Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Calculus of God

The human mind doesn't do well with the infinite.  After all of human history, it wasn't until the 1600s that the calculus was invented.  The Greeks had ways of approximating areas, but it wasn't until Newton and Leibniz that the trick of the infinite began to be played.  If you want to know the precise area under a funky curve, add up the areas of smaller and smaller boxes under the curve.  The sum of the areas of smaller and smaller boxes approaching an infinite number of boxes is the precise area under the curve.

Statistical mechanics in the late 1800s did the same thing for predicting the behavior of an incredibly large number of molecules in a gas. Our minds aren't big enough to keep track of such a massive number of individual molecules.  We have to use statistics.  What's the probability of an electron being at a particular point at a particular time?  There aren't precise equations on this level but probability functions.  Precise equations aren't possible given our finite minds.

A lot of our talk about God, a lot of our attempts to come up with biblical truths or theological presuppositions, are surely at least as embarrassing as the geometry of the Greeks set next to Newton or the physics of Democritus put next to Schroedinger.  We console ourselves in our stupidity by pretending that our "biblical worldview" or "presuppositional truths" come anywhere close to what God literally thinks.  God smiles to listen to countless Sunday sermons with, finally, the real way to look at something or another.  And he gets the dunce caps ready for the first twenty minutes of heaven.

The deep theologian has a glimpse of how approximate the deepest understandings of God must surely be--and at how silly so much of so called Christian thinking can be in its pretenses.  Meanwhile, one of the reasons the best practitioners often find theology irrelevant is because they already know intuitively that the math is much more complex than the algebra so many theoreticians are selling.  The practitioner is sometimes intuitively using statistical mechanics while the shallow theoretician might not even know how to factor friction or entropy into the equation.

In such cases it's not that theory is irrelevant to practice.  It's that the people promoting theories in many cases don't know higher math. People especially use the Bible as a canvas on which to paint their own finitude and, again, God gets the dunce caps ready.  As Socrates suggested so long ago, the first step is to realize that we don't know nearly as much as we think we know...

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Jesus' Devotions on Palm Sunday

I'm working on a devotional for Passion Week with Wesleyan Publishing and was looking at Psalm 118, the passage those laying down palms quote on Palm Sunday.  118:26 says, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" (NIV2011).  Of course it's impossible to know for sure, but the thought occurred to me, "What if this psalm was on Jesus' mind that day?"  Or to put it more creatively, "What if Jesus read this psalm for his devotions that Sunday morning?"

First, I think Jesus would have associated this psalm with David and of course Jesus knew himself to be the Son of David.  The overall thrust of the psalm is thus God's vindication of David despite significant opposition.  How powerful the words of 118:6: "The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?"  What about 118:9: "It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes"?

Are these words that Jesus had in mind as he marched into Jerusalem, the one destined to be king?  "They swarmed around me like bees."  And of course the gospels quote 118:22, "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone."

I think it is quite possible that Jesus had well planned out Palm Sunday.  He arranged for the colt to evoke Zechariah 9:9.  Just perhaps it was arranged for people to quote Psalm 118:26.  And his course that day played out the path from Psalm 118:19 to 27: "Open for me the gates of the righteous... With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar." So Jesus enters Jerusalem and proceeds to the temple.

"The LORD has done it this very day; let us rejoice and be glad."

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Grudem 11b: Incommunicable Attributes 2

... continued from Sunday
B. The Incommunicable Attributes
1. Independence
Grudem defines God's "independence" as follows: "God does not need us or the rest of creation for anything, yet we and the rest of creation can glorify him and bring him joy" (160-61). This is Grudem's sense of the classic doctrine of God's "aseity" or self-existence.  God does not and could not need the creation for anything (162). With regard to us, he is a necessary being (we could not exist without him existing) but with regard to him we are completely unnecessary (he can and does exist whether we exist or not).

On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that our existence is therefore meaningless.  On the contrary, "we are in fact very meaningful because God has created us and he has determined that we would be meaningful to him. That is the final definition of genuine significance" (162).  God's existence is qualitatively different from ours but our contingent existence is immensely significant because it is significant to God.

Grudem is completely on target with his sense of God's self-existence.  God does not need us to exist nor does our existence complete God in any way.  This is the classic view.  Grudem is also correct in believing that our significance is derivative from God. Humanity is immensely significant because God considers humanity--and the creation as a whole--to be significant.

The main critique again is Grudem's use of Scripture to "proof text" his claims.  God's self-existence is more a topic that arose in later Christian theology than within the pages of the Bible itself.  On the one hand, Acts 17:25 does point solidly in this direction.  God does not need human service.  Even though the Bible doesn't say much about God's self-sufficiency, surely the biblical authors would have agreed.

On the other hand, attempts to use Exodus 3:14 to do hard core theological or philosophical service are generally anachronistic.  This is the passage where YHWH reveals his name to Moses.  To make significant metaphysical claims out of it is almost always to import later philosophical categories, often categories that did not exist until centuries after Christ.

"Couldn't God have been thinking such things when Exodus was written?", one might ask.  Certainly!  But how would we know what God was thinking at the time of Exodus, if that's not what Exodus itself originally meant?  We would implicitly be claiming that God revealed this truth at some later point in church history.  I personally am fine with thinking, but we should be clear in such cases that we are claiming God continued to reveal key understandings even after the New Testament was written. By contrast, those who say such things are often trying to use a meaning from outside the Bible to argue for a meaning inside the Bible. You can't have your cake and eat it to.

2. Unchangeableness
Grudem defines God's unchangeableness, also known as immutability, as follows: "God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations" (163).  By unchanging "perfections," Grudem means God's attributes do not change (164).  By unchanging "purposes," Grudem means that "once God has determined that he will assuredly bring something about, his purpose is unchanging and will be achieved."  By unchanging promises, he means that God will be faithful to his promises once he has promised something.

Grudem addresses the impression we get from various biblical texts that God changes his mind.  Moses intervenes and God decides not to destroy Israel. Hezekiah prays and God allows him to live for fifteen more years.  Jonah preaches, Nineveh repents, God changes his mind and spares it.  Grudem explains that "God responds differently to different situations" (165).  Statements about what God plans to do in such cases are statements of his present intention given a present situation.  When the situation changes, God's present intention changes. Such statements are thus not part of God's unchanging purposes or promises.

Another topic in this section is the question of God's "impassibility."  Does God experience emotions or "passions." Grudem differs from the Westminster Confession and holds that "the idea that God has no passions or emotions at all clearly conflicts with much of the rest of Scripture" (166).

In this section he also dismisses process theology, a form of theology that believes process and change are essential aspects of true existence, and thus that God must change if he exists.  The evangelical view in God's unchangeability, Grudem responds, does not imply that God does not act in the world. According to the Bible, Grudem says, God is both infinite and personal, something true only of biblical religion, he says.

Grudem ends his section on God's unchangeability with what is at stake.  If God could change, then he could change for the worse--he could become evil.  If God could change for the better, that would mean he isn't already the best.  If God could change his purposes or promises, then how could we trust him?  Some of the things most important to us about God would be in jeopardy.  Rather, God is "infinitely worthy of trust" (168).

Grudem's treatment of God's immutability is orthodox and would be agreeable to most Christians. His use of Scripture, as always, is dubious.  For example, the verses he quotes in relation to God's unchanging character need to be read in terms of what specific characteristic of God each passage is talking about.  When God says in Malachi 3:5 that he does not change, he is talking about changing his opposition to adultery, to those who pay unjust wages, to those who oppress immigrants, and so forth.  It is not talking about the theological doctrine of immutability.

When Hebrews 1:12 says that Jesus will not change, it is primarily talking about the fact that he will continue to live forever and probably that he will continue as high priest forever (cf. 7:24).  The psalm Hebrews is quoting had a slightly different referent in its context even still.  The parallelism of Psalm 102:26-27 indicates that the psalmist was speaking of God (the Father rather than Jesus') continued existence for ever. In short, Grudem doesn't know how to read biblical texts for their intended meanings.

I believe Grudem is also inconsistent in what he is willing to consider metaphorical and what he takes literally.  So he insists we must take language of God's emotions literally.  Perhaps he would say that he takes language of God changing his mind literally too, but I don't think he does because he is interpreting "change of mind" to mean "respond in a predictable way to a new circumstance."  Surely this is not the normal sense of "changing one's mind."

A more consistent view, in my opinion, is to say that language of God changing his mind is anthropopathic language.  It is human-speak that helps us understand God but that should not be taken literally.  If God knows all things, then he cannot literally change his mind (or in my opinion, literally have emotions).  These become less than literal pictures of God that enable us to relate to him.  They are true analogies of a reality we could not possibly understand on a literal level.

So I believe Grudem is mostly right. God walks with us through time in the way he supposes.  Yes, God's responses are predictable given God's unchanging character.  Unlike Grudem, I would say God's emotions fall into this same category of anthropopathic descriptions of God's predictable responses.

Where Grudem is wrong is to suppose that the biblical texts already have such a philosophically worked out theology.  Following Grudem's hermeneutic, he should be an open theist.  Open theists are individuals who believe that God has suspended his foreknowledge so that he can truly change his mind, experience emotions, etc.  They take the Old Testament text in particular more literally than Grudem does.  I believe Grudem rightly appropriates the Old Testament through later Christian theological eyes.  I believe he wrongly thinks he is taking the Old Testament literally.

We can raise some questions about Grudem's sense of God's unchanging purposes.  Where do we learn these?  Grudem would no doubt say that we learn them in the Bible.  The problem is of course that he is being selective in what purposes are unchanging and which or not.  Reading Leviticus on its own terms, for example, we would conclude that animal sacrifice is part of God's unchanging purpose.  It is only when we read Leviticus in the light of Hebrews that we come to a different conclusion. So Grudem is not wrong to say that God's purposes are unchanging.  He is only unreflective in how he has come to arrive at a knowledge of which of God's purposes are the unchanging ones.

A final word is in order about process theology, which is different from the open theism mentioned in the previous paragraph.  One has to wonder what reason anyone has for continuing to believe in God at all if one becomes a process theologian.  It does not seem a position that an atheist or objective seeker would adopt.  Rather, process theology seems to be an attempt to hold on to some vestige of a Christian faith one has more or less lost or abandoned.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Bishop 1

Since I know a number of others are reading Will Willimon's new book Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question, I thought I might as well.  I don't plan to write extensively, just give a few tidbits and perhaps reflect a little.  For today, I read the Introduction and first chapter.  My numbers are just to keep track of subjects.

1. Willimon is quite proud of the episcopal structure of the UM church.  He in effect calls John Wesley an "ecclesiastical whiner" for discouraging it. (xii)  This is a hint of his somewhat in-your-face style.  Hey, he's a retired bishop. He can say pretty much whatever he wants.

2. He doesn't like idea of it being lonely at the top.  He quotes approvingly a quote by Ron Heifetz that the greatest "myth of leadership is the myth of the lone warrior" (5).  He saw himself as continually surrounded by co-workers and saw the appointment of District Superintendents as the most important appointments a bishop makes.  "Nothing moves in the UMC until a DS commits to leading that change."

3. He likes John Kotter's stuff on Leading Change.  Strong leadership without good management gets an organization nowhere (6).  Yet, "Change cannot be managed; it must be led" (7).  "While DSs need not be great leaders, bishops must perform both management and leadership functions."

4. Obviously he thinks the UMC needs to change or die.  We'll see what he has to say.  He sees a need for risk.  "Management values control and devalues risk" (8).  There may be some here of relevance to IWU as it searches for its next president.

5. The final section of the first chapter has some rather blunt words by Willimon about both the privilege and challenge of being bishop in Alabama.  On the one hand, it is the state of Rosa Parks and Helen Keller.  On the other, it was there in 1921 that a Methodist preacher who was also an active member of the KKK shot a Roman Catholic priest dead for marrying his daughter to a Puerto Rican.  This Methodist was acquitted and went on as a preacher.

It was there that Governor George Wallace physically tried to block black children from going to school with white children.  He later would renounce his earlier attitudes, not wanting to meet his Maker before he had repented. Willimon clearly does not believe that the state has changed entirely, and mentions what he considers some of the most mean-spirited anti-immigration legislation in the nation in recent days.

More perhaps next week...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Grudem 11a: Incommunicable Attributes of God 1

Grudem continues...
A. Introduction
The next three chapters of Grudem's Systematic Theology treat the attributes (or characteristics) of God.  Chapter 11 deals with God's "incommunicable" attributes, while chapters 12 and 13 deal with God's "communicable" attributes.  Incommunicable attributes are aspects of God that he does not share with humanity, like the fact that he is present everywhere (omnipresent).  Communicable ones are attributes that he shares with us, like the fact that he is love--we love too.  Grudem makes the further claim that "there is no attribute of God that is completely communicable, and there is no attribute of God that is completely incommunicable" (157).

A second section to his introduction talks about the names of God in Scripture.  His basic point is that "God made the universe so that it would show forth the excellence of his character" (159).  The many images used of God in the Bible are illustrations of God taken from analogies to his character in the creation.  "All that Scripture says about God uses anthropomorphic language--that is, language that speaks of God in human terms." These are not wrong or untrue ideas about God, just somewhat figurative or less than fully literal ones. Further, each description of God's attributes in Scripture needs to be understood in the light of the rest of Scripture.

Finally, Grudem clues us into the format by which he will define the incommunicable attributes.  He will do so in two parts. The first part of his definition will define the attribute. The second part will balance out what that first part is not meaning to imply. He gives the example of God's unchangeableness.  On the one hand, "God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises," but he balances this out with the fact that "God does act, and he acts differently in response to different situations" (160).

Grudem's categorization and descriptions are traditional and are quite acceptable.  It is noteworthy, of course, that these categorizations are logical rather than biblical.  They are perfectly appropriate attempts to arrange biblical material according to logical groupings that do not derive from anything in the biblical texts themselves. All such categorizations are "extra-biblical," meaning that while they can be built out of biblical content and can fit with biblical material, their organizing principles are not strictly derived from the Bible. Grudem's two part approach to defining God's attributes is also perfectly acceptable.

Grudem is much to be commended for his sense that our talk of God involves a hefty dose of anthropomorphism (or perhaps more accurately, anthropopathism, describing God by way of features of human psyche--anthropomorphism technically has to do with human shape).  In theory, Grudem's understanding of God approaches an "incarnational" view, which would see revelation as God largely speaking in the categories of those to whom he reveals himself. Grudem at least accepts a measure of this view when it comes to God's revelation of himself.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Truth as what God thinks...

Part of my submission to God is a submission to the truth, whatever it may be.  This sounds fine and dandy at first, until it begins to challenge what you currently believe.  I am convinced that what most people mean by truth is really, "whatever I already believe." When you hear very angry people saying, "We need to stand up for the truth," what they often mean is, "We need to force people to accept what I believe but can't really defend."

Unfortunately, the way most people use the Bible plays into this self-deceiving game.  For one thing, what you think the Bible says is limited by your capacity to think.  A person of relatively little understanding can elevate his or her thoughts to the status of God's thoughts simply by playing the mirror game with the Bible.  I in my limitations see a meaning in the Bible with my puny mind and, voila, I know what God is thinking about x.

Of course this is true of everyone, even the most brilliant.  We're just not going to see more than we're capable of seeing with our puny minds.  What adds to the issue is the fact that God revealed the books of the Bible in the terms of its audiences so that they could understand. This leads to the phenomenon of Christians mistaking ancient worldview for God's thoughts--and making God look stupid today.

For example, there are maybe two places in the New Testament where the Bible uses imagery of a human person being made up of three parts (body-soul-spirit): 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12.  There are other pictures of human make-up in the Bible, of course, since its books were revealed to people separated by as much as 1000 years and this tripartite division is a relatively late one in Greek thought (Philo seems to be one of the biggest instances of it).

So if we were to teach a psychology class today based on this tripartite picture and if we used it as anything but a picture, an allegory, what a bizarre and strange thing we would be doing!  By the way, I have no problem using pictures like these, as long as we know they are just pictures.  But how bizarre it would be for us to use a passing picture of the human constitution from Middle Platonism, one that even Paul and Hebrews may not have taken literally, and to base a modern psychological understanding of the human person based on it!

Christians regularly make God look stupid with this sort of thing because instead of reading the Bible to see God, we read the Bible to see stuff that wasn't really the point of the Bible in the first place.  But by submitting to the truth, I can let the Bible say what it says in the context it said it.

What are the rules for the most likely truth?  The rules are the rules we use everyday.  Does this hypothesis correspond with the data of the world (correspondence test)?  Is this hypothesis consistent with itself or does it contradict itself (coherence test)?  Does this theory work in terms of my ability to predict what will happen under certain circumstances (pragmatic test)? The consistent answers to these questions constitutes the most likely truth on any issue.

The most likely answer is not always the right answer, of course, but I believe the most likely answer over time is most likely to be what God thinks.  Human thinking tends to be tribal, and Christians are certainly no exception.  This is true of Christian use of the Bible no less than anything else.  Political thinking is just as bad. We taut, "truth, truth," but really mean "don't mess with the ideas I'm comfortable with."

This was a strength of the Enlightenment and part of what made America great, especially in the early twentieth century.  If we can see our submission to truth as part of our submission to God, wherever the truth will lead us, then we can find common ground with anyone else who is willing to do the same.  And let me say as a matter of faith, the Christian God is on the side of truth.  If we truly have faith in him, then we won't be afraid of truth, wherever it leads on any subject. Anything less is unworthy of him.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Women in Ministry: The State of Question

The laity of the Church of England voted down allowing women to be bishops yesterday. I was living in England when women were finally allowed to be priests, but this is a surprising set back.  Of course it doesn't come from ministers, who arguably know a little more about the Bible, theology, and church history than the people in the pew.

In England, the issue is not so much the Bible as it is church history.  This is the same issue I believe for the Roman Catholic Church.  When you place so much emphasis on how the church has done things in the past, it's hard to argue for new things on this level.  Still, having crossed the priest barrier, it is interesting that the laity of the church weren't willing to go for bishop.

Of course they will eventually, barring the collapse of the Western world.  I say this because irrationality can only survive against common sense (including spiritual common sense) for so long.  You can't force yourself to be stupid indefinitely (or at least you can't force your children to be stupid without taking them out of the world).

Even in American evangelical circles, it is only the "I'm so in the trees that I can't see the forest" phenomenon that keeps opposition to women in ministry going.  To anyone stepping back and looking at the subject from a safe distance it's overwhelmingly clear that the few instances where the Bible places restrictions on women in leadership are functions of the ancient context, not timeless.

I say this because it doesn't make sense any more than forcing Christians to believe the earth is flat.  Leaving aside that women do lead in Scripture, leaving aside that the underlying principle is not to distinguish between the spiritual dimension of male and female, it is preposterous from any sane perspective.  Women can lead as well as men. Women are as smart as men. Women are as spiritual as men.

An argument for leadership based on genitalia is just an embarrassing point of view, and you can't keep people from noticing forever.  Meanwhile, God is oh so patient.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Leadership Gifts

I've been reflecting on the kinds of gifts that make for leadership potential of different sorts. The more I think about it, the more I like John Maxwell's bare bones, "leadership is influence."  I like it because this captures both good and bad leadership.  It captures leaders with formal power and those with informal power.  It captures leaders who generate followers and leaders who just have the power to get their way whether anyone else really wants to follow them or not.

So one set of leadership gifts is a forceful personality.  I don't personally like this approach.  I'm not sure whether it doesn't do more harm than good.  It can be helpful in a time of crisis or war.  But the autocrat is a leader and there are people with that style.  Of course, this style requires power to sustain (money is a form of power). Without it, no one will follow, and this person will basically be left shouting alone, like Donald Trump on election night.

Another leadership gift is the ability to facilitate decision making.  There are people in positions of leadership who don't really get people to make any decisions.  There's also the person who just loves the process, loves the meeting, loves just talking.  Assuming that it wasn't intentional (since influencing a group to delay can be an expression of leadership), this can be a sign of leadership inability. And of course a person can lead an organization to bad decisions, which is a form of bad leadership. But there is a kind of person who is gifted at building consensus, and there is a person who is gifted at navigating political waters in such a way as to result in decisions.

Another leadership gift is the ability to influence mood.  There is a type of person that can take a depressed group and encourage them.  And of course there's the person who can influence a group into depression.  But this power to influence emotion and tone is a form of leadership.  It can be used to build consensus.  It can influence decisions.  It is a leadership quality.

One of the most prized gifts of all is the ability to influence vision and trajectory. I think sometimes it's rated higher than its realistic value.  The direction of a group is really the aggregate of its decisions, not the billboard everyone can see.  Nevertheless, the ideal is when the micro-decisions fit hand in glove with the overall vision set by the vision setters. That requires something a little different from leadership... It requires good management.

What have I missed?

Monday, November 19, 2012

SBL 2012

The Society of Biblical Literature 2012 is beginning to wind down.  This is the biggest biblical studies convention in the world, with thousands and thousands of specialists in Old and New Testament in attendance, including numerous Jewish scholars.  The American Academy of Religion meets alongside with specialists in theology and religion in general.  Other groups meet about the same time, like the Institute for Biblical Research and the Homiletics society.

The chief benefit for me is to catch up with the latest thoughts on the market.  For example, the book hall alone lets you browse the books that seem to be setting trajectories of thinking.  You can share your own latest ideas and get immediate feedback, and you can hear the latest ideas of others.

And of course it is a great place to meet up with old friends, as well as to make new ones.  It's been nice to meet up with Wesleyan colleagues from other institutions as well as to see old Asbury and Durham friends.  Chicago is also hard to beat as a location, given that, as a Wesleyan, gluttony is the one deadly sin that no one seems to care about...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Meaning is Now

Sitting in a session at SBL with free wireless. :-)

Always impressed with how brilliant some people are and how few academic slots should normally be allotted to them, since the priority of knowledge is in inverse proportion to its "for-its-own-sake-ness."  The priority of knowledge must to go the potential benefit and usefulness to people.  This can be true benefit or market driven benefit (often confused--the second one generally wins, even when it's more like a drug than true benefit). Someone needs to be doing pure knowledge, but only relatively few Titans with people watching over them to make sure they eat lunch and don't walk into walls while walking from one place to another.

But enough of that. I see again with clarity as I listen to scholarly papers that all meaning is ultimately synchronic.  That is to say, no link between what something means now and what it might have meant in the past is necessary.  What words mean now is a function of what words mean now, not of what they have meant in the past.  What events, what actions mean now is a function of what they mean now.

Any other connections are non-necessary.  There are connections, but they cannot be assumed.  They derive from continuity of context.  There are contexts shared more or less universally, and thus particular meaning adds up in these cases to what we might call universal meaning.  Similarly, we can understand past meaning to the extent to which we can bring their context into ours. We cannot leave our context any more than we can leave our heads.

Only if you understand these concepts do you truly understand the nature of meaning, in my opinion.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Donatist Principle

I've dubbed a new leadership principle based on the 300s church controversy called Donatism. The principle is this--God can do great things through an evil leader.  Sometimes I hear people say that a leader will fail if his or her heart is not right with God, or God won't bless a ministry if the leader's motivations are wrong.  There is a sense sometimes that the most important characteristic of an effective leader, especially in the church, is that he or she be spiritual.

Certainly that's ideal.  Certainly you can't have a leader who embezzles or leads a church/company in an immoral direction. There is basic ethics. But there are gobs of spiritual people who will just as soon tank a church/company because they lack leadership or management skills.  And there are lots of spiritually mediocre people whose leadership skills are off the charts.

The Donatist controversy was over priests and such who had caved in during persecution. What if that immoral bishop had baptized you and then you find out he's a scoundrel?  Christians decided that it wasn't the character of the priest that legitimized the baptism or communion.  To put it in my words, God is the one who legitimizes your baptism.

In the Bible, we have the example of Cyrus, king of Persia.  Not a chance this guy believed in YHWH.  But God used him to restore Israel, even calls him God's anointed (Isa. 45:1).  So God can use even an evil guy outside the church to accomplish his will.  That's the Cyrus principle.

But I'm not talking about people outside the church.  I'm talking about Christians who are effective leaders but who aren't known for being great prayer warriors or for fasting a lot and who may at times be a little unpleasant while getting good things done.  God can and frequently does use them.

There's a flip side to this.  Apparent success doesn't mean God and the pastor/leader are best buddies.  A large church doesn't mean this guy or gal is praying five hours a day. It may actually be that we should expect to find the most spiritual people more in the nooks and crannies of the church, not up front.

The ideal is of course someone who is both an effective leader and spiritually minded.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gospel of John on the Spirit

Here's an excerpt from the Jesus book I just finished.
One of the key features of the Farewell Sermon in John is Jesus’ repeated mention of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Another reason why the disciples should not be troubled is because Jesus will be sending back the promised Holy Spirit after he ascends to heaven...

While John does not mention John the Baptist's prediction of the coming of the Holy Spirit, he does talk extensively about the Spirit’s coming. Jesus is sending back the Spirit of truth (14:17). The Holy Spirit will be like an advocate for them. He will teach them what they need to know along with reminding them of what Jesus had taught while he was on earth (14:26). The Spirit will bring peace to their troubled hearts (14:27).

This sense of the Spirit as leading us into truth underlies the Christian sense of prophecy. Anyone, man or woman, can speak the prophetic word of God to others because we all have partaken of the same Holy Spirit. Acts 2:17 explicitly brings out the prophetic implications of the Spirit inside us, quoting the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy.”

There is a tendency among many evangelicals to limit the Spirit’s speaking to the reading of the Bible. Certainly most of us have no problem believing that the Bible is the primary place today from which God speaks to his people. But what of the great many of God’s people throughout history who have either been illiterate or have not had easy access to the Scriptures? What of the fact that very few people indeed are schooled in the kind of historical and cultural knowledge necessary to hear the words of the Bible as they were first understood?

God’s answer has always been the Holy Spirit. Mainstream evangelicals have often resisted charismatics and holiness revivalists because their openness to the Spirit seemed too unpredictable, too dangerous. These fears are not entirely ungrounded. But Jesus did not tell his disciples that the Holy Spirit would lead them to the right interpretations of the Bible. He told them that the Spirit himself, directly, would lead them into all truth...

John 16:8-11 give additional functions that the Holy Spirit does in the world. The Holy Spirit will “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (NASB). The Holy Spirit functions with regard to sin, to show the world that it stands guilty. People in the world do not believe in Jesus, but the Holy Spirit will prove to the world that it is in the wrong before God. The Spirit will convince the world that judgment is coming, because Satan stands condemned. Finally, without Jesus around to show the disciples what righteousness is, the Spirit will show them.

John doesn’t give a lot of specifics about what these revelations look like precisely. Indeed, John says the Spirit himself will fill in the blanks after Jesus leaves. What does it mean for the Spirit to convict the world of sin? I grew up hearing it preached that the Spirit will bring you to a strong realization that you had sin in your life. Some traditions think of the conscience like it’s some software that everyone has. By contrast, I grew up thinking about it more as a matter of God coming to you as an individual and grabbing hold of your conscience, making it come alive, bringing you under conviction. [of course I heard the other approach two]

One important push-back to both of these interpretations is that the Spirit is not merely convicting individuals of sin, righteousness, and judgment, but the world. It may very well be more of a collective than an individual conviction. The Spirit will show the world where it is wrong and the church where it is right.

But the Holy Spirit does show us as individuals where we are wrong and where we are right. It is much less something universal, something everyone has on their hard drive from birth. Anthropologists will tell you that there is very little in the way of a common conscience built into human nature across the world. The model that sees the Spirit bringing the conscience alive fits what we observe much better.

The fact that there is more to be said about righteousness reminds me of the fact that there will always be new situations, especially as science continues to transform our world. How does love of God and neighbor play out in a world of in vitro fertilization and cloning? Here it seems important that we pray together and think through new issues together, trusting in the Holy Spirit to show us the way.

After the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples, breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22). There is probably a small play on words because the word for “spirit” can also mean breath or wind. This is probably John’s version of Luke’s Day of Pentecost. Both play the same role in each gospel’s narrative. For Luke, the Day of Pentecost is the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s promise that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. For John, Jesus’ breathing on them is the fulfillment of the promise that, if he went away, he would send another advocate for them...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What's with the Lincoln Movies?

I might have missed something obvious, but it's interesting that there seems to be a rush on Abraham Lincoln movies right now.  I grew up thinking Lincoln was the best president in US history. Maybe that's because my oldest grandparent was born in 1883 and his father fought for the Union in the Civil War.

Then my sister moved to mid-Florida and I went to college in South Carolina and then Kentucky.  Enter the residual sentiments of the side that was devastated.  So the Civil War is said to have been about states' rights rather than slavery.

So is it a coincidence that Abraham Lincoln is really cool right now (vampire killer, you know)?  Or is there actually someone in Hollywood trying to remind us of something?  Surely not.

I don't believe that the primary issue of the Civil War was states' rights.  That's the secondary issue.  The primary issue was that the southern states didn't like where things were headed over the issue of slavery.  And when Lincoln was elected and they didn't get their way, they wanted to take their slaves and go home.

Of course the nation was less than a century old at that point.  There was a not too distant memory of the good old days when no so called "federal government" could tell you what to do. The most "independent thinkers" surely went West in those days. Things were getting too established in the East for them.  In the West you didn't have as much of the rule of law. If you had big enough guns, you could pretty much do whatever you want.

The last time state's rights flared up was over civil rights, the federal government telling white folk that they had to let black kids go to school with their kids.  And people didn't like it.  The National Guard had to come in because governors like George Wallace wasn't going to let the federal government tell his state what to do.  Good grief, it was like the Civil War all over again.

And so it is that I had to laugh when I saw that this title actually was newsworthy: "Rick Perry doesn't support secession petition."  What is it we're fighting over this time?  The right to keep our slaves?  The right to keep blacks out of our schools?  "States' rights" is always the secondary issue.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Island (a poem)

It was an island, entire and of itself,
Adrift from the continent, away from the main.
Its clod was washed away by the sea,
And Europe was the less.
But the promontory stood, the people continued on their way.
The bell did not toll,
Though its soil was richly planted.
To be diminished is in the eye of the beholder.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Jesus 2 is in the (e)mail

The second Jesus volume is now sent off.  I believe the first volume will be called Jesus--the Mission and the second something like Jesus--the Gospel Portraits.

The chapters ended up a little different from when I started.

1. Mark the Basics (the basic story of Mark)
2. The Hidden Jesus (Mark's messianic secret)
3. The Virgin Birth (in both Matthew and Luke)
4. The Sermon on the Mount
5. The New Moses (the other sermons of Matthew)
6. Good News for the Poor (Luke's central message)
7. Good News for the World (other themes in Luke)
8. The Book of Signs (the first half of John)
9. The Book of Glory (the second half of John)
10. The Second Person of the Trinity (the path to what Christians currently believe about Christ)

I'll be interested to see what people think of it!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Processing Jesus on Taxes and Government Assistance

... 1 John 3:17 may sum it up the best: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”

1 John is obviously talking about individual giving. To what extent should churches give? What role should the government play in giving? These are questions that generate strong feelings on all sides.

There are clear instances of Christians coming together to pool their resources to help others in the New Testament. The most significant is the collection Paul took up for the Jerusalem church from the churches he had planted around the Mediterranean (e.g., 2 Cor. 8-9). This may have been in response to Peter and James’ instructions to Paul to remember the poor (of Jerusalem) as he founded churches around the Roman world (cf. Gal. 2:10). Here again, we see the principle that the broader church has a responsibility to take care of other parts of the church that are in need.

What about governments? There is a strong sentiment among many Christians today that the government should not be in the business of helping the needy, that God and the Bible assign this duty to individual Christians and the church. How does this sentiment actually line up against the Bible?

In general, this argument has much more to do with the debates of our world than it does the biblical world. With regard to the New Testament, it is largely an argument from silence. The early Christians were in no position to be instructing the Romans to take care of the needy, so it is no surprise they don’t say much along these lines. Paul does say in Romans 13 that Christians should pay taxes (13:6-7) and that governments are meant to do things for our good (13:4). Nothing here prohibits a government from helping the needy with those taxes.

Whether we believe today that the government should help with the needy is thus an argument we will need to have on the merits of whether we think government will tend to help or hurt those to whom it gives assistance. You will certainly not find any prohibition of the government helping. Indeed, Psalm 72:12-13 honors the king who delivers the needy and pities the weak. We might debate whether the government actually does good, but the Bible simply does not in any way forbid a government from doing good with taxes. If any biblical writer thought a government was truly helping those in need in a reasonable way, it would praise it.

I write this chapter in the wake of Hurricane Sandy which ravaged the coast of New York and New Jersey. Since the government was highly criticized after Hurricane Katrina several years ago in New Orleans—and since America was in the last days of a presidential election—the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) moved in swiftly to help. Churches and other aid organizations like the Red Cross also sprang into action.

No doubt the assistance has not been perfect. Over a week has gone by and there are still individuals without power in the cold. But the question arises—could churches and non-profit organizations have helped those in need nearly as well and as speedily as the federal government? It’s hard to see how the answer could be yes. The help that individual Christians, churches, and non-profit organizations can give in the wake of earthquakes in Haiti or tsunamis in Indonesia is a drop in the bucket next to what a government like that of the United States can do speedily and extensively.

It is hard to imagine any scenario in which Jesus would not be pleased to find that a government had helped in this way, in addition to the assistance that individual churches and Christian organizations give. In fact, of all the things that taxes might go for, surely Jesus and Paul would be most pleased about this one. Jesus and Paul are solidly on the record behind Christians paying their taxes and this despite the fact that massive amounts of money in the Roman tax system simply lined the pockets of greedy individuals. Our system is far more just than theirs was...

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"To the Virgins" (Robert Herrick)

This just in.  It just dawned on me that Robert Herrick's early 1600s poem, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," was surely an allusion to the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25.  In the parable, as you recall, ten virgins are waiting on their hubby to come get married.  But when he comes, only five of them have kept their supply of oil ready.  It's a parable about being ready when the bridegroom (Christ) returns.

How foolish of me not to see the connection!  Here is the poem:

To the Virgins to Make Much of Time
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

Jesus' Balance of Power

This is from the last chapter of my second Jesus book:
The Nicene Creed, said in many churches today, was a perfected version of what the Council of Nicaea decided in 325, but it didn’t reach something like its current form until the next council at the city of Constantinople in AD381. That creed says that, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”

It was now agreed that Jesus was divine in the same way that God the Father was divine. And of course it was agreed that he was human too. A Christian leader in the 300s named Gregory of Nazianzus famously argued that “what has not been assumed cannot be healed.” What he meant is that if Jesus did not really take on humanity, he can’t heal us.

So after working out the basics of the Trinity, Christians for the next hundred plus years would debate how Jesus’ humanity and divinity fit together. Now that Christianity was legal, they didn’t have to spend as much time worrying about persecution. In fact, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the only legal religion in 380. The contents of the Bible were also coming together.  By the year 400, Christians pretty much agreed on which books belonged in the New Testament. This “peace and quiet” created a space for them to iron out some of these issues.

The end result was the common Christian belief that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine in such a way as that both were real features of who he was. The church steered a path between a number of competing ideas. For example, a bishop named Apollinarius offered the possibility that Jesus had a human body but a divine mind, as if the divine Logos had taken over a body. The result basically would suggest that Jesus didn’t have any human element in his thinking.

Still later, an archbishop named Nestorius suggested that Jesus’ almost had a split personality—a human one and a divine one. In response, a man named Eutyches argued Jesus only had one nature that was a mixture of human and divine. No doubt these were all well-intentioned attempts to figure things out, even though the politics of it all often got ugly.

The final decision, like the one about the Trinity, was very balanced. Jesus was fully human and fully divine. He was only one person (against Nestorius) but he had two natures (against Apollinarius and Eutyches). He was really tempted and experienced genuine humanity in its fullness. But he was also truly God walking on the earth.

Obviously by 451 Christians had come a long way from simple biblical statements like 2 Corinthians 13:14: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” The Corinthians may have had a very simple sense of such a verse. Here are three different persons: One God, one Lord, one Spirit.

When we read it today, we believe all three are mysteriously the same, one God. So Jesus the Lord is both the fully human Jesus who walked the earth and the fully divine Jesus who came from heaven. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Matthew on Faith versus Works

... But the most memorable parable in this [End Times] sermon is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. After the Son of Man returns, the whole earth gathers for judgment, and Jesus divides the earth into two groups. One group are the sheep. These are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, took in strangers, clothed the naked, and visited the sick. They enter into the kingdom.

Meanwhile, those who did not do these things enter into eternal fire along with the Devil and his angels. It is interesting that they are surprised. They are like those who cry, “Lord, Lord,” in Matthew 7 and the weeds of Matthew 13. Matthew clearly believed that many in the church were not truly in the church. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats tells us the main reason. The false brothers are those who could help but do not show their love for others in a very concrete way.

Matthew provides a strong challenge to anyone who strongly divides faith from works. The theology of Jesus in Matthew is clearly one that believes the failure to help others, especially other Christians, is an indication that someone is not a Christian at all. We can parse it in our theology how we want. For example, we could say that genuine faith leads to genuine works. But the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t care about these things. We do because of the Protestant Reformation. But such distinctions weren’t a concern for Jesus or Matthew. They would not have objected to the phrase "justification by works" any more than James 2:24.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Church Discipline (Matt. 18)

Matthew 18:15-20 give us one of the classic biblical texts on confrontation. Once again, it is likely teaching that has been shaped in the context of the later church, since there was no church at the time of Jesus’ ministry. But this doesn’t diminish its truthfulness in any way. If a brother or sister, someone in your local church, does something wrong, go to them first privately.

We notice a couple things right off the bat. First, this teaching is not primarily aimed at the relationship between Christians and non-Christians. It seems primarily a matter of discipline within the Christian community. A second question is whether Matthew means sin in general or when a person sins “against you,” as some manuscripts of the New Testament say. The earliest manuscripts simply say, “if your brother sins.”

It isn’t a small point. There is a huge difference between going to talk to someone one-on-one because they have wronged you and going to talk privately to someone who has done something wrong in general. My sense is that Matthew is talking about sin in general, not just a sin against you.

At this point some cultural elements might come into play. After all, Jesus taught ancient Jews in Galilee, and Matthew wrote to ancient Christian Jews probably somewhere in Palestine. How you go about engaging other people on sensitive issues is not a timeless aspect of human nature or culture. The connotations of various actions vary from place to place. [4]

So it would not only be silly but counterproductive simply to assume that the “rules of engagement” in Matthew 18 should be applied in all times and all places in exactly the same way. For example, in the American context there could be many situations where it would not be wise or appropriate for a woman to confront a man privately or vice versa, especially if the other person had sinned against you in a sexual way.

Even in Jesus’ day this teaching would not have been intended to be absolute. If you had asked Matthew’s audience whether a woman should confront a man who had sinned, they almost certainly would have specified specific people who would be more appropriate to do so. It is a general principle—those who do wrong should be encouraged to stop. One-on-one private confrontation is often a great place to start, but it may not always be the best place to start.

Indeed, in the litigious world in which we live, it might often be wiser to start with Matthew’s second step: “If they will not listen, take one or two others along.” This is especially the case if they have sinned specifically against you. If it is wrongdoing in general, perhaps it would be wise for leaders to be the ones to confront, rather than just anyone. And at this point we might snap back to remember that in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus is talking to the disciples here rather than to the crowds...

The Kingdom Sermon (Matt. 18)

I struggle more to give a title to the teaching in Matthew 18 than I do for the other “sermons” in Matthew. Yet Matthew 19:1 gives us the same signal that a sermon has ended that we see after the Sermon on the Mount, the Mission Sermon, the Parable Sermon, and then later on after the “End Times” sermon: “When Jesus had finished saying these things.” Matthew 18 begins with a focus on children and ends with a focus on forgiveness. What seems to hold the sermon together is a recognition that we are vulnerable and that from time to time we lose our way.

The sermon begins with the question of who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ answer is, “whoever takes the lowly position of this child” (18:4). The kingdom is about being a subject of the king in submission to his rule. Or you might think of a child who trusts and listens to the directions of a parent. It’s certainly not about being famous or powerful. “The last will be first and the first will be last” (20:16).

So being a member of the kingdom is about service and servanthood. It’s about humility and putting others ahead of ourselves. It’s not about ambition or supremacy. Christians should not “lord it over” others, enjoying domination over others and showing others that they are in control.

Someone might push back and say, “Someone has to be in charge” or “Nothing will ever get done if someone doesn’t jump in there and take control.” “Didn’t God tell Adam and Eve to subdue the land?” It’s true. There are a lot of people who have a built-in drive and natural ambition that they channel in the service of God. They accomplish what seem to be great things for God. They built big churches and lead big organizations. They become famous stars and athletes or take Christian values into the political arena. For them not to do these things would be for them to take the talent God has given them and bury it in the ground.

What’s important to realize from God’s perspective is that they are no more significant in the kingdom than some anonymous person who puts flowers on the front altar every Sunday. In fact, if the person who is successful by the standards of the world begins to think he or she should get the credit rather than God, they make themselves of lesser significance in the kingdom. To whom much is given, much is expected from God, but the one who tries to receive earthly honor from it is diminishing his or her kingdom honor...

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Disciples' Mission

Thought I'd throw up some excerpts from my second Jesus book these next few days.  Here's one about Matthew 10.
The Sermon on the Mount is the first of the five large sermons in Matthew. It was arguably meant to present Jesus’ earthly teaching in a nutshell. We might call the second of the five sermons the “Mission Sermon,” and it appears in Matthew 10. Jesus sends out the disciples in Mark 6, and Matthew is likely drawing on that incident here.

One of the most striking features of the Mission Sermon is the fact that Jesus tells his disciples to go only to the “lost sheep of Israel” (10:6). They are not to go into the towns either of Gentiles or Samaritans (10:5). This is striking because, in John 4 for example, Jesus goes through Samaria and witnesses to a Samaritan town. And of course in the Great Commission he tells his disciples to go into all the world and preach the good news to all the nations (28:19).

Surely we need to think of Matthew 10:5-6 as “Phase 1.” While Jesus was on earth, his focus was on Israel, not Gentiles or Samaritans. In fact, his focus was not on Jerusalem but his own region of Galilee in the north. Indeed, even in Galilee his focus was not on everyone but the “lost sheep,” those spiritually knocked off track, like tax collectors and prostitutes. “Phase 2” was then after Jesus’ resurrection, when the target audience expanded to the whole world and all ethnicities.

Perhaps this is a good reminder that God can call us to minister to specific groups of people at specific times and places. The danger is to make this an excuse. “I only minister to this sort of person,” when in fact God wants us to broaden our service. Even Jesus himself occasionally ministered to those outside of Israel (e.g., Matt. 15:21-28). When God brings someone into our reach, he wants us to touch them (cf. 1 John 3:17).

While the Mission Sermon begins with what is clearly Phase 1 instruction, I can’t help but feel that a lot of this sermon was not only for the time while Jesus was on earth and not just for the disciples. Why would Matthew preserve instruction that was only for the disciples? Wouldn’t anyone hearing the instructions of Jesus about the mission—especially Christian leaders—have heard a word for them as well? Don’t we hear Jesus speaking to us today as well?

This is especially true when we get to verses like 10:16-23. This is talking about how Jesus’ followers will be dragged before governors and kings (10:18)—something clearly after the resurrection, during Phase 2. These verses talk of the coming of the Son of Man, which reminds us of other passages like Matthew 25:31 that refer to Jesus’ second coming to earth. It’s a very puzzling statement which, whatever it means, surely refers to the time after the resurrection, not just to the Phase 1 mission Jesus sent his disciples out on while he was still on earth...

Status Quo

After billions of dollars and two years of anguish, we are left where we began.  Obama is president again. The Republicans are in control of the House, and the Democrats are in control of the Senate.

House Republicans have already signaled that there will be no taxes on the wealthiest Americans.  That means that the cliff of automatic defense and other cuts loom at the end of the year without any clear avoidance.  The Tea Partiers won't compromise.  It's not clear that Obama will compromise on the tax issue any more.  Scarily, it looks like we may face two more years of gridlock again.

The Health Care debate is over.  It will go into effect.  There will be no repeal.  It is a non-issue from this point on.

The Republican Party will try to reorient itself around Latinos.  I think a lot of Republicans will shift in favor of the Dream Act, and we will see bipartisan immigration reform early next year.

The economy will continue to improve unless Congress does something stupid (which is possible).  It was going to improve no matter who was elected because the economic crisis is over.  If Romney had been elected, it would have continued to improve.  It will continue to improve under Obama unless gridlock kills it, which is possible.

The national debt now remains THE major issue.  If the Democrats are smart (and we'll have to see), they will focus a lot of energy on debt reduction these next four years or else their goose is cooked in 2016--unless of course the Republicans shoot themselves in the foot like they did this time.

There will of course be no more bail-outs because they were a one time, bi-partisan emergency move during the greatest recession since the Great Depression.  They will not come up again, barring another global economic crisis.

America is not moving in a socially conservative direction.  For example, all the most socially conservative candidates on the issue of abortion lost.  I think evangelicals have a choice to make.  The frontal assault is a losing battle.  What if we tried to influence by example rather than force to convert? I personally believe that is the Wesleyan way.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Passing of a Great Man

I grew up in the Florida District of the Wesleyan Church, where my Dad was District Treasurer for thirty years.  In those early years, the District Superintendent was Foster Piatt, who passed away last week at the age of ninety.  His mind had gone downhill substantially in these last years, but his passing should not go unnoticed.

Piatt pretty much single-handedly founded the Florida District, where he was the founding DS for over 32 years.  I believe he planted twenty-three churches during that time, over half the churches in the district when I was a boy.  He was a doer.  He built churches with his own bare hands.   He was a church builder as well as planter.  He even made violins and guitars by hand.

I remember him as a well-tanned, fairly quiet man.  You'd have never guessed he was from Ohio.  Somehow he fit the undeveloped wetlands of Everglades and Okeechobee.  He was there when Florida was still quiet and undisturbed.  This is the man that founded the now infamous Brooksville, where all retired Wesleyans go to party.

He would have bought Hobe Sound for the Wesleyan Methodists too if he had been able to come up with the money. Imagine if the Wesleyans had a college on the Intercoastal Waterway of south Florida today! We'd be giving Palm Beach Atlantic a run for its money. :-)

Piatt was the kind of person who often doesn't get the credit he deserves until his memorial service. I wanted to honor him tonight...

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Wesleyan Church Today (Black and Drury)

Now, the last chapter of Bob Black and Keith Drury's, The Story of the Wesleyan Church. I'll be deciding this week what book to work through next.  I think it's probably going to be Will Willimon's Bishop.

So far it's been:

Chaps 1-2  About Wesley and the origins of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in abolitionism
Chaps 3-4  About its activist early days that were low church, pro-women (and anti- some other things)
Chaps 5-6  The post-Civil War let down, when the best and brightest returned to the Methodists
Chaps 7-8  Birth of Pilgrim Holiness Church
Chapter 9   Multiple Ministries
Chapters 10-11 Roaring Holiness 20s
Chapters 12-13 Institutional Solidification (30s/40s)
Chapters 14-15 Prelude to Merger
Chapters 16-17 The Wesleyan Merger
Chapter 18 The Decade of Evangelism (1970s)
Chapter 19 The Decade of Church Growth (1980s)
Chapter 20 End of the Century Wesleyan (1990s)
Most of this chapter is "state of the question" Wesleyan, but it starts with some features of the early 2000s.  For example, there was John Maxwell's Leadership Development Journey (LDJ) that started out the decade.  The engagement of the church with issues of social justice is also highlighted. "Since 2000 Wesleyans have produced strong and convicting position statements on domestic violence, human trafficking, global poverty, and immigration" (271).

Joanne Lyon became the first woman general superintendent in the history of the denomination and, as we now know, is currently the only general superintendent of the church.  This correlates to the first "go forward" item Black and Drury mention: women in ministry.  After some lost ground on this issue, it feels like the church has turned a corner.

This leads to an aside here.  In many respects, The Wesleyan Church remains in danger of simply sliding off into pop fundamentalism and even forgetting that there are some important differences between the Wesleyan tradition and some of the most powerful forces within mainstream evangelicalism. If the Wesleyan tradition abandons concern for social justice, it is ceasing to that extent to be Wesleyan. The same goes for items like women in ministry.

Another "go forward" item is church planting.  In its most innovative forms, church planting has clearly been a major focus of Wesleyan energies, maybe the biggest focus right now.  The rise of "venue planting" is a remarkable phenomenon right now, simply brilliant.  Churches like 12Stone, New Hope, and Seacoast have used this tool in planting in brilliant ways. And, if I may, I lead the Book of Common Prayer service mentioned on page 275, which Keith Drury attends :-)

The founding of Wesley Seminary is mentioned on p. 278, now led by Wayne Schmidt.  Wayne has led us to worlds unknown, with the possibility of online cohorts based at 12Stone and Bogota being discussed.  He launched us into strategic phase two a couple years ago, and a vibrant faculty are perhaps about to lead the curriculum into phase 2 as well--both very exciting!

The book ends with the hope that, when it's time, the Boomers will hand off the baton of the church to the next generation when it's time.  Great book! Congratulations to Bob Black and Keith Drury for the best Wesleyan history ever written...

Friday, November 02, 2012

Jesus and Memory

There's quite a bit being done right now, it seems, incorporating the findings of memory research in relation to Jesus.  I know Dale Allison dips into this.  James Dunn does.

A fascinating piece of this discussion is how the memory tends to mix the past and the present together when we recall events from the past that are similar to events in the present.  Without realizing it, we color the past with the present.

Let me give what I think is an example from contemporary politics.  After years and years in the Senate, Dick Lugar was beaten in the Republican primary this year by Richard Mourdock. What's amazing to me is to hear Republicans saying that Lugar went liberal.  If anything, Lugar was moving conservative to try to stay competitive in his party.  If someone with Reagan's exact positions were to run for office right now, he would be voted out like Lugar, I believe.

What's happened, in my opinion, is that Republican memory of Reagan has retained a basic sense of his positions (deregulation, trickle down, strong military) but mixed those memories with what those positions mean today in a Tea Party climate, which has pushed some of those concepts in a more starkly libertarian direction.  So the memory of Reagan is mixed with current categories.

This has fascinating implications when it comes to Jesus. On the one hand, there are those for whom exact memory of Jesus is part of the deal, those who link truthfulness to precise historicity.  Without getting into it, I think this misses out on a real richness to the text, that this approach actually flattens out a three-dimensional text and impoverishes it.

I generally see the theological dimension of the gospel presentations as intentional.  But memory research does raise the question of whether, on the level of oral traditions behind the gospels, there are mixtures of Jesus as he was precisely in history with the issues of the early church as it passed along Jesus tradition.  Did the oral traditions of Matthew, for example, mix some of its contemporary struggle with Pharisees with Jesus tradition where Jesus conflicted with more generic religious leaders?  Did Jesus' call to his disciples to be willing to suffer for him get mixed later with the cross, so that the oral tradition remembers him saying to take up their cross?

Perhaps this is part of how the Spirit applies Scripture to our lives all the time, mixing our current circumstances, without us even realizing it, with the words of the biblical texts.  It's at least something interesting to think about...

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Where would Jesus teach?

The grades are out for the schools of Indiana according to the new metrics put in place by Tony Bennett, the current State School Superintendent.  He is proclaiming victory with the 60% of schools in Indiana who received As and Bs by the new standards.  Of course, only two of the seven Marion Community Schools squeaked by with a passing C. The rest are Ds or Fs.

In fact, if you download and glance through the 2012 School Grade Results, you'll see that a preponderance of the schools that have significant poverty and diversity, especially in urban areas, did very poorly. There are many issues swirling here and I'm only on the edge of them, but they have all come up in the debates between Bennett and Ritz. 

One question is of course whether the standards themselves are appropriate.  Another is whether the amount of paperwork and data collection in relation to the standards has become oppressive.  The current approach largely blames teachers for the grades.  The logic is, "Our schools are failing because our teachers don't do a good job," as opposed to the counterclaim that, "There are significant underlying social issues that bias students in certain areas for failure."  

Whatever the truth might be in relation to the details, I know what Jesus is most concerned about, given his focus on earth.  He did not come for the healthy but for the sick.  If Jesus were here, where would he teach?  He would be focusing on the lives of those to whom life has handed a recipe for failure.