Monday, November 29, 2004

Troublesome Slogans

This week Rev. Elizabeth Stroud goes on trial in Pennsylvania for being a "self-avowed practicing homosexual," a condition the Discipline clearly identifies as excluding one from ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. I don't quite understand the trial process. But what is the point of a trial? She has avowed that she is a practicing homosexual. It still seems to me that this calls not for a trial but for discernment and action on the part of the bishop.

The Discipline is clear. After years of pretending that they don't know what a "self-avowed practicing homosexual" is, the opponents of the Discipline seem to be left only with the claim of character ; "But she's such a nice person! She has a call to ministry! She's been effective in her ministry!" I have no trouble believing all this to be true. But according to the Discipline of the UMC (and the order of most churches I'm aware of) these are not adequate qualifications for ministry; nor are they sufficient to overcome other possible disqualifications.

The Washington Post's article on the trial reports from her Senior Pastor:
The Rev. Fred Day, who has been Stroud's senior pastor since she entered the ministry five years ago, said that if she is removed, it will send "a message of discrimination, and one of real incongruity" with the United Methodist Church's logo: "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors."

I'm afraid Rev Fred is absolutely right. The trial - and possible removal of Stroud does conflict with our advertizing campaign. According to that campaign we have no rules, no doctrine, no exclusiveness of any kind. Anything goes. We're open - apparently to everything.

I think it is possible to make sense (Christian sense) out of our slogan, but it takes more work than can be accomplished in an advertising campaign. It is only natural to take "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors" (in our culture) as a claim that we are substituting modern liberal relativism for traditional Christian doctrine. We stand more for "Openness" than we do for Jesus. Of course proponents of this Openness would argue that Jesus himself is the best model of openness. Just ask the Jesus Seminar folks. If we can look at this so called Christian Openness and see no significant difference with secular Openness, then it sure appears that the former is the later with a Christian veneer.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Christmas already?

I can’t tell for sure, but it seems like Christmas decorations are going up earlier this year. The reason I can’t tell is that it doesn’t feel like it has been a year since Christmas. I heard someone say yesterday that “it used to feel like three years between Christmases, not it feels like we have three a year!”

Much to my chagrin, I have joined the ranks of folk who claim time is going by faster now than it used to. I don’t want to get into an argument about physics or the relativity theory, and I am fairly sure that “real time” is progressing at exactly the same rate now that it used to. But is sure doesn’t seem that way.

I know what part of the difference in. When one is putting up with English, Trig, and Chemistry at the same time, hours may very well stand still. Now, on the other hand, doing what I love and am called to do, and getting paid for it, why, how could time not fly by?

But I am a little concerned, too. Much as I enjoy life now, and am learning to appreciate how quickly difficult or challenging times will pass as all times do, I worry that as we age, and as time picks up speed, we don’t miss out.

I remember watching the sheer joy in my daughter’s eyes of some of the games we used to play or adventures we would go on. I also remember we could do it all again the next day, and she had every bit as much excitement and eagerness and joy, though it was the same game or the same adventure. Children, often far better than adults, can live so entirely in the moment that it doesn’t matter what has gone before. What may happen tomorrow is irrelevant.

Jesus said we cannot control our height, our lives, or tomorrow. He challenged us to live today, and trust God for everything else. Can we do that, even as the today’s go by faster and faster? As we accept the fact that the next Christmas is around the corner, let’s live today with the joy and adventure of a child. And trust God for the rest.

Video gaming life

I guess this is a safe place to admit I play video games. I have since they came out in the late 70’s. I used to pop quarters into machines just to see how long I could keep playing. I was never very good at any of them, but I have kept playing anyway.

Video gaming has come a long way since “pong” hit the scene. Now single games span disks and offer graphics so lifelike they look almost real. One thing, though, that hadn’t changed about video games until recently is their linear nature. This means that one thing has to happen before another can. It means also that the order and direction of the game is decided by the maker of the game rather than by the player.

There are games out now that are non-linear in nature. In other words, the player has some freedom to choose the order in which “missions” or “tasks” are accomplished. In some games, the player doesn’t even have to try to accomplish anything if he or she doesn’t want to.

Life, after all, is not linear. Things happen that don’t seem to follow from what happened before. In life we also have the choice of whether or not we want to go from task to task, and even whether we want to pursue tasks at all. Games are becoming more life-like.

We like to believe that our lives are lived linearly. We look at the world as a set of directly and necessarily connected events, each setting up the next. Our lives are shaken, then, when things happen to challenge that way of seeing the world. And such things will happen.

What are we to do if the way we understand the world is shaken? We do well to realize that the order and direction of life is not up to us; but up to the Maker. He knows where this thing called life is going. Trust Him.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Islam & Europe

Does the reality depicted in these posts represent at least a small opening for some Christian mission work?
From Theodore Dalrymple., Why Theo Van Gogh Was Murdered, in The City Journal.

In fact, Islam is as vulnerable in Europe to the forces of secularization as Christianity has proved to be. The majority of Muslims in Europe, particularly the young, have a weak and tenuous connection to their ancestral religion. Their level and intensity of belief is low; pop music interests them more. Far from being fanatics, they are lukewarm believers at best. Were it not for the abuse of women, Islam would go the way of the Church of England.
If something as bad as abuse of women is required to energize this variety of Islam, surely we can find ways to offer a productive and healthy replacement.

Are there any adiaphora?

Most people care deeply about at least a few subjects. I wouldn't be suprised if there were a number of things most of those same people didn't care about.

I have recently encountered some who seem to see their conservative politics as a direct entailment of their conservative theology. There seem to be no political issues that they don't see as being closely related to theology.

I have plenty of strong views in both theology and politics. Most people would call my views conservative. But when I read the bible I don't see the level of specifcity on public policy that so many seem to find there. This is the case for several "hot-button" issues, including war, death penalty and "social justice" - care for the poor.

Are we as Christians allowed to have subjects which are adiaphora - indifferent? We bandy the quote: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity." But are there any non-essentials? Sure seems that way to me.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Capital Punishment, Part 3

Some claim that since arguing against capital punishment is a way of devaluing life. Since human lives are worth so much, how can mere imprisonment ever pay the price due for taking such a life? If all we ask of a murderer is life in prison (at most), then we are in effect saying that is all the life they took was worth.

I have some questions, and then some comments for this way of thinking:
Some questions:
1. Why do we need to think of "lives" in economic terms? Is this what Mat. 10:27-31 teaches? [I don't think so]
2. At what point do "lives" cease to have value - or decrease in value?
3. What is the social location of those who see Christians opposed to capital punishment and conclude from that opposition that life should be devalued?
4. What (if any) is the positive rhetorical impact of capital
punishment? (Other than the suggested(?), "Since we value life [unless that life is forfeit] we will kill killers [and others guilty of capital offences?]")
5. What (if any) is the negative rhetorical impact of capital punishment?

Now some observations on "value":
My youngest brother has a degree in forestry. I've been to years of
school yet I've never had any classes in forestery or any similar subjects.

I remember years ago, back when he was still in school, we were all at a cousin's house in Illinois. Robert was impressed with the large trees surrounding the house, and started telling us how much each tree was worth (he'd just taken a course in tree valuation). I remember a particular Red Oak that Robert said was worth $30,000.

My questions then were: To whom? Under what conditions?

We may ask how much a life is worth. Scripture doesn't address this question in any systematic way. When Dinah is raped, her honor (her life?) is worth the lives of every person in Shechem's village. At least that's what it costs them. What are the lives of billions of miserable sinners worth? The life of Jesus, we might say.

But why do we need to translate these things into market terminology? I know that capitalism and the market system is an important part of our culture, but have we reached the point that people are valued in the same terms as pork bellies, cars and mansions?

A thousand years (or so) ago when Anselm formulated the penal
substitution theory of the atonement, he used pictures drawn from the society of his day. In this age of capitalism, do we lay a veneer of market economics over that theory - and stretch it co cover our ethics also?

In other words, the question, "How much is a life worth?" strikes me as a wrong question of the same sort as "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?"

Just looking at my own children - moving beyond the abstract "a life" to some particular lives - I cannot set a value on their lives. I can buy life insurance for them - but nothing could replace them. No money, no thing, no retribution would be sufficient. If my car is totaled, I could replace that. If some evil person destroys my books, he could pay restitition and I could get new ones. Because they are things, they can be replaced. People are not things, and cannot be replaced.

Captial Punishment, Part 2

Those who argue against abortion are sometimes the same people who argue for capital punishment. Those who are for abortion will then claim this is an inconsistency on the part of anti-abortionists. But why do we need to argue for the one and against the other?

To those who think the practice of abortion should be ended
(or severely limited) AND think capital punishment should be maintained (or expanded), which do you consider more important? If you could only get one, which would you take?

Personally, I think an end to abortion would be the greatest good of the two - and greater by a very large margin. As a non-proponent of capital punishment, I have the option of using the rhetorical strategy of focusing on what I consider to be the greater evil, and allowing liberals (I know not how monolithic they are on this issue) to have "their way" in not practicing capital punishment.

But is the non-practice of capital punishment a devaluing of life, as some have suggested? My guess is that liberals take their opposition to capital punishment as an expression of valuing life. One might argue that they are simply wrong, but I don't see how they could be, since valuing is a subjective process. Now it may be that they are wrong to value the lives of guilty murderers (or homosexuals, or horse thieves or traitors - or whoever Caesar might decide to punish), but that is not the same as saying they
don't value it.

If Caesar says, "Let's have a war. Those people in that other country are a threat to us and to our way of life (or they might be tomorrow)," and then Caesar sends soldiers off to kill (and quite possibly be killed), is that a valuing of life or a devaluing of life? Might the question be answered differently depending on the object of one's allegiance? If one gives allegiance to Caesar and his kingdom, one might be inclined to take Caesar's actions as valuing life. If, however, one owed allegience to the other country (and its leader), would one still be inclined to judge Caesar's actions as valuing life?

I can imagine in such a situation that one might say, "Well, I can see how Caesar would take our actions as a threat to his kingdom and way of life. So the fact that he is here killing our people is an expression of his valuing the lives of his people. But how ought the fact that I can understand his action as a valuing of the lives of his people - though not of some abstraction called "life" or "lives" - what ought I to learn from this as I seek out my own course of action?

Friday, November 05, 2004

Captial Punishment, Part 1

One of the trajectories I notice when I look at the history of Christian influence on society is a broadened

conception of who counts as human or truly human. We see it explicitly in Jesus when he talks about love
of enemies. We see it in the apostolic church when they moved beyond Israel. In more recent history we
see it in the abolitionist and civil-rights movements. Many acted like non-whites were not fully human.
Yet under the influence of Christianity (though in conflict with some Christian traditions), our broader
culture has been gradually influenced to the point where non-whites are counted by most people to
be truly human.
I am not an expert on the history of abortion, but I know that our first records of church teaching against

abortion are very ancient - at least as old as the Didache (which is early 2nd century in origin). In more
recent times (I'm thinking of 19th & early 20th century US) there wasn't a lot of concern about abortion -
but why should there be? Margaret Sanger & crew didn't start their eugenics program until the 20th
century and took a long time to devalue the unborn child. Their propaganda led to a cultural regression
in this area, in alliance with the modern commitment to convenience. Many Christians have stood up
against this devaluation and the abortion-culture it produced, some by simply arguing against abortion
as murder, others doing so explicitly in the name of a Christian commitment to a broader conception
of who is truly human, yet others coming from the point of view of seeing evil in the culture of radical
individualism and the convenience it requires.
As to capital punishment, murder & killing, we see it all in scripture. We see capital punishment commanded

for a number of crimes: murder, witchcraft, improper sexual practice, disobedience to parents, etc. Usually
in current discussions, as far as I can tell, capital punishment is only encouraged for the first of these crimes
(if my perception is wrong, some of you supporters correct me), though apparently Caesar is free to declare
other crimes as worthy of death (horse thievery and treason come to mind).
I can imagine homosexuals (for example) seeing the OT command to put them to death, hearing Christians

say we need to believe and obey the whole Bible, coming to believe that Christians want to kill them. Caesar
currently doesn't consider homosexuality as worthy of death, but calls to Christianize Caesar can be heard as
encouragement in that direction. This is one reason I don't think the allowance (or shall we say COMMAND)
of capital punishment in the OT should be relied upon for arguing the righteousness of Caesar practicing the
same today. Sure there are no clear, explicit, unambiguous commands in the NT to do away with capital
punishment. Also there are no NT commands to cause Caesar to narrow the scope of capital punishment to
certain types of murderers only, letting people guilty of sexual deviancy, idolatry & disobedience to parents
off the hook.
Are there some who want to argue that the Christian tradition has wrongly exerted its influence in recent times

to narrow the scope of Caesar's application of capital punishment? Are there some who argue for a return to
full obedience to the OT in this area, perhaps because they see no NT command to do otherwise? Such
arguments seem to leave the crucified Son of God far behind.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Does your vote count?

Did your vote count? Though the final results are likely a few days away, the preliminary numbers show that Bush defeated Kerry by nearly 1.7 million votes in Texas. No matter which way you voted, would it have made any difference had you decided simply to stay home?

Turnout was up this year. In some places voters waited in line for hours to be able to vote. Over seven million Texans voted in this election. Looking back, it is easy to wonder what difference one vote could make.

Everyone I spoke with yesterday I asked, “have you voted yet?” Most had, but one friend told me she was going to vote after she picked up her son from school. She wanted to take him with her, so he could experience the political process.

Her vote mattered, if not by deciding which candidate would win, by showing her son that it is important, as an American citizen, to vote. It is too easy to decide that an individual vote didn’t make a difference, but the fact that one did vote does make a difference.

Many times how we behave is more important than the outcome of our behavior. After all, we very often cannot control the outcome. We certainly cannot determine how others will respond. All we can control is how we behave. Our own actions are up to us.

Some Christians are easily overwhelmed by the giftedness of others. Some drag along spiritually for years, thinking God doesn’t really have plan for their lives.

God does have a great plan for your life! Even if you can’t see results right now, God is working. Even if the outcome seems so far away, God is working. Remember: all we are responsible for is how we act today. Live like God loves you, because He does!

Unconstitutional to Affirm Doctrine

At General Conference last spring, a resolution was passed which concluded:
Therefore, be it resolved, that the 2004 General Conference affirms its commitment to the basic doctrines of the Christian faith as taught in Scripture and in The United Methodist Articles of Religion and in the sermons of John Wesley.
The Judicial Council has just declared this resolution to be unconsitutional. They reason:
Unlike Restrictive Rules I, II, and V and the Plan of Union of The United Methodist Church, ¶102 of the 2000 Discipline is historical in nature and not intended to be prescriptive. Paragraph 102 is not applicable to the 2004 General Conference action on Calendar Item 1514, as adopted, with respect to the Doctrinal Standards of The United Methodist Church. Although resolutions are not church law and are without legal effect, Calendar Item 1514, as adopted, violates Restrictive Rules I, II, and V. Therefore it was improperly before the 2004 General Conference.
It looks like another roadblock in the quest for doctrinal clarity.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Making Something or Finding ready made

Sometimes I wish I would be snet to pastor a church that is already everything it should be. So often I feel like I have to start over from scratch, especially in terms of basic teaching. Every church I've been to takes hard work. We can't just coast. Sometimes I envy those non-pastors who can go out and just find a church that is already where it should be (in their opinion), one that has ministries and programs their kids are excited about participating in.

But there is a part of me (I think it's bigger than the other part), that takes great joy in making something - in the act of creating something that wasn't there before. Of course this has a double challenge. I not only have to lead my congregation in such a way that we become what we can be (what God wants) but also to lead my people to want to become co-creators and not settle for just running over to the local baptist church (they always seem to have more money & resources & young people) or to the next town (always a little - or a lot - bigger).

I like the idea that God made us to be co-creators with him.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Election Dissension

Some of the press has been reporting that this year’s election is the dirtiest most divisive in history. Other reporters have put it in historical context: presidential elections in the United States have a strong tradition of being contentious. I suppose there is some truth to both sides.

I am a political news junkie. I enjoy the “Crossfire” type discussion/debate show. One of the things I find most intriguing on such shows is watching the hosts, political opponents, as the camera pans out for a commercial break. When the sound is off, and the hosts think they are off camera, they chat and laugh together. I particularly enjoyed watching William Safire and James Carville chum around after a debate once. How could such ideological enemies enjoy each other’s company?

Because, strictly speaking, they are not ideological enemies. They are political opponents. Within a shared political system, Safire and Carville have many disagreements about the role of government, the rights of individuals, and many other things. But at the same time, they hold in common a trust in the political system that provides the civil space for such disagreement.

I am concerned that not all of our great land is so inclined. In some contexts the hostility seems so strong that I wonder if opponents on some issues do still realize that we share an investment in a system that is built to surround or provide a space for serious disagreement. In other words, if real communication is to occur, somewhere beneath the disagreements, dissension, and arguments, there is a base-level foundation on which opponents stand together. Otherwise, they find themselves screaming past one another, not caring or listening to what the other side says.

Are we screaming past one another? Do you feel your side is being heard by the other? Do those on the other side feel you are listening to them? If we do not listen to one another, and do the hard work of understanding, we will erode the foundation upon which our system works.