Monday, December 7, 2009

Prayer for Obama

At thanksgiving gatherings with Linda’s folks, Linda and I are usually the token religious. Not that her family is completely pagan, but the religious are vastly outnumbered by those who are either skeptics or agnostics. Within an hour or so of our arrival, I was asked for my opinion on the new prayer for Obama from Psalm 109:8.

If I had seen the bumper sticker, I might have assumed that this was a sincere prayer for the president. However, a quick check on the internet revealed something a bit different:

“May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership.” (NIV)

The verses that follow are even more sinister:

“May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.
May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.
May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children.
May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation.
May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord; may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.
May their sins always remain before the Lord, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.”

Although little surprises me these days, it is hard for me to believe that Christians would either forward this prayer to friends or stick it on their bumper. I thought about carrying a giant black marker in my car, just in case I ran across one. Too late. It seems that God, in his infinite wisdom, has already provided some help. On a deeper look, the prayer within the psalm, like much of scripture, has a wonderful way of biting back those who misuse it.

Now stay with me on this. Scot McKnight, biblical scholar and author of the “Jesus Creed” blog, recently offered a short interpretation of Psalm 109. The Psalm is part of a group of psalms, called imprecatory psalms. Basically, they’re psalms that cry out for justice and for the defeat of God’s enemies. David is telling God how he feels, and is denouncing those who defy him, God’s chosen leader.

Now get this: most interpreters agree that verses 6 through 19 are not David speaking, but they are the very insults that are being hurled at David by the enemies of God. Go back and check the psalm out and it makes perfect sense. Since there were no quotation marks in the original Hebrew text, these kinds of things have to be interpolated. But they are clearly directed not toward a group of enemies, but toward one person in leadership: King David. So Psalm 109:8 and what follows are not the words of God, or even the words of David, but the words of the ones who oppose God and hoped for the death of David and his family.

So in an odd, ironic twist, those who are praying the prayer are actually using the words of God’s enemies to pray. Strange that anyone who professes to follow Christ would align themselves with those who are actively working against God and God’s purposes.

Moral of the story? We best take care how we pray and what we pray for.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Review of “Through the River” by John Elford

You’ve been there before. You’re in a study group and someone is sharing something near and dear to her heart. Out of the blue, someone asks, “You really believe that God is like that?” and the debate is on. What began as a simple Bible study has now plunged into the metaphysical realm.

The authors of Through the River contend that many of the disagreements we have in the church can be traced back to different understandings of the truth. Using the analogy of settlements along the river, Jon and Mindy Hirst present three different ways of understanding the truth or, what they call, truth lenses. Their work is rooted in the epistemological work of Paul Hiebert, a leading missiological anthropologist until his death in 2007.
On one side of the river, we find the Rock Dwellers or the positivists. These independent folk have acquired, through reason and logic, a set of firmly held beliefs. Objective reality is ultimately knowable through the empirical methods of math and science. Agreement and the quest for that one right answer are at the heart of the Rock Dwellers’ world.

Islanders or instrumentalists still believe in a real world that can be described in a multitude of ways. In contrast to positivists, they rarely argue with each other since they have given up on the quest for a single universal truth in favor of embracing the unique experiences of individuals. Many different answers to one question can co-exist on the islands because tolerance is valued over conformity.

Across the river, we find the Valley Dwellers or the critical realists, a harmonization of the best of the positivist and instrumentalist worlds. The watchword in the valley is “the truth you know and the truth you are learning” (76). In their quest for knowledge, Valley Dwellers bring together the objective knowledge gained through study and the subjective knowledge of experience. Critical realism values both tolerance and the quest for furthering knowledge in community.

The advantage of using the river analogy is that it genuinely helps illumine the three different positions and how they interact with each other. The main problem I see with the image is that while the middle position in the analogy is occupied by the Island Dwellers, actually the middle position between the extremes is really the Valley Dwellers. The Valley Dwellers are a way of having your cake and eating it, too, of holding on to the quest for foundational truth beyond pure subjectivity but also a way to stay in dialogue with those who disagree with us.

Without saying as much, the argument of the book tends to favor the third truth lens, critical realism. This becomes clear not only in the progression one makes in the story from the rock dwellings through the islands to the valley, but also in the various examples, where critical realism seems to offer the best way to handle truth matters and move beyond confrontations and stalemates in Christian dialogue.

Since the proof is in the pudding, how well does this schematic of three truth lenses work in the real world? The Hirsts' treatment of the church's mission and witness exemplifies how well the truth lens schema works in practice.

Rock dwellers define the gospel “largely in terms of knowledge” (174). So evangelistic witness primarily takes the form of presenting arguments to convert someone’s soul. Witness may involve “mercy ministries” but tends to focus on sharing the truth of the gospel.

The view from the islands is quite different. Outreach entails “delivering love through dialogue” (174). The goal of missionaries is to listen and understand other religious beliefs since all belief systems are valid. The focus of instrumentalist missions is on felt needs like humanitarian aid (176).

Not surprisingly, the Valley Dwellers combines the best of both worlds: ministering to felt needs and helping others understand what faith in God might mean in their context. In mission, critical realist missionaries may also discover new understandings of their own faith (181). This position is able to harmonize the age-old conflict between those who favor “saving souls” and those who favor “serving soup.” It's not either/or; it's both.

The analysis of different approaches is nice, but breaks no new ground. How about taking the truth lenses to the next level and consider something really controversial, like the church’s position on homosexuality? Do they help illumine the arguments and divisions we’ve witnessed over the last 40 years in the mainline denominations?

It seems that the positivists would argue that there is only one correct view in scripture on homosexuality. That view might be summed up by the teaching of my own denomination (UMC): “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings.” They reach this position by looking specifically at the scriptures that condemn homosexuality Using logic and reason, positivists would conclude that a lifestyle of practicing homosexuality cannot be reconciled with Christian practice. Positivist churches would have little difficulty adopting policies that deny avowed homosexuals membership and leadership in their churches.

Instrumentalists or relativists have given up the notion that there can be one view of homosexuality even within the Christian community. Their position would be influenced by differing cultural backgrounds and views of Biblical authority. It seems that a relativist church would practice wide toleration toward those in the GLBT community. Membership and leadership in the church seems also to follow from the instrumentalist emphasis on tolerance of different values. Discussions of sexuality would likely be not only rich and rewarding but ultimately frustrating and confusing. Forming churches or communities of faith among those with an instrumentalist bent would be a vexing project indeed. There is such diversity that the differences could well lead either to many small churches or no church gatherings at all.

What about the critical realists? Representing the best of both the positivist and instrumentalist worlds, how would they fair in dealing with this issue? Using the watchword, “the truth we know and the truth we are learning,” it seems that critical realists would recognize that we have different understandings of the compatibility of a homosexual lifestyle with Christian practice. In humility, we would continue to dialogue with our brothers and sisters to better understand those who don’t agree with us. A critical realist church could hardly exclude the GLBT community from leadership or membership, since all are still struggling toward truth together. The most that could be said affirmatively is that thinking Christians do not yet agree.

As a pastor who has watched his own and several other denominations struggle bitterly over the place of the GLBT community in the church, I think that this position would be much more honest and perhaps closer to where we really are as a church. However, since the critical realist position does not seem to exclude the full inclusion of GLBT's in the church as we work on truth together, my hunch is that few in mainline churches will be willing to embrace this stance because of the potential political fallout.

I hope that Through the River is widely read. The presentation is certainly accessible to those with little or no background in philosophy. The issues the Hirsts address are not simply theoretical but have a quite practical focus. Dialogue both within faith communities and and between different religious groups has fanned into flames in recent years and all would benefit from stepping back and considering how one comes at the truth.

The scheme of three truth lenses allows us to see how we can move toward a position where positive engagement with others can occur, without having to sacrifice either our own sense of what is true about ultimate reality or our notion of who we are as persons conditioned by different sets of cultural experiences. Dr. Paul Hiebert, through the Hirsts, offers us a third way beyond retrenchment or disengagement. In fact, one could argue that critical realism may well be the epistemological follow-through of Jesus’ command to love. We listen. We’re non-defensive. We believe that God is working in every situation. We are not rescuers of the truth. We can live with dissonance. We don’t have to sacrifice truth to relationships. We discover truth in the other and in the stranger. And in the process we grow in love toward God and neighbor.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Need for Interfaith Dialogue

For almost all of us in this room, the religious world today is very different from the world we grew up in. I’m originally from Toronto, Canada, a fairly cosmopolitan city and I recall two Jewish and one Hindu classmate in all my years of school. Many of us grew up in communities where there was not even a Jewish synagogue, let alone a mosque or a Hindu temple. Over the last 40 years, since the Immigration Act of 1965, all of that has radically changed.

In her marvelous study, A New Religious America, Diana Eck, the Director of the Pluralism Project and a Professor of Comparative Religion at Harvard, contends that the United States has become the most diverse religious nation in the world. When I teach classes on world religions, I hear comments that reflect this increasing religious diversity everywhere. Folks will say, My son or my daughter has a school friend who is Muslim; one of my co-workers in Jewish; a Hindu family moved in next door and so on.

And yet even with all of this religious diversity, most Christians know little to nothing about what Muslims and Hindus believe, let alone Sikhs or Zoroastrians or Jains. And similarly, many Muslim or Hindu Americans have very sketchy ideas or even stereotypes about Christianity. I remember a new Muslim friend leaning over to ask me, is it true that you Christians are only allowed to pray once a week? I said, yes, and so we have to make it a very, very good prayer!
Beyond our ignorance of our religious neighbors, we are reminded almost daily that the world is in conflict over religious beliefs. And those conflicts bleed over into our own communities in many different ways. Following the Fort Hood massacre, there were some nasty things said about Muslims by a several right-wing commentators. But there are also many shining lights, like Keely Vanacker, daughter of Michael Cahill, a physician’s assistant who was killed in the Fort Hood attack. She said: “"The death of our father or any of these victims shouldn't be an excuse or a reason to begin to hate an entire group of people.”

For all of these reasons and more, religious dialogue is not just an interesting thing to do on a Wednesday night--it’s essential. How are these faiths similar to ours and yet different? What can we learn from each other? How can we build bridges of understanding so that we can work together in our communities to seek peace and to love our neighbor? How can we join forces right here in Corpus to fight the ongoing problems of poverty, racism, homelessness, and illiteracy, just to name a few?

In his article on “The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue,” Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic scholar, author and poet, states that for religious dialogue to succeed, we must forget all of the arguments and battles of the past and come together on those areas where we agree. I could not agree more. And I look forward to this evening and to future meetings together because I know that through them, I will become a better Christian pastor, a better neighbor and a better human being.

(a talk given at "The Friendship Dinner for Interfaith Dialogue," Omni Bayfront Hotel, Corpus Christi, Texas, November 18, 2009)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

How Bad Are We?

In Paul Schrader’s film “Hardcore,” the main character, played by George C. Scott, is asked what he believes in. “Tulip” is his answer. I think that may be the only Hollywood film reference to the acronym for the five points of Calvinism. Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints. TULIP.

Consider the first one, total depravity. This doctrine describes our fallen nature. The idea is that our nature as fallen human beings does not naturally turn to God but turns instead to the fulfillment of our own desires. While it’s usually associated with the Reformed tradition, it certainly shows up in my (UM) tradition as well.

Calvinism seems to be making a comeback these days. I caught up with it the other day on my iPod in a sermon with this thesis: unless you and I are convinced of our own total depravity (meaning: unless you and I are convinced of how truly bad, how deeply evil we are) we cannot experience the fullness of God’s grace. If we think we’re really not so bad after all, if we buy into the prevailing cultural idea that people are not really evil, just misguided, then it weakens God’s grace. Grace becomes a vitamin pill we take in the morning to give us a spiritual glow as we go around doing good things.

As I understand the doctrine, it doesn’t mean that everything we do is evil and worthless, but that even when we do something good, it’s tainted with selfishness and pride. So when we tithe, for example, there is a sense that we are doing it for God but that is twisted together with some other more self-centered notions like, “Hey, look at me! I am really doing some good for the Lord now” or “Why can’t everyone just be like me and tithe and the church would be so much better and so on …”

On the other hand, recovering alcoholics and drug addicts have always seemed to me to be most powerfully aware of God’s grace because they knew they were on a path leading to destruction. Perhaps they have an advantage over the rest of us who are unaware of how self-serving we really are. If untended, the many ways sin infects my life will lead to serious problems, but probably not destruction, at least not any time soon. It’s more of a slow burn with a subdued need for grace.

So how bad are we? Do we need to be a whole lot harder on ourselves in the church? Are we missing out on grace because we have patted ourselves on the back and said, “Oh, come now, boys/girls will be boys/girls?”

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Health Care Debate Doesn’t Belong in the Church …

Uh-oh! No doubt, the health care debate is tough to follow--it’s complicated because it’s not just about one thing, but a whole huge nest of problems. It reminds me of a quadratic equation: move one variable and it affects all the others in the equation. However, health care is not an abstract issue that simply involves numbers. Real people in our families and our communities are involved. Every day there are folks without insurance who have no access to health care and they end up in the hospital or they die.

There are no easy answers. I certainly don’t have the answers and I don’t think Glen Beck has the answers either, but I do believe that it belongs squarely in the church and in the hearts and minds of Christians. Active concern about health care ought to be on the “to do” list of every Christian. Why?

1. Jesus healed people. He was not simply concerned with something inside us called a spirit or a soul. He had compassion for the sick, he wept for his friend who died and he healed all kinds of diseases. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ ministry with his disciples begins with teaching in the synagogue and healing.

2. Many of our churches followed Jesus’ example and have a long history of ministry to the sick and dying. John Wesley believed that faithful people ought to be concerned about the state of one’s soul and one’s body. Visitation and care of the sick were central pieces of Wesley’s ministry. On my bookshelf, I have a copy of Wesley’s Primitive Physic. The sub-title is “An easy and natural method of curing most diseases.” It must have been quite popular—by Wesley’s death it had gone through 23 editions.

3. But what if I’m happy with my health care insurance. I am. I feel fortunate to have good insurance, even though it’s very costly both to our family and the church. Many families in our country could say the same thing; they’re quite satisfied with their policies and see no need for sweeping changes. If that’s where the debate begins and ends, though, we have seriously missed what Jesus is calling us to. Concern for our neighbor is the identifying mark of Christian action. Jesus has called us to serve not ourselves, but "the last, the least and the lost.” Many of those without adequate health care are the least among us … children. As Christians, I remain unconvinced that one of our options can be simply to leave things the way they are.

What can you and I do?

Get to know the issue. Go beyond the sound bytes and news briefs. Dig deeper. A good place to start is a health care forum offered recently by the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas. You can listen to it at

Pray for our leaders that they might sit down together and grapple with the issues and bring together the best ideas from both sides of the aisle. Let your representatives know about your concerns and that you fully expect them to come up with a plan that improves health care for all. Pray for all those in health care professions who must do more with less every day and who have to make such difficult decisions. Pray for those families who do not have health care.

Host a health care forum at your church with representatives from among those who have a stake in the health care system.

Here are a few things I've found central to my own position on health care.

1. Tell the truth. Death panels! Please. Socialism! Is the fire department socialist? The Canadian health care system is a mess! I grew up in Canada under socialized medicine and lived to tell the story. I fully understand that health care is a huge, incredibly costly business and that if we want to debate it, we need to be prepared to play hard ball. But lying and scare tactics are a huge distraction and add nothing to the debate.

2. Listen to both sides. There actually are some good ideas on both sides, if we are willing to engage with and think through a position that is different than ours. I would hope that the end product of the health care debate is a solution that finds some common ground and that uses the very best ideas, whichever side they may have originated from. Of course, saying "both sides" kind of assumes that there are two sides and on some aspects of health care there clearly are multiple sides. And having a side also assumes that you have something to say. Shouting and ranting that the other side is wrong is not a side.

3. If you are a person of faith, engage the issue as a faithful person. I believe that health care is a moral and spiritual issue that cannot be decided by market capitalism. Obviously there are tricky issues that need to be worked out: who will control our health care? how much will it cost? and so on. The health of even a single human life is not decided by the lowest bidder. We are created in the image of God, redeemed by the son of God and filled with the spirit of God. We are not health care consumers, but children of God and our care for each other should not be decided simply by a cost-benefit analysis.

That's my take. Now, what do you think?

Friday, August 14, 2009

What is the missional church anyway?

I must have been theologically asleep for the last ten years because, until a few months ago, I had completely missed the missional church. I’m sure it’s been featured in journals that I regularly read or in conference workshops. Perhaps I thought my own church—the United Methodist Church—was already missional, since mission work has been a hallmark of Methodism from the birth of the church in the eighteenth century. Like Rip, I’ve finally awakened to this new reality and have discovered fresh energy as I read, dialogue about and explore all things missional.

That missional church is easily collapsed into mission programs or foreign missions is apparent in conversations I’ve recently had where I try to explain what the missional church is. More often than not, people hear “mission” and nod their heads because, if they’re part of an institutional church, they think they understand what that means. But they fail to hear anything new, and the distinctive features of the missional church are lost.

In a discussion of the missional challenge of postmodern culture, philosopher and theologian Diogenes Allen suggests that “[we] remain captives within a mental framework that has actually been broken ... We are like prisoners who could walk out of a prison because all that would enclose us has been burst open, but we remain inside because we are asleep.” The world has changed; even basic understandings of what it means to be church are changing, yet we remain mired in older paradigms that we find difficult to disentangle ourselves from. The creation of this blog grows out of my own frustrations over missional conversations and my failed attempts to offer a definition that is true to the missional reality and yet somehow different from what we’re currently doing in the institutional church.

This work has also emerged from my dis-ease as a pastor in the institutional church: a growing itch that what we were doing in church is often so lifeless compared to what we were doing outside the church, and a deep hunger for something more. One Sunday afternoon, I spent several hours during and after worship tending to a major plumbing problem at the church. No doubt it was important even necessary work. Later that day, I enjoyed time with our youth at Salvation Army, watching them serve tables, dish up a dessert they had baked themselves and wash dishes, all without complaining, with smiles on their faces, engaging the folks who were at table. The plumbing experience seemed so disconnected from the energy of the youth serving at Salvation Army. At the time I would probably have argued that these are just different kinds of ministry. But I knew there was something fundamentally different about them and yet I couldn’t articulate what it was, other than to say that being with the youth was fun and plumbing wasn’t! I needed new language and categories to interpret my experience.

I finally stumbled on the missional church at our Annual Conference book sale this past June. I picked up two books by Reggie McNeal, The Present Future and Missional Renaissance and jumped in. I highly recommend both books, but only if you are prepared to have everything you have ever believed about the church put to the test! Also, providentially I suppose, my wife (and pastoral partner) had chosen a conference in Chicago for us to attend this summer organized by The Center for Parish Development which sponsored some of the earliest conversations and writing about the missional church.

So what is the missional church? It’s neither a church program nor a technique for church growth. It’s a fundamental re-visioning of what it means to be the church. One definition that seems to catch the main emphases of the missional church is that of Milfred Minatrea: “a reproducing community of authentic disciples, being equipped as missionaries sent by God, to live and proclaim His Kingdom in their world.” While each word in that definition is integral, the operative word to me is ‘sent.’ Most churches I’m familiar with have down pat what it means to gather as God’s people; however, I fear that we have largely lost what it means to be a community sent into the world. I don’t know about you, but I’m not happy with that state of affairs and would give anything to recover our ‘sent-ness.’ While the missional church is not a panacea for all the ills of modern church life, it certainly seems to promise a way back to our calling as people sent on a mission.

Minatrea quotes John Steinbeck: “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” That’s certainly true of mission. I have often found myself in places and with people doing things that I could not imagine without that deep trust that God was in it. And this is also true of my foray into the missional church. In some ways I feel like everything I have learned up to today has prepared me for this new day. But I also have to confess that I have no idea where it all will end up. I look forward to finding companions on the way, both at home, among colleagues and on the internet. I invite you to join me.

Grace and peace for the journey …