Thursday, December 27, 2012

Convergence Christianity: three emergent postings and their problems

Bryan Berghoef, at the musings of a pub theologian has pulled together two older postings by two other emergent writers, Brian McLaren’s 2010, “A New Christian Convergence,” and Eric Elnes’ “12 Marks of Convergence Christianity” into one article, “A New Convergence.”  Using McLaren’s list of various spiritual groups that he believes will or do make up the new convergence and Elnes’ 12 marks of convergence Christianity, Berghoef asks “What do you think?  Do you resonate with any of these?  Do you see these shifts in your own life or faith community?  Do you find any of them particularly helpful or problematic?”

I have personal problems with both lists. And I see other glaring problems that I do not believe are personal problems, but are instead problems that contradict the faith of the ancient and ever present universal Church. 

The personal problem has to do with the tendencies to create caricatures of others when such lists are devised. For instance in McLaren’s list of various groups who will make up the new convergence is this:

Social justice-oriented Pentecostals and Evangelicals– from the minority churches in the West and from the majority churches of the global South, especially the second- and third-generation leaders who have the benefits of higher education.

So, it is social justice issues, plus youth, plus education that places one outside the orthodox teachings and ministries of the Church? It was the idea that only “second and third-generation leaders who have the benefits of higher education” are open to the new convergence which truly baffled me. Why do Progressives and Emergents not understand that education is an ideal goal among the rising orthodox youth of this new generation? The implication is serious, that only the uneducated will disagree with those who are emergent and progressive. Let’s take that further, the implication is also that the orthodox have not benefited from higher education. This is serious slander.

Several items from Elnes’ list are also caricatures. For instance Elnes’ has as one of his characteristics of people of the new convergence that they care for the physical well being of people as well as the spiritual. This implies that those who are orthodox do not care for the physical well-being of people. I wonder what the Salvation Army would say about that. How about World Vision, or the multiple evangelical churches both in and out of the mainline denominations who pour their lives into helping the needy.

But the biggest problems are not my personal gripes. They are the seed beds of a modern paganism and a slouching toward a renewed heresy. The seed bed lies in the strange idea that our identity is tied to our sexuality. At least this seems to be the implication when Elnes writes:

They are letting go of a narrow definition of sexual orientation and gender identity. They are embracing with increasing confidence an understanding that affirms the dignity and worth of all people.

I will explain: the dignity and worth of all people is tied, not to their gender or sexual orientation, but rather to the fact that they are created in God’s image. When an orthodox Christian states that same gender sex is sin, they are not attacking the dignity and worth of a person—rather they affirm that person’s right to dignity and worth and wish to bring, through Christ, healing to the broken image which we all share. When I make fun of another person I need healing so that part of me that is broken can better reflect God’s image. No one discounts my right to dignity and worth when they address my sin; rather they uphold my well-being as one who is created in God’s image.

Going further if our identity and value is tied to our sexuality, as some essentialist insist, a case could be made for each of us being locked into predetermined roles. Instead, those of us who are Christians have a freedom that is only bounded by Christ who lives in us through the Holy Spirit. We can truly say that ‘for me to live is Christ and for me to die is gain. It is Christ who has made us free, not to sin, but to walk in a new life given by God.

Going even further if our identity is tied to our sexuality then it is possible for a theology to arise that insists our encounter with God should come through our sexuality. That is paganism. I have written about that in another place when I wrote, “Amendment 10-A and the monstrosity that is coming.”

Undoubtedly the most problematic statement on the lists is this statement by Elnes:

They [those people who will embrace the new convergence] are letting go of the notion that their particular faith is the only legitimate one on the planet. They are embracing an understanding that God is greater than our imagination can comprehend (or fence in), and thus they are open to the possibility that God may speak within and across all faith traditions.

This statement along with others is discussed in the comment section as one person suggests it sounds like agnostic humanism. It is certainly universalism with agnosticism used as its foundation. If we have no clear understanding of God’s intentions then how can we know if there is or isn’t salvation by some other means? How can we be certain that God isn’t speaking through Buddha, Mohammad, or the woman next door who builds her circle and calls down the goddess?

Yes, God is greater than our imagination can comprehend, but he has also, in his word, revealed to us all that we need to know of himself in his Son, through his word. “But we see Jesus” is the song of believers. God has spoken through his Son, a final word. “God after he spoke, long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in his son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also made the world.” (Heb 1:1-2) The author of a letter to a lady and her children at Babylon warns that “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God …” (3 John 9a)

The early Christians understood what it was like to live in a pluralistic age—an age when authorities demanded that they acknowledge not only Caesar as lord, but also acknowledge other gods. The Christians were called atheists because they believed in only one God. The beautiful story of Polycarp’s martyrdom is well known. He was asked not only to deny Christ but to say 'Away with those that deny the gods.' Polycarp’s words, “Away with the impious.” And as for denying Christ, his words were, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me wrong; and how can I now blaspheme my King that has saved me?”

Yes, how can we deny the One who has taken on our flesh and even now in his resurrected body forgives and nourishes his Church? Strengthen your Church with faithfulness and truth Lord Jesus.

Picture by Penny Juncker

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A merry & holy Christmas

May everyone have a merry & holy Christmas.

My husband and I, our whole family, have special thanks for God’s mercies this Christmas. Our middle son, David, was recently in a very serious car accident. God was merciful. A drunk driver made a wrong turn in front of him. He is still wearing a neck brace and has some arm and foot injuries.

 He is our hopeful movie maker, but also a drummer. When he graduated from high school, because of some tunings and friendships, my husband was able to give him Super Tramp’s old set of drums. That is a happy memory.

It is amazing the interweaving of God’s blessings, in large families. To watch each person move toward that place God intends him and her to be is always exciting. And now it is the grandchildren and their spouses we watch. And coming fast up behind them the great grand children. Five now—all girls.

It is a bountiful and beautiful Christmas—but there is still sadness because others cannot even think of Christmas. They are and will spend the holidays in grief. So there is a place where we enter, in the midst of joy, but still deep sadness—and pray for the comfort and healing of the Lord.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

4th Advent Sunday: talking about Jesus

Matthew’s gospel clearly defines the name Jesus which includes the reason he has come as a babe in the manger, and the reason he will come in victory. “She will bear a Son; and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Within that small verse is the whole of the life of Jesus; it includes his birth, life, death and resurrection. It includes his sinless life, his goodness and healing, his suffering and death, his eternality and victory over all of the powers of evil. It includes “his people,” the Jews who embraced him and later the engrafted gentiles. It includes the sins of his people which he carried to the cross.

Many years ago, one of my sisters, who is a Latter Day Saint, visited one of our older relatives who lived in Utah. The relative with her husband were for many years missionaries on a reservation. Although I never met either of them, I felt a deep kinship with them when, my sister said “She reminded me of you, always talking about Jesus.” And is there anyone else to speak of? 

Charles Williams in his surrealistic novel, The Place of the Lion, records an interesting conversation between one of the main characters and an older couple who have just left their small church and communion. The main character, Richardson, has been standing outside watching with delight as he notes a magnificent Unicorn (an ancient symbol of Christ) sending grace to each participant as they take communion. After the initial conversation about the “happy service” the older woman asks a question:

“She hesitated, fumbling with her umbrella; then taking sudden courage, she took a step towards Richardson and went on, ‘You’ll excuse me, sir, I know it’s old-fashioned, and you quite a stranger, but—are you saved?’

Richardson answered her as seriously as she had spoken, ‘I believe salvation is for all who will have it,’ he said, ‘and I will have it by the only possible means.’

‘Ah, that’s good, that’s good,’ the old gentleman said, ‘Bless God for it, young man.’

‘I know you’ll pardon me, sir,’ the old lady added ‘you being a stranger as I said, and strangers often not liking to talk about it. Though what else there is to talk about …’

‘What indeed,’ Richardson agreed …”

Come, Babe in the manger, Lord of the universe, redeemer King, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lies about the killing of children: Veterans Today & Press TV

I have seen, over several days, looking at my blogger feed, more persons then usual looking for Veterans Today.[1] That is an anti-Semitic site that pretends to be for United States veterans. Tonight I found out why I have more traffic searching for VT. They have overreached their ugliness, both them and Iran’s Press TV. 

Michael Harris, a one-time candidate for governor of Arizona, and an associate of VT, in an interview on Press TV blames the shooting of 27 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook on the Jews. And VT’s editor, Gordon Duff, uses Press TV’s interview to write a horrid article entitled, “Israeli death squads involved in Sandy Hook bloodbath: Intelligence analyst.

The Jewish news site, Algemeiner, has an article, “Spanish Satellite Provider Bans Iranian Channel That Blamed Newtown Shootings on Israel. That is good news because Press TV has too often interviewed American and British anti-Semites and used them against both Israel and American Jews. And too often, in the past, some organizations affiliated with mainline church denominations have linked to Press TV—as though its information was legitimate.

Another bit of good news—I saw for the first time commenters arguing against Duff’s posting. When evil overreaches its bounds good people generally begin to understand the enormity of the problem.

[1]To see the public side of my feed scroll down the page.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The dark side of history

Will most of progressive Christianity find itself on that side of history where persecution festers and overflows? An excellent article by John S. Dickerson, “The Decline of Evangelical America,” is badly used by More Light Presbyterians. They grab at the most damaging and ugly words and statistics about evangelicals as a means of lifting up their own agenda. Missing most of Dickerson’s points and concerns they go to this quote:

“Evangelicals have not adapted well to rapid shifts in the culture – including, notably, the move toward support for same-sex marriage,” Dickerson writes.  “The result is that evangelicals are increasingly typecast as angry and repressed bigots. In 2007, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, in a survey of 1,300 college professors, found that 3 percent held ‘unfavorable feelings’ towards Jews, 22 percent toward Muslims and 53 percent towards evangelical Christians.”

“Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury. If we continue in that posture, we will continue to invite opposition and obscure the ‘good news’ we are called to proclaim.”

The MLP author bemoans the fact that Dickerson “ultimately defaults to a “love the sinner, hate the sin” position,”and fails to see that the article is about letting go of a political strategy and hanging onto the bountiful witness that God loves the sinner and has provided for her redemption with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As Dickerson puts it:

The Scripture calls us “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), but American evangelicals have not acted with the humility and homesickness of aliens. The proper response to our sexualized and hedonistic culture is not to chastise, but to “conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).

This does not mean we whitewash unpopular doctrines like the belief that we are all sinners but that we re-emphasize the free forgiveness available to all who believe in Jesus Christ.

The author of the MLP piece which bears the same title as Dickerson’s hurries on to emphasis a different article produced by MLP, the interview of a pastor who was once conservative but eventually came to believe that the ordination of LGBT people as well as same gender marriage is acceptable. Supposedly that is the answer to the decline of evangelicalism rather than a deeper sustained proclamation of the gospel of Christ’s redemption.

But to my original point, I believe, although unaware, perhaps not caring, many progressive Christians are moving toward such a polarized stance that persecution will overflow toward orthodox and evangelical brothers and sisters. I write this for several reasons. The kinds of articles MLP now link to are often grounded in a very angry and amoral society. As progressive Christians continually find meaning and guidance in western cultural mandates rather than biblical revelation their worldview will continually change. Culture changes, the word of God does not.

Love, disconnected from the God who is personal, eternal and unchanging, is easily emptied of all Christian content as are many other abstract words such as unity, righteousness and justice. The word of God pulls these words together and fills them with meaning. For instance Psalm 97 speaks of the foundations of God’s throne (his authority) being righteousness and justice.

And Psalm 133, which has to do with unity among brothers, likens it to the dew that comes down on “the mountains of Zion.” That phrase is filled with the understanding that God commanded a blessing of ‘life forever’ on Zion. But such life belongs to Christ who gave his life for the world. Without the biblical text and the ultimate redemptive work of Christ, words like love, unity, justice and righteousness can become harsh, tyrannical and full of immorality and death.

We never stand still—but movement isn’t without gain or loss. We either move toward Christ, centering our faith in his word, or we move away from Christ listening to the siren songs of culture.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Listening for pastoral care...and not finding any

Saturday night, after reading New York columnist, Ross Douthat’s article, “Loss of the Innocents,” I went to bed angry at our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leadership. Their news pronouncement about the killing of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, had only a little compassion and faith compared to their immediate jump to advocacy about gun control.  Several different writers wrote in stark contrast to the PC (U.S.A.) article. Douthat, who is a devout Catholic, used the writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his novel, “The Brothers Karamazov” to write of God, tragedy and faith.

He dealt with the clear biblical understanding that tragedy is not always explained but faith in a benevolent God exists despite the darkness. And in that case faith shines. As Douthat puts it:
 The counterpoint to Ivan [an agnostic who uses the suffering of children to prove his point] in “The Brothers Karamazov” is supplied by other characters’ examples of Christian love transcending suffering, not by a rhetorical justification of God’s goodness.

Albert Mohler, in his article, “Rachel Weeping for her Children—the Massacre in Connecticut,” writes with compassion about the children and their biblical position before God. He takes the time to deal with hard questions. Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote, “School Shootings and Spiritual Warfare.” Moore addresses the hatred of Satan toward the child Jesus and therefore against all children:

Throughout the history of the universe, evil has manifested a dark form of violence specifically toward children. Not only did the Canaanite nations demand the blood of babies, but the Bible shows where at points of redemptive crisis, the powers of evil have lashed out at children. Pharaoh saw God’s blessing of Israelite children as a curse and demanded they be snuffed out by the power of his armed thugs. And, of course, the Christmas narrative we read together this time of year is overshadowed by an act of horrific mass murder of children. King Herod, seeing his throne threatened, demands the slaughter of innocent children.

So I went to bed angry, even embarrassed. What is wrong with the leaders of my denomination! In their article, “In the Aftermath of Two Mass Shootings This Week” there is no dealing with the sorrows of the particular event of 20 children killed. It is simply a bit about every recent killing and then advocacy for their cause and their particular programs. Advocacy isn’t a bad activity, it has after all helped in numerous causes: Sudan, human trafficking, the killing of unborn babies, and much more. But with this pronouncement there has been no pastoral care.

There is a lack of intellectual, theological and human concern; every disaster that rears its head is immediately met with advocacy for a cause as though leadership is unable to tap into the biblical text, the great themes of redemption, the very real human dimensions of grief and God’s love in the face of that grief. An open letter of compassion and care should have first been published. And then, later, such a pronouncement as the one published could have been used.

I believe that it is fair to say that too much of PC(U.S.A.) leadership has taken on the image of the bureaucratic institutionalists of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels such as The First Circle and Cancer Ward. They are so tied into the way ‘we do things’ that they fail to see what is missing. But beyond that they have failed to be concerned with pastoral care and spreading the healing touch of Jesus.

They have inherited their father’s wasteland, that is, nineteenth century liberal theology and an over zealous activism. The liberal ministers were rightly concerned about poverty but too quickly jumped to advocating for eugenics. They missed a beautiful tree because all they could see was a forest. Today, leadership in the PC (U.S.A.) while looking at such things as poverty, violence and rights has missed the beautiful tree, the cross, and thereby are skipping over personal and redemptive care for people. We need a return to our roots which grow from the reformation and early Biblical community, teaching, and devotion.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The third Sunday in Advent--with sorrow

Isaiah sings with the coming of the Lord—“Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; and let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley; then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken”(40:4-5). This pulls in both the babe in the manger and the glorious second coming.

But why does it matter and who will care after yesterday, and the death of twenty children? How can our hearts even think of Christmas with all of its associations with children; their bright sparkling eyes reflecting Christmas lights? How can we endure to see presents, candy and sing Christmas hymns in the midst of such tragedy? Everything inside of us is crying out for an ending—the end of night and the beginning of eternal morning. And yet …

The hills and mountains come down to meet the valleys that have been lifted up. And all can see the glory of God. But he is not a wicked king who treads down the innocent, he picks up the children. The broken the hurting parents.  Isaiah weaves in and out of the human condition. “All flesh is as grass,” and yet there is good news because God’s word endures through it all. We must not fear; there is this news, the good news.

The Messiah, the everlasting Father, the arm of the Lord—comes with his might—“Like a shepherd he will tend his flock, in his arm he will gather the lambs and carry them in his bosom; he will gently lead the nursing ewes” (40:11). This mighty king, who comes to die, carries the little ones in his bosom. This one who “measures the waters in the hollow of his hand” stooped down to earth, took on flesh, became a child, and gently leads the nursing mother.

And yet, he warns the wicked, he will blow and they will wither. (40:24b) He knows, what we do not know, his “understanding is inscrutable.” He knows of yesterday and the wickedness that seemingly prevailed. He has carried it all on his shoulders, in his body, on the cross—there is an open place for the sinner and an arm for the child, the lamb, the little one.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable (40:27-28).”

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dances & wolves: the wrong way into a hurting culture

Sometimes one writing project leads to another. In the comment section of my posting, A review of Horizons’ “Keep it Weird: Thinking About Salvation in the Land of Bikes, Books and Brew”, a friend wrote that he knew Cynthia O’Brien and that she was not someone I needed to worry about. Since I had implied that while she was enthusiastic and had some good ideas about coming alongside unbelievers she was not presenting a truthful or complete witness of Christianity, I wondered if I had misunderstood her writing. After all I like weird things too; I love reading Flannery O’Conner and Charles Williams a surrealistic writer friend of C.S. Lewis. So I went googling.

My googling did lead me to a video taped sermon by O’Brien but it also led me to the New Thought Movement which is no longer new.[1] The New Thought Movement or Mind Sciences began in the nineteenth century with the founders of Christian Science, Unity School of Christianity and Religious Science. It began as a metaphysical way of seeing Christianity: the human mind and/or human consciousness aligned with divine mind creates good. 

For Christian Science all evil including sickness and death are unreal creations of human consciousness. One meditates on scripture understanding them from Mary Baker Eddy’s writings. Christian Science has not changed much because of adhering to her works. However, Unity School of Christianity, which grew out of Christian Science and also believes evil, sickness and death are illusory, has grown and moved further into the main stream of alternative religions and movements. Unlike Christian Science they do believe in a material universe with prosperity as one of their goals. But they also believe in reincarnation and various other New Age and Eastern ideas. Positive thoughts are very important. Out of these movements many other minor New Thought groups have developed.

So what do these groups have to do with O’Brien? She is not connected to them, but she lifts up some groups that are New Thought, mentioning them in a sermon and suggesting that their activities may be opening a door toward God.

As I listened I thought of how New Thought thinking had affected the mainline denominations of the past. O’Brien mentions in her sermon how much the world has changed in the last ten years. Well yes it has, but falsehood really doesn’t change that much, it just comes in different packaging. 

In this case the package is dancing. In O’Brien’s sermon, she uses the Old Testament text where David dances before the Ark of the Lord, and she speaks of some dance studios where Sunday dances are held that are religious but not Christian. She states:

Right now there are people gathering in at least two dance studios that I know of one just across the river and one in the Hollywood district and they’re gathering for something that my friend Paula calls “dance church,” dance church. And I went and it’s a magnificent kind of thing where she puts on this beautiful music and the people come in and they’re welcomed and they have times of meditation and thoughtfulness and they begin to move and she’s like a spiritual DJ. She puts on this wonderful music that makes you think first of all about yourself and then you start to engage other people and then there’s like full on gospel music raising the roof and everybody’s dancing like crazy just whatever they want to do and then they’re encouraged to get in touch with the divine. It’s not Presbyterian, its not even Christian it’s pretty broad; you bring to it what you bring. But I’m telling you that group is finding a door into something meaningful; they’re taking a step toward God.

In Portland there are two dance studios offering Sunday morning “Ecstatic Dancing” or “Soul motion.” One is called Sacred Circles Dance Community and the other Momentum: Conscious Movement. The latter group, on their site state, “We offer Soul Motion, designed by Vinn Marti, and are developing Conscious Movement techniques from our work with dancers.” On the Sacred Circles site they state:

Sacred Circle Dance Community was formed in 2004 and has grown to be the largest weekly dance in Portland, Oregon. The original format was designed by Vinn Marti, the creator of Soul Motion, as an embodiment of his Dance Ministry practice. Today, a dedicated group of organizers and volunteers continue to create this spiritually-based community dance.

Vinn Marti belongs to the New Thought Movement. In an interview on Madrona: the Mind Body Institute , which has some connections to the dance studio, he states:

We cultivate the vertical drop of deep self as we are inspired and informed by another. As we practice this dance we become proficient in circular vision. We see everything which surrounds and we exclaim: “I am One with All-One"  …

In the practice of Soul Motion™, the dancer moves through four relational landscapes.
·         Dance Intimate.... we move alone - I am one
·         Dance Communion... we move with one other - I am one with
·         Dance Community... we move with everyone - I am one with all
·         Dance Infinity... we move our practice to the everyday life - I am one with all one

The deep self is the same as Hindu’s Atman or the absolute or universal self- or the “ultimate discovered within oneself.”[2] The words “I am one with all one" implies monism—all is one. Marti has also been a chaplain at the Living Enrichment Center which was a large New Thought Church.

Those individuals, including Christians, who participate in the dance are not finding a door into something meaningful—they are not moving toward God. They are involved in a very seductive false religion. And this is where a real distinction needs to be made. One does not help a non-Christian come to Christ by participating in their religious rituals. For both New Thought and classical eastern religion one seeks god within—but a Christian has found God in Christ and actually it is Christ who has found the sinner.

In all of our community building, evangelism and engagement with our culture we as Christians must remember it is only through Jesus Christ that anyone will find God. If we offer everything else but not the true Christ we are poor servants indeed.

“No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has explained him (John 1:18).”

[1] One can find excellent information on the Mind Sciences, with biblical refutation, in a booklet: Todd Ehrenborg, Mind Sciences: Christian Science, Religious Science, Unity School of Christianity, Zondervan Guide to Cults & Religious Movements, (Grand Rapids:  Publishing House 1995).
[2]See glossary of John A. Hutchison, Paths of Faith third edition, (New York: McGraw Hill 1981). 

Monday, December 10, 2012

A review of Horizons’ “Keep it Weird: Thinking About Salvation in the Land of Bikes, Books and Brew”

.  Cynthia O’Brien[1], who is a singer and pastor,  in her Horizons article, “Keep It Weird: Thinking About Salvation in the Land of Bikes, Books and Brew,” writes using the unofficial motto for Portland Oregon, “keep it weird.” She attempts to point out a way to minister to people when their thoughts and lifestyles’ are very different from mainstream Christianity. After thinking about my past in reference to witnessing and reading O’Brien’s article I concluded that some of her ideas were good but she was missing the main point of Christianity.

O’Brien is right that Christians need to meet unbelievers on their home turf understanding who they really are. And although she doesn’t write it O’Brien shows, in what she writes, that there is joy in the act— and yet there is both her critical view of the ordinary witness and her lack—she never speaks the gospel. This is troubling because Horizons’ editors use the article to advertise what the PC (U.S.A.) is doing with their development of “1001 communities.” That is in one smaller box at the bottom of the article; in another box there are questions from their “Make the Most of Your Magazine.”

An example of the questions is, “Sunday brunch. Coffee. If sacraments are outward and visible signs of an inward, invisible grace, what would you name as ‘sacramental’ in your life?” This is in reference to O’Brien’s statement that, “In Portland, Sunday brunch is a sacrament, the living water is coffee and craft beer, and anything promoted as The Way would be expected to have a designated bicycle lane.” She isn’t, as the editors with their question imply, saying that is what the sacraments are- about personal examples of grace. But she never does mention what the sacraments truly are, nor who the Way really is.

O’Brien in explaining how “to think and talk about salvation,” writes of her encounters with a bartender, a gardener who writes about the environment and an agnostic author who writes about Christianity via a book O’Brien suggests some might find offensive. The author, in fact, whose book is entitled A Very Minor Prophet, calls it blasphemous. However, O’Brien writes that the book is “drenched in scripture and demonstrates a clear understanding of Jesus.” She makes friends with the author and suggests that such authors and others like him might be those who “unmask idolatries” in the church.

But contrary to O'Brien, the author, who reads material written by the Jesus Seminar, has his prophet say:

 I actually told the lesbians that I was a preacher, and not only that but I started going off telling them that I was a minister of a very different kind of Christian church: one that was based on the actual teachings of Jesus Christ—about living simply & not being judgmental & not giving a shit about $$$--& not on all the hogwash about the resurrection & the second coming & all the other made up bull shit that should have gone out with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

So, reading O’Brien’s article, I might learn how to be kind and caring to unbelievers and I would be encouraged to do that in an enthusiastic way, but if I was an unbeliever I wouldn't know what it really was that Christians believed. But so much more is required; compassion and enthusiasm, wisdom and biblical truth are needed when ministering to people in our world.  O’Brien brings up several examples of ancient Christians who witnessed in the world. But she only presents their use of the culture not their presentation of the gospel.

For instance she mentions Paul in Athens. When he preaches to the people he uses their altar to an unknown God. But absent from her wording is the connection he makes, explaining exactly who the real God is and finally finishing his sermon with a very clear pronouncement of the gospel:

“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent because he has fixed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness through a man whom he has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising him from the dead (Acts 17: 30-31).”

O’Brien also mentions Peter’s vision in Acts 10. She writes, “He [Peter] learns to stop calling Gentiles unclean and welcome them as Christians. Practicing the art of watching and listening, I see God at work in people, places and ways I might not have expected.” But Peter uses his new understanding to preach the complete gospel to the Gentiles. He testifies to the resurrection, the judgment to come and the forgiveness which Jesus gives.

“You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses of all the things he did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put him to death by hanging him on a cross. God raised him up on the third day and granted that he become visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God that is to us who ate and drank with him after he arose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. Of him all the prophets bear witness that through his name everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:38-43).”

O’Brien is right about meeting people in their context. Many years ago, when our children were young, we, with all six, would troop over to a restaurant after our church’s Saturday night concert. Often our booth was filled to overflowing with other people from the concert. The waitresses were always busy as many members also went there. One waitress in particular waited on us—the kind of waitress who does everything with dexterity and care no matter how busy.

We became friends and visited each other’s homes. We discovered she was a divorcee with two small children. She came for Christmas Eve and we gave her presents and a Bible. Finally she disappeared from our lives only to reappear as she called one evening telling us she had a need. Our church met that need and she and her new husband became vibrant Christians. Over a year ago they came to our 50th wedding anniversary party. They are still vibrant Christians.

In the same way, a few years later we invited a young woman over for tacos and gave her a Bible. In the process of buying a little blue Datsun from her we took her to a Saturday night concert at our church. The performer was T-Bone Burnett, the musician who wrote and compiled the music for O Brother Where Art Thou. The music was just right for someone who liked night clubs and music. She moved, as expected, to Switzerland.  We do not know if she ever developed a relationship with Christ, but we still pray for her. 

The point is, friendship, care and compassion are needed, but so is the whole gospel. Jesus went about doing good and healing, he also died for our sins and was resurrected. This is the gospel, the good news, salvation, even in weirdness.  

[1] My apologies, I spelled Cynthia O’Brien's name wrong throughout the posting, I have now corrected it.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Second Sunday of Advent

The truth is, God takes the suffering home with him. In another place I wrote of how a visiting pastor, at my church, told of the sufferings and good deeds of two pastors in the Sudan. His text was the story of the killing of the children of Bethlehem—the boys, two years old or younger. King Herod was attempting to destroy the boy Jesus, because he feared that a King appointed by God would take his place.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in one of his Christmas sermons, 1940, also uses this text. In the Old Testament it is:

A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more. (Jeremiah 31:15)

Rev. Toby Nelson, the visiting pastor, explained that there were probably no more than nine or so infants killed in this back-water place, but God in his infinite compassion cares for the least. Bonhoeffer understood that this event was not unknown to God—it was part of the suffering of Christ. As he writes of the weeping that could not and should not stop:

The weeping over the witness unto death of Jesus Christ rises and will not be silenced throughout time, until the end. It is the weeping over the world, estranged from God and hostile to Christ, over the blood of the innocent, over the world’s own guilt and sin, for whom Jesus himself came to suffer. But in the midst of this inconsolable weeping, there is a great consolation: Jesus Christ lives and we will live with him, if we suffer with him.

The massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem, for all its godless horror, must ultimately serve God in bringing his promises to fulfillment. Suffering and tears come over God’s people. But they are costly to God, because Christ has gathered them to himself of his own will and Christ takes them and carries them into eternity.

Jesus bears it all, on the cross, for us—and we wait, in suffering for his return. He has come, to a manger,  he has suffered and died, in his resurrected body Jesus will come. Praise God.

Friday, December 7, 2012

God's work in the Bay Area

The work that God does is often hidden, so it is like a sweet surprise when you find some part of it. As many of my friends are moving with their church to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church I was looking around on their site looking for familiar names. I found something wonderful. Something that only God could plan and do. It was in San Francisco, and Berkeley, and Oakland as well as Marin County. First I went on the site for Christ Church in Berkeley and Oakland, an Evangelical Presbyterian Church. And then I read about their Mother and their Grandmother.

Their “Mother church” is City Church San Francisco, which is a Reformed Church in America. Their “Grandmother church” is Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, a Presbyterian Church in America whose pastor is Tim Keller. And some of the churches that City Church has planted are PCA & EPC. Their concerns are the city and how to authentically bring Jesus Christ to the cities. The beauty of this is that while they “wholeheartedly” embrace “the historic Christian faith expressed in the ecumenical creeds of the universal church,” and reformation faith, they are finding unique ways to reach their particular community.

Christ Church and City Church each have lots of videos to watch that allows one to understand what it is God is doing in the Bay Area—but I was particularly intrigued by one on the City Church site. I am going to place it below. I believe this is God’s work; it has brought together a community of people who belong to various denominations, yet hold to the same foundations, ministering to the very needy people of the Bay Area:

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Holston Presbytery, Discipline and the Huguenots

Something that happened in Holston Presbytery collided with what I have been reading. They, rightly, refused to admit Dr. Don Steele into the Presbytery as a pastor. They used proper biblical discipline. (1 Cor. 5) He is a gay man working in John Shuck’s church in Elizabethton Tennessee. John Shuck is the teaching elder (pastor) who does not believe in God. So how did this collide with the book I am reading?

Let me start at the beginning. My husband and I were replacing a phone and in order do that we had to move a large amount of my books. That led to finding a lot of dust and dirt behind my books and that led to removing even more books, cleaning and reorganizing. And then behind one set of books I found some others, one I had forgotten about. The Huguenots in France: After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (With a Visit to the Country of the Vaudois) by Samuel Smiles was published in 1877. I found the book in a used book store in Oxford but had not paid much attention to it until now. I began reading from the middle of the book, a bad habit of mine—but I was amazed at some of the information.

After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, thousands of Huguenots fled France. This was because the elimination of the Edict of Nantes left French Protestants with no freedom at all. Their churches were destroyed, their leaders hanged, and those lay persons who persisted in protestant worship and were caught were severely punished. The men were sent to be galley slaves in the French navy. The women were sent to such dreadful prisons that many died within six months. There were few Huguenots left in France. But Smiles explains how the church began to reorganize again—and part of that story has to do with church discipline.

The part of the book I am reading centers on a Huguenot pastor Antoine Court. He became a preacher and leader within the secret meetings of the Huguenots.  He began dreaming of renewing the Church and gathered a few men around him to do so. Smiles writes:

He urged … that religious assemblies must be continued, and that discipline must be established by the appointment of elders, presbyteries, and synods, and by the training up of a body of young pastors to preach amongst the people and discipline them according to the rules of the Protestant Church.

Smiles points out that because of the persecution most organization had disappeared. He writes that “the training of pastors had become almost forgotten.” The first synod meeting was small. I smiled when I read it, only nine members met. But from that group pastors began to be trained. Young men who seemed gifted were chosen to work with someone who was already a pastor. They traveled together and studied under trees in safe places. Smiles writes:

“I have often pitched my professor’s chair,” said Court, “in a torrent underneath a rock. The sky was our roof, and the leafy branches thrown out from the crevices in the rock overhead, were our canopy. There I and my students would remain for almost eight days; it was our hall, our lecture-room, and our study. To make the most of our time, and to practice the students properly, I gave them a text of Scripture to discuss before me—say the first eleven verses of the fifth chapter of Luke. I would afterwards propose to them some point of doctrine, some passage of Scripture, some moral precept, or sometimes I gave them some difficult passages to reconcile.”

There is much more. The training of preachers and pastors as well as the appointing of elders was a part of the beginning of revitalizing the church. Biblical training was the second great task. As Smiles records:

When a Testament was obtained, it was lent about, and for the most part learnt off. The labour was divided in this way. One person, sometimes a boy or girl, of good memory, would undertake to learn one or more chapters in the Gospels, another a certain number in the Epistles, until at last a large portion of the book was committed to memory, and could be recited at the meetings of the assemblies. And thus also it happened, that the conversation of the people, as well as the sermons of their preachers, gradually assumed a strongly biblical form.

A very important part of the recovery of the Huguenot Church was the discipline of those who lived in disobedience. And that is where I circle back to Holston Presbytery and their actions. They were faithful in their actions, faithful to their people, faithful to Christ and faithful even to Steele as one in need of discipline. But many presbyteries and members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), after reading Smiles words, must stand in shame when faced with the faithfulness of the members of the persecuted Huguenots: 

We have said that part of the duty of the elders was to censure scandal amongst the members. If their conduct was not considered becoming the Christian life, they were not visited by the pastors and were not allowed to attend the assemblies, until they had declared their determination to lead a better life. What a punishment for infraction of discipline! To be debarred attending an assembly, for being present at which, the pastor if detected, might be hanged, and the penitent member sent to the galleys for life!

A good direction: The Jerusalem Declaration

A declaration written by the Protestant Consultation on Israel and the Middle East (PCIME) takes a stand for Israel and the Christian minorities who are suffering persecution in the Middle East. The Jerusalem Declaration was written at “the Jerusalem Consultation on the Mainline Protestant Churches and the State of Israel. It is directed at those mainline denominations whose views toward Israel are extremely one sided and hurtful toward any real peace in the Middle East. The Jerusalem Document begins:

We are church members residing in Europe, North America, and Africa. We came to Jerusalem to share our concerns for the relationship between our churches and Israel. We affirm our love of Israel. We believe that God remains in covenant with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God’s intention is to bless them, and through them to bless others. We repudiate the “replacement theology” that claims Israel has no further place in God’s plans.

 We see the modern State of Israel as a hopeful sign. In a region long dominated by harsh autocrats, Israel stands apart as a stable, pluralistic, multi-party democracy. Israel’s citizens are free to criticize failings of their government and there are mechanisms to correct those failings. Our group heard Israelis frankly discuss the wisdom of government policies. This propensity for self-criticism is a legacy of the prophetic tradition that Jews and Christians share.

 Our love for Israel does not contradict our love for other peoples in the region, including the Palestinians. They too have a place in God’s heart. We believe it is possible to pursue justice and peace in ways that attend to the rights and needs of all peoples of the region.

This is a document that can be signed by those who have been concerned with both the continuing persecution of Christians by radical Islamists and the widening divide between mainline denominations and the Jewish community.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A review of Horizons' "Jesus Saves: Early Christian Reflections on Salvation"

Alexander Hwang, visiting professor of theology at Brescia University, in his article, “Jesus Saves: Early Christian Reflections on Salvation,” contends, among other things, that “Jesus saves,’ is an incomplete sentence.  Hwang, in his article, examines, a bit simplistically, the salvific views of Augustine, Pelagius and Origen. Hwang, in order to contemplate who Jesus saves, uses the image of a dinosaur, a towering statue of some sort that sets beyond a billboard with the words “Jesus saves” on it. So the question becomes, does Jesus save dinosaurs? Is salvation universal or are only the elect-or only those who trust Jesus saved. [1]

Today, December 2, at Journey Church, we had a visiting pastor who told a story about two pastors he had met in the Republic of South Sudan.  They understood, at least theologically and experimentally  that “Jesus saves” is truly a complete sentence. One pastor had been a soldier, kidnapped for that purpose at eleven years old. When wounded he was dumped with other wounded soldiers into alligator infested waters. He survived and became a Christian and a pastor who has put together an orphanage in South Sudan. Another pastor, studying to become a Muslim imam, was ostracized by his community for asking how he could be forgiven and gain paradise. He became a Christian who in the process of caring for the needs of others has seen many Muslims, including imams, become Christians.

Hwang suggests that many Presbyterians will object to the sentence Jesus saves because of its “theological imprecision” and because they claim that “Jesus saves only the elect, the chosen, the predestined of God.” Of this he writes:

This [reformed] interpretation was based on a particular—some would say peculiar—reading of Paul’s letters that can be traced the back to the Westminster Divines (The authors of the Westminster Confession), John Knox, and before that, John Calvin and Augustine.

At this point Hwang points out the differences between Augustine and Pelagius, Augustine believes; “Jesus saves those whom God wills to save.” And Pelagians believed “Jesus saves those who choose to be saved.” Hwang believes that both of these men were setting limits on God’s salvation. Hwang concludes that in Western Christianity the dinosaur would probably not be saved!

The biggest problem when one explores the controversy between Augustine and the Pelagians is the Pelagians denial of original sin and their insistence on works as a means to salvation. Yes, they both set limits on salvation, but the real controversy had to do with salvation by works or the salvation Jesus bought by his death and resurrection. As Paul states in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourself, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works; so that no one may boast.”

Hwang turns to the Eastern Orthodox and one of the Church Fathers, Origen, who was a universalist, believing that even Satan would be saved. He states that Origen was using neo-Platonism and its idea of the eternal return of all things to their source.  Hwang believes in this case the dinosaur would be saved. Nevertheless, as Hwang points out, Origen’s idea of Satan’s salvation was condemned in the sixth century.

Not ready to give up, Hwang also writes that “Clement, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa and other church fathers held similar views.” But the idea is somewhat limited in Orthodoxy. One of the explanations given by Eastern Orthodoxy is that God draws all to himself but those who reject his love find his love hellish while those who are truly in Christ find God’s love blessed. Think of those on the bus that moves from hell to heaven in C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce. Even the grass of heaven was sharp and painful to the visitors from hell. Universalism, meaning all will be saved, is not an acceptable doctrine to most Orthodox communions.

Hwang concludes with the idea that this is all a mystery. We know Jesus saves but we don’t know the object of the sentence. He writes:
I know with certainty that Jesus saves. I hope it’s me. I hope Jesus saves everyone and everything, but I don’t know for certain. Jesus saves. Perhaps that is all that can and should be said—nothing more and nothing less.
This is a great deal less than what the Apostle Paul wrote when he was dealing with imprisonment and suffering for the sake of Christ:

For this reason I suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and am convinced that he is able to guard that which I have entrusted to him until that day (2 Timothy 1:12)

[1] One should note that two different questions get mixed in this article. It is possible to disbelieve in the predestination of the elect and still not be a universalist. While the author does tend to mix the questions he understands that both Augustine and Pelagius were not universalist. However, Pelagius who believed in salvation by works would have agreed that it was possible for all to overcome their sin.