Saturday, April 16, 2005

More on ELCA Church Council's Recommendations on Ordination of Practciing Homosexuals

Several have asked me what the reaction has been to my post on the recent recommendation of the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to allow congregations to call practicing homosexuals. I am very critical of the recommendation and see it as being inconsistent with the Bible's teachings on this subject. (Please read the entire post of April 12 before you have a cow!)

Interestingly, there has been almost no reaction. A liberal Christian from outside of my denomination has written several emails of encouragement and support of my position. A moderate within the denomination has also indicated support.

At a meeting with a few colleagues on Thursday morning, I detected great uneasiness, irrespective of their opinions on the recommendation.

At a meeting with Lutheran lay leaders from several area congregations on Thursday evening, only one person made comments about the entire subject, seeming to endorse the Council's position.

Most people who have any awareness of the recommended resolution seem to be either indifferent or holding their breaths while praying. I must hasten to add though, that I feel that most ELCA members are barely aware of this entire discussion.

Frankly, as an historian, I feel that a non-ecclesiastical historical circumstance analogous to this one is that which prevailed in the period immediately before the firing on Fort Sumter that began the Civil War. There have been a thousand opportunities to prevent a rupture of the ELCA. But some people, like the Church Council, which voted 32 to 2 in favor of this irresponsible resolution, seem intent on tearing the Church apart.


By way of my colleague, Pastor Bob Forsberg, I've received this extended statement on the subject from Roy Harrisville of Solid Rock Lutherans:

Unlimited Exceptions and Double-standards
A Response to the recent ELCA Church Council Action

If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and
take up his cross, and follow me. Mark 8:34

I have been crucified with Christ.
It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the son of God
who loved me and gave himself up for me. Galatians 2:19-20

On April 11, 2005 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Church Council approved a resolution to forward to the Churchwide Assembly, which meets in Orlando, FL in August. The Council voted 32-2 to forward to the Churchwide Assembly a resolution that allows for exceptional ordinations of homosexuals in “…committed, same-sex relationships…” The process by which exceptions would be made is when a congregation wishes to call a homosexual who is in a life-long, committed, faithful, same-sex relationship and the bishop approves. The bishop would then ask the approval of the synod council. Upon the synod council’s approval the bishop would next ask the Conference of Bishops for final approval. The candidate would then be ordained.

The Church Council has, by virtue of this action, redefined Christian identity, rejected traditional marriage, created a double standard, and provided for unlimited exceptions across the ELCA. It has proven that it is out of touch with the Church.
Unlimited Exceptions
The proposal provides for an unlimited number of exceptions across the ELCA and changes the current policies significantly. Should the ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopt this proposal every synod across the Church would be authorized to ordain practicing homosexuals who are in life-long, committed, faithful, same-sex relationships. This is not “local option” as some have called it, but a pan-ELCA policy change. There is nothing in the proposal about a trial period or ordination to place. Each pastor ordained in this manner would be placed on the same clergy roster as any other and would have the same opportunity for mobility from Church to Church and from synod to synod as any other.
In order for this proposal to go forward a significant policy change in the By-Laws of the ELCA, Vision and Expectations, and Definitions and Guidelines would have to be made. (Those documents outline proper conduct for those on the clergy roster). All the lines dealing with homosexual behavior would have to be removed.

A Double Standard
A double standard is created in this proposal. If homosexuals in “committed relationships” are allowed to be candidates for the ordained ministry, what of those heterosexuals in common law relationships who also wish to be ordained? Are they to be given the same considerations as their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters? But there is no mention of any reciprocity for heterosexuals in this proposal. There was no discussion of this at the Church Council meeting. There is no mention in the proposal of altering those sections in Vision and Expectations (V&E) and Definitions and Guidelines (D&G) that insist on the sanctity of marriage and living a chaste life. It would seem that heterosexuals are to be held to a different standard from homosexuals since the guidelines for heterosexuals remain in place.

Rejection of Marriage
Both V&E and D&G prescribe chaste lives for ordained ministers. There is a heavy emphasis on the biblical and traditional understanding of marriage. But the proposal put forward by the Church Council necessarily negates such sentiments and places marriage on the shelf. Marriage is no longer a concern when considering a candidate for ordination! The Church Council apparently agrees with a minority in American society that marriage is of little or no value.
Of course, it will be somewhat of a difficulty for homosexuals to provide evidence of their intent to live in life-long, committed, faithful, relationships, as the proposal demands, since the marriage of homosexuals is not sanctioned by the Church and is illegal in most states. No clear provision was made in the Council proposal for blessing same-sex unions, although it seems that something approximating them is demanded by the proposal. The Church Council has not thought this proposal through at all.

Redefining the Christian
Who is a Christian? Is it someone whose life has been transformed by God’s Word and who now worships and follows Jesus Christ? Or is it someone who has deep desires, impulses, or passions for something or someone? Is a Christian’s identity determined by Christ, or by the self? Is our desire to be conformed to Christ, or is he to be conformed to our desire? Is our identity established at baptism, or in our sexual urges and practices?
Such questions strike at the heart of the gospel for they address the central question of who Christ is and who we are in Christ. If we believe in Christ then we belong to him as a slave belongs to the master. He then becomes our external moral authority in life and what Christ says and does determines that life. If faith is not merely intellectual assent to a set of propositions but a vibrant, living and active transformative force in our lives, then our true self is not defined by biological urges or even by our own conscience, but by the self-sacrificing redemption of God’s Son who did not give in to his own feelings in the Garden of Gethsemane but rather followed the will of his Father. He denied himself, just as he commanded us to do. That is the supreme example of true Christian identity graciously bestowed upon us at baptism.
This is in contrast to what the Church Council accepted when it openly affirmed homosexual behavior, as it has done this past weekend. In order for the Council to approve this proposal it had to accept, consciously or unconsciously, the self-definition that homosexuals have for long maintained: that their “sexuality” defines them. That is, that their identity is constructed from within themselves and they do not need to deny themselves or their feelings.
What this means is that the Church Council, wittingly or unwittingly, has decided that the Christian is not defined by self-denial but by embracing the self and its impulses. To be sure, the Council did mention that gays and lesbians are baptized children of God as are all Christians, but it rejected any necessity for the reformation of one’s sexual life. In effect, the Church Council has established that homosexuals need not repent for their practices and behavior since their identity is constituted by their homoerotic impulses and they must be left to act upon them. If the Churchwide Assembly adopts this concept it will adopt a new definition of Christianity in which we are each able to define ourselves regardless of scripture, Church tradition, the wider Church, or the influence of the One who denied himself for our sake.

Out of Touch
The leadership of the ELCA has demonstrated that it is out of touch with the people in the pew. It has taken a minority view and elevated it to the status of policy, regardless of the responses given to Journey Together Faithfully: Part Two, which indicated a majority is in favor of the current policies and practices. It is as if the Church Council is deaf to the voice of the Church.

Rev. Roy A. Harrisville III, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Solid Rock Lutherans

The Book I Always Meant to Write

Historical writer James Chace has written the book I'd always intended to write myself. 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft, & Debs--The Election That Changed the Country tells the story of the pivotal presidential election held just two years before World War One erupted in Europe.

The reasons I've always felt this election was significant are several:

(1) Two candidates, representing mainstream political efforts to co-opt and undercut the incipient radicalism then growing in the American body politic, offered progressive political agendas: Governor Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, and former President Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive or Bull Moose candidate. Wilson polled about 6-million votes, TR just over 4-million that year. Between the two of them, Roosevelt and Wilson probably spared the country a move to radicalism that would have had dreadful consequences when the Great Depression hit some seventeen years later.

(2) Roosevelt's form of conservatism was effectively thwarted as a force within the Republican Party, by his defeat that year. TR, natural heir of Lincolnian conservatism, could not wrest the 1912 Republican nomination from his former protege, William Howard Taft. Today, I think it's safe to say that TR's and Lincoln's stripe of conservatism, one that believes in vibrant internationalism and saving free enterprise by preserving economic opportunity for the middle and lower classes, later championed by Dwight Eisenhower, is in some ways absent from the Republican Party.

(3) Debs' run in 1912 represents the climax of socialism in America. He received about 900,000 votes. After opposing American entry into the First World War and being convicted and imprisoned for that opposition, Debs remained a force, but a diminishing one in US politics. Many of his ideas were later incorporated into both the Republican and Democratic platforms, where they were domesticated.

(4) The rupture of the friendship between Taft and Roosevelt is the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. Taft had never wanted to be president, but both his wife and TR had insisted on his ascendancy to the office. He was miserable as President, but he fought to keep the office, feeling that TR had betrayed him, much as TR felt that Taft had betrayed him by appointing more reactionary conservatives to his Cabinet and for certain perceived departures from Roosevelt's policies.

I'm only about fifty pages into Chace's book. But one fact that he underscores so far is how seemingly inconsequential statements that are tossed off almost thoughtlessly can have huge consequences. Two examples:

  • Theodore Roosevelt's statement on the night of his huge electoral victory in 1904, that he would not seek re-election in 1908. You'll remember that TR had succeeded William McKinley to the presidency when the McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt could have run for re-election in 2004 without raising a ruckus over violating the custom of Presidents serving but two terms. (That was a taboo which his relative, Franklin Roosevelt, would later successfully violate.)
  • William Howard Taft's enthusiastic endorsement of the Payne-Aldrich tariff, in spite of the fact that he had huge personal reservations about it. It allowed him to be painted as a reactionary, against the common people of the Midwest and the South.

Both statements were slips of the tongue which both men later came to regret. Had Roosevelt not made his pledge, he no doubt would have been renominated in 1908, carrying a Congress of like-minded Republicans into office with him, smoothing the way for his agenda.

Had Taft not said what he did about the tariff, he would have probably blunted efforts by some to drive a wedge between himself and TR, who had already indicated a preference for seeing Taft renominated in 1912. But his words became a mallet used over his head, convincing the nearly-messianic Roosevelt of the need for his candidacy.

So far, I'm enjoying Chace's book a lot!

UPDATE: Here is the transcript of Brian Lamb's BookNotes interview with James Chace, conducted last year. Man, I still miss BookNotes, the only TV show I watched virtually every week during its run!

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Give Wrigley Field a Decent Burial and Move On

I guess you'd have to call me a baseball traditionalist.

For example:
  • I think that the American League should get rid of the designated hitter. It's a perversion of the game and decreases the strategic cat-and-mouse contests between managers that have traditionally been part of baseball.
  • I think that the fences should be moved farther out at major league ball fields. Apart from the possibility that some of today's most prolific homerun hitters are juiced on steroids, the playpens in which the game transpires today make it much easier to jack balls out of the park. If Babe Ruth were playing this summer, he'd be hitting so many homers that, emulating him, Barry Bonds and other sluggers would pop hot dogs instead of the other things they're alleged to have ingested.
  • I think that two-run pitchers' duels are a lot more interesting than twenty-run slugfests. In such matches, virtually every single pitch is a game to itself, laden with tension and suspense and strategic decision-making. It's exhilarating to watch such Fischer-Spasky-like chess matches take place.
  • I also think that if players can't be summarily banned from the game for steroid use, owners should honor the game while honoring players' contracts by having roid-popping hitters make exhibition-only plate appearances in asterisk-embroidered uniforms. Let them hit balls over fences; just don't let their fraudulent achievements count for anything.
The integrity of the game is important to me. So is honoring its past.

But there is at least one way in which I am not a baseball traditionalist. Making this confession will probably get me into more trouble than if I suggested changing the colors of the US flag to purple, pink, and green. But, here goes.

I've been to two games at Chicago's Wrigley Field, home of the National League Cubs. The first time was in 1969. My uncle and cousin, then living in DuPage County to the west of Chicago, took me to a game between the Cubs and the Reds. Pete Rose was playing in right field, our seats were practically on top of him, and we were surrounded by a contingent of the Rosie Reds, a bunch of middle-aged and elderly female Reds fans who adored Rose. It's a charming adolescent memory.

My other Wrigley Field pilgrimage came in 1999. My son and I were headed to DuPage County, for a campus visit at Wheaton College, one of the schools he was considering attending once he graduated from high school. Unlike my earlier visit to Wrigley, this is one I wish I hadn't made, even though we witnessed two Sammy Sosa-launched homers.

Do you know what changed in the world during the thirty years between my two visits to Wrigley? Everything.

But you know what changed about Wrigley? Very little.

Many will tell you that's a good thing. A buddy of mine, an even bigger fan of the game than I am, says that he regards Wrigley's "friendly confines" as almost holy ground, a cathedral of America's national pastime. Those who venerate Wrigley think of it as a "field of dreams," the site of a Holy Communion-like anamnesis where true believers in baseball from the past, present, and future fellowship together.

That's not how I see it at all. To me, Wrigley Field is an interesting piece of Americana that historians might want to maintain as a combination monument and museum, but only if foot traffic through its labyrinthine and structurally volatile innards is kept to a minimum.

In the thirty years that passed between my first and second visits, Wrigley passed from a good venue for watching a baseball game to an uncomfortable, outdated mausoleum with ivy.

In that same period of time, a new generation of baseball stadia have been erected in places like Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Seattle, and San Francisco. They all manage to honor and evoke the past while giving the modern amenities that make it both possible and attractive for families to go to a ball game.

On that day at Wrigley in 1999, my son and I came face-to-face with the many problems of a stadium setting smack-dab in the middle of a neighborhood, hemmed in by history and stifled by obsolescence.

Traffic was a mess. Residents in the surrounding area sold tiny spots of their yards and driveways as parking places at exorbitant prices. This was caused by a jarring fact: Wrigley has no parking accommodations.

The seats in the stadium, although certainly not the originals, conform to the dimensions of that original hardware, I'm sure. My son and I sat sandwiched between portly travelers from Kansas City; it was uncomfortable for all of us.

Hey, if I want the minor league experience, I can go to Columbus, Indianapolis, Dayton, or Louisville.

But at age 51, a whimpering, whiny, selfish baby boomer (at least when it comes to baseball), I expect major league amenities at major league ballparks. Wrigley is not a major league ball park.

And every time the owners of the Cubs try upgrading their white elephant, they offend the team's fans and assorted "purists." The biggest pitfall of owning a team that plays in what fans see as a shrine is that renovation and innovation are condemned as bad things. It's as bad as being the pastor of a traditional congregation who suggests the addition of a contemporary worship service: grief ensues.

Wrigley Field is falling apart. I worry that some day, a tragedy could occur: a roof collapsing on twenty-thousand fans, for example. And why? All because traditionalists can't let go of their nostalgia.

Renovations to Wrigley are virtually impossible to do either because of opposition at every turn or because the building is so structurally unsound.

I don't live in Chicago and I'm not a Cubs fan. So, maybe I shouldn't even have an opinion.

But if I did live in Chicago, a town I've always loved, and if I were a fan of the Cubs, a team that has been among my favorites over the years, I'd say, "It's time to give Wrigley a decent burial and say, 'Thanks for the memories.' It's time to make it comfortable to go to the ballpark. It's time to accommodate fans with parking. It's time to keep everybody safe."

Baseball isn't just about the past. It's about today. And if the stewards of contemporary baseball do things right today, the game could be around for a lot of tomorrows, too.

[For related stories, check out these links:
Plans for Wrigley Field Makeover Leave Much To Be Desired
Homeowners Put on a Good Face (about Fenway Park in Boston)]

Council Recommends Lutheran Body Break with Biblical Teachings on Homosexuality

Yesterday, the Church Council of the denomination of which I am a member, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) passed a resolution recommending that the upcoming Churchwide Assembly of our body change the Church's policies regarding the ordination as pastors and calling as professional lay ministers of practicing homosexuals by individual congregations. Here is a press release from the ELCA on the subject.

Here, by the way, is my earlier response to the report of a churchwide task force on sexuality which was issued some months ago.

Below is the text of an email I shared last night with the congregation I serve as pastor (followed by an email I forwarded to them):
Dear Friend:
This is a time for intense prayer on the part of all of us who are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

The Church Council of the ELCA has recommended that our denominational body take a step which I believe and which our Church Council believes, I am sure, would take us away from the Bible as the ultimate authority over our life, faith, and practice. Such reverence for the Scriptures has always been the hallmark of Lutheranism.

What the Council is basically recommending is that the Churchwide Assembly, to be held later this year, give individual congregations the option of calling practicing homosexuals to be pastors or rostered leaders in the Church.

No person is perfectly sinless.

The sin of homosexual behavior is neither worse or better than any other sin identified by the Scriptures.

But homosexual behavior is identified as sin by the Scriptures, a violation of God's will for human beings.

We must make certain that our churches are havens for all sinners, places where salvation is proclaimed: Forgiveness and new life for all with faith in Jesus Christ. But we dare not call approved what God has condemned.

Therefore, I deem it imperative for the sake of our denomination's witness for Christ and for the future unity and existence of the ELCA, that this recommendation be defeated. Please begin praying that this will happen.

I am forwarding an email which I have just received from Pastor Bob Forsberg, an ELCA pastor in the Dayton area. That email also contains a report from one of our denomination's most eminent theologians, Roy Harrisville. Both Pastor Forsberg and Dr. Harrisville oppose this recommendation.

In opposing it, we aren't being self-righteous or judgmental. We are simply saying that God's grace may be free, but it is not cheap. We must be willing to give up on our personal preferences and sins in order to empty our hands to receive God's grace. I am a sinner. I have done much that I regret. But I refuse to call righteous what God calls sin. I pray that our Church will take the same stance. I know that Friendship will!

God help us all!

Blessings in Christ,

Dear SOS [Southern Ohio Synod] Clergy and Lay,
It appears the ELCA Church Council has spoken. Now it is time for our congregations and synods to respond at the Churchwide Assembly to this attempted coup of the ELCA.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Final Notes from the ELCA Church Council – April 11, 2005
(FINAL TEXT of the motion on Sexuality Task Force Recommendation #3)

After deliberation which included two failed amendments and one substitute motion, the ELCA Church voted to forward the following recommendation to the Churchwide Assembly. The vote was 32 in favor and 2 against.
In an earlier communiqué I misidentified Jeannine Janson as Jeanine Olson. She was gracious to point out that at least I had gotten the “o-n” right. My apologies to Jeannine.

Roy A. Harrisville III

April 9-11, 2005

Position Two: Homosexuality as condition, not choice

Overview of this position
As described in the report of the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality, there are those in this church who believe that homosexuality is a condition, not a choice. There is recognition in scientific studies and in personal experience that life-long, committed, loving relationships are life-giving for homosexual persons, their congregations and communities. Like all Christians, gay and lesbian people are baptized into the body of Christ. There is significant study which suggests that biblical texts that condemn same-gender sexual activity do not address homosexual people who are in committed relationships. Rather, these texts are understood as condemning behavior that is abusive or God-denying. The life in Christ to which we are called in Scripture is a life lived in the radical grace of God, bearing the fruits of the Spirit, and many see these fruits evident in the lives of gay and lesbian people. There are growing numbers of congregations ministering to gay and lesbian persons whose mission might both accept and be enriched by gay and lesbian pastors and rostered leaders.

Rationale for Support of the Proposed Process
People holding this view believe all language excluding gay and lesbian persons in committed relationships is unjust and should be removed. However, there can be support for this proposal for two reasons: (a) while the language of Vision and Expectations continues, there would exist an avenue by which gay and lesbian persons in committed relationships may be called to the ministry of this church, and (b) just as it took the Church and the world many years to understand other critical issues, such as the re-marriage of divorced people, this process provides the opportunity for continued discernment of where the Holy Spirit is leading the church.

Description of the Proposed Process
This is a process for determining whether an otherwise qualified gay or lesbian person in a committed relationship might be granted an exception. The process would involve the following elements:
1. Any person considered for exception under the bylaw is expected to be in compliance with the policies of this church, except for being in a committed, same-sex relationship.
2. There shall be a reasonable assumption or confirmation that a congregation or other ministry will extend or continue a call to the person being considered for an exception.
3. If the bishop is in support of extending or continuing such a call, he or she WILL SEEK ENDORSEMENT BY THE SYNOD COUNCIL AND, UPON ENDORSEMENT, SHALL ask the Synod Council to make a request for an exception to the Conference of Bishops, in much the same manner as other roster exceptions are currently processed.
4. The Conference of Bishops shall consider and act on the request of the bishop and the Synod council.
5. If the exception is authorized and the candidate is approved for call and enters the roster through this process, he or she shall not be subject to discipline by a subsequent bishop and/or council making a decision on the same set of facts.
6. It shall be the exception that any candidate or rostered minister who is in a same-sex relationship shall be subject to the same level of commitment and fidelity that this church expects of heterosexual pastors in marriage. We understand this to mean a commitment of life-long fidelity. Deviation from this level of expectation will be subject to the discipline as exists for all others.
7. We acknowledge that the recommendation leaves in place all previous policies and guidelines. There exists no inherent right either of a congregation or a candidate to stand apart from the possibility of discipline. Rather, the recommendation opens the possibility of a bishop, synod, and a synodical Candidacy Committee, reaching common agreement that the mission of this church would be served by such a decision.

Recommended: Two-thirds required AT ASSEMBLY

To recommend the following resolution to the 2005 Churchwide Assembly:

WHEREAS, within this church we continue to share a profound commitment to the authority of Scripture as the norm for faith and life;
WHEREAS, we recognize there are deeply held yet different interpretations of Scripture to which consciences are bound;
WHEREAS, within this church we confess that all people are sinful beings, including those who serve in rostered ministry;
WHEREAS, within this church there are both those who believe that same-sex sexual conduct is inherently sinful, and those who believe that same-sex sexual conduct in a committed relationship is morally defensible for those who are of homosexual orientation;
WHEREAS, there are those in this church who believe that the ELCA should affirm and uphold current policy and practice regarding people in same-sex committed relationships;
WHEREAS, there are those in this church who believe that the Holy Spirit is calling into public ministry persons who are in committed, same-sex relationships, and congregations are indicating a willingness to call such persons to service; and
WHEREAS, within this church there is a desire to maintain the continuity of the church’s traditional teaching and practice while also providing opportunity for ongoing discernment of new ways in which the Spirit might be speaking to this church in our time, and both may be honored by taking the step to create a process for consideration of exceptions; therefore be it

RESOLVED, that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America shall:

1. Affirm and uphold the standards for rostered leaders as set forth in Vision and Expectations;
2. Create a process for the sake of outreach, ministry, and the commitment to continuing dialogue, which may permit exceptions to the expectations regarding sexual conduct for gay and lesbian candidates and rostered leaders in life-long, committed, and faithful same-sex relationships who otherwise are determined to be in compliance with Vision and Expectations;
3. Adopt the following bylaws to permit implementation of this limited process for exceptions to the normative policies of this church: Ordination for Particular Service. For pastoral reasons and for the sake of mission in the synod, under policy and procedures approved by the Church Council, UPON RECOMMENDATION BY A SYNODICAL BISHOP TO THE SYNOD COUNCIL AND UPON ENDORSEMENT BY THE SYNOD COUNCIL, A SYNODICAL BISHOP SHALL seek an exception from the Conference of Bishops to permit the assignment of a candidate who provides evidence of intent to live in a life-long, committed and faithful same-sex relationship, and has been approved through the synodical candidacy process. When such an exception is granted, the synodical bishop may ordain – as authorized in the governing documents of this church and policy adopted by the Church Council – a candidate who has received and accepted a properly issued, duly attested letter of call for service in the ministry of Word and Sacrament by a congregation that has indicated its openness to call a candidate who provides evidence of intent to live in a life-long, committed and faithful same-sex relationship. Likewise, upon RECOMMENDATION BY A SYNODICAL BISHOP TO THE SYNOD COUNCIL AND UPON endorsement by the Synod Council, a synodical bishop SHALL seek an exception through the Conference of Bishops – under policy and procedures approved by the Church Council – to maintain on the roster of ordained ministers an individual, under call for service in an ELCA ministry setting, who provides evidence of intent to live in a life-long, committed, and faithful same-sex relationship. All requirements of policies of this church related to ordained ministers apply to such an individual, except those that preclude living in such relationships.

Approval for Particular Service… [This section has similar by-laws changes for other rostered ministries]

Fasting from Prayer?, Part Three

The topic of this series of blogs was suggested by a piece that Rob Asghar recently wrote. In it, Rob said that he was fasting from prayer, or at least the "gimme, gimme" type of prayer, including such prayers offered for others.

Part of Rob's reason for not offering such prayers is that they seem selfish and shallow, a laudable concern. I had a lot that I was going to write in addressing this. But Richard Foster, in his wonderful book, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, has done so much better than I would have done. Consider this:
I used to think that I needed to get all my motives straightened out before I could pray, really pray. I would be in some prayer group, for example, and I would examine what I had just prayed and think to myself, "How utterly foolish and self-centered; I can't pray this way!" And so I would determine never to pray again until my motives were pure. You understand, I did not want to be a hypocrite. I knew that God is holy and righteous. I knew that prayer is no magic incantation. I knew that I must not use God for my own ends. But the practical effect of all this internal soul-searching was to completely paralyze my ability to pray.

The truth of the matter is, we all come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives--altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright, or pure, or filled with faith, or anything. That is what grace means, and not only are we saved by grace, we live by it as well. And we pray by it.

Jesus reminds us that prayer is a little like children coming to their parents. Our children come to us with the craziest requests at times! Often we are grieved by the meanness and selfishness in their requests, but we would be all the more grieved if they never came to us even with their meanness and selfishness. We are simply glad that they do come--mixed motives and all.

This is precisely how it is with prayer. We will never have pure enough motives, or be good enough, or know enough in order to pray rightly. We simply must set all these things aside and begin praying. In fact, it is in the very act of prayer itself--the intimate, ongoing interaction with God--that these matters are cared for in due time.

[For further exploration of this topic, check out
Fasting from Prayer?, Part One
Fasting from Prayer?, Part Two
An Excursus from the topic, based on a question raised about Part One]

Media Biases and Possible Solutions?

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof talks about the reduced credibility of the press these days, citing a recent Pew study showing that, "45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing in their daily newspapers, up from 16 percent two decades ago."

The most ominous aspect of this story, from Kristof's perspective, is that it gives latitude to judges and other public officials in deciding how to interpret the First Amendment's press freedoms. He suggests that public support for the media is far more important to insuring freedom of the press than is the Bill of Rights itself.

He goes on to review some of the allegations against the press and what the press might do to increase its credibility with the public.

Kristof concludes his piece with this:

I don't see any easy solutions, but print, radio and television all need to take much bolder steps to reconnect with the public.

More openness, more willingness to run corrections, more ombudsmen, more acknowledgement of our failings - those are the kinds of steps that are already under way and that should be accelerated. It would help if news organizations engaged in more outreach to explain themselves, with anchors or editors walking readers through such minefields as why we choose to call someone a "terrorist," or how we wield terms like "pro-life" or "pro-choice."

We also need more diverse newsrooms. When America was struck by race riots in the late 1960's, major news organizations realized too late that their failure to hire black reporters had impaired their ability to cover America. In the same way, our failure to hire more red state evangelicals limits our understanding of and ability to cover America today.

I think we're nuts not to regulate handguns more strictly, but I also think that gun owners have a point when they complain that gun issues often seem to be covered by people who don't know a 12-gauge from an AR-15.

If one word can capture the public attitude toward American journalists, I'm afraid it's "arrogant." Not surprisingly, I think that charge is grossly unfair. But it's imperative that we respond to that charge - not by dismissing it, but by working far more diligently to reconnect with the public.

Unless we can recover the public trust, our protests about reporters' going to jail will come across as self-serving whining. And we'll wake up one day to find ourselves on the wrong side of history.

While there is little doubt that increasing numbers of Americans view what is reported by the mainstream media with skepticism, Kristof's thoughtful piece also may be an example of slightly overwrought hand-wringing. A few observations:

(1) I think that a more detailed examination of people's beliefs about media credibility would reveal that our attitudes are more complicated than can be conveyed by a simple, "Is the media credible?" question.

People generally have their favorite media outlets, which they probably regard as being more credible than others. This phenomenon is analogous to people's varied attitudes about the Congress, on the one hand, and their individual Congressman or Congresswoman, on the other. In the congressional district in which I live, for example, there is little doubt in my mind that most people don't care much for the Congress, but they're generally wild about Congressman Rob Portman.

(2) I think that sometimes people detect the withholding of information by various media outlets. But often, the people who feel this way, actually have the information they claim not to see in the media. Often, callers to radio programs begin their calls by saying something like, "Why hasn't the media reported..." and then go on to cite an event or factoid their knowledge of which obviously derived from the media.

The real beef for such folks then, isn't that the media hasn't reported an event or fact, it's that the media hasn't given as much attention to it as this person would prefer. That may be legitimate, but sometimes it's not. Nonetheless, I wonder whether it's fair to universalize that the media isn't credible simply because one finds it less than credible in a specific case.

(3) I think that generally speaking, people invest credibility in the media's reporting of what I would describe as everyday, pedestrian events, things like: a plane crashed today, four protesters were arrested, X Corporation announced expansion plans, the forecast calls for sunshine tomorrow, and so forth.

Where the media gets into trouble is when it attempts to explain facts. The traditional press has an obligation to offer explanations, to dig for the truth behind the facts. The problem is that many people detect biases, biases that I think are clearly present.

(4) Kristof is right in saying that the press could do with more openness. But his suggestion that more Red State folks be hired for newsrooms throughout the country is problematic, even for Red State people.

Surely, if the problem with America's mainstream media is that it is biased, the answer is not the institution of a hiring bias, one that would probably be illegal anyway.

The ultimate reason many Americans feel that the media is biased is their suspicion that it denigrates their life styles, their religion, and their values. This is the sentiment of people in America's "flyover" states and that's what lay behind the decreasing credibility of the press.

The answer though can't be quotas. The answer, it seems to me, is inculcating an attitude among fledgling and veteran journalists that sees the possibility that people in places like Archbold, Ohio, and Effingham, Illinois, and Pilot Knob, Missouri, and Valdosta, Georgia, and a thousand other dots on the map lead worthy lives, have intelligent thoughts, do notable things.

Monday, April 11, 2005

A Mystery That I'd Prefer Not Solving

Rob Asghar revealed on his web log today that his readership is down about 50% from its usual average right now. I guess that we could form a support group. As I commented to Rob:
My readership is way down lately too. I theorize that part of the reason is that Spring has begun here in the East, always the biggest single time zone represented in my readership. People are spending a lot more time outside.

Of course, it also could be that what I've written lately has been both sparse and stinky. But I don't want to believe either of those conditions prevails.
Hey, perk up the days of a soon-to-be-columnist and a loquacious preacher: Email all your friends now about Rob's and my blogs. Invite them to check out our respective blogs. (If you have to lie, tell them that Better Living is wonderful!)

Refreshing Difference Evident

Today, I listened to some of Hugh Hewitt's radio interview with Nan Aron, director of the Alliance for Justice. While Hewitt asked some tough questions and promoted his conservative views as an alernative to those of Aron, a liberal, what I heard of their discussion was refreshing. Often, the discussion found on commercial talk radio and the cable news shows are to informative discourse what the WWF is to wrestling. Hugh is to be commended.

Q-and-A: What Does It Mean to Abide in Christ?

Last week, commenting on the first of what has so far been a two-part series called, Fasting from Prayer?, a reader asked if I would explain part of a passage from the New Testament that I cited there. The place that the reader wondered about quotes Jesus as saying:
"If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." [John 15:7]
What, Derek wondered, does it mean to abide in Jesus?

I'll see if I can answer that question adequately.

First of all, one of the most important things you can do in trying to understand a Biblical passage is to consider its immediate context. It's important to pay attention to what precedes and what follows a particular passage.

Next, you should try to consider the overall theological emphases, literary conventions, and thought patterns in a particular book of the Bible. God inspires Scripture, but He delivers it through individual people with certain characteristics and unique personalities. The writings of John, for example, are very different from those of Paul, even though they both talk about Jesus and commend the same basic theology.

And of course, an overall understanding of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, can be helpful. For example, if someone suggested that a particular passage demonstrated that God was a frilled lizard, a knowledge of the Bible would prepare you to refute such notions promoted by an interpretation of just one verse.

Let's apply these three principles to Jesus' words in John 15:7. What does He mean by calling on us to "abide" in His words?

The immediate context is a passage of Scripture, part of Jesus' Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John. It begins with Jesus saying, "I am the true [alternative translation: real] vine, and My Fatther is the vinegrower. He removes every branch that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit He prunes to make it bear more fruit..." [John 15:1-2] Jesus spends several more verses developing this theme of His being the vine, His followers being the branches who are meant to bear fruit, and the Father being the vinedresser [alternative translation: gardener].

Father Raymond Brown, author of my favorite commentary on the Gospel of John, points out that what Jesus says in John 15:7 represents a break from His words in the preceding six verses. I'm not certain that I entirely agree. It's true that Jesus changes imagery. But I think that when He tells us to abide in His words, He's really amplifying what precedes the statement. That notion is upheld by the fact that in verse 8, Jesus goes back to talking about His followers as branches whose call is to bear "much fruit."

So, the evidence of the immediate context is that Jesus is creating an analogy between being branches who draw their sustenance and capacity for growth from the vine on the one hand, and being believers who abide in His words (and Whose words abide in them) on the other. Only branches that remain connected to the vine, Jesus, will live and bear fruit; only believers who stay connected to Jesus will live and find their prayers answered. At least, to this point in our consideration, that seems to be what Jesus means.

Next, we look at the overall emphases, themes, and conventions of the Gospel of John. (Because John is also the writer of the letters First, Second, and Third John, and the often-confounding book of Revelation, it's appropriate to look at those books for understanding individual passages in John as well.) To do this for the verse at hand, it's good to look at how certain key words that appear in our passage are routinely used in John's writings.

The first word I'd look at is abide. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the root of this word is menein. An equally good English translation might be remain. It comes up repeatedly in John's Gospel. To remain is to faithfully stick with a commitment. Of course, the ultimate example of faithfully remaining is Jesus, Who went to a cross, completing His mission of dying for us. It's in John's Gospel that we find the faithful Jesus saying as He dies, "It is finished," or alternatively, "It is completed."

The call of believers is to remain connected to Jesus, giving their lives to Him. There are good reasons for this. One is that He is the Giver of life. That's the point of John 3:16, the Gospel's most famous passage and the verse that Martin Luther described as "the Gospel [God's good news] in a nutshell." Remaining connected to Jesus gives us the power to live and do things. Jesus tells us, "Without Me, you can do nothing." To try to live or to convince ourselves that by our good deeds we will get life from God is as silly as thinking that a rocket can be launched without fuel. Unless the God we know through Jesus gives us life, we're dead.

Another key word in this passage is words. The specific word for words in the Greek here is hremata, the plural form of the word, hrema. It's only one of two words for word in the Gospel of John. The other, which appears near the end of many English words like psychology, geology, ecology, and so on, is logos.

Logos, in fact, is the word for word that John uses in the famous prologue to His Gospel in which He identifies Jesus as the "Word made flesh," God come to earth as a human being. Identifying Jesus in this way allows John to speak to his mixed Jewish and Gentile audience. In the Old Testament thought-world of the Jews, God was the utterer of the creative word that brought life into being: God said it and it happened, according to Genesis. In the thought-world of some Greek philosophy, the word was the impersonal originator of life, the first cause.

But, as Brown points out, John doesn't always use logos in this way. Sometimes, he uses this version of the word for word in the more pedestrian ways associated with the word, hrema.

And both words can sometimes be used to describe the commands of God. In fact, the commandments were commonly called, the ten words.

Brown says that it's no stretch to conceive of Jesus using the idea of Himself as God's Word for the human race and His words, including His commands, "interchangeably." I think he's right.

Finally, all that we've looked at so far seems consistent with the overall picture of God and of human relationships with God that is portrayed in the Bible.

So, what does Jesus mean in John 15:7?

Simply this, I think: The people who live and accomplish things of lasting value are the ones who remain connected to the only source of life that exists, the God we know through Jesus Christ.

Branches are only fruitful for as long as they keep drawing life from the vine. Of course, Jesus' analogy isn't a perfect simile. Branches cannot decide to tear themselves from the vine. God gives us that terrible freedom and people exercise it every day. (I have exercised it myself.) Thank God, we can turn back to Jesus, seeking forgiveness and be reconnected to Him.

I hope that this explanation helps, Derek.

One other thing. Anyone can do such an analysis of Biblical passages. I'm not a Bible scholar by a long shot. There are lots of good Bible concordances and commentaries that will help you do much of what I've just done here, even without your knowing any Greek or Hebrew.

The Church, the Young, and Standing for Something

John Simpson, world affairs editor for the BBC, is writing great stuff about what's next for the Roman Catholic Church from Rome. Two particularly interesting passages in his most recent dispatch:
The minor miracle of how Rome coped with the near-doubling of its
population for the Pope's funeral is already being embroidered.

Yet perhaps the real miracle was the way so many young people
descended on Rome to pay their last respects to John Paul II.

This was indeed a Children's Crusade, and those in Europe and America
who have grown used to thinking of the Catholic Church as a refuge for older
people were made to think again.

Middle aged Baby Boomers may in fact think that faith in Christ has grown passe. But that is clearly not the case. In fact, I sometimes feel that the Church--the whole Christian Church--will be far better off once our tentative, relativistic generation no longer holds positions of leadership and a younger group, more certain of the God known in Jesus Christ, take over.

Another passage of Simpson's interesting article, here offering speculation on John Paul II's successor, after reviewing many issues now dividing the Church:
The huge crowd of mostly young people who said their farewells to the Pope
were captivated by his energy and determination. A new pope in his seventies,
tired and perhaps a little frail, will not look good by comparison.

The old Vatican stand-by, after a powerful and charismatic pope, was
always a compromise candidate, selected primarily because he was unlikely to
last long.

That will not do this time. Better for the Catholic Church to have a
pope who will energise some, than a pope who will fail to rally anyone at all.

There is something to this advice for the whole Church: Better to stand for something and tick people off than to stand for nothing and lose their interest in Christ.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Forty Days of Purpose: What Are We Living For?

Ephesians 5:15-17
Luke 10:38-42
(A message shared with the people of Friendship Church, April 10, 2005)

This was a week in which I felt, in the proverblial phrase, "like a chicken with my head cut off."

Because of the pace at which I ran all weeklong, much of what I did probably didn’t represent the best of which I’m capable or always reflect my best judgment. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed!

On Friday in fact, I felt so overwhelmed that I vented to some people on the telephone. Sometimes just to their answering machines! Of course, that solved nothing, because after the venting was done, I sill had things to do. To tell you the truth, later that afternoon, I put on a little pity party for myself.

Of course, there’s a certain guilt I feel in telling you this. When I look at the hard work done by so many people in this congregation, work that they pile on top of their job and family lives, I sometimes ask myself, “How dare you feel sorry for you?”

Just this past week, for example, I watched the giving team for the women’s retreat --their only motive being to give other women the gift of Jesus--as they worked to prepare for the end of this month; I saw the ensemble practice their music; Tim Toerner and Mike DeVore paint the lobby and front hallway of this building; Eric Petru co-teach Catechism with me; the Forty Days cabinet and their various committees make final preparations for this campaign of spiritual renewa we begin today; Brenda Knorr copy and staple the bulletins; Don Wood prepare the PowerPoint; and on and on it goes. There are lots of people in this congregation who work very hard!

I’m telling you all this because I suspect, the pace in your life has been as frenzied as mine has been lately. Maybe even more so.

I really need these forty days and judging by all that you do, I think that you need it too. That’s because in the busy-ness of life and the effort to simply put out the next fire, it's easy for us to forget about the meaning and the purpose of our living.

One of our Bible lessons for this morning tells the story of what happened one day when Jesus went to the house of three friends, a man named Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary. Most of you undoubtedly know it very well. We have no word on what Lazarus was doing during Jesus’ visit. But we do know that Martha was knocking herself out, busying herself with living up to being the sort of gracious, omnipresent hostess that her twenty-first century namesake Martha Stewart would seem to be. (When not doing time in the big house.) Meanwhile, Mary is chillin’. She is sitting, listening intently to Jesus teach.

Martha, frenzied, overwhelmed by all that she thinks she needs to do, finally has had enough. And she can’t believe that Jesus doesn’t see how hard she’s working and how Mary is sitting on her...blessed assurance.

She goes to Jesus and she asks, “Don’t you care that my sister [She’s so mad that she can’t even bring herself to say Mary’s name right now.] has left me to do all the work by myself? [Wah, wah, wah!] Tell her to help me!” (Parenthetically, notice here that this woman who seems to pride herself on being a super-servant is ordering the Lord of the universe to do something. I think this woman might be passive-aggressive.) “Tell her to help me!”

Jesus’ answer is nothing less than stunning. He says compassionately, “Martha, Martha.” [Isn’t it interesting that Jesus personalizes His response to this woman who had refused to use her sister’s name, by calling Martha by her name twice?] “Martha, Martha,” He tells her, “you are worried and distracted by many things; but there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Please don’t misunderstand. Jesus isn’t telling us to give up on doing any work and sit around listening to Bible CDs and K-Love Christian radio all day long. But He is condemning unnecessary worry and activity that crowds out the most important thing in life. That one thing in one word is: Jesus. When we rely on Him for forgiveness of our sins; for strength to face each day; for guidance in our decision-making; and for everything else in our lives, life makes sense. We live with purpose.

Martin Luther, the founder of the Christian movement of which Friendship Church is a part, was simultaneously, pastor of a local church, university professor, administrator of fourteen monasteries, and prolific author. He wrote to a friend, “I have too many things to do to spend anything less than three hours a day in prayer.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that you and I spend three hours a day in prayer. But I will tell you this: The reason my week was so overwhelming was that I spent too little time getting the guidance, help, focus, and strength that a person can only get from spending time following and heeding Jesus.

Our other Bible lesson for this morning tells us: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” Jesus would say that at that moment in their home, Mary understood the will of the Lord and Martha didn’t. And understanding God’s will for our lives is the key to understanding our purpose for living.

This morning, I want to consider three questions. They don’t originate with me. They come to us from Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose Driven Life.

The first is this: What does the God we know through Jesus Christ want? Answer: God wants our whole lives! One passage in the New Testament book of Romans says, “No longer present your members [that means the various parts of your body] to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” (Romans 6:13)

The second question is this: What does it take to give our whole lives to God? Answer: Something that doesn’t come easily to me and which is only ours when we ask God to give it to us, discipline. To live our lives for God and for the purposes He built into our very DNA, we need the discipline it takes to turn our backs on the world’s ways of doing things and to embrace God’s ways. Another place in th New Testament tells us, “Train yourself in godliness.” (First Timothy 4:7)

And the final question is this: Why should I do this? Why should I give my whole life to God and put myself under God’s discipline?

The movie, Saving Private Ryan, tells the story of a group of US soldiers during World War Two, who find and bring to safety another soldier, the youngest member of a family in which all the older brothers have been killed in battle. In the movie's final scene, Private Ryan, now an aged man stands over a grave in a military cemetery. He looks, with tears in his eyes, to his wife, standing closeby, and asks her, "Am I a good man?" She assures him that, Yes, he is a very good man.

Why was that an important question to the aged Private Ryan? Because the man over whose grave he stood was the officer, played by Tom Hanks, who had been in charge of the detail of soldiers that had found and saved him. He had lost his life saving Private Ryan. Hanks' character had once told Ryan to make his efforts worthwhile by the life he lived.

Why should we give our whole lives to Jesus Christ and discipline our lives to do that? The answer is simple: The cross. On the cross, the God-Man Jesus died to set you and me from sin and death. He gives us our new life with God. Jesus gave His life to save us for life with God forever!

We put ourselves under the discipline and direction of God not to earn salvation or a place in heaven. That same Martin Luther I mentioned a moment ago began a Reformation when he insisted on what the Bible teaches: There is nothing that we can do to earn salvation. God loves us in spite of our sins and failures. Everything depends on Jesus. He has saved us. All that you and I can do is choose between following Him or ignoring Him. God gives new life to all who follow Jesus!

We can choose to use that new life in futile frenzy or use it according to God’s purposes. In yet another place in the New Testament, we read this: “And He [Christ] died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for Him Who died and was raised for them.”

The God Who died for us is worth paying attention to. He might have something to teach us about how to live.

God wants our whole lives. To give them to Him will require us to be disciplined. We should be willing to give our lives and submit to Jesus’ discipline because He died for us. Over the next forty days, I hope and pray we’ll pay special attention to Jesus and so, learn to live.