Archives For Grace

chuck_knows_church_JCRYTPLT-300x142In case you don’t already know, Chuck Knows Church is a PR campaign produced by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. It’s a series of online, informational videos ‘about stuff in the church.’

The ‘stuff in the church’ is explained to us by ‘Chuck,’ the host with a floppy head of hair and the harmless, vacant expression of Huey Lewis.

Last year I wrote this and more about the video series:

Chuck Knows Church majors in the minors precisely at a time in the life of the Universal Church when millions are choosing other majors.

Chuck Knows Church works to explain why people should be interested in our institution and its habits rather than exhibiting any evidence of having reflected on what we can do (different) to interest people in Jesus.

As scores of business experts have written, once an institution needs to explain and justify its practices (rather than offer the product) to customers, the institution is already in the throes of irreversible decline.

Though I stand by what I said in reference to that particular video (Church Knows Stoles) and have done my best to resist commenting on even more inane, insider topics (Apportionments, District Superintendents…District Superintendents? WTF?), I took a lot of crap for my critique. I don’t like to be a bully but with a target as easy as Chuck it’s difficult not come across as such.

One response, however, made me feel especially douchey (even if my name isn’t Jeremy):

Hello Jeremy,

I am the creator and senior producer of Chuck Knows Church (one of about 20 staff and volunteers). I just wanted to post here to say that there are real people that work hard each week to bring these short messages. I can assure you we are all very devout Christians who love Jesus and certainly have God at the center of every one of our conversations as we produce the series.

The series, like any on 250 cable networks and more than a million YouTube channels, is not for everyone. I get that. We are trying to reach an audience not normally captured with traditional methodologies. In that regard, it’s rather unique I guess.

And I also get that the success of any series or effort often has backlash. It’s to be expected. I’ve produced videos and films for the denomination and secular studios for more than 20 years, and that’s always the case.

As far as “where is Jesus” and “where is God”, I suggest watching this week’s episode on Transfiguration Sunday. You will find God and Jesus at the center.

I’ll stop there, but thanks for letting me post a comment.

I thought your comments were clever! I wish you the very best in your ministry.

Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston

Egg, meet Face.

If I call them like I see them I figure, in a bit irony, I should be gracious enough to throw a bone at the exceptions. So here’s a Chuckie video more along the lines of actual Christianity I said I wanted:

Barth_Writing

If he could ignore the fact that Barth was not a literalist, John Piper would love §18.3 of the Church Dogmatics.

Karl Barth made his theological debut with his blistering commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. ‘Commentary’ is in some ways a misnomer for what Barth was really commenting upon was the ossified failures of modern western liberalism. Barth channeled Paul’s rhetoric more so than commented upon it, like any good preacher, doing what Paul did rather than simply explaining what Paul said.

Where Paul fixed his ire against the moral corruption of a fallen 1st century world, Barth’s barely veiled enemy is the ‘love of God and brotherhood of Man’ ethos that began the 21st century. In Barth’s (correct) estimation, the ‘love of God and brotherhood of Man’ too easily slipped into the godhead of Man.

The philosopher Ludwig Feurbach had accused Christians of simply speaking of themselves in a loud voice when they spoke of God, and Barth, surveying the Christianity late 19th century modernity had bequeathed him, concluded: ‘Jah, pretty much.’

Knowing Barth’s predilection for rhetorical bullying when it comes to modernist liberalism, one should approach §18.3 of the Church Dogmatics with trepidation because it’s in this section that Barth applies the theme ‘Praise of God’ to the Jesus Creed from Mark 12:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and might, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

Expecting Barth to offer an accurate, dispassionate interpretation of Mark is like asking the Capulet’s and Montague’s to provide fair and balanced coverage of one another.

The liberalism, which Barth is so much against, had esteemed the latter clause of Jesus’ command to the point that it eclipsed the former.

So it’s not surprising that §18.3 reveals Barth resisting a plain reading of the text.

Barth begins strong, claiming that the love of neighbor is but another way of saying ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.’ 

But then Barth proceeds to scratch his head like Columbo and suggest that it’s not so clear as first glance.

Barth sees 3 possibilities- he doesn’t really, but he wants us to play along:

  1. Love of Neighbor is another, second absolute command. If that is the case, then everything scripture says about love of God can and should be applied to God.

  2. There aren’t really two commands at all but one single, absolute demand. Love to God and love for neighbor are identical, the one must be understood as the other. If so, then we must show how God is to be loved in the neighbor and vice versa.

  3. Or the commandment to love God is first and absolute and absolutely distinct from all other commands while love of neighbor is first among all other subsidiary commands.

Against #1 Barth notes that the weight of scripture, which overwhelmingly echoes the first commandment, contradicts any reading that yields two rival commands and thus, Barth says, two gods. We can’t simply take everything scripture says about loving God and truck it into a definition for love of neighbor. The love of God is exclusive and cannot be given likewise to our neighbor.

Against #2 Barth plays the exegete noting that the text itself does not allow for us to view love of God and love of neighbor as one and the same. After all, Barth cleverly points out, Jesus does not say we should love our neighbor with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Clearly the two commands belong together but they do not cease to be two commands.

To make the two a single commands leads to blasphemy:

‘…God is the neighbor and the neighbor God.’

To my mind, this is where it becomes clear that Barth is more concerned with his own modernist context than the text itself for Jesus himself resolves the matter in Mark 12:

‘There is no other commandment greater than these.’

Not one to worry about muddying the waters or inconveniencing us, Jesus makes the plural singular.

As §18.3 continues Barth takes a look at the Good Samaritan story. Given what he does to the Jesus Creed you can imagine how this goes.

Basically, Barth seems terrified by the prospect that Jesus would suggest  that in order to inherit eternal life love of God alone won’t cut it. You also have to love your neighbor in full, equal measure.

It’s always a pain in the ass when Jesus refuses to fit our preconceived theological and political categories, and here in §18.3 Barth wrestles with the fact that Jesus very obviously was not a Reformed Calvinist.

We are not saved by grace alone.

Apologies to Paul.

And this where I sometimes wish theology had the same disciplinary willingness to self-correct as science when it’s clear from the evidence that one’s presumptions were off the mark.

Instead, reacting in a ‘that can’t be’ way, Barth engages in some exegetical creativity.

It’s not that our love of neighbor is necessary ground for salvation (nevermind Matthew 25 also).

It remains the case that we’re saved by grace alone made manifest in our love of God.

What Jesus means by love of neighbor, therefore, is not our giving love to our neighbor (as the Good Samaritan parable clearly illustrates).

Rather love of neighbor refers to our receiving love and charity from our  neighbor as sign of God’s care for us.

Receiving our neighbor’s love is but another way we respond to God’s grace.

Barth thus secures the Reformed doctrine of ‘salvation by grace alone.’

At the expense- as often happens with Reformed doctrine- of scripture.

In another context, I would applaud Barth’s ability to show the relationship between our ability to receive a gift from our neighbor and our ability to receive the gift from God. I’m a terrible receiver of gifts and I’ve no doubt it’s due to a deficiency in my faith.

In §18.3, however, as clever as he is in his interpretation- because of his cleverness- I walk away thinking Barth sounds an awful lot like the hyper-parsing, ever-qualifying scribes and Pharisees:

‘Well, when you say ‘neighbor,’ who exactly is my neighbor?’

lightstock_74897_medium_user_2741517For all the hot air Christian politicos expend on the ‘sanctity of marriage,’ you’d think Christians would- you know- be experts of that which they speak.

Political naif though I be, you’d expect that Christians would have the sort of track record on marriage and relationships which would earn them the right to speak authoritatively in the public square.

Sadly, the statistics bear out something like the opposite as Christians are, unquestionably, just as compromised in their marriages as everyone else.

Indeed not a few studies suggest church-going, bible-believing, sanctity-of-marriage-professing Christians divorce at even higher rates than the general population.

Parenthetically, I can’t help but wonder if the recent cultural swing towards acceptance of same-sex unions has less to do with affirmation of homosexuality per se and instead reveals the extent to which the Church has lost the moral authority to weigh in on marriage at all.

If the above statistics are objectively true about Christians, then, in my experience, this is anecdotally true of the same Jesus tribe:

too often we think that faith alone will secure/strengthen/safeguard/salvage our marriage.

That Christians fail at marriage at the same or worse rate as everyone else is understandable.

After all, we’re sinners. The same or worse as everyone else. Christians are just those people with the particular vocabulary that describes all people.

That Christians would think grace alone in any way guarantees a relationship’s success, however, is foolish.

God’s grace heals and ultimately perfects our human nature.

It doesn’t replace our human nature.

Faith in God’s grace can help us to forgive our spouse.

It is not a substitute for acquiring the skills necessary for a relationship to grow and bear fruit.

A faith held by one or both people in a relationship while great- I AM a pastor remember- doesn’t relieve them from learning the skills (and, yes, they’re skills) upon which their relationship will fall or rise:

How to show discretion

How to balance candor and tenderness

How to listen and how to be speak honestly

How to recognize destructive patterns and habits

How to reframe

How to talk in a way that says ‘I heard’ you

How to act and speak so as to enable your spouse to be their best self.

In the same way God’s People gleaned and borrowed wisdom from Egypt, these are all skills couples are best off learning from books other than the bible. Sometimes people of faith are better looking to Athens than Jerusalem.

Very often when couples come to a pastor or priest for help in their relationship, they bring with them the mistaken assumption- whether conscious or sub- that ‘faith’ is the key that will rescue them.

I mean, that’s why you’d go to a pastor instead of a therapist, right?

If they only prayed more or harder. If only regular worship were a part of their (read: other spouse’s) life. If only they apply their belief in love of neighbor to their spouse. If only they had God in their marriage, all would be well.

Or at least better.

Not to minimize the importance of faith but learning greater loquaciousness in prayer won’t remedy a relationship if a couple haven’t learned how to listen to each other.

Grace is necessary but it isn’t enough.

Faith, for example, is little help to a basketball player if they’ve not also learned how to dribble, post-up and box-out their opponent.

And the grace that’s more helpful to a baseball player is learning how to slide into second with your leg tucked just right, how to hit the ball on the sweet spot of the bat or how throw the perfect one-hopper to make the tag just so.

Likewise, marriage plays out in such a way that both sides lose if they’re not willing to commit themselves to learning the skills that are the relational equivalent of hitting, fielding and pitching.

So much of relationships really is about learning skills, habits of relating, and concrete practices.

And like baseball, basketball or anything else requiring the acquiring of skills, marriage can require a lot of practice, drills and awkward play before you’re participating in something whose challenge is surpassed only by its beauty.

Grace may be enough for our eternal salvation.

But it’s not enough to start, strengthen or save a marriage.

 

 

 

zipper    Simul iustus et peccator fatue

Martin Luther, founding padre of the Protestant Reformation, insisted that God’s grace is a declaration announced to us.

From outside us.

     God’s grace is a promise to which we can only respond with trust.

     There is no discernible interior change in us.

     We essentially remain the same d*&^%$-bags we were before.

     Only now, we know in faith, when God regards us, he graciously chooses to see Jesus instead of the a#$-clowns most of us are most of the time.

Says Luther:

Even after we’ve responded to the promise of grace, we never cease to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

     This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ 

     It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’

Or as the contemporary paraphrase edition puts it: ‘Being loved by God doesn’t stop us from being a Frodo D*&^%$- Baggins.’

     Case in point: Sunday morning.

Contemporary worship service.

Unlike most Sunday mornings when I roll out of bed straight into my car with last night’s toothpaste slobber still crusted on the side of my mouth and then conceal most of the evidence from having pressed snooze 33 times behind my Luther-like alb, this Sunday I actually put on a tie.

And a blazer.

And combed my hair.

After first having showered.

Truth be told, this humble man of the cloth thought he looked pretty damn good.

Definitely more Palmer Joss this Sunday than rugged Rev Maclean.

Palmer1276-3

That I thought I looked pretty damn good was reflected in my gosh-aren’t-I-hilarious banter during the announcements.

An ecclesial Ryan Gosling, to be sure, I stood in front of several hundred worshippers and welcomed them in the name of Christ.

In between opening praise songs, I seamlessly slipped onstage to offer an opening prayer, gelling the words of the songs with the upcoming message.

To chuckles, including my own, I gave the announcements for the day (if you see him, please tell Rev Perry the Gov’t Shutdown doesn’t apply to him and he should return to work…HAH!)

I then celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, pouring water over little Charlotte while a baker’s dozen of her cousins snapped pictures.

Later in the service I stood front and center up by the altar to lead the pastoral and the Lord’s Prayer.

And then we closed the service with ‘Forever Reign.’ A praise # from Hillsong United, the Walmart of contemporary Christian music.

Imagining my voice to sound as good as I looked, I sang:

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see

     On display.

Damn.

Some synapse fired in me, triggering an almost primordial, survivalist self-awareness.

Holding the manilla worship bulletin in my left hand, I lowered my right hand down.

Slowly, as to be imperceptible to the band and singers standing 5 feet straight in front of me.

All the while still singing:

You are peace, You are peace

When my fear is crippling

My hand did a too-subtle-to-be-noticed reconnaissance.

Fly down.

Thinking myself cooler than 007, I’d instead been X,Y,Z during the entire service.

And while some worshippers in that moment had their eyes closed in enthused praise and worship, I closed mine, mentally weighing my options:

Do I suck it up and just zip it up right now?

What if the band sees me or the worshippers to my left or right?

What if it gets stuck and I look like I’m playing with myself while the band plays their last number?

What if Karli or one of the other singers sees me and snorts into the mic?

Should I just leave it, offer the benediction and hope no one sees?

Definitely the last, I decided, all the while singing:

The riches of Your love

Will always be enough

Nothing compares to Your embrace

Song ended, an ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Spirit’ served up, I sheepishly waited for everyone to ‘go forth in the name of the Lord.’

Coast clear.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

And then… a youth grinned at me knowingly (because of what I didn’t know).

 “Hey man, did you know your fly was down through, like, the entire service?”

    Simul iustus et peccator fatue

     ‘At once justified and an idiot’

     God’s grace always remains outside of us, apart from us, Luther says.

It’s a promise announced to us not an attribute original in us.

We are always at once graced by God and the same a#$-clown we were before.

When you think about it, it must be so.

Lest we ever forget that God’s grace is exactly what it is: an undeserved gift.

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see

 

images

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #3: Pelagianism

What Is It?

You tell me.

See if you can comb the cobwebs of your memory and regurgitate the little bit ‘bout Pelagius you probably learned in European History.

Seriously, no?

Well, did you not see the kick-@#$ Clive Owen King Arthur movie a few years back? Wherein Arthur gets re-imagined as a virtuous knight precisely because his adoptive guardian was Pelagius? No?

The movie also stars Keira Knightley, an actress who induces if not heretical thoughts then definitely sinful ones.

Okay, for those forgetful and unaesthetic among you, Pelagianism is the heresy which denies the existence of – and therefore power over us- original sin.

Consequently, Pelagianism asserts that people possess the capacity to choose the good through their own unaided, created natures.

Put in more Pauline terms, we can be saved- actually the passive there is incorrect in this case- we can achieve salvation through our efforts apart from God’s grace.

Pelagians can dismiss original sin one of two ways. Either by contradicting Augustinian readings of Paul and dismissing the notion that the sin of Adam is transmitted to us biologically. AKA: Through the S word. Or, by emphasizing certain passages of Paul and declaring that the power of Sin has been defeated on the Cross by Christ.

Already perhaps you can sense why Augustine saw Pelagianism as both an especially pernicious but also an exceptionally thoughtful heresy.

Who Screwed Up First

You don’t get a heresy named after you if you’re not the first or at least most articulate spokesmen for your anathema.

As Clive Owen reminds us, Pelagius was a British theologian who taught in Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Pelagius had the ill fortune to have lived the same time as St. Augustine of Hippo who was even more astute a thinker than he. Zosimus, the Bishop of Rome (which eventually become the Pope’s office) condemned Pelagius in 418.

Nevertheless, Pelagius’ legacy lives on in more than just celluloid, abiding throughout the centuries just as Pelagius insisted Sin did not.

Much like a vaccine, Pelagianism lurks latent throughout the Body of Christ and one could make a solid case that Mormonism is really just Pelagianism dressed up in a short-sleeve, white-button down.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you believe that God does not care what religion a person practices so long as that person tries to live a good life, then your mind- or your squishy little heart- has got Pelagius’ fingerprints all over it.

If at a funeral, or in the planning of one, you summarize: ‘__________ wasn’t religious at all but he was a good person, then as compassionate as you no doubt are your logic is that of Pelagius and not the Gospel.

If you teach your kids that the meaning of Christmas is that they better be good- not naughty- or Santa won’t give them any gifts, then you’re not only setting them up to inherit some pretty effed up understandings of God you’ve also, like Pelagius himself, got the definition of grace exactly wrong.

If you presume that Christianity is essentially about ethics (about serving the poor, clothing the naked, waging peace) then you’re definitely showing symptoms of a bad case of Pelagianism.

Not to mention, you’ve confused the Gospel (Jesus’ overcoming Sin and Death and being Raised to the right hand of the Father) and the Gospel’s effects (being set free to live a life like Jesus).

If you issue altar calls, require Jesus prayers or accept only adult baptisms because to be a Christian a person must ‘make a decision for Christ’ then, like Pelagius before you, you’ve over simplified the mystery that is Sin and Grace and you’ve turned conversion into yet another ‘work.’

If you act as though all non-Christians or non-churchgoers are bad, decadent or morally corrupt and self-righteously think that your participation in church makes you a better person, then you’ve once again over simplified the mystery that is Sin and Grace in all our lives, believer and unbeliever.

And you’ve forgotten that God’s grace is active everywhere and in every life preveniently; that is, before any of us ever ‘choose’ God.

If you think that ‘real’ Christians or ‘bible-believing’ Christians or ‘faithful’ Christians must believe/vote/think/act this way on that issue, then you’ve been seduced by Pelagius’ reduction of the complexity of the world into right/wrong, black/white issues.

If you see the Eucharist as nothing more than a memorial to a soon-to-be prisoner’s last supper and, for that matter, if you see all of creation in a non-sacramental way then you’ve got some Pelagian germs in you.

After all, God’s grace has more than just a negative connotation. It isn’t only active in our overcoming of our individual sins.

Grace illumines and animates and charges everything last thing around us.

If you say ‘I do’ foolishly thinking you can have a fruitful marriage apart from God then you’re what practical theologians call ‘a Pelagian.’ Pelagius had to have been celibate. Seriously, marriage is hard enough with God.

If you’re not raising your children in a particular faith tradition because ‘you want them to make up their own minds when their older’ then not only are you instead raising them in the faith called ‘American Individualistic Consumerism’ you’re also assuming a Pelagian capacity in your children to grow up ‘good’ and ‘wise’ apart from grace.

If you insist your nation, its leaders or its founders (cherry tree, _____ was really kind to his slaves) always have good and pure motives then you are a Pelagian, refusing to see how the murky reality of Sin and Grace exist in every person, every tribe and every issue.

Likewise, if you ignore that the lifestyles of Western culture are made possible on the backs of the poor in the developing world then…Pelagian.

If your red politics depends on a Horatio Alger myth of every individual pulling themselves up by their bootstraps then you’re politics have a bit of Pelagianism in them, ignoring that Sin is more than what individuals do but also what is done, systemically to others.

Of course, if your blue politics depends on depicting the poor and downtrodden as uniformly noble, well-intentioned and ‘good’ your politics are likewise infected with a heresy that is, if nothing else, simply unrealistic.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Parents (especially of the helicopter, dragon, playdate variety)

Americans

United Methodists

The Nones

Celebrities

Mormons

Funeral Planners

Republicans

Democrats

Remedies

Watch Kiera Knightly in King Arthur and be reminded that, despite our good virtue, some sins (lust for example) abide.

To apply this same principle on a more systemic level, watch Django Unchained.

Spy on your kids when they don’t think you’re looking. And notice that Augustine was right, the little bastards have the devil in them.

Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and then remember that it took what’s-his-name several many years after he was ‘found’ to actually stop buying and selling people.

Affirm the caveat postscript that every Methodist ordinand must: ‘….with God’s help.’

IMG_1411One of the happy accidents of this blog is that I know have ‘friends’ whom I’ve never met save this space here.

One of the downsides of making such friends- the same downside that comes with working for or belonging to any congregation- is that I find myself mourning with or for such friends.

A friend of this blog recently lost her young son in a car accident. Her brother is a real-life, flesh-and-blood friend of mine, whose faith I admire- though his character is such he’d insist it should be the other way ’round.

Her brother, my friend, ‘Ben’s Uncle,’ wrote this reflection about his nephew’s funeral service. It’s a beautiful (made me weep) testimony to grace and our ultimate hope.

Mike had the grace to share it with me and the trust to let me share it with you. If you do me any favors in the back end of ’13, let it be this:

Read…

Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.  But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God—the Lord, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.”  And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.  2 Chronicles 30:18-20

The Gathering Place in the church was bright—lots of windows.  There was a beautiful arrangement of flowers prominently displayed, sent from out of town, and bearing the condolences of family in a distant location.  The mood was subdued—not somber—just subdued.  The immediate family had gathered, and then the friends began to arrive—two groups of friends.  The friends of the family tended to be older—though not exclusively so.  Many had known Ben as he was growing up.

Many were members of the church where Ben’s parents were long-time members.  Some were members at the church where Ben’s grandparents were members and where Ben had participated in youth activities.  The other group—Ben’s friends—seemed youngish to me.  But then most people seem youngish to me these days.

My sense was that they were vaguely ill at ease, worried about being out of place in an unfamiliar environment, wondering, perhaps, how the Ben they knew fit in with these family friends who were right at home in church.  As you would expect, the two groups tended to cluster with their own in the large, open room: the respectable, pillar-of-the-community folks in small groups; and small groups of 21st century James Dean types, both men and women.  They were all well dressed for this memorial service for someone they all knew and loved.  But peeking out from under the sleeves or above the necklines of the young friends was a moving gallery of art.  And some of the ink wasn’t peeking; it was right out there, expansive, striking even.

I have to admit that I find tattoos off-putting.  A long-engrained prejudice.  I tried hard not to judge but could hardly help it.  As I was standing in the receiving line, a young woman held out her hand to me, and my eyes were immediately drawn to the extensive tattoo on her upper arm and shoulder.  But as she said her name—Elise—my eyes snapped to hers.  I knew the name, but not the person.

Just a few days earlier, Elise had gone to the place where her friend, Ben had been killed.  She went looking—looking for a license plate that she hoped had survived the crash.  She knew that little piece of metal had special meaning for Ben—and for Ben’s grandfather.  After a long search, and as she was about to give up, she looked down at her feet, and there it was.  She took it away with her, framed it, and gave it to Ben’s grandfather.  The awkwardness of the moment, there in the line, faded.  We hugged each other, and she moved down the line.

We spent an hour and a half in the Gathering Place, but it was that few seconds with Elise that I was thinking of when the doors of the sanctuary opened up, and the family went in to take our seats.  Those few seconds are prominent in my thinking now, weeks later.  The sanctuary was packed—about evenly split between the two groups.

We sat and listened to a wonderful service—beautiful music, readings from scripture, words of comfort and assurance from the pastors.  All the while, the two groups sat behind us—each person, no doubt, with their own thoughts of Ben.  With their own thoughts of what it meant to be in that place—a place of worship.

Looking back now, I marvel at these two groups, mingled in the pews.  The “good” people and the “maybe not so good” people.  The establishment people, easy to spot in their manicured neatness.  And the renegades, a little rough around the edges and sporting a bunch of body art.  But every one of them was there to remember Ben.

And Elise has become something of an emblem of that day for me.

I don’t know her.

I don’t know what kind of life she lives.

I do know that I judged her when I saw her in that receiving line—once in the negative, and seconds later, very differently.

What a heart!  What a sense of kindness and love!

I very nearly didn’t see that.  It was hidden to my eyes, hidden behind some ink.

And if her goodness was hidden to me, surely everyone in that room—including me—was concealed by some form of camouflage.

But we serve a God who sees through it all—the first time.  A God who knows full well who he created us to be.  And a God who has promised to finish the good work he started in us.  My prayer is that every time we open our eyes, we will see people though his eyes.

That’s our best hope.

For Ben, who was at home with everyone in those pews….

“Because I don’t have to be the old man inside of me;
His day is long dead and gone….” 
Redeemed

995687_4988940372277_749089862_nThis past weekend a former youth in my congregation who since has become a friend became a colleague. I had the privilege to stand on stage with Taylor Mertins and lay hands on him as the bishop commissioned him as a provisional minister.

The event put me in a recollecting mood as this month I’ve spent a dozen years as a pastor in 3 different congregations, 2 here in Virginia and 1 in New Jersey. I’ve changed in many ways during those years and my theology has changed too. The answers I gave back when I was first examined for ordination aren’t necessarily the same answers I would give today.

Taylor’s commissioning has prompted me to think through some of the ways my thinking has changed since I went through that same ritual.

First up, is my thinking around infant baptism, the 3rd rail of the United Methodist ordination process.

When I was working my way through the United Methodist ordination process, any suggestion that infant baptism was not the biblical norm as verboten as uttering Lord Voldemort’s name. The United Methodist powers-that-be needed to insure I could articulate a traditional theological explication of infant baptism; in truth, they needed to protect the Church from infiltration by too many crypto-baptists.

Now that I’m duly ordained, however, I can say what I couldn’t say during my provisional period: the New Testament and early Church literature offers us no definitive evidence that infant baptism was or wasn’t practiced by the first generations of Christians.

To this point, you could counter by citing what are known as the ‘oikos’ passages in the New Testament.

Oikos, in the Greek, means ‘household.’ In the book of Acts, especially, when the Spirit and ministry of the Church lead to another’s conversion, that individual’s conversion frequently occasioned the conversion and baptism of their entire household.

Obviously this presumes the initial convert was typically a head of household.

It also presumes those included under the rubric ‘household’ were very often servants and slaves who were baptized against their will- hardly an ideal ministry model for us today.

Here’s a quick rundown of the oikos passages in the New Testament:

The household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48; 11:13-18)

The household of Lydia (Acts 16:13-15)

The household of the Philippian jailor (Acts 16:30-34)

The household of Crispus (Acts 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:14)

The household of Stephanus (1 Cor. 1:16)

The household of Gaius (1 Cor. 1:14)

While it’s entirely possibly ‘household’ in these passages included infants and children, none of the available texts makes that explicit. It’s also true none of the texts eliminate that possibility.

What I dared not say when I was in the midst of the ordination process is that, fact is, for the first centuries of the Church the record is ambiguous.

     Any Church striving to be faithful to the first Church must necessarily struggle with the fact that adult baptism was the norm for the early Church.

While I was jumping through the commissioning and ordination hoops, I articulated the textbook- and expected- Wesleyan response on baptism.

Baptism, like the Eucharist, is, as Wesley described it, an ‘ordinary channel’ by which God gets to us. Baptism reminds us that salvation comes by God’s gracious initiative. Baptism is a means of what John Wesley called prevenient grace, God’s claim of us before we ever even desire God.

     Before someone outs me as a heretic to the bishop, it’s important that I’m clear:

     I don’t disagree with the traditional Wesleyan theology of infant baptism.

1001446_4988885010893_488859186_nRather after 12 years of congregational ministry in a culture that is rapidly becoming post-Christian, I’m increasingly aware that the Wesleyan emphasis on baptism as a means of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace is a second order mode of reflection on the sacrament- a mode of reflection that was inherited from the Medieval Scholastics and was suitable to Wesley’s own day when the average citizen knew the particulars of the Christian story by virtue of being a participant in the wider culture.

     But 21st century America is not Wesley’s Enlightenment-era England and hasn’t been for longer than we’ve wanted to admit.

     Instead, after 12 years of serving in a local congregation, I’m increasingly aware that our culture is quickly resembling the context of the first century culture in which the faith began: a culture where Jesus-followers were a witnessing minority in the midst of rival religions and ideologies.

And after these dozen years as a minister, I wonder if it would be more helpful to recover an emphasis on baptism more nearly patterned after the early Church’s primary  baptismal message:

Christians are made not born.

To become a Christian you need to be initiated.

No one is born a Christian. Perhaps the starkest contrast between the Church and the Synagogue, save Jesus Christ himself, is the fact that the Church isn’t a community that grows biologically.

The Church only grows by witness and conversion. Presently, the mainline Protestants traditions in the West are all experiencing trying decline in numbers and vitality. In the United Methodist Church today, most congregations do not make a single new disciple in a year and are ‘dying’ churches by most objective metrics.

I can’t help but wonder if such decline is exacerbated by a singular emphasis on infant baptism that has left the Church no longer adept at what was once its primary mission: converting people into a new way of life of which baptism is the visible sign.

We can quibble about baptismal theology but it’s very clear that as the United Methodist Church leans into the future it’s going to have to relearn how to convert adults to the way of following Jesus Christ.

Typically in the ancient Church it took several years for a prospective Christian to be admitted into the Body. During those preparatory years, a period known as the catechumenate, the inquiring student participated only partially in the life of the community.

For example, it was commonplace for catechumens to be dismissed from worship (not unlike our children’s sermons) after the word was read and proclaimed and before the Eucharist was celebrated.

Catechumens would spend these liminal years receiving doctrinal instruction and ethical guidance, submitting to moral scrutiny, disciplining their will, amending past sins, changing their vocation if their work was contrary to the Kingdom and gradually growing accustomed to living the Christian life.

Baptism nearly always came on Easter Eve but not before spending the prior forty days of Lent learning the story of redemption: how once we were all prisoners and slaves in the household of Death, atrophying in ignorance of our true home; and how Christ had come to set the prisoners free, to rescue us from bondage, to make himself our Passover from Death to Life, to unwind the story of Sin and be the Second Adam to a New Creation.

This is the story rehearsed and ingrained in the weeks leading up to baptism because it was into this story that the initiate’s own life was merged when they at last sank down into the life-ending, life-giving waters of baptism.

Precisely because it was a submersion into the death of Jesus, baptism came on Easter Eve, during the midnight vigil, when the Church believes, having rescued souls from Hell, Jesus passes from Death to Life.

At a fixed point in the long, intricate worship service, after the arc of the scripture story had been proclaimed, the catechumens would depart the sanctuary for the baptistery, which usually housed a flowing stream. There, at the bishop’s direction, the initiate would face West, the direction of nightfall and so the direction of spiritual darkness. Facing West, the candidate would submit to an exorcism followed by a forceful renunciation of Sin and Evil; in fact, the initiate, in their renouncing, was instructed literally to ‘spit at’ the devil and the devil’s servants:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

I renounce them.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? 

I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? 

I renounce them.

     Having renounced the ways of the world, the candidate would turn East, the direction of the rising sun, and would confess faith in and allegiance to Christ.

     Given the early Church’s minority, persecuted status in the empire this act of renunciation and allegiance was hardly a sentimental or purely spiritual experience.

It was a very real transferral of obedience from one master to another and very real consequences were expected to result from it.

In darkness then and to a cacophony of prayers, chants and blessings, the candidate would descend into the water as naked as the day they were born. The bishop would then immerse the initiate three times, in the name of the Trinity.

Rising from the water, the new Christian would be anointed with the oil of chrismation, the seal of the Spirit, robed like a bride in a new garment of white and led back to the sanctuary where, for the first time, they could see the Eucharist celebrated and share in it.

Considering the dangers and risks involved in becoming a Christian in the early generations; considering the relationships that were likely severed; considering the obligations and sacrifices ahead; considering the strangers to whom one now belonged and the strange way of life to which allegiance had been pledged; nothing less than primal, base language would do to describe the initiating ritual: Death, Birth, Marriage.

After a dozen years pastoring in what is, with each new passing day, a new cultural situation, I wonder if it would be wise to recover the ancient Church’s primal, base, alternative-Kingdom language to speak about baptism.

I wonder if it would behoove us to recover their emphasis on baptism as transferral of citizenship and loyalty. I wonder if it would help us in pursuing our mission to reclaim their understanding that infant baptism is an acceptable subset of which adult baptism is the scriptural norm.

 

 

mainDick Cheney could’ve spared himself a lot of historical ignominy had he opted to force prisoners to read Mark Driscoll’s ebook Pastor Dad: Biblical Insights into Fatherhood rather than submit them to water-boarding.

The cumulative effect of Driscoll’s self-congratulatory screed has been to remind me of Robert DeNiro’s stepfather character in This Boy’s Life, the memoir/film by Tobias Wolf.

DeNiro’s abusive yet pathetically silly character, like Driscoll himself, haunted the Pacific Northwest.

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Chapter 6 of Driscoll’s ebook, ‘Instruction Followed by Correction,’ pretty much follows this theo-literary formula:

‘A wise and godly father SHOULD______________’ 

‘A wise and godly father MUST________________ ‘

Insert tenuous citation from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs. 

I began reading this book to anticipate Father’s Day but Driscoll is such a boorish nag the book is better suited to Mother’s-in-Law Day.

The model of ‘biblical’ parenting prescribed by Driscoll presents a telling contrast to that other sacred text opening in theaters tomorrow, Man of Steel.

People who know me or read me will not be surprised that in the comic pantheon I prefer Batman, well tied with Hell Boy actually. Batman is dark and damaged. Cynicism leads him to vigilantism. The costume reveals his true self rather than masks it.

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Superman, on the other hand, has always been a bit too bright, too optimistic and Americana kitsch for me.

Except, I guess I should qualify that by saying I never really cared for Superman until I had kids.

Until I adopted kids, I should add.

My oldest boy, I should specify.

Most reflections (of a theological bent) on Superman focus on how Kal-El is a graphic, American Dream projection of our need to have a Christ-like Savior figure, one whose character is as pure as his powers are mighty. And sure, you can interpret Superman that way. I mean it’s not exactly subtle; Kal- El is a loose play on the Hebrew for ‘voice of God.’

But to read it only that way is, I think, to miss something else entirely.

Superman’s goodness, his kindness and gentleness, his (often unfounded) insistence on believing in the good inside people- all those attributes that led me to dismiss Superman when I was  a boy are exactly those things that give me hope now that I have boys.

Because those attributes of Clark Kent I found so bland and corny as a kid are attributes Clark acquired from Ma and Pa Kent.

His adoptive parents. article-kent-2

This is clear to anyone who’s read the Superman comics- and it’s what makes Superman Red Son, in which Clark’s spaceship crashes not in the Midwest but in the Soviet Union, so interesting.

Clark is the way he is, unfailingly kind (even to the point of naivete), gentle and good, not because he went to K-5 at the Fortress of Solitude Academy.

No, he is the way he is because that’s the example Ma and Pa Kent gave him as his parents.

Superman’s goodness is their goodness.

While Batman shows the life-long impact of tragedy striking a boy in one’s formative years, Superman, more so than any other comic superhero, demonstrates the power- the possibility- of nurture being just as formative in a child’s life as nature.

In the Church, we call that grace. It’s the good news behind Clark’s goodness. And it’s been the good news in our own family.

We adopted our oldest boy when he was a few days shy of his 5th birthday. His preceding years had given us every reason to expect that the proceeding years would be far from easy. Or happy.

The adoption world uses terms like ‘at risk’ and ‘special needs’ to name the possibility that whatever’s happened before this child crashed into your life likely cannot be undone by whatever love you nurture in him.

And often, sadly, that IS how the story turns out.

But I can give you at least two stories, one drawn in reds and blues and the other being told in flesh and blood, that turn out differently.

 

leglamp10Someone leaving church Easter Sunday asked about my boys, musing ‘I bet you’ve learned all kinds of things about God from them.’

And that got me thinking.

Which got me writing: Top Ten Things My Kids Have Taught Me About God

#3: Fra-geee-lay

I met with a couple mourning the death of their son.

Actually mourning is too premature of a term. Mourning has the ring of work to it, and it is work. An endeavor. It’s an undertaking that eventually leads to healing.

Before mourning can really begin you must first get past the ‘I still can’t belie…’ shock that this is your life now. The stubborn disbelief that someone else’s life isn’t.

Anymore.

Their son was only a few years younger than me.

I can’t say much more than that, pastoral privilege and all.

What I can reveal:

Right after I left that family, I collected my youngest son, Gabriel, who was just down the church hall.

We got in the car. Closed the doors. Buckled our seat belts (‘I beat you Daddy’).

I turned on the ignition. Looked in the rearview mirror at Gabriel behind me; he was wearing my faded UVA hat and smiling.

And I started to cry, suddenly feeling like I’d gotten into my car wearing someone else’s shoes.

leglamp1Life is so infuriatingly fragile.

This isn’t something my boys have taught me. They have no notion that while God may be good and gracious, life is seldom fair or forgiving.

It’s not a lesson my boys have taught me. It’s more like a lesson my job has taught me, a lesson I wasn’t in a position to learn until I had children. It’s more like now that I have skin in the game my vocation won’t let me forget just how fragile are my boys’ own skin and bones.

They’re here today…(down in the basement playing Legos, actually).

But tomorrow? The day after tomorrow?

I bring my work home with me.

I watch my boy turn his bike out the cul de sac for the first and I close my eyes to wait for the inevitable sound of screeching brakes.

I can’t drive by a car accident without imagining my own impending, parallel nightmare.

Standing in line at a roller coaster with my son, I can’t look at the twists and turns of the track without imagining my boy in the statistical margin for error.

Death is a big part of what I do. 

If I punched a clock, several many hours of every year would be taken up by people mourning the sudden absence of someone who’d made their life whole.

I bring that absence home with me.

Or rather, like a nurse who comes home wearing a uniform with blood stains on it, that absence follows me home and there it gestates into something else: my own fear of absence.

Theirs.

And while if you caught me in a different mood I might say I’d prefer not to bring this part of my work home with me, it’s more true to admit that this near constant dread of their absence has woken me to something else, their presence in my life.

The sheer- as in flimsy- grace- as in unwarranted gift- of it.

Just like someone who doesn’t realize the pain of unbelief until they begin to believe, the fear of losing my boys calls out the greater joy of having them. 

Life is fragile.

It wouldn’t be worth it otherwise. 

 

599553_4192234766386_1070461117_nSomeone leaving church Easter Sunday asked about my boys, musing ‘I bet you’ve learned all kinds of things about God from them.’

And that got me thinking.

Which got me writing: Top Ten Things My Kids Have Taught Me About God

#4: Justified By….Grace

Worst Christmas gift to which I’ve ever been an accomplice:

Talking Woody Doll.

You know- Woody? The lanky, pull-string cowboy from Toy Story 1-18 that speaks in Tom Hanks’ earnest, incredulous voice yet gives off the overall annoying affect of Cousin Joey from Full House.

I hate- HATE- Gabriel’s Woody doll. He stalks my waking hours like Chuckie stalks the night.

Gabriel’s Woody doll can say: ‘A cowboy with out his hat is like a yodel with out a hey-hoo.’

Gabriel’s Woody doll can sing: Home, home on the range where the deer and the… you get the picture.

Gabriel’s Woody doll can ask: ‘Hey, who took my hat?’

Gabriel’s Woody doll talks and talks and sings and talks and sings to infinity and beyond.

I’ve never been in the grip of illicit drugs, but even if I had, I’d still count the day we purchased Woody at FAO Schwarz as the worst decision of my life.

And before you think I’m exaggerating, consider that even though he’s a pull-string toy, Woody can say the above mentioned things (and more) and can keep on saying ‘em whether or not any chubby first grade fingers have actually pulled his string.

Like the totem in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a slight variance in weight upon the wood floor of G’s bedroom is enough to set Woody off. Woody

Which sets me off.

I’ve been told just the sound of ice tumbling in a glass is enough to remind an alcoholic of their limitations; likewise, Gabriel’s Woody doll haunts our home as a near constant reminder of my chief and abiding fault as a father creature: my impatience.

I often tell couples on their wedding day that a life lived together can expose the very worst about two people, all their flaws and foibles. So goes parenting too.

My boys’ childhood is simply an ever-increasing realization of what their mom has already learned. Their father isn’t perfect.

His patience can be short.

His temper can be quick.

His tone can be unwarranted.

His threats (I’m going to beat that __________Woody toy with a baseball bat if you don’t get him to shut up) can be unfair.

As I said, my boys are an ever present reminder that I’m not as perfect as I pretend to be.

And dammit, they love me still. Anyways.

unforgiven_ver3Clint Eastwood’s character, William Muny, in Unforgiven delivers a spot-on synopsis of what Christians mean by ‘justification,’ the doctrine which confesses that we’re right with God not by any goodness or merit of our own but sheerly out of God’s profligate grace.

In reply to a young gun slinger who needs to feel exonerated- justified- for his crimes (‘They had it coming to them didn’t they?’), Eastwood’s tragic Pauline antihero says:

‘We all have it coming to us, kid.’ 

I’m no William Muny. My crimes are most often provoked by a plastic cowboy that was made by children in China. Nonetheless, I’d be lying if I claimed I didn’t have it coming too.

My boys, even if they’re too good and kind to ever admit it, know it to be true.

They love me still, no matter what ratio goodness to sin coheres inside me.

And here’s what they’ve helped me learn afresh: That’s exactly how God loves me us, too.