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American Gods: On Mawmaw’s Faith in Hillbilly Elegy

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s powerful memoir, we meet an amazing character: Mamaw.  Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw is simultaneously the fiercest and most supportive person in his young life. She’s equal parts endearing and terrifying.  Mamaw read her Bible every night, but wasn’t afraid to grab a gun and aim it at the center mass of anyone who threatened her family.  She’s fascinating, to put it mildly.  Vance, in naming her deepest commitments, describes her thus: “Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.”

Throughout history, Christians have had a variety of different relationships with governing authorities. In many times and places (including today), Christians find themselves oppressed by state power. On occasion, the church has been formally tied to governmental authority (think early Medieval Europe, or the late Roman Empire).  Even when not in power directly, at times Christians find that they can and do support the state, while in other contexts Christians must oppose the state.  This diversity of approach is represented in Scripture; government, when it is serving  its God-given purpose, is something like the portrayal in Romans 13.  The emperor “does not bear the sword in vain” but is an agent of justice.

On the other hand, when government is in full rebellion against God, when Caesar is truly evil and the state is failing in its purpose, it is under judgment like the Beast of Revelation 13.  This is why, in some circumstances, Christian fidelity might look like (relative) support of the state or (relative) opposition to the state.  Amid the complexities of actual history, this is clearly a scale, not a binary – and in most situations there are some things the church can support and others she must resist in various ways.

The description of Mawmaw’s priorities reminds me of the important distinction between nationalism and patriotism.  A Christian can be a patriot, and locate themselves anywhere on that scale.  Nationalism is a different animal, though, and one that really is not a Christian option.  Here is the best definition I’ve seen of the difference:

Patriotism is fundamental to liberty because pride in one’s nation-state, and a willingness to defend it if necessary, is the basis of national independence. Patriotism is the courage of national self-determination.

By contrast, nationalism is patriotism transformed into a sentiment of superiority and aggression toward other countries. Nationalism is the poisonous idea that one’s country is superior to somebody else’s. Nationalism is intrinsically a cause of war and imperialism.

The first option is open to, but not required, of Christians.  Augustine describes persuasively in City of God how bonds of affection naturally develop between an individual and the geography and culture in which they live, no matter how secondary such bonds are to a Christian’s identification with the Heavenly CIty.

Nationalism, however, is antithetical to the gospel because it fails to locate pride of place in a proper order of loyalties.  To put it simply, insofar as the nationalist’s love of country rivals or is greater than their love of God, it becomes a form of idolatry.  The patriot, on the other hand, might be able to recognize the kind of failure of vocation described in Revelation 13, having properly sifted their love of country through the sieve of the gospel.  Nationalism can only ever be blind.

I learned the phrase “chastened patriot” from one of my intellectual heroes, the late University of Chicago public intellectual Jean Bethke Elsthain.  It was her way of expressing an Augustinian conviction which holds together both the need for the good order provided by government and the finitude found in even the best organizational scheme that humans can concoct.

I’m not sure if Vance’s Mawmaw was a chastened patriot or not, but she is described like many Christians I’ve known, particularly in the US South: their religiosity and their love of country are almost one in the same.  They might tell you that God is first in their life, but in truth, July 4 might be, for their family, an equally important holiday to Easter.  In terms of identity, they will tear up for Lee Greenwood before they will Isaac Watts.  Of course, Mawmaw’s faith, like that of so many other adherents to civil religion, is classic American Protestantism: it has almost nothing to do with the Christian community.

As a response to the sort of undiluted nationalism of the Mawmaws out there, many Christians (especially since last year’s election) have rediscovered their Anabaptist streak, looking for any chance to oppose the powers that be.  This – while necessary, as examples like Barmen, Romero, Bonhoeffer, and King make clear – can become another form of idolatry, if taken too far.  All governments stand under God’s judgment.  Our job as Christians is not, first, to make history turn out right.  Let us be known, first, for whose we are, not what we stand against.

To wrap up our Christian identity in either supporting or opposing Caesar gives him far too much credit.  Stick to Jesus. Let him, not your love for or hatred of any Caesar, be your guide.

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Learning to Speak Christian in Our First Family, the Church

Does it matter how Christians speak?

I recently had the opportunity to write for my own Western NC Conference blog, and this time I wrote a reflection on language and identity in the church.  My premise is that the church is our first family, and this identity is both established and maintained through language.  Just as a company, culture, or hobby has a particular language, so too does the church have its own distinct habits of speech and modes of thought.  If we give away the language, we give away everything.  To be a Christian is no less than to speak the language of the church.

Along the way, I draw on the work of Wabash theologian William Placher and his dialogue on postliberal theology with James Gustafson in this piece. You can find the full article here.  Thanks to Rev. Dr. Michael Rich in the WNCC Communications Office for the chance to join a great group of bloggers, and thanks to you for reading!

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Roman Calvinism: A Review of The End of Protestantism by Leithart

Is there hope for Protestant churches – of a certain kind – to reunite in a visible, meaningful way? Presbyterian pastor, author, and Cambridge Ph.D. Peter Leithart believes this is a possibility, and has written an entire tome – The End of Protestantism – to articulate both the need for unity and a way towards it.  Along the journey, Leithart makes meaningful contributions to ecclesiology and theological exegesis of Scripture, and is quite convincing in his overall project, even if there are some lingering questions that remain.

Leithart offers what he calls an “interim ecclesiology.”  We are in-between the Magisterial Reformers and the united church that Christ intends for the Kingdom, so how might we get from this moment of denominational “defiance of Jesus” (p. 3) to the united church for which Christ died and the Spirit continues to work? His answer is, in short, this project, a defense of what he calls “Reformational Catholicism.”  To his credit, Leithart is very clear up front that he’s no sunny optimist about what it will take to achieve this vision: this is a resurrection that will require, first, a death to our old forms of church.

The author is strongest when building a biblical ecclesiology from Genesis to Revelation, one to which Christians of all stripes would do well to aspire: “Unity in faith includes holding to a unified set of beliefs, a unified confession of truth, but includes a common purpose and intention.” (p. 17) He is emphatic in rejecting any vision of the church which accepts a “spiritual” or invisible unity as a substitute  for the full-orbed unity that is God’s will.

It’s worth noting that the Protestantism in focus for Leithart is a particular brand.  From the title and most of the promotions, you’d be tempted to think his project involved Protestantism as a whole, but that would be a mistake.  His real investment is made clear during occasional lapses of clarity such as noting “the defection of the National and World Council of Churches from faithfulness into trendy leftism.” (p. 22)  In chapter three, he eventually makes explicit that he is proposing “an agenda for conservative Protestant churches.” (p. 26).  It would be more clear to say that his agenda is for conservative Protestant churches with organic ties to Luther and especially Calvin, as other flavors of Protestant faith such as Wesleyan, Quaker, or Mennonite (to name a few) are almost wholly absent from his vision.  Thus, even as a Wesleyan who is quite traditional in doctrine and more moderate in terms of social ethics, I have difficulty seeing a way in which I can contribute to Leithart’s vision.

Even while anticipating that “everyone will accept the whole of the tradition, East and West” (p. 27) Leithart continually narrows his focus, taking potshots at old Reformation arguments (against icons and saints) and making clear that the future of Protestantism is Calvinist (even going so far as to suggest that everyone will accept predestination on p. 29).  That aside, his vision of the future church – sacramental and liturgical, biblical, catholic, disciplined – is quite compelling.  It is compelling enough that even if you aren’t in the (conservative, Calvinist) prime audience, this is worth a read.  The author is certainly correct that denominationalism is an institutionalization of division with which Christians of good will should not make peace, though it is admirable that he takes the time to discuss the (former) benefits of denominationalism.  (It reminds me of the infamous, “What have the Romans ever done for us?!” scene in Life of Brian.)  Just because something has run its course does not mean its erstwhile contributions should be ignored.

My favorite section of Leithart’s new book is chapter 8, an extended ecclessiological look at the Biblical narrative as the story of a God who longs to unite humanity under God in a single family.  This is why “division cannot be the final state of Christ’s church.”  As critical as Leithart is of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the ecclesial lens through which he writes is decidedly un-Protestant.  Both my fundamentalist upbringing and my time in the Mainline have taught me that most Protestants simply don’t care about Christian unity.  It is far more important for the (local) church to be correct in fundamentalist circles, or to influence Caesar in the mainline church, than to care about unity.  Thus, Leithart’s powerful conclusion that “unity is evangelical because it is the evangel” deserves more consideration and development. (p. 115)

If you care about the future of the church – as a pastor, an involved layperson, a theologian – there is much here with which to wrestle, and much that you will no doubt find edifying.  In his insistence on ecclesiology, on liturgy and sacraments, on the debt which Protestants owe the pre-Reformation church, I heartily agree with Leithart.  (This sentence from the last page might be the favorite I’ve read all year: “I long to see churches that neglect the Eucharist blasted from the earth.”) Perhaps where he fails most notably is in describing a post-reunification Protestantism that is “mere”ly protestant; the church of Leithart’s future looks suspiciously like a Calvinist Church with regular eucharist – a church which no doubt appeals to Leithart, but is far from a vision of the church that will draw Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers, Mennonites, Anglicans, and Methodists into a new Protestant ekklesia of the future.

Why not, for instance, a future Protestantism of an Anglo-Methodist/Pentecostal variety?  The Anglican heritage brings in the church of the apostles, the fund of liturgical and creedal riches which Leithart values, and the Methodist DNA broadens the soteriological possibilities from just the Reformation’s justification myopia to include (via Wesley) the sanctificationist note of the East.  Wesleyanism’s ties to the Pentecostal movement make such a church an organic fit (indeed, charistmatic American and African Methodists are already living this out), and would help link this future church to the global renewal movements which Leithart notes.  I humbly offer that the Anglo-Methodist & Pentecostal church of my dreams has the potential to unite more Protestants than Leithart’s Roman Calvinism.  (Call that description unfair if you like, but it’s not far off from his “Reformational Catholicism,” a name which equally offends my Arminian sensibilities.)

In the end, I agree with Leithart’s (unexpected?) ecclesial synergism: Protestant reunion is both “a gift of God” and “a work of the Spirit,” and yet still “we must act.” (p. 165)  Christians who take Jesus seriously in John 17 cannot turn a blind eye to division, for as long as we are divided, our witness is damaged, and we are not the church fit to be the bride of Christ.  I daresay than any follower of Jesus will, having read The End of Protestantism, find themselves recommitted to the Biblical vision of the church as a single family, and work locally and at all other levels toward that end.

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What the #UMC Episcopacy Should Look Like

13th century Bishop's crozier, representing the Annunciation. Public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

13th century Bishop’s crozier, representing the Annunciation. Public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

There has been a great deal chatter recently about episcopal elections in the UMC.  As usually happens, there has been a mix of joy and tears, of relief and weeping (and gnashing of teeth).  But regardless of whether you are celebrating or grieving the newest crop of bishops, there is an ancient and apostolic standard for bishops and their relationship to the rest of the church.  Consider the following nuggets culled from Ignatius, who was the bishop of Antioch less than a century after Christ.  Ignatius, in a letter to the Magnesians, offers wisdom to the church through the ages in the following guidance:

1) Follow the lead of the bishop
It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not steadfastly gathered together according to the commandment.

2) Bishops and presbyters (elders/priests) should be united, and thus can they be trusted because there is one prayer/mind/hope/love/joy/etc.

As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Do ye therefore all run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one.

3) Doctrine unites God’s people, along with the bishops, presbyters, and deacons, to Christ and the apostles
Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever ye do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit; in the beginning and in the end; with your most admirable bishop, and the well-compacted spiritual crown of your presbytery, and the deacons who are according to God. Be ye subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual.
The office of Bishop, therefore, is not merely earthly and bureaucratic, but spiritual and apostolic.  Historically, the episcopacy has been the locus of unity in the church, both because of the apostolic role in ordaining and overseeing (episkopos means ‘overseer’) other clergy, and because of the teaching office that is concomitant with that calling.  It is supposed to go something like this:
  • The bishop is united to Christ and the apostles, and with other bishops
  • The presbyters and deacons are united to the bishop
  • The whole church, led and equipped by the three-fold ministerial office, is united in the doctrine of Christ and the apostles, upheld by Word and sacrament, reaching out in mission, service, charity, and justice

Any distortion of this order can cause chaos within the whole. An individualist or apostate bishop, rebellious presbyters, or a separation between the pulpit and pew can cause a break (schism) in the church.

The United Methodist Church is a Protestant denomination that, in truth, would prefer to not have bishops. We consecrate bishops as part of our Anglican heritage, but our American, egalitarian, democratic, and evangelical leanings mitigate against the classic understanding of the episcopal office. Thus our bishops are little more than bureaucratic presiders, dutifully moving about chess pieces but unable to really change the game. One wonders why prominent pastors would even seek episcopal office, since a megachurch pastor or influential author often has more raw influence than the typical United Methodist bishop.

If you want to know just how despised the office of Bishop is in the UMC, consider a vote taken in 2012. In a General Conference famous for frustration, otherwise bitterly divided conservatives and progressives seemed, for once, to agree (and thus voted down) a set-apart President of the Council of Bishops to provide oversight and voice to the Executive branch of our church.  Having personally observed a very capable and gifted bishop serve as both the President of the COB and the leader of a very large Episcopal Area, I am not exaggerating when I say we should be ashamed of ourselves for continuing a practice that is a) inhumane, in that asks an individual to fill two almost impossible tasks simultaneously and b) foolish, in that it is virtually guaranteed to render whatever poor person gets talked into that role those roles ineffective.

not how any of this worksI am doubtful anyone who was elected last week will be able do much to reverse the tide toward schism; some will likely propel us faster toward that end. This is, at least in part, simply due to a flaw of our polity: bishops, by design, just can’t do very much – and, in an increasing number of cases, they aren’t willing to do the bare minimum of what their office demands.

Looking back at the 2nd century vision for church leadership bequeathed to us from Ignatius (and before him, from the Bible and the Tradition), I see very little I recognize in the UMC at present. In a very real way, the episcopal office is a holdover from our Anglican heritage whose authority is not desired by the right or the left. I truly wonder, in a split, if the evangelical and progressive branches would maintain bishops. The most progressive denominations (such as the United Church of Christ) and most conservative denominations (such as the Southern Baptist Convention) resort to congregational autonomy with little oversight. Culturally, in the midst of what Jeffrey Stout has called “the flight from authority,” hierarchy is a dirty word and bishops feel a bit like the ecclesial equivalent of posts to which one ties their horse.

I suppose I’m just sad. Not sad at the particular outcomes at Jurisdictional Conference(s), nor at the state of the church, though it is imperiled. Rather, I am struck by just how much distance there is between what the Church Mothers and Fathers called a bishop, and what United Methodists mean by that term.  And that is a deeper issue than anything that’s gone on in the last week or the last few years.

All that leaves me with a question: do we have the form of religion without the power?

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Church is a Miracle: Reflections on General Conference 2016

umh-545 lyricsI’m not certain what I think about General Conference.

The usual rundowns from secular media – quoting a progressive, a conservative, and then maybe a moderate bishop or academic – reflect the problems of General Conference as much as they describe them. Both “sides” are, in different ways, claiming victory and crisis.  Most statements from denominational leaders seem to me the kinds of things one has to say when one is in leadership, not honest assessments of where we find ourselves. They fail to take seriously, at least in public, to degree to which wilfulness and division – major ingredients in the unholy concoction called evil – were everywhere on display in Portland.  Bishop Swanson’s powerful homiletic exorcism was a refreshing bit of honesty. Let’s go ahead and ask him to do that every morning in 2020.  The low point, at least to this live stream viewer, was watching a presiding Bishop, widely respected by both conservatives and progressives, get spoken down to like a school boy that had just forgotten his hall pass.  As David Watson points out, such a lack of trust is disturbing.

Regardless, the Church goes on.  I do not necessarily mean the United Methodist Church, whose institutional life is frayed. I mean that whatever happens to our particular part of the Body, the work of Christ’s family goes on.  And the true Church, wherever it is found, is based around table fellowship with diverse people. (Look to the Articles 13, 16, & 18 for the centrality of the Table.)  This has been true of the church from the very beginning, even in the church in utero, represented by the disciples.

In a wonderful section of his ecclesiological tome Does God Need the Church? titled, ‘Table Manners in the Reign of God,” Catholic theologian Gerhard Lofhink reflects on the how the church, seen in the figure of the twelve disciples gathered around the Eucharist, reflects such diverse people that only God’s Kingdom could bring them together:

Certainly the common meal, and therefore the common table, played a crucial role simply because a wedding is being celebrated. We can even say that the profane table at which Jesus eats with his disciples becomes the new place of salvation. Jesus dares to effect the eschatological renewal of the people of God with the simplicity and intimacy of a table around which is disciples gather as a family.

These disciples were by no means “like-minded people.” There is a good deal of evidence that Jesus chose the Twelve from the most diverse groups in the Judaism of his time in order to make it obvious that he was gathering all Israelites. The Twelve were a colorful mixture: from the former disciples of the Baptizer (John 1:35-40) to Matthew the tax-collector (Matt 10:3) to Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15).  In a tax-collector and a Zealot the most bitterly opposed forces that existed in Israel at the time were joined within a single group, for the tax-collectors gathered revenue for the Romans while Zealous utterly rejected the Roman occupation as incompatible with the reign of God.

We should try to imagine how such different people could sit at one table. They were like fire and water. But just there began the miracle of the eschatological people of God. If each one were to remain in his or her own corner and individual house nothing of the reign of God could be seen.  Its fascination can only appear when people of different backgrounds, different gifts, different colors, men and women sit together at a single table – and when they join their lives so that together, undivided, they can serve God’s cause. (Lofhink, 174-175)

We wonder how different folks – Zealots and tax collectors, natural enemies! – can sit together at the one table of Christ.  The truth is that it is a miracle.

The church is always a miracle.

thereforegoThis is because the church is most herself when she points towards the reign of God.  It is easy for the church to reflect the world: its division, strife, discord, and polarization. United Methodists know too much of this.  But if and when the church reflects God’s Kingdom – when folk of different opinions and ideologies, life experiences and social locations, come to the one table – it is a gift of God.

As an Arminian, I believe that we can be open to or closed off to God’s gifts. God, in God’s radical freedom, grants human image-bearers a similar freedom.  As such, His gifts can be accepted or rejected.

When and where God’s people depart their “own corner and individual house[s]” and come to God’s table, there the miracle of church is enacted.

But when we refuse to leave our own huts and enclaves, when we try to keep one foot in my way and another foot on the narrow way, or if we come to God’s table with prejudices and ideologies that are more determinative than the Word of God, we have refused to receive the gift called Church.  We we make God’s table our table, we have rejected the very nature of Christian community.

I believe God’s desire is for a United Methodist Church that, like the eschatological feast that is at the heart of our faith, brings different people together to praise, serve, and witness to God’s grace.  But God has given us freedom in this. And while the Spirit binds us together and equips us for ministry, we are capable of following other spirits.

But unfortunately, the principalities and powers have been having their way with us.  The bishops’ post-Portland letter closed, cryptically, with words from John Wesley’s deathbed.  That’s the definition of cold comfort.

But God is in the business of making rivers in the desert and raising the dead to life.  It is not too late for a miracle.

I will be praying for one, and I invite you to join me.

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The Untorn Net in John 21:11 & Church Unity

"The Miraculous Draught of Fishes," by Konrad Witz. 15th century. Public Domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” by Konrad Witz. 15th century. Public Domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Scripture’s truth comes to us at a variety of levels, as the miraculous catch of fish (part deux) makes clear in John 21:11. In the gospels, fish are a common symbol for humans, as when Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 5:10, “I will make you fish for people.”  The gospels relate two similar miracles about catching fish.  For our purposes here, perhaps the most significant difference in this two stories is what happens with the net.

In Luke 5, we are told that the net begins to break because there are so many fish.  But in John 21, the author is careful to tell us that though there were 153 large fish in the net, it did not break.  It is also significant that the John miracle takes place after Easter. What could this mean?

I was intrigued by A.T. Lincoln’s comments:

The details about the size of the catch and the untorn net not only attest to the miracle but may also at the other level of the narrative suggest the completeness and unity of those drawn in by the disciples’ mission. In fact, the verb ‘to haul’ (ἕλκω) is the same verb translated as ‘to draw’ earlier in the Gospel when Jesus says, ‘No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me’ (6:44) and ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (12:32). Peter’s action, then, can be read as the disciples’ involvement in the mission of God and Jesus in drawing people to Jesus. If the untorn net has symbolic significance, it points to the unity that is effected by Jesus’ mission and should characterize the resultant believing community.[1]

Thus, the untorn net may be a symbol of Jesus’ ability to hold the entire “catch” in his net.  The linguistic links vis-a-vis ” draw”/”haul” are fascinating as well.  In the way of grace, none of us have put ourselves in the net.  All of us have been hauled in by Jesus; we may have come in at different times and in different ways, but the net is one, and all of us owe our place in it to Jesus’ drawing, not our swimming.

The net is one.  We are all caught up in the life of the same God together.

The church should reflect that.

Of course, unity is not the highest good in the Church. “No one is good but God,” as the carpenter said.

But God’s will is certainly for one people united in one Body.  The net does not have to be torn. There is plenty of room for all God’s people, but only if the sharp edges of our disputes and our egos, our power games and our tragically individualistic ethos do not fray the net from within.

How is your corner of the net looking?

 

 

[1] Lincoln, A. T. (2005). The Gospel according to Saint John (pp. 512–513). London: Continuum.

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A Gloomy Church is No Church

Christ is risen!barth prayer.jpg

(Christ is risen indeed!)

The church is founded on the resurrection of Christ.  In the light of this, the church – God’s people, not the buildings in which we happen the gather – cannot be gloomy.  The Easter joy is contagious and pervasive. Recently my congregation sang the classic Brian Wren hymn that contains these lines:

“Christ is risen! Earth and heaven
Nevermore shall be the same.
Break the bread of new creation
Where the world is still in pain.
Tell its grim, demonic chorus:
Christ is risen! Get you gone!
God the First and Last is with us,
Sing Hosanna, everyone!”

Pain is not absent after Easter, but it is also not finally victorious.  We can “tell its grim, demonic chorus” – with a shout of alleluia! – that Christ is risen, and nothing else can ever be the same.

In his wonderful little book on the Lord’s Prayer, Karl Barth reflects that in the death and resurrection of Christ, the kingdom has already been accomplished:

“In Jesus Christ the world has reached its end and its purpose. Therefore, the last day, the judgment, the resurrection of the dead, all this is already fulfilled in him. It is not only an event to be awaited, it is behind us. We must understand that in him it is also a past event. When the church speaks of Jesus Christ, when it proclaims his word, when it believes in the gospel, when it goes out to the pagans to make known the gospel, when it prays to God, remembers Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. Those are not ordinary historical events to which we would give a mere religious significance (telling ourselves: that is all very well, but indeed it means nothing). No! They are not nothing. They are all that has happened and is behind us. We proclaim the word made flesh, and we announce the kingdom of God which has come. When it is not jubilant, when it is not sure of its significance, the church cannot be insistent and is not insistent. A sad and gloomy church is not the church! For the church is built upon him who has been made flesh, upon him who has come to say the last word (not the next to last). This last word has already been uttered. We live upon this event. There is nothing more in it to be changed. We cannot turn back time, whose beginning is Christmas and Easter.”

There is much anxiety about Christianity in the West.  Fear and despair abound among laity and church leaders alike.  It is easy to understand how gloom, like a slow-acting poison, might seep in.

But let us remember, with Barth, that in Christ, all has been accomplished.  Let us with joy recall that at Pentecost the Spirit gave birth to the church, and we have been promised that “the gates of hell” will not prevail against her. (Matt. 16:18)  We thus greet gloom and doom with the fierce smile of a competitor who knows the game is rigged in our favor.

Christ is risen! Earth and heaven nevermore shall be the same!

Let us show it in our words and actions, in our attitudes, in our boldness and daring to be the church, to claim our story, to be true to Christ and thus filled with the Spirit whose abiding fruit is joy unmixed with gloom.

 

Source: Karl Barth, Prayer: 50th Anniversary Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 37.

 

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Star Wars Church is the Dark Side: “No Reward is Worth This”

by Drew 1 Comment

lack faith

When does engaging popular culture become apostasy?

That’s a big question, but I’ve found at least one example of that line being trampled.  The collection of “Star Wars Church” examples over at Pirate Christian will (read: should) make you laugh, grieve, weep, and lash out at inanimate objects.  In what follows, I present the problem with this trend – uncritically baptizing culture and calling it church – in three classic Star Wars quotes.  I will demonstrate, by the logic of the very narrative that has been appropriated, why this is a false move. (And these quotes are classic because…duh…these are all from the original trilogy before CGI and Jar-Jar killed a beloved franchise.)

This will be “all too easy.”

vader dark side

The logic of making church a mirror of a cultural phenomenon is not a mystery. It goes something like this:

If we can relate the message of the gospel to a beloved story – particularly at a time of international fever over the release of The Force Awakens – we can leverage that pre-existing cultural equity into a connection with the gospel.  A preacher dressed as Hans Solo and a photo opportunity with inter-galactic mass-murdered Darth Vader might not be what those stodgy Episcopalians would do, but that’s just because they aren’t willing to reach people where they are.  If it reaches just one person, isn’t it worth it?

Notice the Vader-like pragmatic logic: if you compromise, you can save your friends.  Perhaps the methods are questionable.  Maybe the aesthetics are troubling.  It doesn’t have the dignity we associate with “traditional” church, but it is damned effective.  And in an era when people are skeptical about all institutions, especially the church, maybe this is exactly the kind of thing we have to do.

That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

IT'S_A_TRAP

One problem, though: as Admiral Ackbar says, “It’s a trap!”

This is a Devil’s bargain.  There’s a brilliant moment in Episode V when Lando proudly states, “I’ve just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever.”  Of course, it was a trap.  You can’t trust the Empire.  You can’t play with the Dark Side.  “Flee even the appearance of evil,” as we learn in a different canon altogether. (1 Thess. 5:22)

Playing with fire will burn you eventually.  Baptizing popular culture and calling it church is effective.  There’s no doubt about it.

But so is McDonald’s.

So is the Death Star.

I can get my dog to eat his twice-daily pills by coating them in chocolate, but in the long run that is going to create much more serious issues for my dog than the illness that made the pills necessary in the first place.

“Whatever works” is simply not a sufficient metric by which to determine what the church messaging. Why?

no reward

Because the church has other standards of success than those that the market dictates to us.  Growth that is based on kitsch and fluff is neither evangelical nor sustainable.  The church does not make saints by inviting people into a faith community that simply regurgitates culture.  It is easy for children to reach the sugary cereal at eye level at the grocery store, but if you keep letting that child eat the sugary cereal, they may never learn to eat a fine steak or pick out a good head of lettuce.  Cheap grace is easy to sell, but is it really worth any “results” that may come? (Or are the results themselves really just a farce?)

As Han Solo says in Episode IV, “no reward is worth this.”  Turning the church into Comic-Con is fun, Instagram-friendly, and will create headlines.  But God’s people deserve more.  God’s people deserve a church that has something better to do that offer them a photo booth and a Wookie costume.

They don’t need more marketing. The people for whom Christ died don’t need more entertainment.  They will not be moved, much less transformed, by lowest-common-denominator community that makes following Jesus as radical as costume party.  They may show up. But will they leave sanctified?

lightsaber jesus meme

“Take up your lightsaber and follow me” is not something our Lord ever said.

No reward is worth this.  The church, in 1 Peter’s formulation, is “a royal priesthood.” Treat her accordingly. Resist the Dark Side.  Resist baptizing culture and calling it discipleship.  Don’t compromise the beautiful, challenging call to counter-cultural community.

The church is called to offer an alternative to the golden calves and banalities of the world.

Hear me out: I dig Star Wars. I am going to see The Force Awakens opening night.

But I love Jesus Christ and his church more.  The church has her own story to tell, and her own language, culture, and practices.  We don’t need Storm Troopers and X-Wings. We have the incarnation, radical ministry, suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

There is no better story. No matter what rewards the Dark Side promises, remember, they are Siren calls. The cheap rewards of cultural prostitution are merely invitations to shipwreck. (Judges 2:17 speaks to this danger.)

Let us have confidence in the story to which God has entrusted us. The martyrs did not give themselves to the flames so that we could have Lightsaber Church.  Thanks be to God.

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Strangers Before Schism

broken chalice

“Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.”

 -Hebrews 10:25, CEB

Before the breakup comes the distancing; before the divorce comes the separation.  In the following selection, Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware gives a broad overview of the tensions leading to the Great Schism between East and West in his classic text The Orthodox Church:

“In the last resort it was over matters of doctrine that east and west quarreled – two matters in particular: the Papal claims and the Filioque. But before we look more closely at these two major differences, and before we consider the actual course of the schism, something must be said about the wider background. Long before there was an open and formal schism between east and west, the two sides had become strangers to one another; and in attempting to understand how and why the communion of Christendom was broken, we must start with the fact of increasing estrangement.” (44)

It is often noted that the bitter fruit of schism was nurtured in a soil of linguistic and cultural differences exacerbated by political infighting (crusades and iconoclasm didn’t help, either).  But Metropolitan Ware points out a deeper, broader reality: before a formal split over matters of doctrine and ecclesiology, came something diabolically simplistic: strained relationship.

It’s no accident Paul spends much of his letters simply exhorting the Corinthians or the Ephesians to act like Christians towards others in the assembly.  The quality of our relationships with one another in the Body of Christ is a significant barometer of our relationship with Jesus.  When our relationships suffer, the Church hurts.  Estrangement eventually broke the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

orthodox church wareWe could likely note similar trajectories in other splits: between Protestants and Catholics, Methodists and Anglicans, and, more recently, liberals and fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention.  But differences over non-essential matters in theology, ethics, and polity do not have to divide.  In the context of estrangement, however, it’s all to easy for differences to turn into division, for distance to become divorce.

I raised an off-handed hypothetical in a previous post elsewhere, wondering whether or not various groups in the UMC at present worship different deities.  The same might be wondered aloud for loyal PCUSA folks versus their PCA neighbors, or LCMS and ELCA folks. I meant, and mean, no offense; I am genuinely attempting to find an explanation for the current fractures, which are so vitriolic and raw that they surely go deeper than mere disagreement.  Whether raising this hypothetical is an unfair cause or unfortunate symptom of such strained relationship, I leave for wiser minds to decide.

In the meantime, I’m reminded of something I heard Metropolitan Kallistos share with an evangelical audience.  He quoted a Catholic Cardinal who suggested that, to work towards unity (for which Christ himself prayed), we must love each other.  To love each other, we must first know each other.  We might add: to get to know each other, we must meet each other.  I know too many Protestants who’ve never asked a Catholic about their beliefs; I’ve met too many Episcopalians who’ve never had a conversation with a fundamentalist.  Such widespread ignorance of our neighbors shows that we take Jesus’ prayer far too lightly.

This is why I appreciate and invest in projects like Conciliar Post and Via Media Methodists, places where sincere attempts are made toward healthy dialogue about the disputes that threaten to, and in some cases have succeeded in, bending and then rending the Body of Christ.

It’s entirely possible that we might be the generation that rebuilds Christian unity over cups of coffee, lunch meetings, and late-night porters.  At the very least, when we stop meeting together in such ways, when we give up on the hard work of relating to each other, we remove vital tendons and sinew from the Body of Christ.

This is a good reminder of why a ritual meal is at the heart of our faith.  The people we sup with most often are likely the people to whom we are closest.  That’s why the Eucharist, rightly celebrated, is at the heart of any effort towards establishing and sanctifying our full, visible unity in Christ.  As Brian Wren reminds us in his marvelous hymn,

As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
each proud division ends.
That love that made us makes us one,
and strangers now are friends.

P.S. Here’s a great lecture on the state of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue today, for those who might be interested in prospects for healing the Great Schism that’s lasted nearly a millennia.

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Our Hope for #UMC General Conference 2016

GC 2016 banner

                      The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord;                  she is his new creation by water and the Word.
       From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
                   with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.                        – “The Church’s One Foundation”

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” -Pope John Paul II

Something broke inside me during the 2012 General Conference.  I watched the proceedings via live stream and followed the conversation on social media.  I read the reports and stories.  I lamented and pulled out what little hair I had left.  But my Rubicon was not legislative in nature, despite the horror of watching the Judicial Council’s determination to guarantee gridlock.  Oddly enough, what affected me so strongly (and from so far away) happened at the Lord’s Table.

A group of people, in protest, seized the Communion table and held a kind of mock Eucharist.  The reasons do not matter, for it would have been as problematic to me no matter the motivation.  This was, to me, a signal that something was deeply wrong.  The means of grace that is our most cherished gift from Christ was abused.  We tried to use God rather than enjoy Him, to employ an Augustinian formula. It was an embarrassment, a low point during a gathering that would become famous for doing nothing.  The blog post I wrote in response was the first really significant piece of writing I ever published about denominational matters.  I wasn’t ordained yet. I was concerned that speaking out might cost me.  But I couldn’t be quiet any longer.  Much of my writing, my subsequent motivation for in the Via Media Methodists project and WesleyCast podcast began with that schismatic Eucharist.  Whether you enjoy my work or despise it (or something in between), you can blame that malformed psuedo-sacrament as the genesis for what has come after.

Several years and many shenanigans later, I remain committed to the denomination that sometimes vexes me.  At the wonderful church I serve here in North Carolina, we sang the lyrics above last Sunday before I preached on 1 John 4:12b: “If we love another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (NRSV)  With Christ as our sole foundation, the church is called to a mutuality of love, in imitation of the love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As a denomination, such mutual love can be hard to spot.  In the midst of Annual Conference season, temperatures are running hot as delegations are being elected and legislation being recommended to General Conference, taking place in 2016 in Portland.  Depending on who you think should “win” in 2016, some of the delegations look promising, and some look horrifying.  I don’t think it’s about winning, though I confess to a degree of dread about what is ahead.  But I do not believe the Spirit permits me to distance myself from the ugliness.

I recently told a friend of mine, who finds it difficult to stay in his own ecclesial home and wondered about the pathologies of my denominational family, that this is the church in which I have been led to Christ, nurtured in faith, and called to ministry.  This church, our embattled UMC, is who has supported me despite my failures, and given me opportunities to serve that have been deeply humbling and formative.  I cannot abandon her simply because the road ahead is fraught with difficulty. As we say in the South, “You gotta dance with the girl who brought you.”  R.R. Reno puts slightly more eloquently:

“However chaotic and dysfunctional the institutional and doctrinal life of the church, we must endure that which the Lord has given us.” (14)

All of us have our own ideas of what the church should look like, how it should function, and what she should teach and exhort.  There is no sense in pretending otherwise.  We have competing visions.  That is okay, so long as those competing visions don’t become anvils on which we hammer the Body of Christ.  That’s how a vision becomes an idol:

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” (Bonhoeffer, 36)

Those competing images, though they are usually genuine in nature, make it tempting to either 1) retreat into enclaves of the like-minded, or 2) withdraw from the fray altogether.  But to avoid the dissension in favor of echo-chambers and indifference is to do exactly what Christ has asked us not to do: to distance ourselves from his body.

“We need to draw ever nearer to the reality of Christian faith and witness in our time, however burdensome, however heavy with failure, limitation, and disappointment. The reason is simple. Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to us in the flesh. We can draw near to him only in his body, the church. Loyalty to him requires us to dwell within the ruins of the church.” (Reno, 14)

Distance is tempting.  But, to paraphrase Peter, to whom would we go?  Methodists have always known that we cannot hope to grow nearer to God absent companions on the journey.  That is why the church, the community of faithful, is a gift from God.  We neglect this too often.  Thus, Bonhoeffer reminds us:bonhoeffer lt

“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.” (30)

If he is right, our neighbors who are sometimes exasperating are yet a means of grace.  The fellow United Methodists whom I sometimes long to throttle are beloved children of God, with whom I am called to be in community.  That community is not based on our shared vision for the future of the church, on mutual agreement on this or that question, but solely on Jesus Christ.  Again, Bonhoeffer notes,

“Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us….we have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we really do have one another. We have one another completely and for all eternity.” (34)

As the Confessing Church leader hints at, the church will endure, and we shall be graced with one other forever, not based on anything other than the fact that Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, has been pro nobis.  I do not need to agree with someone to recognize that Christ is for them just as Christ has been for me.

My hope for Portland in 2016 is not based on this-or-that plan, or in the “right” delegates being elected. My hope for Portland is in Jesus.

“Though with a scornful wonder, we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;                                                       their cry goes up: ‘How long?’
and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”

Brokenness and discord are perishing.  They have no future in God’s Kingdom.  One way or another, God’s church will endure.  Her foundation is upon Christ, and though the winds blow and the rains beat down, the Christian family is not going anywhere.  Despite all our efforts to tear asunder the Body of Christ, we will feast at his heavenly banquet together one day.

I suggest, if you’ll permit a bit of realized eschatology, that perhaps we should go ahead and learn some table manners now.

This beautiful rendition of “The Church’s One Foundation” comes from the choir of Clifton College, Bristol, United Kingdom.

Sources:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together & Prayerbook of the Bible: Works Volume 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2005).

R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002).

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