Monday, July 16, 2018

Magnificently unoriginal. . . a marvelous term!  Magnificently unoriginal. . .  At a time in which innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box, starting from scratch, and the like are prized among all other things, the key value in the Church is continuity.  We do not create but commend what has been commended to us, the sacred deposit, the holy tradition, that which was delivered to us by the prophets and apostles.  Yet too many have forgotten this and even now the Church is often belittled from within as much as without for NOT innovating, creating, thinking outside the box, starting from scratch, etc...  The Church suffers less from those who preserve even within some frailty than it does from those who seek a do-over, a chance to re-invent and re-create after having judged the past a failure.

Holding firmly to what has been given us, mining through the wisdom of the fathers who went before, and making consistent witness to the unchanging truth of God's Word, we are placed here as anchors against a flood of change that no generation can stop.  It is not like we have had calm or peace and lost it but we have faced an ebb and flow of a rather constant movement throughout history to extend the distance created in Eden when Adam and Eve discovered guilt in their sin and thought it could be answered by running away. We constantly complain that the the Church is in danger of being judged irrelevant or left behind by a people who have moved on but the real danger before us is holding the anchor to God's Word, to the catholic and apostolic tradition, and to the unchanging doctrine once delivered to the saints.

We call it progress that a woman can choose and become judge and executioner to the child in her womb but it is no improvement.  Rather it has shown how we have devolved into a horde, an untamed brood who refuse to be ruled by laws greater than whim or by an interest greater than self-interest.  When we redefine marriage and family we think we are unleashing the constraints of age and prejudice but in reality we are tearing at the very foundations of both church and state, the too often fragile structures on which life in the Church and life together in community are built.  We have not cast off the chains of bigotry but merely substituted one form of bigotry for another and this one at odds with the natural law written into heart and soul.  How can we find peace when we forge a future that digresses into the worst of our faults, failings, and flaws?

So often it is said that the Church only says "No!" and I suppose that it sounds exactly that way.  But in order to be faithful to God's "Yes!" we must not shy away from His "No!"  When the very fabric of our society is at stack and the Church seems to have given up on her truth, this is not the time to fear that "No!" is not enough.  It has gone far enough in some traditions that no one knows how to argue for the Church’s teaching any longer. Instead we are left with theological clich├ęs and moralisms which pit doctrine against feelings in such way that doctrine will always lose.  We have surrendered moral law to the same vagaries which rule theological truth until we are left in a state of utter confusion. We have judged truth to be unrealistic or harsh and have pleaded for situations, circumstances, and feelings to decide how to choose and what to choose when people must make a decision.  We speak confidently under the guise of the Gospel in presuming that nobody needs to be guided -- only to be set free to do what is right in their eyes.  We have turned a theory for the creation of the universe into the rationale for everything until even truth evolves, contracts itself, and disconnects from the past -- yet we see no contradiction.  We have created bureaucratic structures instead of teaching magisteriums and they have effectively cast doubt not only on creed and confession but upon the Scriptures themselves.  In the face of this, there is nothing so deep, so profound, or so sensible than when the Church musters up the courage and strength to say just that:  "NO!"

Of course, there are times when we must restore what has been lost and to some it will seem and sound as if this is innovation.  This is a danger in every reform.  But the goal of reform is to reclaim our catholic past and restore the central voice of God's Word to the cacophony of voices that threaten to drown His voice out.  It will always sound like something new to those who have forgotten there was a past before yesterday but this is a risk we must take.  It was Luther's quest in his age and it is our own holy cause today -- both for the same and for different reasons.  The test is not whether it works or even whether it makes sense but whether it is faithful.  The best reformers are those who are magnificently unoriginal -- who restore what has been lost in such way that it may sound fresh but it is the unchanging Word, the unchanging truth, and the unchanging liturgy by which God has addressed a fallen world with hope and answered sin with mercy and bestowed unearned grace upon an unworthy people.

We can do far worse than to be unfailingly determined to be magnificently unoriginal in preaching, teaching, and catechesis.  And the world can find infinitely worse than the one eternal Gospel which is preached and taught as if it were brand new this morning.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Re-imagining the Future. . .

"A church which is rooted in scripture and tradition but not afraid to reimagine the future. This is the sort of church and community that I believe the Lord has called me to assist in fostering, here in this Diocese. Will you join me?
With those words calling on the people to join her in  writing a new future, The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally was installed as the 133rd and first female Bishop of London at St Paul’s Cathedral May 12th.   She quoted Augustine, John Donne, and spoke about Florence Nightingale, among others.  Before her ordination Bishop Sarah was Chief Nursing Officer in the Department of Health. She trained for the ministry at the South East Institute for Theologian Education and served her first curacy at Battersea Fields in Southwark Diocese from 2001 to 2006. She was Canon Residentiary and Canon Treasurer at Salisbury Cathedral before taking up her current role in 2015 as Suffragan Bishop of Crediton in the Diocese of Exeter.

Mullally, not only the first female bishop of London, will also become the first bishop of London to ordain male and female priests since her predecessor, Richard Chartres, declined to ordain either in order to avoid a backlash from anyone.  She hopes to focus on three areas: London issues, health and nursing, and “speaking up for marginalised groups: women, the homeless, young people – it’s a tough world for them.”  She added: “I hope to give a voice to women who, for whatever reason, feel marginalised. And to ask what I can do to encourage and empower women to do the best they can.”

She hopes that her appointment is part of a continuing process of women taking more leadership roles in the church – perhaps also as archbishops when those positions become vacant.  “The challenge is that people often think that, once you’ve appointed a woman, you’ve dealt with the issue. You haven’t.  In London we still have a job to do, to enable women to lead big churches, become area deans and archdeacons. There’s still work to do around how you change the culture.”

Ahhhh. . . Now that should help the precipitous decline of the Church of England -- London issues, health, and nursing. . . and, of course, the addition of more females to visible positions of leadership.  I have never met her and presume she is as well qualified as one needs to be to be chosen to fill the number three leadership role in the CofE but. . . clearly, the CofE is becoming less of a church and more of a society for the preservation of historic religious structures and ceremonies on behalf of quaint English history than it is a functioning church body.  Female or not, the bishop will have to look past her three target areas and figure out how not only to rekindle the faith but to restore it to a church body and diocese in which that faith has largely been judged either irrelevant or unnecessary by a host of people who once were active Christians.  I am sure it was a grand 90 minute show but that is, I fear, about all it was. . .

In any case, playing lip service to the roots of the faith in Scripture and tradition seems little in the face of a grand desire to re-imagine the church and its future, while relegating these roots to a mere legacy.  The Church of England seems to have lost the battle for the mind of its people and has certainly lost the fight on Sunday morning.  On the whole, being the first female bishop of London may not mean all that much if she is the last bishop of London.  And that is not an outlandish possibility.  At age 56, she could have a decade or more to see the numbers of Anglicans in church drop even more and the number of Anglicans who believe a semblance of the 39 articles disappear almost entirely. Re-imagining the future away from Scripture and tradition is the worst of dead ends.  While it might not have to mean that direction, I fear the future has already been written for the Church of England with a long history of hollow sounding references to what has been confessed, taught, and witnessed in the past but not so much now.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The power of the elite. . .

When the Mormon church announced it was severing all ties with the Boy Scouts of America by the end of 2019, this represented an astonishing 1 of every 5 boys in the organization.  Some 185,000 boys are already out and this moves the final 425,000 into its own faith-based youth program.  A relationship that has stood for nearly a century was ended pretty much when the Scouts made their decision to welcome gay scouts and gay leaders and then to open the doors to females.  Now, to be sure, the Boy Scouts are practically an automatic organization for Mormon boys and the Mormon Church has long been the biggest sponsor of Boy Scout troops in the United States. we wait to hear what the other big presence in Scouts, the Southern Baptist Convention, will do and whether or not they will follow the Mormon lead.  It has been known for a long time that the Baptists are unhappy with the direction the Boy Scouts has taken.  That would mean a drop of some 100,000 more from an organization already declining significantly since the sex decisions of 2014.  Not to mention the fact that the Girl Scouts are unhappy with the decision of the Boy Scouts to become coed.  Add to that is the uncertainty about how long Roman Catholics can continue to support Scout troops.  The National Catholic Committee on Scouting announced that the changes to scouting will have little impact on the operations and programs in Catholic-chartered units.  The NCCS, a committee of Catholic laity and clergy that serves as an advisory body to the Boy Scouts of America, said the Boy Scouts stipulated that religious partners will continue “to have the right to make decisions for their units based on their religious beliefs.”  The Roman Catholic committee explained that scouting serves the Roman Catholic Church through a charter concept, similar to a franchise, so that a Boy Scout troop chartered to a Catholic parish is owned by the parish and, for now has the right to uphold their own moral standards within the units they charter.  How long this can continue to exist given the changes elsewhere is uncertain.

 At an organizational meeting in 2013 in Nashville, Bill Bunkley, one of the group’s leaders, said, “We’re here to honor the legacy of the Boy Scouts of America but now, quite frankly, we are called in a new direction.”  In other words, this ain't your grandpa's scouting troop anymore.  What is fascinating, however, is how the Scouts have chosen to embrace rather cutting edge positions on sex and rushed to redefine themselves -- knowing that this would cost them perhaps a third of all boys!  Clearly this reveals that the influence lies not with those who have traditionally sponsored troops or been heavily invested in the BSA for a very long time.  In fact, the BSA organization is doing everything in its power to reshape its organization, purpose, and identity to fit the pattern of those who have small numbers of boys invested in the program but have a larger than life mouthpiece in the media.  For a time it seemed the BSA was running scared.  Now it appears at least some of the leaders have drunk the koolaid of modernity and decided to honor the Scouting legacy by abandoning much of it.

My point in writing this is simple.  We are so often told that Christians need to participate in endeavors like this in order to provide an alternative voice.  But it is clear that with Scouting that voice is being muzzled and the only voice that counts is the one that heralds the GLBTQ agenda.  Perhaps this will signal the end for any traditional and orthodox Christian churches to support an organization like Scouting that is intent upon adopting a purpose, plan, and program at odds with that traditional and orthodox Christian identity.  Yet the decline in numbers does not seem to have slowed the passage of the BSA into an organization that has fully adopted and implemented some of the most modern ideas of gender, sexuality, and diversity.  If Christians, who have in the past had a big stake in Scouting, cannot make their weight known to slow or stall or eliminate the drift of the BSA away from its historic purpose and identity, who is able to?

The numbers of Trail Life boys swelled instantly when the Scouts first announced their decision several years ago.  Perhaps this group, very small in comparison to the BSA, will gain some ground on their competition.  If you have boys in Scouting, now is the time to consider which organization is best for your boy and your faith. . .

Friday, July 13, 2018

Andy Stanley says out loud what Christians think. . . course you had to have been living under a rock not to hear about Andy Stanley’s sermon on what the Old Testament has to do with the life of modern day Christians. Ostensibly basing his sermon on the apostolic council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, Stanley declared, “Here’s what the Jerusalem Council was saying to the Gentiles: ‘You are not accountable to the Ten Commandments.’” 

Stanley’s goal is not entirely out of line.  He wants to meet those who have lost their faith in a maze of rules and regulations (which he places in the Old Testament) and set them free in Jesus.  Who can blame him?  After all Christians routinely wonder what the nice, compassionate, non-judgmental Jesus has to do with the arbitrary, legalistic, judgmental, and, mostly, angry God of the Old Testament.  The downside in this, of course, is that ditching the Old Testament is flirting with the ancient heresy called Marcionism—basically the denial that the Old Testament has any authority for Christian doctrine and morals.

Stanley insists the Gospel “is completely detached … from everything that came before.”   So according to Stanley “God has done something through the Jews for the world” [given them the Law].   “But the ‘through the Jews’ part of the story is over, and now something new and better and inclusive has come.”  According to Francis Watson, modern day Marcionism is more about “Christian unease about the status and function of the Old Testament” and therefore the conclusion that “the Old Testament is not to be regarded as part of Christian scripture.”  But Stanley is quite careful here.  He insists he believes the Old Testament is “divinely inspired,” yet Stanley claims the Old Testament is no longer authoritative for the Christian life.  
This was a general call to avoid immoral behavior[,] but not immoral behavior as defined by the Old Testament … [rather,] as defined by the apostle Paul. … The apostle Paul was explicit and specific about sexual immorality but he did not tie it to the Old Testament. … The old covenant, law of Moses, was not the go-to source regarding sexual behavior for the church. … The Old Testament was not the go-to source regarding any behavior for the church.
What Andy Stanley says out loud is what some Christians, even some Lutherans think.  The antinomnians do not believe the Law has any place in the Christian life and the Gospel is all that is needed.  Preach the Gospel and leave it up to the Gospel to work to transform behavior.  We don't need to mess with the law.  There is no third use or third function or any use or function of the Law except a generic curb for the general population and a mirror to point us to the need for that Gospel.

What Andy Stanley says out loud is what some Christians, even Lutherans think.  There are many stories in the Bible and they are meant for different people and different times but only the story of Jesus is for all.  In this view Jesus is merely a subplot of the Old Testament and not the central focus and narrative of both OT and NT.  So there is little need to spend time in it -- except for a few passages we like to hear at Christmas or a few Psalms so familiar and meaningful.  Indeed, many Christians act like Marcionites even if they don't really believe like them.

Of course, even if people are clapping their hands that Andy Stanley finally said out loud what they have been thinking all along, that does not make it right.  Andy is wrong.  Dead wrong.  He is deceiving people with a Gospel less than Christian and one certainly unworthy of Jesus.  Don't by into his lies and don't end up with his conclusions.  Scripture is all about Jesus.  We heard that from the mouth of Jesus at Ascension Day, when, just before fading into the clouds, our Lord opened the minds of His disciples to see how all the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms testify of Him.   Do I hear an Amen?

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Methodists Divided. . . fault lines of the divisions within Methodism are not hard to see.  They do not simply revolve around the familiar themes of sex and marriage.  They are not new.  They are not local but global.  And they have caused a hemorrhage within the church body that was once one of America's largest denominations.  Desperately in search of someone or something to stave off the seemingly inevitable split or spiral into irrelevance, the Methodists have issued a study.

FAULTLINES: Holy Conversations about Human Sexuality and The United Methodist Church is the name of it.  You can review a 81 page sampler here.  The Table of Contents says it all. . .

Introduction Letter from Brian K. Milford; Authors and Contributors; Book Samples
Living Faithfully  - Alex Joyner, David L. Jr. Barnhart, Jill M. Johnson, Rebekah Jordan Gienapp
Is It Time? - Adolf Hansen
Holy Contradictions - Brian K. Milford, editor
The Marks of Hope - Matt Rawle, Juan Huertas, Katie McKay Simpson
Are We Really Better Together? - Rob Renfroe, Walter Fenton
The Fight for Marriage - Phillip F. Cramer, William L. Harbison
Our Strangely Warmed Hearts - Karen P. Oliveto
A New Church and a New Seminary - David McAllister-Wilson
The 19: Questions to Kindle a Wesleyan Spirit - Carolyn Moore
Our Purpose Is Love - David N. Field

So. . . Is it time?   Is it time to stop using the word homosexuality without defining it? Is it time to stop confusing homosexual attraction with homosexual behavior? Is it time to stop interpreting the Bible as a static rather than a developing understanding of God’s revelation? Is it time to stop calling homosexuality a sin without clarifying what we mean? Is it time to stop fearing persons who have a sexual orientation or gender identity different from our own? Is it time to start expending our full energy on the mission of The United Methodist Church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (instead of arguing about stuff like this)?

And with this are the requisite stories -- we all have people like we are talking about in our families and our congregations and we all know they are not so different and not so bad.  Anecdotal evidence abounds that, despite what the Word of God says, such things are definitely not bad and may be good for Methodists.  There is the requisite call for patience, understanding, and dialogue (all code words for the change is coming and once a few people shut up, leave, or die, we won't have to bother explaining ourselves).

Curiously, this sentence stuck out at me. How many times do you think that “Hope” is mentioned in the Gospels? You might be surprised that Jesus mentions hope only once (Luke 6:34). So that it about how much hope such a study as this will reconcile the differences and unite a people into a common confession and life.  It is one more example of studying an issue until we get the answer we want -- no matter if it is not God's answer.

There is precious little in here about sin and forgiveness but a whole lot about justice.  One line that I read that seems to say it all is this:  The eucharist is the medicine that allows us to develop a justice imagination.  If only Jesus had known this He just might have mentioned justice in the Words of Institution instead of the forgiveness of sins.  Yup, pretty predictable and pretty sad. . . as Methodism continues its institutional decline here. . . while Methodists in Africa, especially, resist the decay. . .