Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Embracing Love (Nathan Albert) -- Review

EMBRACING LOVE: MyJourney to hugging a Man in His Underwear. By Nathan Albert. Foreword by Andrew Marin. Canton, MI: Read the Spirit Books, 2016. Xxv + 260 pages.


It is clear that when it comes to acceptance of homosexuality things are changing quickly. Even in evangelical circles, which have been the most resistant to change, change is happening. As more and more people come out of the closet, we discover that family and friends are gay, lesbian, transgender. Churches across the spectrum are adjusting to the changing times, and those that resist likely will struggle in the future, even if they seem to be successful at the moment. Pressure is coming, largely from younger Christians. Time will tell where things will land, but with last year’s SCOTUS decision legalizing gay marriage across the country, it is no longer if the law will change but how should we respond. Accompanying these changes is a growing number of books written by Christian authors, many of them evangelical, that speak to the changes and offer testimony and guidance for those taking the journey for the first time. So, whereas just a decade in the past there were few resources from Christian authors and publishers, especially those that were welcoming and inclusive, now my shelves are overflowing with new books. While there is much overlap in these books, each has its own message and emphasis.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Do the Math - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16C

Luke 14:25-33 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

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                When I read this passage words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Cost of Discipleship come to mind: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Everyone who knows Bonhoeffer’s story knows of his execution and thus connects his death with these words. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Bonhoeffer explored in great depth the relationship of discipleship and the cross, and for him the cross involved the expectation of suffering. It’s not just any suffering, it’s not sickness or injury, it is suffering that comes as a result of one’s confession of faith in Christ. Looking out at his own context of 1930s Germany, he could take note of how “a Christianity that no longer took discipleship seriously remade the gospel into only the solace of cheap grace” [Discipleship, p. 86].

Monday, August 29, 2016

50 Ways to Help Save the Earth. Revised Edition. (Rebecca Barnes) - Review

50 WAYS TO HELP SAVE THE EARTH: How You and Your Church Can Make a Difference. Revised Edition. By Rebecca J. Barnes. Foreword by Gradye Parsons. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. 128 pp.

As the debate about climate change rages on, whatever our position, the challenge to be good stewards of the environment is ever before us. Green is the color of the future – new energy sources, conservation of existing resources, and cleaning of toxic sites. The question is – what can we do as individuals and as churches? According to Rebecca Barnes is the Associate for Environmental Ministries of the Presbyterian Church (USA), there are at least fifty ways that we can go about saving the earth. This is a revised version of a 2009 book, though the revisions seem minor. There is also a preface added to this edition written by Gradye Parsons, the recently retired Stated Clerk of the PC(USA). 

I've chosen to essentially repost, with minor changes, my earlier review from 2009.  The point of the book is the introduction of fifty things we can do that can help save the earth. Reading a book like this, despite its slim size, readability, and useful graphics isn’t easy. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the feeling that there’s simply too much to do. You read a section, and before long you have this overwhelming sense of guilt. Or, you look at suggestions and taking them as commands, you feel like it’s simply not doable. But, while the author may envision our embracing every idea in the book, I expect that she understands that we will start small, and work way up to the more difficult and challenging possibilities. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Are real cross-party political conversations possible? (Revisited from 2012)


Four years ago, we were in the midst of an election cycle.  The candidates for President in 2012 (in case you've forgotten) were Barack Obama, the incumbent, and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger. The conversation that year was pretty bleak, but here we are four years later and if anything the conversation has gotten even worse.  Below is what I wrote four years ago on this very day. I invite you to read and consider the current state of affairs.  I'm leaving it as is, so you can ignore the announcement for the conversation about my book Faith in the Public Square.  That being said, I do recommend reading the book, and what appears below! 

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For the past few weeks my Monday posting has answered a political question offered by my publisher.  The intention was for a conservative voice to join me in a conversation or debate.  I didn't really like this described as a debate, because debates tend to separate rather than bring people together.  Although I am, according to a little Pew Research Quiz a radical left winger, I don't see myself in that way.  My own self-perception is of a person a bit left of center.  Back to the conversation with Elgin Hushbeck (at the time my conservative conversation partner) -- I found his answer over the top and decided I couldn't go further.  You can decide for yourself whether I over-reacted. In any case the conversation is on hiatus, but with the start of one party's national convention this week and politics on everyone's mind, I thought it worth devoting at least a little time to the conversation -- after all, on Wednesday evening I'm hosting a conversation on Faith in the Public Square that will include a book signing,

Friday, August 26, 2016

Study Guide for David Gushee's Changing our Mind!



I want to share news that my Study Guide for Changing Our Mind: A pastor helps classes and small groups study David P. Gushee's book about the Christian acceptance of LGBT men and women is available in e-book format from the publisher (Read the Spirit Books). David's book Changing our Mind and his presence at Central Woodward Christian Church proved immensely helpful to our move toward Open and Affirming Status.  

I created a study guide for use by our congregation and I'm pleased that David and his publisher wanted to make it available for other communities who are moving through the process of discernment. David's book is important because he comes at the question from the perspective of an Evangelical who concluded that it was the right thing to do on the part of the church to move toward full inclusion of LGBTQ sisters and brothers. Like many of us, relationships, especially family relationships proved eye-opening and might I say Spirit-moving.  The links above are to the Amazon Kindle version. There are several other options if you don't use Kindle. They are:

iBooks/iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/…/study-guide-for-ch…/id1146580952…

Nook/Barnes&Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/study-guide-for-…/1124435369

Google Play/Google Books: https://play.google.com/…/Rev_Dr_Robert_Cornwall_Changing_O…

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Justification -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

A year from this October 31, the world will observe the 500th anniversary of Luther's famous nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, thereby launching the Protestant Reformation. It also launched centuries of conflict, sometimes violent, between Protestant and Catholic partisans. In recent years there has been rapprochement as conflict was replaced with conversation. It's not that all of our differences have been ironed out, but then we Protestants have our share of differences inside the "family," but there has been great movement towards one another. Standing at the heart of our differences is the question of justification and communion. Recently steps were taken by Lutherans and Catholics to bridge that divide. Martin Marty, a Lutheran, offers his take on that movement in this essay. Won't you take a read?


Justification 
By MARTIN E. MARTY   August 22, 2016
Last week, while the sports-loving public watched timed Olympic events, viewers relearned the values of timing, measuring, and scorekeeping. Some races were decided by 1/100th of a second margins. The substantially smaller, microscopically observable religion-news-watching public did not always have to measure outcomes quite so close. Thus on August 18 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, during its Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans, voted to approve a document called “Declaration on the Way” relating to a document, “From Conflict to Communion,” approved earlier by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation. The vote, by more than a whisker? 931-9.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Endangered Gospel (John Nugent) -- A Review

ENDANGERED GOSPEL: How Fixing the World Is Killing the Church. By John C. Nugent. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016. X + 220 pages.

                Surveys have suggested that people are turned off to Christianity because churches and church people are too political. At the same time churches are criticized for being too concerned about themselves and not about their communities. There is also that growing trend of people, even within Christian circles, of people distancing themselves from the church. Many say they are "spiritual but not religious," while others continue to claim the Christian mantle but don’t seem to believe that the church is necessary to the task of planting and expanding God’s realm. These are not easy days for those of us in the church business!

                 There are, of course, counter arguments that seek to claim a space for the church. Indeed, there are numerous voices suggesting that God has chosen the church to be the vanguard of God’s kingdom work. Thus, outside the church there is no salvation! Among those voices is that of John Nugent, professor of Old Testament at Great Lakes Christian College in Lansing Michigan. Nugent has become an important interpreter of the works of John Howard Yoder, and in this book he follows a path that seems rather counterintuitive. He argues in this book against the missional vision that suggests that God is already at work in the world and the church should get on board. In contrast to that vision, which is quite popular today, John argues that God is creating in the church an alternative community that is called to exhibit God’s vision of a better place. He affirms the principle espoused by missional folks that people are seeking a better place, he just doesn’t believe that there is any hope of making this world a better place. Only God can do that, so in the meantime the church is a beacon. It’s primary message to the world isn’t a social justice one, it is an evangelistic one.  By trying to make this world a better place those who embrace a “world-centered” vision of the kingdom are killing the church.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Where Do I Sit? - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15A


Luke 14:1-2, 7-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

14 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 2 Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. 

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
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                Proverbs 25 offers a brief but pointed piece of wisdom: “Don’t exalt yourself in the presence of the king, or stand in the place of important people” (Prov.25:6-7).  In a hierarchical society where the king was viewed as being close to divine if not divine, this is definitely a word of wisdom.  Even in a modern democracy such as the United States, a person doesn’t just go up and start talking to the President.  If the President, or a member of the staff, invites you to join in conversation with the President, well that’s a different story, but you can’t just jump into the front of the line and expect to be well-treated by the President, staff, or the folks around you.  It is wise to know one’s place!         
       

Monday, August 22, 2016

Kingdom Ethics (2nd edition) - David Gushee and Glen Stassen - A Review

KINGDOM ETHICS: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Second Edition). By David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016. Xxiii + 526 pages.

                According to one dictionary definition, ethics is a system of moral principles. It has to do with how we conduct ourselves. There are many approaches to ethics, as any textbook will reveal. Many religions, including Christianity concern themselves with moral principles and behavior, and thus offer a system of ethics. Christianity, as a religion, is rather diverse and so there isn’t just one way of approaching the topic. Many theologians have contributed major works on ethics, as they have sought to make a connection between their vision of God and contemporary life. Some theologians have devoted their careers to ethics, among them are David Gushee and the late Glen Stassen, authors of Kingdom Ethics.

                In recent years I have come to highly regard the work of David Gushee. We were fortunate to host him last fall at my church, as he spoke on the question of LGBT inclusion, the subject of his book Changing Our Mind, (Read the Spirit Books).  I also had the opportunity to meet Glen Stassen several years back, prior to his death. Gushee and Stassen have Baptist roots. Both are evangelicals. Both are committed to the way of Jesus. That is the focus of this rather lengthy ethics textbook.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Go and Do the Same: Make Room - A Sermon


Luke 14:1, 7-14



When I was a child, my mother tried to teach me proper etiquette. She taught me to wait before I began eating until everyone was not only seated at the table but served. She also told me to chew with my mouth closed and not talk with my mouth full. I know there were other rules, but these will suffice for now.  

Where you sit at the Table also can be a matter of proper etiquette. The host sits at the head of the table, and the guest of honor sits at the host’s right hand. The rest of the seating chart is defined by social status. The higher your status the closer you’re seated to the host and the guest of honor. So, if you go to a dinner party, and you think you’re someone special, you’ll want to be seated as close to the host as possible. But it’s not up to you! So you might as well wait to be seated before choosing a seat. You don’t want to make the mistake of choosing the wrong seat, and suffer the humiliation of being moved to the back of the room. So wait for the host to seat you.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Millstone of Student Loans


My son is a recent graduate of a private Christian college. Like most college students, except perhaps those able to get into a few elite schools with huge endowments, he had to take out student loans. He has amassed a significant debt (as is true of most recent graduates) and now must pay off the loan. Not only that, but he's already accrued significant interest debt. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Destroyer of the Gods (Larry Hurtado) -- A Review

DESTROYER OF THE GODS: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.  By Larry W. Hurtado. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016. Xii + 267  pages.

                The title of biblical scholar Larry Hurtado’s latest book is rather dramatic. It could easily be used on the cover of a science fiction book, but it is in fact, the title of a sophisticated historical account of the growth and distinctiveness of early Christianity as it emerged and then evolved within the Roman world. The gods at issue in this title are the gods of Greece and Rome, which Christianity would eventually overcome with its exclusive, transethnic, monotheism.

                Larry Hurtado, author of this important book on early Christianity, is the well-regard Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh. He writes this book to counteract what he perceives to be a cultural amnesia that influences the way in which the development of Christianity has come to be understood over the past few centuries. Hurtado argues for the distinctive nature of Christianity in the face of those who follow in the footsteps of history of religion scholars who want to emphasize Christianity’s similarities over its distinctiveness. Many of these efforts suggest that Christianity is a product of its Greco-Roman environment, so that it functions merely as one more mystery cult. In fact, in some portrayals, everything from Jesus’ birth to his resurrection are seen as reflecting the influence of the age’s mystery cults. It’s not to deny that there aren’t similarities, and at times some borrowing of elements, but at the heart of things, Christianity was unique.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Success and Truth in Religion - Sightings (Martin Marty)

For much of my adult life, all of which has been spent in some form connected to religious work or study, I've heard the mantra that conservative churches grow because they hold fast to the truth. The reverse of this suggests that liberal churches have declined because of their failure to hold fast to truth. Now that conservative churches are struggling, maybe we're learning a different lesson. Maybe it was truth lead to success, but as Martin Marty suggests it's simply success breeds success. I think he's probably correct. That doesn't mean that we give up on pursuing what is good and right, it's just that there might not be a direct link to success -- just ask Job! In any case, I invite you to take a read and offer your thoughts on truth and success in the religious world.


Success and Truth in Religion   
By MARTIN E. MARTY   August 15, 2016
Since 1972, when Dean Kelley published Why Conservative Churches Are Growinga good portion of the noticing of religious trends has been framed in Kelley’s terms. This led to concentration on what his title could take for granted: that Conservative Churches were growing. Kelley’s case and much else that fit his frame could have been supplied in an implied subtitle: Why Liberal Churches Are Declining. Readers who have a spare afternoon to play not Pokémon but Google can find hundreds, if not thousands, of entries on these subjects, whether explicitly defined by Kelley in 1972, or in our times by Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), or the Pew Research Center. We check the proposals and findings of these weekly, and often find them revealing.
         

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A Timely Work - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14C


Luke 13:10-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

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                I doubt many Christians concern themselves with Sabbath-keeping, at least not Christians in the United States. Like everyone else we hurry along, keeping ourselves busy, even on the day of worship. I know that this is true, because I rarely take a true sabbath rest. We might do well to devote some time to sabbath-keeping, but in this reading from Luke the issue is a bit different. Folks at this synagogue where Jesus is teaching seem rather strict in their observance of the Sabbath. Sabbath is, of course, a day of rest and that means not working. But what is the definition of work in play here?

Monday, August 15, 2016

What Use is God?

What use is God if God can’t or won’t prevent evil from occurring? That’s a question people have been asking for millennia. Theologians and philosophers have done their best offer answers defending God (the term for this is theodicy), but the question keeps arising. It would be easier if Christian theology allowed for the existence of two equally powerful gods, one good and the other evil (dualism). Then evil could be blamed on the evil god, leaving the God of love untainted. Unfortunately, that solution isn’t available to Christians, for like other traditional monotheistic religions, Christians believe that God has no ultimate rival. Therefore, we must look elsewhere for answers.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

May God’s Face Shine Upon Us - Sermon for Pentecost 13C

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19


“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel . . . Stir up your might and come to save us!” In ages past, the Shepherd of Israel took a vine out of Egypt and planted it in a new land. This vine spread out covering the land from sea to river. It grew strong and powerful. Unfortunately, over time the vine lost its luster. For some reason the Shepherd had failed to properly care for the vine, or at least that’s the view of the Psalmist, who asks God to repent and look down upon God’s people and restore the vine to its former glory. Yes, Lord, make your face to shine upon us once again!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Public Transit in Metro Detroit


I will admit it. I don't use public transportation here in Metro-Detroit. After all, this is the Motor City. We build cars here, so why have buses? That has been the attitude around here for decades, but perhaps things are changing. Perhaps we might soon have a well-funded Regional Transit Authority. Then maybe I'll have reason to use public transportation.

I'm not averse to using it. I have used it in San Francisco, Portland, Washington, DC, Chicago, San Diego, and even in places like Atlanta and Baltimore. But, you have to have a well-maintained, well-organized system, and we don't have that! We do have buses in this region, but it's difficult to get where you need to go without taking all day, and probably walking several miles!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

History-less Judgments - Sightings (Martin Marty)

I'm biased. I am trained as a historian (church history), with additional graduate study in American History. I think history is important. I believe that having at least a basic understanding of American history is something we should all have (and we should emerge with if we're high school graduates). Having a broad understanding of history can help us place religion in proper context. Unfortunately, as Martin Marty reveals, this is not happening with any regularity, leaving even college educated Americans woefully ignorant about our own history, let alone the role of religion in American history. I invite you to read this essay by the eminent historian of American Christianity and the relationship of faith to the public square, Martin Marty! 


History-less Judgments   
By MARTIN E. MARTY   August 8, 2016
Paul Tillich’s “religion is the soul of culture and culture is the form of religion” is not the only thing to say on the subject(s), but it is a provocative inspiration to those who reflect on and who write about each. Let me follow that inspiration this week and look back to and in on my calling, which for me ended professionally eighteen years ago, but which never leaves one. It’s a bit of a stretch to link a new report on "No U.S. History?", which does not mention religion, with a concern about religion and commenting on “religion in public life,” the assignment of Sightings. The document was prepared by and arrived from ACTA (www.goACTA.org), The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, to jolt academic humanists, historians, and others to take seriously the absence of U.S. history from curricular requirements of (by far, most) history departments in college and university history curricula.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Going Creedless

Isaac Errett
The other day Scot McKnight posted about those who claim to be creedless. I would prefer the term "non-creedal" to "creedless," but either way, he questioned whether one could be creedless, and pointed to the Churches of Christ as one example of a creedless community.  In pointing to my Stone-Campbell siblings, I had to include my branch.  We too are non-creedal, though perhaps not quite as strongly as perhaps our siblings.  We do have what we call the Preamble to the Design, which serves as an introduction to the denomination's constitution and bylaws (the Design). Our worship committee decided to utilize the Preamble in worship for a little over the month as part of an "experiment" related to a conference at nearby Rochester College. I won't go into that, but there was some resistance to using the Preamble on the part of some, who saw it as a creed. This was true even though the Preamble was written nearly fifty years ago.  Still there seemed to be discomfort.

So, what does it mean to be non-creedal?  I should note that while Thomas and Alexander Campbell rejected creeds at one level, they didn't do so in any whole-sale manner. The question isn't whether or creeds are bad, but how they're used. In looking up something else, I came across this statement from a second-generation Disciple leader -- Isaac Errett.  Errett, interestingly enough, was active starting churches in Michigan and in Detroit, and thus could have been instrumental in planting the church that became Central Woodward Christian Church (my congregation).  He wrote a piece called "Our Position," in which he laid out a series of basic beliefs and practices (much like the Preamble). But he made it clear (though not everyone believed him) that this wasn't a creed. He writes of creeds in this manner, which I think is helpful:

While agreeing that the Bible furnishes an all-sufficient revelation of the Divine will, and a perfect rule of faith and practice, we disagree practically in this; We act consistently with this principle,  and repudiate all human authoritative creeds. We object not to publishing, for information, what we believe and practice, in whole or in part, as circumstances may demand, with the reasons therefor. But we stoutly refuse to accept of any such statement as authoritative, or as a test of fellowship, since Jesus Christ alone is Lord of the conscience, and His word alone can rightfully bind us. What he has revealed and enjoined, eitehre personally or by His apostles, we acknowledge as binding; where he has not bound us, we are free; and we insist on standing fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, carefully guarding against all perversions of said liberty into means or occasions of strife. [Historical Documents Advocating Christian Union].
Note that Errett emphasizes the rejection of creeds as authoritative statements that can be used as tests of fellowship. This is because even if Scripture is, as he believes, authoritative, interpretations can differ. Thus, only Christ can bind the conscience.  Thus any creed serves as signposts and summations of what a community may believe and practice. They can be helpful, but they can't be used to exclude from the Table. Even as I have no problem reciting the creeds, I feel no obligation to affirm in every way the statements as being authoritative in any final and definitive manner. I think that what Errett is espousing here is a good principle!  

I hope this clarifies "our position" in response to Scot McKnight's questions. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Choosing Sides - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 13C


Luke 12:49-56 Common English Bible (CEB)
49 “I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze! 50 I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division. 52 From now on, a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three. 53 Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” 
54 Jesus also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud forming in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s going to rain.’ And indeed it does. 55 And when a south wind blows, you say, ‘A heat wave is coming.’ And it does. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time?
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                I love Jesus. I’ve committed my life to following him (though very imperfectly). I have what some would call a high Christology (I’m Trinitarian). I embrace his call to love God and neighbor. I just wish the Gospel writers would leave out passages like the one chosen for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. I much prefer a theology of inclusion that seeks to build bridges. I’m an ecumenist to the very depths of my soul and I’ve long been deeply involved in interfaith work. So I don’t like this reading, because Jesus speaks here in apocalyptic terms of setting the world ablaze, and bringing division within the land. Indeed, division within the family. I want a message of peace, but in this passage Jesus reveals that this is not in the cards. I realize that there are preachers who embrace a message of division and destruction, but that’s not the message I choose to preach. I expect I’m not alone.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Loss of the Theological Middle

My  friend Jose Morales shared on Facebook the post written by Phillips Theological Seminary president, Gary Peluso-Verdend. The piece is titled "Confessions of a Seminary President." The essay as a whole is well worth reading, for it speaks of the challenges presented to seminary education today, but I wanted to address the first confession, in which he points out the loss of the theological middle,
The middle is gone. When I was in seminary as a student (1977-81), there was most definitely a theological middle. The 1980s and the creation of The Christian Right had not happened yet. Professors could call themselves “evangelical liberals” and that was not an oxymoronic appellation. Even when I came to Phillips in 1993, there was something of a theological middle. Today, not so much. The culture has divided out like wars within religions (the churches have drunk the same Kool-Aid), with orthodoxies being re-asserted or invented in order to create a boundary and sometimes division between Us and Them.
 My best guess is that Gary is about three (or so) years older than me. He started seminary the year I started my sophomore year of college, and we received our Ph.D.s (from different schools) the same year.  So, his journey has paralleled mine, though I've spent the bulk of my vocational life in the parish and he in theological education.

He notes that we have lost the theological middle. As with every other area of life, we seem to have moved to polar opposites. He notes that once one could refer to one's self as an "evangelical liberal" and that this would not be considered an "oxymoronic appellation." That maybe true, but there are those of us who would rather be bridge builders than wall builders. That means living in the somewhat messy arena of the middle. Gary received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, an institution that is usually considered a hotbed of theological liberalism. I received my Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, a flagship evangelical school. My theology has moved more to the left over the years, and my social views even further left, but I mourn the loss of the middle, if it is truly lost. There is wisdom to gain from folks all along the theological spectrum. We have to read carefully, and know that not everything is worth keeping, but let's not write each other off. I value my education from Fuller, even if I might not be able to fully ascribe to its statement of faith (for the most part I can, but I might have to nuance a bit). I also value I've learned from folks on the liberal side of the ledger. So, maybe it's time to reclaim the appellation of "liberal evangelical or "evangelical liberal" for the good of the church and of humanity!

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Taking the Right Path - Sermon for Pentecost 12 C

Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23

This morning we again read responsively the Preamble to the Design. The Preamble invites us to consider who we are as Disciples. What beliefs and practices bind us together as a covenant community? Since we’re not a creedal people, we don’t require anybody to sign off on a lengthy statement of faith. But, we are bound together in our common commitment to be followers of Jesus. That means we’re part of a much larger body of Christ, and the Preamble gives voice to some of the beliefs and practices we hold in common as a covenant people.  

I want to focus our attention on the third affirmation of the Preamble
We rejoice in God, maker of heaven and earth and in the covenant of love which binds us to God and one another. 
If you watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, you heard the President of the IOC point to the Olympic ideal of unity in diversity. That is our calling as Disciples. We are, as part of the larger body of Christ, bound together as one people in all our diversity, so that we might live in eternal fellowship with God our creator, and with the rest of God’s creation.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Extremism: A 21st Century Ideology



My book Faith in the Public Square first appeared as the 2012 primary season was getting underway. It's been four years, and our political squabbles continue unabated. It seems as if we're as divided today as ever, at least in the popular mind. With that in mind, and with a hope we can build some bridges even as we take on important issues that affect people's lives, I invite you to read this chapter from my book.  

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"If totalitarianism was the great problem of the twentieth century, then extremism is, so far, the great problem of the twenty-first."
                This is our future, says former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham. News reports would seem to support his analysis. Jihads, Crusades, and Culture Wars dominate daily conversation, while ideology polarizes us. You’re either for or against us, and either red or blue, with no room for purple.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Newsworthy (Chris Altrock) -- Review

NEWSWORTHY: Nine Waysto Live the Good News Now. By Chris Altrock. St. Louis: CBP, 2016. 170 Pages.

                What is the Gospel or Good News and how should it be shared? Indeed, how is the church engaged in both sharing and embodying the Gospel in our time? These are central questions for Christians to consider, especially at a time when greater numbers of people are questioning whether the church has anything to offer them. They might be looking for God, but not in the church. They’d like good news, but they’ve not been encountering it when they encounter Christians. So how do we change the story-line?  

                One who seeks to offer an answer to these questions is Chris Altrock, a Church of Christ preaching minister from Memphis, Tennessee. He is the preaching minister at Highland Street Church of Christ and author of several previous books. He writes to a lay audience in way that reflects his calling as a preaching minster. That is, the tone of the book is sermonic in many ways. While he’s Church of Christ, the book has strong evangelical tones. I say that cautiously because at least portions of evangelicalism have become so tied to a particular form of political life that evangelicalism has developed a rather bad reputation. I don’t see that kind of vision present in this book, which may be why the book is published by an arm of a denominational publisher that has become known for its line of progressive Christian books.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

The Mormon Moment and Others - Sightings (Martin Marty)

Yesterday Cheryl and I took in a car show and encountered a 1923 Model T that has been in the same family since being purchased new by the current owner's father. Cars sure have come along way in the past 90 plus years, but the age of the auto could pass as well, perhaps in my life time (yeah Jetsons). In any case, Martin Marty takes up a conversation started by Ed Blum in his review of John Turner's book The Mormon Years posted in the Christian Century. Marty takes up Ed's suggestion that the "Mormon Moment" that emerged around the time of Mitt Romney's race for the Presidency in 2014, has passed, and therefore, Turner's book may have already passed it's prime.  I'll leave that for others to discuss, but the questions that Marty raises as a historian speaking in part to other historians is how we measure time. The Mormon Moment may have passed, but it's likely we're in the Secular Age. But that too may pass.  Thus, nothing is permanent, is it?  Take a read!


The Mormon Moment and Others
By MARTIN E. MARTY   August 1, 2016
The “Mormon Moment” has passed. I learned this from a book reviewer in The Christian Century (see “resources” below), who criticized and dismissed a new book with a Mormon theme, and then from a New York Times article which dated “the end of the Mormon Moment” before July, 2014. Why had there been a Mormon Moment a few years ago and what had happened? Reviewer Blum pointed to the silence after the Mitt Romney presidential campaign and the closing of the Broadway play The Book of Mormon (though it is back again). “The Mormon Girl” was a celebrity, joined by others back then. “Four years ago, it seemed that anything and everything related to Mormonism was ripe for public picking. How the times have changed.”

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

On the Alert - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12C


Luke 12:32-40 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 
35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 
39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

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                It does little good to hire a security firm to watch your property if the persons charged with keeping watch fall asleep. On the other hand, living as we do at a time when terrorist attacks and other violent events that have caught our attention come without warning, it’s easy to second guess intelligence agencies and the police when such violence occurs. Life is full of surprises, so how do you stay alert to all the possibilities?  So it is with the kingdom of God.

Monday, August 01, 2016

The Riddle of Life (J.H. Bavinck) -- A Review

THE RIDDLE OF LIFE. By J. H. Bavinck. Translated by Bert Hielema. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016. Vii + 94 pages.

                What is life? Where did it begin? What is its meaning? Where does it end? These are all questions we ponder. Religion seeks to answer these kinds of questions, and J. H. Bavinck seeks to answer them in TheRiddle of Life.  This brief, accessible book, invites us to consider the nature of life and the way in which God is involved with this world.  The blurb on the back page offers it as something written in the spirit of C.S. Lewis by Calvinist thinker. That is, the book serves to introduce some basic elements of the Christian faith to a general audience. 

                The book itself was originally written in Dutch sometime before 1940 (the date of its publication), and only now is being translated into English—some seventy-five years later. The question is why is it appearing at this time and place. That’s a question that is never answered, as there is little introduction beyond a translator’s note. It would appear that there is a ready audience for the book, as Eerdmans is a major Christian publisher and wouldn’t go to the trouble to publish it unless they thought it had an audience. Most likely that audience is to be found in the American descendants of the Dutch Reformed Church and others of like-mind.  As a non-Calvinist I can appreciate the book, but I must admit I need more information to determine if it has broader value. One of my key questions is why now!

                Not having that information, I must piece together what I do know. Bavinck (d. 1964) was Dutch Reformed missionary who served in Indonesia, who later served as a professor of missions in Holland.  His theology was Calvinist in orientation. That is clear throughout. Thus, if one is of that perspective this will prove to be a good introduction.

                The book itself is comprised of eighteen chapters that take us from "the great awakening," by which the author means the awakening to the reality of the world around us, to the end of the journey—life's completion. He covers issues such as faith, the world order, where humans come from and who we are. Since this book appears long before the dawn of the “intelligent design” movement, it seems that Bavinck can be categorized as an “Old Earth Creationist.” He’s seems uncomfortable with evolution and uses design language, but of an earlier, more theologically defined vision. He speaks of the meaning of life, and in a chapter that for those of us non-Calvinists sounds very Calvinist titled "God's Plan," the subtitle of the chapter is "the Grand Chess Game." Yes, it would appear to me that we are the pawns used by God in this chess game. Putting it a bit more gracefully, he writes: “When we abide in the faith that God’s plan is being revealed in all the world’s happenings, then we can affirm only this single truth—that when once the mist disappears and we clearly see what has really happened, we will realize that all other kingdoms have broken up and disappeared, that the only Kingdom that comes is the kingdom of God’s love that has appeared to us in the cross of Jesus” (p. 40). As I read this statement from the concluding paragraph of the chapter on God’s plan, I’m wondering if he’s trying to make sense of the early days of World War II, when his nation has fallen under Nazi domination. I say this because he never speaks of that in the book. There are small hints, but nothing explicit.

                Having spoken of God’s plan, and his hope that things will soon be revealed, he speaks of three idols—money, honor, and pleasure. There's a chapter on sin and the need for deliverance, which leads then to a discussion of the need for a redeemer. The conversation on the need for a redeemer covers two chapters. The first chapter provides the setting to reveal Jesus to be the true redeemer. Thus, he writes a comparison piece about the way Buddhism and Islam speak of redeemers. I found this chapter a bit odd, in part because Bavinck suggests that there are only three great religions. I'm assuming that Judaism and Hinduism, to name two others, would disagree (as would Sikhs and Zoroastrians). He suggests that these two religions understand redemption in terms of knowledge. Christianity, however, believes the need of the hour is much greater. We need not a prophet, but one who redeems. Thus, he writes that "Christ is the hand of God who grabs the fallen humans and pulls them up" (p. 79). The book concludes with chapters on salvation, why we're here, and finally life's completion.

                As I’ve noted, the book is nicely written, or at least nicely translated. At the same time its distinctly Calvinist orientation didn’t speak to me in ways it might speak to others. Then again, it’s clear from the lack of an introduction that I’m not the intended audience. Still, even if I’m not the intended audience I would love to know why the book has been translated at this moment in time. The fact that Eerdmans sent me a review copy makes me assume that they would love for it to have a broader audience than simply Bavinck partisans. So, I would have appreciated a preface or introduction that would have introduced the reader to Bavinck and set the context for the book. This is especially true of a book that appeared in Nazi-occupied Holland. Why did Bavinck not speak of that occupation in anything other than oblique terms. This would make the book more attractive to a broader audience.

                This context is of importance. It seems that Bavinck had recently returned to Holland to take an academic post after years of service in Indonesia. At the time the book was published Holland had been overrun by Hitler's forces. There are references to conflict and wars, but no real word about the challenge of Hitler's ideology or his rule over Holland. There might be good reason for this, but since there's no introduction I'm left to wonder how he could speak of God's purpose (Grand Chess Match) without speaking of the travails of the day.

                Thus, this isn’t a book that speaks to me, but perhaps it will speak to others, especially those with a more Calvinist vision of the faith.