Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Wild Ideas

My latest wild idea is to have a Spanish language group with our upcoming 40 Days of Purpose Campaign. We have a large number of Spanish speaking people in the area, and a few churches have started among them, but so far the Methodists aren't. There is one Methodist church in a near-by town, but it is small and appears to not be growing.

So how do you start a Spanish bible study? Obviously it would be helpful to have someone who speaks Spanish. That's where we're lacking.

I took conversational Spanish last spring, but I don't feel up to joining in - let alone leading - the kind of conversations common to bible studies & small groups. But I'm willing to try if that's the only way forward.

So right now I'm doing what I always do in the face of this kind of wild idea - PRAY!

Thursday, August 26, 2004


Such a dirty word. We hate doing. It grates on me whenever I have to do it.

I'm a United Methodist pastor. Back when I was in college I spent a year fasting and praying over the issue of whether to stay in the United Methodist Church. I'd been exposed to quite a bit of separatist literature, so in light of the contrast between my evangelical understanding of the faith and a general non-evangelical approach evidenced in mainstream United Methodism I felt the dilemma intensely.

So I prayed.

The word that came to me - though I'm not sure I can explain how it came, was, "Stay until they kick you out." Staying in has meant that I have had to practice submission. I submit to a system that is not only sometimes misguided, but sometimes actively involved in what I think is wrong.

This submission conflicts with the notion that the bets guidance for living your life is "To thine own self be true." Authenticity is important to me. I enjoy my own idiosyncrasies - just ask my children sometime. But I am not the center of the universe. I am not infallible. I am neither God nor a god. So I submit.

First, as a follower, of Jesus, I submit to his Lordship. This Lordship is exercised in the flow of history, most importantly in his life, death, and resurrection, but in a continuing sense through his people. The Lordship conflicts not only with my own feeble claims to Lordship, but with all other claimants as well: even the United Methodist Church. So if the United Methodist Church gets to the point where it adopts the position of some of its theologians and bishops and turns from its doctrinal stance in the mainstream of the Christian tradition, my submission to Jesus will require my non-submission to the UMC.

But, in the meantime, here I am submitting to the instituted authorities of the UMC. I rarely feel these authorities bearing down on me. I feel no restrictions from anywhere on what I can teach and preach.

But where does submission stand elsewhere in the church? In the past several years, those who favor the "full inclusion" of self-avowed practicing homosexuals in the church have often practiced non-submission. Is this because they are evil and out to destroy the church? Some have sugggested so, but I seriously doubt that is their motivation. Do they think this issue strikes at the heart of the gospel and what the church is about? Listening to what they have to say, it sure seems that way.

But I'm curious how the freedom to choose one's own sexual identity came to be so integral to the gospel. It sure looks like the motto of "To thine own self be true" has become the heart of their message.

This urge toward self-consistency (that's what I take the motto to be seeking) misses the point of human sinfulness. I'm a sinner. Deep inside, I'm broken. As a follower of Jesus, as one who wants to be like Him, I cannot take my own inclinations, drives and orientations as guides for my life or as models to follow. Sure, its the easiest way. Of course there are times when I feel like I have no choice. But through the Holy Spirit I do. I submit my profoundly non-Godlike nature (with its inclinations, drives and orientations) to God's authority so he can remake me, transforming me into the image of Jesus.

Boy, it's hard to let go sometimes. Submission is tough. But I'm convinced it's good for me - and for those around me.

Christianity and Eastern Religions

I'm in the midst of a sermon series, "What's the Difference?" in which I examine the differences between Christianity and other religions and movements. As a follower of Jesus, my core conviction is that Jesus is indeed the Way, the Truth and the Life. But when I consider the way American Christians tend to handle the question of truth in religion, I see two mistakes frequently made. First, many assume that all religions are true. One is true for me, another is true for you, yet a third may be true for John Doe. Such a mindless relativism seems self-reuting to me. Second, others assume that if their religion is true, then all others are evil and must be destroyed. So many think these are the only two options - either absolute relativism or Bosnia-like "cleansing." Since we KNOW that "cleansing is bad, relativism looks like the obvious choice.

As Christians, the Bible gives us another option. In the teaching of both Jesus and Paul we see both a concern for truth AND a concern for love. In Jesus we see God incarnate come to live among us - the embodiment of truth. At the same time we see that because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Christians came to see very clearly that "God is love." How do we make sense of this in light of our current dichotomy between truth and love?

If we dig just a little below the surface of the current debate, we can see that there is a silent partner in the background: Power. We have tht truth, so we need to enforce it on everyone else. We are loving and tolerant, so we need to make sure everyone else is too, on the pain of punsihment.

Yet when we look at Jesus we see him forcing neither truth nor love on people. When the powerful son of God, the embodiment of truth ran into a challenge to his status he didn't take thr way of power. Instead he submitted to the cross, a horrible death. That same Jesus taught his followers to take u their crosses and follow him. Paul, an early follower of Jesus, taught over and over again that we were to follow Jesus in his suffering. Peter, another early follower, took the voluntary suffering of Christians for granted. He fully expected this voluntary suffering to raise questions in the minds of outside observers. These questions in turn, would allow Christians the opportunity to speak of Jesus (1 Peter 3:15 - in context).

This week I'll be doing a quick overview of what Eastern religions are about. The bulk of my study has been in other fields, so I don't feel entirely up to the task. Yet I feel too many in our churches have been buried in sentimental preaching for too many generations. Yes, God loves us. Yes, we need to be nice to each other. But Jesus' command is also for us to love God with all our MIND. So we need to work through some hard questions.

Other than general ignorance, I have two other problems in preaching this series. First, I'm not enitrely sure there is such a thing as "religion." Oh sure, there are such things as Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, etc. I'm not doubting that. I'm just suspicious that these can adequately be described as species of a genus religion. One book that discusses this from a historical point of view is Peter Harrison's 'Religion' and the Religions in the English Enlightenment. My second problem is the huge diversity within those phenomena to which we give a single label. The Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, whether as expounded by Al Qaeda or as practiced in the Kingdom is a very different take on Islam than is what we find in Turkish Muslim M. Fethulah Gulen. Yes, there is some underlying theoretical unity, and the practice of the Five Pillars of Islam would be essentially the same, but the relation with the outside world and general attitude toward life look very different.

So how does one convey this complexity in the course of a sermon of less than 30 minutes - while holding the attention of people ranging in age from 5 to 92? My only choices seem to be to skip the matter altogether or to settle for superficiality. Since I think Christians need to deal with these subjects, I'm settling for superficiality - in both my preparation and my presentation. The best way to come to the subject would be to study all the primary documents in each "religion," converse with a wide spectrum of adherents to each, and to engage with the secondary literature on the intersection of each with Christian thought throughout the ages. But that would take years. So even as I take the route of superficiality, I emphasize to my peope that I am doing exactly that, enouraging them to take up areas of interest for their own further study.

This week as I consider Eastern Religions, some of the resources I share with my people include:

Lausanne Occasional Papers on Evangelism: http://www.gospelcom.net/lcwe/LOP/index.htm - articles on Hinduism, Buddhism, and many other groups.

Articles on working with Buddhists: http://www.intervarsity.org/ism/articles.php?category=34

Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions.

A site that has much information on other religions can be found at http://www.christiananswers.net/evangelism/beliefs/home.html

Vinoth Ramachandra, Faiths in Conflict? Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World

The Dalai Lama’s Website: http://www.dalailama.com/html/spiritual_leader.html

A Christian theologian who spent time with the Dalai Lama: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/008/15.64.html

The World Religions Index: a site on World Religions from a Christian point of view: http://wri.leaderu.com/

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

First Post

The only coat of arms I've ever seen for my family name shows a man with a sword in one hand and head in the other. They were robbers and bandits in the Balkans several centuries ago. But we are bandits no more. Where once we (I speak of my biological forebears) were bloodthirsty, now our family lives in the service of Jesus, who suffered and died for us. We've come a long way.