Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Cultural Disintegration -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Are we experiencing a season of cultural disintegration? Are we tending toward cynicism and skepticism? Is this a new phenomenon? Perhaps not. In this essay the esteemed chronicler of our times the historian Martin Marty points us to the words of a famous theologian of a previous era, who had something to say about his time that might speak to our time. I won't name the theologian. You can read and ponder his words.

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Cultural Disintegration
By MARTIN E. MARTY   February 26, 2018
Photo Credit: Welsh photographs/Flickr (cc)
“Cultural disintegration” is a useful description of what commentators and publics consistently witness these years. Left and right, liberal and conservative, male and female (etc.), old and young, all observe and chronicle the signs of it. The historian in me prompts the question: are there precedents for such an outlook? The answer, of course, is “yes,” but it becomes interesting only when we turn to specific cases. Here is my favorite analysis, by a theologian who points to four signs.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Latino Protestants in America (Mark Mulder, et al) -- A Review

LATINO PROTESTANTS IN AMERICA: Growing and Diverse. By Mark T. Mulder, Aida I. Ramos, and Gerardo Martí. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. Xii + 206.

Having lived in Southern California for a good portion of my life, I am well acquainted with the significant presence of Latinos in the United States. While one might expect large numbers of Latinos to live in a state that borders Mexico, the fact is, Latinos are spread across the country. These are our neighbors who hail from lands across the Caribbean, South and Central America, Mexico, or who trace their ancestry back to the earliest days of European presence in North America. Yes, our Latino neighbors might be new immigrants, or they may trace ancestry back to the sixteenth century. Latinos make up the fastest growing demographic in the country, and despite stereotype they’re not all Roman Catholic.

I normally review books provided to me by publishers. In the case of this book, I purchased a copy at a conference because I was going to attend a session that featured the three authors. I decided to review the book on the blog because I believe this is an important book addressing an important conversation within our country and our denominations. Personally, I am interested in this conversation because I have Latino friends and colleagues, and I once served a congregation that hosted and continues to host a Latino Protestant congregation. I even had the opportunity to preach for them. My sermon was translated into Spanish a few sentences at a time. One thing I noticed is that a goodly number of the congregation understood me without any translation. I have also noticed the growing numbers of Latino Disciples congregations in Southern California and elsewhere, marking one of the few growth areas in my denomination. Whereas, when I was ordained in 1985 there were just a handful of congregations that were Spanish-speaking, now the largest church in the Pacific Southwest Region is a Latino congregation. Finally, with the immigration debate consuming significant oxygen in our political discourse, it might be worth our time to not only to consider what the growing Latino population means for the United States, but how the growing numbers of Latino Protestants will influence Protestant churches going forward.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Freedom amid Divine Expectations - Lectionary Reflection for Lent 3B (Exodus 20)

St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

Exodus 20:1-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
20 Then God spoke all these words: 

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. 

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 

13 You shall not murder. 

14 You shall not commit adultery. 

15 You shall not steal. 

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.


                We serve a covenant-making God. In the reading from Exodus 20, we encounter the third covenant-making event in this our Lenten journey. In the reading from Genesis 9 for the for the First Sunday of Lent, we read of God’s covenant promise to Noah. Never again, will God cleanse the earth with water. In the reading for the Second Sunday of Lent from Genesis 17, we hear again God’s covenant promise to Abraham and Sarah. They’re promised a multitude of descendants, who will inhabit the Land as part of an everlasting covenant. Now, we come to the third covenant, the one God makes Israel through the mediation of Moses. God has called Moses up to the mountain top so Moses might receive a set of covenant stipulations that will define relationship between Israel and its God.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Pathway of Faith A Sermon for Lent 2B

On the Way to Calvary - 15th century
Huntington Library

Romans 4:13-25

When we lived in Santa Barbara, we enjoyed hiking the canyons and hills behind the city. Some pathways were smooth and well-marked, while others cut across rock strewn creek beds. There were easy paths and more difficult ones. Such is the pathway of faith. It is often difficult to traverse, but the rewards are great.

Our pathway of faith begins on the day that God invited Abraham and Sarah to pack their things and travel to a new land. God promised to make them a great nation, through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Abraham, who was still known as Abram, was a young man of seventy-five and his wife Sarai was just a few years younger when God’s call came. Why not set out on a new journey that will lead to descendants and blessings? (Gen. 12). A few chapters later, Abram had another conversation with God. He and Sarai are now a few years older, and they still didn’t see any signs of descendants to carry on the promise. The situation was dire, since Sarai was past the age of childbearing. God tells Abram not to worry and reaffirms the covenant promise. Now Sarai was a practical woman, so she came up with an idea. She told Abram to take her servant Hagar as a surrogate on her behalf. So Abram and Hagar had a baby, and they named him Ishmael. Now, Abram and Sarai had their heir (Gen. 15-16). 

When Abram was ninety-nine, and Sarai wasn’t much younger, God again appeared to Abram. God reaffirmed the covenant promises of descendants who would inhabit the land. But, this time God was more specific about how this would take place. God made it clear this time that Sarai would be the mother of nations despite the fact that she was beyond childbearing years (Gen. 17). To seal the deal, God changed their names to Abraham and Sarah and God commanded that all of the men in Abraham’s household should be circumcised to mark the covenant.  

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Billy Graham -- A Remembrance

Billy Graham with Charles Fuller (L) and Edward Carnell (R) at Fuller Seminary -- circa 1960s

Yesterday we learned that Billy Graham died at the age of 99. His life stretched from the end of World War I to the second decade of the 21st Century. Yesterday Facebook and Twitter were awash of remembrances from people across the religious/political spectrum. Inn this day when we are extremely polarized in our politics and our religion, Graham has engendered respect and appreciation even from those who do not abide with his evangelical beliefs. Perhaps that is because he conducted himself in a manner far different from many religious figures of our day (including his own son).  Here is a man, who was theologically a conservative evangelical, and yet he partnered with Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Christians. He was committed to racial justice and the relief of the poor. 

If you are near my age, you grew up with Billy Graham crusades (that's what they called them back then) on TV. I was never in a position to hear him in person, but I remember him say simply "The Bible says." He would preach. He would offer an altar call. People would stream forward to the tune of "Just As I Am." Although he partnered with congregations, the criticism of his method was that it led to conversions, but not to discipleship. People came forward, but never joined churches. So how deep did the conversion go? Nonetheless, he was a man of faith, who seemed humble and gentle. He did fly close to the political fire, and he got burned by Richard Nixon. He was more careful after that to make sure he was not being used for political purposes. I read a headline yesterday that suggested that he was the last bipartisan evangelical leader. Hopefully that isn't true. But no one currently on the scene has his stature and ability to stand above the fray. 

Billy Graham wasn't perfect. Yet, he made some important moves that need to be affirmed. While he wasn't on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, his decision to integrate his evangelistic meetings in the south at a time when the fight against segregation was in full force needs to be acknowledged. Could he have done more? By all means. Had he partnered with Martin Luther King, perhaps his legacy would have been even more powerful. Unfortunately, he was not alone in standing aloof from the movement. May we all do better.  

Billy Graham wasn't a theologian, but he respected theologians. As a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, I know of his influence and support of the seminary. He may have left the Board of Trustees long before my arrival (he served from 1959-1968), he always gave his support to the school, which was important as the school moved past its more fundamentalist roots and allowed for more expansive biblical interpretation and theological work. Ultimately, he was a preacher, whose audience stretched across the far corners of the earth. One need not embrace his rather simple theology to regard him fondly. I may have moved leftward theologically over the years (starting with my time at Fuller) he was my brother in Christ. Now, he has embraced by the one whom he served. May God bless his memory. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Evangelical Identity Crises -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

I am an ordained minister in a Mainline Protestant denomination -- read non-evangelical denomination. I am also graduate twice over of one of the flag-ship evangelical seminaries -- Fuller Theological Seminary. Mainliners have been having an identity crisis for some time, as revealed in our crashing membership numbers. Now, it appears evangelicals are having an identity crisis. What is a Mainliner with Evangelical roots to do? While we constantly hear that 81% of White Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, apparently a lot of "evangelical elites" have chosen not to join with this number. Martin Marty may have recently turned 90, but he's still adept at noticing trends and conversations. Here he notices a new book of essays edited by the President of my alma mater -- Mark Labberton --  that addresses this identity crisis. I've not read the book, but I've been feeling the angst. And, as usual Marty is worth reading!

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Evangelical Identity Crises
By MARTIN E. MARTY   February 19, 2018
Photo Credit: Zaprittsky/Flickr (cc)
The champion among contenders for a “crisis” of experience and identity these years is American evangelicalism, which was born from the crises of the eighteenth century, and has been part of the Protestant package ever since. Polls, the press, and folkways have uncovered some current versions of this, onto which any sentient and informed citizen can throw light through empirical research. Start with an authoritative update by Mark Labberton, who is well poised to witness these issues from his post as president of the landmark Fuller Theological Seminary. Labberton edited the new book Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning(InterVarsity Press, 2018). In his introduction, he writes: “In its current mode, Evangelicalism contains an amalgam of theological values, partisan political debates, regional power blocks, populist visions, racial biases, and cultural anxieties, all mixed in an ethos of fear. No wonder it can be difficult to know if one is still an evangelical.” Agreed.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Covenant Promises - Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2B (Genesis 17)

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”


            We serve a covenant-making God. On the first Sunday of Lent, we heard the story of how God made a covenant with Noah, his family, and all the creatures of the earth. With the sign of the rainbow, God promised never again to destroy the creation with a flood. That covenant is often understood to have universal application. There are no stipulations. God regretted the flood and announces that such an action will never again occur. Now, several generations later, God chooses to make another, narrower, covenant with the couple from Haran—Abram and Sarai.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Myth of Equality (Ken Wytsma) - Review

THE MYTH OF EQUALITY: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2017. 216 pages.

We live in strange times. We hear conversations in certain circles about white privilege, while in other circles we hear complaints that white men face discrimination. Which is it? Standing at the center of the last Presidential election was the claim that the white working class was being ignored. The same arguments undergird the current immigration debates. When the Black Lives Matter movement emerged after the shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer, many White Americans responded with a declaration that “All Lives Matter.” While this response sounded egalitarian, it failed to acknowledge that in our country the powers and principalities have valued white lives more than black and brown lives. We may have elected a Black President in 2008 and again 2012, but it’s clear from the rhetoric of the hour that we are not living in a “post-racial society.” In fact, even today we are living with the legacy of decisions made decades ago that privileged European-Americans over Americans from other regions of the world. Unfortunately, these patterns of discrimination, segregation, and racism have infected the church as well as the rest of the culture.

So, what should Christians do about the realities of our society? That is the question taken up in The Myth of Equality by Ken Wytsma, a White Evangelical minister and educator living in Bend, Oregon. Wytsma wrote this book because he sees unacknowledged white privilege infecting the white evangelical community. He is the founder of The Justice Conference and President of Kilns College and wrote this book at the request of an editor at InterVarsity Press who heard him address privilege in a speech. I am glad that the IVP editor made the request, because this is an honest and compelling look at a problem that will not go away. Indeed, my own denomination has pledged to be an “anti-racism, pro-reconciling” church. All clergy are required to receive anti-racism training. I’m glad the training is required, but it does suggest that even in a more liberal Mainline denomination with a General Minister and President who is African-American that problem still exists.  

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Making an Appeal to God -- A Sermon for Lent 1B

1 Peter 3:13-22

We began our Lenten journey on Wednesday by having our faces marked with ash as a sign of repentance and re-commitment to being Jesus’ disciples. This morning we hear a word from 1 Peter that invites us to share in Jesus’ life and ministry. The letter mentions baptism, making a defense of our faith, the suffering of the cross, and the resurrection. Each of these elements mark the life of Jesus’ followers.  

There is a lot going in this brief passage. It’s rich with theological content, which we can’t unpack in one sermon. So, I’m going to focus on the better story, which we have been given, and which Peter calls on us to share with the world. 

Before we move into Peter’s message, I would like to share the word from the Gospel of Mark that ushers in the season of Lent. As you’ll hear, Mark doesn’t waste time on details:
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  (Mark 1:9-15 NRSV)

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Lament for Parkland

I have not posted on the shooting in Parkland, Florida that left seventeen students, teachers, and staff dead until now, because I really had no words to offer. I grieve with those who grieve. I grieve with mothers and fathers, with sisters and brothers, with wives and husbands, with friends and with acquaintances, but I have no prayers or thoughts to offer. I decided to break my silence this morning. I wanted to share a Psalm of Lament. Nothing I read really expressed my feelings. Psalm 23 offers comfort and Psalm 22 expresses abandonment. I don't know of Psalm 12 speaks to the moment either, but it does seem to catch the feeling that "the faithful have disappeared from humankind." I know there are no easy solutions. I know taht there will be trade offs if changes are made to our laws that might restrict some "rights." But are not the lives of our children worth it?  So, I offer this Psalm as a sign of my frustration, my anger, my grief. 

I believe that God is love. While I struggle with this premise, I believe that God's love is non-coercive and uncontrolling, which means that if God is going to do something, God will do it in partnership with God's people.  We pray that God will do something, and God reaches out and says -- Join me. Are we willing to do so, or will we continue to let the vileness of violence define our humanity? So, I offer this lament, in memory of those who died and in solidarity with those who survived this latest attack on those whom God loves. 

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
    the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
They utter lies to each other;
    with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
    the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail;
    our lips are our own—who is our master?”
“Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan,
    I will now rise up,” says the Lord;
    “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”
The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure,
    silver refined in a furnace on the ground,
    purified seven times.
You, O Lord, will protect us;
    you will guard us from this generation forever.
On every side the wicked prowl,
    as vileness is exalted among humankind.  [Psalm 12 NRSV]

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Faith and Enlightenment in Dark Times - Sightings (Martin Marty)

As a historian, I have studied how faith intersected with the Enlightenment -- the British Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Enlightenment as a movement emerged as Europe tried to emerge from more than a century of conflict. The Enlightenment gave birth to the Modern Age, of which we are heirs. For some Enlightenment and faith cannot coexist. Martin Marty, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the Martin Marty Center offers a response to one writer who sees faith and Enlightenment as incompatible, offering his hope that one can embrace both. I invite you to read and while you read, may we all give thanks for the long witness of Martin Marty. 

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Faith and Enlightenment in Dark Times
By MARTIN E. MARTY   February 12, 2018
Steven Pinker at the Strand Bookstore, New York City, in 2011 | Photo Credit: jmm/Flickr (cc)
Tomorrow, Viking will publish Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, from which The Wall Street Journal ran an adapted excerpt on Saturday. To counter the profound gloom which is both fashionable and understandable these years, Pinker presents graphs and data which deserve to be reckoned with by fair-minded people. His conclusion is provocative, as anything by Pinker is likely to be. An excerpt from the WSJ excerpt:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Practicing Piety - A Meditation for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

We have come here today to have our faces marked with ash, as a sign of our piety. We’re doing this, even though Jesus tells us not to practice our piety to be seen. After all, God can see our hearts and our actions, even when we don’t make a big display of our spirituality. Nevertheless, we have come today to mark our piety with ash.

Jesus takes up the question of practicing piety in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells the crowd that when you give offerings, pray, and fast, make sure no one is looking. If you’re going to fast, then wash your face. If you’re going to pray, do  it in your closet. If you’re going to give offerings, well, don’t make a big deal about it. Don’t wave your envelope so everyone can see and don’t ask for a plaque to mark your gift. Just give, because God sees and God rewards.

Ash Wednesday is the Day of Salvation

2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, 
“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
    and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” 
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Today Christians across the globe will observe Ash Wednesday. This year, the day on which we allow our faces to be marked falls on Valentine's Day. How romantic is that? For those of us who choose to share in this observance that begins the journey of Lent, we may decide to forgo Valentine's Day. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Divine Repentance? Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1B (Genesis 9)

Genesis 9:8-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”


We begin the season of Lent, a season of introspection, confession, repentance, and absolution, with the story of Noah and the Flood. In the lectionary reading from 1 Peter 3, the author of that letter refers to the story of Noah, seeing in it a prefigurement of baptism, which serves as an appeal to God for a clean conscience. Thus, there is a connection between the letter and this word from Genesis. I’m preaching on the 1 Peter 3 text on Sunday, but in this reflection, I’ll leave aside the baptismal allusions, and focus on the covenant made with creation, and God’s seeming sense of regret at washing away life from God’s creation.

I titled this reflection “divine repentance,” because I see in this reading a bit of remorse on the part of God regarding the actions taken, along with a promise to not go this route again. Passages like this serve as a reminder that in the biblical story God is known to have a change of mind. The idea that perfection requires unchangeability doesn’t seem to be part of the biblical view of things. So, in some ways this the story of God’s repentance as well as offering us a word of hope that such an event will not take place again.