Monday, November 6, 2017

They Need More than Prayers

This fall, North America has faced more than six natural disasters and several human atrocities.   As these terrible events have unfolded, people have taken to social media to organize relief efforts and express their sympathies.  Sadly, Christians have been scolded by their unbelieving friends and family for making comments about praying for those who have been most immediately impacted by the suffering. 

One of these scoldings was made by one my friends, who will remain un-named.  His remark was, "Do something.  They need more than your prayers!"  This comment begs the question.  How does he know that they haven't made other expressions of love, such as monetary contributions or physical relief work?  In short, he doesn't.  He simply assumes that prayer is all that has been offered.  But, even if he is right, so what?

Now, I admit that prayer is a less than a tangible expression of concern.  It is not like sending money or a flood bucket.  But that doesn't mean that it is worthless, any more than any other non-tangible expression of care.

For example, this same friend of mine often expresses his concern by drawing beautiful pictures of people and places.  It is his way of showing that he cares.  Others place candles, flowers, toys, or mementos at the scene of the event.  Others make t-shirts, with sayings like, "We are all Orlando." 

Yet, people like my friend reserve their hurtful comments for religious people, for having the audacity to offer prayers for suffering people. 

So I ask, how do t-shirts, bumper stickers, or drawings help others?  Well, these intangible ways of showing concern help in ways similar to how expressions of prayer help.  They help by communicating to others that they are not forgotten and that people around the nation love them. 

In times of bitter sorrow and polarizing division, can we really afford to criticize any act of good will?  I think not.  With so much hatred going around, we should welcome any act of love, whether tangible or intangible.

"Do not stop him," Jesus said, "for whoever is not against you is for you." - Luke 9:50

Friday, May 20, 2016

Dispatch from General Conference 2016

In spite of what you have may have heard, General Conference was actually a great experience.  And, we did not spend the whole time talking about human sexuality. We spent the majority of the time doing the business of the church, including making plans to provide clean water and education for some of the world's poorest communities, forming partnerships on both halves of the Korean Peninsula for the purpose of bringing peace to one of the most divided parts of the world, commissioning missionaries for work around the globe, and much more, as well as some of the more practical and ordinary business of organizing and running a world-wide church that is able to do extraordinary things because of our connection.  

And yes, we did spend some of our time arguing about human sexuality. This led to the body to taking the unprecedented step of asking our bishops to take the lead in helping us find our way to a solution. Our bishops graciously took the challenge and spent many hours praying, debating, and then finally issuing a plan.

That plan includes forming a commission that will include representatives from the various viewpoints within our church.  These men and women, led by our bishops, will explore creating a plan forward that is acceptable to all parties.  

At first, I was disappointed at the  statement from our The Council of Bishops.  I characterized it as kicking the can down the road, choosing to avoid a difficult but necessary conversation about the real divisions within the United Methodist Church.  But, upon reflection, I realized that how we engage in the conversation matters just as much  as making sure we talk about the issues.   Emotions were running too high to have that conversation during the last week of General Conference.  If we had plowed ahead in that climate, we would not have split the church.  We would have shattered it. 

The special commission removes the pressure of time constraints from the conversation so that we can allow cooler heads and calmer hearts to prevail.  In short, it allows us to handle our disagreements as Christians.  Over a course of time we can discuss how we either move forward together or how we can part in a fair and equitable way.  

So what should our congregation make of this?  I see it as a great opportunity.  Our congregation has many conservative people.  But, we also have many wonderful Christians who are more progressive. We have many different viewpoints within our own church.  And, the opportunity, as I see it, is that we have time to focus on what matters most. We have time to think carefully and deeply about those things which unite us, as we prayerfully consider how to be goo partners in the larger conversation our denomination is having. 

And, this is how I prepose for us to do that. First, we are going to focus on what it means to be Wesleyan Christians in the 21st century. Being Wesleyan is not the only way to be a faithful follower of Jesus, but it is our way and the tradition of our part of the Christian family. And, the Wesleyan tribe represents more than 70 million Christians around the world.  So we are going to focus on what it means to be Wesleyan Christians in our day.

We are also going to talk about what it means to simply be Christian.  We are going to spend time exploring the core beliefs that unite the two billion Christians around the world. 

We are also going to look very closely at the Biblical foundations for our faith.  This will mean looking at the beauty and complexity of the Biblical narrative, as we try to understand ways in which the Bible informs and shapes our faith.   

Finally, after having done that work, we will try to give prayerful thought to some of the tough issues facing us today, including the issue of human sexuality.  

As we enter into this time of conversation, I want to ask you to be brave, truthful, and kind.  I ask you to be slow to speak and quick to listen.  I also ask you to be respectful and considerate of those who differ in opinion from you.  At the end of this this time of Christian conversation, what Wesley called Christian conferencing, we may not all end up seeing eye to eye. We may not find ourselves able to all think alike but, by God's grace, we may still be able to love alike. 

Perhaps we and our denomination will be able to find a way to continue traveling together; but even if we find that  we must part and go our separate ways, we will at least be able to part as friends. 

I believe that the Holy Spirit has given us an unique opportunity to explore what it means to live in Christian community.  What will do with this gift?  That is ours to answer.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Faithful Edition or Butchered Redaction Part 3

Faithful Edition or Butchered Redaction
Part 3
Carry Each Other's Burdens
(Part 3 of The Cures of Divisions)
page 55 in the 2016 Edition and pages 141-167 in the1792 Edition

Search the Scriptures with diligence and prayer.  There are many who are concerned about taking them seriously, not wanting to have a shallow, superficial faith.  They are sincere in submitting to Christ and long to rid themselves of the sins of pride and hatred; yet, they show little concern about the importance Scriptures place upon the unity of God's people.  They seem indifferent to the great damage divisions bring upon the body of Christ.

Yes, they are very careful to obey the Scripture, even to the point of trying to apply even the most obscure passages to their lives, lest they leave off something important to God; yet, they disregard biblical principles which can be found dozens of times, in the plainest language, throughout the Bible.  They pretend to care about the Bible while neglecting the dozens of pleas for unity that are to be found in God's word...She/he who does not see how important unity is does not know the nature of the church, our faith, or our religion...

Objection:  But those I complain of are guilty of this, that, or another fault.

Answer:  Sisters and brothers, if someone be overtaken by temptation, you who are spiritual should restore them in a spirit of meekness; considering that you too can be tempted.  Instead of disdain & a knee-jerk reaction to part company with them, bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ...

It is good to have a desire to see God's people become a holy people.  Never surrender your passion for reformation and holiness.  Yet, as long as you possibly can avoid it, forsaken not those who, as you suppose, are in some ways in error.

Faithful Edition or Butchered Redaction Part 2

Faithful Edition or Butchered Redaction
Part 2
Needless Disputes
(Part 2 of The Causes of Divisions)
page 14 in the 2016 Edition and pages 40-47 in the1792 Edition

Below is a portion of the material left out of the 2016 edition.  What is presented is my own translation/paraphrase.  I will leave it to my readers to judge both my edition and the 2016 edition in comparison with Asbury's work. 

When people acquire a little learning, they come to think that it is a good thing to spend time arguing about religion.  Unnecessary disputes seem necessary to them because they fear looking stupid in the eyes of others if they have nothing to contribute to the current debates of the day.  But, they believe that by jumping into the fray, that others will consider them to be intellectually gifted.  Thus, they spend a lot of time arguing over religious matters.  It even makes them giddy when others call them brilliant.

Contentious people are usually that way because something is wrong in their heart.  Beware of those who want to argue over every little matter.  Not every argument can be settled, and many are not worthy of your time and effort. 

An old Latin saying goes, "Some plunge themselves into an endless series of questions.  If they would focus on that one important question, 'What must I do to be saved?' they would find that their interests in unimportant questions would evaporate. 
Never has such spiritual ignorance come upon the church as in that age when we began to look more to scholars than to saints.  When we allowed all of religion to be turned into an academic question, both the mystery and power were lost.  Saint Ambrose recognized this danger when he said, "We believe fishermen over academics."

...Now, it must be said, that some matters are of such importance that we must contend for the faith.   For example, some in our day would argue that the Gospel of grace has done away with our need to confess sin, feel contrition over sin, or to make obedience to God a matter of conscience; while feeling remorse over neglecting the commandments of God.

Such people feel that the grace of the Gospel has liberated them from such outdated morality.  They think that it makes God little difference whether or not they sin...Thus, people no longer feel any need to pay attention to personal holiness.  They feel a sense of high self-esteem, even when their lives are a spiritual wreck.  Such antinomianism used to raise concern among the people of God.  Apparently, it no longer does so...

The devil has so beguiled the God's people, that they feel quite comfortable in our bohemian age.  The devil was able to achieve such a deceit by convincing Christians that their new-found compatibility with heathenism has been a matter of focusing on grace instead of legalism.  Such an idea is highly agreeable in our indulgent culture. 
In past generations, the devil would use the world to ridicule a new believer for following God's word and for being serious about prayer.  In our age, the devil can simply use people in the church to do the ridiculing.  These Christian scoffers are quick to mock and to laugh at the new believer for being so prudish.  They will tell her that she has missed the very meaning of the Gospel by putting so much focus on morality over grace. 

The devil's new strategy has taken into account that a certain number of people will insist on being religious.  So, he seeks to change their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.  He has convinced many that to follow Jesus means to forget about focusing on being moral.  Over the course of a few generations, the devil intends to use this strategy to rot completely away the moral core from the Church.  And best of all, his strategy allows people to feel good about themselves, even highly spiritual, while living lives of depravity.

Faithful Edition or Butchered Redaction Part 1

Faithful Edition or Butchered Redaction
Part 1

In 1792 Francis Asbury published a book entitled, The Causes, Evils, and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions.  The book was originally two works: the first by Jeremiah Burroughs and the second by Richard Baxter.  Asbury borrowed freely from both works, editing and revising each as he saw fit.  His reason for publishing the work was that the newly formed Methodist Episcopal Church was already facing the possibility of schism. 

The controversy was over the issue of Episcopal power.  Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury had been sent to North America by John Wesley to serve as superintendents of the Methodists.  Asbury was willing and eager to serve in this post, provided the members of the first Conference voted officially recognizing him and Coke in this capacity.  However, soon afterwards, Thomas Coke convinced the General Conference to recognize him and Asbury as Bishops. The title "bishop" implied a level of authority not implied by the word superintendent.   From that moment on, there was a division among the preachers over the role and power of Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury.  Eventually, there was a small portion of the connection that broke from the others over this issue.  But, prior to the split and thereafter, Asbury worked hard to keep the new church from falling into the destructive behaviors and ideas that lead to schism.  The publishing of The Causes, Evils, and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions was a part of the efforts Asbury made to prevent hurtful divisions from tearing the young church apart. 

"The volume appeared again in 1849.  It had been recommended in The Book of Discipline [as the church again faced division; this time over slavery]; and after The Methodist Episcopal Church divided in 1844; the publisher brought this book back into print." - from the Publisher's Note in the 2016 edition. 

Abingdon Press reintroduced the book the church in 2016.  The occasion for its re-release is that our church is once again facing the possibility of division.  This time, the division is over homosexuality.  The hopes are that Asbury's work might help us tp navigate the difficult conversations ahead.  As the delegates to General Conference arrive in Portland, Oregon, we will receive a copy of the book.  It is hoped by many that the delegates will read this book and allow its wisdom to guide our deliberations. 
I have just finished reading the book, both in its 2016 edition and in the 1792 edition.   

What first struck me was the fact that the 2016 edition has reduced the original 217 pages down to 69 pages.  As I read, I found that I mostly agreed with the editorial decisions that led the publishers to pair-down the work.  However, in at least one section, I believe that some of the content was gutted from the work, leaving some of the original arguments in shambles.  In the next four posts, I will provide my own translation/paraphrase of the sections left out, along with the page and website references necessary for my readers to compare the 1792, 2016, and Bromley editions, in order to decide if the 2016 edition is a Faithful Edition or a Butchered Redaction.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Romans Part 6

Part 6
“Wooden Bridges”

9 August 2015         The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost     
Year A  Color: Green

Scripture Reading:Romans 5:1-5 

Research studies indicate that up to 45 percent of adult siblings have relationships marked by rivalry or distance. A story from the Wall Street Journal featured Al Golden, 85, who still chokes up when he talks about his twin brother, Elliott, who died three years ago. The brothers shared a room growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., graduated from the same college and then married within a month of each other in 1947.

Yet Mr. Golden still remembers how their father often compared their grades, asking one or the other, "How come you got a B and your brother got an A?" Elliott Golden became a lawyer and eventually a state Supreme Court judge. Al Golden went into the mirror business then sold life insurance. He says he always envied his brother's status and secretly took pleasure in knowing he was a better fisherman and owned a big boat. 

Once, Elliott asked him, "I am a lawyer. How come you make more money than me?" Mr. Golden says. "He meant: 'How come you are making more than me when you are not as successful?' But it made me feel good."
One day, Elliott accused him of not doing enough to take care of their ailing mother. After the conversation, Al didn't speak to his brother for more than a year. "It might have been the built-up of jealousies over the years," he says. His brother repeatedly reached out to him, as did his nieces and nephews, but Mr. Golden ignored them.

Then one day Al received an email from his brother telling a story about two men who had a stream dividing their properties. One man hired a carpenter to build a fence along the stream, but the carpenter built a bridge by mistake. Mr. Golden thought about the email then wrote back, "I'd like to walk over the bridge." "I missed him," Mr. Golden says now. "I never had the chance to miss him before."

Elizabeth Bernstein, "Sibling Rivalry Grows Up," Wall Street Journal (3-20-12); submitted by David Finch, Elk Grove, California

The Bible says that we, the human race, declared war on God.  We made ourselves the enemies of God.  We were the ones who parted ways with God.  We sued for divorce.  The distance was caused by us.  But the Bible also says that through Jesus, we have been reconciled to God.  

Jesus’ coming to earth was God building a bridge across the barrier we had erected between us and and God.  It is now possible for us to know God relationally.  

To really grasp this fact, we need to get it out of our minds the idea that God is simply a bigger version of us.  God is a personal being.  He can know and be known; however, he is not simply an inflated version of us.  The human mind has been so warped when it comes to God, that the thought of God knowing each of us get’s picture in absurd ways. 

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  Some picture God as busy switch board operator, trying to keep up with all the incoming calls is silly.  God is infinite and infinite in his capacity for knowing each of intimately, as if we were the only person in the universe he had to keep up with.  

Jesus came to bring us peace

Jesus gives us right standing with God.  This is an objective truth, not subject to how we feel about it.  Our feelings about our relationship with God are not a good index for judging our relationship with God.  If we are in Christ, we have solid ground under our feet when it comes to God.  Feelings come and go and shift like the sands of time.  They are unpredictable; but God is solid and dependable.  

Because of what Jesus has done for us, we can run into the arms of God with gratitude, even in times of suffering; knowing that we share in the Father’s work in this broken world. 

Our sufferings are not caused by God, but are a sign to us that God is still at work in our lives.  He uses our trials and sufferings to slowly mold us and transform us, building in us a Christ-like character.  

We are people of Hope

To the world, Christians look foolish to be looking for and anticipating something we cannot yet see.  But when we look out upon this sad world of ours, we see rays of hope and remember the promises God has made to us and to our father Abraham and our mother Sarah.  

Our hope is built on something deep and profound.  We are part of the family of God, to whom precious promises have been entrusted.  

Isn’t this being a bit Pollyanna?

The 1960 film Pollyanna starring Hayley Mills, based on the novel by Eleanor H. Porter, written in 1913 was released. The lead character's full name was Pollyanna Whittier. After the death of her parents she went to live with her wealthy but rather unpleasant Aunt Polly in Vermont. The approach Pollyanna took to life was highly optimistic, to say the least. She called it "The Glad Game". Regardless of the circumstances in which you find yourself, you must always find something to be glad about. Pollyanna first thought of the game when instead of a doll for Christmas she ended up with only a pair of crutches. She made up the game on the spot, determined to look on the bright side of things. In this case, she was glad she had crutches because she didn't need to use them! And that's something to be glad about!
Playing "the glad game" is about the only thing that enabled Pollyanna to survive in the house of her Aunt. When she is confined in the attic, she is "glad" that there is at least a beautiful view from a high window. When she is punished for being late and her dinner is only bread and milk, she is again "glad" because she at least has something to eat.
Pollyanna's philosophy of life is genuinely put to the test when she is hit by a car and loses the use of both legs. Lying in bed, she comes to grips with the severity of her situation. But instead of falling into depression or bitterness, she decides she can at least be glad that she has her legs, even if they don't do her much good. Pollyanna eventually is sent to a hospital where she learns to walk again and thus once more finds a good reason to be glad.

Pastor Sam Storms asks, "So, is this how a Christian is supposed to view life and adversity and heartache? Does God ask us to play our own version of 'The Glad Game' in order to cope and survive in a fallen and corrupt world?" Although we can commend Pollyanna for not complaining, "The Glad Game" is a far cry from true biblical hope. Biblical hope isn't wishful thinking; or thinking, at least we are not as bad off as someone else.  Instead, it’s an act of trust in the bedrock promises of God.
Sam Storms, "Pollyanna versus Christian Hope: Discerning the Difference," sermon given at Bridgeway Church (4-6-14)

Our hope is not wishful thinking or based on something we have dreamt up.  We believe in the historical reality of Jesus Christ, and the concrete actions he took on our behalf, to save this world.  He is the reason we have for hope. He our Chief Cornerstone; that which holds our lives together when they seem to be falling apart.