Friday, October 29, 2004

More than 150 demonstrations took place in cities around Iran...

There is great social unrest happening in Iran. With the repressive regime, this is no surprise. Keep praying for the people of Iran.

Politics or Pursuing Lost Souls?

In response to those who say Christians should tend to "lost souls going to hell" instead of "meddling" in the political arena...

If we consider that doing something about "lost souls going to hell" to be what Jesus was about, and take what we see him doing and hear him saying in the gospels as an expression of that activity, then It sure looks like his concern is expressed very differently than what I've seen in contempoary churches that use that kind of languge to describe their mission. Jesus didn't shy away from controversy with any of the parties of his day - the local parties that is. His controversy with Rome turned out to be pretty one sided (at least in the short term).

Our American weakness is that we tend to think there are two sides to every issue. Perhaps our two party system strengthens our belief this is so. But that's not the way it is. In many areas there are many, many sides to an issue. This is especially true when we think of something as big and complex as a Vision for America.

The common denominator between the political groups we call "liberal" and those we call "conservative" are that they are both rooted in modern liberalism (the JOhn Locke tradition), focused on political freedom and individualism. Doubtless there are great differences in the way each group appropriates the Lockean tradition. One side emphasizes absolute freedom in one area, while another defends it an another. Think of private property (and money) and sexual morality as examples.

Our difficulty as modern American Christians is that Jesus is not a
Lockean. He is not an individualist (in our modern sense at least). He is not an American. He - and his teaching - just won't fit in our boxes.

Would Jesus be "concerned" about abortion? It doesn't seem to have been an issue in his local world so we don't hear him saying anything about it; but it was an issue in the broader Roman world so his followers spoke to it within the first couple of generations.

Would Jesus be "concerned" about wars - either of conquest or of
freedom-seeking-revolution? If Tom Wright is right in his reading of
Jesus, then a major point of contention between Jesus and at least the Shammaite Pharisees (and the zealots) was the method of achieving national deliverance. The latter advocated violent overthrow of the Roman oppressors - being better at the power game than Rome was. After all, God was on their side, so size wouldn't matter. Jesus, however, rejected the way of power, taking instead the way of weakness, the way of the cross. Of course this reading of Jesus necessitates that see him fulfilling not merely OT promises of individual salvation, but also fulfilling promises of salvation to Israel the nation. However we read
Jesus, the early church - and the Romans, for that matter - took his message to be something like, "Jesus is Lord - and Caesar isn't."

Would Jesus be "concerned" about government deficits? Would it make a difference whether the deficits came about through financing a war, the reconcstruction of a broken country (or two or three), of massive pork to keep buying votes? Or would he speak against the greed, acquisitiveness (consumption-itis), selfishness and violence of the electorate?

Accountability and Christian Maturity

The insight that accountability to fellow believers is essential to growing in maturity as a Christian was central to early Methodism. Methodism survived beyond Wesley’s lifetime because of his organization genius, and that genius focused on developing structures to of accountability.

To the extent it has retained accountability, modern Methodism has translated it primarily into bureaucratic institutions. As individuals, Methodists don’t really care to be help accountable for the way they live their lives. I believe that is a major reason we lack the power of early Methodism. If we are to recover that power, we must find ways to recover spiritual accountability.

Here’s one idea: Start where you are.

Most of us already find ourselves in relationships. Start by allowing the people closest to you to hold you accountable. If you’re married, ask your husband or wife to hold you accountable. If you’re not married, ask your parents, children or a friend to work with you. Start in practical areas. Agree on a set of questions that fits your situation. Here are some suggestions:
  • Am I being faithful to my marriage vows and to the needs of my family?
  • Do I listen to my spouse and children in such a way that they are convinced I am listening?
  • Am I demonstrating the Fruit of the Spirit in my family life in such a way that my family is being drawn to Christ?
  • Do I have a healthy balance in my relationships – family, work, ministry, and recreation?
We can answer each of these questions for ourselves in the privacy of our own minds. But that won’t work very well. We’re just too prone toward self-deception. We need outside input from those who are close to us and know us well. In my experience, those who are least willing to allow those close to them to challenge them in these areas face the greatest risk of self-deception.

Believing nothing, Part I

Once upon a time it seemed a good thing to many United Methodists that our denomination was not fraught with doctrinal disputes and narrowmindedness the way some are. The phrase, "The thing I like about being United Methodist is that you can beleive whatever you want to beleive," caught hold. People would say this with pride!

A learned and respected colleague in ministry reiterated this old point yesterday at a meeting I attended. "One of the strengths of Methodism [should we suppose he intended to exclude the EUB part of our tradition, or that, being Texan, he is geographically prejudiced against the old midwestern church?] is that all are welcome at the table, without regard to what one believes." I was caught between astonishment and gagging, but for the sake of decorum showed neither.

I like the idea that this metaphorical table at which we meet is not under the control of some close-minded fundamentalist. Though, like most, if the table is under the control of someone with whom I tend to agree, I care less about the parameters for exclusion than if it is controlled by someone with whom I generally disagree.

As I pondered this colleagues' stupifying statement, I could not help but wonder how the church got to this point. Doesn't calling our particular "table" Christian necessarily imply that some views are more welcome than others? Are there no longer any bounds to what is "Christian" and what isn't?

Where do we decide what is and what isn't Christian? At the Table.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Trial date set for openly gay Methodist pastor

If found guilty, Stroud could lose her ministerial credentials. Her
church has established a legal defense fund to help her pay for church attorneys.
If she's confessed to it, how can she not be found guilty?

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Response to Al Qaqaa

At one time there were 380 tons of high explosives at this Iraqi base. Now (apparently) the explosives are not there.

Kerry and his campaign are shouting high and low that this is yet more evidence of mismanagement by Bush.

Pro-Bush people retort, "The explosives were already gone by the time the 3ID arrived last April," implying, "We're not at fault." In this piece by Clifford May in NRO we even see the suggestion that the UN inspection regime bears major responsibility for never doing anything about the explosives.

As far as I am concerned, blame is irrelevant. If we are in the midst of a war, then what matters is:
(1) Where are the explosives now?
(2) Is there anything we can do to retrieve or destroy them?

Why must our political culture focus on assigning blame? They sound like a bunch of children. We become aware of an apparent disaster and all we can do is talk about whose fault it is.

It's time to grow up.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

N.T Wright comments on the Windsor Report

This is only a tiny (the last) part of an extensive interview with Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, Biblical Scholar, evangelical leader and member of the commission that produced the report. He brings up the very important subject of adiaphora and discusses the complexities attached to it. Clearly the modern notion that everything is adiaphora (except for qualities and actions that make you PC) won't work. Here's what he has to say.

Another thing that's central to the report is the question of what is known in the trade as adiaphora, things indifferent. It has been a principle of Anglicanism, from the very beginnings in the 16th century, that there are some things which Anglican Christians can agree to differ about. The real question at the heart of much of this is, which of the things we can agree to differ about and which of the things we can't agree to differ about.

Again and again I hear people on both sides of the argument simply begging that question and assuming that they know without argument that this is something that we can agree to differ about, or assuming that they know without argument this is one of the things we can't agree to differ about. What we all have to do is to say about any issue—whether it's lay celebration [of Communion], whether it's episcopal intervention, whether it's homosexual practice—How do we know, and who says which differences make a difference and which differences don't make a difference? [Presiding Bishop] Frank Griswold and his colleagues make a great song and dance about difference and about accepting difference and respecting difference. That's almost the only moral category that is left within postmodernity, welcoming the other, which is actually a very difficult moral standard to implement right across the board.

The critical thing is there are some differences which would divide the church. For instance, if somebody decided to propose that instead of reading the Bible in church, we should read the Bhagavad-Gita or the Qur'an, most Christians would say this is no longer a church and that's a difference that we simply cannot live with. But if somebody says I really think we should never put flowers on the altar and somebody else says I think we should always have a bowl of flowers on the altar, most people would say that's an issue which we must not divide the church about. It's a local issue, which each church will have to decide for itself. And there's no point in getting in a lather about it.

Now the question is, all these different issues that we face, which of those two categories do they come into? How do you know? And who says? Until we have prepared to address the question in those terms, the thing will just remain as a shouting match.

Go and read the whole thing.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Clergy rally against banning gay marriage

It has been more than 100 years since the Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson's great-great-grandmother was prohibited from marrying her great-great-grandfather. She was Irish and he was black - mixed-race marriages were illegal then in Virginia.

It seems odd to say that all restrictions about who can marry whom are now considered to be evil. I know that the current cry is for men to be allowed to marry men and women to marry women, but this seems different than what happened to Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson's ancestors. My guess is that people at the time saw the relationship as a marriage, though an illicit one, while they would have failed to see a cross racial same sex relationship as even being a marriage.

The argument is not so much about who can marry and who can't, but about what constitutes a marriage. The urge is to get the government - at some level - to get in and tinker with this basic social institution and change its nature.

Lyle Schaller speaks

Last Summer Lyle Schaller spoke to a group at the meeting of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference. His basic message is that that Conference, if they keep going in the same direction, will not be with us much longer. The reporting of the message is somewhat disjointed, but here some some of his main points:

“The Methodist Church is an HMO with an offering basket,” the church growth consultant concluded. He pointed out that a 75 percent majority at the national conference in Pittsburgh said "we needed a bigger offering basket” for larger employee pensions.

The national conference approved a 33 percent increase in church expenditures over the next four years.

“Old institutions choose between greater change and obsolescence,” he said. “About 1966-67, the decision (by Northern Illinois Methodists) was to vote we’re not going to be competitive. It carried and has been implemented.”

The church’s weekly attendance has nose-dived since then from 75,000+ to 46,000+. He noted that the number of new members is down 50 percent.

“If you decrease the number of new customers by 50 percent,” he stated, “you go out of business.”

“Are we ready to concede that?” he asked.

“No” was his answer.

A large part of the problem, Schaller said, is that local congregations are now viewed as financial resources for the denominational hierarchy.

“When I was a pastor, denominations existed to resource congregations,” he remembered.

The role reversal “hasn’t worked."

Church size is important in recruiting members born since 1960, Schaller explained.

United Methodists are not competitive with other Protestant denominations, the speaker asserted. As evidence he compared statistics from 1965 with those of 2000. In 1965 there were 35 Methodist churches in the jurisdiction with 400 or more people going to church each week. In 2000, that had decreased to “only 13.” Five congregations were on both lists.

In the book of Ezekiel God comments to Ezekiel, "The people really love hearing you speak. They say, "The man speaks like a bird sings. It's so beautiful." But they don't do a thing you say." After reading Lyle Schallers commentary on the church for a number of years I think Schaller must feel like Ezekiel. He's popular, had dozens of hbooks published, always in demand as a speaker, yet when we don't listen to him.

A few years ago he wrote Tatterted Trust about the breakdown of trust through the UMC. The pastors don't trust the laity or the denominational hierarchy. The laity don't trust the preachers. The hierarchy doesn't trust the churches. This lack of trust is killing us. In my experience his analysis was completely accurate. As far as I can tell absolutely nothing was done about it.

This past summer he came out with The Ice Cube is Melting, about the continued decline of the UMC and its fragmentation into warring factions. As far as I can tell we're so much in love with a sort of unity (mostly institutional) that we're just as prepared to ignore him now as earlier.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

A Great Hymn with one Bozo line

The third stanza of Henry Tweedy's hymn, O Spirit of the Living God, contains a Bozo line - one line that makes me cringe every time I read it.
Teach us to utter living words of truth which all may hear,
The language all may understand when love speaks loud and clear;
Till every age and race and clime shall blend their creeds in one,
And earth shall form one family by whom Thy will is done.
A creed is a set of beliefs. In this stanza we are praying that God will forward our efforts of syncretism. Maybe one day we'll be a Methodist, the next a Buddhist, the next a Muslim, and so on. Of maybe we'll just be good Americans and go to the Reilgion Cafeteria and pick what we are attracted to at the moment while we let everyone else pick what they want. If I want spinach salad and you want jello, no big deal. If reality is a particular way whether I like it or not (and it sures seems like it is), then this avoidance of the issue of truth will be quite dangerous. - just like it is dangerous for drivers (and riders) to think that the laws of physics wouldn't apply to their bodies (in motion) in a wreck. Why wear a seat belt if you're the exception to the rule (opinion?) that a "body in motion tends to stay in motion."?

Purpose Driven Life - Day 10

Day 10 is all about surrender. Some really good stuff. Unfortunately, there is also one sappy, sentimental line.
"If you want to know how much you matter to God, look at Christ with his arms outstretched on the cross, saying, 'I love you this much! I'd rather die than live without you.'" He was doing just fine up to this last line. God's love is tremendous. He has proved that love by the gift of Jesus. We see Jesus expressing love by willingly going to the cross for us. But I can't imagine that he is so weak-minded to say, "I'd rather die than live without you." Come on, Rick. You know better than that!

At least he didn't say, "Jesus loves you so much that he would have died for you even if you were the only person on earth." That sentiment, though aparently profound, is demonstrable false. Just consider Gal. 4:4 and what actually happened.

Monday, October 18, 2004

The Lambeth Commission On Communion

The Windsor Report, in response to the American ordination of Gene Robinson as Bishop, and to Canadian acceptance of rites blessing same-sex unions and to the world wide response to these events has now been published. I'm still reading it, so you'll have to wait for my comments. You can read interpretations of the document here and here.

Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco

An example of a UM church practicing generic religion. They don't need the cross, don't need the bible, don't need Jesus. But they have Personality.

Kirbyjon Caldwell Discusses Entrepreneurial Faith

Kirbyjon Caldwell, the pastor of Windsor Village UMC, the largest churhc in United Methodism, shares some thoughts on the role of faith in church leadership. Well worth reading.

Rick Warren: "Make at least one mistake a week"

Good article on the necessity of making mistakes. Chances are that if we aren't making mistakes it's because we're afraid to. We afriad to step out in faith, or afraid to exercise our creatvity.

George Barna responds to Postmodernism

As one who has done a fair amount of work on postmodernism, I am always attentive to discussions on the subject, though never surprised when one particular approach to postmodernism (the Neo-Nietzschean) is taken to be paradigmatic of the whole. From Barna's answer to the question, "What is postmodernism?" it looks like he is taking that approach.
Postmodernism represents the change in worldview based on the ideas that there are no moral absolutes because truth is a relative construct; that life is mosaic rather than linear; that meaning is derived from the customization of reality rather than the acceptance of a mass reality; and that all you can know for certain is what you experience.
If we're going to understand POSTmodernism, it helps to consider MODERNISM first. Speaking philosophically (although there are many other ways to speak, this seems to be the ball park in which most Christians think about postmodernism), modern thought has majored on Three interrelated themes: Epistemology (the question of how knowledge, especially certain knowledge works), Atomism (especially in its social form, Individualism), Universalism (a preference for the timeless, eternal, abstract and general over the particular, concrete and contingent).

The strongest stands of modern thought have followed Descartes and Locke in positing a foundational approach to knowledge. The strands of POSTmodernism that get the most press assume this position also. True knowledge - that which leads to certainty (which in morality might be termed "absolutes") is foundationalist - that is, it is rationally built upon universal and indubitable propositions. These POSTmoderns differ from the moderns in that once they accept this criterion for true knowledge they reject the notion that it is actually attainable.

What we see in this variety of postmodernism is, then, more an extreme form of modernity than it is something different. This is also the case in the second area, Atomism. Within this version of PM, we see radical individualism, though frequently this variant appears to let its versions of Epistemology and Atomism moderate its hold on Universalism.

Fortunately, Barna moves beyond the theoretical into the practical. Here his repsonses are more helpful. When asked about how to reach this generation he responds:
First, you cannot effectively evangelize most of them by preaching at them. Effective evangelism with this group requires relationships, dialogue and a willingness to journey together. A Socratic form of evangelism – question-based, rather than didactic; long-term rather than hit-and-run; conversational rather than confrontational; backed up by personal modeling rather than institutional traditions and dogma - works best.

Second, there is neither interest in nor loyalty to the local church, so assumptions regarding the primacy of church affiliation are ill-advised. We do not want to automatically give in to people’s desires, but we also have to face certain realities regarding Scripture, culture and religious practices and tendencies. The format of the church that most people experience was man-made, not God-ordained. We have a lot of leeway regarding what the church should look like, and very little leeway regarding what we should believe. Consequently, we have to re-think the shape or model of the church required to penetrate young people in a completely different and rapidly changing culture.

<>Third, leadership is paramount to growing a healthy and far-reaching Church among young people. Vision, mobilization, motivation, and strategic direction are necessary for both appeal and impact. Having churches that lack strong, vision-driven leadership won’t get f<>ar.
This is good. Evangelism is about people relating to people. It's not about finding the one effective strategy or assuming one-size-fits-all.

Next question:
given the regular decrease in church membership over the past ten years (with few exceptions) what do you believe are the keys to "bringing them back?"

People respond to value. If they felt they were getting something of value, they would devote themselves to the ends of the church. Their absence suggests that they are not receiving perceived value. Value is reflected in different things to different people.

For regular church-goers value may be a great children’s ministry, great preaching, belonging to a loving community, and so forth. For individuals who are not faith-focused, it may relate to friendships, doing acts of kindness that make a difference in people’s lives, gaining meaning in life or achieving a sense of belonging. When people adopt a church, they want a place that fills in the gaps in their life or that helps them to be someone they would not otherwise become.

Bottom line, we must recognize that each person has to be treated as an important individual and ministered to in ways that reflect their individuality and idiosyncrasies. To bring people back to a church we must develop significant relationships with them; live a credible Christian life that makes such an experience desirable or at least intriguing enough to explore; take advantage of opportunities to engage them in dialogue about meaning, purpose and truth; invite them to experience a community of faith that provides value and does not waste their time or insult their taste and intellect; and mentor them in light of biblical principles as they strive to make sense of life and faith.
Is his adherence to individualism and the modern marketing model taking him too far? How far can one take the teaching of becoming "all things to all people" that we find in I Corinthians 9?

The last question to Barana asks him what surprises him the most when he looks at the American church today. Here's part of his answer:
How ignorant people are of their faith in spite of decades of exposure to teaching, preaching and conversation about Christianity. Most people say they know all the major principles of the Christian faith and have no intention of changing any of their perspectives – and they stick to that. However, when you question them as to what they believe, it becomes apparent how ill-informed most Americans are about the fundamentals of Christianity. Getting them into Bible study groups, Sunday school classes and more worship services seems to have a negligible affect upon their faith knowledge. Sadly, in many ways we seem to have inoculated people to Christ.
Why are people so happy to be ignorant? Or - perhaps the better question - why are people so unwilling to have their knowledge tested? My guess is that most think what they know is irrelevant - that basic Christian convictions are only important to professional Christians and have no practical relevance to their lives. To me, this is one of the main fruits of modernity that makes me weep.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Anglican fractures?

The Anglican church, like many in the west, is facing fracture. The Lambeth Commission report is due tomorrow and it seems unlikely that they can produce a report that will make the Orthodox (most of the Anglicans around the world) and the Revisionists (mostly in the West) happy.

What strikes me is one response by American Episcopalians:
But there are many Episcopal clergy and laity -- the great majority of the American church, in fact -- who believe the issue is not homosexuality, biblical orthodoxy or traditional Anglicanism. Forty-five signed a recent statement affirming themselves as the church's mainstream, concerned that "the Anglican tradition of living in tension and diversity of thought" is at stake.

Anglicanism has historically seen itself as a middle way between Catholicism & Protestantism. It has embraced great diversity. But in seeing diversity as its core value, its defining purpose, these Anglicans seem to have left Christianity behind. Jesus - and the orthodox tradition - may or may not be important, but they are secondary to maintaining diversity of thought. Unfortunately other churches (including my own UMC) seem to have gone this same route.

We certainly have our work cut out for us.

Friday, October 15, 2004

The Vanishing Act of the Church in Turkey

Christianity Today has a short overview of the history of the church in Turkey. Not a pretty picture.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Purpose Driven Life - Day 4

Purpose Driven Life – Day 4

The theme of Day 4 is the fact that we humans are made for eternity. We’re made to last forever. If this is so, there are important consequences for how we live our lives.

  1. “Your relationship to God on earth will determine your relationship to him in eternity.” This is an important corollary. Not only must remember that we are eternal beings, not only must we remember that this life is exceedingly small compared to eternity, but we must also act on the reality that this life, short as it is, has eternal consequences. What we do here and now is of tremendous importance. At the end of the chapter he adds, “measured against eternity, our time on earth is just the blink of an eye, but the consequences of it will last forever.”
  2. “When you live in light of eternity, your values change…. You place a higher premium n relationships and character instead of fame or wealth or achievements or even fun.” What is it we’re involved in that will last the longest? It certainly isn’t the accumulation of things. After we start acting from the perspective of eternity, we can see more clearly how ephemeral so many of things our culture values really are.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Church’s future depends on developing leaders

This article quotes several church leaders speaking to the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Let's start with retired Bishop Joe Pennell:
"Every congregation deserves spiritual leaders," he said. "... We need leaders today who are concerned about more than institution maintenance. We need leaders who are more concerned about faith than maintaining the status quo. We need leaders today who are nailed to the historic faith, which brought the United Methodist Church into being."

There seems to be an implicit claim that some number of congregations don't have "spiritual leaders", and that these (non- spiritual?) leaders are concerned with institutional maintenance, maintaining the status quo, and who are not "nailed" to the historic faith. I can make some sense out of this, but specifity would help. Many many pastors find themselves in typical UM congregations: an aging congregation, pressed for money, in an aging building. Fear is rampant. "Will we be able to pay the bills? Will we be able to keep the doors open?" Being rooted (can I say that instead of "nailed"?) in the historic faith is essential if these spiritual leaders are to lead their congregations into healthy change. I'm not sure how willing we are to mark out what exactly that "historic faith" is, though.

Christian leaders must be like Jesus by being counterculture leaders and understanding that if they lead out of their convictions, others will reject them, he said.

Yes, but... Which culture are we to counter? The strongly institutional and bureaucratic culture of United Methodism? Some strand of American culture?
I don't understand the end of this sentence. Are we to seek rejection by leading out of our convictions, or are we to pursue acceptance by not having convictions?

Rev. Jerome Del Pino, top staf executive of the Board presented three leadership characteristics needed in our age:
  1. The first characteristic of such a leader is that of being a guardian of the connection, he said. The leader does not abandon the ideal of a global church that is diverse in hues, languages, cultures and traditions. He said global leaders take seriously the view of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, that the world was his parish, and because the church is changing faces, such leaders are not "prompt(ed) to trim their vision to the local, the familiar and the domestic."
  2. A global leader also bears a renewed vision of the church, Del Pino said. The leader envisions a church that recovers its Methodist heritage without "self-interested denominational navel gazing or anxious preoccupation with its own survival." Leaders with renewed vision embrace the purpose for which the Methodist movement was founded, he said. "From the beginning, Methodism existed not for its own sake but for the sake of a larger catholicity."
  3. A third characteristic of a global leader for a global church is that of advocating for a learned leadership.
Sounds good. But with all such prescriptions, I'd like to hear how they think this differs from the status quo. What are we now doing that we need to change? What are we failing to do that we need to start doing?

Only a Cluster of Cells

Patti Davis chides President Bush for valuing "a cluster of cells" over the life and well-being of thousands. The immediate occasion of her tirade is the death of Christopher Reeve. UNlike John edwards, she doens't proclaim that John Kerry would have healed him, but that embryonic stem cell research is the solution to such ailments.

The President encourages research on adult stem cells. This isn't good enough.
he has authorized funding for adult stem cells—which do not hold the same miraculous potential as embryonic stem cells.

He has authorized some work on embryonic cells to proceed, but these lines are "contaminated" and worthless.

She seems to be of the opinion - admittedly easy to come by with the news coverage often so poor - that Bush has blocked all but a tiny smidgen of research on embryonic stem cells. This is not the case. what the president has done is limited the use of federal funds for this research.

She goes on:
Scientists would be working feverishly to turn this miraculous cure loose on the world. Because they have families too. They have loved ones and friends, and they value them more than clusters of cells that will only ever be clusters of cells. With each day, each month, each year that passes more people will die. We will look at names, at lives, and we will be left with the sad truth that many of them didn’t have to die.
Why do we have so many clusters of cells laying around? Where did they come from? What are they? Did an advanced race of aliens leave them behind? No. They are the results of thousands of Americans going to great lengths to have a baby of their own. Unable to have children through natural methods. couples took advantage of technology that would combine sperm & ova in the lab, leading to embryos for implantation i n the mother. Since it is common for these embryos to not implant successfully, they would create several at one time and freeze them for future usage. Well. they implanted more often than expected, and now there are thousands of embryos in freezers waiting for the implantation day that will never come.

What kind of embryos are these? Rabbits? Monkeys? Birds? Tigers? They're human embryos. Look at them under a microscope. They probably won't look anything like a human - only a cluster of cells. Since that's all they LOOK like, that must be all they are. SO therefore we can do with them as we please. Or so some like Ms. Davis think. It seems to me that we have one wrong - creation of "excessive" humans - which peopel want to correct by harvesting. I'm mighty uncomfortable with that idea.

Monday, October 11, 2004

What makes a Hollywood Legend?

Christopher Reeve died yesterday. The first reports I heard of his death were this morning, and were in the form of “Hollywood Legend Christopher Reeve has died.” Please know I intend no disrespect for the man who became the face and outspoken advocate of spinal chord research.

What Christopher Reeve has accomplished since a horse-riding accident in 1995 left him paralyzed is certainly admirable. His advocacy has made stem-cell research a key issue in the current presidential campaign. John Kerry mentioned him by name in last week’s debate.

But was Reeve a “Hollywood Legend”? I don’t think so, and don’t understand how journalists could so characterize him. He is best known for starring in the “Superman” movies of the 80s. While many people saw these movies, and they propelled him into other roles, they were hardly the stuff of which legends are made.

Journalists are trained to seek a headline, and what better way to get a headline than to tie it to Hollywood, the capital of glitz and curiosity. I admit that when I heard the teaser on the radio, that a Hollywood Legend had died, it got my attention. I waited patiently through the commercials to get the story.

There are Hollywood Legends. Bogart, Hepburn, Ford, Spielberg, and many others, are people whose lives are synonymous with the motion picture industry. Could Reeve have continued his acting career and achieved that status? Quite possibly. He did, in fact, continue to act, but his roles were limited, and best understood as an aspect of his advocacy.

Reeve reached fame through Hollywood, but he did not reach greatness until after Hollywood. When he choose to focus his life on increasing awareness and raising research dollars for a cause that could help thousands if not millions of people, Reeve found a cause that was much larger than even the superhero he had portrayed. Was Christopher Reeve a Hollywood Legend? I don’t think so; but he may have actually become Superman, and done so from a wheelchair.

Improving the Identification of Security Risks

I have no trouble believing that there are peopel who have come to the US with the intention of working to destroy America. I have great troubel believing Monika Vardeh is one of them. What will it take to put more intelligence into our immigration and security screening efforts?

Can God's existence be proven?

“Prove God’s existence to me” is the request, even the demand, of many unbelievers. Many Christians have tried over the years to do exactly that. The great Thomas Aquinas offered five proofs for God’s existence. I don’t.

When challenged to prove God’s existence, I respond by asking what the challenger accepts as evidence. Miracle stories, of course, are out. “Stories” and “myths” from the Bible they will not accept as proof. As it usually turns out, the only acceptable evidence would be on the level of calling down fire from heaven. Not fire that hurts anyone, of course, but that puts on a really good show.

While I have no doubt that my God could easily send down fire from heaven that doesn’t damage a thing, I have never felt the call to ask God for this. Neither do I think God is interested in being treated like a dog that does tricks.

What I offer as proof is this: I am part of a body of people whose lives are based in finding hope and peace and forgiveness in God. These people live their lives in response to God’s love. Were it not for the love of God, we would be without hope, without peace, and without joy. We would know moments of happiness. We would know times of laughter and light-heartedness. We would not, however, know the deep-seated joy that comes from knowing and living in the love of God.

They would, and they have, then challenged me to “prove” to them how this group of people, the church, is better than other groups of people who worship other Gods. They want me to prove to them why my God is the right one.

The only proof I can offer is the proof some are unwilling to accept. “Come and join us,” I say, “and you will find all the proof you need.”

Friday, October 08, 2004

North Coast Networks - Expanding Your Ministry to the Nth Degree

Great insights on leading innovation by Larry Osborne. Huge distinction that applies directly to our situation:
Start-ups have only a future to create. All of their energy, thoughts and effort can be focused on finding new and better ways to do what they do. They have little to lose, and their small size allows for lots of quick mid-course corrections along the way should a path prove to be a dead-end.

Existing programs and organizations have a past to protect. The moment a program or organization moves beyond the start-up phase it no longer has just a future to create. It also has customers or members to hold onto.

He had a 25 year old church and thinks he has a past to protect. He should try 150 years.

We definitely need to pay attention to this. We need to find ways to make it safe to innovate (and safe for the innovators) even while we protect the past. Read the whole piece.

Free North Korea!: China Dispatches 10,000 Troops to NK Border As Price of Rice In NK Rises - Rumors of Imminent Mass Defectios of Military Persist

Looks like more starvation in North Korea. Can the nation behave rationally when they're starving? What can we expect from a nation with one of the largest standing armies, the most most repressive government, nuclear weapons, and mass starvation? Oh - I forgot - they're also extremely paranoid. How can the US act to help the people of North Korea for their (and their neighbor's) longterm good?

Flit(tm): An Interview With Dr. Barnett

An interesting interview with Thomas Barnett on defence, security, politics and economics issues as the US finds itself living in a large world.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

David Lowes Watson's new proposals

David Lowes Watson was our speaker at The Gathering (Texas Annual Conference Pastors' retreat) last month. He argued for greater attention to discipleship and for extending discipleship power and authority to laity. This article from Singapore majors on his suggestion that United Methodism needs to develop something like a "Lay Elder," a lay person who is entrusted with spiritual authority. I sure think this would be a good move.

A world with Purpose?

IN this article Robert Wright discusses his conversation with philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett, it appears, has taken a step toward openness to the mere possibility of purpose in the world. This is not a repudiation of evolution or an admission that there is design, just the mere admission that it may be possible. Little victories are important.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

California can define "religion"

This piece in the Christianity Today weblog tells of the Supreme Court's refusal to act in the case of Catholic Charities in California. Catholics have a strong conviction against birth control. But the law requires all employers to provide birth control for employees in their health plans. The Catholics protested that the law impinged on their freedom of religion. The California courts ruled that the organization didn't fit their definition of a "religious organization" so the law DID apply and was enforcable. Scary.

Heaven as Game Show

Last night I attended a dramatic production - Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames - at a local church. I'd seen an earlier version of it several years ago, but my son wanted to go, so I took him.

In the pre-drama sermon, the producer said that they were not trying to "scare people into heaven." Despite the disclaimer, it sure seemed like that was exactly what they were doing.

The drama consists of several vignettes, showing two types of people. People are shown going about their lives, some doing "normal" activities - driving, flying, eating lunch - others doing drugs, drinking, partying, etc. In each case they are talking about going to heaven. Some have given their lives to Christ and urge their companions to do likewise. "You never know how much time you'll have," they are admonished. In most cases, excuses fly: "I have plenty of time," "I'm a good person," "I have another way of handling things," and "I have too much life to live right now to mess with god stuff." But in each case, they don't have enough time. They die suddenly and find themselves in heaven, a bright shiny place surrounded by angels. When they realize where they are, the Christians among them get happy, the non-Christians panic. The BIG THING is having your name written in the Book of Life. If the angel finds your name there, happy music ensues, Jesus appears at the top of the stairs, and you go up to him. But if your name ISN'T found there, the devil and his helps come out to loud clashing sounds and haul you off to hell. This happens over and over again.

If the message is: "Jesus makes an eternal difference in your life; You can have an eternal relationship with Jesus through faith; Heaven and Hell are real and through the grace of God we have a choice in where we go; and We don't know how long we have;" then I think it is true enough. But the presentation - or we might say, the rhetorical style of the presentation was deceptive and will guide people wrongly.

Here's what I saw:
  1. It's all about me. I need eternal life. I need to go to heaven. I need to have MY name in the book of life. BUT: It's not all about me. It's about God. We are saved for HIS sake, not our own.
  2. Christianity is all about going to heaven. BUT: Christianity is about a love relationship with God. This relationship is multi-dimensional and includes much more (though not less!) than spending eternity with Jesus.
  3. If you don't know for certain - "beyond a shadow of a doubt" - that you're going to heaven, then you're probably in trouble. BUT: We humans have the capacity to doubt almost anything. If modern philosophers can doubt so much they find solipsism a rational position, then surely it's not too much to have a doubt of one's going to heaven. Being paralyzed by doubt it one thing, but attending to doubts and trying to eliminate them all will do nothing in the long run but nourish them and make them grow.
  4. There was the intimation that it is our decision for Christ that makes the big difference. BUT: It's Jesus that makes the difference. Our "decision" is part, yes. But our confidence is never in ourselves, our own confession of Jesus, our saying a prayer or our going forward in response to an altar call. Assurance comes from looking at Jesus, not from loking at ourselves and our religious/spiritual acts.
  5. During the invitation sermon, the preacher made the comment (I paraphrase since I didn't write the quote down immediately): "There is a YOU sized hole in God and a God sized hole in you." BUT: Whereas the latter has been directly expressed at least since Pascal, the former is downright wrong - at least as mainstream Christianity sees things. I think the statement may have merely been careless rhetorical excess, but claiming that God NEEDS us again seems to be a way of saying "It's all about me."

An historical sidenote: I notice that the outfit that produces the drama grew out of the ministry of Rex Humbard. Their site makes much of their pioneering use of drama for evangelism.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Christianity needs to reform to talk to Islam according to Aussie Theologian

Australian theologian Rufus Black sees the West as ill-equipped to deal with the challenge of Islam. He saysthe West caught between two extremes of its own. One extreme is the Protestant and Catholic conservatism that occupies positions of political power from the West Wing to the Vatican. The other is the liberalism - which dominates the seats of cultural power in the universities and the arts - that has successfully made the undoing of belief one of its chief projects. Neither wing has the resources, nor the serious desire, to engage creatively with Islam.

But he has a solution:
To develop the middle ground required for a creative engagement across the spectrum of Muslim belief we need a true reformation of Christianity. What is required is a religion that is both substantive and modern. One that is as serious about harmonising its beliefs with modern science, history and psychology as it is about preserving its tradition of rituals, symbols and stories.

I think Mr. Black has over-identified the West and Christianity. Of course, this is exactly the mistake that Islam tends to make, so it is not too surprising.

Instead of calling the one side "conservative" and the other "liberal," the positions he describes might better be called Constantinians and Secularisers. The first group tends to identify Christianity and the West, or Christianity and whatver nation state they find themselves in. If they're American, then they see either a large overlap or an identity between the goals of the faith and the goals of the nation.

The second group, in contrast, reacts against their own religious heritage, using the tools of suspicion drawn from Marx, Freud, and the sociological tradition. God, they think, is merely a projection - either of the individual or of the society. This god may be of value to some people, but a commitment to disinterested truth and reason is better.

The "reformed" Christianity he proposes sounds no different than the liberalism I see in so much of American religious academia. Things may be different in Australia, but academic culture in the West has been mized for so long I have my doubts.

So - what does Christianity need if it is to engage with Islam? If we can get past the idea that a large conceptual entity - Christianity - can DO anything, we can perhaps make a start.

First, we need a Christianity that can differentiate between itself and the West. Yes there is historical overlap. But not only has the West turned its back on specifically Christian positions (not to mention actual participation in the church), but we also find larger numbers of practicing Christians outside the West today.

Second, we need a Christianity that does not consider social control to either be its goal or in its best interests. If we don't need to be in control, then we will not need to kill - or even threaten - those who are different.

Third, Christians need to reconnect with the Christian tradition in an intelligent way. They need to be sure that when they encounter outsiders (like Muslims) that they are representing Jesus and not just Western ideologies with a veneer of Christianity.

Recent conflict in Iran

There seems to be some active hungering for freedom in Iran. It is matched by an even greater hunger for repression of freedom on the part of the government. Keep praying for the people of Iran.

What Would Jesus Spend? features an interesting essay on economics from a Christian point of view. Deirdre McCloskey observes that contrary to much popular thinking, greed is not necessary for a well-functioning economy. Read the whole thing.

Paul scholar Richard B. Hays explains why St. Paul decried homosexuality

Beliefnet excerpts Richard Hays' discussion of the biblical approach to homosexuality. Hay's has been writing on this for some time, and the initial form of this article was first published over a decade ago. It was reworked (substantially) for his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

Interview with Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of MS

A brief introductory interview with the new UMC bishop in Mississippi. More history and biography than substance of her theological and ecclesiological perspectives.