Reflections on the Upcoming Judicial Council Decision ©

On Tuesday, April 25, Mike Ford, Central Texas Conference Lay Leader, and I sent the following letter (via email) to all the clergy in the Central Texas Conference currently under appointment as well as the Lay Leaders of our local churches. We’d like to thank Vance Morton, director of Communications & IT for the CTC, for his valuable assistance. – JML

“Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus””   Philippians 2: 1-5 (CEB)

Dear Friends,

Greetings in the name of Christ! We are writing to all Central Texas Conference clergy currently under appointment as well as those serving as Lay Leader for our local churches, in hopes of providing you the necessary information and context regarding the pending Judicial Council ruling on the validity of the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto.

As you may recall, Bishop Karen Oliveto was elected and consecrated a United Methodist bishop in July by delegates of the Western Jurisdictional Conference. Bishop Oliveto, an elder in good standing at the time of her election, is a partner in a same-sex marriage. At the time of the election, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference petitioned the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision about the validity of her election. The petition asks the Judicial Council whether “the nomination, election, consecration, and/or assignment as a bishop of The United Methodist Church of a person who claims to be a ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual’ or is a spouse in a same-sex marriage” is lawful under The Book of Discipline [Paragraphs 304.3, 310.2d, 341.6, and 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d)].

The Judicial Council is meeting today through Friday (April 25 – 28) in Newark, New Jersey. During this meeting, the Council will act on the request for a declaratory decision on Bishop Oliveto’s election. At this time, we have no indication as to when the ruling will be announced.

The entire Cabinet is quite conscious that there are deep and varied convictions about this issue across the conference and connection. We are also aware that there is great interest, discourse and anxiety about this decision. As such, we are in daily prayer for all United Methodists, but especially the lay and clergy leadership of our conference as they are being called upon to lead their congregations through this critical moment and keep their church’s focus squarely on our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We ask you to join us in these prayers.

We offer the following for your careful consideration, believing that it will help prepare you for the announcement of that ruling and assist in any questions or comments you might receive.

  • First and foremost, be a people of prayer. Pray for the Judicial Council, the Western Jurisdiction, Bishop Oliveto and all the bishops of the church, all local churches, clergy and laity and The United Methodist Church at large.
  • Slow down, relax, don’t over respond. Please remind all to breathe deep and recall that Jesus is still Lord and that God’s grace is at work here. Regardless of the ruling, the churches of the Central Texas Conference will continue in their worship and ministries.
  • No matter how the Judicial Council decides, the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ stays the same. We will stay focused on 1) Keeping Christ at the center of everything we do; 2) Developing strong and effective clergy and lay leadership; 3) Growing vital congregations throughout the Central Texas Conference.
  • We are going to continue to uphold church law. Please do not make premature decisions based on this ruling. The Judicial Council determines the constitutionality and legality of actions taken by individuals or constituted entities of the church and will express its own perspective and give its own rationale for its decision. The Judicial Council’s actions are always specific to particular circumstances. Because their decision will be about a specific request from one jurisdiction regarding the action of another jurisdiction, their decision will not change The Book of Discipline.
  • We ask you to wait for the full report from the Commission on a Way Forward (CWF), which is expected to be released in about a year, and the actions that come out of the called General Conference, scheduled for Feb. 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, before deciding on where you stand on this issue. Remember, this week’s ruling DOES NOT change church law, nor does it suggest how the CWF or the called General Conference might decide.
  • Please be wise and respectful leaders on social media. Discussions on a complex issue like this are best done face-to-face. Please resist the temptation to engage in heated conversations via social media. While Facebook, Twitter, etc. are important and vital tools of communication, posts and tweets can easily be taken out of context, especially when shared or retweeted. While you and the members of your church are certainly entitled to and encouraged to have your own opinions, we do want to remind you that there is a greater constituency beyond your personal social media network to which you are responsible. No matter how the Judicial Council rules, there will be some in your congregation/community/peer groups who are celebrating the ruling and others who will mourn the decision. As you engage via social media, please do so in a positive, uplifting manner and help redirect the conversation back to the mission of the church. We encourage you to be grace filled and positive on social media, and resist venting or sharing personal convictions, even on your personal sites. Remember, as a pastor or lay leader, to some degree, you no longer only represent yourself, you represent your church, and the larger shared ministry of The UMC.
  • It is important that we remain in conversation with each other. Clergy, if you have deep concerns following the decision, we urge you to visit with your DS and/or any other member of the Cabinet – including either one of us. Lay leaders are encouraged to reach out to the conference lay leader. Members of the 2016 delegation to General Conference are also an excellent resource of information and context.
  • At the request of the Council of Bishops, we will form a task force to help us design processes for working with and through the recommendations put forth by the Commission on a Way Forward. Dr. Bob Holloway, dean of the CTC Cabinet; Rev. Leah Hidde-Gregory, Central District Superintendent; Rev. Travis Franklin, North District Superintendent (effective July 1) and Rev. Casey Orr, member of the Commission on a Way Forward, have been named to this task force. They will be joined by four members of the 2016 CTC General and Jurisdictional Conference delegations. The delegation reps will be named by the delegation in the coming months.

Once again, we ask you to be a people of prayer, to breathe deep, remember that Jesus is still Lord, keep your church’s focus squarely on the mission and wait for the process – the Judicial Council, the CWF, the called General Conference, etc. – to work through this issue. We also urge you to live in the second chapter of Philippians – particularly verses 4-5. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.“(CEB)

The Lord is at work here – whether we are aware, the Lord is at work here.

May the grace of the Lord guide your hearts and minds, today and forever.

Of First Importance ©

I confess that the words caught me off guard Easter Sunday morning.  They shouldn’t have.  Scholars argue that the passage read is an early creedal statement of the newborn Christian movement.

I had gone to Sunday worship in Boston at a non-United Methodist Church (Park Street Congregational Church) not as bishop but as Poppa, accompanying (with Jolynn) our son Nathan, daughter-in-law Abigail and most importantly our grandson Simon (21 months old).  It was a relief not be thinking of issues of same-gender marriage or ordination.  Nowadays these questions threaten the very foundation of The United Methodist Church.  My joy was that Easter morning did not revolve around some larger church dispute but focused on being Dad and Poppa (i.e. grandfather to Simon).  Still I must confess, those larger issues were not far from my mind.  We have been told to expect a ruling on the whether the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto from the Western Jurisdiction by the Judicial Council next week.

Anxiety is rising across the church and especially among the clergy.  The future of The United Methodist Church and possible schism hang in the balance.  I have consistently called for prayer and patience as we invite the Holy Spirit to work through the Commission on a Way Forward to guide us on how we can stay together and faithful with sharply different convictions on important issues surrounding human sexuality and its appropriate expression.  I quoted a friend and professor at Claremont School of Theology in an earlier blog in a way that bears repeating, especially in light of the Easter scripture read last Sunday morning:  Professor Jack Jackson wrote perceptively that “human sexuality has become status confessionis for many people at opposite poles on the issue. … We can say we agree on so many other aspects of the Christian life, but the reality is the issue of human sexuality is one of, if not the, key ecclesial issues of our time.  It is an issue that is both shaping and taking priority over every other conversation.”

The lay liturgist at Park Street Congregational Church in Boston read these words:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. . . .
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . .  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (I Corinthians 15:1-8, 14,19 NIV)

Sitting in the historic Park Street sanctuary (immediately adjacent to the Boston Commons with the historic Granary Burial Grounds on the other side of the church, Park Street is where William Lloyd Garrison gave an historic speech igniting the anti-slavery movement) struggling with my own thoughts about the future of The United Methodist Church, the words of verse three hit me again as if with crashing cymbals right next to my ears.  “I passed on to you as of first importance.”

Thank you Lord!  I needed to hear again that while our divisions and theological disagreements are important – so important they may merit deep change in our relationships and connection – they are not of first importance.  The resurrection of Christ is, alone, of “first importance!”

In commenting on this passage Professor Stephen Seamands reminds us, “Lordship and divinity, like two columns of a magnificent arch, are therefore inseparable and dependent on each other. And the keystone of the arch is the resurrection of Christ. Take that away and both columns – in fact the entire structure – tumbles down. Notice how Paul brings all three together at the beginning of his letter to the Romans. The gospel he has been commissioned to preach, he says, is about God’s Son, Jesus, who was “shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:4). (From Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 112).

Pungently C. S. Lewis explains:

There is not in Scripture the faintest suggestion that the Resurrection was new evidence for something that had in fact been always happening. The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe…. He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened.
(C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), pp. 236-237)

In all that may come, the resurrection of Christ is of first importance!  Such is the glory of Easter!

 

 

A Easter Church ©

I used to tape a quote of the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter to my pulpit so I could see it every time I rose to preach:  “I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”  Somewhere along the way I stopped doing so but the words that signal the importance of Christian preaching stay with me.  This is even more true as we approach the cross of Good Friday and peer into the fog shrouded mists of Easter Sunday.

More recently Phillip Jenkins’ fascinating book The Lost History of Christianity opens with the disturbing comment:

“Religions die. . . . It is not difficult to find countries or even continents, once viewed as natural homelands of a particular faith, where that creed is now extinct, and such disasters are not confined to primal or “primitive” beliefs. The systems that we think of as great world religions are as vulnerable to destruction as was the faith of the Aztecs or Mayans in their particular gods.
Christianity, too, has on several occasions been destroyed in regions where it once flourished. In most cases, the elimination has been so thorough as to obliterate any memory that Christens were ever there, so that today any Christian presence whatever in these parts is regarded as a kind of invasive species derived from the West” (Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, pp. 1-2).

It is no secret that mainline Protestantism in North America has been slowly dying for well over half a century.  Scholars talk about this broad societal trend in terms of the “death of Christendom.”  Christine Chakoian in Cryptomnesia reflects on this widespread change commenting:  “In the last fifty years, every major mainline Protestant denomination has seen a steady decline in membership” (Christine Chakoian, Cryptomnesia, p. 11).  United Methodism reached its peak in the mid-1960s and has been steadily declining throughout my ministry (roughly 42 years).  I recently finished listening to a book Robert P. Jones entitled The End of White Christian America.  The title is deeply instructive of the wider demographic shift taking place both ethnically and within various Christian religious groups.  Closer to home, youth soccer games are scheduled for Easter morning this year in Mansfield, Texas.

And yet, all around us creative new expressions of faith communities abound.  First UMC Fort Worth is engaged in a creative new worship expression called “The Gathering.”  Harvest UMC in Fort Worth is a creative new multi-ethnic expression of the Christian faith.  LifeChurch UMC in Waco is a transformational outreach of the Christian witness sponsored by First UMC Waco under the leadership of Pastor Gabe Dominguez. The Wesley Foundation at Tarleton State University has over 50 students gathering for worship regularly.  Rural Nolanville UMC has a “bus stop” ministry that is reaching a new generation.  The Oaks (CTC’s newest congregation) had 5 baptisms (including 1 adult baptism) on Palm Sunday!  Works of missonal outreach in love, justice and mercy exist in abundance in virtually very church.  And the list could go on and on!

Rev. Cecil Williams’ famous turn phrase sticks in my mind.  “It’s a Friday world, but Sunday’s coming!”  Beyond the cross a beam of light lances out on an empty tomb.  Far from dying, new forms and expressions of Christian faithfulness and new faith communities are being born all over the Central Texas Conference and across the United States.

Dr. Tim Tennent, President of Asbury School of Theology, commented in his opening Convocation address in 2016: “Despite the popular narrative that “no-one-goes-to-church-anymore,” the number one corporate activity of Americans in any given week remains church attendance. Between 25% and 37% of Americans attend church regularly. The NFL, in contrast, which has passed baseball as the most popular sport, still only draws 17% of Americans to an event. With apologies to Ellen Marmon, church attendance even outranks NASCAR! The point is, we still have an enormous privilege which we collectively assert in the life of our nation. This privilege is also present for our brothers and sisters from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and Oceania.”  (Tim Tennent, “My 2016 Opening Convocation Address: Homiletical Theology,” Asbury Theological Seminary, September 13, 2016)

God is at work to birth the Lord’s new church!  We are a resurrection people who dare to look at the cross and see through it to a greater work of the Lord unfolding all around us!

Click on the image below to view and/or download Bishop Lowry’s 2017 Easter Message.

A Hill to Die On ©

As I write it is Monday, April 10, 2017.  Yesterday, I worshipped on Palm Sunday with my wife.  The children paraded through the sanctuary waving their palm branches.  It was glorious; a joyous expression of the faith!  I was sitting on the aisle and as they went past our row, I tried to catch the eyes of kids streaming past.  When I connected eye to eye, I would wink and wave at the littler ones.  Big smiles greeted me in return.  I told friends of ours in Jolynn’s Sunday School class that I wanted one of our grandchildren to be with us on such a great day.

And yet today, I read my paper as I ate my cereal.  I prayed for the Christian churches in Egypt that were bombed.  I prayed for those regardless of their faith commitment who suffered from violence and terror.  I prayed for U.S. troops overseas that they might be safe and return home soon.  I prayed for our President and leaders of both parties.  I prayed for our churches that the Lord might find us faithful in this tumultuous Holy Week.

As I looked up in conclusion, it was the cross that caught my eye.  You see, this week we call Holy exists in the shadow of the cross.  So much of modern living has the taste and even texture of tragedy and trial.  Much of life has the grip of struggle and strife.  We too have hills to climb as did Jesus that Holy Week so long ago.

My mind came back to a story that Rev. Ben Disney had shared in a sermon at the start of Lent.  He passed it on to me, and I share it without editing.

“It went on for ten straight days. May 10-20th 1969.
It was known as Hill 937
The battle was part of the Vietnam War – for ten days North Vietnamese fought soldiers from the United States over control of the hill.
In the end 72 Americans died- 372 wounded.
Losses on the North Vietnamese side was estimated at 630 dead.
The hill had no strategic value.
Two weeks after the Americans took it – they abandoned it.
It was known as Hamburger Hill
And it became a metaphor of the insanity and futility of war when there is no clear purpose or mission.

There are some hills worth dying on
Some causes worth giving our lives to
Some principles worthy of our highest calling

But I need to know in the course of my life –
Which hills are worth dying on and which ones are not?
Because the truth is there really is a hill worth dying on

How do I know that?
How do I know which hill matters most?

Because the one we follow – Jesus –
Has gone to great lengths to die on that particular hill
And he invites me to take up my cross and do the same.”
(Rev. Ben Disney, March 19, 2017; Arborlawn United Methodist Church)

This my friends is the call and claim of this week which we call Holy.  Jesus has died on that hill for us and challenges us now to follow Him in service and love of a broken humanity.  We climb the hill not as those without hope but rather with our eyes fixed on the Cross of Christ.  How does that great old hymn put it?

“In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

When the woes of life o’er-take me,
Hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me.
Lo! It glows with peace and joy.”
(The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 295, “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” John Bowring, 1825)

Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos, Part 4 ©

Allow me to step back into the narrative of a four part series of posts entitled Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.  If reader has not read the previous three, I urge him or her to do so before reading this particular blog.  Part 4 is based on and assumes the reader is conversant with the first three blogs on Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.

Recently a friend of mine, Professor Jack Jackson (Claremont School of Theology), wrote perceptively that “human sexuality has become status confessionis for many people at opposite poles on the issue.”  My friend added, “We can say we agree on so many other aspects of the Christian life, but the reality is the issue of human sexuality is one of, if not the, key ecclesial issues of our time.  It is an issue that is both shaping and taking priority over every other conversation.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that the United Methodist Church faces possible schism over the issue. Current church law (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016) holds that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth” and all “need the ministry of the Church.”  It goes on to assert that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”  It then carefully affirms that “God’s grace is available to all” (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 161G, p. 113).  United Methodist clergy are thus prohibited from officiating same-sex unions (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 2702.1b, p. 788) and avowed practicing homosexuals are not “certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church”  (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 304.3, p. 226).

To say that passions run high and disagreement runs deep with this part of church law is a massive understatement.  A number of Annual Conferences have declared their intentions to refuse to uphold this section of church law.  Various other forms of disobedience are being debated (and practiced!).  The Council of Bishops has, at the request of the 2016 General Conference, established a special “Commission on the Way Forward” to make recommendations which will come before a called General Conference in 2019.

If you have stayed with me this far through all three blogs prior to this fourth blog, I invite you to pause and catch your breath.  I ask you to be in prayer for the whole church.  I ask you to be in prayer for all those who feel excluded by this aspect of church law and for all those who believe it essential to the full understanding of our doctrine of holiness of heart and life.  I ask you to be in prayer for the larger society which is itself locked in a deep debate on this issue.

After catching your breath and after prayer, step back with me into the struggle of Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.  Our struggle with the issue of human sexuality is a part of the larger struggle on how Christians follow Christ and relate appropriately to the culture we find ourselves in.  We have been here before as a church!  Some argue that justice in the name of Christ calls us to transform both society and the church with regard to human sexuality.  They assert we Christians are called to lead society in being more open and accepting to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.  Others, with equally sincere convictions, argue that we must not succumb to the gale force cultural winds of today but stand firm in a principled Christian conviction.  They are convinced that we are not to marry the human preferences of this or any given age and time.  Rather we are to faithfully follow Christ as Lord reflecting the fullness of His teachings and preferences over our cultural desires.

Both claim biblical support for their positions.  Both assert that the other side has given in to and/or is advocating cultural surrender to the current age.  The interaction between allegiance to Christ and engagement with our current culture are intertwined on the issue of human sexuality.   The complexity of the relationship of Christ and culture challenges us all.  Such is the larger context of the debate we are locked into as the church.

In writing these four blogs, I have invited us into the larger issue of Christ and Culture through asking what it means to be a Wesleyan Christian in the cultural chaos of today.  I have been clear that I stand for the traditional position.  I wish to be also clear of my deep respect and love for those who believe me to be tragically mistaken and wrong.  I ask us all to wrestle with what it means to be a follower of the Lord first, foremost, and above all else, in chaos of today’s culture.  These are not easy times to be a Christian.  But, most significantly, these are the times to which Christ has called us all to true, deep faithfulness and obedience.

Listening to NPR as I drove to the office last Friday, I was reminded of Lincoln’s famous words in his second inaugural address.  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”

We are not done with this work.  Nor are we done with the greater debate over what it means to be a Christ follower in the chaos of modern culture.  In the midst of this struggle, we can live, in the name of Christ, with “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”

Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos, Part 3 ©

As Francis Asbury (the first Methodist Bishop in America) began his great missionary work of sharing the gospel and spreading the Methodist/Wesleyan way of being Christian across the continent, he faced a monumental clash between Christ and Culture. Methodism was officially and doctrinally opposed to slavery. It was the great Methodist layman and member of Parliament William Wilberforce who lead the British movement to abolish slavery. Asbury himself courageously spoke out against the practice of slavery calling “for members to get rid of slaves and to abstain from the practice.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/16/AR2007031602551.html) And yet slowly the Methodist movement compromised on the subject, never endorsing slavery, but relaxing its discipline with regard to Methodists who owned slaves until finally the church divided over the issue. Why? The Methodist movement struggled to engage the culture with the gospel in all its fullness without fully resolving the issue.

Methodists rejected the temptation to stand “above culture” through spiritual indifferentism.  Simultaneously, Methodists refused to simply given in to Christ (“Christ of Culture”). As two separated denominations (three if we add The Methodist Protestant Church), Methodism existed as both being of the culture and seeking to transform it.

This is the third of four “blogs” exploring Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos. Numerous other historical examples abound of the struggle between following Christ and being engaged in the culture of the age. By way of example, Methodists embraced deeply the prohibition movement as a great cause to transform American to what was perceived as more faithful Christian living. It is worth noting that the cause of prohibition was not some squeamish puritanism run by maiden ladies (as has often been portrayed today) but largely grew out of the issue of spousal abuse. Excessive drinking was rampant in America at the time (far more than today) and often men would drink the paycheck away (commonly in response to the harsh working conditions they endured) and take out their frustrations on their wives and children at home.

Both abolition and prohibition are classic examples of how Christianity wrestles with human culture and society in a given context. Both were driven by biblical imperatives. “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.” (Romans 12:2)  “Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives.  Live honorably among the unbelievers.” (I Peter 2:11-12, CEB)

This tension between following Christ as Lord and Savior (the ruler of our lives!) and existing in a given culture and time has always been with us. As long as there are Christians in the world, there always will conflict between following Christ and yet being in the world. Last week I introduced H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous five typologies of how Christians have typically related to human society and culture; 1. Christ against Culture (Opposition), 2. Christ of Culture (Agreement), 3. Christ above Culture (Indifferentism), 4. Christ and Culture in paradox (Tension), 5. Christ transforming Culture (Transformation and Reformation).

While limited, Niebuhr’s distinctions offer us a helpful frame around which to think about how we relate the culture we live in today. It is important, vitally import (!), to remember that none of us are “pure” in a position. All Christians all across the spiritual, theological and denominational spectrum combine and mix our positions in a variety of ways depending on the time and issue we are struggling with.

In America we have lived through (along with most of what is euphemistically called Western civilization) a period of Christendom. It has been a time and age in which the Christian religion and Christian values held cultural dominance. In large measure there was a sense of Christ and Culture working together. Where sharp differences existed most Methodist adopted a strong understanding of Christ transforming culture (of which both the abolition of slavery and prohibition movement are examples). Presciently John Davidson Hunter has reminded us in his masterful To Change the World that the long term drift of mainline denominations has largely been to give ground to emerging culture expressions in exchange for cultural acceptability. It is a poor bargain best abandoned. So too it is poor bargain to relate only the angry negative.

During the last half century or so, we have engaged in what pundits labeled as “the culture wars.” Christians themselves have been in sharp disagreement with each other. Those who perceive themselves to be largely progressive have often (though not always!) lined up on the liberal (or progressive) side of social debates. Seeking to transform culture, deep engagement was sought on great social issues such as institutional racism, war and peace, access to health care, immigration, poverty, etc. Likewise seeking to transform culture those coming have a more traditional evangelical (conservative stance) have often (though not always!) entered the debate at the point of personal morality issues like abortion, racism, government engagement in education, poverty, etc. Among Christians, both progressive and evangelical/traditional there has been much overlap. None-the-less it is reasonable to assert, with careful note of exceptions, that many more progressive Christians have allied themselves loosely with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and many more evangelical/conservative Christians have allied themselves with the more conservative cultural wing of the Republican Party. (It is interesting and perhaps instructive to reflect on how the Roman Catholic Church has moved across the battle lines depending on the issue. For instance on abortion it is aligned with the more conservative side and on immigration with the more progressive side.)

I cannot help but pause in this narrative to offer a personal admonition. Excessive Christian identification with any one political party is dangerous for the Christian witness. If Christ is truly Lord than his rule over our lives cuts across and to a certain degree against all human political movements. In the chaos of our time we need to adopt again the humility of Micah 6:8. “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”

My next blog will reflect on the current conflict between Christ and Culture involving human sexuality.

Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos, Part 2 ©

Near the close of John Ortberg’s delightful book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, he tells the story of Robert and Muriel McQuilken.  An accomplished college President, Robert left his job to care for his wife Muriel as she slowly slipped away under the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.  Dr. McQuilken has written fairly eloquently about “how much his wife taught him, even with the disease.  (John Ortberg,  Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them,  p. 226).

As he cares for her, he reads an article in the newspaper one day about a person who ended their relationship with a spouse “because it wasn’t meeting my needs.”  Ortberg reports Robert reflecting on the “eerie irrelevance” of such criteria.  Ortberg quotes Robert writing in response to the article:  “Eventually he decided that he could not remain president of his college and care for Muriel.  When the time came, the decision was firm.  It took no great calculation… ‘Had I not promised forty –two years before, “in sickness and in health … till death do us part?”’”

Dr. McQuilken writes of being surprised by people’ reaction to the announcement of his resignation.  “It was a mystery to me, until a distinguished oncologist, who lives constantly with dying people, told me, ‘Almost all women stand by their men; very few men stand by their woman.’  Thoughtfully Robert goes on to comment, “It is more than keeping promises and being faith; through.  As I watch her brave descent into oblivion, Muriel is the joy of my life’”  (John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, p. 226).

The contrast between “it wasn’t meeting my needs” and “in sickness and in health” highlights the clash of values and commitments between our current culture’s excessive love of personal fulfillment and the deeper commitments of a Christian marriage.  The clash of following Christ or following the dominant culture collides at the deep seated level of values.  Furthermore the value clash is more than just individual.  It exists on a communal level as well.  For example, Christians may well debate with each other about how to best provide healthcare coverage for the hungry, homeless and hurting.  What is not up for debate as a Christian is the basic commitment to care for the hungry, homeless and hurting.  Christian values as transmitted by Christ commend that we take care of the sick (“I was sick and you took care of me.” Matthew 25:36.)  Our Lord teaches us “when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me”  (Matthew 25:40).

Christian faith, belief and values to some degree exist in a constant contrast and clash with cultural values.  Cultural values, however good, lack the compassion and depth of care that the Christian faith practices and teaches.  Our current age (the second decade of the 21st century) is awash in a philosophical naturalism that promulgates human pleasure and self-aggrandizement above the greater spiritual good of obedience to the Lord and faithfulness in service to others.

Well over half a century ago (1949 to be exact) the great Christian theological and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a justly famous book entitled Christ and Culture. In the book he categorized five major ways Christians relate to the culture of their time and age.  A brief summary is as follows (with a special thanks to Pattie Wood helping with background research):

  1. Christ against Culture

Christ has sole authority of us as Christians and rejects what the culture pulls us to join. This school of thought can be countered by Christ’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves. Niebuhr writes, “Though there is no statement here that the Christian is obliged to participate in the work of the social institutions, to maintain or convert them, neither is there any express rejection of the state or of property as such” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 49).

  1. The Christ of Culture

Jesus was a part of the society of his time, and the forgiveness, grace and love He offers shows us that we should be fully immersed in the culture of the day. This school of thought does not see the tension between living as Christ directed and the culture in which we live. We are directed to follow Christ’s example, but we are not directed to live “like everyone else” where the sins of culture are fully acceptable. Niebuhr writes, “Jesus Christ is the great enlightener, the great teacher, the one who directs all men in culture to the attainment of wisdom, moral perfection, and peace. …But whatever the categories are by means of which he is understood, the things for which he stands are fundamentally the same – a peaceful, co-operative society achieved by moral training” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 92).

  1. Christ Above Culture (“Synthesists”)

As humans, we cannot attain full unity with Christ, who is above what we as Christians can achieve. Fully aware of this, synthesists affirm humanity, sin and free will while striving to meet the One above humanity. “…when he affirms both Christ and culture, he does so as one who knows that the Christ who requires his loyalty is greater and more complex in character than the easier reconciliations envisage. Something of the same sort is true of his understanding of culture; which is both divine and human in its origin, both holy and sinful, a realm of both necessity and freedom, and one to which both reason and revelation apply” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 121).

  1. Christ & Culture in Paradox (“Dualists”)

Dualists believe the problem is not between God and culture but between God and humans. God’s grace and act of reconciliation in Jesus is understood, as is human sin. They function in paradox: sinful and righteous, doubting yet believers, insecure and yet assured of salvation. “The dualist knows that he belongs to that culture and cannot get out of it, that God indeed sustains him in it and by it; for if God in His grace did not sustain the world in its sin it would not exist for a moment” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 156).

  1. Christ the Transformer of Culture (“Conversionists”)

With a more positive outlook than dualists or synthesists, conversionists believe in the distinction between God’s work and the work of humans. They try to remain obedient to God as savior and redeemer and try to live out the work of the Lord in our society. They hold a view of creations working in the created world under Christ; of the Fall as an act of Humans corrupted; and of God authoring all things and humans responding.

(For further information see https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2015/02/25/christ-and-culture-an-overview-of-a-christian-classic/ .)

Niebuhr’s classic typologies are helpful in clarifying our thinking.  They challenge the thoughtful Christian to ask…where do I fit in?  Do I live in a basic rejection of human culture and society?  Or perhaps, I envision the way Christian values and Christ fit in with my current cultural values?  Am I primarily withdrawn from culture appreciative of culture but standing above it?  Perhaps I hold to the notion of Christ and human culture in irreducible paradox that must be tolerated but not embraced.  Or maybe, just maybe, I hold fast to the conviction that as followers of Christ we must be constantly engaged in transforming human culture for the better.

Most of us, when given a choice, at least verbally ascent to some version of the last choice – with Christ, in obedience to Christ, we are committed to transforming human culture along the lines of a Christian vision.  Then again the allure of the other options is far stronger than we typically realize.  Furthermore, even in agreement, the goal to live with Christ transforming culture opens us to the greater debate of just how our modern culture is to be best transformed.  Today’s chaos continues to swirl around us.

More in the next blog.

Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos, Part 1 ©

“Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.” (Romans 12:2)

Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives.” (1 Peter 2:11)                   

Since its inception, the Christian faith has lived in an uneasy tension with the culture that surrounds it.  For the earliest Christians living in a hostile Roman Empire highlighted the deep tension between Christianity and culture.  They held fast to the core conviction that Jesus is Lord (and not Caesar!) reading the Holy Scriptures which reinforced the conviction that Christians were called to be “in the world and not of it.”

In a ground shaking book published in 1989 Duke Professors Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon (later to be elected a bishop in the United Methodist Church) noted the deep changes going on in American culture and the ongoing tensions with Christian values and conviction.  The book entitled Resident Aliens struck such a nerve that it was read by almost every Methodist pastor then serving.  Provocatively, Professors Hauerwas and Willimon noted the old Moffatt translation of Philippians 3:20 (“We are a colony of heaven.”  In the new Common English Bible translation – “Our citizenship is in heaven.”) and went on to comment, “The church is a colony, an island of one culture in the middle of another”  (Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens, p. 12).  Profoundly they went on to elucidate; “Christianity is more than a matter of a new understanding. Christianity is an invitation to be a part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot otherwise be seen without Christ” (Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Alien, p. 24).

We have lived through a long era where American culture has been closely attached to Christianity as the dominant religion of our nation and of so-called western civilization as a whole.  In the chaos of our times, fundamental societal-wide assumptions  – philosophical, political, and moral – are up in the air.  The dreary and depressing cacophony of our present political disputes (both in Washington and Austin, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof) provide all too much evidence of today’s chaos.  Like it or not Christians living in our present culture face the inevitable tension between Christianity and culture.  The earliest Christians instinctively knew what we often struggle with; namely that biblically faithful Christian give a higher allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

They had it right.  To be Christian is to live in tension with the culture around us.  Struggling Christians of our age (which includes all of us who profess Christ whether we are United Methodist or some other variation of the great universal Church) irrefutably call us “to be in the world but not off it!”  We might all benefit by getting up in the morning and repeating Romans 12:2.  “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.”

And yet …. We live in this culture in what is euphemistically called a post-modern (and by some post-Christian) world.  To be Christian is to be engaged in the world.  The Bible does not teach an indifferent response to the world but a Christian witness under the Lordship of Christ that prays regularly, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Presciently one scholar has written:  “The legacy of this is that it is way too simplistic to reduce the church’s current problems to a “progressive” vs. “conservative” struggle. That struggle is there and shouldn’t be ignored, but that is not the point of this article. My point is that all Christian movements in the West have struggled with the transition to post-Christendom. We have reacted in different ways: The mainline churches have said, “let’s accommodate the church’s doctrine to the latest cultural social demands and maybe they will like us again.” [Surely an oversimplification.] The evangelicals have said, “Let’s preach part of the gospel, downplay the negative, costly side, and keep our services lively and entertaining, without a lot of demands.” [Again, Surely an oversimplification.] But neither “solution” is sustainable. We need robust Christian identity, transformed lives, and a kingdom vision for society, all linked with a deep commitment to catechesis. The “bar” must be raised, not lowered”  (Timothy C. Tennent, Post-Christendom and Global Christianity (Part I), posted June 9, 2009).

Despite the oversimplifications of such differing viewpoints, the essential thrust of the comment is accurate.  Regardless of where one is positioned on the social and theological spectrum of current Protestant Christianity, we are deeply engaged in a struggle between Christianity and Culture in today’s chaos.  We are a people of the cross, the graves, the skies.”  (How do we both reject a cultural sell-out of Christianity to the present age and stay deeply engaged with the culture and society we called in the name of Christ to transform?)

Roughly a century ago William Ralph Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, famously commented, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”  Surely Dean Inge is correct and yet … We must in the name of Christ engage our present age.  Christian retreat from the chaos of our times is neither faithful nor helpful.  It is at this critical juncture that the Wesleyan version of biblical Christianity speaks again to our time.  It is at this crucial temporal and eternal crossroads that the Wesleyan vision of holiness of heart and life address the moral and ethical anarchy of our time.  We are not married to the values and outlook of the present age.  Simultaneously in the name of Christ, at whose name every knee shall one day bow, we choose to engage our morally chaotic world.  Furthermore we recognize that good faithful Christians will differ in viewpoint even as they wrestle appropriately together with how we go about “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

To be continued next week.

In a Mirror Dimly ©

Lost in one of the truly greatest passages of literature ever written is the phrase, “now we see in a mirror dimly.”  It occurs in the famous love chapter of I Corinthians 13.  We all know how the 13th chapter, the 13th verse ends, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13, NRSV).  It is the verse just before this that is often lost, ignored or casually skipped over.  “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12, NRSV).  Virtually without regard to background or conviction (Christian or non-, Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, ethnicity or nationality, gender or gender preference, etc.) we members of the human race can ascribe to the notion and need for love to be ultimately triumphant and central to life.

It is the truth of verse 12 that trips us up.  Despite our best intentions and deepest convictions we see both truth and love in a mirror dimly.  What appears to be most loving is often lost in the cacophony of modern life and chaos of the politics of our time (including church politics!).  What purports to be a beacon of truth at best blinks through the shadowed fog of our present age.  The Apostle Paul wrote for us as well as for the Corinthian church.  We see in a mirror dimly.  Seeing dimly, we live in an age of anxiety.  Core values (both those in the culture and in the church) once again are caught in deep dispute and up for grabs.  William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming” once again rakes our nerves and jolts our deeper reflections.

The first stanza appears to be written for our time.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

One of the more memorable speeches I have heard was given by Dr. George Hunter at Community of Joy Lutheran Church back in the mid-1990s.  In the speech, Dr. Hunter introduced me for the first time to the disintegration of foundational enlightenment values (i.e. science reigned supreme and could solve our problems, an ethical consensus built on the centrality of reason and humanistic values supported by the world’s major religions held sway, with enough effort we humans could solve all our problems, human kind was/is essentially good, etc.).  The phrase which has stayed with me over a two-decade long period of observation and learning was that we are watching/living through the collapse of the enlightenment values and convictions.  Indeed, the center is not holding.

And yet, we who claim to follow Christ in all our widely varied differences come back again and again to the notion that Christ is the Center.  The great Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave a principled lecture on Christ the Center at the University of Berlin in 1933.  Published posthumously through a reconstruction of his notes in a book of the same title (Christ the Center), Bonhoeffer begins simply.  “Jesus is the Christ present as the Crucified and Risen One” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, p. 43).  In a time plagued by Hitler’s theories of the master race and convictions of “might making right,” Bonhoeffer stepped courageously into a seething future anchored on core orthodox truth.

We who see in a mirror dimly need his advice and example for our time.  Yet precisely because we at best see only dimly discerning the correct outlines of such truth, this will not be easy.

The New York Times called Allan Bloom’s famous book The Closing of the American Mind (published in the late 1980s) “That rarest of documents, a genuinely profound book.”  Bloom’s opening posits the issue which is before the church as well as the culture to this very day.  “There is one thing” he writes, “a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative” (Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p. 25).

It is just such a debate which is sweeping across present day Christianity.  As I have written in an earlier blog this year, the claim of “alternative facts” challenges the very conception of the Christian faith regardless of our political persuasions. To deliberately reiterate:  If, as some assert, truth is relative (without, we might carefully add, any notion of relative to what!) and radical equality of thought parades itself forward as the Zeus of modern intellectualism, then what pray tell is the center?  Put differently, we are struggling to discern the outlines of what it means to say one is a Christian.  This debate is sharpened between the polarities of a vague theism and a high Christology.  The debate itself rests on an understanding of the authority of Scripture (a least for those who claim to be the inheritors of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura) and historic claims of precisely what constitutes Christian orthodoxy.

While we in the United Methodist Church are swept up in the larger cultural debates of our time, we nonetheless as Christians hold to some faith distinctives.  The earliest creedal claim that “Jesus is Lord” is declaration of who rules us as a people of faith over and above the politics, culture and tumult of our time.  At our best, it is this deeper struggle which lies behind questions of Christian morality including same gender weddings and who may be appropriately ordained elder, etc.  Furthermore, this same debate, at least for Christians, decisively shapes (or ought to shape) our convictions about health care coverage and the appropriate response to terrorism, etc.

Over the coming weeks I hope to write on some of the Wesleyan distinctives and the way they might impact our best thinking and motivate our deepest praying.  I hope to do so in a context of asking careful questions about our relationship and witness to secular culture in the wider framework of what it means to be Christian.  I make no pretense to being able to resolve the current moral debates which wrack both our society and our church.  Rather, I hope to add a modest voice which might encourage deeper reflection.

I start this writing venture with a deep sense of hope.  This, the United Methodist Church, is the Lord’s church and not ours!  Maybe Yeats’ marvelous closing to the his great poem “The Second Coming” best offers us hope as the centers cannot hold and we can only “see in a mirror dimly.”

   Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats)

St. Patrick’s Day

Here’s a little levity from our friends in the Lutheran Church, as presented by Donall and Conall of LutheranSatire…

 

 

 

 

 

Enjoy, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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