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Out of the Mouths of Babes…

by Drew 0 Comments

I think in ministry, it is odd (though joyful!) to see direct evidence of fruits in one’s ministry.  Here is a conversation I had with a member after a recent meeting:

H: Mack, you won’t believe how many times I’ve had communion this week.

M: What do you mean?

H: Casey (his grandson) finished off all the communion stuff this week.  Every morning this week he would get up, ask for some bread and grape juice, and say he was having communion.  He dipped the bread in the juice and then offered me some.

I’ve been emphasizing Communion with my congregation, and I was pretty convinced I wasn’t getting anywhere.  But maybe the kids get it in a way that the adults sometimes don’t.  Maybe it’s not a terrible idea to have children at the table.  As the Psalmist says, “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise.”  For me, hearing that story gave me ample reason to ‘lift up my heart’.  As much as I griped about the Methodists’ World Communion liturgy, I believe a return to the sacraments, along with the other traditions and practicies of the ancient church, is indeed the way forward.  This doesn’t mean worship has to look like it did 50 years ago, or that new technologies can’t be incorporated.  But we cannot forget Christian Worship 101 and expect to make disciples that are able to flourish as agents of the Kingdom.

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When Liturgy Sucks

Today was world communion Sunday – a time for mainline Protestants to do in unison what we should not have to be told to do: celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Sunday morning.  But misunderstandings about this day abound, and for it to be taken seriously our churches must be taught.  For this to happen, we need serious resources, the opposite of which is the following (excerpted from the Methodists):

It is right, and a good and joyful thing,
Always and everywhere to give thanks to you,
Lord God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

You created for yourself a world filled with diversity
and blessed by your breath of life.
Rainbow colors bloom in spring,
summer breezes bring garden delight,
and now as Autumn comes our way
we see the work of your paintbrush upon every face and tree.

In mercy, while we still held to the chains of our winter,
of pride, self-righteousness, and historic egos
you loved us steadfastly and delivered us as babes
to reflect the beauty and diversity of your grace,
to bring us into a community of love, hope, and peace.

In particular, it is those last two that stink.  “Rainbow colors,” really?  This is not a day to celebrate our ethnic diversity.  It is a day to work together in hope for the unity that Jesus prayed for.  What a waste, United Methodist Church.  What a waste.

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The Pope on ‘Biblicism’

ratzinger eschatology

Reading through more of (then Cardinal) Joseph Ratzinger’s brilliant Eschatology, I came across a dandy of a quote:

One must be very cautious when using biblical data in systematic theology.  The questions which we ask are our questions.  Our answers must be capable of holding up in biblical terms…[but] this complicating factor in the theological appropriation of Scripture is in any case something demanded by the structure of the Bible’s own affirmations…the Bible itself forbids biblicism.

I just love that closing line.  The occasion for this quote is a discussion of the New Testament’s teachings on the resurrection, with its various and sometimes cryptic statements that often do not gel.  On this particular topic, though, of the Bible itself forbidding biblicism, I think especially of the “synoptic problem.”  This, of course, is the recognition that Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a great deal of material and structure in common (with Mark being a major source for the other two).  But the three get small details different, or tell things in different orders.

Thus Scripture demands exegesis.  Harmonizing these differences (making all the pieces ‘fit’ at the expense of the particular narratives of each gospel) has been ruled a heresy for a reason.  Only God is perfect – the Bible is indeed Holy, the absolute source of faith and practice for the Church universal – but it is not perfect, at least, if ‘perfect’ means completely in agreement with itself at all times.  But then, God’s ways are not our ways.  Our idea of perfect and God’s idea of revelation may not be identical.  And we can thank God for that…

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Translation or Catechesis?

Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry

I’ve been working my way through UMC Bishop Will Willimon’s excellent Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, and came across a very interesting passage, and one that I think I agree with:

Just as it is impossible to learn French by reading French novel in an English translation, so it is also impossible, as Lindbeck notes, truly to learn Christianity by encountering it through the translation of existentialism, or feminism, or the language of self-esteem.  One must learn the vocabulary, inculcate the moves and gestures of this faith, in order to know the faith. (Pastor, 209)

The occasion for this quote is a discussion of George Lindbeck’s excellent but (very!) dense The Nature of Doctrine.  Willimon is part of that postliberal school that went from Yale to Duke, a school I am largely comfortable with as an alternative to either fundamentalist or liberal theologies.  The above quote is explained, to my knowledge, best by William Placher here:

Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation

 

The argument goes something like this: in an increasingly post-Christian society (the West), how do we make disciples?  Some favor “translation” and others favor “catechesis” (my term).  The former would be those who use catch-words like “relevant,” “contemporary,” and “seeker-friendly” when discussing evangelical tactics.  The latter favor a more tradition Catholic/Orthodox model, where people are made Christians by learning Christian doctrine through constant exposure to the liturgy and sacraments, through learning the Scripture (and not The Message), and through (and this is the crux) learning to self-identify as “Christians.”  The latter crowd is not composed of people who want to open a coffee shop that talks about Jesus and call it church.

I am largely sympathetic to the postliberal school and its orthodox/Barthian leanings.  But I have concerns as well, that are exemplified in Willimon’s quote above.  It seems to assume that there is some “pure Christianity” that we can somehow identify and get back to.  Moreover, many in Willimon’s camp would affirm the above but still favor reading Christianity through the lens of, say, Aquinas (Hauerwas and MacIntyre), who was himself heavily influenced by Aristotle.  And of course, he was reading Augustine who was heavily Platonist.    Have these individuals “translated” Christianity through Aristotle or Plato, and thus bastardized it, or used the tools of high culture to better understand God’s revelation in Jesus Christ?  Surely it is the latter.  But how is this different from reading Christianity through the lens of existentialism, feminism, etc.?  Perhaps it is merely less popular.

But it seems a fine line.  I firmly believe in catechesis; and while the term “relevant” has many problems (as does the magazine of the same name), it points out something important: our teaching and enculturing must be accessible to people here and now.  The theology of the cross must be balanced out by the theology of the incarnation.  Our teaching must have flesh that can be recognized by our fellow Americans/Southerners/young people/Democrats/etc.  But we must not let this “incarnational” principle be used to justify wishy-washy theology.  It is a fine line, indeed.

Thoughts?

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Kanye: A symptom, not a disease

The outrage over Kanye’s recent antics at the MTV movie awards are largely an exercise in missing the point: the problem is not Kanye, the problem is us.  We; you; me; us; our kids; our brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews…we all allow people of Kanye’s caliber to amass millions of dollars and have a profound impact on the lives of our young people.

Contra the President, who self-reverently called us “the ones we have been waiting for,” we should be pointing the fingers at ourselves.  This is simply further evidence of a sick culture.  Many artists have problems, but traditionally even artists with problems can show a modicum of class.

Sadly, Christians are a part of all this.  Our kids buy these albums.  I’ve danced to him.  All further evidence that we are entrenched in a world of sin that we cannot extricate ourselves from entirely.  That is why the “Armor of God” is a daily excercise in humility and vigilance.  We must remember who we are – and whose we are – every day.  When we forget, we allow ourselves to fall victim to the most base aspects of our existence.  Our art, and our artists, are merely a reflection of this.

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Scruton on the Health Care Debate

by Drew 1 Comment

I’ve found myself disappointed by American Christians in the current health-care debate.  As happens all too often, we seem to be thinking and arguing about this important issue more as Americans than as Christians.  That is, I have seen very little Christian thought on this that does not fall fairly neatly into contemporary political categories of Left and Right.  Christians on the Left – Jim Wallis and his crew come to mind – simply assume that in Obama ‘s (a secular savior if there ever was one) America, “We are the change we have been waiting for.”  Major health care reform a-la-Europe is simply assumed, rather uncritically.

Christians on the Right, rather than resorting to theological arguments, join the Glenn Beck wagon and decry “big government intrusion” but with no more theological acumen or reflection than the Christian left.

Certainly the Bible envisions Israel, and later the Church, as a community in which all God’s children are nurtured and loved.  But this does not necessarily translate into a nation-state (America) hastily approving health care we cannot afford simply because the other white people in the world think it is a good idea.  Surely a more “Gospel” response would be for churches and parachurch organizations to offer clinics and free hospitals.  This is more defensible in a Christian grammar than a government policy mandated from above.  Christians ought to fight against the modernist tendency to push our morality onto our structures and off of our own shoulders.

I read an interview with Roger Scruton which I believe has a great quote that has some bearing on this debate, in which the Left is characteristically viewed as those who “care about people” while the Right is fully of “greedy white men” run by “the corporations.”  He bursts this false dichotomy on the rock of his own wit.

Does the Left have a monopoly on all the good intentions? Scruton says, “So what?”:

The fact is if you really want to think in terms of good intentions, Lenin and Hitler and Mao had thousands of them. But of what relevance are intentions? Intentions imposed in this belligerent and self-righteous way on the rest of us are actually deeply offensive, I think. It’s true that liberals find liberals to be very nice and conservatives very nasty. But that’s part of the narrow-mindedness of liberals. Conservatives in my experience are much more able to find moral value in liberals than liberals are in conservatives, because liberals, while believing themselves to be the most open-minded of people, are unable to see conservatism, or any opposition, as anything more than a moral failing.

I use this because Christians, too, have fallen into this American dichotomy of nice vs. nasty in matters political.  The truth is, Christians on either side of the present debate may have good or ill intentions and may or may not actually give a damn about people.  We all need to remember what we worship a God who reminds us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways.” This is an especially important reminder at a time when we are all too quick to confuse secular political policy with what Wallis and his cronies quite terribly call ‘God’s Politics’.

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Things I Never Expected as a Pastor: Jewelry Parties

After a meeting this evening, I was invited (unbeknownst to me) to a jewelry party.  One of my members was throwing a Mary-Kay-esque jewelry party and needed a 10th person to get some kind of bonus prize from the company rep.  She asked me to come by the room afterwords but didn’t say why.  Upon entering, I learned that I had filled out the magic number and she got a prize.

At first I was annoyed.  “This is what my time is being used for??”  But then I paused.  I was being arrogant.  I’ve been arrogant.  To an extent, I think, I’ve let an elite seminary education get in the way of my ministry.  After all, the Christian movement gained much of its momentum by the one who wrote,

I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.  (1 Cor. 9: 22b-23)

Sometimes being a pastor means being a counselor.  Other times a teacher.  Sometimes it might mean babysitting, or video games.  Sometimes it is as high and lofty as Holy Communion.  And maybe, just maybe, sometimes being a pastor means being a warm body at a jewelry party. 

Why the hell not?

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Sacraments as a Protestant Problem

communionofapostlesI attended a wedding at a Presbyterian Church this weekend, which to my delight included a communion service towards the end.  This is a rarity in my denomination, and was a nice surprise at a wedding of two people whom I did not know were particularly sacramental.  My own practice is to offer communion by “intinction,” whereby the minister gives each person a piece of bread to dip into a common cup.  At this wedding, however, a common cup and loaves were blessed, but the actual sacrament was organized quite differently.

Here, the loaves were torn in half and placed on trays.  As each person came up the center aisle to receive the elements, they tore off a small piece of bread themselves, ate it, and then grabbed a little “shot glass” of juice from the tray, pounded it, and returned it to the tray.  The effect of all of this was interesting.  Rather than being, in my eyes, a congregation going forward to receive the sacrament together, it turned into a large group of individuals waiting in line to get their own little mini-meal.  I felt it was unseemly.  Moreover, there was no invitation by the pastor that expressly said who should and should not come.  Although this is not his fault, perhaps, the liturgy he used described this act as a “symbol,” and as one of my seminary professors said, “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it!”  In other words, if what we are doing at the Lord’s Table is merely a symbol, then what power does it have other than a reminder, a nice ritual that either gives us warm-fuzzies or turns us to repentance?  A far cry from “This is my body…” 

I would welcome someone from the Reformed tradition giving me some insight onto Presbyterian practices on this point.

But to the larger point: Protestants have a problem with the sacraments.  Perhaps not Lutherans and Episcopalians so much, but the rest of us, probably so.  How often do we celebrate Eucharist? What is baptism, and who should receive it?  These questions lead to questionable practices so deplorable that it makes me not want to celebrate “Reformation Sunday.”  Note, for example, the youth group that had “communion” with Coke and Doritos.  ::Sigh::

Sacramental Protestants, then, have a problem as well: how do we educate people in the practices that the Christian Church has maintained for centuries?  Churches aren’t focused on these questions anymore.  We are too busy opening coffee shops in our churches and enjoying the pizazz of multimedia and jam-bands to worry about something so stifling and traditional as Eucharist.  But it is these rituals that pull the veil back, that help us peak at the really real.  If they are lost, or worse, marginalized and bastardized, what will keep Christian worship from being simply another social outlet, a charity organization, a motivational seminar, or worse, a gathering of people having “the form of religion but not the power.”  Joel Osteen, take notice.

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Cage Match: Evil vs. Stupidity

If evil and stupidity were in a UFC cage match, like the one coming up this weekend, who would win? According to Bonhoeffer, Couture would be stupidity and Minotauro would be evil.  In other words, stupidity is more dangerous than evil.

From Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than evil is.  Against evil, one can protest; it can be exposed and, if necessary, stopped with force.  Evil always carries the seed of its own self-destruction, because it at least leaves people with a feeling of uneasiness.  But against stupidity, we are defenseless. Neither with protest nor with force can we do anything here; reasons have no effect…Therefore, more care must be taken in regard to stupidity than to evil…

This is today’s selection from my ‘Year with Bonhoeffer’ devotional.  It is the kind of daily reading that makes many of the more tedious ones worth while.  To put it bluntly, I think Bonhoeffer is still right.  Of course, his point is all the more poignant because he died in the active opposition to evil.

Interesting note, here he is blunt that there are times when evil must be opposed with force.  Contrary to contemporary Christian pacifists like Hauerwas who have tried to make him a hero of nonviolence, here he seems clear (like Augustine against the Donatists) that force is a moral imperative.

We live in an age of stupidity.  Cynicism passes for analysis (Jon Stewart).  Nihilism may be the ideology of the day (tragically on the rise in academia and popular culture.  Joel Osteen passes for a preacher.  MTV passes for entertainment.  ‘Reality TV’ simply is not.  Stupidity.  I say again, stupidity.  As the author of Ecclesiastes put it, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

How is it opposed?  In the unity of truth and love, as Benedict recently reiterated it.  If stupidity is the order of the day, intelligence consists in coming into a life-giving relationship with the Father of Lights, the Son of God, and the Spirit of Truth, and being a part of a community that lives into that Trinitarian life with each breath.  No, this is not easy.  Nor is this a dismissive answer.  In an age of bullet points, Twitter, and headlines, Christians must stand for the truth of the eternal, uncreated, simple and unknowable, mysterious, awesome, loving God who is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   In comparison, all else is at best evil and at worst, stupid.

Side note: I do hope, when this match occurs, that “Big John” McCarthy is the ref.  Otherwise it is likely to end prematurely or controversially.

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Boozin’ it up with Jesus

I ‘ve been preaching through Ephesians the last 7 weeks, going with the RCL’s secondary reading.  A few weeks back, part of my pericope was Ephesians 5:18, part of which reads, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.”  It is one of those places where the Bible is clear on drunkenness.  It was also quite convicting.

My background is fundamentalist and Southern, which means I was raised on the idea that alcohol is, in the words of Adam Sandler in The Waterboy, “The DEBIL!”  When I went to college, I realized quite simply that the people who insisted that drinking alcohol of any kind was “unchristian” were quite simply talking out of their anuses.   They didn’t drink because their parents didn’t, they claimed it was based on “the Bible” but could never account for why Jesus enjoyed wine so much that he provided a last round for everyone at  little soiree in Cana.
So I started to drink, once I turned 21.  And it was fun.  I partied with my friends…never did anything too stupid, never drank and drive, but I did enjoy partying to the point of intoxication.  This *maybe* even happened in seminary.  I know the dangers of alcoholism because my family is rife with it, but it’s never been a burden to me in that way.  I never drank when I felt bad or drank to get courage, but it was quite simply a way to enhance my enjoyment of good company.  Such days are over now, largely, though I enjoy my occasional glass of scotch or beer.

But the Bible Belt is, even though my church is not fundamentalist, essentially all Baptist.    Among many people in my pews and others around North Carolina, alcohol is still a touchy and sore subject.  I’m not sure how to account for it, because certainly (like abortion and the gay marriage issue) the Bible is not nearly as concerned as we are about booze.

The best I have surmised is that this sentiment is a leftover, a sort of long-term nuclear fallout, of the Temperance Movement.  Of course, the great irony of the temperance movement was that it took a word which meant ‘moderation’ and changed it to ‘abstinence’.

Most people around the world and throughout history have simply had alcoholic beverages as part of their everyday lives.  I was surprised to learn recently that even the Puritan settlers of the early New England colonies drank primarily homemade beer (and their children drank a diluted version of this).  The lack of clean water made this medically necessary.  How we got from that everyday, staple understanding of beer and wine to “alcohol is the devil” is interesting.  I would ask my Baptist seminary friends why their churches were so against alcohol and none of them could ever give me a real answer.  Even many of the more liberal ones that I know still did not drink alcohol.  This is all the more interesting because Baptists have no unified structure to declare a top-down policy on alcohol; this stance is simply assumed at all levels.

So, WWJD at a bar?  Would he sit in the corner with upturned nose as the heathens drank their Guinness and Cabernet and Johnnie Walker?  [Note: this image is modelled after my Campus Crusade friends’ actions throughout college]  Doubtful.  Wine is, after all, still preserved as part of the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis.  Generally it is not things themselves which are evil, but their ill use.   As Ephesians points out, the problem is not the wine but the drunkenness.  The problem, usually, is not with the things themselves but with us, within our bent and twisted and ego-driven souls.  So, I contend that Jesus would probably have a beer with us (he touched lepers, after all)…but, in the immortal words of Cal Naughton Jr, I doubt he would ” get HAMMERED drunk.”

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