Showing posts from September, 2010

Ignorance isn't Bliss -- It's dangerous

Yesterday I wrote about the recent Pew Forum survey of religious knowledge, a survey that revealed that Americans are rather ignorant when it comes to religion -- even our own religious tenets.  But while ignorance might be bliss it can also be dangerous, for it leads to persecution, repression, and even violence.  It has political consequences, as we're seeing in the ongoing attempt to smear the President, who though he is by confession of faith a Christian, is being painted as a Muslim.  Now there's nothing wrong with being a Muslim -- in my mind -- but in the minds of many Islam equals terrorism, and thus, if the President is a Muslim then he must be in secret league with terrorists. 
One of the points that comes out of the Pew Survey is the need to teach comparative religion, treating every religion fairly.  Unfortunately this effort at overcoming ignorance is hampered on two fronts -- those who want a doctrinal Christian view taught in the schools, and those who want to e…

Is Ignorance Bliss? Thoughts on Pew Survey on Religious Knowledge

Americans are rather religious people.  By overwhelming numbers we say that we believe in God, but do we truly understand what we believe?  Or, do we believe in God because, well, because we do?   That is, unless forced to wrestle with the question of God's existence or presence, we simply assume it to be true.  I grew up believing in Santa Claus, but at a certain age, I let it go.  Is belief in God simply an unwillingness to face facts? 
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted a survey, asking via phone calls, a series of questions on religious knowledge, 15 of which can be found online.  The results are rather disheartening.  The average score on this quiz is 50%.  That is an F!   Atheists do best, scoring around 65%.  That's a D, but still better than most Christians, evangelical or mainline, who score closer to the average.  
From the executive summary we read:
On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by th…

Transforming Acts: Spirit-Centered Faith (Bruce Epperly)

Having laid the context for his journey through Acts, Bruce Epperly takes up the first chapter of this seminal book of the New Testament.  This is a chapter in which a commission and a promise is given to the followers of Jesus.  The commission is to get busy with the work of God and the promise is a provision of God's Spirit.  Both, however, must wait for just a moment.  I invite you to reflect on Bruce's words and the message of Acts 1:1-26 and offer your thoughts.


Transforming Acts: Spirit-Centered Faith Acts 1:1-26 Bruce Epperly
Acts of the Apostles is an invitation to spirit-centered faith. When many people think of God’s Spirit, or the Holy Spirit, their minds go to tongues of fire, mystical experiences, and other-worldly encounters. They see the Spirit as a supernatural intrusion on normal causal relationships, only occasionally occurring in human life. In contrast, I believe that the primary locus of the Holy Spirit is everyday lif…

America’s Decline in Church Attendance -- Sightings

Perhaps it's fitting that the Monday after I returned from a brief but immensely helpful Pastor's Conference, where Diana Butler Bass helped us wrestle with the complexities of life in America and the implications of that complexity for the churches, that Martin Marty would proffer a column on the decline of church attendance.  Things aren't as bad in the US as in Europe, but there are plenty of red flags on the field, warning us that things aren't getting better.  My congregation is making some strides, but not quickly.  So, what are the implications?  I think one of the important points made here is that congregations and denominations have an important role in carrying into the future the beliefs, the  practices, the values, the ethics of faith -- and that being "spiritual" can't do that job.  There is a value in institutions, for they alone have the strength to continue bearing the load.  I invite you to read Marty's Sightings column and offer you…

God, Beauty, and Music

This morning we dedicated our organ for the service of God's praise and for the creation of beauty in the world.  This afternoon, we will share in the dedicatory concert of this same organ.  It is the opinion of many that the organ is an instrument whose time has come and gone, much like the lute and the lyre (though guitars are their successors). 
This new organ, about which I've opined before, is an instrument that is able to support every musical form from Bach to Gospel.  It has the sound of a German Bach organ and it can also make available the sound of the Hammond B3, which is so prominent in gospel and rock music.  But that's not the point I'd like to make -- that's the technical side.  What I want to lift up is the gift of music to the healing of the world.  Beauty is something that the church has to offer the world, and music and the arts both contribute to this beauty.
The questions then are -- What is beauty?  What role does beauty have in the mission of …

What Does It Mean to Believe?

When someone joins a Disciples Church, we usually ask them to make the Good Confession.  And the question goes something like this:  "Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the Living God?  And is he your Lord and Savior?"  The first question is asking for an affirmation of a fact.  Disciples are deeply rooted in the Enlightenment mentality.  Alexander Campbell liked to talk about the gospel "facts," and so to believe meant affirming those facts as being true.  This is also why he had problems with creeds -- they required, in his mind, assent to the "facts" as outlined in those creeds.  While he might affirm most of the elements, there were elements that might not be "facts."  I should add that he was also a fan of Francis Bacon's understanding of science, and thus didn't like speculations.  If stated clearly in Scripture, then it could be affirmed.  That is the old paradigm -- belief is affirmation of the facts about God.

Identity in the Post-Modern World

I posted a piece yesterday asking the question:  Are you spiritual or are you religious?  In reality, a majority of people want to keep these two together.  But, it is important to acknowledge that the world of today is very different from the church's "golden age" in the 1950s.  We look at the world in very different ways.  In the forthcoming issue of Sharing the Practice, the journal that I edit for the Academy of Parish Clergy, Loren Mead, founder of Alban Institute writes a piece on the changing world of ministry.  He uses the metaphor of the tides to describe the difference between the world in which he entered ministry, in which the Academy of Parish Clergy was born, and the world of today.  Then the tide was coming in, now it's going out.  That makes doing ministry much more difficult.
Yesterday, in her closing presentation, Diana Butler Bass shared with the gathered Disciples clergy a matrix to understand the old and the new -- she made it clear that old isn&#…

Are you Religious or Spiritual?

I have been spending the past couple of days in San Diego at the General Minister and President's National Pastor's Conference of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  My friend, Diana Butler Bass, has been the speaker.  On Wednesday morning she laid out the context for the way in which we do ministry in this day and age.  In the afternoon she dealt with perceptions of the church, or religion, and spirituality.  All the polls tell us that there is a growing number of people out there who are uncomfortable with traditional religion.  Many of them describe themselves as spiritual but not religious (apparently about 25% of the population -- and more so among those under 35 and living west of the Rockies!). 
So, as we who are in the "religious profession" must take stock of these trends.  We must ask ourselves about context and perception.  Although a majority (55% in a Newsweek/WP poll) said they were both spiritual and religious, suggesting that for many there a…

Should Jesus be worshippped?

I just finished reading James D.G. Dunn's book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence  (WJK, 2010).  A full review will be forthcoming, but before it get to it and since Dunn opens up the question, I'd like to throw it out there for discussion.   The point that Dunn wants to raise concerns whether or not the biblical evidence supports the idea that Jesus should be worshipped directly.  That is, does the New Testament provide evidence that Jesus was worshipped as an entity separate from the Father, or is Jesus the locus by whom and through worship of God is maintained.  The questions are important ones because they have theological ramifications -- such as, is Christianity a truly monotheist religion?  
As a teaser I want to provide a quote from Dunn so you can ponder the question more fully.
That Jesus was central to early Christian worship is not to be doubted.  He was the reason why their prayers could be offered with confidence and the principle s…

Transforming Acts: Adventurous Theology for the Twenty-first Century (Bruce Epperly)

For Disciples, the Book of Acts, has been a central text.  Early Disciple leaders like Alexander Campbell looked to it for a model of church life and expansion.  Acts has also become a key text for the missional movement, and I have looked to it as a guide for our congregation's expansion of ministry in the community.  So, I was pleased when Bruce Epperly suggested writing a series of columns on this most important text.  With this post, we begin a journey through Acts!


Transforming Acts: Adventurous Theology for the Twenty-first Century Bruce G. Epperly

Annie Dillard advised people attending church to put on crash helmets and wear seats belt in the pews because what we invoke in church is life-changing and life-shaking. God, like Aslan the Christ-figure described in C.S. Lewis’Chronicles of Narnia, is not tame, but transforming, lively, and awesome. When God shows up in the confluence of divine call and human response, surprises abound. The fo…

Until There Are Churches in Saudi Arabia --Sightings

The debate over the presence of mosques in the United States seems to go on without end, and much of the debate is based on misinformation (both intentional and non-intentional).  Martin Marty takes up some of this in an especially pertinently entitled piece.  I invite you to read and enter a civil and informed conversation, so the tantrums of the day can start to die down.


Until There Are Churches in Saudi Arabia
-- Martin E. Marty
The tantrum—let’s call it what it is—against government, taxes, Muslims, and moderates continues to rage, and will through November and perhaps long after. A child in a tantrum eventually stops stomping and rejoins the family, where speaking and hearing, agreeing and disagreeing, can resume. Sightings would like to move on to other topics about religion and public life, and may do so soon, out of boredom, fear, weariness, or, dare we hope, with hope for better, tantrumless times.
In the meantime in these m…

Julian of Norwich (Amy Frykholm) -- Review

JULIAN OF NORWICH: A Contemplative Biography. By Amy Frykholm. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010. xix + 147 pages.
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were marked by political, cultural, religious, and social turmoil. The crusades continued in one form or another, with Spain being the center of the battle between Christian and Muslim forces. The Byzantine Empire was crumbling and the plague took a heavy toll on Europe. This was the era of the Avignon Papacy and the Great Schism, eras when politics played a central role in the life of the Western Church. This was also the era of John Wyclif and Jan Hus, proto-reformers who challenged the ecclesiastical foundations of the Church and set the stage for Luther and his contemporaries in the sixteenth century.
It was into this world, one in which superstition and fear made themselves felt, and where dissent was viewed with suspicion and the voice of an educated woman voice was rarely welcomed that Julian of Norwich appeared on the scene.…

Putting Away Childish Things -- A Christian Century Review

Marcus Borg has many fans, and detractors, out there.  He has written many provocative and faith affirming books -- even if I don't agree with everything he writes, I have found him an intriguing dialog partner.  Well, I recently read and reviewed for the Christian Century his latest book, a novel entitled Putting Away Childish Things (Harper One, 2010). 
Since my review of the book is found at the Christian Century site, I'll need to send you to that site to read the entire review.  And when you get there you'll notice many changes to the site -- including the incorporation of the Theolog blog, for which I've been a regular contributor has been incorporated into the new Century site. 
To get you started reading, here is the opening of the review:
A review of Putting Away Childish Things,  Aug 26, 2010  Reviewed by Robert Cornwall Being the Jesus scholar that he is, Marcus Borg certainly understands the power of a story. In Putting Away Childish Things he offers up a dida…

Seeking the Balm of Gilead -- A Sermon

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Last week we heard a word from the Gospel of Luke about a risk-taking and extravagantly-loving God, who will do everything and anything to restore humanity to fellowship with God and with one’s neighbor. It’s also a word about a God who likes to celebrate this fact with a party. It’s a pretty powerful and wonderful word. But there’s another word to be found in Scripture, and it also needs to be heard. That word is found in today’s lesson from Jeremiah.

1. The Cry of the Wounded Heart
Nine years ago, on the second Sunday after September 11th, I preached from this very text. Like today, it was the lectionary reading from the Old Testament, but it spoke directly to the shock that our nation was still experiencing. It offered a word of consolation to people, trying to make sense of the horrific events of the previous week. As I took to the pulpit that day and preached my sermon, I tried to wrestle with the grief and the anger people were feeling. I reflected on the angry ca…

Managing Polarities in Congregations -- A Review

MANAGING POLARITIES IN CONGREGATIONS: Eight Keys for Thriving Faith Communities. By Roy M. Oswald and Barry Johnson. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2010. 251 pages.
It is a rare thing to run into a congregation that doesn’t want to thrive. Yes, there are faith communities that seem satisfied with the status quo, but that’s because the status quo is how they define what it means to be thriving. So, leaving aside those church folks satisfied with simply existing, most church leaders want to know how their congregations can grow in faith, in numbers, and in ministry. In our desire to reach this goal, many of us have run from one promising product to the next. We read about six easy steps to church growth and try each of them, hoping that something sticks. If we read that young people like contemporary music we may be inclined to toss the organ and hire a praise band. Perhaps the key to vitality isn’t flitting from one promised cure to another, but instead involves attending to and managing…

Big Tent eBook!

I wasn't able to attend the recent Big Tent Christianity event in Raleigh, NC, however I did participate in their synchroblog event that preceeded it. These blog posts, including one of mine (page 14 on PDF), are found in this free e-book. If you want to know what people are thinking about when it comes to living under the Big Tent, this is a good place to start.

Just click on the link Big Tent eBook! to go to the pdf.

Set Free to Serve -- A Sermon

This sermon was preached on Thursday, September 16, 2010, at Northwestern Christian Church in Detroit, as part of a three day revival.  The CWCC choir joined me in sharing a message of freedom and service with this congregation pastored by my friend and colleague, the Rev. Eugene James.


Set Free to Serve John 8:31-36 Two years ago I went to a pastor’s conference in Chicago, and before I left, someone, I think it was John Lacey, told me that I needed to connect with the Rev. Eugene James while I was there. With that in mind, I had my eye out for this pastor from Detroit, and on that very first day, as I took the elevator to my room, I found myself standing right next to a man named Eugene James. From that moment on, Eugene and I have built a strong friendship and a strong partnership in ministry. We’ve done a lot of talking and a lot of dreaming about joint ventures in mission, and while we’ve done more talking than doing, I know that …