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Bonhoeffer & the Empty-Handed Christmas

At Christmas, we typically think about all the things we’ll get our hands on: wrapping paper, bows, gifts, egg nog, gift cards, etc. In other words, Christmas is a time of accumulation, at least for most 21st century Christians in the West.  But in a letter from prison in 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests a Christmas with empty hands is all the more powerful:

I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: “We’re beggars; it’s true.” The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.

The Christmas story is, at its core, a story of God’s grace – that is, His unmerited favor and goodness to us.  Christmas is the ultimate a gift – the gift of God’s very self not only to us but as one of us – a gift for which we did not ask, a gift more grand than we could have imagined.  Bonhoeffer discovered, behind bars, that with nothing else to hold onto, the gift was that much more wonderful. “Now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us…will seem all the more glorious.”  It was Paul Newman who first told us that nothing can be a “cool hand.”  Perhaps Bonhoeffer was right that a kenotic Christmas – a self-emptying, like Paul describes in the hymn of Philippians 2 – is more powerful, and true to the gospel narrative, than how we typically experience the holiday.

At Christmas, how can we approach the manger with empty hands? How can we remember, in the midst of so much consumerism and conspicuous consumption, to try to be content with only the essentials?  Bonhoeffer, and the church in chains around the world, illustrates the truth of the old preacher’s quip: the one who has God and everything else has no more than the one who has God and nothing.

P.S. I highly recommend this Advent/Christmas devotional built around Bonhoeffer’s writings (pictured above) titled God is in the Manger. The above quotation is dated December 1, 1943 and is found on p. 6.

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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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The ABC’s of Christmas: A Worship Service for Christmas & Christmastide

by Drew 7 Comments

In searching for an alternative worship service for Christmas day, someone pointed me to this resource over at the Young Clergy Women Project.  This met my needs, since I wanted a service that was a little fun, a bit different, and most of all, substantially different from the Christmas Eve services the night before.  (In 2016, Christmas fell on a Sunday.)  I adapted the content of the YCW service to make it appropriate for a day service rather than an evening, and added communion and some other elements to make it a bit more substantive.  I share it now in case anyone else is looking for a Christmas service for either Christmas eve, day, or Christmastide.  I used this in conjunction with images for each letter, but it would not require those visuals.  This could also be adapted for a fun family devotional or a program would children.  I used a bulletin that gave a streamlined outline of this so folks could follow along, except where there was a congregational response or a reading I wanted to highlight.  This is what I an the other worship leaders will read, in full  Here goes!

The ABCs of Christmas

Welcome

Opening Prayer 

Lighting of the Christ Candle

A is for an angel, Gabriel, who began the story with a greeting to Jesus’ mother, Mary:

“Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28)

Sing “Angels from the Realms of Glory”

is for Bethlehem, where our story takes place. People traveled from everywhere to arrive in the city; it was a very busy place.

C is for a census (that’s a counting of all the people) the reason so many people filled the city of Bethlehem. Luke 2:1-3 says, “In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists.  This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria.  Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled.” 

D is for David, Jesus’ ancestor, the greatest King of Israel. Bethlehem was called “the city of David.” Gabriel promised Mary that her son Jesus would inherit King David’s throne: “Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.  He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” (Luke 1:31-33)

E is for exhausted, that’s how everyone felt when they arrived – tired from all the traveling!

F is for family: Mary and Joseph and their new baby Jesus, who was born that night in Bethlehem. Let’s say a prayer for families:

O God, look with compassion on families everywhere. Where they are divided, bring them together. Where they are united, strengthen their bonds. Where they are wounded, lead them towards forgiveness and healing. We pray for families of all sizes and types, and for loved ones who bless our lives, whether they have come to us by blood or by choice. Inspire us through the faithfulness and wisdom of the Holy Family, and make every home a place where Jesus is adored. Amen.

Carol: O Little Town of Bethlehem

G is for the Good News about to be shared with all the earth. This is what was said in Luke 2:8-16,
Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.

H is for herds, all those animals that were present in the stable, and the flocks of sheep in the field with the shepherds when they heard the good news.

I is for Immanuel, the name that the prophet Isaiah gave to Jesus in 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Immanuel means, “God with us.”

Carol: Emmanuel, Emmanuel

J is for joy – the excitement and happiness that Jesus brings to us, the joy that we relive today.

K is for kindness, shown by the innkeeper that night, allowing a tired family to stay in the stable when there was no room in the inn.

L is for the love we share with one another all through the year and especially at Christmas.

M is for the manger, it is usually used to hold food for animals, but this time it held the baby because he had no crib.

Carol: Away in a Manger

N is for Noel, another word for Christmas. It also another word for a Christmas carol. One of the most popular carols this time of year reminds us of the angels’ song when Jesus was born, the very first Noel.

Let’s sing the first verse of The First Noel together.

O is for offering, when we give back to God some of what God has given us, out of love. The Wise Men brought valuable gifts for the baby Jesus, and just like them, we are going to share our gifts with Jesus.

Sharing Our Gifts (Offertory song)

P is for prayer and praise and pondering, all different ways people reacted the amazing thing that happened. We pray and praise and ponder together:

Prayers of the People

Q is for quiet, the deep peace that Christmas brings – knowing that God is with us.

is for rejoicing! (Sermon follows.)

S is for one special star that shone bright in the night showing the Magi the way to Jesus. And when they found Jesus, they were filled with joy and worshipped him.

Carol: Joy to the World

T is for thanksgiving, which is what Eucharist means. This is another word for The Lord’s Supper, when we give thanks for all that God has done and enjoy a meal prepared by Christ. Turn to page 15 and let us celebrate Christ together once more.

is for unity, all different people brought together today to celebrate God’s love! Let’s pray:

God, thank you for meeting us once together as gather around your table on this holy day. Thank you that Christmas is a celebration that unites Christians around the world. Take away our divisions, that we can show the world Christ’s love as one church, united by the Holy Spirit. Thank you for this opportunity to remember that Christmas is about more than parties and presents. Thank you for Jesus. Amen.

V is for vulnerable; Jesus came to us as an infant, and like other children he had to be cared for, protected–that’s our job. Just like the Holy Family that searched for shelter, there are beloved people and families in our community that God wants us to welcome and to love and serve. All throughout the Bible we see God’s love for the vulnerable, but we especially see it at Christmas, when God became a vulnerable infant out of His great love for us.

W is for wonder– our amazement at the beauty of how much God loves us, and how much God loves the whole world. Just like the Magi, we are lost in wonder at this great miracle.

Carol: We Three Kings (vv. 1, 2, 5)

X is for Xmas! We don’t shy away from this abbreviation because the x is actually the symbol for Christ – it is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ. So when we sign something “Merry Xmas,” we are actually saying Christmas!

Y is for “yule tide carols” – let’s sing Deck the Halls together!

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
Don we now our gay apparel
Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la.
Troll the ancient Yule-tide carol
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

is for Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, who sang this beautiful song when he met the infant Jesus, in Luke 1:68-79 (CEB):

“Bless the Lord God of Israel
because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, 
just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
 He has brought salvation from our enemies
and from the power of all those who hate us.
 He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and remembered his holy covenant,
         the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.
He has granted  that we would be rescued
from the power of our enemies
so that we could serve him without fear,
         in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes,
for as long as we live.
 You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
 You will tell his people how to be saved
through the forgiveness of their sins.
 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
     to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.”

Zechariah’s song reminds why Christmas is good news for the whole world. Let’s leave this place and live this good news and tell others! Let’s close our worship together by singing Go, “Tell it on the Mountain.”
Closing Carol: Go Tell it on the Mountain

Benediction

 

I’d welcome your thoughts on how to improve this, or, if you use it, what worked and what didn’t work. Feel free to edit and adapt this for your own use.  Merry Christmas!

-Drew

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The Failure of American Christianity in Two Pictures

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I was at my local bookstore recently and was struck by the juxtaposition above.  It is significant that even a book retailer knows that “Christian Life” and “Self-Transformation” are not the same sorts of activities.  But in how many of our pulpits is this distinction denied? How many churches are built on the bait-and-switch of marketing self-transformation while sneaking in Jesus?

The Christian life and “self-transformation” or “self-help” are not living from the same narrative or drawing from the same source of power.  To cite a few distinctions:

  • Christianity is about what God has done in Christ; self-transformation is about how I can better myself.
  • Following Jesus means denying ourselves, taking up a cross, so that we decrease and Christ increases within us; self-transformation is about determining on our own what our lives should look like.
  • The Christian life invites us to follow saints, apostles, martyrs, and monks; self-transformation is the clarion call of a thousand different spiritual hucksters, false prophets, seminar stars, and warmed-over pagan gurus.
  • Sanctification is the name we give to becoming more like God, through the power of God; self-transformation is the impoverished secular version of trying to become more without God. (See also: the Tower of Babel.)
  • The baptized life is lived in community and with a sacred canon compiled in the Bible, bequeathed to us by the Spirit and the Church; self-transformation is a lonely project in which progress is a marketing ploy and the only canon is the latest publisher’s list.
  • Living as Christians is made possible by the Eucharist (or Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper), a sacrament in which we feed on Christ by faith; self-transformation is a project enabled only by our own feeble resources.

The truly sad part?  American Christianity – Protestantism, in particular – has reached a place where we are unable to differentiate between Christian life and self-transformation.  As a pastor, many of the most “successful” preachers whom I’m expected to mimic constantly blur, if not explode, the distinction between Christian faith and self-help.  We have traded the gospel, God’s transformative, free gift of grace to the world, into just another way to make our lives better.

This is Caesar’s religion, not Christ’s.

The proof is in one other photo I took that happened to be at the end of the “Christian Life” aisle.  The tag line: Find inspiration to claim your destiny.

Egads.

There must be more to Christianity than “inspiration.”  Inspiration can come from anywhere: a Hallmark movie, a Nicholas Sparks novel, a Zen expression, a cup of coffee, or a shot of vodka.  To be fair, authors don’t always have control over how their work is marketed.  Still, it is difficult to see how this might be an inaccurate representation of Joel’s version of Christianity.  It’s no accident that there is no mention of Jesus or the Godhead.  The mild code language of “inspiration” gives one the impression that this is vaguely spiritual but not overly sectarian.  And, potential Calvinism aside, the talk of “destiny” offers the promise that this book will be a key to unlocking a hitherto secret future that a beneficent (but unnamed) universe is simply waiting to hand you.

But the Christian life is not something we find; Christ came to us while we were yet sinners.  The incarnation was God’s idea, not ours. It was a rescue mission for which we did not ask.

Followers of Jesus don’t claim a destiny, we are given a calling in our baptism.

The Christian life isn’t about bettering our life, it’s about the life of Jesus, who alone is the way, the truth and the life.  Why is it that a book retailer can get this but millions of Christians in America can’t see just how counter-gospel the self-help message is?

John Wesley once, famously, wrote that “sour godliness is the devil’s religion.” But Satan himself could conceive of no more pernicious, twisted version of the Christian life than this self-help thinly disguised as Christian wisdom.

We’ll let St. Paul have the last word. He seemed to know, in the 1st century, that the Joels of this world would sneak in, wolves in sheep’s clothing, to devour the flock:

 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,  and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)

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Rest in Peace Thomas Oden

thomas-odenOn December 8, 2016, Thomas Oden joined the Church Triumphant.

A longtime pillar of Drew University’s seminary, Oden wrote many influential volumes spanning the breadth of Christian thought and practice.  He famously had a theological conversion mid-career, and was an active leader at the national level of the United Methodist Church for much of his life.  His teaching and writing influenced thousands of United Methodist and other pastors.  Oden is perhaps best known as the general editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary series from IVP, a unique resource seeking to help bring the treasures of early Christian writers and preachers to today’s exegetes.  I was introduced to Oden by reading his Pastoral Theology while preparing to write ordination papers. His classical, holistic vision of ordained ministry has remained foundational for my own self-understanding as a pastor.  I also refer frequently to his encyclopedic three-part systematic theology Classic Christianity.

For those unfamiliar with Dr. Oden’s work, here are a few quotes culled from his many volumes to give you a sense of his intellect and wit.

On the Historical Jesus:

The biblical historical criticism that has pretended to be an objective investigation of the history of Jesus has often turned out to be a highly biased account that imposed the values of nineteenth-and twentieth-century naturalistic reductionism upon the New Testament texts. Jesus Christ has been reduced to human hopes, aspirations, myths, class interests, and social influences.

Modernity demanded that the history of Jesus be submitted to all the canons of interpretation prevailing in alienated modern consciousness. Jesus was refabricated, remade into a political or social or psychological advocate. his words were squeezed, massaged, and reshaped into correspondence with the interpreter’s current viewpoint. (After Modernity, What?, 101)

On Ministry:

How odd that it is apparently not God’s purpose to minister day by day to the world by direct revelation. Rather, the surprising fact is that God has chosen to minister to humanity through a scandalously visibly community, the church, and to minister to the church through human agency, by calling ordinary, vulnerable, pride-prone person into the ministry of word and sacrament. However vulnerable ministry may be to wretched distortions and abuses, curiously enough it seems God’s own idea. (Pastoral Theology, 13)

On Preaching:oden-classic-christianity

Preaching at the end of the first millennium focused primarily on the text of Scripture as understood by the earlier esteemed tradition of comment, largely converging on those writers that best reflected classic Christian consensual thinking. Preaching at the end of the second millennium has reversed that pattern. It has so forgotten most of these classic comments that they are vexing to find anywhere, and even when located that are often available only in archaic editions and inadequate translations. The preached word in our time has remained largely bereft of previously influential patristic inspiration. Recent scholarship has so focused attention upon post-Enlightenment historical and literary methods that it has left this longing largely unattended and unserviced. (“General Introduction,” Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture)

On His Legacy (Describing the dream he once had where his epitaph read, “He made no new contribution to theology.”):

In my dream I was extremely pleased, for I realized I was learning what Irenaeus meant when he warned us not to invent new doctrine. This was a great discovery for me. All my education up to this point had taught me that I must be compulsively creative. If I was to be a good theologian I had to go out and do something nobody else ever had done. The dream somehow said to me that this is not my responsibility, that my calling as a theologian could be fulfilled through obedience to apostolic tradition.” (From this Christianity Today article)

Oden’s influence will live on in the church and in countless Christians whose lives and ministries have benefitted from his work.  Well done, good and faithful servant. I look forward to conversing with you and other Doctors of the Church in that Kingdom not made with hands, illumined only by the light emanating solely from the Lamb’s throne.

O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our
prayers on behalf of your servant Thomas, and grant him an
entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of
your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for
ever. Amen. 

(Book of Common Prayer)

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6 Times Worshipping Jesus Was Deadly (A Rejoinder to Rohr)

 

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In one of his popular meditations, Fr. Richard Rohr observes, “Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything.” We’ve noted some of Rohr’s problematic false dichotomies before.  This one is also worth a bit of reflection because it turns out, whether one is in the 1st century or the 21st century, worship of Jesus might get you killed.

Here are six times (in no particular order) that worshipping Jesus cost Christians their lives:

1) Polycarp murdered while praying (155)

Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was a 2nd century martyr and the subject of one of the most memorable martyrologies ever written.  As described by Catholic Online:

When he was tied up to be burned, Polycarp prayed, “Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of angels and powers, of the whole creation and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your sight, I bless you, for having made me worthy of this day and hour, I bless you, because I may have a part, along with the martyrs, in the chalice of your Christ, to resurrection in eternal life, resurrection both of soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, among those who are in you presence, as you have prepared and foretold and fulfilled, God who is faithful and true. For this and for all benefits I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be to you with him and the Holy Spirit glory, now and for all the ages to come. Amen.”

The fire was lit as Polycarp said Amen and then the eyewitnesses who reported said they saw a miracle. The fire burst up in an arch around Polycarp, the flames surrounding him like sails, and instead of being burned he seemed to glow like bread baking, or gold being melted in a furnace. When the captors saw he wasn’t being burned, they stabbed him. The blood that flowed put the fire out.

2) 19 Nigerian worshippers shot dead by Boko Haram (2012)

Christians in Nigeria have been brutally attacked for years.  This report came from the Christian News Wire on August 7, 2012:

Gunmen armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles surrounded a church in central Nigeria and opened fire during a Monday night worship service. According to the Associated Press report, the attackers killed 19 of the worshippers at Deeper Life Bible Church in the town of Otite in Kogi state, located 155 miles southwest of Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

3) Iraqi Catholic church attack  (2010)

The Iraqi Christian population has been decimated in recent years.  Just one example of the violence Christian worshippers face came on October 31, 2010.  Terrorists entered a church during mass and eventually murdered dozens of Christians and others.  As described at Wikipedia,

Six suicide jihadis of a group formerly called Islamic State of Iraq attacked a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad during Sunday evening Mass, on 31 October 2010, and started killing the worshipers, saying they were sending the Christians to hell and themselves to heaven.

Hours later Iraqi commandos stormed the church, inducing the suicide jihadis to detonate their suicide vests. 58 worshipers, priests, policemen and bystanders were killed and 78 were wounded or maimed. World leaders and some Iraqi Sunni and Shi’ite imams condemned the massacre.

4) 21st Coptic martyr beheaded (2015)

In 2015, ISIL publicly martyred 20 Coptic Christians in Libya.  A twenty-first martyr was made on the spot coptic-martyrswhen, moved by the faith of the 20, he declared Jesus to be his God:

After the beheadings, the Coptic Orthodox church released their names, but there were only 20 names. It was later learned that the 21st martyr was named Mathew Ayairga and that he was from Chad. He was originally a non-Christian, but he saw the immense faith of the others, and when the terrorists asked him if he rejected Jesus, he reportedly said, “Their God is my God”, knowing that he would be killed.

5) Becket slain while kneeling inside Canterbury (1170)

In one of the most significant events in the history of church-state relationships, the Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered while praying at the altar.  You can still visit this site today in the famous cathedral.  Accounts vary, but what follows is a basic account of what transpired:

The king’s exact words have been lost to history but his outrage inspired four knights to sail to England to rid the realm of this annoying prelate. They arrived at Canterbury during the afternoon of December 29 and immediately searched for the Archbishop. Becket fled to the Cathedral where a service was in progress. The knights found him at the altar, drew their swords and began hacking at their victim finally splitting his skull.

6) Romero shot at the altar (1980)

Archbishop Romero, courtesy J. Puig Reixach via Wikimedia Commons.

Archbishop Romero, courtesy J. Puig Reixach via Wikimedia Commons.

Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke out against state violence in San Salvador and paid the ultimate price for it.  He was martyred at the altar preparing to celebrate the Eucharist, as described by Wikipedia:

Romero spent the day of 24 March 1980, the last day of his life, in a recollection organized by Opus Dei, a monthly gathering of priest friends led by Msgr. Fernando Sáenz Lacalle. On that day they reflected on the priesthood. That evening, Romero was fatally shot while celebrating Mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called “La Divina Providencia”, one day after a sermon in which he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. As soon as he finished his sermon, Romero proceeded to the middle of the altar and was shot there.

Conclusion

These six examples are just the tip of the iceberg, of course.  Tertullian famously noted, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  Rohr is in many ways a gifted spiritual guide, but that does not make him infallible.  Claiming that worshipping Jesus is “harmless” might have a rhetorical punch, but it does not hold up to scrutiny and, even worse, dishonors the memory of scores of Christians who died simply because they were worshipping their Lord.

There has never been anything safe about worshipping the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Until the Christ’s Kingdom is fully “on earth as it is in heaven,” we should not expect this situation to change. We’ll let Hebrews 11:32-38 (NRSV) have the last word:

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

P.S. Should a rejoinder to Rohr be known as a Rohrjoinder? Let me know what you think.

What are other times people died for worshipping Jesus? Which martyrs especially speak to your journey with Christ? Leave a comment below!

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Christian Living & Christian Believing

sayersDisciples of Jesus are not allowed to choose between living the Christian life and believing Christian teaching.  This is, and always has been, a both/and, and not an either/or. To divorce Christian morality from Christian doctrine is to separate stem from root, or creek from ocean.  Decades ago, Dorothy Sayer made this observation:

“It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not now matter; it matters enormously.  It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.” (28)

To name just a few examples of how Christian morality and Christian dogma are intertwined:

  • Opposition to slavery is based on theological anthropology which views each person as a precious creature made in God’s image.
  • A belief in human freedom and autonomy is grounded in a God who is free, and a God who grants human beings free will.
  • Opposition to abortion and the death penalty are based in a vision of life as a sacred gift from God, who alone determines life and death.
  • A disdain for adultery and appreciation for marriage is finds its origin in a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God of Israel and the Church, who alone is always faithful.

As Wheaton’s Beth Felker Jones recently put it, both “deeds and creeds” matter.  To choose between them is to miss the mark completely.  One way of viewing the 21st century West, in fact, is to see it as the attempt to prop up human rights and other ethical precepts derived from historic Christian commitments without any undergirding dogmatic claims.  The other temptation, to emphasize creeds and not care about deeds, is also not without its concerns.  This, per Professor Jones, is deeply flawed:

To dismiss deeds in favor of creeds in an enticing lure. It promises to attend to real life, to stuff that really matters, to bodies. But that dismissal turns out to be one more way of dehumanizing our neighbors, reducing them from image-bearers to projects. That dismissal is one more bifurcation, one more failure to remember that God created and loves the whole world and the whole of people and that God calls us to share the goodness of the Gospel with all that we are—heart, hands, mind, and soul.

This false divide wreaks of what Kenda Creasy Dean and others have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a belief system unconciously followed by many Western young people in which a basic belief in decency and is combined with a vague sense of a distant God who simply wants us to be happy (in a happiness grounded in our own sense of flourishing, at that).  As Sayers later puts it, “you cannot have Christian principles without Christ.” (31)

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From the 1914 minutes of the NC Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church. Personal Photo.

Earlier generations of Christians knew this to be the case.  Note the above picture from a 1914 journal of the North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church.  An elder is approved and ordained “so long as his life and doctrines” remain sound and in accord with the Bible.

Hear that? Life AND doctrine.  We are not permitted to choose. Deeds and creeds matter – because they are ultimately inseparable.

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The Purpose of Doctrine is Not Church Growth (or, A Correction to @RNS)

Tom Krattenmaker over at Religion News Service wrote the following a while back in a piece unfortunately titled, “Why a stout theological creed is not saving evangelical churches”:jesus crying

For many years now, it’s been treated as common knowledge in some circles that the liberal beliefs of mainline churches have been the instruments of their decline. As the story goes, if you want to know why the Episcopalians, Lutherans and others like them  have suffered precipitous drops in members and cultural clout since the 1960s, you need look no further than their acceptance of society’s changing sexual mores, women’s equality and so on.

Conservative churches and their strict, unbending doctrine, we’re told, are why they have held onto, and have even grown, their numbers.

The whole piece is worth a read, only so you can follow me as I dissect it.  The bottom line: this is not so much a piece of helpful analysis as it is a thinly veiled exercise in schadenfreude (rejoicing in someone else’s misery) by someone who is attempting to be a leading “secular” voice.  In other words, he’s simply rejoicing that his enemy (religion) appears to be in retreat.

A few points:

  • The headline – “a stout theological creed” is misleading.  Free churches, represented by the Southern Baptists he cites, are non-creedal.  A journalist of religion should have better grasp on the language of religious practice and denominational history than this.
  • The confusion of doctrine and social ethics is unhelpful.  Evangelicals make it too, and I’ve talked about it before.  But all the historical creeds deal with primary doctrine: the nature of God, the resurrection of Christ, etc.  It’s hard to know if Mohler and Moore, as quoted, are talking about basic doctrine or ethics, but this confusion of terms from the outset is problematic.  Liberal theology and progressive social policy are not the same thing.
  • There are evangelicals who are not Southern Baptists.  What Krattenmaker does not account for is the degree to which an even more precipitous mainline decline is hindered because of a remnant of evangelicals in denominations like the UMC.
  • Krattenmaker seems to have no sense of the global religious scene.  The church is growing rapidly in the developing world, and their Christianity is not the progressive Protestant variety he seems to prefer.  The American Church as a whole may be declining, but the growing global church is largely evangelical and, especially, charismatic.

The point of Christian doctrine is not church growth but identity. The value of creedal Christianity is not a guarantee of growth but the blessing of a tradition not invented last week. There is a “faith once delivered” (Jude 6), there are certain truth claims that are constitutive of Christian worship and piety.  Churches and religions that can pass on their particular faith stories to young people effectively tend to retain more of the next generation.  On this, research by Christian Smith and others is clear that Mormons and evangelicals tend to do this well, while mainline Protestants and Catholics tend to do this badly.  Even in the largest of the Mainline denominations, the UMC, the fastest-growing churches tend to be evangelical.  Krattenmaker and others might not like this fact – Progressive Methodists invent new levels of obfuscation every time these statistics come out – but it makes it no less true.

I can appreciate that Krattenmaker wants to be an emerging voice for “secular” people.  (Although, most folks I know who are secular don’t identify that way.)  But this is self-serving narrative masquerading as informed analysis.  Something that says “Religion News Service” at the top of the page should have better standards.

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Lectionary vs. Series Preaching: Which is Better?

by Drew 5 Comments
Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew's German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Should the preacher follow the lectionary or preach topically, via series?

This is not a question with which every preacher is faced.  It’s largely a Mainline Protestant debate; Catholics and Orthodox follow pre-selected readings each week for the homilies that are attached to the primary liturgical action of the eucharist, while Baptists, charismatics, and “non-denominational” traditions are often completely unaware of what the lectionary is, much less its possible benefits.  In the gray zone are Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC, and perhaps a few others – I’m not as familiar with typical Lutheran practice, while most Episcopalians I know are strict lectionary preachers.

As a United Methodist, the lectionary is encouraged – particularly in seminary and at the denominational level – but it is certainly not required or even especially encouraged by our bishops and other supervisors.  Indeed, most of the pastors who are held up as exemplars for us rank-and-file preachers are almost exclusively series preachers.  Often these are folks like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter who have cut their teeth on the series ethos that dominates most church planting models.  You might find lectionary preaching at large, downtown “First” or “Central” UMCs, but I’m comfortable saying that the vast majority of our largest and fastest-growing churches see much more series/topical preaching than lectionary-based preaching.

Which is better?

In some ways, this is a foolish debate, a faux war akin to the “left Twix vs. right Twix” commercials.  There are benefits and drawbacks to both.  Some contexts lend themselves more to one or the other.  The giftedness, training, and method of preparation of different preachers will also have a role in which style best fits the voice and skills of a particular proclaimer.

If I’m honest, I think lectionary preaching is harder – but I tend to preach in series.  I like the long-term preparation I can put into series preaching, and I the musicians with whom I lead worship appreciate knowing, far in advance, my texts and themes.  For my first couple of years in full-time ministry, I preached almost exclusively lectionary, but since then, I’ve preached mostly series.  I tend to follow the themes of the liturgical calendar – hope and promise in Advent, discipleship and the cross in Lent, etc. – but without tying myself to lectionary texts.

Is this, in some ways, a false divide? Yes. One can certainly plan sermon series based on the lectionary.  I’ve done this in two ways: a) looking ahead for 4-6 weeks and seeing if a thread emerges from the various lectionary texts onto which I can hook, or b) sticking with a particular book for a period of time and making it a series on Mark, or the Psalms, or 1 Timothy, etc.  I’ve enjoyed both, and commend both methods to you.  But of course even this kind of planning, via, the lectionary, takes away some of the benefits for which proponents of the lectionary advocate.

Major benefits of both kinds of preaching:

Lectionary Benefits

  • Challenge of being confronted with a text (or texts) rather than choosing them with a particular reading in mind
  • A plethora of liturgical, preaching, and other resources (many of them free)
  • Follows the liturgical calendar
  • Broad ranging texts across both Testaments
  • Week-to-week planning enables easier flexibility if something happens that necessitates homiletical flexibility (such as a sudden loss in the community or a national tragedy)
  • Revisiting the same texts every three years demands creativity and a depth of exegesis that can be lacking in other forms

Series Benefits

  • Ability to build on themes over a period of time
  • Freedom to preach texts not included or marginalized by the lectionary
  • Ability to tie preaching themes to the rhythms of time other than the liturgical (a New Years or Back to School series, for instance)
  • Long-range planning is (arguably) easier
  • Can speak to particular needs in a sustained manner (i.e. recovery, eschatology, theodicy, rather than waiting for them to pop up or twisting lectionary texts to find them)
  • Easier to communicate content and ethos to unchurched people

My own take is that lectionary preaching lends itself best to liturgical contexts.  There is clearly, from what we’ve already said, a correlation between liturgical worship and lectionary-based preaching.  Why might this be? Certainly a strong tether to the church calendar is part of it.  But also, lectionary preaching, which via most teachers is often tied strongly to just one text, lends itself naturally to the shorter 8-12 minute homilies one finds in more liturgical contexts – churches where, to be blunt, the eucharist takes precedence over proclamation.  More Protestant contexts where the preached Word is emphasized often expect sermons of 20-30 minutes, or even longer, which tend to range over a variety of Biblical texts rather than simply mining one pericope.

Which is better – for you, for your context? Should our bishops, synods, and denominational offices take a harder stand on this?

I won’t presume to answer the question for you, but I would conclude by offering this: try a kind of preaching that is outside your comfort zone, that stretches you.  Are you a series preacher? Make yourself stick to lectionary texts for a month.  Are you a lectionary preacher? Use the somewhat bland summer months to try a series, even if it is crafted from the lectionary readings themselves.

Both forms of preaching can be God-honoring and transformative to the listeners.  Both can also be dreadfully dull springboards for eisegesis, therapeutic indulgence, and personal agendas.

Which works best for you? Why? Where do you see excellence in series preaching? Who are our examples of quality lectionary preachers? Join the conversation below!

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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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