Wednesday, August 23, 2017

BASIC CHRISTIANITY.  Third Edition. By John Stott; Foreword by Rick Warren. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017. xiii + 160 Pages.

Over the years I’ve had occasion to read and hear John Stott, the late Anglican evangelical preacher and writer. My experience of him was that he was a classical evangelical of an Anglican type, who was similar to some of my seminary professors at Fuller, but a bit more conservative. I had the opportunity to hear him speak at a packed audience at a Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara. The church brought in both conservative and liberal speakers, so this was a normal occurrence. I don’t remember the message, but I do remember that the church member who accompanied me thought he was fairly conservative. My sense was that Stott was conservative, but generous in his conservativism, which was fairly par for the course among British evangelicals, who are a different breed than many conservative American evangelicals. My experience with him was that he believed strongly in the traditional evangelical message of salvation in Christ, but steered away from political involvements, at least of an aggressive sort.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Egypt First - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12A (Exodus)

Exodus 1:8-2:10 Common English Bible (CEB)

1:8 Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. 10 Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.” 11 As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. They had to build storage cities named Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread. 13 So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. 14 They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work. 
15 The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.” 17 Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live. 
18 So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?”  
19 The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.” 20 So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own. 
22 Then Pharaoh gave an order to all his people: “Throw every baby boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River, but you can let all the girls live.” 
2:1 Now a man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. 2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. 3 When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank. 4 The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him. 
5 Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her women servants walked along beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds, and she sent one of her servants to bring it to her. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.” 
7 Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 
8 Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I’ll pay you for your work.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 After the child had grown up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out of the water.”

                Jacob and his family joined Joseph and his family in Egypt, where they found refuge (Genesis 46-50). But a time came, when a “king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” This new king looked out over the realm and saw that the Hebrews had been fruitful and they had multiplied, and pharaoh become concerned. The demographics of the nation were changing, and the powers that be feared that Israelites would become so powerful, they would replace the Egyptians. And so, Pharaoh decided to do something. He decided to implement an “Egypt First” policy. That entailed enslaving and oppressing a people who had migrated to Egypt hundreds of years before. While he hoped that these oppressive methods would limit the growth in numbers and perceived power, the community continued to grow, despite the oppression. That led Pharaoh to turn the screws even tighter, “forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.” Still, the community grew. So, he chose to engage in even more drastic methods, to purify the land, and keep the foreigners at bay.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Time to Study History

Antietam Battlefield
History is a subject we all take in school. Sometimes it's taught well. Sometimes it's not. Either way, the study of history is often viewed as irrelevant to daily life. History is about the past, and while we're told at times that if we fail to learn the lessons of the past, we're fated to repeat them, I'm not sure that's true, but we can learn a lot from history about context and the way things have evolved. 

Many of the issues of our day have roots in the past, none more serious than the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, two legacies of our past that are enshrined in monuments remembering and even celebrating the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. These monuments began to emerge in the 1890s as a way of pushing back against gains made by African Americans, putting them in their place. These monuments were accompanied by the reign of terror that was wrought by a resurgent KKK, which not only took on black Americans, but Jews, Catholics, and immigrants from Southern Europe (immigration from Asia was already being banned). The goal of all of these efforts, rooted in history, was keeping America in the hands of White Protestant Americans (Anglo-Saxons). Of course, this is my own heritage (I'm the product of immigrants from Western Europe and the British Isles).

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Lost Cause Lost

Hanging on the wall of my study at home is a print of Tom Lovell's The Surrender at Appomattox.  At times I've hung it in my college office and even my church office. It pictures Robert E. Lee signing the surrender document essentially ending the Civil War. In later years, after Lee's death a movement was born known as "The Lost Cause." It was born out of an attempt to reframe the history of the Civil War away from slavery to states rights.  It was also a response to attempts by African Americans to claim rights granted to them by the Constitution, rights that were often denied through Jim Crow laws. It was during the early 20th century and then again during the era of the Civil Rights Movement that statues were erected lionizing Confederate leaders such as Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. Those statues and monuments, many of which stand at the center of city parks or along boulevards around the country are not meant just to honor long dead leaders, but to send a message. That message is simply one of white superiority. That the "Unite the Right" rally was held in a park where the local leaders planned to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee was also meant to send a message. People of color, Jews, Muslims, people who don't fit the vision of a white dominated America need to remember their place. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Pondering Charlottesville

It's now Wednesday. Charlottesville remains a topic of conversation in the country and beyond (I spent a couple of nights in Canada earlier this week and it's interesting to watch coverage of American political life from that vantage point -- let me just say they're concerned that racist nationalism could spill over the border). On Sunday, like many of my colleagues, I condemned white nationalism and called for the church to be a beacon of hope. I knew what needed to be said, I said  it the best I could on short notice, and and my congregation seems to have received it well. I might even say that they expected me to speak to the moment. But where do we go from here? How do we change the rhetoric of our era which is increasingly course and often dehumanizing, a rhetoric that unfortunately has been given cover by the President. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Divine Providence and Family Reconciliation

Genesis 45:1-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

45 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So, no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. 
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

                We continue with our journey through the Genesis story, which takes us from the call of Abraham through to Joseph’s rise to power, which serves as a means of rescuing the family through whom God is going to bless the nations. I used the term “divine providence” in the title, because the trajectory of the Genesis story has in mind God’s intent to bless the nations through Abraham and his descendants. While I embrace this message, believing it connects the Christian community to Abraham, through Jesus, so that we might share in God’s purpose of blessing the peoples of the earth, I also believe that the future is open. That means we humans can choose not to cooperate. Perhaps that is why the covenant story isn’t a straight-line path. We wander off, and God woos us back on the path forward. God knows where God wants to go, but it will take some cooperation on our part to get there.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Come … Why Do You Doubt? -- A Sermon for Pentecost 10A

Matthew 14:22-33

On a day after White Nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a Confederate monument and declared their intent to take back American for white people; a day after violence broke out in that city leading to the death of one and the injuring of others, when a car rammed into a crowd of counter-protesters; in a week when it seemed as if we are on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea, we gather to worship the God who stands firmly against hate, racism, violence, and the destruction of life. We come here needing to say no to white nationalism and nuclear war. We also come to hear Matthew  invite us to use our spiritual imaginations so we can embrace the “impossible possibilities” of the Bible’s miracle stories, so that we can, as Brian McLaren suggests, “play a catalytic role in co-creating new possibilities for the world of tomorrow” [We Make the Road, p. 97]. It is in the midst of all of this that we attend to the story of Jesus walking on water and calming stormy seas. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Uncontrolling Love -- A Book Announcement

I want to take this opportunity to share word of a new book titled Uncontrolling Love: Essays Exploring the Love of God with Introductions by Thomas Jay Oord,  (SacraSage Press, 2017). One of the reasons I want to share word about the book is that one of the 80 essays in this book was written by me. It's titled: "What Use Is God?" In this essay I engage the question of evil, asking how a God defined as uncoercive or uncontrolling can help us deal with life. 
Below is the description of the book take from Amazon. You can purchase a copy of the book from Amazon by clicking on the image of the cover or by clicking here. 

You might want to also follow the Facebook page, where you'll find more information about upcoming conversations about the book, including a 24-hour Facebook Live event covering August 24-25..  My time for a 30 minute reflection is scheduled for Friday, August 25 at 3 PM (EDT). 
What if God is not in control? And what if this lack of control isn’t because God is weak or uninvolved? What if, instead, God’s powerful and universal love is inherently uncontrolling?
In this book, more than eighty writers explore uncontrolling love, an idea first suggested by Thomas Jay Oord in his award-winning work, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (IVP Academic). Contributors explore uncontrolling love in practical, political, scientific, personal, economic, biblical, ethical, and philosophical dimensions. Many tell stories and pose questions. Others offer novel ideas to make sense of life or promote well-being. Oord offers introductions to key ideas and concepts.
“This book is amazing! Each essay contains precisely worded insights and thoughtful, practical responses to Oord’s book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. Essayists cite their own reasons for recognizing, claiming, and articulating what Oord calls “essential kenosis theology.” In an array of accessible vignettes, essayists illustrate Oord’s relational thesis: God’s love is necessarily self-giving and others-empowering.-- Karen Winslow, Professor and Chair of the Department of Biblical Studies, Azusa Pacific University
“Jesus proclaimed God as a loving parent, and this basic approach dominates in the New Testament. But many people revere controlling power more than love. Thomas Jay Oord has reclaimed the good news of the uncontrolling love of God. Many rejoice and respond with uncontrolling love for one another and all God’s creatures. This book embodies the response of the church, lay people and pastors, students and teachers, liberals and conservatives. Readers can join in this work of theology by witnessing to what a loving God is doing in the world.”-- John B. Cobb, Jr., Professor Emeritus, Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Economy of Care and the Future of the World

With one election out of the way, and a new one in the offering, we will come back to the mantra of the Bill Clinton era -- "it's the economy, stupid." Much of the current debate over immigration, climate change, health care, has economic roots. I don't think that Donald Trump is a true populist, but he  got the votes of many working class Americans who voted for Barack Obama in places like Michigan and Pennsylvania and Ohio. My concern is that both parties are offering economic solutions that are intended to solve 20th century concerns. We're at under 5% unemployment, which is a good number. It's considered full employment. The problem is that we seem intent on bringing back an economy that is no longer feasible. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders appealed to so-called blue collar manufacturing workers, promising to bring back jobs either through trade policy or immigration policy. The problem is that most unskilled manufacturing jobs are lost not because of immigration or sending plants overseas. They're being lost to robotics. That isn't going to change. So, maybe its time to rethink the economy, and begin to look to other places for employment that has a future.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Fire and Fury Like the World has Never Seen

As a preacher I am familiar with apocalyptic language. One expression of that language is the promise of fire and brimstone thrown down upon the enemies of God's people. Something of that apocalyptic language came to mind as I heard the President of the United States threaten North Korea with what would appear to be a preemptive nuclear strike against that nation, should it continue to threaten the United States.  Many friends and colleagues have already given their opinion on Facebook and Twitter. I prefer to do my writing on such subjects here on the blog. While I have been reticent to engage in the increasingly negative debates that are tearing at the fabric of the nation, I thought I should say something.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Messiness of Divine Providence - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 10A

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Common English Bible (CEB)
37 Jacob lived in the land of Canaan where his father was an immigrant. 2 This is the account of Jacob’s descendants. Joseph was 17 years old and tended the flock with his brothers. While he was helping the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives, Joseph told their father unflattering things about them. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he was born when Jacob was old. Jacob had made for him a long robe. 4 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him and couldn’t even talk nicely to him. 

12 Joseph’s brothers went to tend their father’s flocks near Shechem. 13 Israel said to Joseph, “Aren’t your brothers tending the sheep near Shechem? Come, I’ll send you to them.” 

And he said, “I’m ready.”

14 Jacob said to him, “Go! Find out how your brothers are and how the flock is, and report back to me.” 

So Jacob sent him from the Hebron Valley. When he approached Shechem, 15 a man found him wandering in the field and asked him, “What are you looking for?” 

16 Joseph said, “I’m looking for my brothers. Tell me, where are they tending the sheep?” 

17 The man said, “They left here. I heard them saying, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them in Dothan. 

18 They saw Joseph in the distance before he got close to them, and they plotted to kill him. 19 The brothers said to each other, “Here comes the big dreamer. 20 Come on now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns, and we’ll say a wild animal devoured him. Then we will see what becomes of his dreams!” 

21 When Reuben heard what they said, he saved him from them, telling them, “Let’s not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Don’t spill his blood! Throw him into this desert cistern, but don’t lay a hand on him.” He intended to save Joseph from them and take him back to his father. 

23 When Joseph reached his brothers, they stripped off Joseph’s long robe, 24 took him, and threw him into the cistern, an empty cistern with no water in it. 25 When they sat down to eat, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with camels carrying sweet resin, medicinal resin, and fragrant resin on their way down to Egypt. 26 Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain if we kill our brother and hide his blood? 27 Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites. Let’s not harm him because he’s our brother; he’s family.” His brothers agreed. 28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the cistern. They sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver, and they brought Joseph to Egypt.

During this Pentecost season, as we have explored the readings from Genesis, we have seen how the covenant is being passed on from generation to generation. It’s rather messy. Abraham had two sons, but it was the second son whom God chose to be the carrier of the covenant. That son was Isaac, the son of Sarah. Then Isaac had two sons, the younger of whom ended up as the carrier of the covenant. Now we arrive at the sons of Jacob. In the end, there will be twelve sons, but at this moment there are but eleven, with Joseph being the youngest. Joseph, like his father, could be obnoxious, but his father loved him more than the others (in part because he was the son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, the one whom Jacob loved more than Rachel’s older sister).

Monday, August 07, 2017

God in the Movies (Robert Johnston & Catherine Barsotti) -- A Review

GOD IN THE MOVIES: AGuide for Exploring Four Decades of Film. Edited by Catherine M. Barsotti and Robert K. Johnston. Foreword by Ralph Winter. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2017. Xxxiii + 264 pages.

                As a preacher, I have been known to refer to a movie or two to illustrate a point. Because I am a fan of both the Star Wars films and all forms of Star Trek—yes, even the first Star Trek movie has its redeeming qualities—I have been known to make special use of imagery from these films and the Star Trek TV series. I know that I am not alone in turning to film and TV for inspiration. While my church isn’t so equipped, I know that many preachers even feature clips in their sermons. So, for now I will remain old school and will make do using my own descriptions, even though I have been known to get things wrong (such mistakes are often pointed out to me afterwards by my son who spent a year in film school). Why do we do this? Because film and TV are now prime carriers of culture.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Everyone Ate Their Fill - A Sermon for Pentecost 9A

Matthew 14:13-21

When we gather at the Lord’s Table each week, we pause to remember the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples, and continues to share with us through the Spirit. Although this meal stands at the center of our faith tradition, the Gospels are filled with stories about Jesus sharing meals with others.  One of these stories involves a meal with more than five thousand guests, who dined on five loaves of bread and two fish, and still everyone ate their fill. 

The “Feeding of the 5000" is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels. It’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of the miracle. Enquiring minds want to know how Jesus did it. Was it a magic trick? Was it a spontaneous potluck? Is it a myth? Despite our inquisitiveness, Matthew doesn’t give any details. Could that mean that the details are irrelevant? Miracle stories, like parables point beyond themselves to the kingdom of God. So, what Matthew wants us to hear is a message about the reign and realm of God. If this is true, then, what is this miracle story saying to us about the realm of God? 

Thursday, August 03, 2017

What's this about Immigration restrictions?

Iftar Dinner at Central Woodward Christian Church of Troy
I grew up in Oregon, one of the least diverse states in the union. I now live in the most diverse city in Michigan, a city that also claims the largest foreign born population. Troy is a relatively affluent and prosperous city, and the immigrant community contributes greatly to that prosperity. While I enjoyed growing up in Oregon, and may return there some day, I have to say that my life has been enriched greatly by my immigrant friends here in Troy, most of whom hail from Asia or the Middle East. Before coming to Troy, we lived in Santa Barbara, California. My son's high school had a significant Latinx majority. He quite enjoyed that mixture. 

I write this as an introduction to my dismay at today's announcement by the President of his full-throated support of an effort to reduce immigration by 50%, reduce the numbers of refugees admitted, and focus on "merit" rather than family connections. The sponsors of the bill suggest that this needs to be done to support working-class Americans, but is that really the reason for it? Or is something else involved? Much of the anti-immigrant talk has been coupled with expressions of white nationalism, a call to protect "our Judeo-Christian" values, which generally means "Euro-American." Now, I am of European American extraction.I value the legacy of my ancestors, but to value that legacy doesn't mean that the quality of my life will suffer because of the presence of people who hail from Mexico or Guatamala, India or Kenya, Syria or Korea . . .   

What is afoot here? What is the fear being capitalized upon?  All I'll say is this, do you see a connection between this announcement and word that the Justice Department's Civil Rights division is hiring lawyers to pursue litigation against colleges and universities who are perceived to be discriminating against white people?  I don't know about you, but I seem to see signs of a connection.

Here is to hoping that members of Congress will see the light, and do what is right.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Beyond the Modern Age (Bob Goudzwaard & Craig Bartholomew) - A Review

BEYOND THE MODERN AGE: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture. By Bob Goudzwaard and Craig G. Bartholomew. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017. Xi + 313 pages.

The eighteenth century brought us the Enlightenment and modernity, with the promise that reason, along with science and technology, would make life better, that it would solve our problems. The truth is, in some ways, life is better. As I sit here at my computer, in an air-conditioned house, I surely do not wish to go back and live in the seventeenth century. However, reason didn’t solve all our problems. In fact, “progress” is a mixed blessing. That may be why many have turned to forms of postmodernism, because it seemed to free us from the shackles of a rather gray and confining mechanical world view.  But, in the age of alternative facts, perhaps the promise of postmodernity has proven problematic. I'm not a philosopher, but how should we understand our age, and where it seems to be leading?
Beyond the Modern Age offers an analysis of our contemporary culture and its antecedents (thus the use of the word archaeology) that is undertaken by two evangelical academics of a Reformed stripe, who seem to have a predilection for the vision of Abraham Kuyper. One of the two authors is an economist from the Netherlands and the other is a Canadian. At a timbeyond the Modern Age (Bob e when we hear that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, apparently embracing his populist white nationalism, it is refreshing to hear that not all evangelicals think alike. While I found places of difference, especially regarding their take on sexuality (they’re traditionalists), I found their analysis thought provoking and insightful. As with Miroslav’s book from a year earlier, Flourishing, the authors make the important claim that religion will need to play a significant role in our attempts to deal with the issues confronting us, especially economic and climate related issues.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

A Divine Wrestling Match - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9A (Genesis 32)

Genesis 32:22-31 Common English Bible (CEB)
22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” 
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.” 
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.” 
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
                It was the night before Jacob was to face his brother Esau, from whom he had fled years before, after taking the blessing that should have gone to the oldest brother. Jacob had dwelt in the land of his uncle, Laban, had amassed a great family and fortune. Truly, he was blessed. Still, there was that matter of his relationship with his brother, and the promise that he would dwell in the land of Canaan. He had sent presents to appease his brother (and as a show of wealth), and he prayed that God would deliver him from his brother’s anger (Gen. 32:3-21). After sending the presents to his brother, he also sent his family across the river Jabbok. Only Jacob remained behind, on the near side of the river, seeking to gather up strength of courage to face his brother and claim what had been promised him. That is where the story gets interesting. It is the place we shall dwell for a moment in time.

Monday, July 31, 2017

How to Become a Multicultural Church (Douglas J. Brouwer) -- A Review

HOW TO BECOME AMULTICULTURAL CHURCH. By Douglas J. Brouwer. Foreword by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Xi + 177 pages.

If I have a dream for the church local is that it would reflect the cultural diversity of our community (and the world). It is a tall order, one that many have contemplated, but few have pulled off. So, for the most part, our churches remain as segregated today as they were when Martin Luther King opined about the most segregated hour of the week. While I would love to see multicultural churches (and not just multi-racial churches) become the norm, I’m not sure how to pull it off. Despite the challenges, I will continue to dream that dream. 

There are, of course, congregations that are, at least to some degree, multicultural. One of those Congregations is the International Protestant Church of Zurich, Switzerland. The pastor of that congregation is Douglas Brouwer, a Presbyterian pastor and author of the book under consideration. In many respects this book is a personal reflection on Brouwer’s experience as pastor of this multicultural church, with the hope that we the readers might glean something helpful. There are some important words of wisdom to be heard and helpful suggestions that might ease a congregation’s move into a more multicultural space, though the style at times is a bit too chatty. In other words, he spent a bit more time talking about himself in ways that distracted from the core message. Of course, this is my observation and you as a reader might get a different impression. So, on that score, it's a personal thing.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Living with the Living Dead (Greg Garrett) - Review

LIVING WITH THE LIVING DEAD: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 248 pages.

                Apocalyptic literature comes in many forms. It often expresses feelings of being oppressed, persecuted, and threatened. These sense is that the end of the world is drawing near. We see it present in the biblical texts, especially the New Testament. The book of Revelation is by design apocalyptic, but Jesus appears in the gospels as an apocalyptic figure and Paul gives us the sense that the end is near. The world is filled with apocalyptic movements, many with religious origins or overtones. Sometimes in pursuit of sophisticated religion, believers set aside or ignore the apocalyptic elements of the faith. Calvin, for instance, chose not to write a commentary on Revelation. Yet the apocalyptic seems to reappear regularly in our cultural and societal conversations. With that we give our attention to the possibility of a Zombie Apocalypse.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Climate Change, Faith, and Happiness

I have been reading, and just finished the book Beyond the Modern Age, by Bob Goudzwaard and Craig Bartholomew. I will be writing a review soon, but considering our political debate about climate change and economic growth, there is something that they write in the concluding chapter that I wanted to share. It's a rather lengthy excerpt, but it is a word we need to hear. I want to note up front that the authors are evangelical Christians with a Reformed orientation. Both live in Canada, which may explain why they are not caught up in the current right wing turn, but it is also a good reminder that evangelical does not mean Trump supporter, climate denier, or devotee of laissez faire economic theory.

So, with regard to climate change, economics, and happiness, they first offer a reminder that we "need to openly, even forcefully challenge the powerful illusion in modern societies that technological progress can save us. A spiritual battle must be fought against worldviews that do not start with respect for what has been given us to take care of and preserve." 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

That’s Not the Way We Do Things Here - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8A (Genesis 29)

15 Laban said to Jacob, “You shouldn’t have to work for free just because you are my relative. Tell me what you would like to be paid.” 
16 Now Laban had two daughters: the older was named Leah and the younger Rachel. 17 Leah had delicate eyes, but Rachel had a beautiful figure and was good-looking. 18 Jacob loved Rachel and said, “I will work for you for seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.” 
19 Laban said, “I’d rather give her to you than to another man. Stay with me.”  
20 Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, but it seemed like a few days because he loved her. 21 Jacob said to Laban, “The time has come. Give me my wife so that I may sleep with her.” 22 So Laban invited all the people of that place and prepared a banquet. 23 However, in the evening, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he slept with her. 24 Laban had given his servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah as her servant. 25 In the morning, there she was—Leah! Jacob said to Laban, “What have you done to me? Didn’t I work for you to have Rachel? Why did you betray me?” 
26 Laban said, “Where we live, we don’t give the younger woman before the oldest. 27 Complete the celebratory week with this woman. Then I will give you this other woman too for your work, if you work for me seven more years.” 28 So that is what Jacob did. He completed the celebratory week with this woman, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as his wife.

                Jacob was a fugitive. He might have gained the family blessing, which was supposed to go to the eldest son. Esau might have a claim to that title only by a second or so, but by law, first one out is the winner. So, Esau should have received the blessing of his father Isaac, but such was not the case. Jacob might be the youngest, but through a bit of deviousness had gained it. With his brother angry at the turn of events, Jacob fled (Genesis 27). Or, was the need for a bride the reason for his journey. Even as Abraham didn’t want Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman, Isaac didn’t want Jacob to marry from among the neighbors (Gen. 28:1-5). Whatever the case, Jacob found himself at a well in the land of Haran, the land of his Uncle Laban. It was at that well that Jacob met Rachel, the younger daughter of Laban, and fell in love (Gen. 29:1-14). Apparently, Laban was happy that his sister’s son had come to town, welcoming him into his home. That’s where this week’s story begins.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Building a Bridge (James Martin, SJ) -- A Review

There are many pressing issues confronting the Christian community, ranging from immigration to heath care.  In fact, there are so many issues facing the church that it’s easy to become overwhelmed. So, perhaps it is best if we take them one at a time, seeking to find solutions that honor God and honor our neighbors. One of these critical issues facing the church today involves the question of the status of LGBTQ folks in church and society. If the table is open to all, is anyone not welcome?

A little over a year ago the congregation I serve as pastor chose to become "Open and Affirming." This action came after several years of open and at times difficult conversation. We lost people as a result. We took this action as a congregation, and we had the ability to do this, because in our tradition such matters are left to congregations. As difficult as that move was, can you imagine the challenge of moving the largest Christian communion, one that is both ancient and nearly universal, in a new direction. While winds of change are being felt in the Roman Catholic Church, change comes slowly. Indeed, it can take generations for changes to be fully experienced. For those most affected by the slow pace of change, can become discouraged and leave, even as there some for whom the pace is much too quick. So, in such a case, how does one build a bridge that allows for productive conversation within in an ancient institutional church that finds it difficult to change (look at what happened with the reforms of Vatican II) when it comes to the full inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics when the weight of tradition and practice stands in the way of change?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Groaning of Creation - A Sermon for Pentecost 7A

Romans 8:12-25

There are seven parables in Matthew 13. I preached on the parable of the sower last Sunday, and next Sunday Naomi will have five other parables to choose from. That leaves the parable of the Weeds, which is this week’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Even though I’m focusing most of my preaching this Pentecost season on the Gospel of Matthew, this morning we’re taking a short break and attending to a word from the book of Romans.

In Romans 8, Paul speaks of two kinds of obligation. According to Paul we owe a debt either to the flesh or to the Spirit. We call the first obligation selfishness, and it leads to death and destruction. The other possible debt or obligation leads to freedom from fear and abundant life. If we embrace the Spirit, we will be adopted as children of God. If we’re children of God, then we are joint heirs with Christ of all the promises of God. That means that we can, with Jesus, address God as “Abba, Father.” 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Dangers of Teaching Theology at Christian Colleges

I didn't know how to title this posting, so hopefully no one is expecting something about being attacked with a knife or something. I was once a theology professor at a Christian College, and am no longer a Theology professor!  It was twenty years ago this summer that I was asked to resign from my position as Associate Professor of Theology at Manhattan Christian College (Kansas). The reason for my resignation is that some in the college's constituency thought I was teaching liberal theology and so they demanded that I be fired. The ax fell shortly after I signed the contract for the year. I can say this, the college honored that contract, paying me not to teach for a year. I didn't want to resign at the time, because I enjoyed teaching and had good relationships with most faculty and a goodly number of students, and even though I was on the left end of the school theologically, I didn't think I was that far afield. But, alas, the die was cast, and my journey took me from academia to the church. The reason why I'm writing this reflection isn't because I want to come back to haunt my former employer. What transpired then, transpired. So, my reason for writing this "anniversary post" (I do find it difficult to imagine that it's been 20 years since my inglorious departure) will become clear momentarily.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ayn Rand Mugged -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Ayn Rand was the apostle of the philosophy of selfishness. By all means, do everything you can to put yourself first. It's a philosophy that has been having a lot of traction lately, in business circles and in political circles. It's linked to a hard-line liberterianism, that both Ron Paul and Rand Paul espouse (among others). While she continues to have many devotees, as Martin Marty notes, some of them have been falling from favor, their selfish behavior getting them in trouble. The question is, can one embrace her philosophy and a Christian one? While Marty doesn't mention the current President, one of the articles he points us to does, suggesting that this is the underlying philosophy of the administration, which again raises questions about how one squares Christian faith with a Randian world view? It makes no sense to me, but I guess some can keep the two together. In any case, take a read, and offer your thoughts.

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Ayn Rand Mugged
By MARTIN E. MARTY   July 17, 2017
Photo Credit: StefanoRR/Wikimedia Commons
Ayn Rand, in the years of her prime, told Playboy her overarching philosophy was that “man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself.” A recent chronicler, Mark David Henderson, said that “[s]he wanted to be known as the greatest enemy to religion that ever lived. She put together this philosophy that is all throughout her writing—from Atlas Shrugged written in 1957, which is still the bestselling novel of all time.” Henderson summarized Rand’s creed, which she professed and expounded in her novels and endless short writings, talks, and interviews: “She believed that the individual is the highest possible occupation of any one person. She believed that one should always occupy their minds, will, and emotions with the highest possible occupation and she believed that would be the self.”

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Sacred Places, Divine Callings - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 7A (Genesis 28)

Genesis 28:10-19 Common English Bible (CEB)

10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran. 11 He reached a certain place and spent the night there. When the sun had set, he took one of the stones at that place and put it near his head. Then he lay down there. 12 He dreamed and saw a raised staircase, its foundation on earth and its top touching the sky, and God’s messengers were ascending and descending on it. 13 Suddenly the Lord was standing on it and saying, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will become like the dust of the earth; you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants. 15 I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.” 
16 When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it. 17 He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven. 18 After Jacob got up early in the morning, he took the stone that he had put near his head, set it up as a sacred pillar, and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He named that sacred place Bethel, though Luz was the city’s original name.
                I have been tasked with writing a lengthy (10,000 words) chapter for a book focusing on the cultural history of religion in the 18th century. It’s due the first of September, and I have only begun my research and writing. That chapter came to mind, as I read this story from Genesis 28. In this passage, we discover that Jacob has a dream in which he hears God reinforce the covenant made first with his grandparents, of which he is now the third-generation carrier. God has promised to bless Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12). Now, God reaffirms that promise, telling Jacob that this land upon which he is lying, is given to him and his descendants. While his descendants will span out in all directions, they will always have this land as their inheritance, even as they serve as a blessing to the peoples of the earth. When Jacob woke up from this dream, he declared that Yahweh (the LORD) was definitely in this place. He recognized this place to be sacred (even if he didn’t at first recognize its sacredness). As we ponder this reading for the seventh Sunday of Pentecost, the author invites us to consider the spaces that are sacred because they are places where God is encountered.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Always with Us (Liz Theoharis) -- A Review

ALWAYS WITH US? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor (Prophetic Christianity). By Liz Theoharis. Foreword by William J. Barber II. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017. Xxii + 185 pages.

Will the poor always be with us? Is poverty a chronic situation that no matter how hard we try, it can’t be eliminated? If so, is the only option that we manage poverty through charitable action? As Christians, seeking to answer that question, what would Jesus have us do?

Liz Theoharis, the founder and codirector of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice and coordinator of Union Theological Seminary’s Poverty Initiative, seeks to make the case that not only can poverty be eliminated, it is an imperative. Unfortunately, in her experience, Christians resist this message, arguing on the basis of a statement in Matthew 26, that the poor will always be with us, and that Jesus makes it clear that he’s more interested in being worshiped than dealing with poverty (beyond charitable action). She challenges this sentiment in this contribution to Eerdmans' Prophetic Christianity series, which is based upon what appears to be a revision of her Ph.D. dissertation in New Testament at Union Seminary. Central to her work is the idea of "Reading the Bible with the Poor." She uses historical critical methods to engage the text of scripture, but does so in conversation with persons who experience poverty, much like Ernesto Cardenal's "Gospel in Solentiname," recognizing the importance of this too often-neglected voice.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sowing the Word - Sermon for Pentecost 6A

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The closest I ever get to sowing seeds is laying down grass seed to fill in the gaps in the lawn. I can’t say I have any expertise in this, or much success, but I try. When I sow the grass seed, I try my best to get the soil just right. I go to the store, pick up top soil or even planting mix. I dig out the weeds and rocks, and put down a layer of that specially prepared soil. I try to buy grass seed designed to sprout quickly and has a long life span, though it rarely works as promised. As Cheryl can attest, I do what I can to make the front yard look nice, but I confess that I don’t have a green thumb. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

ONE -- Initial Reflections on the Disciples of Christ General Assembly

Installation of the Rev. Dr. Teresa Hord Owens as General Minister and President of the Christian Church ((Disciples of Christ) on July 12, 2017 at the Indianapolis General Assembly. (picture taken by Don Dewey). 

Like many Disciples from across the country, I have returned home from the 2017 General Assembly in Indianapolis. People go to meetings like this with varying hopes and expectations. Some go to participate in business, most of which today involves statements on social justice items, calling on the church to speak prophetically. Some attend hoping to hear good preaching and to join in worship. Others go for the fellowship. To be honest, it's the latter that draws me. If I can renew connections, many of which go back to my college days, and make new ones, then I go home happy. I came home happy. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Love Your Enemies: Moral Absurdity or Genius? -- Sightings (Audrey D. Thompson)

Should Christians really follow Jesu' dictum to love our enemies, and what does that mean? Audrey Thompson addresses the question of what that means in our contemporary context bringing in to the conversation thoughts from Reinhold Niebuhr, who raises questions about its suitability, along with a blogger who suggested that black first responders should not have stepped in to save Steve Scalise, the GOP congressman shot at a congressional baseball practice. Scalise is a right wing congressman, whose positions are often at odds with the lives of persons of color and LGBT persons. I will simply invite you to read and respond.


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Love Your Enemies: Moral Absurdity or Genius?
By AUDREY D. THOMPSON   July 13, 2017
Photo Credit: CBS News (screenshot)
The Autumn 1942 issue of Christianity and Society published an article by Reinhold Niebuhr that began: “In times of social and political conflict there are always Christians who obscure the very genius of the New Testament conception of love by their particular interpretation of one form of the love commandment, namely, ‘Love your enemies.’” Fresh on Niebuhr’s mind, of course, would have been conflicts at home and abroad centering on the race problem during World War II. Responding to Christian idealists at that time who had used the love commandment to speak out against participating in the war, Niebuhr determined that the applicability of the biblical mandate in such a case would either demand “a psychological and moral absurdity of us” or enjoin an ingenious attitude of spirit, all depending on how the word “love” is interpreted.