Monday, November 30, 2009

Singing the Blues in Advent

A number of years ago I got a blue Guatemalan stole, and so I've convinced my congregations to switch to blue (the new Advent color). According to the Methodist's worship site -- here is the reasoning for using Blue:

The genesis of the introduction of blue into the liturgical colors comes from continued reflection on the calendar of the Christian year, particularly on the season of Advent. Here is how the reasoning goes: Advent is a season of preparation that anticipates both Bethlehem and the consummation of history in the second coming of Jesus Christ. Since this anticipation is characterized by hope -- in contrast to the repentance characteristic of Lent -- the color for the season should not be purple, with its mood of solemnity and somberness, but blue with its hopefulness. Admittedly, there is a some subjectivity in linking colors with certain moods.
There is precedent for the use of blue during Advent. The Swedish Church and the Mozarabic rite (the rite used in the parts of Spain under Moorish rule from the eighth to the twelfth centuries) used blue.

But, I'm wondering if it might have symbolism beyond the liturgical. Blue is seen here as a symbol of hopefulness, but singing the blues is anything but hopeful.

Peter Gomes writes:

One of my least favorite liturgical seasons is Advent, which comprises the four weeks that follow Thanksgiving and precede Christmas. The conventional wisdom is that Advent is the season of hope and we light our Advent candles, one more on each Sunday, not simply anticipating the light but increasing it. Although Advent is, like Lent, meant to be a season of penitence, hope as a theme has long triumphed over the mood of repentance, and I do not criticize because, to all intents and purposes, it has become a month-long dress rehearsal for Christmas and a commercial phenomenon that is beyond the power of mere Christians to defeat. Years ago, when in October I saw the first Santa Claus in a store window and heard tinny carols in a department store elevator, I knew that Thanksgiving could not be far away and that the battle for Advent had been lost. What I find difficult to take seriously about Advent is the not of false rather than authentic hope that is imposed upon people. (Peter Gomes, Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Harper One, 2007).
What Gomes puts his finger on is our ambivalence about Advent -- we observe it, but we'd just as soon dispense with it, and get on with Christmas. Advent is a bit like looking at the packages under the tree, wanting to open them, but knowing that to do so would be naughty. So, we sit there and stew. Of course, as soon as we open the presents, we're ready to move on to something else (especially if what is inside those boxes are clothes!)

But, back to the hope and penitence issue. If you read the Advent texts, you'll notice that they have a certain edge. Malachi 3:1-4 -- the text I'm going to preach on Sunday talks about a refiners fire and fuller's soap -- we're supposed to prepare for the coming one by being baptized by fire. And then the following week, I've got John the Baptist talking about the same concept and suggesting that repentance requires some pretty radical actions that lead to justice. Is this a message that has any meaning in the month of December? And in what way is there hope here.

Gomes suggests that maybe the easiest and perhaps most authentic mood of the season is that of Scrooge -- Humbug!!! People greet us with a "Merry Christmas," but we feel anything but merry. We're tired, grumpy, and in this season of seasons, the economy and two wars leave us a bit short of joy or hope.

So, are you singing the blues as we journey toward Christmas?

Don't Give Up on the Church -- Transforming Christian Theology -- ch. 8

Transforming Theology Project
Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Don’t Give Up on the Church
Chapter 8

Are you ready to say: “I give up!?” Many a pastor, and many a church member, has said just that. The ranks of the formerly churched are swelling – joining with the never churched folk, many of whom are the children of the formerly churched! I’m not ready to give up, just yet!

With chapter 8, Philip Clayton (with his trusty assistant Tripp Fuller) begin a new section entitled: “Theologies that can transform the Church.” This section follows one that introduced us to the changing dynamics of our culture and context, pointing out that not only are churches in decline, but they are not connecting with their context. Now, in this section, we begin looking at ways that the church can be transformed for action. While many think that the church is not going to be the appropriate vehicle for this effort, Clayton disagrees. He thinks there is a future for the church. It just has to be reborn.

If we’re going to put ourselves into position to be transformed, we’ll need to face a couple of facts. First of all – people don’t believe that church attendance has any social value/necessity. It used to be, and perhaps still is in some areas of the country, socially necessary to be in a church. That’s where you found your contacts, made friends, etc. Okay, so it doesn’t have social value, but there’s another, more disturbing, trend – people no longer believe that church attendance is the best way for establishing and maintaining a connection with God. Of course, churches aren’t alone in losing relevance. Scouts, service organizations, and fraternal organizations are all losing market share – of course that’s the premise of Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, (Simon and Schuster, 2000).

Now, that we’ve gotten those three items out of the way – what else should we know? Unfortunately, Clayton isn’t finished. There are other issues to be faced, beginning with the way the church communicates – through sermons and hymns. Imagery (now in the form of Power Point) has an importance it hasn’t had since the birth of the age of print. There are generational fissures, constant mobility (we no longer get baptized, married, and buried in the same church as our parents). There are diversity issues and pastors no longer have moral authority in the community. Finally, we’re “no longer blending powerful theologies with transformative ministries in the world.” That is, we’re no longer able to provide a strong theological rationale for our social justice ministries that people find compelling. Clayton concludes this litany of challenges with this statement:
In short, the social beliefs and networks that once motivated church attendance and involvement are now under attack, and many institutions are crumbling. Effective answers to the current situation will require us either to breathe new life into existing institutions or invent radically new forms of Christian community (p. 59).
My sense is that this is not an either/or statement. We will need to breathe new life into existing institutions, along with releasing new ventures that can effectively connect with what is going on in the world of today.

Although the challenges are many, there are signs of hope. They begin in what would seem like a rather odd place for institutions, but here is the observation. You know all of those “spiritual but not religious folk?” They may not be heading into our churches, but they do represent a strong cohort of spiritual seekers. Clayton suggests that one hope for our communities is the reality that eventually deep spiritual practice requires community support. The question is – are we elastic enough to welcome and sustain those seeking God? The second sign of hope is based on the first, the individualistic division between visible and invisible church is untenable.
The church is the incarnation of the Spirit of Christ in any given age, the body of Christ when Jesus no longer walks the earth. For better or worse, in its various communal manifestations it becomes his representative on earth (pp. 59-60).

There is, he says, no true church that is ultimately separate from the visible church. Structures can get in the way and regularly need reformation, but we can’t just leave them behind. Finally, he says that if we try to transform the church, we may just succeed. If we don’t try, then, well, we will fail simply for the lack of trying. Now, we’ll likely need to experiment and try new and even risky things, but if we’re willing to step out there is the possibility of success.

And so we continue the journey toward transformation.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Feasting on the Word, Year C, vols. 1,2 -- Review

FEASTING ON THE WORD: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Year C. Vols. 1 and 2. By David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Louisville: WJK Press, 2009. 467 pp. and 557 pp.

Lectionary preachers have at their disposal a myriad of resources, including commentaries that focus specifically on the texts for each Sunday. Some of these resources are online and many come as books. So large a body of resources is available that one may wonder what to make of another competitor for space on one’s already bulging shelves. That being said, these two volumes of Feasting on the Word, edited by Bartlett and Taylor, for year C are worth having – following in the wake of the publication of four volumes published earlier for preaching Year B of the lectionary. When completed, there will be twelve volumes, four for each year in the liturgical cycle. With these two volumes, preachers will have at hand, commentary for Advent through Transfiguration (volume 1) and from Lent through Eastertide (volume 2).

The editors of these volumes are well known to preachers, especially Barbara Brown Taylor. Bartlett’s name may be less well known, but his Professor of New Testament of Columbia Theological Seminary, where Taylor is an adjunct professor of Christian Spirituality. What makes this series unique is its format, along with the breadth of contributors – especially to a print resource. The editors do acknowledge that the mainline church, for which this resource is intended, is heading into an already present digital age.

In terms of format, each lectionary text is explored in four ways, offering a theological, a pastoral, an exegetical, and a homiletical perspective. In the lay out for each text, the text itself is printed at the top of the page, and underneath is each of the four perspectives. The way this is laid out, the editors suggest, should make clear that each of these approaches is of equal value and importance, and that each is interdependent on the other. One can see the value of this format, in the suggestion that besides looking at a particular text for preaching, one could also follow – let’s say through the theological renderings – all four texts for the day and preach on the theological meaning of the four texts.

Each of these entries is written by a different person, writing from the perspective of that particular methodology. Therefore, most of the pastoral perspectives are written by pastors, the homiletical pieces by either preachers or teachers of preachers. Theologians write the theological offerings and biblical scholars take up the exegetical perspectives. The list of authors is broad and diverse. For instance, in volume one, for year C, there are eighty-six different authors, and their range of backgrounds runs the gamut from evangelical to Roman Catholic. There are liberals and conservatives. There are academics and non-academics. Some are well known, and others will be new to most readers. All of this makes for a rather unique resource. As one might expect from such a work, there will be differences not only of style and perspective, but also quality.

As a preacher, I’ve not used the volumes for Year B, and am only starting to wrestle with the texts and commentary from year C, but these volumes have already paid dividends. I appreciate the intent here that these are volumes intended not to make the preacher’s work quicker, but rather to take us deeper into the text. It is my opinion that these are resources that can be recommended highly for the preacher – young or old, novices or experienced.

Managing Change -- Transforming Christian Theology, ch. 7

Transforming Theology Project

Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Managing Change
Chapter 7

Saying that “everything must change,” is a bit of an exaggeration. Some things change, but not everything! Philip Clayton acknowledges this – but for churches of our era, many of whom resist any amount of change, maybe we need to hear this bit of exaggeration. Having said that, the change that comes our way must be addressed – and even embraced. What is required of us at the moment of great transition is learning to “manage change.” But how? And, by whom? Whether we want the job or not – Clayton suggests that this is a task that pastors will have placed in their laps. Now, not all pastors will want to pick up this task, resisting to the last bone and change, but he suggests that others learn to manage the “upheavals and the transformations” that impact their congregations.

This calling to manage change is being faced not just be congregational leaders, but leaders of religious organizations at every level – especially denominations. Denominational leaders, perhaps even more so than congregational ones, are facing the challenges of inherited traditions that can be hundreds of years old, and the reality that these traditions are essentially under attack – perhaps becoming increasingly irrelevant.

The idea of managed change may seem like an oxymoron, for how do you manage change? This is a good question, but according to our author, there is a whole branch of management theory that addresses just this issue. And the key to doing this is staying out in front of the changes – by “getting others to look it in the face and to begin preparing their organizations and groups for what’s coming down the pike (p. 50). In this new world, leader and managers are more like hosts than CEOs. Such people are “geniuses at building and maintaining networks and at creating positive links with other networks” (pp. 50-51). If this seems ominous, you are on the same wave length as me. We pastors weren’t trained for such ministries – so we have to learn on the job.

Still this word “manage” is important, because it signals to us that we can’t control change, but we can respond to them in appropriate ways through “innovation, courage and farsightedness.” And here is the key:

Instead of seeking to preserve the past at any cost, we need a commitment to adapting what we have been as church to what we need to be as church in the future. (p. 51).

And here is the rub – how do we do this? Many of us pastor churches with long histories and legacies. Moving ahead means not hanging on to all of that, but does it mean casting it all away? Here is, I think, where this management issue kicks in, and it takes a lot of discernment, and discernment is something that comes with experience. Our job, however, is not preserving institutions but managing the changes that come our way.

In light of our need to take on this new calling, Clayton offers several suggestions as to how we might move forward:

1. Denominational leaders need to talk with each other about common challenges, and come forward with a common voice and vision.

2. Program leaders under these folks, need to do the same, and cease worrying about protecting market share.

3. Use “sound principles of change management” – doing this by doing such things as dividing resources between traditional congregations and developing new outside the box ones; use best practices; empower and release young seminarians to develop new and innovative forms of ministry – like theology pubs and the like. This last suggestion is a good one – too often we send young seminary grads into traditional congregations full of exciting new ideas, only to find congregations not ready to move in that direction – so maybe we need to be more innovative here with our young leaders.

4. Move from focusing on brand to big tent Christianity. Now, hearing this, I also hear in it voices out of my own tradition, because, at least in the beginning, that was supposed to be our reason for existence. But hear this from Clayton:

We, the ordinary people in churches, do not need a new Creed or manifesto. We need to hear in visionary terms how the core message of the Christian tradition can still speak powerfully to our world. (p. 53).

That is, rather than arguing about doctrinal minutiae, there is a need for a message that is relevant to the times. But to do this, means more than simply repackaging contemporary cultural values.

5. Not surprisingly, he calls for the rekindling of our theological imagination. He is calling for denominational leaders and seminaries to help pastors and lay people learn to tell their stories using their theological language – something that requires that those in responsible leadership facilitate the production of materials and encourage the use of new technology to do this.

6. Finally, he asks that denominational leaders not “underestimate us.” We know, he says when the statements from on high are the same old thing, with new wording.

Much of the conversation in this chapter emerged out of a conference he sponsored for denominational executives. From what I’ve heard, there was a lot of hemming and hawing in that meeting, but what Clayton is doing is asking those in leadership, to get out front and lead us to those risky places where God is already at work.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Hymn for Advent -- O Come O Come Emmanuel

It is an ancient hymn, translated in the 19th century into English by John Mason Neale, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," is a much beloved hymn. We will be singing it in worship tomorrow.

Here is a version sung by Victor Vail from YouTube. I don't know of the singer, but he catches well the haunting nature of the hymn.

Advent's Yearning for the Coming One

Advent is a season that gets lost in the broader season called Christmas. While tomorrow we will begin our Advent journey towards Christmas, the "Christmas season" began the day after Halloween, if not before. It's hard to sing Advent hymns, which tend to be penitential, when all around us the songs of Christmas are sounding forth.

Advent though is important, even if it tends to get lost in the rush. I know that some would like Advent to be a buffer against the commercial side of the season, but I'm not sure it is strong enough to do so, in large part because we Christians don't have the discipline to postpone our gratification. We want what we're yearning for to be with us now, not later.

But, since the word advent comes from the Latin word that speaks of "coming," it is appropriate for us to consider the message of the season, to hear the call to prepare ourselves to receive the one whom God is sending.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan speak of the season in this way:

Advent as a reliving in the present of ancient Israel's hope and yearning is expressed in an an Advent hymn more than a thousand years old. It's first verse is very familiar:

O come, O Come Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here,

until the Son of God appear.

The language is evocative and powerful. We are Israel -- in exile, captive, mourning, lonely, longing. Israel's longing is an epiphany of human longing.

The seventh verse explicitly universalizes the yearning: it is the desire of nations:

O come Desire of nations, bind

in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid though our sad divisions cease,

and be thyself our King of Peace.

At the end of each verse of this long hymn, a joyful chorus confidently proclaims its fulfillment: "Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel." Longing and rejoicing meet.

Past, present, and future are brought together in Advent. It is a season of expectant anticipation, of anticipatory joy. It is also a season of repentant preparation for a future that is yet to come.
(Borg and Crossan, The First Christmas, Harper One, 2007, pp. 231-232).

How shall we prepare for that future that has yet to come?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Everything Must Change -- Transforming Christian Theology, ch. 6

Transforming Theology Project

Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Everything Must Change
Chapter 6

Continuing the theme of a movement toward a postmodern world, Philip Clayton draws upon the title of a Brian McLaren book – Everything Must Change. While acknowledging that radical change may be in order, Clayton also recognizes that we don’t like radical change. As a pastor I can attest to the truth of this statement. Even minor changes can be resisted with great energy. We like stability – and doing what we know best. But, while some things don’t change, calling into question the premise of McLaren’s book (I think Brian understands that he has pushed the envelope here for emphasis), the world we live in is changing rapidly. The question is, can we as church adapt quickly enough.

You can sense that the church at large is struggling with what to make of the world as it is right now. Some evangelicals have been more proficient in adapting their methodologies to the current situation (more contemporary music and informal dress), but on many other fronts, especially cultural ones like the role of women, homosexuality, and sexual mores, they are less effective. Indeed, the recent promulgation of the “Manhattan Declaration,” calling for civil disobedience in opposition to abortion and gay marriage is a good example of this.

We live in an age of rapid change, which Clayton suggests is epitomized by the use made of Twitter by Iranian dissidents this past summer. Could such an effort have been mounted just a few years ago? So powerful was this new technology, that the US State Department told Twitter to make sure that the network stayed up, not even taking time for routine maintenance. Clayton asks – is the church as aware as the State Department of the value of these new forms of communication?

Are church leaders utilizing these new technologies to support their outreach and ministries? Do they even know what they are? As one of my young friends, Tripp Fuller, puts it, “Not to know the new media is not to exist in the world more and more people exist in.” I encourage anyone over forty who thinks the world hasn’t changed to spend an hour carefully interviewing a couple of people under eighteen about their technology use (p. 43).

I’m 51, and I try to make good use of social networking technology in ministry, and I do recognize its value, but I also know that things change rapidly, so that what I’m using right now maybe old line before I know it! I mean, in an age of Twitter is a blog even relevant? (I hope the answer is yes, but I’m asking!)

While the core of our message may not change, the context in which it is lived and communicated does. In this, our world may parallel that faced by Augustine at the beginning of the 5th Century as the Visigoths sacked Rome, sending cultural shock waves through the Empire. How could this happen? And yet it did, leading Augustine to ponder the future of church and society in his City of God – seeking to understand in ways we may need to learn how to distinguish between the “City of God” and the “City of Man.”

What we in the mainline churches face is the reality that our church population is aging, and that the younger generations may not return home. Indeed, while evangelical churches have done a better job of keeping young people, the younger generations are increasingly likely not to go anywhere. So, how does a church whose structures date back centuries respond? How do we communicate a message to a people who don’t care about brand? And what about the internal threats to the survival of denominations – such as the fight over gay marriage and ordination? Mainline churches may not disappear from the map anytime soon, but the question is – what will their relevance be?

There are no clear answers, but one thing is for sure, we will need to respond to the new technologies and how we learn to manage the changes coming our way. Clayton asks:

Are our church and denominational leaders ready to take the risks and lead us in new directions? Are all the rest of us willing to step out into new territory and do our parts as well? (p. 48)

I believe, and Clayton does as well, that Mainline Protestant churches can provide a context for faith to develop and thrive, but are we willing to step out in faith? That is the question facing us as we head into the future!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Christian Ethics Must Address the Nation's Real Problems

I am republishing a post by Richard Pierard that merits close attention. Pierard is a Baptist, an evangelical, a social activist, and emeritus professor of history (Indiana State University). I had the opportunity to share a meal with him (and a group of as yet unemployed historians at a conference -- probably 15 years ago. Oh, and the former pastor of the Fort Worth church mentioned here, he's a good friend of mine! Anyway, I publish this with Richard's permission -- from the site --, a site worth visiting often! Again, here is the home page for the site.


When I read on a few days ago that the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina had "defunded" the Baptist Center for Ethics, I was reminded once again of how little Southern Baptists really understand ethics.

When a Southern Baptist pastor like Wiley Drake in California openly called for God to bring about President Obama's death, we heard not a peep from the Southern Baptist Convention leadership or the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. To be sure, Drake has slightly eased off – President Obama should be kept alive until he can be tried for treason and then he would be executed, Drake now saysbut he was never censured for what he had said.

Yet the very same SBC expelled a historic church in Fort Worth, Texas, because it had some gay members. The Georgia Baptist Convention did likewise with a church in suburban Atlanta that had the audacity to have a woman as its senior pastor. Someone will have to explain to me how the latter can be seen as ethical actions by the denomination, but it is not a matter of ethical concern that one of its prominent pastors called for the death of the president of the United States. Remember, Drake is no marginal creature; he was a second vice president of the SBC and a candidate for even higher office this past year.

Now we have prominent Southern Baptist figures falling all over themselves to get their names attached to the signatory list of the "Manhattan Declaration," released this past Friday. The original list includes nearly everybody who is anybody on the Christian right, as well as people who ought to know better, such as Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action and the presidents of Gordon-Conwell and Asbury Theological Seminaries and Wheaton College.'s Featured Resource

Five Lessons for Advent (Student Guide 1-20 copies)

Goodness knows how many more are among the 30,000 people who have signed it since then. As one reads through this seven-page, single-spaced smokescreen document (as I did), one finds out that the great social issues of the day are abortion, homosexual marriage and a truncated definition of religious liberty that allows the Christian Right to do whatever it wishes in the name of freedom.

Not mentioned in this "call of Christian conscience" is anything about climate change and global warming; adequate health care for all Americans; just immigration policies; combating poverty and hunger here and abroad; equal rights for women and racial minorities; or the ongoing specter of war.

And now we see bumper stickers sprouting up all over the country with the phrase "Psalm 109:8." What is meant by this reference to a wicked ruler is, of course, President Obama. The key words in the passage, "May his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow," are ominous, to say the least. We have Christians imploring God to bring about the death of our president because they don't like his political beliefs, his race, his policies or what have you, and yet we hear not a word of rebuke from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Friends, we are living in a dangerous age. Ethics have been discarded for the sake of political ideology and we are much the worse for this. As a Baptist layperson, I plead for the recovery of the kind of Christian ethics that address the real problems facing our nation. Those who do not want change are trying to divert people's attention to other matters of lesser significance, and some are even calling for the violent removal of President Obama from office.

I have never seen such a dangerous situation in my lifetime, and the tragedy is that so many Christians are oblivious to what is going on. We must stand up and say a resounding "no" to the politics of hate and division. If Christians do not take the lead in solving our national problems but simply remain an integral part of the problem, then God have mercy on us.

Richard V. Pierard is professor of history emeritus at Indiana State University. He lives in Hendersonville, N.C.

A Thanksgiving Psalm

thanksgiving images Pictures, Images and Photos

It is Thanksgiving Day, a day to pause and give thanks to God, who is the author of every good and perfect gift (James 1:16). In honor of this day, I would like to share this selection from the 92nd Psalm (verses 1-4, NRSV)

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night,
to the music of the lute and the harp,
to the melody of the lyre.
For you, O Lord,
have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.
Psalm 92:1-4 NRSV

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

All Good Gifts -- a song for Thanksgiving

Godspell is a play and a movie from another era -- but the songs are powerful, and this one fits for Thanksgiving -- a call to recognize all of God's good gifts. Enjoy

Postmodern believing -- Transforming Christian Theology , ch. 5

Transforming Theology Project

Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Postmodern Believing
Chapter 5

With the idea of postmodernism/postmodernity having been introduced in the previous chapter, Clayton and Fuller move on to look at the way we believe in this new postmodern age. He notes that, except for conservative evangelicals, most Christians have difficulty expressing what they believe – an observation that has been well documented by Martha Grace Reese in her series of books on evangelism (Unbinding the Gospel, Chalice Press, 2007). There are a number of reasons why this maybe true, including a privatization of religion in recent years.

But if Mainline Protestants have difficulty articulating their beliefs, there are those who do not. Clayton calls this the “three last gasps of late modernity.” One primary “gasp” is scientism. He doesn’t mean science as science, but the ideology that assumes that science/rationalism provides us with all necessary and important information about life and the world. It is a reductionist perspective that insists that only that which is empirically provable has value. Of course, this leaves little room for discussions about meaning and beauty. Another option, is to embrace not modernity, but to retreat to a premodern world. Here we can preserve the truth claims of the faith and of scripture without having to face the critics from modernity. Clayton writes that “it’s easy to be a Christian if you adjust your beliefs about history, science, and culture to first century standards. But it’s hardly an incarnational approach, since it doesn’t engage the world that actually surrounds us” (p. 35). And finally, there is Fundamentalism. That might not make sense, but Fundamentalism is an expression of modernity. That is it defines faith in terms of rational propositions, which are universal and can be applied in any and all contexts. None of these options, however, serve us well if we seek to be present in the world that actually exists at this time and place.

So, what is the option for us? Postmodern belief, according to Clayton starts with the premise that “doubt is not sin.” He tells the story of being a counselor for Billy Graham events – and their responsibility was to get converts, and to make it clear that this confession settles everything – and thus there is no reason for and no room for doubt. Over time, Clayton, like most of us, discovers that our confessions of faith don’t settle everything. All number of questions emerge that unsettle us – and thus we have one of two choices, we can despair of our doubts and likely lose faith or we can embrace our doubts and grow.

If it’s not a sin to have doubts, then there is room for a “thinking faith.” If everything is decided and there is no room for debate (or doubts) then there is little reason to think. Of course, there are those who believe that any faith profession is tantamount to not thinking. But there is another way, one that stands between scientific reductionism and belief with doubts. This way, the postmodern way involves being faithful even while wrestling with the questions of life. We can act and reflect on our faith at the same time. And, by acknowledging our doubts, rather than seeing our doubts increase, we often see their severity decrease. By acknowledging our doubts we give ourselves room to listen to others who struggle with doubt.

On one hand, postmodern believing involves recognizing and dealing with the reality of doubt. On the other hand, postmodern believing reverses the traditional way of being a person of faith. The way that Clayton had heard the message, we must first believe, and then we can behave, and thus we can belong to the community. That is, to put it in biblical terms, we can follow this instruction of Paul:
If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom. 10:9, NIV).

It’s that simple. Unfortunately, we soon learn that the number of propositions that must be affirmed to get to that place is long. And then you’re expected to behave appropriately, and if you don’t, well you don’t belong. The post modern way is different. Rather than starting with belief and ending with belonging, it starts with belonging and moves to words belief. Clayton writes:

I don’t perfectly understand all the details of Jesus’ Way, and I know that I don’t perfectly follow what I do understand. But for cultural, historical, and personal reasons, it is the way that I have seen God. There is no other way that is a live option for me, and dispensing with the attempt to seek and to know God through Christ is somehow just not a live option (p. 40).
Or, to quote Martin Luther – as Clayton does – “Here I stand, I can do no other.” With belonging coming first, and not being dependent either on right belief or practice for that matter, one can grow and learn along the way.

Clayton points to a conversation he had with a Presbyterian Pastor while doing graduate work at Yale. He told the pastor he wasn’t sure that he could join, because he had doubts about his faith. He had even worked out “philosophical critiques of those few short sentences in the Presbyterian hymnal.” The pastor replied that one needn’t get all the details correct up front. The important thing is going with others who are also on the Way, struggling to clarify their beliefs together. He notes that this advice turned out to be correct (p. 41).

Once we understand that we belong before we believe correctly or act correctly, we put ourselves in a position to grow and we will want to behave in a way that is appropriate to followers of Jesus. But, we start with the premise that we belong by grace. Interestingly, while behavior comes second, believing our understanding really comes last – as a result of life in the community. This is the way it is with postmodernity. Things aren’t all settled, but there is room to grow – and to think.

Discerning a Congregation's DNA

It is a time worn adage that it is easier to start a new church than to move an existing church in a new direction. New church starts start out with fairly blank slates. If started by a denominational entity, there will be certain patterns involved, but still there is a lot of freedom to go in new directions. But what about long standing congregations? These are entities that have strong strands of DNA that define who they are and what they are.

While reading Philip Clayton's Transforming Christian Theology, I've also been dabbling in a book by Linda Bergquist and Allan Karr entitled Church Turned Inside Out: A Guide for Designers, Refiners, and Re-Aligners, (Jossey Bass, 2009). This is a Leadership Network book, written by Southern Baptists, so it has a certain perspective built in, but there are intriguing ideas here. And one that caught my attention -- almost in passing is the reality that churches have identity, and we as leaders may be called to do more refining and re-aligning than designing.

So, what is a church's DNA? The church I pastor has certain strands that help define it. Now these may need to be refined and realigned, but they are present in the church's self identity.

So, here are a few strands:

1. Although in the suburbs now, it was born in downtown Detroit and has a certain regional sensibility. That is, it has historically seen its area of ministry being rather broad. We're trying to "refine" this to be more sensitive to the local communities that lie closest to the congregation, but this DNA is important.

2. Music has played an important role in the life of the church -- symbolized by its pipe organ and choir. We are getting a new organ -- a digital organ that will be integrated with some of our existing pipes -- and the choir is growing (without paid section leaders/soloists). Again, music is part of the DNA, but we are refining and realigning, not necessarily designing something new.

3. The life of the mind has long been important. Through its history the church has been served by strong preachers and has had a variety of educational offerings that have stimulated mind as well as heart. This is a reflection not only of the congregation's DNA, but the Disciple tradition's as well.

4. Strong support for denominational outreach. Both through active participation of members and through giving the church has historically given significantly to the regional and general life of the church.

I could go on and name other aspects of the church's DNA, but I think it gets the point made. Churches have identities that define them. The question is: as we move into a new age of ministry, how do we build on this DNA without becoming subservient to it. That is, a church that reached its height of influence in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, can't live in the 1950s. It must adapt and change, but without losing its core identity. More importantly, as we discern a calling to be a missional congregation, we have struggled with aligning this calling with our DNA. There are those who would say that we should essentially let go of that DNA others wish to hold on -- maybe too much.

What I'd like to do here is open a discussion about church DNA -- maybe you have thoughts and ideas about how to design, refine, and realign congregations you'd like to share.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Origin of Species -- 150 Years Later

Today is the sesquicentennial of the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species. It was a landmark publication, setting the world on a new course of discovery and explanation. 150 years later, its effects are still being felt. The book transformed not just science, however, it served to rock the religious world as well. That is because it sufficiently undermined the traditional readings of scripture and theological explanations of the world. Although Darwin became an agnostic, and struggled to reconcile the idea of a loving and just God with the world he had discovered -- one that didn't always seem all that nice -- as well as the loss of his beloved daughter to a premature death, he was never an atheist. He could never go that far.

As Christians who believe that all truth is God's truth, we needn't be afraid of science -- and that includes the findings of Darwin. Darwin was not and is not the final word on evolution, but he set the conversation in motion and his thoughts still drive the conversation. I realize that there are challenges to faith in this, but we simply must wrestle with this. And, for those who wish to know more about Darwin and faith, I would suggest they read Karl Giberson's excellent book of 2008 -- Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, (Harper One, 2008). Giberson is by background an evangelical, but he is also a scientist.

So, won't you join in the celebration?

Postmodernity Makes Theologians of Us All -- Transforming Christian Theology ch. 4

Transforming Theology Project Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Postmodernity Makes Theologians of Us All
Chapter 4

Maybe you’ve heard that we have entered a postmodern age. You may be wondering what that means. It almost sounds apocalyptic, as if we’ve reached the end of the world – what is there after modernity? But, there is a growing consensus that the principles of modernity have failed to deliver and we are now heading into a new age. In part it’s postmodern, because we’re not sure what it will be. The definitions of this age a re so varied, it’s hard to pin down. So, usually we start the conversation by listing the assumptions of modernity, and asking if they hold any longer.

So, what is modernity? Well, according to Philip Clayton, there are three primary features. Ask yourself as you read these, if these describe the way you think of your faith.

  1. “The powers of human reason stand at the center of the picture.” We decide, by way of reason, what is true and right.
  2. “Modernity was characterized by what scholars call melioristic optimism.” That is, there is the assumption that we are on the right track and that because of human ingenuity and willpower we can perfect this world we live in. Should it surprise you that a postmillennial vision of God’s kingdom was prominent in this age. Alexander Campbell, a founder of my own tradition, published a journal called the Millennial Harbinger, and this was not a pessimistic dispensationalist tract, no, he believed that the American system was a harbinger of what could come as the Kingdom of God made itself felt in the world. The 1940s kind of dashed this vision.
  3. “An either/or choice between absolutism and relativism.” It’s all or nothing – everything is true as written or it’s all relative. It’s fundamentalism or relativism, nothing in between. This is the vision that folks like Sam Harris and Al Mohler have. No middle ground here! (p. 28).

As you read these features, do you find that they simply don’t work anymore? Reason isn’t sufficient and the world isn’t getting better – which is why Karl Barth broke with the liberalism of his day, and do you find the either/or choices simply unworkable?

Now, if you’re a Protestant these questions are of great importance, because Protestantism is a movement that was born just as the Modern Era was being born. If you look at this period from a simply historical perspective, you will notice that this period is known as the Early Modern Era – the Enlightenment hasn’t broken out yet, but the printing press, among other things, has changed the dynamics, and a modern age is breaking out. But, could the decline of Protestantism in our day be linked to the decline of the Modern World view?

If the modern world is fragmenting, what are the features of this new age? Well, of course it depends on whom you ask. Clayton points us to a couple of possibilities. Derrida, for instance speaks of the demise of “stable structures of knowledge.” Lyotard speaks of the demise of metanarratives, and still others speak of the birth of a global consciousness. What are these features saying? Well, it seems that there is no longer one impervious narrative that explains everything – whether religious or scientific. The modern age was very much a Western European creation. We looked at the world through Euro-American eyes – indeed, through “Christian eyes.” We had the answers and by Jove the world needs these answers and we will share them. Clayton doesn’t use the term “manifest destiny” here, but I think it fits.

In this new age, we are called to be “pragmatic idealists.” That is:
They [postmodern Christians] want their faith to make a difference in the word, but they also know that the process will have to be interactive and dialogical, that they can’t start with ready-made doctrinal systems and deduce all further steps from there. (p. 31)
Discipleship, in this new age, means participating “in God’s bring about the kingdom of God in ways that reflect Jesus’ transformative responses to the situation is he encountered in his ministry.” This requires interpretive work, of course, because our world is very different. There isn’t a one-to-one correlation (pp. 31-32).

So, what does this mean for the church? Well, as we live into this new postmodern age, we will be 1) focusing in Christian practice, learning, as it were, on the job rather than starting with a full-blown set of principles that we must follow without question – this is why we are all theologians! 2) Our optimism will be colored by pragmatism. There may be a difference, in the end, between what we envision, and what we can accomplish. So, set the bar high, push toward it, but recognize that the actual end may be different from the vision. 3) Be comfortable in a pluralistic setting. Let go of the either/or mentality. It’s appropriate to hold your beliefs dear, but not in a way that is either/or – I’m right and you’re wrong. It’s no longer a “zero sum” game.

We are living in a new age. We may not understand all the implications yet, any more than the folks at the beginning of the modern age would have. But, here we are, and the church must respond – adapt to a changing situation where many of the old rules no longer hold!

Go Horney Toads, I mean Frogs!?

It is nearing the end of the football season and bowl pairings are soon to be decided. On December 3rd, for instance, the annual Oregon/Oregon State Civil War game will decide who goes to the Rose Bowl. In the past the game has offered the possibility of a spoiler, but this year it's for the Pac-10 championship and a chance to beat up on Ohio State! I grew up a Beaver fan, but over time, sort of after attending the University of Oregon, I switched to the Ducks. So, my support will be for the Green and Gold -- come January.

But, there is another bowl bid to be decided, and that involves Texas Christian University. Those Horned Frogs are seeking a BCS bowl bid -- for the first time. It's highly ranked, but it seems in competition with Boise State (which beat the Ducks opening night). Probably both teams deserve BCS bids, but we'll see how this plays out. In any case, below is a news release in support of the TCU bid, for TCU is a Disciples-related University. And in response to our invitation from Todd Adams, our Associate General Minister, I say: Go Horned Frogs!



A Disciples-related university has one of the nation’s top-ranked football programs and is poised to play in a major post-season bowl.

Texas Christian University picked up a 45-10 win over the University of Wyoming on Saturday, making the undefeated Horned Frogs 11-0 for the season. TCU, located in Ft. Worth, Texas, is one of 14 colleges and universities related by covenant to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Currently TCU’s football team is the highest ranked non-BCS school in the 11-year history of the Bowl Championship Series. If it wins its final game later this week, TCU will play in a BCS bowl, perhaps for the national championship game.

Todd Adams, Associate General Minister and Vice President, is calling on Disciples to lift up TCU football and support the Horned Frogs. “This is a critical opportunity to demonstrate the partnership of the church and the school,” said Adams. “TCU needs to know that the church is celebrating with them. TCU has a long history of developing and nurturing faithful leaders for the church. We have a strong partnership. Partners celebrate one another’s success!”

TCU will find out what bowl it will play in as part of the annual bowl selection process on Sunday, December 6. The school has one more regular season game remaining against the University of New Mexico on Saturday, Nov. 28. A home victory against UNM will mean a perfect season for TCU.

General Minister and President Sharon Watkins, is on sabbatical but is taking a break to record messages of support for TCU that will be posted through YouTube and Facebook. Watkins, who admits her favorite movies are “feel good sports flicks,” is an avid football fan and looks forward to cheering on the Horned Frogs.

“I am supporting TCU Football and proud of them, as I would be of any Disciples school,” she said. “I believe it is important for the people in our pews and around the world to know that from a President’s Prayer Service to a local congregation, from the global mission field and Gulf Coast, and yes, even on the football field, we are part of the Disciples of Christ and we are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world!”

A video clip will be found on the Disciples website,, and will be posted next week. Adams offered several suggestions of how congregations can celebrate TCU football in addition to playing the video clips on YouTube, Facebook and

“Since December 6 will be a critical Sunday regarding TCU’s bowl placement, I think it would be great if everyone would wear TCU’s school colors of purple and white or pass out purple ribbons at church on Sunday morning." Adams went on to suggest that congregations could hold “a bowl game night”, broadcasting the bowl game at the church as an opportunity to fellowship and evangelize, recognize alumni of TCU or Brite Divinity School, and join social media groups supporting TCU Disciples football.

For more information about the TCU football schedule, visit:

Monday, November 23, 2009

Let Us Give Thanks

With Thanksgiving Day just a few days from now, it is appropriate for us to stop and give thanks. That was the theme of my sermon yesterday. It was the theme of the Troy Interfaith Group service last night at the Ahmadiyyah Muslim Community's mosque. And it is a theme we should keep alive throughout the week and beyond. With that in mind, I'm reposting a piece I wrote for the Lompoc Record two years ago. I think the perspective fits today as it did then.


Faith in the Public Square

Lompoc Record
November 22, 2007

It's an old hymn, but it says it well:

“Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in whom the world rejoices,
Who, from our mothers' arms, has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”
(Martin Rinkart, 1636).

For people of most faith traditions, giving thanks is a foundational spiritual practice. Our songs and hymns and prayers are full of acknowledgments of God's gracious provision. We see this sentiment displayed in the 67th Psalm:

“Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
For you judge the peoples with equity
And guide the nations upon earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
Let all the peoples praise you.
The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
Let all the ends of the earth revere him.” (Ps. 67:5-7, NRSV)

Indeed, the invitation is there for all to give thanks, in their own way, to the one who is the creator and the provider of all that is good.

Our own national observance of a day of Thanksgiving is linked to harvest festivals of the past (even if many of us who celebrate the day have done little harvesting ourselves). We celebrate the bringing in of the harvest by giving thanks to the one who has blessed us with such a bounty. It's a connection that links our observance with the Pilgrim story, for according to the story they gathered to celebrate not only a harvest, but their survival as a community. And so if as we gather we see beyond our own circumstances we see that when we stand together, differences and all, good things happen.

Days of Thanksgiving, however they're observed, are usually linked to the practice of worship. Worship is by its very nature filled with awe and gratitude to the one we consider holy. Standing just days before our national day of Thanksgiving, it's good to consider how we might observe it. Our observances are a mixture of national, personal, and religious elements. It includes food, family, and possibly services of worship. For many it even involves a bit of football. But worship is an important component to our celebration.

The first official American Thanksgiving was declared in 1789 by President George Washington, not long after the founding of the nation. He invited the citizens of this new nation, which was still getting its bearings, to “acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly implore his protection and favor.” Without making too much of the theology present (or possibly lacking) in this statement, Washington recognized as did many, though not all of his successors, that it is good to express gratitude for the freedoms and the benefits of living in this nation - warts and all. In issuing this proclamation he did not prescribe a manner of celebrating, but instead offered an invitation for the people to give thanks in their own way and manner.

In the spirit of this invitation, people from across the nation will find ways of observing this thanksgiving opportunity. It might be as simple as stopping during dinner - whether elaborate or not - to share something that one is grateful for. It might also involve attending one of many services of thanksgiving that will take place over the next several days. There will be congregational celebrations and there will be community ones. Some will be expressions of a particular religious tradition, while others will take on a more interfaith character.

Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc.

November 22, 2007

Why the Answers Must Be Theological -- Transforming Christian Theology, ch. 3

Transforming Theology Project
Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Why the Answers Must Be Theological
(and What that Means)
Chapter 3

We live, as Philip Clayton has pointed out, in a fast changing world, and that this dynamic of change is something that should be welcomed not resisted. The key is adapting to the changing times. The question is, how do we make these adaptations? What should guide our efforts? Clayton’s answer is – theology.

One must start this conversation by recognizing and affirming an assumption: All people of faith have a theology of some sort. By making this affirmation, we also recognize that theology is not something that is simply done by professionals. It’s not that the work of the professional is bad, it’s just that professional theology is not the sum total – it is simply a resource for doing theology.

So, what is theology? Clayton suggests that we see it as a “world-and-life view” or WLV. We all have WLVs, whether we recognize it or not. These WLVs focus on what we consider ultimate or valuable. For some God is what is ultimate, but others not so much. Indeed, for some scientism or materialism would be the ultimate value. Clayton writes:
In the end, every person who carries out conscious actions in the world possesses a WLV, whether or not he or she is aware of it (p. 21).

For the person of faith, our theology is our WLV, it is the principle that shapes our view of the world. Since everyone has one, theology is, in Clayton’s mind, an amateur sport. Now, before the professionals get to concerned here, there is a place for such folks. They are not there to tell people what they’re supposed to believe, but rather are to serve as coaches, helping the players learn their skills so they can better understand and live out their WLVs.

One of the problems that I had with Harvey Cox’s book was that by making such a strong distinction between faith and belief, he left little room for content. We hear a lot about faith as practice – and it is – but out of what do we practice? This is what I appreciate about Clayton, he wants us to recognize the need for content. Thus, we need the Scriptures, we need tradition, etc. The issue is not whether there is content, but rather how it is discerned and applied.

So, what are the sources for doing theology? With what should we be wrestling? For we can’t just follow Jesus – we have to know who Jesus is/was and what that would mean for us, and as the author points out – that takes thought.

So, upon what should we be thinking? Clayton, like many current teachers of theology, turns to what has come to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. If, as a Christian, you say you wish to follow Jesus, well there aren’t many places to go other than Scripture. Yes, there are other gospels, but they do not have same authority in history as canonical scripture. It is, however, not the end point, but the starting point. And the issue, as Clayton notes, is not whether you get your doctrine of scripture correct, but whether you are able to “deeply, intelligently, and constantly,” use it to look at the big issues in one’s life.

Scripture is not enough – despite the proclamations of sola scriptura – for the canyon separating our day and that day is too deep and wide. Tradition helps us by bringing to mind the teachings and experiences of those who have lived the faith across time. This wisdom helps counteract our own presuppositions and opinions. The function of tradition isn’t to provide infallible facts, but is rather “the resource of many generations and many centuries of readers who have struggled with what God could be saying in and through the scriptural reports on the Hebrew tradition, on Jesus’ life, and on the early church” (p. 25). This is an important corrective to the hubris of my own tradition, which thought it could jump back over the centuries and restore New Testament Christianity. What emerged was a very modern, 19th century, American version of the Christian faith.

Then comes everyone’s favorite resource – experience. We like to turn to it because its personal and relevant. It has its good side – it’s not likely that you will believe something for very long that conflicts with your experience. However, living as we do in a very privatistic and individualistic world, is this enough? The answer is – probably not. It’s a good starting point and good check point, but we need more.

Finally, comes reason, which interestingly enough – considering that we are the products of an age of reason, seems to be under utilized. In matters of faith, we pay little heed to science (for instance). We find it difficult to wrestle deeply with our experience and our inherited traditions. Reason allows us to bring experience, tradition, and scripture together in a way that allows us to understand and live faithfully in the world. While there maybe other sources, these four are the most recognized, and thus foundational to our Christian WLV – better known as our theology.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Do Christians Have to Hate Change? -- Transforming Christian Theology , ch. 2

Transforming Theology Project
Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Do Christians Have to Hate Change?
Chapter 2

In the previous chapter, Philip Clayton (and sidekick Tripp Fuller) remind us that the world of today is much different from that of a generation or two earlier. In many ways the 1950s was an anomaly, a brief period of hyper religiosity, that may have been drive as much by fear of Communism than anything. It was the age of increased attendance, but also of religious additions to the Pledge of Allegiance and other public instruments. And it simply didn’t last – perhaps something akin to the brief surge in church attendance after 9-11.

The question that the church faces concerns the value of change. Mainline churches, which were dominant a generation ago have felt the effects of change more than other branches of the church. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church has maintained its numbers largely due to immigration – as there are huge numbers of ex-Catholics out there. In this very short chapter, Clayton asks: “Do Christians Have to Hate Change? This is a good question, one that we are all wrestling with on a regular basis. Clayton’s answer – change is good. And if you think that change is something that only young people can abide, he points out that there are plenty of young people who resist change while many older people are at the forefront of change – he points in particular to John Cobb and Phyllis Tickle.

While society is changing, and many in the church look to the church as an anchor of stability, Clayton suggests that God is present in this era of change, and that we are called to be with God, seeking “to bring about an order of love and justice that is clearly not the world we see around us” (p. 16). As Jesus-followers we are, most at home, when we’re not at home – or to quote Larry Norman, “we’re only visiting this planet.” Thus:
“When change is all around and the future feels unpredictable, the disciples of the Itinerant One should know that they are in their element” (P. 17).

What is required of us is humble recognition that our best efforts are not sufficient, but God’s grace is sufficient for us. As Paul notes, it is in our weakness that we find strength (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

So what does theology have to do with this? Well everything. Theology isn’t simply a boring prerequisite, for other more important things. Instead, it is the reflection on God’s work and presence in the world. It involves listening for the ways in which God is speaking. Because this is a new day – whether or not we fully embrace the interpretations of a Harvey Cox or a Phyllis Tickle that we stand at the edge of a fundamental transition point in history – it is time to commit ourselves to being more adaptable to the times.

Clayton writes:
Faith in Christ has not become irrelevant, and Jesus’ message is not to be relegated to museums or the dustbins of history. Still, as a church we’ve got to do a better job. In order to be effective, we have to be lighter on our feet and much more adaptable and open to change than we have been so far (p. 18).

The question that the church now faces relates to what this means for us. Does it mean that we abandon buildings and traditional structures? Some would answer yes. Others, would say, wait, maybe these structures have value, but need to be reenergized – the breath of God energizing those dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision (Ezk. 37ff).

Our theology, must include reflecting on the changes we’re experiencing. We draw on ancient texts and beliefs, and yet we also live in a new day, when the questions are very different. So, is change good or bad? Let us continue the conversation.