Archive - March, 2017

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!

Saint Patrick, Shamrocks and the Trinity ©

A year ago I wrote a blog in honor of the great Irish Saint name Patrick. St. Patrick wrote a number famous prayers including one on the Holy Trinity. It opens with the line:

“I rise today in power’s strength, invoking the Trinity,

believing in threeness,

confessing the oneness,

of creation’s Creator.”[1]

I cannot remember who (?), but someone sent me the follow link from a satirical website. I invited you to enjoy it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw&feature=youtu.be

I confess that the best of us are at times theologically confused. Even the sharpest of metaphors and analogies eventually break down. Yet at his heart, St. Patrick reached for the essence of the Christian faith. He was a true champion of Christ. I remind the reader of what I wrote a year ago.

“Captured as a young boy and taken to Ireland as a slave, Patrick lived there for 6 years before miraculously escaping and returning to his native Briton. At age 48 – well past the life expectancy in the fifth century – Patrick received a vision from God to return to the land of his imprisonment to share the gospel. Ordained as a bishop and appointed to Ireland as history’s first missionary bishop, he arrived back in this wild and barbaric land with his assistants in 432 A. D.

For 28 years until his death in 460 A. D. he poured his life out leading others to Christ. He and his company baptized thousands, planted about 700 churches and he ordained perhaps 1000 priests. “Within his lifetime, 30 to 40 (or more) of Ireland’s 150 tribes became substantially Christian. …Patrick’s achievements included social dimensions. He was the first public man to speak and crusade against slavery. Within his lifetime, or soon after, ‘the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare decreased,’ and his communities modeled the Christian way of faithfulness, generosity, and peace to all the Irish.”[2]

I offer this reminder as a part of an almost annual pilgrimage to lift up St. Patrick. In this time of modern metaphors and “youtube” exclamations, it is important that we pause and remember a true hero of the Christian faith. In the vernacular slang of our age, “he walked the talk.” The great church historian Dr. Williston Walker has written of him, Patrick “so advanced the cause of the Gospel in that island and so organized its Christian institutions, that he deserves the title of Apostle to Ireland.” (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, p. 179)

In the church today it is important that we remember our past. We are here, living as Christ followers, because others gave their life to the cause of Christ. There are others, many others, to add to this pantheon of heroes. There are saints and sages of both genders and from virtually every ethnic group under the sun. Their collective stories should inspire us. We who take so much for granted need to pause on special days to remember, give thanks, and rededicate ourselves to this same holy ministry.

I urge us in our Sunday worship to pause and give thanks. We might add to the list on this special day. No doublet you can think of many, some well know and others not known at all except for a few. Both individually and collectively they are a gift of love from God to us. Their examples are today’s lesson for tomorrow’s future.

 

 

[1]               George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 49

[2]               Hunter, IBID, p. 23

We Are Lost (c) Guest Post by Rev. Frank Briggs

I have been out of the office since February 28th with a follow knee “revision” surgery on the knee replacement I had done in October of 2015. I hope to resume activity on a regular basis next week. In mean time, Rev. Frank Briggs, Senior Pastor of Lighthouse United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, shared with his congregation the following blog article which I am sharing as a guest blog with his permission. JML

“We are lost.”  I’m not sure that those three little words are welcome at any time, but in my lifetime, this time, they caused me concern like I’ve not experienced it before.

On my recent trip to Kenya, two of us on the mission team were privileged to accompany our Bishop, Mike Lowry, to a very important installation service for a District Superintendent of the Methodist church in Kenya.  With our Bishop from America expected at the event, it was a big deal.  In fact, there were probably between 1000 and 1500 in attendance at the service, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Justice was the name of our van driver; love the name, don’t you?  He was the one who, without fanfare, calmly stated the fact, “we are lost”.  I had ridden many hundreds of miles with Justice by the time this trip took place, and found him to be a strong Christian, a loving husband and father, who was very wise.  He was also a terrific driver who navigated through the absolute chaos of Nairobi traffic, to the miles and miles of dirt roads in and around Maua, where we spent our first week.

To appreciate the magnitude of Justice’s three little words, you need to know that the vast majority of Kenya has few paved roads.  Nairobi, yes, good roads there, but you get away from Nairobi, and it becomes difficult to find pavement.  Consider this, in the larger Maua area, there are at least 100,000 people living, and there is one paved road, the two-lane highway that runs through town.  So, 99% of our driving was down silty roads that hadn’t seen a road grader in what I would guess would have been at least 100 years (but perhaps I exaggerate).  Anyway, these dusty roads twist and turn and there are no road signs, so navigation along them comes by way of experience, and Justice had a full measure of it.

Unbeknown to his three passengers, Justice had never been to Tharaka, where the installation service was to be held.  And though we all knew that the route to Tharaka would take us off the main highway (the one previously mentioned), what none of us knew was that this journey would require us travelling down 60 miles of some of the dustiest, siltiest roads you’ve ever seen (think of the famous Baja 1000 off-road race).

The folks who “knew” had told Justice it would take us about 2 hours maximum, to get to the church, but in reality it was a three hour journey, one-way.  It was about an hour and a half into the dusty roads, that Justice pulled over where two roads intersected and stopped, to utter those three little words.

I have to admit that when Justice said, “we are lost”, my first reaction was to think to myself, ‘hey, wait a minute, I’m not lost, because I’m with you, I put my trust in you…you may be lost, but I’m right where I’m supposed to be, so there’s no we in this lost business, it is you who are lost’.  But alas, my rebellion was short-lived as I realized that, at the moment, if Justice was lost, so was I.

Justice chose the turn he thought would get us in the right direction and when we came upon the next little village, he conversed with a few of the men, who confirmed that he was going the right direction, and they coached him on which turns he needed to make ahead.  And when we chanced upon another village, Justice asked again, and then again, at subsequent villages, until we finally arrived at our destination, to the cheers and applause of his three passengers.

Though we were under the impression that the service would start at 10, it wasn’t’ actually to start until 11, so our arrival at 10:15 was no problem as they had not served “breakfast” yet.  Being honored guests, we were some of the first in line to get our food.  None of us knew exactly what we were eating, other than the boiled eggs, and I had the privilege of sitting next to the wife (Pauline) of the Bishop of Kenya.  I must admit that I had to regroup a bit after Pauline asked me how I liked the ______ (a word I cannot remember), but when I looked puzzled at her word, she clarified when she said they were “entrails” a ”delicacy”,  which she was enjoying, like I do Oreos.  But I digress.

The service went swimmingly, as much as a six hour service can go swimmingly, in probably 92 degree heat, all of us outside and under tents (praise the Lord).  And oh, did I mention that I was in a tie with a jacket, and the Bishop, along with the probably 200 clergy who attended, were all in robes.  Yes, picture that would you; but I digress again.

Well, Bishop Lowry did a terrific job bringing the message to the crowd and shortly before the service actually ended, Justice came and let us know that we needed to go, as he didn’t want to go the distance that was required of us to get off the dirt roads, before dark.

We of course did arrive safely back in Maua at about 9:30 that night.  It was a day unlike any other in my life…and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Lent is about our willingness to admit that we have strayed from the highway that we know we should be on, and for some of us, it’s about recognizing, “we are lost.”  It is about taking responsibility for our relationship with Jesus and not finding the nearest scapegoat on which to pin blame for our lack of direction.  Do you know where you are?

Justice did what we all need to do:  own the reality of our position, head the direction that we think we need to go, and find people we can trust to coach us as we find our way.  Have you?

So the next time you find yourself lost, if Justice isn’t around, you can find your own justice, when you seek Jesus.  He will help you utter three other little words, “I am found.”  After all, in this life, there is nothing greater, than being found.  Are you?

Guest Post from Rev. Frank Briggs

Below is Rev. Frank Briggs’, Lead Pastor at Lighthouse Fellowship, Day 6 of Lent, which he posted March 6th. He is posting on Facebook a Lenten devotional to help and guide us through this season of remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus for all.

Lent- Day 6   Three Little Words

Krissie [Briggs] says that though this is longer than most, it’s worth the read, I pray you agree.

“We are lost.”  I’m not sure that those three little words are welcome at any time, but in my lifetime, this time, they caused me concern like I’ve not experienced it before.

On my recent trip to Kenya, two of us on the mission team were privileged to accompany our Bishop, Mike Lowry, to a very important installation service for a District Superintendent of the Methodist church in Kenya.  With our Bishop from America expected at the event, it was a big deal.  In fact, there were probably between 1000 and 1500 in attendance at the service, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Justice was the name of our van driver; love the name, don’t you?  He was the one who, without fanfare, calmly stated the fact, “we are lost”.  I had ridden many hundreds of miles with Justice by the time this trip took place, and found him to be a strong Christian, a loving husband and father, who was very wise.  He was also a terrific driver who navigated through the absolute chaos of Nairobi traffic, to the miles and miles of dirt roads in and around Maua, where we spent our first week.

To appreciate the magnitude of Justice’s three little words, you need to know that the vast majority of Kenya has few paved roads.  Nairobi, yes, good roads there, but you get away from Nairobi, and it becomes difficult to find pavement.  Consider this, in the larger Maua area, there are at least 100,000 people living, and there is one paved road, the two-lane highway that runs through town.  So, 99% of our driving was down silty roads that hadn’t seen a road grader in what I would guess would have been at least 100 years (but perhaps I exaggerate).  Anyway, these dusty roads twist and turn and there are no road signs, so navigation along them comes by way of experience, and Justice had a full measure of it.

Unbeknown to his three passengers, Justice had never been to Tharaka, where the installation service was to be held.  And though we all knew that the route to Tharaka would take us off the main highway (the one previously mentioned), what none of us knew was that this journey would require us travelling down 60 miles of some of the dustiest, siltiest roads you’ve ever seen (think of the famous Baja 1000 off-road race).

The folks who “knew” had told Justice it would take us about 2 hours maximum, to get to the church, but in reality it was a three hour journey, one-way.  It was about an hour and a half into the dusty roads, that Justice pulled over where two roads intersected and stopped, to utter those three little words.

I have to admit that when Justice said, “we are lost”, my first reaction was to think to myself, ‘hey, wait a minute, I’m not lost, because I’m with you, I put my trust in you…you may be lost, but I’m right where I’m supposed to be, so there’s no we in this lost business, it is you who are lost’.  But alas, my rebellion was short-lived as I realized that, at the moment, if Justice was lost, so was I.

Justice chose the turn he thought would get us in the right direction and when we came upon the next little village, he conversed with a few of the men, who confirmed that he was going the right direction, and they coached him on which turns he needed to make ahead.  And when we chanced upon another village, Justice asked again, and then again, at subsequent villages, until we finally arrived at our destination, to the cheers and applause of his three passengers.

Though we were under the impression that the service would start at 10, it wasn’t’ actually to start until 11, so our arrival at 10:15 was no problem as they had not served “breakfast” yet.  Being honored guests, we were some of the first in line to get our food.  None of us knew exactly what we were eating, other than the boiled eggs, and I had the privilege of sitting next to the wife (Pauline) of the Bishop of Kenya.  I must admit that I had to regroup a bit after Pauline asked me how I liked the ______ (a word I cannot remember), but when I looked puzzled at her word, she clarified when she said they were “entrails” a ”delicacy”,  which she was enjoying, like I do Oreos.  But I digress.

The service went swimmingly, as much as a six hour service can go swimmingly, in probably 92 degree heat, all of us outside and under tents (praise the Lord).  And oh, did I mention that I was in a tie with a jacket, and the Bishop, along with the probably 200 clergy who attended, were all in robes.  Yes, picture that would you; but I digress again.

Well, Bishop Lowry did a terrific job bringing the message to the crowd and shortly before the service actually ended, Justice came and let us know that we needed to go, as he didn’t want to go the distance that was required of us to get off the dirt roads, before dark.

We of course did arrive safely back in Maua at about 9:30 that night.  It was a day unlike any other in my life…and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Lent is about our willingness to admit that we have strayed from the highway that we know we should be on, and for some of us, it’s about recognizing, “we are lost.”  It is about taking responsibility for our relationship with Jesus and not finding the nearest scapegoat on which to pin blame for our lack of direction.  Do you know where you are? 

Justice did what we all need to do:  own the reality of our position, head the direction that we think we need to go, and find people we can trust to coach us as we find our way.  Have you?

So the next time you find yourself lost, if Justice isn’t around, you can find your own justice, when you seek Jesus.  He will help you utter three other little words, “I am found.”  After all, in this life, there is nothing greater, than being found.  Are you?

Your servant in Christ,

Frank W. Briggs
Lead Pastor
Lighthouse Fellowship
A United Methodist Community of Faith