be perpetuated in Israel/Palestine. One side does something, the other responds, and soon the thing escalates. Because of their greater military strength, Israel has often reacted in a disproportionate way. In this case Hamas or militants of some stripe in Gaza, launched rockets -- which they're not able to aim. Most land harmlessly. Israel, responds, with massive military strikes, which kill hundreds, some militants, but others being civilians, even children.

Will this bring peace? The answer is, it hasn't brought peace so far. In fact, it has only worsened the problem. It appears that this operation has been in planning stages for sometime, with the Israeli's looking for some kind of provocation. It's possible that they can destroy Hamas, but as long as the occupation continues, militancy will continue.

As I write this, more than 350 Palestinians have died and more than 1500 have been wounded. The Israeli's seem intent to continue this until they get the desired effect. How many more will die is unknown, but likely many more will die before this is over.

Whatever happens between the Israeli's and Palestinians, there is another issue to consider. That issue is American support and involvement. More specifically, elements in the Christian community, whose theology and interpretation of the Bible needs not only that Israel take complete control of what is now Israeli controlled regions, so as to fulfill biblical prophecies, but needs to push Israel into a conflagration that will lead to Armageddon. Of course, most dispensationalists believe that they'll be "raptured" ahead of time.

I will provide greater comment on the book as soon as I finish it, but I think that a close reading of Timothy Weber's 2004 book, On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend (Baker Books) is necessary reading. Weber goes into great detail as to how dispensationalists have pushed an agenda that will have disastrous results for everyone involved -- but then that's the point.

Whatever God's promise to Abraham regarding the land, it is a stretch to suggest that the current Israeli state is heir to that promise. Israel is a secular state that provides special privileges to its Jewish population. The question that we must ask is -- was God's covenant made with a state or with a people? I believe it is with the latter.

One does not have to like or agree with Hamas to be sympathetic to the Palestinian people. These are not animals that can be exterminated as was suggested by a commenter on my earlier post. These are human beings, just like me, people with hopes and dreams. So, I continue my prayers for peace.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

An Inappropriate Response

The news coming from Israel and Gaza is not good. A truce that had existed between Hamas and Israel ended recently without being renewed. Hamas began rocket attacks, though to this point only 1 person has been killed. Israel, as is often the case, has reacted with zealous militancy, launching air strikes that have killed more than 200, and injured more than 600 more. Some of these people are likely Hamas militants, but many others could be innocents.

As a Christian, I am cognizant of our history of oppression of Jews. This history makes it difficult to condemn the actions of Israel, when taken in self-defense. Still, as a Christian, I cannot, stand back and refrain from commenting on what is an inappropriate and disproportionate response to those attacks.

I pray that both sides will back down, and begin talking again. I also pray that the Israeli's will suspend their blockades that keeps food and supplies from reaching the Palestinians. The Israeli response has done little to protect them.

This is an ongoing situation, that has been festering now for decades. It is a situation that we need to push our leaders to resolve. It won't be easy, but it is a necessary effort. I realize that some of my Christian brothers and sisters believe that Israel can do no wrong and that their theologies require Israel to control the entire area of Palestine. My theology, however, doesn't require this. So, I will pray for peace, a lasting peace for all in the region.

In the Fullness of Time

In today's lectionary selections, we read this phrase: "In the Fullness of Time" (Gal. 4:4) I used this phrase in my reflection -- extemporaneous message, rather than sermon. I'm not a Calvinist/Augustinian who believes that God foreordains our life choices -- that is, our lives are written beforehand. I am a believer in freewill, a perspective that is in line, I believe with the Jewish roots of our faith. That said, I do believe that God is present and active in the world -- including our lives. Thus, it is appropriate to speak of God bringing things to pass providentially. My being here in Michigan is, I believe, God's desire. Oh, that doesn't mean there are no hardships or difficulties. There is waiting, but also expectancy. In Galatians 4 Paul that Jesus came into the world in the fullness of time -- because of this we are reborn as children of God, and thus heirs of God of God's promises.
The Gospel text today, Luke 2:21-40 describes the presentation of Jesus in the Temple and the responses of two older people -- Simeon and Anna. Both are prophets of God who have waited expectantly for the revelation of God's purpose. Now, in this baby, Luke says, they found that promise fulfilled. Simeon offers a blessing on the family (with a warning) and Anna speaks the good news (the evangel).

So, I share with you that word from Luke as it's presented in The Message (which is the text I chose to read from today).


Luke 2:21-40 (The Message)

21When the eighth day arrived, the day of circumcision, the child was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived.

22-24Then when the days stipulated by Moses for purification were complete, they took him up to Jerusalem to offer him to God as commanded in God's Law: "Every male who opens the womb shall be a holy offering to God," and also to sacrifice the "pair of doves or two young pigeons" prescribed in God's Law.

25-32In Jerusalem at the time, there was a man, Simeon by name, a good man, a man who lived in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel. And the Holy Spirit was on him. The Holy Spirit had shown him that he would see the Messiah of God before he died. Led by the Spirit, he entered the Temple. As the parents of the child Jesus brought him in to carry out the rituals of the Law, Simeon took him into his arms and blessed God:

God, you can now release your servant;
release me in peace as you promised.
With my own eyes I've seen your salvation;
it's now out in the open for everyone to see:
A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations,
and of glory for your people Israel.

33-35Jesus' father and mother were speechless with surprise at these words. Simeon went on to bless them, and said to Mary his mother,

This child marks both the failure and
the recovery of many in Israel,
A figure misunderstood and contradicted—
the pain of a sword-thrust through you—
But the rejection will force honesty,
as God reveals who they really are.

36-38Anna the prophetess was also there, a daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher. She was by now a very old woman. She had been married seven years and a widow for eighty-four. She never left the Temple area, worshiping night and day with her fastings and prayers. At the very time Simeon was praying, she showed up, broke into an anthem of praise to God, and talked about the child to all who were waiting expectantly for the freeing of Jerusalem.

39-40When they finished everything required by God in the Law, they returned to Galilee and their own town, Nazareth. There the child grew strong in body and wise in spirit. And the grace of God was on him.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World

I was surfing away, found my way to a Neil Young site that had linked my earlier post and discovered another site that had a Neil song under the Title: "My Kind of Church Music." It's a Unitarian Universalist blog -- UU Way of Life. There I found this YouTube edition of a really beautiful rendition of Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World sung/played by the late Hawaiian singer/ukulele player Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. Take a listen, you'll enjoy it.

Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology -- Review

CHALICE INTRODUCTION TO DISCIPLES THEOLOGY.   Edited by Peter Goodwin Heltzel. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008. X + 384 pp.

Disciples and theology, those are not words that usually go together. When Alexander Campbell founded Bethany College, he made sure that written into its charter was a ban on theological teachers, and we’ve been skittish about theology ever since. The Disciples are biblical people, who fear the creation of systems of theology, believing that systems become definitive and coercive. At least that’s the tale that’s often told among Disciples.

We’re a non-creedal people, who have the freedom to theologize for ourselves. Of course, even if we don’t have official theological statements, and while we’ve been averse to using the word theology, we have produced theological works, works that have marked our journey as we’ve progressed through the ages. Robert Milligan, Isaac Errett, William Robinson, and others have offered their take on Disciples theology, always mindful that they spoke for themselves and not for the movement as a whole. More recently Joe Jones and Clark Williamson, both of Christian Theological Seminary, have offered their own theological systems.

In this book, edited by Peter Goodwin Heltzel, a group of Disciples theologians, some well-known, others not so well-known, offer their take on the theological issues of the day, from the Trinity to salvation, from creation to mission. Some efforts are strong, while others aren’t as strong. There has been an attempt to bring a degree of balance to the book. The presentations run from the moderate middle to the more liberationist perspectives on the left. There are women’s voices, along with male voices. This is a multi-cultural effort, which includes not only American representatives, but representatives of the broader Disciples community from across the globe. Through it all, there is no official voice present.

The book is organized around five themes: 1) “The Task and Sources of Theology”; 2) “God in Creation”; 3) “The Church; 4) “Reconciliation”; and 5) “Mission.” Under these themes the essayists reflect on the many themes of theology. Sometimes the authors explicitly reflect upon the heritage and history of the denomination, seeking to put their own understandings in the context of the thought of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. Other essayists make no connection to this history. They simply reflect on the topic from a contemporary and personal perspective.

In a coauthored piece that opens section one, the broader context is set. This attempt at theological reflection is set in a global context. Although the Disciples were born on the American frontier, our context has broadened greatly. Ours is a postcolonial context, and our theologizing must take that into account. Thus, our conversations must be intercultural – as can be especially seen in the several essays that pick up on liberationist themes. From that broader context, the same group of writers tackle the more narrow confines of 21st Century Disciples theology, which they set in a paradigm laid out by Mark Toulouse in his book Joined in Discipleship (Chalice, 1997). Mark outlines several themes or principles, which are discussed here under the labels of restoration (apostolic), ecumenical, interpretive, mission, and eschatological themes. Having explored in brief these themes, the group concludes that the task of the theology today, for Disciples, “is to create space for all our members to dialogue together on the implications of the gospel of reconciliation in Jesus Christ” (p. 32). This conversation must be an open one, like table-talk, where we gather and share our thoughts about our journey in faith as Disciples. In essays that follow authors lift up the various sources of theology, including the Bible, Tradition, Reason, and Experience (Wesley’s Quadrilateral baptized in a Disciples way).

Several of the essays are quite interesting in that the path that they trod. For instance, Peter Goodwin Heltzel, the editor of the volume, reflects on the Trinity in an essay entitled “Singing the Trinity.” Heltzel takes a strong Trinitarian position, one that seems odd in the face of a Disciples equivocalness about the doctrine. For instance, while Alexander Campbell was strongly Trinitarian, he didn’t use the term because it wasn’t biblical. Barton Stone, on the other hand, was non-Trinitarian – more likely Arian than anything. Yet, these are two of our founders, and this theological ambiguity is part of our ethos. Then there is the juxtaposition of mission theologies. On one hand, we have the Congolese Disciple theologian and church leader Bosela Eale speak definitively of the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation – though distinctly African in its expression. Then, immediately following this important expression of the African Christianity, there is an essay by Caribbean Disciple Michael St. A. Miller, who speaks of the importance of placing the faith in a pluralistic context, one that recognizes the value of other religious perspectives. Whereas Bosela Eale takes an “inclusivist” position, Miller is definitely in the pluralist camp.

As with any book of this sort, there is an unevenness to the essays. Some are stronger than others. For instance, I was surprised by the inclusion of an essay by Dyron Daughrity on the Holy Spirit. Daughrity’s background appears to be Church of Christ, and the theologians he interacts with aren’t necessarily Disciple, but more likely coming out o the branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement. I was also surprised that in an otherwise excellent article on preaching by Kay Lynn Northcutt, that she made no reference to Fred Craddock, one the most important influences on 20th century preaching, and a life long Disciple. It is good that other voices, especially those of women and people of color, but some reference to Craddock should have been made.

As for those essays that I found especially helpful and relevant include one by Belva Jordan and Stephanie Paulsell on the Lord’s Supper. It explores in very brief compass Disciple theology and practice, while bring out the important spiritual dimensions of this central practice of our faith. I appreciate especially this defining statement:

“The power of the Lord’s supper is to create wholeness from brokenness; its power to create a new body cam be experienced on a global scale. It can also be experienced on a very local level, the level of the circumstances of our lives.” (p. 158).

I appreciate this statement because it reminds us that we not only come to the table to remember, we come to find wholeness and healing in a broken world.

The essay by father and daughter, Keith and Sharon Watkins, is another key piece. They speak of the church in sacramental terms – one that leads to human wholeness. They reflect on our historic commitment to unity, while highlighting its expression in an increasingly diverse community of faith. Reflecting on this witness and the choices that must be made they write:

“The hard choice that churches are called upon to make is whether to live in ways that are consistent with and subservient to contemporary culture, or to live in ways that proclaim and exhibit a way of life that conforms to the holy commonwealth that Jesus proclaimed. If the church is to be a sacrament of human wholeness, then the latter choice – difficult as it may be – is the one that must be taken.” (p. 142).

In this chapter our General Minister and President, together with her father, outline a way forward for the church, making this must reading for Disciples.

The entire final section of the book is important because it reminds us that while we were born on the American frontier we are not alone in the world. We have an important calling, one that as Michael Kinnamon reminds us, we’ve not always embraced. Kinnamon notes that while called to prophetic witness, we’ve not always, even regularly, lived up to that calling. From the very beginning leaders such as Alexander Campbell avoided the tough social issues of the day in the name of evangelism. We have had our share of important prophetic leaders, but as a whole, we have fallen short. Indeed, he writes: “The preeminent identity marker for Disciples, a passionate concern for the unity of the church, has at times served to blunt the sharp edge of social witness” (p. 254). Other essays in this section, as noted earlier, reflect on African, Caribbean, Latino contexts. There is a helpful chapter on developing a “Disciples Theology of Religions,” and a reflection on the place of “Christian Mission in an Age of World Christianity.”

All in all, this is an excellent resource that comes to us at a providential moment in our history. It comes to us at a moment of transition, when we are becoming more diverse, when we are struggling to make sense of our history as we move forward into the future. We are a church that has struggled, along with other mainline churches, seeing declining numbers of members and churches. But, there are many signs of hope. Increasing numbers of churches are being planted, many of them in non-traditional communities.

As Newell Williams notes in his preface, Disciples may have “shunned the word theology,” but we have been practitioners of theology from the very beginning. In this volume are the resources for our reflections as we continue the path set by the Founders, a path that they probably couldn’t envision at the time. We are a global and diverse people. But we are people of God and followers of Jesus. Ours is a mission in the world, a calling to give voice to God’s compassion and grace.

To understand who we are it is worth spending time with the book’s closing essay. Serene Jones (daughter of essayist Joe Jones, sister of another essayist, Verity Jones, and newly installed President of venerable Union Theological Seminary) reflects on her own journey, one that started among Oklahoma Disciples. She picks up on three themes, that she believes fits our identity – “mongrels, outlaws, and “sod busters.” We are she suggests, from her own experience, “theological mongrels,” “ecclesial outlaws,” and “moral sod busters” (p. 326). We are a little bit Presbyterian and a little bit Baptist. We can be folksy and unstructured. We don’t always do things in a correct fashion – we’ve been known to break rules, but that can offer a safe space. As for being sod busters, we can when the time is right, break through hard ground and put form and order where there was none. Ultimately, we are theological hybrids. That’s not a bad place to be!

If you are a Disciple, this is an important, even essential, resource. If you’re not a Disciple, and what to understand who the Disciples are and where they are going, this can be a very important read as well. It’s not always easy reading; in fact, at times it can be downright academic in its expositions. But then most of the contributors are academics. You won’t find a uniform statement of theology here, but then if you did it wouldn’t be Disciple. As such, this is a resource written for Disciples pastors, theologians, and well-read lay church leaders. It can be read straight through, from beginning to end, but its title is suggestive of its purpose. This is meant to be a reference tool, and as such needs to be available in all our churches.

Neil Young -- Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House -- Review

My Christmas was made by two church members who gave me Neil Young CDs. Cheryl was a bit disappointed that I was more excited about the CDs than the new clothes she got me. Now hers were more practical, but hey, this is Neil.

Both CDs are acoustic -- which is always a great way to listen to Neil. But I'd like to focus on the recently released "Live at Canterbury House" disc, which was recorded in November 1968. Back then Neil was just 23 years old and making his first post Buffalo Springfield performance. Canterbury House was in nearby Ann Arbor (Neil is a Canadian who first came to Detroit to break into the music business).

The CD's title comes from Neil's song Sugar Mountain, which he wrote prior to the Buffalo Springfield days, but is brought into the open here. The music is really good, just Neil and his guitar. It's a very different Neil from the one I recently heard in concert. That night Neil just pretty much played and sang for about 2 and half hours, with very little conversation going on. But on that night, perhaps a bit nervous, in part because neither he nor the organizers thought that there would be much of crowd. But there was, and history began to work forward. Anyway, on that night forty years ago, Neil was pretty talkative. In fact, he has a kind of high voice. He talks about the songs he's writing, the jobs he's held, the length of his hair, some pills he once took, and a bit of Mason William's "Classical Gas. "

If you're a Neil Young fan, this is an album to be had! It's fresh, even raw. [It includes a DVD, though I understand it's just the soundtrack without video in DVD format -- so don't get excited about that unless you listen on a DVD format]. If you're a Neil fan, you won't be disappointed.

The Road(s) to Heaven

A basic tenet of many religious communities is that the pathway to heaven runs through them, and them alone. It makes sense. If you believe that your God or your understanding of God is true, then wouldn't people be required to confess truth to get in the door. It's kind of like the password.

But apparently a strong majority of Americans don't think that way. Reading through the online edition of the New York Times I came across a piece by Charles Blow entitled "Heaven for the Godless." Blow is reflecting in this essay on an August Pew Forum poll, recently released, that reports that 65% of Americans believe that other religions are just fine as avenues to heaven. Indeed, atheists might be surprised to know that a majority think they'll be going to heaven as well -- though Blow suggests that they might be dragged "kicking and screaming."

The question is why? Why do so many Americans think others will get there too?

One very plausible explanation is that Americans just want good things to come to good people, regardless of their faith. As Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College told me: “We are a multicultural society, and people expect this American life to continue the same way in heaven.” He explained that in our society, we meet so many good people of different faiths that it’s hard for us to imagine God letting them go to hell. In fact, in the most recent survey, Pew asked people what they thought determined whether a person would achieve eternal life. Nearly as many Christians said you could achieve eternal life by just being a good person as said that you had to believe in Jesus.

It's an interesting thought, worth some reflection. My congregation is about to embark on a study of Martha Grace Reese's Unbinding Your Heart (Chalice Press, 2008), a book for mainline Protestants to learn how to do evangelism, even if they don't believe everyone's going to hell without confessing faith in Jesus.

Blow concludes his essay with this statement:

Now, there remains the possibility that some of those polled may not have understood the implications of their answers. As John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, said, “The capacity of ignorance to influence survey outcomes should never be underestimated.” But I don’t think that they are ignorant about this most basic tenet of their faith. I think that they are choosing to ignore it ... for goodness sake.

I think he might be right, not because we shouldn't take our faith claims seriously, for we should, but we need to trust our futures to God's grace.

The Big Unit is now the Giant Unit!

I woke up this morning to the news that Randy Johnson, AKA "the Big Unit," is now a member of the San Francisco Giants.

Randy Johnson is a 6'10" southpaw who whips the ball in from way high in the sky and rushes it by you. Even at 45 he's still a dangerous pitcher -- though perhaps not as dangerous as when at that all star game years ago he put one behind the head of John Kruk, moving the big first baseman to move to the other side of the plate. It was one of the more entertaining moments in all star history.

I don't know that Randy will bring a division championship to my beloved Giants, but hey he will strengthen an already strong starting rotation. I mean, you have Tim Lincecum, reigning Cy Young, together with two former Cy Young winners in Barry Zito and Johnson. Add them to Matt Cain, a wonderful pitcher victimized by virtually no run support, and an emerging Jonathan Sanchez.

Might be a fun year, as Randy Johnson goes for win number 300, if only we get those bats going!!!

Yes, Giants in 2009!!

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Spiritual Danger of Dissing Evolution

I've been reading Daniel Harrell's Nature's Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith. It is part of a new series edited by Tony Jones for Abingdon entitled Introduction to Living Theology. This is a book written by an evangelical pastor to other evangelicals who are either confused about evolution or have dismissed it as something that is ungodly and damaging to faith. Harrell suggests that the danger to the soul might just come from the denial of evolution.
Harrell is a pastor and not a scientist, so his science is pretty basic -- sort of like my own. But he's done enough reading to be convinced that the scientific evidence supporting evolution is too strong to ignore or deny. In the epilogue to the book he makes his point clear.

Acknowledging that the earth is older than the Bible appears to say or that people emerge3d out of missions of years of evolution rather than in a moment are costly concessions to make. Add to that evolution's implication that God is a God for whom death is part of the plan, and quickly the theological price tag becomes too expensive to pay. It's simply easier to deny evolution. You can say that God instilled creation with apparent age and that science is just deluded and a wast of time. You can say that -- but you don't need to say that.

In saying this he notes the challenges that evolution and Darwin pose to faith. And yet:

If evolution is a correct description of how life emerged and developed on earth, denying it doesn't make it false, any more than denying God renders him nonexistent. Moreover, if the evidence for evolution is accurate, as science attests, and nature bears witness to the handiwork of God, then rejecting evolution becomes in effect, a rejection of God. This is my worry. More than worrying that evolution jeopardizes Christian faith, I worry that rejecting evolution truncates Christian faith. Again, for faith to matter, it needs to correspond to the way things actually are, rather than how I want things to be. (Daniel Harrell, Nature's Witness, Abingdon, 2008, p. 132).

Harrell's book isn't perfect. At points it's a bit simplistic, but his point is well taken. As that bold lettered clause makes clear, to reject evolution can seriously dilute and diminish faith. It suggests that to be a Christian we must fear science. I know that some will try to deny the scientific evidence or suggest that evolutionary biology isn't science, but to do so misunderstands the scientific process. Science is more than simply observing experiments in the lab. Evolutionary biology is a bit like forensic science, it follows the clues where they lead. DNA analysis points to the relationship of the species. Indeed, as I've pointed out at other times, if we reject evolution then we must reject modern medicine. They whole premise of testing therapies and drugs on animals presumes that we share the same ancestors.

All it takes, as Harrell points out is time, and geology suggests that there has been plenty of time! So, if all truth is God's truth, and evolution is true, then evolution must be God's truth -- don't you think?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Evolutionary Explanation of Religion

As a Christian (and as a pastor) I confess faith in a creator. At the same time, I accept the findings of science that suggest that we have evolved from a common ancestor of all that exists. In other words, there was a time when our ancestors were not human. I accept the findings that the universe is billions of years old and the earth is also ancient -- giving time for evolution to take place.

The question is, if we have evolved, where does God fit in? And, beyond that, how did religion emerge into existence. What we know of modern religion didn't just burst on the scene fully developed. We know that primitive communities developed religious practices early on -- probably animist in nature. The question has always been why?

Asking questions such as these can be a bit dangerous for pastors/theologians, because it holds out the possibility that religion -- including my own -- are simply biological adaptations, with no ultimate reality standing behind them. I understand the dangers, and yet there is something to be learned from the study of the development of religion within the human community -- from an evolutionary perspective.

Today, looking across the New York Times web site I ran across a most interesting interview with evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. Wilson admits to being an atheist, but he sees value in religion. Indeed, he believes that religion emerged because it serves as a glue, a means of social cohesion.

Wilson has recently written Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society (University of Chicago Press). According to the article "Dr. Wilson argues that the religious impulse evolved early in hominid history because it helped make groups of humans comparatively more cohesive, more cooperative and more fraternal, and thus able to present a formidable front against bands of less organized or unified adversaries."

Faith he says:
allows you to keep going even in the absence of information, evidence or immediate gratification, and which everybody needs, and it takes forgiveness, which is what you ask for when you transgress, and it reworks these modules, to put it crudely, and tries to set them in a permanent ''on'' position.

In other words, faith helps make sense of the world and enables you to advance through life even when you don't have all the answers.

Of course, by providing a foundation for social cohesion, it can also serve to define the outsider in negative ways, giving support to efforts to destroy the other.

Religions and other social organizations may preach kindness and cooperation within the group, but they often say nothing about those outside the group, and may even promote brutality toward those beyond the brotherhood of the hive.

This aspect of religion is possible, but not a necessary aspect of religion! It is possible, he says, to expand the circle. That is a hopeful possibility!

A Christmas Blessing

Day-breaking God, we come to meet you this morning.

We come as the mighty and the lowly,
threadbare shepherds just in from the fields,
stately magi come on a caravan.
We gather together around a baby in a manger in a stable behind a small town inn.
We gaze together upon a newborn infant fidgeting in sleep.

We hear the soothing hum of a mother,
the stalwart silence of a father,
the rustle of hay and the footfall of the cattle and the donkey,
the occasional flurry of wings in the rafters,
the almost silent padding of a cat on the floor,
the shifting weight of all of us gathered, watching.
What are you dreaming as you squirm in sleep?

What world of possibility inhabits your dreams?

Are you dreaming a future for us?
Are you dreaming endless peace for a war-torn world?
Are you dreaming earth restored to balance?
Are you dreaming a banquet for the hungry?
Are you dreaming healing for our illnesses and relief for our pain?
Are you dreaming dignity for the devalued?
Are you dreaming work for the unemployed?
Are you dreaming restored life for the addicted?
Are you dreaming calm for the anxious?
Are you dreaming restoration for broken relationships?
Are you dreaming a world of love and respect, communication and forgiveness?
Are you dreaming a world of song and dance, art and color,
poetry and mystery, delight and awe?

What beautiful new world are you dreaming for us?

Is it the world in which you want to grow?

Now your eyes flicker and open.

Morning is upon us.

Day-breaking God, God of the awakened infant.
What dreams linger as you open your eyes from sleep?
We meet you in these wide-open still-focusing infant eyes.
We look into your eyes.
You look back at us.

What do you see?

Do you see your dreams?
Do you see the world in us waiting to be?
Do you see deep into us and meet your own reflection as the morning star rising,
bright day breaking in our souls?
Peer into us with your infant eyes and let your day break in us.
Let healing dawn in our wounds.
Let comfort dawn in our afflictions.
Let honesty dawn in our half-truths.
Let forgiveness dawn in our bitterness.
Let compassion dawn in our indifference.
Let joy dawn in our sorrows.
Let courage dawn in our fears.
Let hope dawn in our despair.
Let dawn break as the song of the angels bursting forth to sing in our hearts.

Day-breaking God, peer into us with your infant eyes and let your day break in us.

Let us know your awesome power rising within us and among us
to create the world of your dreams.

Day-breaking God, dawning as infant eyes blinking open in a dimlit stable,
what infinity stretches between our eyes and yours, what wonder, what hope?
In our gathering around you here
may we welcome all wonders in one sight and dream with you,
the wonders yet to be.

Dr. Susan M. (Elli) Elliott
December 26, 2004, December 25, 2005

Credit goes to: Dr. SusanM. (Elli) Elliott. Source: http ://

Merry Christmas

The air is crisp and clear. The clouds are wispy and the sun shining bright on this our first Michigan Christmas.

We wish one and all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

In celebrating Christmas we remember Christ the Lord, the one Luke reports was born in the little town of Bethlehem. Scholars may debate the when and the where, but there is no debating the impact of a birth 2000 years ago on the world in which we live. If only we can live out the Angels song of peace on earth and good will to all.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Coming into the Light

Republished from Words of Welcome, my sermon blog.

Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:8-20

When you came into the church this evening, you left behind the cold and the darkness of the streets, and you entered the warmth and light of this sanctuary. Upon entering you found friends and family gathered, and you shared Christmas Greetings with one another. In doing this, you experienced God’s light shining onto your life.

Then, as the service started, you began singing the songs of the season, you shared in a Christmas prayer, and you heard scriptures read that declared the good news that God is present in our midst. Yes God has come to us in a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. And, again, you felt God’s light shining onto your life. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what has happened to you this day, God’s light has touched your life.

I know that it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season. You get tired and maybe a bit cranky. There’s the traffic and the crowds. Then there’s the weather. It’s one thing to dream about a white Christmas, and it’s another to drive in it. Beyond the typical distractions, this year we’ve entered the season with the dark cloud of the economy hanging over us. With all that’s going on, it’s not easy to feel joyous.

The darkness might be pushing in on our lives, but tonight we’ve come to worship the source of light and love. We’ve come to bear witness to the one who brings light into our darkness, and as we do this, we begin to see the cloud lift and the darkness dissipate.

Luke’s version of the Christmas story, tells of angels appearing in the night to shepherds out in their fields. They bring them all the glory of heaven, and with it a message of great joy. For in the little town of Bethlehem, the light has begun to shine.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Yes, in a manger in that little town of Bethlehem, lies the savior, Christ the Lord. Through him the light shines in the darkness, and the world will never be the same.

The Angels’ message echoes one proclaimed centuries earlier by the Prophet Isaiah, who told the people walking in darkness that they would see a great light, and when they saw the light, they would rejoice and give thanks. For on that day, an heir to the throne of David would arise and put an end to war and break the "rod of oppression." Yes, there would be justice and peace when the Prince Peace appeared in their midst.

Although the New Testament doesn’t make use of this passage from Isaiah, down through the centuries the church has looked to it for a word of hope. Indeed, George Friedrich Handel found inspiration in these words as he penned The Messiah. And thus, we sing:
"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, The Mighty God, The everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."

The shepherds, so Luke tells us, followed the angel’s song to a manger, where a baby lay wrapped in swaddling clothes. They went looking for the one who would bring light into their darkness, and there in that manger they found the Light of the World. Yes, in him there would be found peace on earth and good will to all.

Tonight we have come out of the darkness and into the light to hear these words of hope and peace. We come to give thanks to the Prince of Peace and draw sustenance from his presence as we sing and pray together.

In a few moments we will come to the Lord’s Table, and partake of the emblems that represent to us the body and blood of our savior, the one we call prince of peace. After we take the bread and the cup we will then take candles and encircle the sanctuary. We will send around the sanctuary the light that begins at the table and then ends at the table. In these lights we will find the symbol of God’s presence. When the sanctuary darkens, the light from these candles will bear witness to this truth – God is with us, even in our darkest hour. When we leave this place, we will carry with us this message into the darkness of the night.

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
December 24, 2008
Christmas Eve

When Jesus Met Buddha

In a piece published in the Boston Globe entitled "When Jesus Met Buddha," historian Philip Jenkins, takes us on an important brief tour of an eastern Christianity most of us know little about. Indeed, the Book of Acts takes us westward with Paul. There are stories and legends of a church in the east, but we western Christians know little of these stories. As a church historian, I didn't have the time or I didn't take the time to explore these stories with my students. I had to get my students westward to America, and American Christianity is the repository of a European Christianity.

But we live in a different world, a global world, where faiths are coming into daily contact with each other. Go to a large city, including the one I inhabit, and you will find any number of religious communities present. Indeed, there is a large Hindu temple going up here in the city of Troy, while a major mosque sits just beyond the city limits in Rochester Hills. There are Orthodox Churches of all number of stripes, along with Catholic Churches representing Croatian, Romanian, and Albanian communities. In such a context, the possibilities and the necessities of interfaith conversation and work becomes increasingly an imperative.

Jenkins, whose latest book (which sits on my shelf ready to be read) is called Lost Christianities, explores for us a time when far eastern Christianities flourished, and as they did they interacted in creative and seemingly peaceful ways with eastern religions, offering us a possible way of living together in peace. That Christianity disappeared in the 13th century during the Mongol invasions. But for a time, there was an important form of Christianity that developed its own traditions.

He writes:
But awareness of this deep Christian history contributes powerfully to understanding the future of the religion, as much as its past. For long centuries, Asian Christians kept up neighborly relations with other faiths, which they saw not as deadly rivals but as fellow travelers on the road to enlightenment. Their worldview differed enormously from the norms that developed in Europe.

On this Christmas Eve, when we come to remember the birth of the Prince of Peace, perhaps this is a story worth considering. Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All -- that's a proper Christmas blessing!

Christians Call for Middle East Peace -- A Letter to the President-Elect

On Christmas Eve, as the eyes of the Christian world turn to Bethlehem and celebrate the birth of Jesus, we consider those who live in a region torn by violence. We pray for peace and call on the President-Elect to make peace in Israel/Palestine a top priority. Here is a letter produced by Churches for Middle East Peace. I invite you to consider adding your signature.


December 1, 2008
The Honorable Barack Obama
President-elect of the United States
Presidential Transition Team
Washington, DC 20270

Dear President-elect Obama,

As Christians of the Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox and Protestant traditions, we are united by a Biblical call to be peacemakers and a commitment to the two peoples of the Holy Land who yearn for a just peace. As Americans, we urge you, Mr. President, to make achievement of Israeli-Palestinian peace an immediate priority during your first year in office.

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has gone on too long. It has caused untold suffering for both sides, created economic hardships, and provided a rallying cry for extremists.

As people of faith and hope, we believe peace is possible. Majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians continue to support a negotiated solution based on two secure and sovereign states as the best way to end this tragic conflict.

In order to achieve a durable peace, your Administration must provide sustained, high-level diplomatic leadership toward the clear goal of a final status agreement. Building on past discussions, we ask you to encourage Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make historic compromises necessary for peace.

Your commitment to working for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel can help strengthen U.S. security and improve stability and relationships throughout the Middle East. We believe that Jerusalem – home to two peoples and three religions – has the potential to become a powerful symbol of hope and coexistence for people across the region and the world.

We know the work for a just peace will not be easy. It will require great courage and resolve, but the risk of inaction is even greater. Without active U.S. engagement, political inertia and perpetuation of the unbearable status quo will make achievement of a two-state solution increasingly difficult. Moreover, we are concerned about the negative impact a further delay will have on the Christian community in the Holy Land, whose numbers continue to decline.

We call on all Christians and people of goodwill to join us in praying for the peace of Jerusalem and in supporting vigorous U.S. diplomatic efforts to secure Middle East peace. Mr. President, as you take up the many challenges facing the United States and the global community, we urge you to work for a better future for all the children of Abraham in the land that is holy to us all.


Rev. Fr. Mark Arey
Ecumenical Officer
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

The Most Rev. Archbishop Khajag Barsamian
Primate, Diocese of the Armenian Church of
America (Eastern)

Rt. Rev. Wayne Burkette
Moravian Church in America

Tony Campolo
Eastern University, St. Davids, PA

Sr. J. Lora Dambroski, OSF
President, Leadership Conference of Women Religious

Marie Dennis
Director, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Sr. Donna Graham, OSF
President, English Speaking Conference JPIC Council
Franciscan Friars (OFM)

Ken Hackett
President, Catholic Relief Services

The Rev. Mark S. Hanson
Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The Rev. Dr. Stan Hastey
Minister for Mission and Ecumenism, Alliance of Baptists

Bishop Howard J. Hubbard
Chairman, Committee on International Justice and Peace
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Dr. Joel C. Hunter
Senior Pastor, Northland Church
Member, Executive Committee of the
National Association of Evangelicals

Archbishop Cyril Aphrem Karim
Archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church
for the Eastern USA

The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon
General Secretary
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA

Rev. Michael E. Livingston
Executive Director
International Council of Community Churches
Immediate Past President, National Council of Churches

Reverend John L. McCullough
Executive Director and CEO, Church World Service

Mary Ellen McNish
General Secretary, American Friends Service Committee

Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley
General Secretary, The American Baptist Churches

Richard J. Mouw
President, Fuller Theological Seminary

David Neff
Editor in Chief, Christianity Today

Stanley J. Noffsinger
General Secretary
Church of the Brethren

Bishop Gregory Vaughn Palmer
President, The Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church

Rev. Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly
Presbyterian Church, (USA)

Very Rev. Thomas Picton, CSsR
President, Conference of Major Superiors of Men

Dr. Tyrone Pitts
General Secretary
Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.

Bob Roberts, Jr.
Pastor, NorthWood Church, Keller, TX

Leonard Rodgers
Executive Director
Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding

Metropolitan PHILIP (Saliba)
Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America

Rolando L. Santiago
Executive Director, Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop, The Episcopal Church

Dr. Chris Seiple
President, Institute for Global Engagement

Robert A. Seiple
Former Ambassador-at-Large for
International Religious Freedom

Ronald J. Sider
President, Evangelicals for Social Action

Richard Stearns
President, World Vision, United States

The Rev. John H. Thomas
General Minister and President, United Church of Christ

Constantine M. Triantafilou
Executive Director and CEO
International Orthodox Christian Charities

Joe Volk
Executive Secretary
Friends Committee on National Legislation

Jim Wallis
President, Sojourners

The Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins
General Minister and President
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

The Right Rev. John F. White
Ecumenical and Urban Affairs Officer
African Methodist Episcopal Church

American Christians nationwide are invited to addtheir names to the leaders’ call for Holy Land peace.
Deadline is Jan. 16, 2009.