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Tea with Bunyan: A Pilgrim’s Life

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Over my hot tea this evening, I found myself flipping back through a  well-worn copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress.  This is simply one of the greats in the Christian (and otherwise!) literary canon.  Yes, the language is difficult, but it is entirely worth the effort.  As much as I enjoyed The Shack, Eugene Peterson’s endorsement was a bit too strong: it does not compare to Bunyan’s masterpiece.

Consider this jewel, with All Saint’s Day coming up:

Good Christian, come a little way with me, and I will teach thee about the way thou must go.  Look before thee; dost thou see this narrow way?  That is the way thou must go.  It was cast up by the patriarchs, prophets, Christ, and his apostles, and it is as straight as a rule can make it.  This is the way thou must go.

Magnificent.  These were the words with which Good Will (*not* Hunting) sent Christian on his journey to the Celestial City.  Ours is the age of “Yes we can!” and “Do not follow where the path may lead…” and “Follow your heart.”  Does anyone else hear Penn and (not so much) Teller yelling, “BULLSHIT”?  In this age of revenge against all norms, traditions, and paths, Bunyan reminds us that the path God calls us to is not one of our choosing.  We are called to a path we do not find on our own; we are defined by a story of which we are not the author.  We are not “the captains of our soul,” we are simply run down by the Hound of Heaven, captured by Amazing Grace.

And in an age where we perpetually confuse wants with needs, and have lost the practices necessary to sustain even a modicum of Christian self-discipline, Bunyan’s Christian reminds us,

I walk by the rule of my master, you walk by the rude working of your fancies.  You are counted theives already by the Lord of the way, therefore I doubt you will not be found true men at the end of the way.  You come in by yourselves without his direction, and shall go out by yourselves without his mercy.

A little harsh, perhaps.  But all-in-all, good medicine for mainline Christians who, in despising their evangelical brothers and sisters, have lost all concept of discipline and the consequences attendant to its failure.  If you’ve not read Bunyan, put down your John Shelby Spong or John Piper or Joel Osteen – please, for the love of God – pick up The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Bunyan’s allegory will, I can promise, guide your own pilgrimage toward the heart of God.

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Christian Hedonists

I’ve realized recently that most Christians I know in their 20’s and 30’s have gotten away from a concern for personal holiness (of course, the term and the concept of holiness are both misunderstood and openly deprecated).  The exception to this rule, as far as I can tell, is the fundamentalist strain of conservative (often Baptist, in reality if not name) Christianity.

Christians in the mainline Churches have gotten away from this, as near as I can tell.  An interesting exception is someone like Lauren Winner, an Anglican convert who rediscovered the virtue of chastity late in life.  Near as I can tell, most Episcopalians are so embroiled over gay sex that they can’t think through the rest of the Christian life.  And of course, some strains of Christianity care little for the effort of the individual Christian (in community!) to grow in grace, to pray, hope, and work in their imitation of Christ out of a conviction that none of this matters a whit.  Against this, I have found comfort in Orthodox theology.  Check it:

“…the road that other Christians take [non-monastics] is longer and less certain, but it isn’t impossible for some of them too to reach the peak of holiness; or in any case even if they don’t go that far, any Christian is obligated to force himself to make spiritual progress.  And a certain amount of restraint is connected with this progress.”  (Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality, 150)

We are not freed to go on living as if God was not worthy to be glorified, more and more every day, with all of our faculties.  Is holiness to preserved (albeit in a perverted form) only among the most dogmatic and narrow of the Church universal?  Even the Methodists, who were at one time known for their emphasis on personal and corporate “scriptural” holiness, have gotten away from this hard teaching of the Lord: “be holy.”

This God that we worship is to be adored, and this adoration is meant to transform us.  The famous Eastern dictum still holds: “God became man that man might become God.”  Deification – not Gentile hedonism – is our vocation.

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Clergy In a Hypersexualized Culture

From a new study by Baylor University:

In any given congregation with 400 adult members, seven women on average have been victims of clergy sexual misconduct since they turned 18, a new national study reveals.

“… we were surprised it is so prevalent across all denominations, all religions, all faith groups, all across the country,” said lead researcher Diana Garland… “Clergy sexual misconduct is no respecter of denominations.”

The study revealed that more than 3 percent of adult women who had attended a church in the past month reported that a religious leader had made sexual advances to them. Research found that 92 percent of those sexual advances were made in secret, and 67 percent of the offenders were married to someone else.

The full study has not been published yet, but I’m curious how “sexual advance” was  defined for the purposes of the study.  The study also mentions the “culture of niceness” prevalent in churches.  One wonders if a number of the perceived advances were indeed so cut and dry.  Of course, we often don’t know our own motivations.  A scientific study can’t reveal the complexities of such interactions.  How often could a simple compliment be construed as an advance?  It is not difficult to imagine legitimate pastoral concern being (intentionally or otherwise) perverted into a flirtatious encounter.  I don’t mean to be overly apologetic.  This study just makes all clergy, across the board, come off a little too predatory.

Of course, it is fascinating that this holds across all denominations and religions.  I don’t know if this should take wind out of the sails of those who insist that Catholic clergy abuse is due to the celibate lifestyle.  It seems that we’re all sexually out of control.  As persons and clergy, we have been so formed (read: malformed) by a hyper-sexualized culture that we cannot even control ourselves among those whose spiritual care we are to direct.

Just this week I was at a local gas station, and realized that the $.75 machine in the men’s bathroom, in addition to the usual assortment of contraceptives, was also advertising XXX photos for sale.  I know this is not moral, and I’m not even sure it’s legal.  But unfortunately, it is no longer surprising.

The Fathers of the Church would be horrified at our distorted notion of freedom.  What we call freedom, they would rightly call slavery to our basest impulses.

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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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