For the benefit of anyone seeking ordination in the PC(USA), I refer you to Frank Baldwin's list of Practices Called "Sin" by Our Confessions. Since anyone practicing any of these things is ineligible for ordination in this denomination, it would probably be a good idea for examining bodies (Presbyteries and Sessions) to keep this handy as well. For myself, I quickly found a few that I have to admit I am guilty of. Specifically:
2. failure to honor all in authority over me
3. failure to submit with respectful obedience to the foregoing
4. failure to bear patiently the failures of the foregoing
Guess I don't need to worry about whether I'll be installed again any time soon (I'm already ordained as an elder).
Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and James Cone find themselves all at the same time at Caesarea Philippi. Who should come along but Jesus, and he asks the four famous theologians the same Christological question, "Who do you say that I am?"
Karl Barth stands up and says: "You are the totaliter aliter, the vestigious trinitatum who speaks to us in the modality of Christo-monism."
Not prepared for Barth's brevity, Paul Tillich stumbles out: "You are he who heals our ambiguities and overcomes the split of angst and existential estrangement; you are he who speaks of the theonomous viewpoint of the analogia entis, the analogy of our being and the ground of all possibilities."
Reinhold Niebuhr gives a cough for effect and says, in one breath: "You are the impossible possibility who brings to us, your children of light and children of darkness, the overwhelming oughtness in the midst of our fraught condition of estrangement and brokenness in the contiguity and existential anxieties of our ontological relationships."
Finally James Cone gets up, and raises his voice: "You are my Oppressed One, my soul's shalom, the One who was, who is, and who shall be, who has never left us alone in the struggle, the event of liberation in the lives of the oppressed struggling for freedom, and whose blackness is both literal and symbolic."
And Jesus writes in the sand, "Huh?"
The NY Times has an article about efforts to coerce stores to use "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays" or whatever.
A not-so-brief excerpt:
America has a complicated history with Christmas, going back to the Puritans, who despised it. What the boycotters are doing is not defending America's Christmas traditions, but creating a new version of the holiday that fits a political agenda.
The Puritans considered Christmas un-Christian, and hoped to keep it out of America. They could not find Dec. 25 in the Bible, their sole source of religious guidance, and insisted that the date derived from Saturnalia, the Roman heathens' wintertime celebration. On their first Dec. 25 in the New World, in 1620, the Puritans worked on building projects and ostentatiously ignored the holiday. From 1659 to 1681 Massachusetts went further, making celebrating Christmas "by forbearing of labor, feasting or in any other way" a crime.
The concern that Christmas distracted from religious piety continued even after Puritanism waned. In 1827, an Episcopal bishop lamented that the Devil had stolen Christmas "and converted it into a day of worldly festivity, shooting and swearing." Throughout the 1800's, many religious leaders were still trying to hold the line. As late as 1855, New York newspapers reported that Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches were closed on Dec. 25 because "they do not accept the day as a Holy One." On the eve of the Civil War, Christmas was recognized in just 18 states.
Christmas gained popularity when it was transformed into a domestic celebration, after the publication of Clement Clarke Moore's "Visit from St. Nicholas" and Thomas Nast's Harper's Weekly drawings, which created the image of a white-bearded Santa who gave gifts to children. The new emphasis lessened religious leaders' worries that the holiday would be given over to drinking and swearing, but it introduced another concern: commercialism. By the 1920's, the retail industry had adopted Christmas as its own, sponsoring annual ceremonies to kick off the "Christmas shopping season."
Religious leaders objected strongly. The Christmas that emerged had an inherent tension: merchants tried to make it about buying, while clergymen tried to keep commerce out. A 1931 Times roundup of Christmas sermons reported a common theme: "the suggestion that Christmas could not survive if Christ were thrust into the background by materialism." A 1953 Methodist sermon broadcast on NBC - typical of countless such sermons - lamented that Christmas had become a "profit-seeking period." This ethic found popular expression in "A Charlie Brown Christmas." In the 1965 TV special, Charlie Brown ignores Lucy's advice to "get the biggest aluminum tree you can find" and her assertion that Christmas is "a big commercial racket," and finds a more spiritual way to observe the day.
This year's Christmas "defenders" are not just tolerating commercialization - they're insisting on it. They are also rewriting Christmas history on another key point: non-Christians' objection to having the holiday forced on them.
The campaign's leaders insist this is a new phenomenon - a "liberal plot," in Mr. Gibson's words. But as early as 1906, the Committee on Elementary Schools in New York City urged that Christmas hymns be banned from the classroom, after a boycott by more than 20,000 Jewish students. In 1946, the Rabbinical Assembly of America declared that calling on Jewish children to sing Christmas carols was "an infringement on their rights as Americans."
Other non-Christians have long expressed similar concerns. For decades, companies have replaced "Christmas parties" with "holiday parties," schools have adopted "winter breaks" instead of "Christmas breaks," and TV stations and stores have used phrases like "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings" out of respect for the nation's religious diversity.
The Christmas that Mr. O'Reilly and his allies are promoting - one closely aligned with retailers, with a smack-down attitude toward nonobservers - fits with their campaign to make America more like a theocracy, with Christian displays on public property and Christian prayer in public schools.
It does not, however, appear to be catching on with the public. That may be because most Americans do not recognize this commercialized, mean-spirited Christmas as their own. Of course, it's not even clear the campaign's leaders really believe in it. Just a few days ago, Fox News's online store was promoting its "Holiday Collection" for shoppers. Among the items offered to put under a "holiday tree" was "The O'Reilly Factor Holiday Ornament." After bloggers pointed this out, Fox changed the "holidays" to "Christmases."
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Scout posted about a friend who unexpectedly, perhaps foolishly, has become pregnant. I wrote a comment there and found myself spending so much time composing it I decided to make a post of what I've written. No new, sage wisdom to be found here. But I felt that stating my position is a reasonable thing to do. Note that I've edited the text which I copied from my comment a bit to make it fit as part of my blog and perhaps edit it some from when I first posted it, but I think the basic thoughts are the same.
This is where the rubber hits the road in the choice/abortion debate. It is not equivilent to some other medical procedure like getting stitches or getting a cavity filled.
At the same time, in the early stages it is foolish to say that this developing fetus is fully human (IMHO). A large percentage of conceived embryos abort naturally and only the most extreme of the pro-life crowd would argue for naming/baptising/burying the remains from every miscarried pregnancy (and I'm sorry if referring to the embryo/zygot/whatever as "remains" is offensive, I just am not certain what a good, sensitive word to use for this situation would be). The person in the situation of facing an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy is the only one who really can understand what they are going through because each person is different and there is no easy answer. Abortion will end the prenancy (not completely without risk, but as long as it is legal it is possible to minimize that risk) and solve all sorts of complications. On the other hand, I do believe that there are many women who have had abortions and felt guilt about that the rest of their lives. Even the pregnant woman cannot be certain how she will feel in later years about the decision she makes, whether she chooses abortion or not.
Nick, one of the guest posters at Alas A Blog, has written about the roller coaster of physical trials she has experienced in her pregnancy and how deciding to keep a baby instead of choosing to abort does not mean a simple, few months of a bit of weight gain (though I have been unable to find the post I remember in which she addressed this quite directly). Pregnancy carries a lot of risks as well. Pregnancy is probably one of the most physically demanding things a person could ever do, not even considering the emotional considerations.
I don't envy your friend. She is facing a difficult choice and there is not a choice which is obviously right which will make everything ok and without consequence. To a certain extent it is pointless to try and heap guilt on her and say it is her own fault (and you didn't say whether their contraception failed or they had decided not to use it, so there may even be an argument for diminished guilt if she had taken measures to protect against this and they just didn't work, aside from the argument you've already made that having a relationship with this guy in the first place was a bad idea). I do hope that this helps her to make better choices in the future so she doesn't find herself in this situation again. It is precisely because this is such a difficult situation to deal with that I fully support keeping abortion legal. It is hard to imagine a law which could restrict abortions without leaving many women in situations where they would feel they still had to abort, despite whatever legal consequences there would be. Thus, making laws to restrict abortions just makes the decisions facing pregnant women that much more complex.
I wish your friend well, whatever her choice. I hope that you will continue to be her friend and support her. It sounds like she needs one very much, even if she doesn't listen to your words of wisdom. I'll be reading to see if you give us any updates on her decisions.
So, nothing really original. I doubt my opionions here surprise anyone who has read much of what I've written. I do agree that the best goal we should, as a society, be seeking in regards to abortion is that it should be safe, legal, and rare. That rarity should come because unwanted pregnancies are rare due to good health education, including sex education. But when a woman decides to abort her pregnancy she should not have roadblocks put in her way, especially not by that half of the population who will never have to face this decision, of whom I am one.
Our interim pastor has decided that we will sing one of the classic children's hymns each week because some of the children in our congregation don't know them. This week we sang "Jesus Loves the Little Children." You might know it:
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
All are precious in His sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
She told me that she was talking to some others at work and that hymn came up. (Things like that happen in seminary a lot more often than I imagine they happen in the secular, corporate world.) While the folks there agreed that it was a good song to have sung to children in the '60s, it really didn't go far enough. So they added a new verse:
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Multi-racial, straight or gay,
Jesus loves them all today,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
I liked the sound of that, but we agreed it was still incomplete so we made up another verse:
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
When transgendered or disabled
They are welcomed at the table,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
We both thought that this was a more complete (though probably still not all inclusive) song. Hoping that others might find it useful I post it here to share it with anyone interested.
OK, now that I've linked all over the net, let me say what some of this is about, in case you don't want to read the other citations.
Ault's book talks about life in a fundamentalist church. Muder uses that to comment about the differences between the world views of the conservatives and the liberals. The primary distinction Muder draws is that the conservative view of the world is based on the idea that people have obligations which they need to live up to, while liberals focus more on being able to choose which commitments they make in their lives. (Jake presents a brief summary of Muder's article, but that's how I found the rest of this stuff, so credit where credit is due and all that.) It is the liberal preference for choosing their commitments instead of accepting societal obligations that makes the conservatives feel threatened by "the liberal agenda."
It is this idea that the conservatives felt threatened which has always confused me. How can conservatives argue that a gay marriage between people that they (the conservatives) don't even know threatens them? It made no sense to me. However, Muder points out that if people come to feel that they can shed obligations which they never wanted, then that would undermine the conservative position of expecting people to fit into roles that are placed on them.
In turn, the conservatives see the liberal idea of being free to choose different things in life rather than accepting the obligations conservatives expect them to shoulder as being completely frivolous. They feel that if people can choose to leave their obligations behind then it will undermine the social order. What they miss is that the things liberals choose are not simply frivolous choices but life commitments. It is not that liberals are unwilling to make commitments, it is that they want the right to choose the commitments they make. Studies of conservative families show that despite rallying cries of "family values," conservatives are just as likely to have divorces, experience spousal abuse, and have other family problems as any other demographic group in the US. As a liberal, I hope that making commitments I choose instead of feeling trapped into obligations I didn't choose will allow me to keep those commitments without feeling resentment. This seems like a good thing to me.
I think the other articles cover all of these points better than I have here, but I wanted to go ahead and get this posted as it has been sitting here unfinished for several days.
I found this prayer service for Katrina victims (PDF file) on the PC(USA) web site. I'm sure more people will see it there than here, but on the chance that someone might see it here who otherwise might not have, I thought I'd share this portion of the service.
Remembrance of Baptism
Through water and the Spirit
we are made one with Christ and all the faithful.
In baptism we begin our journey through life
as part of the community of the faithful,
as part of the Church.
Through our lives we are never alone.
For we all travel together with Christ,
caring for one another,
loving one another,
and supporting one another,
especially in time of great distress.
The waters of baptism are waters of death and life.
Our salvation is found in Christ
who suffered for our sake
and stands with us in our suffering today.
Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
The Lord be with you,
And also with you.
We thank you, O God, for the water of baptism.
In it we were buried with Christ in his death.
From it we were raised to share in his resurrection.
Through it we were reborn by the power of your Holy Spirit.
We pray that all who passed through the water of baptism
may continue forever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.
To him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit,
be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.
Remember your baptism with thanksgiving and hope.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I've been chatting at RLP's site recently and I was encouraged to clean up the following chat session and make it available. This should go some way to improving my heretical image.
I've cleaned up the text pasted from the chat room, removed a few extraneous greetings and such, and rearranged the order a little bit to put responses to comments closer together, but other than that, this is the conversation which occurred.
[JoKeR] 11:54 am: An image I came up with recently in trying to understand a God who is in everything and everyone and who will always forgive us is this:
[JoKeR] 11:56 am: Think of life as a universal vibration. Being right with God would be like being in harmony with that vibration. Being separated from God (living in sin) would be like experiencing disonnance with that vibration.
[revsparker] 11:56 am: so to find harmony, one would have to listen first...
[truce] 11:56 am: not a bad image, actually.
[JoKeR] 11:57 am: If we can right ourselves and get right with God again so that we are back in harmony then that time when we were in disonnance is over and would not be an aspect of our relationship with God, in other words our sin is forgiven.
[revsparker] 11:57 am: is Jesus a tuning fork?
[truce] 11:57 am: lol
[revsparker] 11:58 am: interestingly, in music it is the times of dissonance that make the harmony sweeter...when dissonance resolves, humans breathe deeper, relax...etc.
[JoKeR] 11:59 am: Thus when paul says that the law was given to us so that we can get right with God, but of course we are not capable of keeping the law perfectly.
[revsparker] 12:00 pm: so, to be forgiven, one would listen, notice that one was not in tune, and do what one could (plus relying on grace) to retune to God...
[Main Lobby]: Demi has entered at 12:01 pm
[JoKeR] 12:01 pm: If we get right with God and find that harmony, then we won't want to do things that introduce dissonance, so we wouldn't be trying to follow the law for its sake as much as we would be trying to follow God which would have the result of us living lives which happen to be in tune, so to speak.
[JoKeR] 12:02 pm: or perhaps, rather than doing what one could to retune, it might be more like stopping doing things that took us out of tune.
[Demi] 12:02 pm: dissonance is a word i've been pondering lately
[Demi] 12:02 pm: it's a good word
[revsparker] 12:02 pm: I'm still contemplating Jesus' role. He was definitely quite "in tune" with God.
[Demi] 12:02 pm: totally in tune
[JoKeR] 12:02 pm: exactly.
[Demi] 12:02 pm: but still he was capable of getting angry once in a while
[Demi] 12:03 pm: so he wasn't immune to dissonance of a sort
[revsparker] 12:03 pm: ah, but is it dissonant to be angry at what angers God?
[Demi] 12:03 pm: hmm
[JoKeR] 12:03 pm: I don't know that anger is the same as dissonance. Certainly misplaced anger is destructive.
[truce] 12:03 pm: exactly. anger is not sin.
[Demi] 12:04 pm: I have a certain personal understanding of the anger of God
[Demi] 12:04 pm: it's a bit eccentric
[Demi] 12:04 pm: doesn't quite fit with the gospel story of the tables in the temple
[Demi] 12:04 pm: that was real anger, indignation
Well, I was chatting earlier with some folks from rlp and asked my question about post-modern thinking. The response I got was that one aspect of po-mo thinking is the recognition of the limits of logical reasoning. I can certainly recognize that logical reasoning is limited by the fact of how much we don't know. There is obviously an incredible wealth of data/information/knowledge that we lack which makes it impossible to derive ultimate answers strictly through logic. So that makes sense to me. I am certainly comfortable living with the ambiguity of not being certain. I'll just do the best that I can. If that makes me a post-modern thinker, then so be it.
A Progressive Christian wrote a blog posting on What Do Progressive Christians Believe. I thought this presented a nice, brief summary of the types of views which are typical of progressive Christians. I suggest reading the complete post to see what resources were used and how this summary was reached:
1. A Path, not a regime. 2. A Relationship, not a rulebook. 3. Compassion, not fear. 4. Inclusion, not exclusion. 5. Justice and Opportunity for all, not a few. 6. Stewardship, not dominion.
Not surprisingly, some (presumably non-progressive) commentors took issue with the idea that Christianity might not be the only way to God. I responded to that in the comments, but I am reproducing my comments here (with at least some typos fixed):
Isn't there scripture which says something along the lines of "I have other flocks than these" which might be an indication that God is interested in more people (I would say all people) and not just the ones who have heard the Christian message.
Further, what is there to say that these other ways do not get to God through Christ, even if they don't realize or understand that? So many Christians are so intent on insisting that they have the right way that they have a hard time accepting that it might not be the only way.
A story I like:
Two men who had been healed of blindness by Jesus meet. The first tells of his healing by Jesus making mud by spiting into the dirt and then applying this mud to the man's eyes. The second man says Jesus had mercy on him and told him he could see, and suddenly he COULD see! The first man said...
It has to be done with mud.
Maybe that's a possible bumper sticker:
It doesn't have to be done with mud.
Well, I've finished reading Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. I've linked to some of the bad reviews on Amazon which says better than I could some of the problems with it. I read it because it was recommended to me by my brother, but it is not my cup of tea.
However, I did find as I read it that there were occasional points where I didn't want to argue with the author. In particular, as he wraps up the book he writes about how men should live now that he's helped them discover their masculinity (oh, please!), with God's help, of course. Among the things he wrote, he talked about how men (I keep wanting to write "people," but of course Mr. Eldredge is writing primarily to men, real men, men who are actually Wild at Heart, even if they hadn't realized it before) should live full and exciting lives, lives filled with love for others (especially for their extremely feminine wives whose greatest joy is to be beautiful for their oh so masculine husbands). While I found his gender sterotyping offensive and simplistic, it struck me that Bishop Spong wants people to lead full lives where they love wastefully. Coming from completely different world views and understandings of God, scripture, and people, both of these authors wound up giving very similar advice about how people should live their lives. It was startling to find this similarity between these two very different authors. Maybe my brother and I can find common ground yet.
I've recently run across some discussion of "the Emergent Church" and that this is related to the post-modern movement within Christianity. I've read a very little bit about this post-modern movement, and I have to admit, I don't get it. I've read some articles at the on-line magazine Next Wave and participated in some forum discussions there (though I could no longer find forums there on a more recent visit) and I have not been able to get a clear understanding of what they are talking about.
A lot of what I'm hearing there sounds to my ears much like other Evangelicals. So what distinguishes them? I have read that this is a reaction against the Modern movement (which, I guess, is what I subscribe to, since I'm a "Modern Liberal" Christian), but I haven't found a clear example of what they are rejecting that goes beyond modernity. Most of what I've read sounds more like going back to the Fundamentalist point of view.
I was told in a chat environment that the Emergent movement, I'm sorry, "conversation" has grown as a split from Fundamentalist churches as a rejection of their too strict insistence on biblical literalism, but as I understand it, the Modern movement was exactly this rejection of biblical literalism. So do the Emergent/Post-Modern churches view the Modern point of view as having gone too far? Wouldn't that make them "semi-Modern" instead of Post-Modern? Wouldn't something that is post-whatever go beyond that "whatever" instead of saying "no, that went to far, we're going to back off from that position"?
1. Fundagelical. def. n. a person who claims to be an evangelical but whose eschatology and reticence to engage with the real world belies their claim and places them solidly in the fundamentalist camp. Used in context: "The Fundagelical said she wasn't a dispensationalist but a progressive dispensationalist." adj. churches/institutions that remove denominational affiliation from their name in favor of friendlier, more obtuse words like "community" without making the necessary re-evaluation of the theology which continues to inform their beliefs and instruction. Used in context: "My church used to be a 'Baptist' church but now we are just a Left-Behind-toting, Republican, independent, homophobic, conservative, tee-totaling 'Community' church."
Since I'm specifically interested in hearing a coherent explanation or getting pointers to a good resource (preferably on the net), I am enabling comments for this post. I notice my counter going up faster than is explained by the times I check my site to see if my counter has advanced, so I suspect someone, somewhere is reading this. I hope it is someone who might know something about this and not just comment spammers. Let me know your thoughts. Please.
I found a couple of quizzes via Coffee Blog (who I found via rlp). The first one he took was Which Theologian Are You? which I didn't care much for because I have to admit I didn't even understand some of the questions so I didn't think my answers were very meaningful. The second quiz he took I found more interesting and my results are shown below:
| You scored as Modern Liberal. You are a Modern Liberal. Science and historical study have shown so much of the Bible to be unreliable and that conservative faith has made Jesus out to be a much bigger deal than he actually was. Discipleship involves continuing to preach and practice Jesus' measure of love and acceptance, and dogma is not important in today's world. You are influenced by thinkers like Bultmann and Bishop Spong.|
What's your theological worldview?
created with QuizFarm.com
I am happy being described as a Modern Liberal, but I don't think much of the description the quiz gave for what a Modern Liberal Christian is.
Well, this past Sunday was Catherine's last day with our congregation in her position as our pastor. Having just rolled off of the session I will be a bit less involved in directing our congregation as plans are made for the next steps we should be taking in our walk together as children of God. We had already been having talks about what we can do to revitalize our aging congregregation. Being in a transition between pastors just intensifies the need for the members to step up and get involved in the ongoing life of the church. The ongoing changes of our journey of faith together continues to be a blessing and a challenge. Praise God.
Vicarious Atonement is the idea that Jesus' death on the cross was required by God as payment as a blood sacrifice for the sins of the world. This view of God as a blood-thirsty judge who can only be satisfied by a perfect blood sacrifice is a strong contrast to the understanding I have of God as being the essence of Love. This idea was developed around 1000 CE as an alternative to Christus Victor.
Christus Victor is the idea that Jesus showed us how to live lives based on love, and that lives so lived would be able to overcome evil in the world, even beyond death. Christus Victor was seen as too emotional and not rational enough, so the more rational, less emotional legalism of Vicarious Atonement was developed as an explanation for how Jesus' death worked to reconcile us with God, by "paying our fine" so to speak.
It really is a wonderful write up. My thanks to Fred Anderson at Ecunet for the link.
In my previous note, I responded to Chris' comments about why I should go to church unless I am absolutely certain that there is a God (in other words, unless I can show tangible evidence for the existence of God). My response amounted, more or less, to "Why not?"
As I've continued to think about that, I've decided I'm not satisfied with that answer. I think there is a certain amount of validity to the assertion that I've got to be doing something with my life and I am finding satisfaction in going to church, but I realize that that is not the whole answer.
A reason for going to church is to learn about God and to give myself an opportunity to experience God. I don't cotton to the notion that someone who knows nothing about God or the church can have a "born-again experience" and be completely transformed into a new being who is able to lead a completely Christian life (whatever that would be). At best, such a conversion experience would produce a new-born Christian who has a lot to learn about God and what God wants for people, just as any new-born baby has a lot to learn about all aspects of life.
Learning about God is a life-long activity, not an instantaneous event. As such, the only way to learn more about God is to try to learn. I think that I am better able to learn about God in a community of believers than I would be able to by myself. I'm still questioning some of the things that are being taught in church, but at least it gives me something to talk about and people to discuss ideas with.
I guess I would turn Chris' question on its head. Why shouldn't I go to church unless I am convinced (in the same other words, unless I have tangible evidence) that there is no God. As I said in my earlier post, I don't think we have seen that evidence. We have seen evidence that there are churches and Christians who are wrong about God, but I have not seen any evidence that convinces me that there is no God.
Chris has been honoring me with some comments on my last posting here. I wrote up a somewhat lengthy response and decided that I'd like to give Chris' questions and my response some greater visibility (not to mention giving me a new posting in this neglected part of my blog).
First, Chris' questions:
1. Some Biblical stories may have value, but some do not. And what's the point of that? Anyone can write a book with some truth in it. I'm sure "Mein Kampf" has some truth in it. What is remarkable is when someone writes a book that is good from start to finish. Considering that the Bible is supposed to be the word of God, or inspired by the Holy Spirit or what have you, why didn't God do a better job at it? Was he lazy? Malicious? Incompetent? He clearly could have done a better job if he is omnipotent.
2. If a story has value, that doesn't prove that the characters in the story exist. Oliver Twist has a lot of value but Oliver, the Artful Dodger and the rest of the cast, never actually existed. When you're reading the Bible, it's important to figure out if God actually exists in a non-fictional sense.
3. Dement sounds cute but what sort of hand is she talking about? She seems to be rehashing the ontological argument for the existence of God. Where is the tangible evidence?
4. One's experiences may lead one to intuit that God exists, but one can't just discount the evidence that God doesn't exist. If God is going to be a big part of your life then don't you think it's absolutely critical to find out if he exists for sure? You wouldn't put your life's savings in a fraudulent bank. So why invest in a God who might be fraudulent unless you don't care that much about your life?
5. Your paragraph about scientists actually proves my point. It was science (not religion or God) that revealed these truths about the natural world. And it took so long to discover them because religion has always been at odds with science. You can't reconcile science and religion despite apologeticists's attempts. See this:
OR if that doesn't load use this
(please review the full comments to see the context of his questions if you would like a better understanding of what he has written)
To which I responded as follows:
Thanks for your continued reading of my writings and for your comments on them. Given your clear leanings towards an athiestic view, I'm not sure why you would care about anything I say about Faith and Religion. Even more, I'm not sure that you're arguing with me as much as you are arguing with some other Christians who I might argue with as much as you (though, I suspect I would be arguing different points).
In your first point you question the bible's worth based on why it isn't better than it is. You question the basis of its origin as it is supposed to be the "word of God, or inspired by the Holy Spirit or what have you." This is exactly the point that Borg is questioning as well. He and I are coming at it from a different point of view than you seem to be taking, but we agree that it was not dictated by God or directly inspired by God which is why we are arguing with the fundamentalists who are making those claims.
What I, and I think Borg as well, am trying to say is that the writers of the bible did, in fact, have an experience of God and wrote about it as well as they could. But language is by definition fallible, transient, ambiguous, and at best can only reflect our understanding of what we experience. The fact that many religious leaders have tried to bolster their temporal power by claiming additional authority based on their understanding of God and the bible merely shows the well-known human weakness for ambition. I don't have to refuse to believe in God because I can see the failings of others who claim to believe in and understand God.
As to your second point, I'm not arguing that the characters existed for every story in the bible. I think that there are enough historical referents to Pilot, Herod, and others in the stories about Jesus to make it credible that there was a man named Jesus living about 2000 years ago. I think that Paul and some other characters can be trusted to have been real people. I would certainly not claim that there existed specific people named Adam, Eve, Noah, Jonah, or any number of other biblical characters. There are many characters in the bible stories who I am not at all sure about. I've read arguments that there has been no archaelogical verification that there was a King David. I'm not sure what to think about that, but even if a greater percentage of the bible is more mythic story than historical fact, I don't see that this forces me to totally reject the bible as having any value.
I can't explain what kind of hand, other than a metaphorical hand, that Dement is talking about. Not being able to explain it doesn't mean that I can't keep trying to learn about what God means to her, to me, or to others.
As for proof of God's existence, that's the great unanswerable question, isn't it? Many people claim that the testimony of Jesus' followers about his resurrection constitutes proof of a power beyond our understanding of life and death. But that begs the question of what actually happened after Jesus was crucified. We have multiple conflicting stories, as you have mentioned. But are the conflicts because people were deliberately lying? Were the stories distorted by years of playing gossip before they were written down? Were the gospel stories retold in different ways in order to reach different audiences? I have had things happen in my life that are hard to explain. People that I know and trust as intelligent, reliable people have had experiences which have almost no explanation if you disallow any possibility of some sort of divine intervention. I am willing to allow that there might be more to life than just working, procreating, and dying. If I am wrong and there is nothing more, then I don't see that I have hurt anything by thinking that there was more.
As for the evidence that God doesn't exist, I would argue that most of what is presented as evidence in this way is proof that the biblical writers had a view of the world which doesn't match up very well with our modern, scientific understanding of the world in which we live. Can you point to proof that there is nothing which could be called God? Can you point to proof that there is nothing that can travel faster than the speed of light? Certainly, we have not been able to observe or document any such phenomenon, and faster-than-light capability would fundamentally shift our understanding of the way the universe works, but can you prove it cannot be done? I will accept that you could prove that there is no way we know of to travel faster than the speed of light. But I don't think you're keeping an open mind if you refuse to acknowledge that there might be something that we don't understand which could allow it to happen. Here's a thought off the top of my head: suppose all of the unobservable dark matter which scientists have been trying to find has been all around us all the time but is traveling around faster than the speed of light. As such we cannot see it and we have no way of measuring it. I have no proof that this is the case, but if you say my lack of positive proof is proof that I'm wrong, then I don't think you're arguing logically. I'm willing to acknowledge that we cannot know whether I'm right about faster-than-light dark matter and even that I'm probably wrong. But I haven't seen anything that proves that there is no God. I agree that there has been proof that there are many ideas about God that have been proven wrong, but I don't agree that there is proof that there is no God.
As for whether I should spend my life investing my time and resources based on a belief in God, I've got to spend it somehow. I've tried living for my own pleasure, doing drugs, drinking, collecting material things, etc. and I found it very unsatisfying. I find satisfaction in some aspects of my involvement in church: the people I am associating with, the music, the time together, the people that we are able to help through our collective mission work, etc. There are also frustrations associated in belonging to a church: disagreements about what we should be doing as a church, pettiness over trivial matters, all of the things which go along with being a bunch of people trying to associate with each other and work together. Is there an afterlife? What would such an afterlife be like? I'm not sure on either point. But whether there is or not, I think I am happier and more content as a participant in church than I was when I was not in church. If that is not reason enough for you to want to follow a similar path, then you are welcome to follow a path that you find more satisfying. What I don't understand is why you feel compelled to try to persuade me that I should not be doing the things I am doing.
As to your last point, I conceed that the church has often worked to supress scientific knowledge because their limited understanding of God was such that they felt that the new scientific knowledge undermined their authority. Actually, it probably did undermine their authority, since they were basing it on misunderstandings of God which the scientific discoveries were revealing. But the church is a human institution. I see the church as an organization of people who are trying to find God. The fact that they do a bad job of it is more a reflection on the shortcomings of the people involved and the inscrutable nature of God than anything else. It might be that the nature of God is inscrutable because there is no God to scrutanize. However, if we refuse to look for God, then it is a near certainty that we will not find God, but if we do look for God then we might find God if God exists. That discovery may not happen as we would like it to ("Look, Ma! I found God hiding under this rock! Can I take him home?"), but I'm not sure that it cannot happen.
Thanks again for reading and commenting.
The Right-Wing Christian Dictionary is a clear explanation of words which often are used in ways which confuse rational people. Here are a few examples just to give you a taste of what to expect.
|Fundamentalism, Christian||The greatest hope for the integrity of our Beloved Nation.|
|Fundamentalism, Islamic||The greatest threat to the integrity of our Beloved Nation. (Fact: Rush Limbaugh has said this many, many times.)|
|Gay/Lesbian||Homosexual is the preferred term, as it focuses more explicitly on sex. With feminists and liberals, responsible for nearly all social ills (with the possible exception of abortion).|
|Gay Christians||Not possible. Those that claim to exist are "trapped" in a state of Deception, and are first in line for the Lake of Fire because they "twist God's Word." To save them, right-wing Christians must exercise "compassion" and tell them that God wants to kill them.|
Our current church school class on Sunday mornings (we are studying The Christian Life (A Geography of God) by Michael L. Lindvall which is part of the Fondations of Christian Life series) is being led by our pastor, Catherine Taylor. One of the points Catherine has made is that sometimes people ignore the moving of the Spirit in our lives. Often times people dismiss as mere coincidence things which she feels were signs of God's moving in our lives. Could it be that I have recently experienced such a God touched moment?
I was browsing the web and had visited my Usual Haunts. Having been reading some different church related sites I thought I'd check out some old bookmarks in my Church Favorites folder which I hadn't visited in a while. The first one that caught my eye and I chose was Mary & Martha's Place. I cannot remember how I came across this site originally or what prompted me to save it. It had been months at least since I last looked at it and I couldn't even remember what it was. Of course, the fact that it is named for the same biblical characters as my wife made the name resonate with me, but that would not normally be a reason for bookmarking a site. However, the home page featured a link to a mention of a book discussion of Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile by John Shelby Spong which I finished reading just recently. That was interesting enough, but not very useful because the book study was scheduled for Wednesday night when I was already committed to choir rehersal.
Still, the fact that they were studying a book in which I was interested led me to read more about what they were doing. When I clicked on one of their links about scheduled Contemporary Theological Issues meetings I found that in addition to their book study they mentioned that Bishop Spong would be leading a workshop on March 22, 2003 at All Saints' Episcopal Church in midtown Atlanta. This has enabled me to preregister for the workshop (when I called to pregister they said the response has been so good they are now asking people to bring their own lunches because they cannot serve so many people) so that I will have a chance to hear him in person.
Since finding out about this workshop I have tried to find out more about it. I cannot find any reference to it on the website for All Saints'. (How do you make a possessive out of a name which is itself a possessive? "All Saints''s website"? I guess I could just spell it out further "All Saints' Episcopal's website".) I haven't been able to find anything about it on any Spong related site. I haven't been able to find a mention of it doing various searches on Google (did anyone reading this really need a link to Google? but I guess it is proper blog-curtesy to link even if it is obvious). So I don't think I would have found out about this except that I stumbled into this website which I had bookmarked months ago and forgotten about.
Why did I save that bookmark originally? Why did I happen to find this link just in time to be able to attend this workshop? I guess I could just chalk it up to coincidence. I think that Spong likely would do so since he does not believe in an interventionist God. For myself, I think that there are enough "coincidences" and other unexplainable things which happen that I am not willing to discredit the possibility of an occasional gentle intervention by God.
I have actually posted a new article on my Faith and Religion page. It references an article by Marcus Borg on different understandings of scripture. I think Borg was able to state his points clearly and concisely.
UPDATE: I modified the link to point to the entry which is now in my primary blog instead of the old reference to my separate Faith and Religion blog.
Marcus Borg has written a brief outline of some arguments about the authority of the bible. It succinctly summarizes and illustrates a basic conflict between the fundamentalist believers and the more modern Christians. The heart of the argument is as follows:
Central to the conflict are two ways of seeing the Bible's origin. The first sees it as a divine product; the second sees it as a human product.
The first is affirmed by fundamentalist and most conservative Christians. They say that the divine origin of the Bible is the basis of its authority. Unlike any other book, the Bible is the uniquely revealed word of God, and that's why it matters. Why should we take it seriously? Because it comes from God.
It is easy to understand why the Bible is seen this way. In the Christian tradition, we have consistently spoken of it as "the Word of God" and "inspired by God," language which suggests that the Bible is a divine product as no other book is.
The second way of seeing the Bible views it as the human product of two ancient communities. The Old Testament is the product of ancient Israel, and the New Testament is the product of the early Christian movement. As the product of these two communities, the Bible tells us about how they saw things--how they thought about God and told their stories.
This view is the result of modern biblical scholarship over the last three centuries. Thought it was known mostly in scholarly circles until recently, this approach is now being embraced by many mainline Christians.
Indeed, a strong grass-roots desire for a new way of seeing the Bible is one of the most remarkable features of the contemporary church.
He gives illustrations about how this affects understandings of creation, the law (specifically, the treatment of homosexuals), and other aspects of Christian life and belief.
Reading this short article certainly makes me even more interested in reading one or more of Borg's books for which I've heard high praise.
The following statement was sent to me in case I could help to distribute it. I am posting it here in case any of my readers might be interested.
The Wages of War:
A Statement Adopted by the Seminary Council of
Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
October 21, 2002
Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, as a teaching arm of the Church, strives to �equip the saints for the work of ministry� (Ephesians 4:12) and to interpret the gospel in an ever-changing world. The mission we are given requires us to attend to the signs of the times, to read carefully cultural trends, and to be ready at all times to give an account of the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). As members of this Seminary community, we have prayerfully reflected on the national moral crisis with which we are now confronted. We have heard with concern the many calls from President Bush and the current U.S. administration for unilateral military action to preempt a perceived threat from the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. We have been troubled to find that the seemingly inexorable movement toward war has been slowed hardly at all by the few prominent voices urging our leaders to take more time for critical moral reflection. But we are not dispirited, and with confidence in God we offer this message of concern and hope.
The futility of war
We are concerned that the policies pursued by the Bush administration and endorsed by the recent votes in Congress suggest that terrorism won on September 11, 2001. Beyond killing nearly three thousand people and destroying treasured national landmarks the terrorists also redefined our normative rules of engagement. They changed the way we, as Americans, think about responding to evil in our world.
The magnitude of our loss on September 11 illumined our vulnerability to terrorism and quickened our resolve to eliminate perceived threats before they result in further loss. Our anxious concern for safety is understandable. Our plan to achieve safety through unilateral action and preemption reveals that the events of 9-11 were truly cataclysmic in scope. The violent upheaval of that day not only wreaked unprecedented devastation for us but also caused a fundamental shift in our estimate of an appropriate response.
The terrorists win when we lose hope in the efficacy of diplomacy, cooperation, and multilateral action. The Bush foreign policy is premised on the assumption that violence is the only meaningful, appropriate, and effective response to violence�and that an escalation of violence is the best way to demonstrate our might and resolve. But the biblical witness and our Christian faith suggest that we delude ourselves when we presume that military force will stifle the hatred that fuels attacks on America and the West. A violent response, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, begets the very thing it seeks to destroy. That is why God calls us to a more excellent way. When Jesus says �No more� to the impulse of his disciples to attack their adversaries (Luke 22:51), he embodies for us an alternative path. Is it conceivable that such a path might yet influence the moral deliberations of our leaders?
In what ways are the actions toward Iraq weighed by the current U.S. administration distinguished from the actions radical Islamists have taken against America? While we believe that there are significant differences, we are concerned about the apparent similarities. Those antagonists without superior military power use low-tech measures to destroy a World Trade Center. Those antagonists with superior military power use high-tech measures to change regimes. That both have agreed to adjudicate the conflict through strike and counter-strike ensures that the conflict will both escalate and draw other parties into frenzied reaction or smolder for generations. The events of 9-11 have subjected us to a tyranny of perpetual violence and stifled our moral imagination.
The terrorists win when we come to share their idolatrous self-identification with the will of God. Their rationale for violence seems to have become our rationale for violence, namely, an impassioned contention that we alone embody righteousness and they embody evil.
The danger of idolatry
The Bush administration�s relentless pursuit of its goal of regime change through war has elicited charges of arrogance from most of our global neighbors. Arrogance, in theological terms, is pride; and pride is an expression of idolatry�the unwillingness to distinguish our own perceptions and desires from the vision and the will of God (Isaiah 2:8-17). When our leaders ignore the pleas of voices from the Muslim and Arab world not to invade Iraq, when virtually all our closest allies are cautioning us against a premature and wrong-headed military intervention against a sovereign nation, we must ask: Have we alone seen matters rightly? Do we alone possess the moral authority to be God�s sword against injustice? Representing God is a dangerous business and the sword that is claimed in God�s name cuts both ways (Isaiah 13-14, 34:1-7).
We are concerned that the blind determination of our leaders to pursue their policy goals may rob our neighbors�friend and foe�of their humanity. Pride and self-righteousness can easily seduce us into a way of seeing in which we conclude that both antagonists and inconvenient others are easily dismissible parties to the weighty deliberations of war. It matters little what they think who fail to see matters rightly. Be they friend or foe, if they do not see what we see then they do not see clearly. And if they do not see clearly then we acknowledge no compelling moral or legal obligation to consult with them or to act in concert with them. A lack of mutual and careful consideration in matters of joint concern is but the first step on the slippery slope of dehumanization. If we are for God, then those who oppose us or who fail to take our side are not for God. We need not hear their counsel. If they are part of an axis of evil then to hear them is to invite only a devil�s snare of allegation, recrimination, and prevarication. We dehumanize those persons to whom we deny a meaningful voice.
Idolatry has political consequences. We glorify our nation; our cause is an unquestioningly righteous one. We dehumanize our adversaries; their claim against us is a patently false one. Warfare, then, becomes a simply conceived matter. Yet we are blind to the true costs of war.
The costliness of war
A calculus of the costliness of war must account, minimally, for human, political, and moral costs.
If the first casualty of war is a loss of innocence then the second casualty is a loss of life. The language of modern warfare obscures this cost. Our war language bespeaks surgical precision, localized anesthetics, and noninvasive procedures. We speak of �dual-use targets,� �smart bombs,� and �collateral damage,� but these terms belie the troubling truth of the matter: sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, soldiers and civilians, young and old are going to die. They will die because they went to work or to school or to shop on a fateful day. They will die because they lived near a bridge or a power station or a tall building that was deemed to be a crucial target. They will die because they boarded the wrong bus or plane. They will die needlessly because they are the enemy and our cause is a righteous one. They will die regrettably in a proximate and temporary measure to redress an intractable problem of contentious self-interest. They will die because we choose war. Ironically, we will die as well because the enemies we make today will not simply prostrate themselves before the altar of American might. They will take their revenge on us tomorrow. And so it goes.
When events began spinning out of control in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy issued a stern warning that should caution us today as we discern our role and responsibilities toward Iraq: �the situation may get out of control with irreversible consequences.� Indeed, newly declassified documents reveal that we came terribly close to a nuclear war in the western hemisphere in October of that year when � a U.S. Navy destroyer dropping depth charges almost accidentally hit the hull of a Soviet submarine carrying a nuclear warhead.� i Today, we sail in equally perilous waters atop highly contentious and combustible interests in the Middle East. As we drop our political depth charges on Iraq, let us be mindful that even an accidental miscue can precipitate a chain of events leading to outcomes no less severe in scope and intensity than those we narrowly avoided forty years ago.
The burning political question of the hour is not whether we will rally to the cause of defeating genocidal regimes around the world. The question before us is how we will respond to the political challenges imposed by our fundamental commitments to personal liberty and social justice. A corollary question that is beyond the scope of this appeal but that merits our careful consideration nonetheless is which genocidal challenges to liberty and justice appear on our political radar screen and command our immediate attention.
To pursue a course of independent action, in self-imposed isolation from the shared commitments of our allies and deaf to the impassioned critique of our enemies, is to court further political crisis in the region and solicit aggressive reaction from those adversaries who decry the United States as an international Goliath. An alternate choice, however, is available to us: a choice that builds upon the best of our democratic ideals. Democracy demands the participation of the many as a restraint against the tyranny of the powerful few. To pursue a course of mutual action response, in concert with our allies and responsible to the criticism of our adversaries, is to cull meaningful opportunity from a minefield of lesser political options.
A course of mutual action response is not merely a euphemism for a kinder and gentler form of cold warfare. It is a political blueprint for managing international crises that is drawn on the template of international diplomacy, law, and consensus. The wisdom of this response is borne out in the testimony of General Wesley Clark, U.S.A. (Ret.), Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (1997-2000): �through greater legal, judicial, and police coordination, we need to make the international environment more seamless for us than it is for the international terrorists we seek.� ii At the crossroads of either multilateral or unilateral response, we are concerned that the appeal of unilateral response, a mirage of political expediency and regional control, will lead only to greater peril.
The moral cost of warfare is measured in half-truths and squandered opportunities. Reinhold Niebuhr was on to something when he wrote, �the selfishness of nations is proverbial.� iii We deceive ourselves if we expect that our actions in the world are motivated more by altruism than by self-interest; if we expect that our moral judgment is less partial and our moral vision is less myopic than the judgment and vision of other peoples with whom we share the world; if we expect that the moral justification for our political position on Iraq is free from the taint of hypocrisy; or if we expect that national interest has not already compromised our moral authority in the world. We are not less sinful as a people than the people against whom we would wage war. All people fall short of the glory of God.
We have an opportunity to choose a better way. It is a way less traveled. The well-traveled way squanders opportunities for a more stable international order. The way less traveled presents a genuine opportunity to build community.
If the terrorists succeeded at redefining the normative rules of engagement, leading us headlong into hopelessness, unilateral action, preemption, and an endless cycle of violence and retaliation, we are hopeful that we can realize new and vital forms of the justice and peace that God intends for humanity. We do not claim the sufficiency of this hope for securing global justice, only its necessity.
Where do we go from here?
One of the widely touted responses to the perceived threat from the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein proceeds from a Christian tradition of justifiable war theory. The idea that war can be justified has roots in early Christian thought, going back to the writings of Augustine, and has been reworked since then in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and many other Christian authors. A current formulation of justifiable war theory, adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), holds six principlesiv:
All other means to the morally just solution of conflict must be exhausted before resort to arms can be regarded as legitimate.
War can be just only if employed to defend a stable order or morally preferable cause against threats of destruction or the rise of injustice.
Such a war must be carried out with the right attitudes.
A just war must be explicitly declared by a legitimate authority.
A just war may be conducted only by military means that promise a reasonable attainment of the moral and political objectives being sought.
The just war theory has also entailed selective immunity for certain parts of the population, particularly for non-combatants.
If we, as a nation, accept that war against Iraq is a case of just war, then the Bush administration has more public work to do in making that case on principled grounds. It is not at all clear that the conditions for a just war against Iraq have been met.
We, as members of the Louisville Seminary community, question the premise that a vigorous and principled war can be an instrument of a lasting peace. If war is necessary, surely it must be a last resort and not a preemptive strike.
The biblical tradition tells us that humans are created for community, each a part of a larger whole (Genesis 1:27). Sin tempts us to imagine that we are not really bound up with others; that we are not simply a part of God�s creation but the favored part of God�s creation; that we alone are entrusted with the divine authority to change regimes at will. But the Bible also tells us that God does not abandon us to our sin, but calls us into a community of justice and righteousness. Christians believe that God commissions the church to tell this story of God�s call. As The Confession of 1967 of the Presbyterian Church (USA) puts it, �God�s reconciliation in Jesus Christ is the ground of the peace, justice, and freedom among nations which all powers of government are called to serve and defend. The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding.�v
Our hope, as a Seminary and as a teaching arm of the Church, is that America will hear the story the Church has to tell and that it will pursue a just peace and not a just war. Just peace is not a stopgap measure to restrain the flow of evil after events have spun out of control. It is a community building process grounded in mutuality, reciprocity, and the arduous work of cooperation to achieve social justice. The wisdom of just peace is in the centrality it accords to justice. Truly, there will not be peace without justice. International justice is not gained by unilateral military action to rid the world of evil. That idea did not work for the terrorists. It will not work for us. Instead, let us choose to build justice in concert with our neighbors, open to the criticism of the adversaries, with candor and confidence that God holds tomorrow.
Keep your eyes on the prize, America, and hold on to the freedom that God alone has provided to break our bondage to cycles of perpetual conflict that follow from interest against interest (Galatians 5:1). Of course we will not end conflict in the world, but we can choose to respond to global conflict and international threats in a manner that does not merely recapitulate age-old patterns of violent action and violent reaction. Let us not esteem warfare as the moral heirloom we bequeath to our children and grandchildren. Let not the deep psychological wounds to our national ego that we suffered in the aftermath of September 11th tempt us to cloak vengeance in the language of unilateral action. The wages of war are legion. The promise of peace is eternal. The choice is ours.
i:This statement was adopted by a unanimous vote of the Seminary Council on October 21, 2002. It was written by an ad hoc committee of Seminary faculty and students.
Robert Kennedy, quoted in �Soviet sub almost fired nuke in missile crisis,� by Anita Snow, Associated Press, in The Courier-Journal, Sunday, October 13, 2002, page A11.
ii: General Wesley Clark, �An Army of One?� in The Washington Monthly, volume 34, number 9, September 2002, page 22.
iii: Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, New York: Charles Scribner�s Sons, 1932, page 84.
iv: Ronald Stone and Dana Wilbanks, editors, The Peacemaking Struggle: Militarism and Resistance. New York: University Press of America, 1985, page 191. This volume contains essays prepared for the Advisory Council on Church and Society of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
v: The Confession of 1967, 9.45, in Book of Confessions: Study Edition, Louisville, Kentucky: Geneva Press, 1996, page 328.
Can there be too much tolerance?
I was very discouraged when I read a report a few years back concerning response to an effort to improve the moral teachings of our children here in Georgia. A group of educators (was it the State Board of Education? it was certainly an official school or government group) listed moral qualities which they felt should be taught in schools. These included honesty, respect for the law, and many others for a total of about 50 values which sounded to me about as difficult to disagree with as Mom and apple pie. However, many parents called to complain about one listed value or another as something they didn't want taught to their precious darlings. The value that topped the list of complaints was tolerance.
All my life I have been taught that we should be tolerant. Growing up in the south, people were being denied access to public services because of the color of their skin and those in power refused to tolerate unacceptable behavior such as refusing to comply with those rules and laws. We lived in the shadow of the intolerance of Jews during the second world war and the horror inflicted for that reason. Tolerance of differences was extoled as the proper behavior for people who wanted to be allowed their own beliefs. If we refuse to tolerate others, what will happen when something we do is not tolerated?
This never meant that anything goes. We have rules for living together in society. Sometimes those rules need to be changed (as in Jim Crow) and this can be upsetting for some folks. If we can define appropriate rules of behavior ("your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose") then areas not covered by general rules should generally be tolerated. The rule that states that you have freedom to exercise your religious beliefs means that as long as that exercise doesn't impinge unfairly upon others, then you can do as you wish. People should be tolerant of any differences they have with their neighbors who believe differently, as long as they are being good citizens and neighbors.
On at least one of the pages of Josh McDowell's web site
He states that the definition of tolerance has changed from "recognize and respect (others' beliefs, practices, etc.) without necessarily agreeing or sympathizing" to "every individual's beliefs, values, lifestyles, and truth claims are equal." "In other words," he goes on to say, "all beliefs are equal. All values are equal. All lifestyles are equal. All truth is equal."
From this point he goes on to argue that we cannot be tolerant of other beliefs. We must define, acknowledge, and teach the Truth, which is of course the truth as he sees it. He believes we must teach children an "objective standard of truth" which they will be able to use as a foundation for living their lives and that we must not be tolerant of other beliefs and other truths.
To a certain extent, I applaud his position. I certainly agree that teaching children a sense of right and wrong is important. I certainly believe in teaching children about Jesus/God and what that means for our lives.
However, I cannot go along with his assertion that we should not exercise tolerance. The great reformers who led the Protestant Reformation were not tolerated by those who knew "The Truth" in their day, and I am grateful to them for standing up for their beliefs which has provided me with the opportunity to study, think, and believe as I see fit.
How would one be intolerant of a child's beliefs if they differed from one's own? Beat it out of them? Disown them? Force them to listen to lectures on proper belief and insist that they parrot correct answers to questions asked?
McDowell insists that "We must act justly and exercise loving kindness -- not tolerance." I guess I just have a different understanding of Micah than McDowell does. Doing justice does not mean insisting that others must agree with me. Loving others and showing kindness does not mean insisting that others must agree with me.
Perhaps in a church setting there are people who feel strongly that it is important that fellow church members agree with particular doctrines and truths which will allow all members to support and encourage each other to remember those truths and to put those beliefs into action in their lives. However, I find that my beliefs have changed over the course of my life. I have seen others grow and mature in their faith over time. If these changes result in deeper understandings that lead them to different conclusions than official church dogma, are they straying into heresy or are they blazing a trail into a new reformation?
A member of my congregation was sharing the story of his faith journey when he was moved to tears as he told of trying to find a congregation to join and was told in church after church that his questions were unwelcome, he must accept the answers that they had for him or he might as well leave. When he found that our congregation was willing to accept him as he worked to find answers to his questions he knew that he'd finally come home.
In a discussion about tolerance, absolute truth, and Josh McDowell, Gary Miller wrote "As for the reality of 'Absolutes' I would think that is a given - no one can think without a sure (absolute) referent." If that is so then I don't see what that absolute could be except our own experiences. Those experiences would include developing trusting relationships with parents, teachers, and others; learning about Jesus/God through studying the bible and books written about the bible and what it means; and personal experiences of relationship with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. However, such experiences are obviously intensly personal and individual to each one of us. If those experiences lead us to agree that the bible can be considered a trustworthy source of Truth then that gives us a common foundation upon which to build our relationship with God and each other.
Of course, as has been seen throughout the world and all of history, people tend to find something to disagree about eventually. Even if we agree about the bible being a trustworthy source of Truth, we can wind up disagreeing about which books should be included, which language or translation is better, and how the ambiguities of the text (unavoidable within the confines of human language) should be interpreted. It is being willing to agree to disagree about such things which is at the heart of toleration, in my opinion.
McDowell makes it clear that he does not want to tolerate ambiguities. He says that we must be firm in our convictions, escalating feelings beyond simple beliefs and on into convictions. He insists that we pursue Truth and accept nothing less (I'm sure he is ready to share that Truth with us in some of his 50+ books, on his broadcast shows, or in some of his other multimedia products). I wish him well in that pursuit. I continue to struggle with my own pursuit. I'm not at all convinced that he and I will come to the same conclusions about that Truth, but I am willing to tolerate his disagreement with me. I am not confident that he will be willing to tolerate my disagreement with him, and that scares and saddens me.
My wife, Mary Martha, a member of the staff of Columbia Theological Seminary (CTS), forwarded the following to me. It is a statement of concern about the push to war on Iraq which was circulated on the CTS campus and signed by many of the faculty and others there. It is my understanding that this can be distributed freely and so I am making it available here.
The earlier version was a pre-release which contained some typos. I have now updated it from a release received this morning about 11:00am, 10/14/2002.
Well, I've been told that this is now the final version. I hope this is the final update.
A Public Testimony on War With Iraq
With Questions, Answers, and an Invitation to Dialogue and Action
To all who seek to discern God�s will in morally complex times. Peace and grace to you in the name of Jesus Christ.
With increasing anxiety, some of us at Columbia Theological Seminary have watched as the United States moves ever closer to renewing war against Iraq. All wars, no matter how justified they may seem to some, are matters of deepest concern and they warrant open and frank conversation and debate taken on with a deep sense of moral gravity.
Over the past several weeks, we the undersigned have engaged in just these types of debates�some formal, others occasional or informal. We have come to them with different perspectives, theological convictions, backgrounds, plans, and questions. Some among us favor the just war tradition; others believe in non-violent resistance. Some have either served or will serve in the military; others are opposed to military engagement on principle. Some come sure of their answers; others seek clarity and reserve judgment.
We share neither the mind nor the will of God. We realize that ours are not the only opinions that warrant hearing within the church or the academy, but as Christian scholars and students, we believe our opinions are worth hearing. We confess that we are morally implicated in this war both by our actions and our inaction, but as Christians we believe that our guilt ought not remove us from the conversation, for by that standard, all would be silenced. As members of a learning community, we believe we are called to speak. We do not believe that our questions and answers are perfect. However, we testify that we are called to be Christian stewards of the questions to which we have been led. And so we struggle both to ask the right questions and to seek thoughtful and faithful answers. Based on our shared theological convictions, these are our questions and our answers:
First, in a culture that seems to favor war, the church and its members must remind both themselves and the larger culture that the presumption of the Christian faith is always toward peace. Human beings were not created for war and, in the end, God will �make wars cease to the end of the earth.� (Psalm 46: 9). Those among us who see war as occasionally necessary nonetheless recognize that any act of war must be gravely and repeatedly justified against the more basic claim that, where possible, alternatives to war are morally preferable. We asked ourselves the question, �Have our national leaders adequately prioritized and pursued all the available alternatives to open war with Iraq?� We answered that we do not believe that our national leaders have adequately prioritized and pursued these alternatives.
Second, even in the most carefully conducted wars, far too many innocent persons suffer death and hardship. War makes victims. And while we recognize that there has been only one truly innocent victim in human history, we also believe that on the cross, that victim�Jesus Christ�acted on behalf of human beings who sin, suffer, and die�and in so doing, took upon himself our sin, suffering, and death. We asked ourselves, �Have our elected leaders explored or pursued adequately the implications of war against Iraq and the widespread suffering that will result not only from war but from the results of war?� We answered that we do not believe that such exploration has been adequate against the backdrop of horrible suffering.
Third, a policy of preemptive and unilateral action flouts current international laws, including those that have been agreed upon and promoted by the U.S. in the past. Respect for the law springs from our recognition that God�s sovereignty extends through law such that sin might be restrained, righteousness might be promoted, and community might flourish. We asked ourselves, �Has our nation fully undertaken multinational action with other nations to address enforceable inspections of Iraq�s alleged store of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons through enforcing present or new resolutions by the United Nations Security Council?� and �Have our elected leaders made a compelling case either for preemptive action or for unilateral or near-unilateral action against Iraq?� We concluded that this is not the case. Current willingness to disregard international law in favor of unilateral action confuses might with right and can inhibit the development of the very types of national and international communities through which justice might be more actively and profitably pursued. Nor do we believe that a compelling case for preemptive action or for unilateral or near-unilateral action against Iraq has been made.
Finally, pursuing the security of persons in the United States at the expense of basic human freedoms, including the right to life of those who have done nothing to provoke attack, is not only an unreasonable and unwise goal, but has the potential to stand in conflict with the good news of a gospel made manifest in Jesus Christ�s life, death, and resurrection. Our security does not and cannot rest in our own efforts�even our best efforts�for all such efforts are doomed to failure. Instead, our security rests in the hands of a God strong enough to defeat death and loving enough to return to those who condemned him, offering salvation instead of condemnation. We asked ourselves, �Can we gain the type of security our national administration suggests it can deliver to us through war?� �And if so, ought we desire it?� We believe that the answers to both questions are No.
We welcome both additional and countervailing testimony. However, we also wish to be both clear and public about our current position: While we acknowledge that Iraq�s actions are cause for grave concern and need international response, we believe that war against Iraq is a dangerously misguided activity. It disregards morally preferable alternatives, ignores probable dangerous and destructive consequences and implications, and leads to the unnecessary death and suffering of those whom Christ so valued as to give his own life. We do not believe that Iraqi tragedy will be healed by the means our elected officials advocate and we do not support a project so out of step with both our country�s best aspirations and the gospel�s deepest call for our lives.
We pledge to treat this issue as an occasion for deep and passionate theological, moral, political, and pastoral inquiry. As individuals, we will continue to attend to current events in a careful and critical way. As citizens, we will continue to call and write our elected officials. As scholars, we will continue to educate ourselves in how the Christian tradition�and the Reformed tradition, in particular�understands war and peace. As pastors and lay leaders, we will continue to pray and to work with churches, families, and persons struggling with the implications of war for their lives. As Christian scholars and students, we will continue to make this work pertinent for and accessible to the church. And as Christians, we will continue to profess our faith in a just God who brings peace; a righteous God who reconciles; a holy God who shares unmerited love.
Sisters and brothers, we ask you to join us by carefully and prayerfully considering these issues, by studying the Scriptures and exploring the wealth of theological insights from our shared tradition, by opening your churches to be locations of debate and discovery, and by adding your own voices to this crucial national conversation. In a time of anger and despair, the church can and ought to be a place of peace and hope. May God make it so.
Charles L. Campbell
Carlos F. Cardoza Orlandi
R. Leon Carroll
Charles B. Cousar
Ronald Hecker Cram
Dent C. Davis
Richard S. Dietrich
Anna Carter Florence
E. Elizabeth Johnson
Julie A. Johnson
C. Benton Kline, Jr.
Emmanuel Y. Lartey
Sharon L. Mook
Marcia Y. Riggs
Stanley P. Saunders
Haruko Nawata Ward
Brian A. Wren
Christine Roy Yoder
Ann Clay Adams
Dedera Nesmith Baker
Jean E. Beedoe
Manikka L. Bowman
William Scott Calkins
Bert K. Carmichael
Shelia A. Council
Sue. W. Crannell
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Robin S. Dietrich
Eric R. Dillenbeck
Karen R. Dukes
Sarah F. Erickson
Betsy Taylor Flory
Liz Barrington Forney
Alice Schaap Freeman
Larry M. Griffin
J. Kirkland Hall
Mary Alice Haynie
Stuart C. Higginbotham
Gillian M. Houghton
E. Cader Howard, Jr.
Michael D. Kirby
Jonathan P. Larson
Kate McGregor Mosley
Joseph G. Moore
Linda C. Morningstar
Mary E. Newberg
Teri C. Peterson
Katie B. Preston
Kathryn E. Richmond
Sue A. Riggle
Mary Martha Riviere
William H. Searight
Jeremy Kyle Segar
Kenneth W. Sikes
Amy D. Summers-Minette
Edward R. Wegele
In the PCUSA Polity section of Presbynet there has been a lot of discussion about communion. The discusion was sparked by questions about who is allowed to serve communion. Specifically, can the session authorize baptized but unconfirmed members to serve communion during worship?
After much discussion about the meaning of membership, the different types of membership (active, inactive, baptized, affiliate) and the serious consideration which needs to be given to the exact wording in the Book of Order (BOO) concerning who can serve communion, the final concensus seems to be that it is within the rules to authorize baptized youth to serve communion, though not all agreed that this was a wise practice or policy.
I came away from the discussion wondering what the fuss was all about. There was much concern over the loss of understanding of the meaning and importance of communion. Maybe I've already lost some of that understanding because I'm not sure I see what the goal of being so careful with the rituals, elements, and details of serving communion accomplishes.
I am coming more and more to an understanding of God as being an essential, integrated part of each of us. As such, a goal of the church, it seems to me, should be to help each of us get in better contact with God and to keep God as a central focus of our lives. How does keeping regimented control over the sacred elements of communion help to accomplish this?
Speaking purely from memory, I remember the words of invitation to the table to include Jesus' words that "whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup we show forth God's presence until God comes again" or something like that. If we want to be remembering God constantly, and we remember God whenever we share a communion meal, then shouldn't we be encouraging our church members to make every meal a communion meal? Wouldn't this help people to remember the nearness and importance of God every day in everything we do, such as whenever we eat something? If we can see the presence of God in each meal we make, in each thing we do, then doesn't that help us to better keep our focus on who we are as Christians and what we should be doing as God's people?
What does it say about sharing communion within the church when we put strict limits on when it can be served, who can authorize it being served, and who can participate in serving it? Is this an attempt to bring God to the people in their lives or is this an attempt to keep God locked away unless the church leaders let God out and share God's presence with the other, less priviledged members of the congregation? In other words, getting back to the title I've given to this note, is the control of communion because of the sanctity of the service or is it because of a desire or percieved need to force scarcity of communion so that people will better appreciate it when it is available?
I have certainly experienced some moving and meaningful communion services. The intimate communions held during session retreats with other devoted church leaders have been very special. The tremendous experience of communion with hundreds of peacemakers or worship leaders at Montreat conferences is a different but also very meaningful experience.
But what about the service of celebration of the ressurection when a church member died and communion was served but our pastor forgot to get session approval (despite having an opportunity to do so)? Was the meaning and inspiration of that service false somehow because it was not properly authorized?
Does proper approval guarantee that participants will properly appreciate the meaning and importance of the service? I suspect that more than a few of those who have received communion over the centuries have been distracted by the concerns of the world so that their participation was merely a matter of routine instead of a heartfelt communion of shared worship. I would hazard a guess that even some of those who have led communion services are sometimes just going through the motions while thinking about activities to come later or some other concerns. But even so, this lack of dedicated involvement by some participants does not necessarily mean that other participants are not being uplifted by the worship which they are sharing. It really comes down to the individual's focus and beliefs about what they are doing in a particular worship service, doesn't it?
Would lack of eclesiastical approval make a powerful prayer of dedication given by a devout believer before a family dinner less meaningful? Couldn't the shared meal and time together provide an opportunity for genuine reflection on the importance of God in our lives together and to us individually? How would this be inappropriate if some of the words of institution were incorporated into a mealtime prayer? Would disciplinary action be taken against an elder, pastor, or even a church member who dared to say these special words before their family dinner together? Is God more present or less when devoted Christians pray together based on an approval or lack of same by a court of the church?
I recognize that worship and communion services present an opportunity for us as Christians to come together and help each other to better experience and understand God and what it means in our lives to have a relationship with God. However, I'm afraid that I have a hard time understanding how placing restrictions on when and how people can decide to worship God helps further the purposes of the church as the body of Christ in the world. What is being controlled here? Is God's presence with individuals being denied based on their not being officially sanctioned to share a communion meal, and if so by what authority? Are we as church leaders so audacious that we would claim to be able to control by vote in session whether God's presence will or will not be authorized in any given setting?
I don't know what I hope to accomplish by expressing these thoughts. I can hardly imagine that I would get any encouragement from any PC(USA) leaders for pursing these thoughts to any action or overtures. However, I am finding that my beliefs about God and my relationship with God seems to be less dependent upon my relationship with a formal church than I would have thought in the past. Certainly I have received a lot of inspiration and education from my participation in the PC(USA), but I am coming to see the denomination as more of a convenient gathering point for learning about and worshiping God rather than as the actual source of access to and interaction with God. My membership in the PC(USA) has afforded me many opportunities for personal and spiritual growth, but I think that if I was forced to a parting of the ways due to doctrinal differences then it would be more of an inconvenience than a personal disaster. Of course, I do not have a dramatic financial investment in the church as would an ordained pastor who depends on their participation in the church for their health insurance and retirement. On the other hand, since my wife is an employee of the church we are somewhat dependant upon the continued existence of the denomination for our financial security, but her position is not dependant upon my membership within a congregation of the denomination.
I would be interested in any thoughts any readers have about what I've written here. Please leave me an email message or a comment if you can help me to see where my understanding is lacking concerning the sanctity of communion.
Yesterday I participated in a peace demonstration here in Atlanta organized by Not In Our Name as part of a nationwide protest of the current administration's rush to war. We had more than 100 people in attendance (120-150 by my count) and had coverage by the news team from the local NBC affiliate, channel 11. I taped the news report last night and saw that they reported that there were "dozens" of demonstrators.
This morning I started looking for news items about this nationally coordinated protest. After a good bit of looking I found multiple local articles mentioning peace rallies in Portland, OR; San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles, CA; New York City; Cherry Hill, NJ; Texas; Alaska; Hawaii; and many other communities. Some of the reports mentioned that the protests were part of a coordinated, nation-wide protest. However, I have not been able to find any national news service which has attempted to report the extent of the rallies across the country.
I guess peace just isn't sexy enough to sell advertising in this country. Apparently, trying to get people to think instead of fear is not a high priority.
Social Criticism Review in the Netherlands has provided an excellent collection of articles and book excerpts commenting on our times, the forces shaping events, and ideas on how to understand what is happening in the world today. I've barely begun to scratch the surface of the wealth of material there, but I'm working on it.
Well, it's that time of year again. This year I was asked to contribute a note to a booklet of writings about why we give. I've been thinking about this for a little bit and I want to go ahead and record what I've come up with. I may rework it some for the booklet, but the first draft is now available in Faith and Religion.
UPDATE: I've consolidated my blogs so I've updated the link to point to the appropriate entry in my blog rather than the obsolete Faith and Religion blog.
Sometimes I don't feel very creative when I am asked to do something. However, I am usually pretty good at reacting to what I see or hear from others. So let me give a couple of examples of attitudes towards giving that got quick reactions from me.
The first occurred a few years ago at work when some financial advisors got permission to offer a sales pitch about their services during a lunch period if we wanted to attend. Hey! I don't often turn down free pizza! So I listened to their presentation about developing a balanced portfolio of investments, of planning based on our goals for the future, of building a program of investing which fit with our comfort zone concerning risk and ambition. When they finished and asked if there were any questions I had one to ask them (I'm sure that comes as a surprise to anyone who's been on session with me). I asked about why I hadn't heard them say anything in their presentation about charitable giving and where they thought that should fit into a proper investment strategy. They quickly told me that they considered that very carefully and covered it fully in their estate planning materials.
Estate planning! These people felt that the only proper place for charitable giving was after we had died and we hadn't managed to spend all of our resources ourselves. That ended that presentation as far as I was concerned. As a Christian living in a world filled with suffering, there are more problems than I will ever be able to see resolved in my lifetime. But that does not mean that I should wait until after my life on earth to begin to address the needs that are currently going unmet. We may not meet all of those needs, but any help we can give will mean that at least some of those needs will be met.
The second example is a joke. A family attends church for the first time in quite awhile. They sit and admire the large, well appointed facilities in which the service is held. They listen to the music program with its organ, singers, and other musicians. The pay close attention to the sermon so that they can benefit from the wisdom of the pastor. Then when the offering plate is passed the father pulls some money from his wallet and deposits it in the plate, at which point his small son loudly proclaims "Wow, Dad, do you mean to say that they can put on this great show and it only costs a dollar for the whole family?"
Clearly, this "show" cannot be put on for one dollar per family. We have called some highly trained, very skilled leaders to plan our worship services and I think most everyone in the congregation would agree that we have outstanding worship every week. Certainly just about every visitor I have spoken to comments on the quality of the music we have in our worship services. Catherine is highly respected as a preacher and she continues to work to get even better, as shown by her studies towards her DMin degree. But beyond the salaries we pay to these professional worship leaders, we also have to pay for the facilities in which we worship, the utilities to keep us warm or cool, the rest of the staff that keeps the building cleaned, prepares the newsletters and bulletins, and all of the other tasks that it takes to run a congregation, all of which seems to disappear if the worship goes smoothly, only occasioning remark if something isn't quite right.
But all of those activities and costs of running the church and providing worship are just a portion of the work that needs to be done. We need to be working to help address the needs which exist in the world. Through our denomination we are supporting programs which provide education, health care, food, assistance, and many other necessities to peoples all over the world. Our congregation is directly involved in multiple mission activities in our immediate neighborhood and in the larger community.
And it only costs a dollar per family? Of course not. The costs of running this facility and providing these services keep going up. These are tough economic times across the country. But how much is it worth to you to keep helping others? To be inspired, challenged, and invigorated by worship each week? To participate in this congregation and the service of the church which is the body of Christ?
We need more than a dollar per family and we need it now, not when our estates get settled.
Over the course of the last year I've found myself more interested in reading books about the church, about religion, and about God. I've never been very interested in reading much other than fiction before. Such serious reading has seemed too weighty and has bored me after reading just a little bit. But lately I have found it much more interesting. I don't remember a conscious decision to read it more, but I suspect this reflects changes since September 11th.
One book I found especially thought provoking was A New Christianity by John Spong. I'm not sure that I agree with all that he says, but he certainly did get me thinking.
A major part of his writing has to do with the effect of science on theology through the years. In this book (as well as another of his which I'm reading, "Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile") he talks about the effect of the discoveries of Galileo, Coepernicus, Newton, Einstein, Freud, and other scientific advances on the thinking of theologians. The cumulative effect has been to remove much of the mystery which had always been a powerful aspect of God. Most people no longer believe that God sends and cures illnesses, that is a function of bacteria, viruses, etc. Nor do they believe God sends the weather to help or hurt areas of the world, that is caused by the forces of the heat of the sun and other natural (if uncontrolable) forces. They certainly don't see a three-tiered structure with Heaven above, Earth here, and Hell below. These new understandings have led to something of a "God of the Gaps" type of theology and the gaps where people are willing to accept that God could be a factor in the world are getting smaller.
As a result there are many people who have come to the conclusion that God is not a factor in their lives. Spong describes these people as the Church Alumni Association, people who used to be part of the church. He says that these former church members who have learned enough about how the world works that they don't see where God fits in anymore are living in a kind of exile. They see that they used to have the comfort of believing in God to help them understand and relate to each other and the world, but that support is no longer valid for them because of their new understandings.
Spong tries to envision what a new understanding of God could be like. From Karen Armstrong's "A History of God" and other research it is clear that people's understanding of who or what God is has changed dramatically over the years. The tribal god of the Israelites who freed them from bondage in Egypt and slaughtered their oppressors seems quite different from the God who comes to save the entire world through Jesus.
Spong feels that this is important (and I agree) because without a new understanding of God that fits within the rational understanding of the world which has developed, people will continue to reject God and the church. There will always be those who are willing to ignore the implications of scientific advances and accept God as being mysterious and magic, but I think that eventually such understandings will go the way of the Flat-Earth Society.
Despite the increasing numbers who are rejecting God, or at least the church, it is not clear that people are comfortable with a belief that there is no God. I have heard it said that the urge to seek God is as powerful as our sexual drives. It can only lead to frustration if people feel a restless urge for something more in their lives but they cannot find an answer to this hunger. Without an answer that can be accepted, the church could find itself with fewer and fewer members, maybe even eventually no members, no church left at all. For those of us who do believe that there is a God and that people need to learn about this God, such a situation is unacceptable.
I'll write up some thoughts on what this God might be like and what it means for us over the next few days.
Please check out the Not In Our Name web site. They have a statement calling for people who oppose attacking Iraq to become vocal about it so that the Bush administration can hear that not everyone favors his empire building. They are also helping in organizing rallies across the country on October 6-7, 2002 to raise public awareness of our concerns.
These are dangerous times and people of good character must stand up to the duplicitous war mongering of Bush & Co.
When MM&I started going to church it was a difficult transition. We had become accustomed to having leisurely Sunday mornings to rest, read the paper, and enjoy the weekend. Getting up early, getting dressed, getting Jessica ready, and getting to church was a habit that did not stick immediately.
At first we went back to Decatur Presbyterian where we had been married and where we both still had our membership (had they ever purged the roles our names would have been removed long since). However, I found it very difficult to feel comfortable there. I had too many bad memories of insensitive peers in the youth group and the congregation was so large that it was rare if anyone noticed that we were there (they certainly didn't notice when we weren't). Despite my discomfort there, at least one tremendously good thing came out of those visits to Dec Pres: we met the Miller family whose youngest child, Douglas, was only a little older than Jessica. Anne Marie Miller and Mary Martha became close friends and have remained so to this day.
After that we followed my parents' suggestion that we check out Northwoods, the church where my father had been called as I went to college, which had just called a new, young pastor. That felt a bit more comfortable to us and so we started attending there (when we managed to get up on Sunday morning).
It was difficult in some ways. Since I was the son of the former pastor (who the church has recently honored by naming him Pastor Emeritus) everyone there quickly figured out who we were. However, since neither MM nor I had ever attended there regularly we didn't know who anyone else was. We spent a lot of time huddled over the picture directory trying to put names and faces together.
Another thing which was awkward was the fact that Jessica was frequently the only child her age in the church. We were not very aware of the dynamics of church growth, but I see now that had we not had a connection to the congregation through my parents and had our interests been more in finding someone for Jessica to play with instead of finding someone to give us a break from Jessica, then we might have left that congregation in order to find one where there would be other children Jessica's age.
But we did stay and eventually it became easier and more routine to get up on Sunday mornings. Members of the choir charitably told me that they thought I sang well and that they would love to have me join them, which I eventually did. There were occasional Sunday School classes which sounded interesting and so some weeks we went for both church school and worship. Jessica became more comfortable staying with people who were no longer strangers, and even grew very close to her Sunday School teachers, Bob and Donna Altman, so that became an additional motivation to get up and go to church early. (Years later Jessica asked how she had grown so close to Bob and Donna. She remembered them being her special good friends at church, yet she had forgotten that they had been her teachers. Love was what remained from those Sunday morning classes. Bob passed away a few years ago, but Jessica and Donna still stay in touch via email and even occasional IMs.)
When Alex was born (Jessica was almost 3 by then) we decided that we really ought to make it official and join the church. We also asked to have both children baptized. The church not only authorized their baptism, they allowed our fathers to perform the baptisms so that Mary Martha's father (Ben Kline, now President Emeritus of Columbia Theological Seminary) got to baptize his first grandchild, Jessica, and my father, A. Milton Riviere, baptized the grandson who had been named for him, Alexander Milton Riviere. Tears of joy flowed freely that day.
Even with our increasing regularity in church attendance, I wasn't really especially committed to making the church a central aspect of my life. I was more involved in my work, in raising my kids, in playing on the computer (I ran a BBS for a few years there), and in the mundane details of our lives than I was in trying to figure out what God would want us to be doing. There were two things that I remember being sort of eye openers for me in this regard.
One was that some time after I started singing in the choir, Martha Clay (who has been leading and inspiring our congregation with an exciting music program for more than 20 years now) addressed the choir about something which she felt needed some attention. She pointed out that when we were sitting at the front of the church as the choir, we were very much leaders of worship in the same way as the liturgist or the pastor. As such we should be focused on what is happening in worship and helping to keep the focus on the point of the worship service, which is of course to be worshiping God. Now I can be more than a bit oblivious to what is happening around me, but even I realized that her general address to the choir was particularly applicable to me. I think that I generally spent some of the sermon time reading the bulletin and often only realized we were about to sing a hymn when everyone stood up around me. With that wake up call from Martha I started following the service more closely, being ready to help lead the unison readings, listening to the sermons more carefully, and generally trying to be more involved in the worship services.
The other attention getter occurred through an interactive message facility at Georgia Tech where I was working. I cannot remember now if it was chat-type program or a more of a forum, but there was another frequent participant who gave a short rant about how anyone who believes in God and thinks that there are supernatural powers in the world is an idiot. Well, as soon as I read that I had an immediate reaction of "I don't agree with that!" But that made me realize that I didn't know how to respond since I wasn't sure what I could argue strongly about what I believed, because I wasn't certain just what I believed.
I knew many of the bible stories from my years growing up in Sunday School. I could give rote answers to different questions about Christian theology (though I could not have quoted any catechisms giving "official answers" as formulated there). However, I didn't have a strong sense of a personal relationship with God or of what was important to me about my faith. That slowly changed over the years.
One sermon illustration that hit home to me was about an evil man. This man had lived his life selfishly and callously and this could be seen easily just by looking at him. But then one day he saw a beautiful woman that he fell in love with. However, he realized that she could never love someone as evil as himself, so he devised a mask and disguised himself so that his evil nature could not be seen. He pretended to be good, helping others, being considerate, and so forth so that he could fool the woman into believing that he was a good man. He did this so successfully that he was able to convince her to marry him and for many years they lived happily together as he carried on his charade. One day someone who knew his past recognized him and threatened to expose him, but he refused to submit to blackmail. So his tormentor exposed his disguise to the world in order to reveal him as a fraud. However, when his disguise was torn away, it was revealed that all those years of pretending to be good had transformed him, and he no longer looked evil nor was he evil. He had changed through the years so that he no longer had to pretend to be good. He was good.
I feel that this is what has been happening to me. I find myself appalled by actions that I would have joyed in years ago, but I cannot remember when I stopped enjoying such things. I find joy in simple pleasures that I would once have scoffed at, but I don't remember how I came to appreciate them. I continue to try to hide my faults, which I know are many, but sometimes I find that it is more natural to behave in such a way that I don't feel I have to hide anything. These changes are a marvel to me which I don't fully comprehend, but for which I give thanks to God.
Another sermon I remember in particular involved the idea that we grow in faith. Some people believe that once you accept Jesus as your lord and saviour that you are instantly transformed and former temptations will no longer appeal to you and you will know the proper actions to take. Maybe that happens for some people, but I haven't felt such a sudden transformation in my life. In this sermon it was suggested that some people might grow through spiritual stages as follows:
First we love God in hopes that we will be saved and have eternal life. Thus we are trying to win for ourselves what God has given us freely.
Next we love God in hopes that God will save our family and friends. This is still a distortion of God's freely given grace, but at least our focus has shifted to concern for others instead concern for ourselves.
Next we wind up loving God for God's own sake. We come to recognize that we have been the recipients of undeserved grace and become humbly grateful for God's goodness.
Then we come to love others for God's sake. Whatever other people have done, we realize that God loves them and that we should do no less.
Finally, we learn to love ourselves for God's sake. We have come full circle, knowing ourselves better than when we started, knowing God better than when we started, and learning better how God would have us live.
No doubt I have mangled this illustration in my fragmented memory. If anyone recognizes the source of this progression I'd appreciate it if you would let me know so that I can study it more fully and give proper credit.
Both of these sermon illustrations were presented by Steve Montgomery, that young pastor who had been called to Northwoods shortly before we started looking for a church home. Steve is a wonderful preacher and his sermons were frequently inspiring. However, these two illustrations spoke especially powerfully to me and have stayed present with me for many years. Occasionally I manage to see something of how I am living and can recognize that my life has changed from what it was like years ago, and I have hope that I am making progress towards achieving some spiritual growth, however slow that process might be.
I grew up in a Presbyterian home. In fact, my father is an ordained Minister of the Word and Sacrement, now honorably retired. However, he always made it clear that at home he was our father, not our pastor.
The two calls he took to parish ministry occurred such that I had little experience of what it was like to be the pastor's kid at church. His first call was right out of seminary while I was just a toddler and I have only a few memories of that community. His second call to parish ministry came as I moved into the dorms at Georgia Tech and effectively dropped out of church for some years, so I rarely attended the church where he served.
None the less, it was always clear in our home that faith was an important part of life. Like many young people, I questioned and rebelled in different ways, but I was a regular attendee at church and Sunday School, usually sang in the children's choir, and participated in youth fellowship activities. I worked out some of my rebellious ways by changing which church I attended. That turned out to be of great benefit to me because the youth at my chosen church, North Decatur Presbyterian, were much more welcoming than were those at the church my parents attended, Decatur Presbyterian. I used to joke that Decatur still had several charter members, somewhat of an exageration since the church was founded in the mid-19th century.
Once I went to college I spent several years exploring the freedom that moving away from home offered. I eventually dropped out of school, in large part because I hadn't figured out what I wanted to do and with no clear direction my grades were taking a nose dive.
I lived for a few years in a house with some friends from Tech in Midtown Atlanta. That was an interesting experience. The owners of the property were simply holding it for speculation anticipating the construction of the MARTA line a few blocks away (that lot is now a parking garage for a bank, I think). That meant we could do most anything we wanted with the house which gave us lots of opportunities to learn how to work with plumbing, wiring, painting, and other aspects of home maintenance. I have since learned some of the right ways to do some of those things.
After a couple of years out of school, supporting myself by working the graveyard shift at a grocery store (now the Lindberg MARTA station), I came to realize that I didn't particularly want to spend the rest of my life working in a grocery store. With some help from my grandparents I went back to Tech which gave me an opportunity to learn about computers and led to my career in programming.
I got married shortly before I graduated. Not surprisingly, that marked a major change in my life. Within a few years we became parents, which was the most dramatic change in my life which I have ever experienced.
It was shortly after the birth of my daughter that we decided that it would be a good idea to start attending church again. We recognized that it would be important for our children to learn about the church and about God. We felt that it would be helpful to them because it would give them additional moral training beyond our own instruction and it would help them to understand biblical allusions which are pervasive in much of American culture. But mostly, we realized that by going to church there would be at least one hour each week when we could let someone else take care of the kids.
That return to church was part of the beginning of what I think of as the third stage of my faith journey. I had received a strong foundation from my parents while growing up, but I didn't appreciate it and I wasn't certain that I agreed with it. The second stage was when I lived without an active church involvement, though I continued to learn and grow during that time. However, in this latest stage I have found that my faith and my involvement at church has become a very important part of my life.
I'm no great scholar when it comes to religious issues. However, that does not mean I don't wonder about the nature of God and how we should relate to God and what that means for how we should relate to each other. I hope to explore some thoughts about my faith journey and what I am studying. Who knows, maybe this will even be interesting to someone.