Wednesday, September 30, 2015

After the Pope's Visit -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

The Pope has returned home to the Vatican City after taking America by storm. He said and did enough to step on most of our toes and perhaps inspire us with his infectious personality (and deep humility). There have been many responses, both positive and critical, but in this piece Martin Marty asks not how he was received, but the consequences in the aftermath. He reminds us that when it comes to religious leaders it is not the power of their personality that ultimately proves consequential. It is the communities formed and transformed. He notes that John Paul II was embraced in his visit to the US for World Youth Day in 1993, but while warmly received, his visit did little to stem the tide of decline. So, what will be the impact long term?  With that question is raised another question -- where is spirituality without community?


After the Pope's Visit
By MARTIN E. MARTY   SEPT 28, 2015
Pope Francis, Washington D.C., Sept. 24, 2015                 Credit: Anton_Ivanov /
Breaking News: Pope Francis Visits America! No doubt some news or comment on this event may have reached some of you some of the time last week, unless you do not have any connections to the outside world. That sentence suggests the next one: you don’t need Sightings to comment in detail on the visit, news and images of which we enjoyed and applauded.

Today begins the work-week after that epical or epochal or at least memorable and provocative event. This week we begin to observe and appraise after-effects. Again, you don’t need Sightings to point to the polar positions of commentators. They appear in abundance.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Family Values - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19B

Mark 10:2-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,[a] and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 
10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 
13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.


                There is a lot of talk these days about family values. Pope Francis addressed issues of family during his recent trip to the United States—the primary reason for his visit was a world-wide Catholic conference on the family. The message that seems to have come out of the conference is that while the church needs to be more gracious in regard to persons who don’t fit the perfect family mold, the church will continue to hold the line on the basic foundations of family. Even as Pope Francis sought to defend tradition, in places like Europe and North America older definitions of family are being challenged, redefined, and replaced. When the Supreme Court decided to legalize same-sex marriage it simply added another layer to a discussion that has been going on for several decades. Perhaps the result of the “sexual revolution,” sex is no longer equated simply with procreation, and thus marriage is now understood in broader terms. Children may be part of marriage, but they needn’t go together. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Home United (Robert LaRochelle) -- Review

A HOME UNITED:Strategies for Couples with Different Beliefs (A Participatory Study Guide). By Robert R. LaRochelle. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2015. Viii + 71.

                Once upon a time in America, when young people began to look for a mate, they looked to their own kind. That is, they chose to marry within their faith community. A Methodist might marry a Presbyterian, but it would prove scandalous for a Catholic and a Presbyterian to marry.  The couple might be joined in deep passionate love, but their families likely wouldn’t approve. Conversion to one or the other would likely be demanded, making the other family left out. Yes, it’s better to marry within the faith.  That was then, and this is now. We’re not as religiously ghettoized as we once were. Muslims, Christians (Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Orthodox), Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, each with their own varieties are found together.  Unless, that is families choose to educate their children in religious homogenous private schools! 

                Hormones don’t discriminate with regard to religion. Two people find themselves attracted to each other. They decide to date and perhaps ultimately mate, so where does religion fit into the equation? Do you ignore it or deal with the realities? Of course, you could choose to set aside religion completely, but is this the right course? Could those religious values and experiences that one brings into a relationship be of great value, if only they were recognized? If you’re going to have the conversation, when do you have it?  Up front, early on, or when the children come? If the latter; is it too late?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

No Cause for Stumbling - A sermon for Pentecost 18B

Mark 9:38-50

It seems as if scandals are breaking out all around us. It’s true that scandal sells, so the media will share the news. You can’t blame them. If inquiring minds want to know, then they will give them what they want.  

Speaking of scandals, here in Michigan we got a front row seat as one of the more seedy political scandals unfolded right before our eyes. It’s rare that a legislature gets so embarrassed that it decides to kick out two of its own, but when these two state representatives not only had an affair while in office, but tried to cover it up using tax payer money, you can understand why action had to be taken. What made this scandal even more noteworthy is that these two legislators ran on a “family values” platform. So, the real scandal was their hypocrisy.

But, if the news hour doesn’t provide you with enough scandalous news, there are other options, including a highly regarded TV show simply titled Scandal.  I’ve not watched it, but I understand that it’s about politics. That probably should not surprise any of us!  Then, if you’ve been scandalized enough, you might decide to throw up your hands, declare pox on all houses, and retreat to a more pleasant state of being. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

How to Read the Bible (Harvey Cox) -- A Christian Century Review

How to Read the Bible, by Harvey Cox

Harvey Cox, professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School and a well-traveled interpreter of things secular and spiritual, provides a word of guidance to those who wish to find in the Bible spiritual meaning for today. Cox made his name in the 1960s with his book The Secular City, but in a more recent book, The Future of Faith, he suggests that we have entered the “age of the Spirit,” and he considers the Bible to be an important resource for this age. However, for the Bible to belong not only to the church or the academy but also to the growing number of people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious, a guidebook is needed. This he provides in How to Read the Bible.
Though Cox recognizes the need to take into consideration what biblical writings meant to the authors and the original audience, what is most important to him is what the text means today. So, for example, it doesn’t matter that Paul ­didn’t intend for 1 Corinthians 13 to be read at weddings. What matters is that it is deemed a valuable word to celebrate the practice of love.
How to Read the Bible is rooted in Cox’s own journey from reading the Bible in a flat, literalistic manner to his engagement in seminary with the historical-critical method. He appreciates the importance of this method, but it still left him back in the ancient world. It was the civil rights movement that helped him discover the importance of what he calls a “spiritual reading” of the Bible. He learned that the Bible is “a living record of an open-ended history of which we can have a part. It is still an unfinished story.”

To continue reading my review of Harvey Cox's latest, go to the Christian Century website:

Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope Francis Addresses America

Yesterday Pope Francis spoke to a joint session of Congress, and in doing so he addressed the America people. He did so not as a politician (though he is a head of state), but as a pastor. As a pastor he speaks with a different voice, though he addresses serious political issues. In the course of his speech he addressed such issues as climate change, economics, immigration, war and peace, the death penalty, the family.  In making his case he focused on the issues that he has been focusing on -- especially the issues of poverty and climate. He addressed the serious challenges being posed by world conflicts and embraced his role as bridge builder (Cuba-USA?). Those who see the world from a political perspective will try to place him on a left/right axis, but to do so will not prove successful. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

THE BIBLE'S YES TO SAME-SEX MARRIAGE, New Edition with Study Guide (Mark Achtemeier) -- Review

THE BIBLE'S YES TO SAME-SEX MARRIAGE, New Edition with Study Guide: An Evangelical's Change of HeartBy Mark Achtemeier.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xv + 137 pages.

NOTE:  Arriving on my doorstep this morning was a new edition of biblical scholar Mark Achtemeier's engaging and helpful argument that the Bible affirms same-sex marriage. With the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage even more churches, mine included, are wrestling with the issue. The new edition doesn't include new text, but provides an extensive study guide for use in groups.  There is a helpful word to leaders that gives guidelines for the study, including the reminder that "any discussion of issues related to sexuality will stir up a range of emotions and opinions in a group. Perhaps this is because our sexual identity is inextricably bound up in our identity as human beings" (p. 135).  I am sharing the review I wrote for the original edition, so that you might consider whether to use the new edition.  


While there is still considerable resistance to marriage equality, especially among the religious communities, there is a growing sense within society and even in many parts of the Christian community that the traditional arguments against same-sex marriage are inadequate and should be abandoned.  An increasing number of those who have changed or are changing their minds are, by their own self-definition, evangelicals.  The question that most evangelicals wrestle with concerns the need to reconcile their openness with what they read in the Bible.  Encounters with gay and lesbian Christians may have forced a re-examination of the Bible; even as many did earlier with women’s roles in the church or slavery, but what is it that they find? 

All parties agree that there fairly explicitly texts that prohibit at least some kinds of same-gender relationships, but do these texts speak to the modern context?  In addition, must one choose between a stricter interpretation of the Bible and a growing sense that one should embrace one’s LGBT brothers and sisters?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Refugee Crisis -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

The stories of migrants and refugees fleeing the violence of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, among other places, including Latin America, capture the hearts of some, but not all Americans, including Christians. For some reason many Christians seem unmoved by biblical calls to care for the stranger and traveler. That the Pope is visiting right now is a good reminder that he is not counted among those who turn their backs. Martin Marty raises important issues and questions about how we treat the migrant, whatever their reasons for moving, reminding us that all, even Native Americans are in one or another immigrants! I invite you to read and consider what you might be called to do!


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Refugee Crisis
By MARTIN E. MARTY   SEPT 21, 2015
        Credit: thomas koch /
The floods of ocean waters in tsunamis occasioned by earthquakes and the floods of humans as refugees occasioned by deathly regimes, revolutions, and food-and-shelter shortages, dominated recent headlines.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Not Against Us – For Us? -- A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18B

Mark 9:38-50 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone[a] casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 
42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,[b] it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell,[c] to the unquenchable fire.[d] 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.[e][f] 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,[g] 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 
49 “For everyone will be salted with fire.[h] 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?[i] Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”


                You could call Jesus’ disciples a band of misfits. They don’t seem to understand who Jesus is or what he’s trying to do. They have their vision of messiahship, and he has his.  Jesus tells them that his path leads to the cross and they argue about who is the greatest, which leads him to tell them not only that the first must be last but if you welcome the child you welcome him (and the one who sent him) (Mark 9:30-37).  All of this must have been confusing to the disciples. In many ways none of this sounds all that logical. It’s counter-intuitive.  As we are so often told, might makes right. The key to success is getting power and keeping it. But that’s not the way Jesus understands his mission.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Welcome the Children -- A Sermon for Pentecost 17B

Mark 9:30-37

When Christmas Eve rolls around we celebrate the coming of the Christ child into the world. Some of the carols we sing that night and throughout the season seem a bit sentimental. Consider the opening verse of Away in a Manger: 
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
It’s a comforting picture, but does it reflect Jesus’ own reality? 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Pope's Visit and Understanding the Catholic Church

Pope Francis will be visiting our shores this coming week. Some are excited, even Protestants like me. Others are not, including quite a number of conservative Catholics who don't like his economic and ecological statements. Nonetheless, he's on his way, and while here he will speak to a joint session of Congress. 

So, what should we expect and how should we interpret what is taking place. Perhaps we need some guidance, especially if we're Protestants. One person who has had considerable experience in both Catholic and Protestant circles is the Rev. Dr. Bob LaRochelle. He was a Catholic deacon and is now an ordained United Church of Christ minister serving a Lutheran congregation. He has written a couple of books on the topic including a brief introduction for Protestants titled: What Protestants Need to Know about Roman Catholics, (Energion, 2013).

I'd like to include a couple of excerpts and invite you to get a copy of your own.

Having said all of this, it is fair to say that to be Roman Catholic, whether one deems oneself a Catholic traditionalist or progressive, involves affirming the importance of the Pope as integral to the life of the church. Reform minded Catholics might yearn for changes in certain policies or insist that the Pope act and deliberate in collegial conjunction with other bishops, yet would nonetheless affirm the ministry of the Bishop of Rome as essential to the Catholic faith.  Protestant Christianity does not share in this affirmation.  
Protestant Christians, on the other hand, might admire the work of a particular Pope or might see the value and importance of having an internationally recognized spokesperson for Christianity. Some might even go so far as to yearn for a day when a leader could be accepted by both Catholics and Protestants alike. Yet, in spite of any of that, Protestant Christians would not see the role of the Pope as essential to the structuring and ordering of the visible church of Jesus Christ on earth. 
[LaRochelle, Robert R. (2013-11-21). What Protestants Need to Know about Roman Catholics (Topical Line Drives) (Kindle Locations 131-138). Energion Publications. Kindle Edition. ]

Even if, as a Protestant I do not accord him authority over the whole church, I do admire and respect him (even if I disagree at a number of points). His example of humility is a powerful witness to the grace of the Gospel. His focus on the sacredness of life -- human and non-human (his economic and ecological emphases).  So, again if you want to prep for  his visit, get yourself a copy of this very brief book.

Friday, September 18, 2015

ISIS' War Against the Past -- Sightings (Robert Cohn)

As a historian I am always appalled when ancient monuments are destroyed, but there is a long history of religiously motivated destruction of predecessor religions. There are different reasons, but often it is in the name of purifying the land of religious contaminants. When I was in England visiting cathedrals I saw examples of efforts to deface monuments in the name of the Reformation. In recent years we have witnessed efforts by the Taliban and now ISIS destroy priceless historical sites. In part, I think this is an expression of nihilism, but as Robert Cohn points out it can also be an expression of a fear of any future outside their own.  It is sometimes difficult to complain about the destruction of historical sites when people suffer, but these historical sites are part of our human experience and expressions of human creativity.  They need to be protected as well.

ISIS' War Against the Past
By ROBERT L. COHN   SEPT 17, 2015
An image released by ISIS on Aug. 25, 2015 showing the destruction of the temple of Baal Shamin in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra, Syria.                        Credit: Kyodo via AP Images
The unrelenting, brutal war that ISIS is conducting in the Middle East confronts us daily with new modes of inhuman behavior. We have been horrified by videos of tortures and beheadings of captured Westerners and locals alike.

And not long ago ISIS released a film showing the drowning of men in a swimming pool while locked in a cage and the burning alive of prisoners locked in an automobile after an explosion set off by a gunshot.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Table and Hospitality

For some reason the sharing of food connects people. When we gather together food is likely involved, even if it's only a cup of coffee. That can, of course, be a problem in a country where obesity is a major health issue, and where many of us are overweight (most especially church people and their pastors).

Not withstanding the dangers of over-indulging, in many societies, ancient and modern, it is expected that the host will share their best with the stranger. If you've ever watched Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods, you will have a sense of what this might mean. Andrew is willing to try anything, so he's a good guest! But wherever he goes even the poorest of the poor will put on a meal for him.

Sara Miles writes provocatively of the power of sharing food in her book Take This Bread

The impulse to share food is basic and ancient, and it's no wonder the old stories teach that what you give to a stranger, you give to God. When I first read about the Prophet Elijah— who was fed in the desert by ravens and in the village of Zarephath by a starving widow— I suddenly got a picture of that story, repeated over and over, tumbling down through thousands of years, repeating at every turn: That's like the time we found fruit in the forest. That's like the woman who made me tea in the town. The fact is, people feed one another constantly from their own bodies, their own plates, their own inadequate stores of insufficient food. Food is what people have in common, and it is, precisely, common. [Miles, Sara (2008-11-19). Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion
(p. 49). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.] 

In my own attempts at constructing a theology of the Open Table that is at the same time faithful to tradition and welcoming to all, knowing that the Table has the power to convert, it is good to remember that when gather at the Lord's Table, Jesus is the host. As host, Jesus is offering his best -- himself -- in the emblems of bread and wine. To pick up on something that Sara Miles points out "people feed one another constantly from their own bodies, their own plates, their own inadequate stores of insufficient food." Jesus' food is sufficient, let us therefore keep the feast!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Annulments and Change -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

It's been a month or so since I've been able to post an essay by Martin Marty, but he's back. With the Pope visiting these American shores in the near future it is worth noting, I suppose, a recent papal word on annulments. While the Catholic Church doesn't allow divorce, it has permitted annulments, which essentially vacate marriages. That is, in the eyes of the church the couple receiving the annulment were never married. It seems that the Pope has simplified the process in the name of mercy. While I as a Protestant might find all of this a bit baffling, it is a large issue within the Catholic Church. Marty doesn't offer an opinion on the merits (he's a Protestant like me), he does take note of the importance of the issue within the Catholic community. I invite you to read and offer your thoughts.

Annulments and Change
By MARTIN E. MARTY   SEPT 14, 2015
Newlyweds attend Pope Francis' Weekly General Audience (Sept. 9, 2015)             
Credit: L'Osservatore Romano / Pool Photo via AP
“Annulments” turned up in many a recent headline in print and on blogs, referencing a new papal action. To anticipate a united response is to miss the dynamics of contemporary by-polar Catholicism.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Who’s on Top -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 17B

Mark 9:30-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

                When I was a kid my friends and I would occasionally play “king of the hill.” The goal of this game is to get to the top of the pile and then keep everyone else off. It’s a game we continue to play throughout our lives, each of us jockeying for the top spot. If that means giving an elbow to another, well that’s the cost of doing business in a “dog-eat-dog” world. If you need help in getting to the top, well there are all kinds of books and seminars that will inform you on how to do this. The Gospels, however, cannot be counted among these “self-help” books.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Converting Power of Holy Communion

For most of Christian history the Lord's Table has been fenced. You have to be on an approved list to gather at the Table, because this is holy food. I don't think this is how it was at the beginning. There are words of guidance about how to behave at the Table, but I've never found hoops to jump through before you can commune. I have a high  view of the Eucharist.  I believe that we meet Jesus at the Table. But, I've come to believe that the Table should be open to all. Thus, one needn't be baptized first. One needn't be confirmed first. But, I also believe that as we gather at the Table, the Table has a converting power that can transform our lives if we allow that to occur. 

I recently finished Sara Miles' book Take This Bread, which shares the story of one person's experience of conversion at the Lord's Table. It is a rather amazing story of how the open table at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco opened up the heart and life of a person who to that point had considered herself an atheist. In fact, she had been raised by missionary children to be just that.  Miles doesn't offer us a fully developed theology of the open table, but I found that her autobiographical reflections stir the imagination.

She writes of her conversion:    
Holy communion knocked me upside down and forced me to deal with the impossible reality of God. Then, as conversion continued, relentlessly challenging my assumptions about religion and politics and meaning, God forced me to deal with all kinds of other people. In large ways and small, I wrestled with Christianity: its grand promises and its petty demands, its temptations and hypocrisies and promises, its ugly history and often insufferable adherents. Faith for me didn't provide a set of easy answers or certainties: It raised more questions than I was ever comfortable with. The bits of my past— family, work, war, love— came apart as I stumbled into church, then reassembled, through the works communion inspired me to do, into a new life centered on feeding strangers: food and bodies, transformed. I wound up not in what church people like to call “a community of believers”— which tends to be code for “a like-minded club”— but in something huger and wilder than I had ever expected: the suffering, fractious, and unboundaried body of Christ. [Miles, Sara (2008-11-19). Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (p. 2). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.] 
It is unlikely that a bounded table will knock anyone upside down. Yet, that is her story. How might unfencing the Table lead to renewal and even revolution in the church? Of course, for some that might mean celebrating more frequently. For others who do hold frequent services, it may require a rethinking of what it is we do at the Table! Oh, and we don't simply open the Table to everyone because we want to be nice. We do so because we believe that encounters with God can occur when people are allowed to gather at the Table. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Way of Discipleship - A Sermon for Pentecost 16B

Mark 8:27-38

Who am I? That’s the question Jesus posed to Peter, the rest of his disciples, and us.  It really doesn’t matter what other people are saying; “who do you say that I am?” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus asked this identity question in the region of Caesarea Philippi. That’s because it’s not only an identity question; it’s a question of allegiance. Is Jesus Lord or is Caesar Lord? That’s a question that continually confronts us, because it’s so easy to confuse our allegiances. Allegiance to country isn’t the same as allegiance to Jesus!

Peter makes the good confession – you’re the messiah – but I’m not sure that Peter completely understood his confession. That might be one reason that Jesus told him and the disciples to keep this under their hats. You see it seems as if Peter thought in political and maybe military terms. He thought of power in terms of the ability to coerce. Maybe he was even hoping to get a cabinet post in Jesus’ new administration. But Peter totally misunderstood Jesus’ vision of God’s realm, and he got so upset with Jesus that he rebuked him. Peter told Jesus that he had gotten things totally wrong. So, until they got these issues settled, there wasn’t any reason to say anything publicly. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Pastor as Public Theologian (Kevin Vanhoozer & Owen Strachan) - Review

THE PASTOR AS PUBLIC THEOLOGIAN: Reclaiming a Lost VisionBy Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. Xi + 221 pages.

I am by vocation a pastor and a theologian. In my mind these two go together, but it would seem that many pastors do not see themselves as theologians. They may believe that theology is an academic discipline that has little to do with parish life. Having taught theology and church history I know that many of my students struggled to connect these disciplines with ministry. What they seemed to want was skills that could grow and manage the churches they wanted to serve. Courses in leadership and communication seemed more appropriate than the seemingly arcane courses in theology and history. A bit of Bible was okay, but even there one needn’t go very deep. What you learned in Sunday school would suffice.  The fact is, however, pastors/ministers/clergy are by definition theologians. They may not be specialists, but as generalists they/we have the important responsibility of helping disciples of Jesus connect their faith to the world in which they live. That is, we need to think of our context theologically. To be a pastor/theologian doesn’t require an advanced degree. I happen to have one, but then I was expecting to spend my career in the academy not the parish. Nonetheless, I have found that the parish is an excellent place to do theology. In fact, I think I’m a better theologian today having spent the past seventeen years in parish ministry than I was (and possibly could be) had I continued on the path I had for myself.

Having introduced my own interest in the relationship of the pastoral vocation and the work of the theologian, I come to the book under review. It is intended to be a clarion call to pastors to reclaim their vocation as pastor-theologians. The authors of the book, both conservative evangelical theologians name a problem and offer their solution. They are, like me, concerned that too often clergy see themselves as simply another helping profession, who look to the latest therapeutic and business models for their inspiration. In this view, theology just doesn’t seem relevant. Who cares about Barth or Augustine, when Wayne Dyer or Tom Peters has a word of inspiration? We tell ourselves that this is what the people want, and there’s some truth to that. The question is whether what a consumerist population thinks is useful is what will lead to thoughtful disciples of Jesus.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Ending the Teaching of Contempt against the Church's Sexual Minorities (David Gushee)

The church is wrestling with many issues, few as challenging as its response to LGBT persons -- sexual minorities.  That includes the congregation I serve. In response to this we have invited Dr. David Gushee, one of the nation's preeminent Christian ethicists and a person deeply connected to the evangelical tradition, to speak with our congregation and the community at large. In preparation for his visit (and as part of our congregation's reading of David's book Changing Our Mind).  

As part of this preparation I want to share this video of an important address on the part of David Gushee to the meeting of the Reformation Project earlier this year, in which he addressed the problem of the "teaching of contempt." The key component of this address is the analogy David makes to how the church treated Jewish persons, and the similarities with how the church has treated sexual minorities. 

Having watched this video presentation, if it touches your heart and mind, I invite you to join us at Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan for David's presentations at the Perry Gresham Lectures on October 2-4. You can find the brochure with registration form here at the Michigan Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) website.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Holy Fools? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16B

Mark 8:27-38 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”


                “Who do you think I am?” In answer to Jesus’ question Peter answers: “You are the Messiah.” Peter had been with Jesus long enough to figure out that there was something special about him. But when Jesus tried to define what that meant, Peter was indignant. That didn’t fit in with his vision of what it meant to be one of the key figures in Jesus’ retinue. How could the Messiah (Son of Man) suffer rejection by the religious leaders and then face execution. That is not the fate that one would expect of a messianic figure. This should be a path of glory (Palm Sunday?). But such is not Jesus’ understanding and Peter rebukes him as a result. Perhaps that’s understandable. After all, Peter and his colleagues weren’t counted among the nation’s elite, but if Jesus could gain power (of some type, whether political or religious), then he might find himself in a position of importance.

Monday, September 07, 2015

The Value of Work - Reflection for Labor Day

 Note: The following essay is taken from my book Faith in the Public Square, and is based on op-ed published in the Lompoc Record.  I repost to help us remember what today is supposed to celebrate -- the value of the labor we produce.


The Bible says: “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23), and Ben Franklin said:  “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  Both sayings seem appropriate for Labor Day weekend, because both affirm the value of labor.  That’s also the point of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s adage that “the reward of a thing well done, is to have done it.”  The point of these sayings is:  It doesn’t matter what we do,  whether we’re building a house, planting a garden, harvesting a field, writing a book, or acing a test, when we see the product of our work we can take pride in our accomplishment.  

Work is good, but reality can put a damper on our celebration.  Sometimes work is dehumanizing, dangerous, or just plain back-breaking.  The only benefit of such work is the wage it pays, which too often is a mere pittance.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

The Lesson Jesus Learned - Sermon for Pentecost 15B

Mark 7:24-37

If Jesus is the Son of God, then he must know everything. After all, he lived in perfect communion with God and  had access to sources only Commander Data might have available. If that’s true, then when he was a child he wouldn’t have to study before a test. He probably knew the answers before the questions were created! Or did he?  What did he know? And when did he know it?

As we return to the Gospel of Mark, it’s good to remember that Mark’s Jesus appears out of nowhere at the Jordan River where he’s baptized and then receives his commission from God. Mark doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ upbringing, but Luke does offer us a peak into Jesus’ childhood. Remember how Jesus took a trip to Jerusalem with his family at the age of twelve and ended up talking theology with the religious leaders in the Temple. Luke’s Jesus is a bit precocious and perhaps even something of a handful, but after the family returned home, it’s written that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:22-39). Perhaps Jesus still had lessons to learn. Maybe he even had to overcome a natural ethnocentrism that seems to afflict us all.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Fieldwork in Theology (Christian Scharen) -- Review

FIELDWORK IN THEOLOGY: Exploring the Social Context of God's Work in the World (The Church and Postmodern Culture)By Christian Scharen. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. Xviii + 117 pages.

                It is probably a truism that theology has a cultural context, and therefore it behooves theologians to take that context into consideration as they do their work. That would include, I would add, pastors who are called upon to do theology in a particular context. My sense is that most of us who do theology, whether in the academy or in the parish, are not fully informed as to what that involves. That is, most of us do not have a strong background in the social sciences. As for me, I am a pastor who is trained as a historical theologian. I am by training an intellectual historian not a social historian. In other words, I spent my time reading books not doing field work! So, when I requested a review copy from the publisher, I may not have fully appreciated what I was getting myself into. That said I still want to offer my thoughts on the book and its value to our work of doing theology.

Christian Scharen, vice president of applied research at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, is fully conversant with both theology and the social context. He has studied the leading sociologists, including the French social scientist Pierre Bourdieu and his mentors and students. In this book, which is a volume in Baker’s The Church and Postmodern Culture series, edited by James K. A. Smith, Scharen attempts to engage in a form of “theological ethnography.” He wants to show the reader how to do the kind of field work necessary to discern the connection between divine action and human response.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

How Your Church Can Thrive -- Rev. Dr. Ruth Fletcher (video conversation)

Many a book has been written about church life, especially about how to grow churches. All you need to do is buy the package from any number of consultants or mega-church pastors. What we discover once we return from the seminars or finish the books is that a one-size-fits-all vision doesn't work. Ruth Fletcher, the Regional Minister for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Montana, has spent quite a bit of time working with Mainline Protestant congregations, mostly in the western part of the United States (a region that is increasingly the home of the Nones), but has developed some words of wisdom about church life that can be of help to clergy and congregations. She has written a book for the series I edit with Energion Publications for the Academy of Parish Clergy. The book goes by the title: Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations(Energion Publications, 2015). 

On Tuesday evening Ruth had a conversation with publisher Henry Neufeld in which she talks about the book and what it means for congregations to thrive in a changing world. Yes, the world is changing and the church must learn to adapt. But to adapt requires that we do this in a way that is deeply rooted in Christian spirituality. So, I invite you to take a listen and perhaps pick up a book (just click on the picture above to go to Amazon).  I think you will be pleased by what you hear and read!

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

David Gushee to Speak on LGBT Inclusion at Central Woodward Christian Church -- October 2-4

The 2015 Perry Gresham Bible Lecture and Clergy Day will have a widely regarded Christian ethicist, author and human rights activist as it's featured speaker this year. Central Woodward Christian Church, 3955 W. Big Beaver Road, Troy, MI, is the Gresham Lectures host and sponsor along with Christian Theological Seminary (CTS).

Dr. David Gushee, professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University will address the need to rethink the biblical case for how we open Christian hearts to full acceptance of the LGBT community, so often marginalized and mistreated gay Christians in the life of the church.

Friday from 10 am to 3 pm is Clergy Spiritual Formation Day, looking at how the church can be a place of grace and hospitality, where everyone feels welcomed and safe.  Registration is $50, including lunch and 4.5 CEU credit certificate from Christian Theological Seminary.

Saturday from 10 am to 2 pm is a Community Workshop focusing on "Changing Our Mind: My Argument for LGBT Inclusion in the Churches." This session welcomes clergy and lay, registration being $15, including lunch.

Dr. Gushee will be preaching Sunday morning also.

Registration deadline is September 28, 2015. Download the brochure and registration form (thanks to the Michigan Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for putting up the downloadable form).