Friday, September 29, 2006

Newsletter: Counting our Blessings

Emmett Maxon used to tell a story about two angels. One angel was called the "Gimme" angel. It was his job to answer all the requests people made in their prayers. This particular angel never had any time off. He was tired and ragged from running around handling the ever mounting pile of requests. The other angel was called the "Thank-you" angel. He managed all the prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving. This angel was always relaxed and rested. He had so little to do that he took up golf and quilting.

I think Emmett’s story reveals less about the heavenly host than it does our own humanity. We are blessed in so many ways, yet we seem to take all of it for granted. We are prone to ingratitude. Jesus himself noted this tendency. After healing ten men of leprosy, only one returned to thank him.

Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"(Luke 17:17-18)
As rare as gratitude is, it is the essence of the Christian life. Being released from the bondage of sin and reconciled to God by grace alone, we are stirred to live in thanksgiving.

Our congregation has recently begun a process of discernment. As a church, we are listening carefully to God’s call and responding to that call. In our recent "Conference on the Past," we realized how blessed we are. It is now our opportunity to respond in gratitude. From now until Thanksgiving (November 23), we are counting our blessings.

We need your help. In every Sunday School class, circle meeting, committee meeting, and the like take a moment to jot down a few of God’s blessings. As families gather around the dinner table, write down a couple reasons why we are thankful. Then send them to the church. We have something to be thankful about. Let’s return and give our praise.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Eliminate the General Assembly?

The General Assembly Council under the new leadership of Linda Valentine is currently meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. So far, two presbyteries and a synod have asked for a “consultation” to study the “viability and stability of the synods and presbyteries of this denomination.” Clearly the intent of this request is to strengthen those lower governing bodies. No one is seriously discussing the possibility that presbyteries be eliminated.

However, Rev. Casey Jones in a letter to Presbyweb has suggested that we are putting our attention on the wrong governing body.

While GA cannot and should not be eliminated, it (and not the "faith once and for all delivered to the saints" [Jude 3]) is what must be re-imagined, de-mythologized, de-constructed, humbled, pared down, and radically transformed, limited, and changed. Our present top-heavy, out-of-touch, and often arrogant GA structures are an important part of what is literally killing us. Will we be able to see and act on this? One can only hope.
I am intrigued by the thought. The overwhelming majority of ministry and mission happens at local congregations. The presbyteries are the governing bodies closest to those local congregations providing accountability and support. In a healthy denomination, talent and financial support should be focused where it can make the biggest impact for the kingdom of God--local churches, overseas missions and the governing bodies that support them. We shouldn't have to worry about the “viability and stability” of the presbyteries. Instead our denomination is exactly upside down. The attitude seems to be that the congregations and presbyteries serve the General Assembly. We need to seriously consider why the General Assembly exists in the first place.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Prayer of Confession

I've been avoiding this topic for a while, but I received a brochure in the mail today to which I needed to respond. Westminster/John Knox Press has recently published a book accusing the United States government with orchestrating the attacks on 9/11/2001. The brochure was titled: "Faithful, Informed and in Touch with Today's World." Amazingly, Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11 by David Ray Griffin misses on every count.

I know I am a few weeks behind. Plenty of folks have already made their comments on the book. There is a great article from the Wall Street Journal about the book featuring "A Classical Presbyterian." The best line from the article is from our Moderator Joan Gray...

"To me personally, and I am sure for the great majority of Presbyterians, the idea that the United States government engineered the 9/11 attacks is too over the top to be taken seriously." (Thank you, Joan!)
The denominational magazine, Presbyterians Today, has helpful analysis of the book by Alan Wisdom. Quotidian Grace quotes a "liberal" in the Christian Century complaining that the shoddy scholarship and conspiracy thinking actually hurts the legitimate critics of the Bush Administration. And in the interest of rolling eyes, here is Presbyterian Publishing Corporation's defense of the book's publication.

Why have I avoided making a comment? First, I could not fathom that anyone would be that far off the parade route. Good people can disagree with foreign policy decisions made after 9/11, but reality is reality. That took some time to digest.

Secondly, I realize now that I had been a bit selective. Although WJK has published many good books, it has also published lots of garbarge. Many titles of which contradict the historic teachings of the Church. In a way, these books are an affront to the reality of the faith. Should I be so upset about a book that questions the reality of world events while accepting books that question the revelation of God in Jesus Christ? Especially if they are from the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation?

Father forgive me.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Pope Benedict, Athens and Jerusalem

What should be the proper relationship between reason and Christian faith? In the third century, Tertullian asked the question, "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" Pope Benedict XVI in a recent address at the University of Regensburg has answered a resounding, "everything."

This is the same speech in which the pontiff quoted a 14th Century Byzantine emperor speaking negatively about Mohammed. This is the same speech that criticizes violence done in the name of Islam, which at the same time, some Muslims use as a justification for violent acts. (I’ve stopped trying to understand that one.) Unfortunately, Benedict’s main thesis is lost in the violence that has erupted.

Benedict’s argument for the compatibility of reason and revelation is merely the reiteration of many years of Roman Catholic thought. For example, one could argue that Thomas Aquinas’ whole project hinged on making Aristotle compatible to Christian teaching. Benedict argues that the bringing together of the Athens and Jerusalem is Christianity, and Christianity is basically a European religion. Benedict says,

This inner rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history -- it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: This convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.
This attitude explains Benedict’s concern about the recovery of Christianity in Western Europe. In his view, Europe is not Europe without the Christian faith. Moreover, it reveals one of Benedict’s fundamental critiques of Islam. To extend Tertullian’s metaphor, Islam has failed to bring Mecca and Athens together. However, the pope’s criticism here of Islam is only illustrative. He is more concerned about keeping Jerusalem and Athens firmly intertwined.

Benedict believes that the Reformation began the de-Hellinization of Christianity. In other words, Reformers divided Jerusalem and Athens. Kant reduced Jerusalem to a ghetto, and Harnack bulldozed much of Jerusalem to make it presentable to the modern Athens. It is not surprising that the head of the Roman Catholic Church would suggest that liberal Protestant theology was the inevitable result of Martin Luther nailing 95 theses on the Wittenberg door. It is also not surprising that I respectfully disagree.

This brings me back to Benedict’s quotes about Islam. He quotes the observations of Theodore Khoury, the editor of the 14th Century dialogue mentioned earlier.
But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.
I must admit that when I read this description of Islam, I immediately thought of some Presbyterians that are so enamored with the sovereignty and freedom of God that they forget the incarnation. I am reminded of those Presbyterians who claim that the Holy Spirit would speak in contradiction to Jesus Christ or the Scriptures. Benedict sees this as a failure of reason. I see it as a failure to embrace revelation.

The Reformers were not trying to remove reason from faith. Instead they were trying to keep reason humble. Even our reason is subject to sinfulness and idolatry. By starting with the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the Scriptures, reason is made modest. Its ultimate role is not the discovery of the truth but instead the protection of the truth. Rather than Benedict’s Hellinization, I believe that God’s revelation makes our faith different from the Islam described by Ibn Hazn. That revelation is the corrective moving us away from idolatry, sin, and heresy. Only when we follow Jesus’ words, "abide in me," will the right relationship between faith and reason be established.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

A Matter of Polity

A few days ago, I heard a member of a member of another Presbyterian church tell this joke:
Two dogs meet in a park. On says, "I am a St. Bernard. I help save people." The other responds, "I don’t know what I am. I must be a Presbyterian."
I believe that many of our problems in our denomination are rooted in an identity crisis. We have real doubts about what it means to be Reformed, Presbyterian and in some cases, Christian. Lately, I have been concerned about the lack of understanding of basic Presbyterian polity among our leadership. Our congregation has recently received a pastoral letter from the Synod exec of the Synod of the Sun. In the letter, Judy Fletcher wrote...

With leaders from all 11 presbyteries in this synod, we worshipped, prayed and considered the needs of Presbyterians. In congregation after congregation there are people like you trying to be faithful to Christ and diligent in mission and ministry. That was just as true before the Assembly...

All 11 presbyteries affirmed that the Book of Order has not changed and the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian persons is still prohibited. Presbyteries expressed commitment to uphold our constitution.
Now, I was grateful to hear that those in attendance--presbytery executives, staff members, members of Committees of Ministry, moderators of presbyteries, etc–agreed to uphold our constitution. However, those people do not speak for the presbytery as a whole. The language of "affirmed" suggests that a formal action was taken. None was. I will not question anyone’s motives here, but the synod executive’s opinion doesn’t carry much weight. For example, Mission Presbytery’s recent actions along with the synod’s Permanent Judicial Council’s ruling appears to contradict the Synod executive’s letter. Someone sitting in a pew would be baffled again at more confusing language coming from the leadership of the church.

Too often we seem to conflate the leadership of a governing body for the body itself. I have seen pastors treat sessions as extensions of themselves. I have seen presbytery executives assume that their opinions have the weight of the presbytery behind them. Many buy into the ruse. More than once during debate at a presbytery meeting concerning an overture from a particular session, some asked the pastor about "his or her overture." Such actions are contrary to Presbyterian governance.

Another example of poor polity comes from the "double super secret" documents drafted by denominational lawyers addressing property concerns. From what I understand, those documents were distributed to some presbytery executives as early as 2002. The documents were labeled as "confidential" or "do not distribute." Why should the presbytery itself be kept in the dark? Isn’t the presbytery the governing body, not the executive? In fact, I would argue that the executive works only at the discretion of the presbytery. Historically, presbyteries did not even have executives. Bypassing the normal governing bodies suggests that someone was trying to hide something (even if they weren't).

Our polity indicates we are ruled by elders. Unfortunately, our practice doesn’t always agree.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Our Community

I just e-mailed this letter to the editor of our local newspaper...

Dear Editor,

On the fifth anniversary of the worst attack on American soil, a group of people gathered in front of the downtown fire station our small town. We are far away from New York City, Washington, DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, yet this little town south of the Red River understands community in a way that extends beyond geography.

Since my family moved here in 2003, I have again and again been impressed with the sense of community here. I have experienced it among the pastors and church members here. I have seen it in the precious time that many in our town give to volunteer work. I have witnessed it as the community rallies around folks in need. What other community of our size can boast of so many active clubs, organizations, and groups? As people decry the isolation and individualism of the modern world and small towns disband service organizations due to lack of interest, this town surprises me.

True, we face some huge challenges. The social problems of the world are here–substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, broken families, and the like. We wring our hands over them like everyone else. There are many even within our midst who are lonely and disconnected. Still, I have hope because of the grace God has already given us. Our sense of community suggests a way forward.

9/11 reminded us of words like sacrifice, compassion, faith, and community, yet they are more than words. They are a calling to a way of life. Perhaps I am naive, but I think our city just might be receptive to that call.

September 11th

Five years ago, we were reminded that evil is real, that heroes exist, and that hope never dies. Despite her sins, America remains a beautiful, wonderful land whose greatest resource is her people. Let us not forget those who died, those who mourn, and the children whose parents are never coming home.

"Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll, that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever! I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth" (Job 19:23-25).

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Purpose-Driven Splits?

A friend sent a Wall Street Journal article* reporting that Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven® methods are dividing some congregations. (Alas, there is no link unless you have a paid subscription.) As churches adopt Warren’s approach, some traditional members are balking. WSJ readers probably won’t be too sympathetic with the comments of one of the dissatisfied, "[The pastor of one church in transition] didn’t preach on someone going to hell." That’s probably the first time that I’ve heard that a pastor didn’t preach enough hellfire and damnation.

Nonetheless, I am sympathetic with the traditional churchgoers. There are serious concerns that Rick Warren has accommodated the gospel to a consumer-driven American culture. One pastor is quoted as saying, "I believe that Jesus died for everyone," not just people in a "target audience." These theological concerns are important and should not be ignored.

In addition, there are real pastoral issues when a congregation makes a major change. In the Purpose-Driven® Church, Rick Warren even suggests that pastors may want to think twice before applying his thoughts to an existing church. There is an implied preference for new church developments. Established congregations are just too messy.

Unfortunately, congregants who don’t feel respected and heard will work against any change. Forcing a cookie-cutter program on a congregation in a heavy-handed way does not win friends. I will easily grant that not every Purpose-Driven® congregation is guilty of this. However, some are reaping what they sow.
Some pastors learn how to make their churches purpose-driven through training workshops. Speakers at Church Transitions Inc., a Waxhaw, N.C., nonprofit that works closely with Mr. Warren's church, stress that the transition will be rough. At a seminar outside of Austin, Texas, in April, the Revs. Roddy Clyde and Glen Sartain advised 80 audience members to trust very few people with their plans. "All the forces of hell are going to come at you when you wake up that church," said Mr. Sartain, who has taught the material at Mr. Warren's Saddleback Church.

During a session titled "Dealing with Opposition," Mr. Clyde recommended that the pastor speak to critical members, then help them leave if they don't stop objecting. Then when those congregants join a new church, Mr. Clyde instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role.

"There are moments when you've got to play hardball," said the Rev. Dan Southerland, Church Transitions' president, in an interview. "You cannot transition a church...and placate every whiny Christian along the way."

Rick Warren distances himself from the hardball tactics, but no wonder some churches are finding splits instead of growth.

To be fair, I know nothing about church growth. No one is beating down my door searching for advice. As a pastor, all I try to do is love my people and more importantly love God. All I want is a church which manifests the fruit of the Spirit – "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal 5:22-23). I could care less whether it looks like Saddleback Church or not.

* "A Popular Strategy for Church Growth Splits Congregants" by Suzanne Sataline. Wall Street Journal. September 5, 2006.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Underlying Causes of Terrorism

Deep down, I long to be a pacifist. Although I accept the just war position as credible, I would love the simplicity of rejecting all violence. I would gladly march in step behind Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder with the banner of Christ unfurled. I search for nonviolent solutions, and I give serious consideration to the proponents of such. I am moved by the stories of Martin Luther King, Jr and the civil rights movement. I am emboldened by stories of Rosenstrasse where nonviolent protests by German family members won the release of Jews during the Nazi Regime. As a result, I was interested in reading David Cortright’s "Nonviolence and the Strategy against Terrorism."

Cortright begins by quoting Jim Wallis writing, "If nonviolence is to have any credibility, it must answer the questions violence purports to answer, but in a better way." The challenge is a world of Al Quaeda, Hezbollah, and a nuclear Iran. Can nonviolence provide a pathway to justice and peace? Unfortunately, I’m still searching. Cortright’s position does not satisfy.

Cortright’s response to terrorism hinges on two strategies. First, we should step up efforts of law enforcement and intelligence gathering. He writes,

The most urgent priority for countering terrorism, experts agree, is multilateral law enforcement to apprehend perpetrators and prevent future attacks. Cooperative law enforcement and intelligence sharing among governments have proven effective in reducing the operational capacity of terrorist networks. Governments are also cooperating to block financing for terrorist networks and deny safe haven, travel, and arms for terrorist militants. These efforts are fully compatible with the principles of nonviolence.
Whether these efforts are fully compatible with the principles of nonviolence is another debate. My guess is that Cortright would not allow law enforcement and intelligence agencies to use torture, for example, to gather information on terrorist groups. Beyond that, the problem of state-sponsored terror remains. We cannot send a squad car to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to pick up suspected terrorists. Likewise Iran will probably not honor our extradition requests. Force and the threat of force remain the staples of foreign policy. I’m still waiting for a credible alternative.

Second, Cortright suggests that we should address the underlying problems that leads to terrorism.

A nonviolent approach should not be confused with appeasement or a defeatist justification of terrorist crimes. The point is not to excuse criminal acts but to learn why they occur and use this knowledge to prevent future attacks. A nonviolent strategy seeks to reduce the appeal of militants’ extremist methods by addressing legitimate grievances and providing channels of political engagement for those who sympathize with the declared political aims.
A good question might be what constitutes legitimate political grievances? Poverty, injustice, the existence of Israel, the election of George W. Bush? Probably a better question might be why some peoples who face legitimate political grievances do not resort to terrorism? For example, blacks in Birmingham, Alabama at the height of segregation did not strap bombs to themselves and blow up buses. They had legitimate grievances, and they addressed them in another way.

Al Quaeda has released another video calling on Americans to convert to Islam or face the consequences. Iranian President Ahmadinejad has challenged President Bush to embrace Islam. Palestinian Muslims forced the conversion of Fox News reporters at gunpoint. Sadly, when I look at the underlying causes of the terrorism, one screams at me–totalitarian Islam.

Cortright seems downright oblivious to this underlying cause. Unfortnately, no solutions will be found unless we accurately understand the threat.