Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Shot Over the Bow

What follows is a bit of a rant about the relationship between Christian faith and American patriotism. That may seem like old news or a closed topic to some of you, but I'm getting the feeling that it's about to make a comeback. I write this as someone with ties to both camps, as an American and a Christian, and also as an historian of the relationship between the two. Mark Noll introduced one of his books by saying that he was writing as a ‘wounded lover,’ and I think I’m beginning to understand what he meant. With that said, here goes.

I’m proud to be an American.

There, I said it. That may be one of the most unpopular things a guy can say these days, especially when he lives outside the US.

I love the country that gave me birth and provided a place where I could meet Jesus freely and without fear of persecution. I love the ideas that illuminated the Founders and drove them to the truly audacious conclusions that became our Constitution. I love the size and diversity and complexity of the place, and the way that, at its best, it welcomes newcomers eagerly and with the expectation that they will bring some new and necessary ingredient to the table. I'm proud, hopefully in an appropriate way, to be an American. Now that doesn't mean I think the place is perfect or above criticism...far from it. The resources and ingenuity and freedoms of this country mean that we may have even more of a responsibility to be just, generous and humble. It's on these items that we might be judged most harshly; it's in these precise areas that we fail most often.

Being a Christian and an American is a difficult dance sometimes. Some of my friends think it’s impossible to be both, that the exploitive and violent acts in our history mean that the nation’s legacy has to be abandoned along the way to mature discipleship. Others see the same events and practices and arrive at the opposite conclusion. ‘America is God’s chosen and ordained nation,’ they say, ‘the greatest force for good in the history of the world.’ To be an American, they might say, necessarily includes being a Christian.

The ‘America-as-villain’ point of view is easy to find these days, but check this out if you’re not convinced about the ‘America-as-New-Israel’ orientation. There’s a new edition of the Bible that is targeted at American Christians who believe that God has set the USA apart from all other nations in the history of the world. This reframing of the Scriptures, called The American Patriot’s Bible (Thomas Nelson Publishers), is just the latest in a long line of attempts to position American history (which I love) in a narrow understanding of God’s plan for his creation (which I reject). See the perceptive review on the Christianity Today blog, 'Out Of Ur':

So let me get this straight. The choices appear to be to see America as the pinnacle of God’s work among the nations, tied inextricably to his plan for the world, or to dismiss the nation as so bloated and sinful and deviated from holy purposes as to be beyond the pale. Hmmm…

I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to disassociate from both of these positions.

Instead I talk a lot to Christians about balancing our responsibilities as citizens with our deeper identities as followers of Jesus. I was raised to be proud of my country, and when I was old enough to choose for myself I found that didn’t change. As a historian I know that there are episodes in our past that erode our image and faithfulness to our values, but unlike stone, that erosion is repaired quickly by the generosity and courage of other Americans. For every injustice there are multiple examples of people who work for fairness and the marginalization of tyranny. For every corrupt politician whose indiscretions dominate the news, there are hundreds of public servants who do the right thing…even if they could earn far more in the private sector.

I suppose the point here is that I have been reminded lately that the idea of America is a living thing—it heals its own wounds and renews its own depleted energies through the commitment and creativity of its citizens. Completely apart from religious belief, there is something unique and special about the inception and development—and even the future prospects—of the United States.

What really matters about America is the network of new ideas that formed its foundation. Bernard Bailyn, one of the great historians of American history, said this about the creators of the American Constitution in a series of lectures that later became the book, To Begin the World Anew (2003).

“We know for certain, what they could only experimentally and prayerfully propose, that formal, written constitutions, upheld by judicial bodies, can effectively constrain the tyrannies of both executive force and populist majorities.

“We know, because they had the imagination to perceive it, that there is a sense, mysterious as it may be, in which human rights can be seen to exist independent of privileges, gifts, and donations of the powerful, and that these rights can somehow be defined and protected by the force of law.

“We casually assume, because they were somehow able to imagine, that the exercise of power is no natural birthright but must be a gift of those who are subject to it.

“And we know, what Jefferson so imaginatively perceived and brilliantly expressed, that religion—religion of any kind, secular or revealed—in the hands of power can be the worst kind of tyranny…”

All of that is great. I loved re-reading it and writing it for you because I believe it and hope to pass it on to my son as he develops his own ideas of what it means to be an American. But the awareness and careful stewardship of my American-ness is has to be balanced—overshadowed, even—by my core identity as a follower of Jesus Christ. I think I should say that in a more declarative way.

My identity as an American resides as a distant second to my standing as a redeemed child of the living God.

Why go into all of that?

Because some of my American Christian friends are starting to sound a bit shrill in their complaints about the direction of their country. They picture themselves as patriot-heroes, but in reality they’re (mostly) middle-aged, middle-class professionals dreaming of a new Revolutionary War. Each new edition of the Drudge Report sends them to new levels of panic and anger. Taxes? Too damned high. Gun control? Some gibberish about their ‘cold, dead fingers.’ Cooperation with other nations? No! Only America’s interests matter!


They talk about intrusive government and the gay lobby, and they rail about Communism just like their dads did. I’ve heard some talk about panic in the streets and a brewing revolution in ways that used to be caricatured in films and TV shows about skinheads and other crazy radical groups. Some worry constantly that between homosexuality, Islam and Barack Obama, America is going to hell in a handcart.

What calms me is the reminder from Dr. Bailyn that the idea of America is based on restraint and the rule of law. The idea of America—which is really its core essence—will survive the attempts of the good and the not-so-good to steer it off its path.

What gives me a sense of peace is the more important reminder that my identity as an American resides as a distant second to my standing as a redeemed child of the living God.

What is sad to me, though, is that some of the people most likely to affirm that last statement are also among the most likely to be threatened by what it means.

Because if we’re honest and faithful (in addition to being historically and biblically accurate), then our allegiance to Christ subsumes or even replaces all other allegiances, including the one we used to pledge every morning at school. Throwing our eternal weight on the one who made us, redeemed us and sustains us is a higher, bigger and more important thing than any earthly citizenship. To believe differently is to miss the point not only of the Christian faith, but also of what it means to be American.

Of course there were strong Christian influences on the founding of the United States, but it’s so important to know that the Christianity practiced in those days would be virtually unrecognizable to contemporary evangelicals. Evangelical Christianity as we might know it doesn’t really emerge until 1740 or so, and without any effective mass media it takes almost a century for Christianity to become the dominant cultural influence in America. People toss around the term ‘Deism’ as if it described just another variant of the Christianity they would find at their church. From that faulty foundation too many will build a continuity of faith and practice between then and now which simply does not exist.

Why is that important? Because the result is a misunderstanding not only of what was present at the founding, but also a near complete misreading of what is under threat today. Some of my friends will lament the growing dominance and acceptance of lifestyles which might not align with how we read our Scriptures. But they miss the point when they equate a loss of Christian control or influence over American politics with a decline of Christianity in America.

The two were never—nor were they ever meant to be—one and the same.

The strong link between Christian faith and American political life left us with a generation, oddly enough, of conservative American Christians so dependent on their influence in politics that they ended up (get this) too lazy to compete in their own religious free market. What a shame.

Now they perceive a new president’s liberal vision as being imposed on them from the outside, when the fact is that all partisanship should have been seen that way. As Christians we should hold all political and national loyalties lightly, not least to prevent us from mistaking them for the one loyalty we should hold above all others. The complaints I’m hearing about the threat to Americanism are sadly much louder and heartfelt than any complaints I’ve heard about the nation’s treatment of the poor, or the lack of biblical literacy among many Christian adults and children, or for any unrepentant sinner who hasn’t yet heard a credible expression of the gospel.

For Christ’s sake—seriously—for Christ’s sake! How can any Christian complain, say, about the loss of the freedom to own an assault rifle when people are living lives apart from the good news of Jesus Christ. Just what, exactly, is so evangelical about that?

Bernard Bailyn was right when he talked about religion in the hands of the powerful as “the worst kind of tyranny.” That makes the shrill complaints of today’s frightened American evangelicals even more hollow. It’s not really tyranny that they fear, but rather, in too many cases, the loss of their own leadership role in that tyranny.

It should concern us that in discussions about God’s standards for his American faithful, some evangelicals seem more comfortable quoting John Winthrop’s sermon than the Sermon on the Mount. Winthrop, in a 1630 sermon given to his shipmates on the Arbella, said this:

‘For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken... we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God... We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a-going.’

That ‘city upon a hill’ line is from another, far more important sermon—a sermon for all people, not just Americans. In its original context Jesus said:

‘You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:13-16)


Not much there to support the idea of American or any other kind of national exceptionalism. Not much there to indicate that Jesus was saying: ‘Wait about 1600 years, when my true followers get their country started, and you’ll see how this is really supposed to look.’

Later in the same sermon Jesus clarifies where our true allegiances should be:

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.’
(Matthew 6:19-24)

When American evangelical Christians (of whom I count myself one) realize that the faith they have inherited, when joined with the resources they control, could be a force for good and freedom that would exceed even that of the entire nation, then we’ll see a real revolution that matters. But as long as there are those among us who would serve two masters, who would trade the redemption of the world for nationalist glory or financial security, we’re going to continue on as if paralyzed somehow.

Patriotism that isn’t shaped and informed and fully yielded to Jesus Christ and him only is doomed to be the very problem it seeks to remedy. Without that crucial level of submission we won’t get any farther, or accomplish anything greater, than a dog chasing its own tail. What a shame.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Getting Down to Business

Matthew 28:16-20

We’ve had a lot of guests here in the 2 ½ years since we came to London. Our parents have come multiple times, our daughter and her husband have visited, and we’ve had a handful of friends who have stayed with us for days or even weeks. As I talk to people about their experiences if they’ve moved over here from the States as we have, this is a pretty common story.

Julie and Ian and I have settled into a pattern when we know that guests are coming. We try to stock the house with some of our guests’ favorite foods, we charge up our visitor mobile phone, put some money on the spare Oyster card, and then we start cleaning the house. There’s a sense of expectation, even when we’re doing the most menial things, of what it’s going to be like to have some visitors around. The last step is usually making a list of things to go out and do.

Usually, the first thing we do is pick up a 24 bus near our house and ride it all the way to Westminster Abbey and back. You see a lot—Camden, the West End, and Big Ben. You also come back up right in front of the church. Mostly we do that first because it’s cheap, and most of our guests from California fall asleep early on that first day. Bus fare isn’t much to risk.

The work of getting ready for a visit is a part of the hope of seeing someone special again.

16Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

As we wrap up this series of Easter messages that will take us into Pentecost, it’s good to be reminded of what we continue to celebrate during this season:

We celebrate Easter to remember the miraculous raising from the dead of Jesus the Messiah—God in human form, who came and lived and served and loved and died in order to demonstrate the depth of God’s love for all of his creation.

That’s our baseline—the foundation for whatever else we might say in this season or any season. At Easter we celebrate the lengths God will go to in order to demonstrate his love for us.

We’ve been looking at the appearances of Jesus after Holy Week—after the crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus appeared to his disciples and to hundreds of other people in those strange days after his death. It’s those appearances, and the way they’re written about and understood in the Scriptures, that make up the basis for our faith—for our hope that Christ really is who he said he is, and that he can do what he said he would do.

We’ve also been trying to get some perspective on just exactly what the Atonement means for us. The Atonement is the theological term for what God has done to bring us back to him. During the run up to Easter we talked about how Christ’s atoning work offers healing for all of our relationships: with God, with ourselves, with each other and with the earth. This is crucially important stuff for us to wrestle with as we grow in our faith as disciples of Jesus.

The Atonement is like a drama that happens in three acts: the Cross, the resurrection, and Pentecost—the gift of the Holy Spirit. On the Cross, a price is paid for the sin and brokenness in all of our lives. The resurrection—the Easter miracle—demonstrates that God has power over all things, even death. And the gift of the Holy Spirit is God’s way of inspiring and empowering each of us to be the people he made us to be in the first place.

We should be very clear on this point: It’s the Atonement—the work God has done to bring us back to him—it’s the Atonement that makes us who we are as Christian individuals and as a community of Christian faith.

I quoted Scot McKnight here last week. Listen to how he describes the link between the Atonement and the church:

‘Atonement, if we let the Bible speak for itself, is about creating communities of faith wherein God’s will is done and lived out.’

The Atonement is about creating communities of faith wherein God’s will is done and lived out.

Last week I talked about Peter’s recomissioning—about the role that repentance and forgiveness and restoration play in each of our lives and in the life of this church. The need for repentance is something we’re going to talk about from time to time in the coming year. Your church Council had a very productive and inspiring conversation about it this past week.

All of this matters because we’re just about ready to celebrate Pentecost. Next Sunday we remember the gift of the Holy Spirit—the very presence and power of God, given to prepare us and equip us for the life of faith. Next week we welcome a guest to come and stay with us, and so this week we’re doing a little housecleaning.

In our text this morning the remaining disciples meet Jesus on a mountain. Whether or not this is the same place where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew seems to be using it as a reminder or a closing statement from that sermon.

They gathered there and worshipped, even in the midst of some doubts. That alone is instructive for us—after the traveling and ministry and growth, followed by the traumatic events of the visit to Jerusalem, the disciples were still struggling with what to believe. But that didn’t stop them from answering Christ’s call to come to meet him one last time.

When Jesus begins to teach them, we know from the other Gospel accounts that he’s helping to prepare them for a visitor—for a new arrival—the Holy Spirit. We saw a few weeks ago that Jesus said to the disciples: ‘I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ In other words, stay where you are and get ready for a visit you won’t believe.

In our text this morning Jesus has shifted to talking about what the disciples were going to do together once the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost.

‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,’ Jesus said. That’s a pretty bold claim, but it’s the one that gives the disciples the confidence to believe that Jesus is going to make good on all of his promises.

‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…’ Now we’re getting into it. Now we’re getting down to business. This is the one-line version of the marching orders Christ gives his followers, his church, to all of us here in this room today.

‘Go and make disciples of all the nations.’ For us this morning it’s important to notice that Jesus’ marching orders come with a plan and a promise.

The plan comes in two parts. First, there’s this bit about baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. There’s a lot more to that than just dunking or sprinkling water. Think back on the baptism we had here last week. Baptism is a three-part covenant between God, families and communities of faith.

The plan here is to commit ourselves to living and nurturing each other in faithful communities—gatherings where young and old, single and married, mature disciples and new believers can grow together, can worship together, can support each other through times of terrible sadness and reckless joy.

To baptize is to initiate relationships that are anchored in the journey of faith, and that’s where we get to the second part of the plan.

‘Teach the people to live by all that I have shared with you.’ That’s a big part of the plan Christ leaves for all of us. The Christian faith is by nature a shared faith. We’re called to share it with people around us who might be curious. We share it on a daily basis with people we live with and work with and worship with. In this part of the plan Jesus is reminding the disciples that it’s not enough just to know him. The call on each believer is to introduce him to our neighbor.

They must have been thinking: ‘This guy is crazy. He has no idea what we’ve just been through. We should be on a beach somewhere, healing up from all of our hard work.’

Jesus anticipated their response to his plan, and he offers a promise along with it. ‘You don’t have to do all of this alone,’ he said. ‘You won’t be left to figure all of this out by yourselves.’

‘Surely I am with you always,’ Jesus said, ‘even to the very end of the age.’

That’s the promise. That’s the announcement of the visitor who is coming. That’s the call to get the house ready and to start mapping out where you’re going to go.

For us this is a reminder as we prepare to celebrate Pentecost next week. The Holy Spirit comes and inspires and empowers all of us to lives the lives God calls us to live from the very beginning.

For us this is a reminder of who we are and what we’re called to be as a community of faith—as a church of Jesus Christ in this community.

We say it a lot around here, but this church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ and it’s expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.

We gather and build relationships together in Fellowship. In Worship we remember who we are and whose we are as we honor God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In Discipleship we learn and pray and grow together as we learn what God calls us and prepares us to do. And in the end, all of this is turned outward as we serve the world in Christ’s name—as we do our part to accomplish the Mission of Christ’s church.

Listen to the text again. Listen for where we see the Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission in Christ’s marching orders.

16Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Every visit begins with an invitation. As we prepare to celebrate Pentecost next week, let’s make this last song our prayer as we invite the Holy Spirit to be here, in each one of us, and in this church family.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on all of us today and always. Amen.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Coming Clean

(This message was given at The American Church in London on 17 May 2009.)

John 21:15-17

One of the most important components of a Greek tragedy is the fatal flaw. The word used to describe that flaw was the word ‘hamartia.’ Technically, hamartia literally meant ‘to miss the mark’, but in Greek tragedies it came to represent something more. The hamartia was an error in judgment or unwitting mistake in the actions of the hero. For example, the hero might attempt to achieve a certain objective. By making an error in judgment, however, the hero instead achieves the opposite of their objective, usually with disastrous consequences. Keep that in mind this morning.

As we continue this series of Easter messages that will take us into Pentecost, it’s good to be reminded of what we continue to celebrate during this season:

We celebrate Easter to remember the miraculous raising from the dead of Jesus the Messiah—God in human form, who came and lived and served and loved and died in order to demonstrate the depth of God’s love for all of his creation.

That’s our baseline—the foundation for whatever else we might say in this season or any season. At Easter we celebrate the lengths God will go to in order to demonstrate his love for us.

But sometimes that love requires something of us. Sometimes God’s love calls us to live differently, to reconsider things we used to believe. Sometimes God asks us to do something, not to earn his love, but in response to having already received his love.

15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"
"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
16Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?"

He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
17 The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?"
He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep.

We’ve been looking at the appearances of Jesus after Holy Week—after the crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus appeared to his disciples and to hundreds of other people in those strange days after his death. It’s those appearances, and the way they’re written about and understood in the Scriptures, that make up the basis for our faith—for our hope that Christ really is who he said he is, and that he can do what he said he would do.

We’ve also been trying to get some perspective on just exactly what the Atonement means for us. The Atonement is the theological term for what God has done to bring us back to him. During the run up to Easter we talked about how Christ’s atoning work offers healing for all of our relationships: with God, with ourselves, with each other and with the earth. This is crucially important stuff for us to wrestle with as we grow in our faith as disciples of Jesus.

The Atonement is like a drama that happens in three acts: the Cross, the Resurrection, and Pentecost—the gift of the Holy Spirit. On the Cross, a price is paid for the sin and brokenness in all of our lives. The resurrection—the Easter miracle—demonstrates that God has power over all things, even death. And the gift of the Holy Spirit is God’s way of inspiring and empowering each of us to be the people he made us to be in the first place.

We should be very clear on this point: It’s the Atonement—the work God has done to bring us back to him—it’s the Atonement that makes us who we are as Christian individuals and as a community of Christian faith.

I’ve quoted Scot McKnight here before. Listen to how he describes the link between the Atonement and the church:

‘We cannot back down from this. If this is Jesus’ vision then the creation of a community where God’s will is done is inherent to the meaning of atonement…Atonement, if we let the Bible speak for itself, is about creating communities of faith wherein God’s will is done and lived out.’

This understanding of the community of faith as a place where God’s will is done and lived out is crucial for understanding our text today.

So back to our story of Jesus and Peter. To grasp what happens in our text today we have to go back to the relationship Jesus had with Peter as they worked together over the past three years.
In Matthew 16 Jesus had set Peter aside as the leader of his movement—as part of the foundation for his church. Peter was the first to understand who Jesus really was, and because of that Jesus said to him: ‘Blessed are you, Simon, son of John—now you will be called Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.’

But just 10 chapters later Peter had denied Jesus when he needed him most. Peter was given three chances to acknowledge that he was a follower of Jesus, and each time he got angry and said he didn’t know him.

And so just before our text today Peter and some of the disciples were going back to work as fishermen. They had a lousy night’s fishing, and as they were coming in Jesus told them to throw their nets in one more time. This time they caught a huge load of fish—so many that they couldn’t lift the net back into the boat.

When they were all ashore they ate some grilled fish together and then Jesus looked at Peter and started to grill him. Do you love me?…Do you truly love me?…Do you love me? Peter says yes all three times, and in the end Jesus moves on as if everything was fine.

There are several reasons why Jesus did what he did with Peter.

We’ve already seen that Jesus had set Peter aside as the leader of his movement, but also that Peter had denied Jesus when he needed him most. Because of that, Peter needed to be restored.

Jesus knew that if he built his church on someone with unresolved, unconfessed, unforgiven sin—if Jesus built his church on someone who hadn’t come clean—the whole thing would crumble. That’s where we come back to the ancient Greek tragedy idea of the fatal flaw.

There’s a lesson for us as we think back on the word hamartia. In the evolution of that word from ancient Greek to marketplace Greek—that’s the Greek used in the NT—in that evolution the word hamartia stopped describing a dramatic fatal flaw, and came to represent the biblical idea of sin.

Some people have seen this passage as Jesus’ way of humiliating or punishing Peter—that’s certainly how Peter saw it. But it’s closer to the truth to say that Jesus was restoring Peter by giving him three chances to say what he should have said in Jerusalem. Jesus was giving Peter a chance to say sorry for his sin, and to get on with his life.

What I like about this is that Jesus doesn’t ask Peter to grovel or define his faith with some complex doctrinal statement. Jesus simply asks him if he loves him, and when he says he does, Jesus recommissions Peter for the job Jesus wanted him to have all along: ‘Feed my lambs,’ Jesus said. ‘Take care of my sheep.’

This story, more than most, gets at the heart of the Christian faith. We are created and called for a purpose, but we get in our own way and have to be restored—recommissioned for the job Jesus wanted us to have all along. But first, and then from time to time along the way, we stop to say sorry for our sins.

That’s an idea that matters for us as individuals, and also as a community of faith—as a community of the Atonement.

As individual disciples part of the discipline of living the life of faith is to come before God in confession every so often. Every person has a past—every person has a past—and it’s in confession—in repentance and forgiveness, that we get cleaned off and made ready to be faithful people again.

But as a church that gets more complicated. Every church has history—some of it great and some of it not so great at all. Every church has a past, and it’s always up to the present congregation and leadership to manage that past and get on with the business of being an effective, caring, creative community of Christian faith.

Even this church has a few dark moments in its past—times when it wounded people by not doing what it should have done. Those dark moments need to be acknowledged and reconciled so that this place can be restored like Peter—restored to accomplish what God has in store for us.

It would be nice if we didn’t have to do this every so often.

When I bought my first house I learned that one of the fees you pay in the States is for something called ‘title insurance.’ Title insurance is protection against claims on the property based on the actions of a previous owner. It covers all kinds of things to make sure that when you buy a house you actually get what you’re paying for.

Why do I bring that up? Because title insurance doesn’t exist in the church.

Apart from repentance and forgiveness and restoration, there isn’t any protection against claims on this community based on the actions of previous owners.

It would be nice if we didn’t have to do this every so often.

But we do, and we will. Not to settle scores or continue battles or to be vindictive, but so that we can be a community that lives as if the atonement really means what Christ said it means. So that we can be a place where God’s will is done and lived out by each of us on our own, and by all of us when we gather as a church.

So back to the Greek tragedies—the goal, desired outcome in a Greek tragedy was something called catharsis.

Catharsis is another Greek word—this one means "purification", "cleansing" or "clarification." In different forms it can mean "to purify, or to purge,” or "pure or clean."

In the Christian tradition we call that repentance and forgiveness and restoration. Those are normal, necessary parts of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. When we miss the mark—when we sin—God’s forgiveness is there for anyone and any church who is willing to repent. It’s God’s forgiveness and grace that keep our past actions from becoming fatal flaws.

We need that grace in our own lives, and we need it in this church.

We’re going to revisit this idea from time to time here in the coming year, and your church Council is going to be talking about it, too.

As we travel this road together it’ll be good to remember Peter the disciple—the one who Jesus called, the one who committed a terrible sin, the one who was restored through repentance and forgiveness, and the one who ultimately served the church faithfully and sacrificially.

As with all things, we bring our lives and this church before the throne of God as a reminder that we are his, and that we’ve been purchased with a price.

In the end that’s the only title insurance we can truly have or hope for. Amen.

Because the sinless savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free;
For God the Just is satisfied,
To look on Him and pardon me.

Let’s sing that together: ‘Before the Throne of God Above.’

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Bad Rap

(The dialogue with Tony Jones is below this post. This message was given on May 10th at the American Church in London.)

John 20:24-31

Few things are harder to take than disillusionment. We see a lot of it around us today in the news, in our economy, maybe even in our own lives. Disillusionment in the church tends to be hardest on the most sincerely faithful—the passionate—the ones most likely to be committed and sacrificial. I’ve said here before that if you peel back the crusty exterior of a cynic, what you’re likely to find is a wounded idealist.

Disillusionment—what the dictionary refers to as ‘to cause to lose faith and trust’—disillusionment is the result of having our faith and trust stretched beyond the breaking point.

Our text this morning tells the story of a disillusioned disciple. It also shows us what God offers to restore our faith.

24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."
26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 27Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
28Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"
29Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

So we’ve been looking at the events right after the catastrophe of Holy Week. Jesus’ disciples, who had followed him for years, along with the other believers, are trying to figure out what to do next. They’d followed Jesus into Jerusalem hoping that he’d take over, that he’s overthrow Rome and establish his kingdom—they’d hoped for all that, only to see him arrested and beaten and humiliated and killed.

But then there was the empty tomb—the resurrection of Jesus had kept his followers off-balance—even the ones who had seen him with their own eyes. In the passage right before ours, Jesus enters a room where most of the disciples were gathering for a meal, and he showed them his hands and side and ate with them. The reports spread to the people outside the inner circle, and the news eventually made it to Thomas. ‘We have seen the Lord’, his friends told him.

But Thomas wasn’t buying any of it. Thomas had his faith and trust stretched beyond the breaking point, and so he responds to Jesus with a fairly modern question. He asks for evidence—he asks for a sign that what he believes is true—that what he had trusted is real. There’s a little scientific method going on here—Thomas wants to examine the data and see if they all add up.

As we continue this series of Easter messages that will take us into Pentecost, it’s good to be reminded of what we continue to celebrate during this season:

We celebrate Easter to remember the miraculous raising from the dead of Jesus the Messiah—God in human form, who came and lived and served and loved and died in order to demonstrate the depth of God’s love for all of his creation.

That’s our baseline—the foundation for whatever else we might say in this season or any season. At Easter we celebrate the lengths God will go to in order to demonstrate his love for us.

Thomas the disciple had a hard time believing that anything good could come out of the horrible experience of seeing the painful death of his friend and teacher. We’ve come to know him as ‘Doubting Thomas’, which I think is a bit unfair.

It’s unfair because it doesn’t reconcile with the only other story we have of Thomas as a disciple. In John 11:16, after several years of traveling in the countryside, Jesus decides that it’s time to go to Jerusalem. The other disciples tried to convince Jesus not to go—returning to Jerusalem was dangerous—they tried to save themselves, but Thomas said: ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ In other words: In for a penny, in for a pound. Not exactly the behavior of a skeptic.

Identifying Thomas by his doubts at the end of Jesus’ ministry is a bad rap—it’s a charge that might be true on its face, but doesn’t really get the whole story. Thomas was brave when the rest showed cowardice. He was faithful and passionate and strong, when the others waffled and squabbled about who got the best seat next to Jesus in heaven. When it all went sideways, who can blame him for feeling a little disillusioned? He was faithful and passionate and committed and sacrificial—but he was also human. Identifying Thomas simply by his doubts at the end of Jesus’ ministry isn’t fair at all.

Besides, it ignores two main parts of the big picture as we see it now.

First, even Jesus doesn’t curse Thomas for wanting to see—he just says he’d be happier (that’s the meaning of ‘blessed’ here) if he had been able to believe without seeing. That’s not exactly condemnation—it sounds like Jesus is pastoring his friend pretty well here.

Second, when we focus on Thomas’ doubts we forget where we are in this story. We said a few weeks ago that the Atonement is really a drama in three acts: the Cross, the Resurrection and Pentecost, or the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we neglect the way those three work together—how essential each part is to God’s plan for us—we risk misunderstanding the story entirely. Here’s the bottom line: Thomas couldn’t experience Pentecost—he couldn’t enjoy the third act of this great drama—until the Risen Christ had been taken up into heaven.

I can put that another way. Thomas wanted to experience the presence and power of Christ in a real way. What he didn’t know was that that was exactly what Christ was about to offer him.

For understanding this we get some help from an unlikely source. I warned you all a month or so ago that since this is the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, we’ll be checking in with him along the way to see if he offers any help.

Calvin talks about the need for Jesus to leave behind the limitations of being a physical person, so that his Spirit could come to teach and inspire and empower the people of God for the new task ahead.

He wrote: ‘For Christ left us in such a way that his presence might be more useful to us—a presence that had been confined in a humble abode of flesh so long as he sojourned on earth.’

You heard a little about Christ’s return to heaven last week. Here’s Calvin’s take on that event:

‘Carried up into heaven, therefore, he withdrew his bodily presence from our sight, not to cease to be present with believers still on their earthly pilgrimage, but to rule heaven and earth with a more immediate power…by his ascension he fulfilled what he had promised: that he would be with us even to the end of the world.’

In other words, we’re faced with a paradox—something that is counter-intuitive—something that might not make sense on the surface. With the gift of the Holy Spirit we experience more of the fullness of Christ than if he were here in bodily form. It’s sort of like the difference between a performer doing a show with each member of the audience individually, as opposed to broadcasting on TV or radio.

So back to Thomas. It’s important for us to understand that Thomas wasn’t condemned for his doubts. Thomas was scolded a little for missing the point—for under-asking. Jesus was offering a radical, world-changing gift, and Thomas just wanted everything to be like it had been before.

A lot of you know already that I used to work in Christian non-profits as a fund raiser. Every fund raiser has a story about under asking—about meeting someone and cultivating a gift, only to make the mistake of not asking for a gift that matches the commitment of the donor. You know when it happens, because they say ‘yes’ very quickly. Professional development officers call this ‘leaving money on the table.’

In that sense the problem might not exactly add up to an inability to believe. Instead, like Thomas, our doubts might actually be an inability or unwillingness to hope that Christ really is who he said he is—that he’ll really do what he promised to do. Christ was there, ready to offer something amazing in the form of the Holy Spirit, and Thomas left money on the table.

But notice how Jesus responded to Thomas when he said, ‘yeah, I’ll believe it when I can see it—when I can touch it for myself.’ Notice what Jesus did. He said: ‘Peace be with you—my Shalom be with you. See my hands—touch my side. Stop doubting and believe’

Christ makes that same offer to us today. Oh, I don’t think anyone here is going to touch the wounds of Jesus today, but through the work of the Holy Spirit—the third act of God’s Atonement drama—through the Holy Spirit we come to this place, the body of Christ, where we find fellowship and worship and discipleship and a call to mission.

Through the gift of the Holy Spirit we are called to be Christ’s church here, in this time and in this place. To be the very presence of Christ for each other and for the world.

Because what Thomas really wanted was a reminder of Christ’s presence—a sense that Christ cared and loved and could be trusted to do what he said he would do. The gift of the Holy Spirit, as it guides and empowers all people of faith, is exactly what Thomas wanted. It’s exactly what we want from God, and in a few weeks, at Pentecost, we’ll celebrate that the Spirit is God’s response to our demand for a sign.

My prayer for all of us, as we move through these resurrection sightings into the season of Pentecost—my prayer for us is that we’ll reach out and touch Christ as we find him in this community of faith.

That this church will be a tangible sign of God’s love and faithfulness.

That we’ll feel Christ’s presence and be warmed in his Shalom.

That we’ll stop doubting and believe.

That we will, at the very same time, bow before our God and look him in the eye as Thomas did, and say: ‘My Lord and my God.’

For that we’ll need a dose of Christ’s grace—we’ll need new hearts that are repaired and restored and renewed for the journey. Let’s make that our prayer this morning. Let’s stand and sing together: ‘Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God’

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My attempt at a collegial rejoinder to Tony Jones

So if you're coming late to this discussion, you can catch up by reading the posts below. Author and Emergent Church leader Tony Jones has made it his mission to convince his readers who are in denominations to abandon the ordination processes which he considers worthless. Tony and I are friends from seminary and, oddly enough, attended each other's ordination services, which provides some interesting context for our discussion.

In many ways I'm an odd choice to defend traditional ordination in a denomination. While I am a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PCUSA, most of my career has been spent in non-profit management, mostly in the fringes of denominational life. But I do have enormous respect for my brothers and sisters who have served Christ faithfully and effectively within the institutional structures of the Presbyterian Church, and so I am offering an opposing viewpoint to Tony's 'all babies out with the bathwater' argument.

Wherever else this discussion goes, the crux of my argument is this: The choice of denominational ordination is precisely that. It's a choice, made prayerfully and with integrity, to serve Christ and the world in partnership with, and in submission to, agreed upon organizing principles.

That's it. That's the point I'm trying to make for Tony and his readers. I make no claim of superiority for my Presbyterian tradition, and I would never, ever, argue that only large denominations have the authority to define and practice the ordination of ministers.

I simply want my choice of denominational participation, and the similar choices of others, to be respected in partnership with the groundbreaking work of Tony and other Emergent leaders and thinkers. The attacks really do have to stop. The missiles Tony is sending at those of us in denominations misrepresent the experiences of thousands of ministers, hurt the body of Christ, and they distract us from our true calling: To worship and serve in Christ's name, and to model the transforming love of Jesus to a hurting world. The attacks really do have to stop.

Below, in a format I'm borrowing from Tony's last two posts, are my responses to some of Tony's arguments. I hope it's interesting, I hope it's edifying, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that I hope it's a little entertaining. But what I truly hope, what I really want out of this, is for Tony to call a truce in his war on denominational institutions, for him to turn his intellect and spiritual gifting toward the real task at hand.

Here, then, are my responses:

TJ writes: ‘We ordain everyone. If you want to be ordained to perform a wedding, or to be a lawnmower repairman, we'll ordain you to that ministry.’

That’s fine. As was surely clear in my first post, I wasn’t trying to tell anyone else how they should ordain their leaders or ministers. What continues to baffle me is why you would try to do exactly that. There’s simply nothing to be gained by commenting on a process you neither fully understand nor respect, simply to spark a discussion or to score points for your friend. Ordaining the gardener is fine, but as a practical matter let’s at least agree on another term for the biblical task of setting aside some gifted people for ministry leadership in a particular church. Call it ordaining, call it anointing, call it a ‘Half-Nelson’, but call it something so that we don’t have to spend so much time talking about it while there’s work to do.

TJ writes: ‘Both you and others have questioned whether Adam has been entirely forthcoming in his posting about these matters. Maybe, some have implied, there's a back story of disobedience that Adam is hiding from the blogosphere. I can assure you that Adam is being candid about his candidacy.’

In point of fact, Tony, you can’t assure your readers of anything close to that. You know what Adam has told you, but even those facts are in dispute. As this has become part of the issue, I asked colleagues, both close to the situation and not, what they thought. Those close were dumbfounded at the way this has been inaccurately blasted all over the web, and those of us who are not connected to it have a queasy feeling that there must be some reason for a CPM (Committee on Preparation for Ministry) to act as they have.

Some facts to help our understanding: One does not get a ‘new presbytery’ just by showing up at a meeting—even Adam’s own website lists him as under care of the Kendall presbytery and not San Francisco. Further, in order to be ordained (or, in normal circumstances, to move to a new presbytery) one must have a valid call to a church or ministry. If Adam has a call, then where is his calling church in this? Say what you will about monolithic Presbyterianism, but at one level we’re all just congregations trying to get by. If there’s a church out there that has gone through a lengthy search process only to be thwarted by a presbytery, I would expect to hear a mighty outcry indeed (see, for example, any issue of The Layman). All I hear is, well, silence.

The bottom line here is that someone, somewhere, isn’t telling the whole story. That’s OK with me, because the church, the presbyteries involved, and mostly the candidate, deserve to conduct this process with more discretion and seriousness than it’s receiving right now. What I have to challenge categorically is your assertion that he’s being fully candid with you or his readers. That simply doesn’t pass the smell test.

TJ writes: ‘I don't know that everyone would concur with your verdict that the Christian fundamentalism crippled the spreading of the gospel.’

I’m sure you’re right on that, because I haven’t published my book on it yet. Let’s revisit this one in a couple of years. I'm quite sure that the post-WWII years represent the biggest missed opportunity in the Protestant era. My contention, and you’ll hopefully appreciate the nod to logic here, is that whatever might have been accomplished by evangelicals in the years after WWII, it is surely dwarfed by what they could have accomplished if they hadn’t had their guns (time, money, rhetoric, etc.) aimed at each other for most of the century. Once separated from Protestant liberalism, conservative evangelicals spent much of the next seven decades fighting with each other over doctrinal purity, ecclesiological conformity, and (mostly) market share. While you’re certainly right in saying that our beloved Fuller Seminary was born out of ‘chasm between liberalism and fundamentalism,’ it’s important to note that Fuller and its early faculty functioned more as a reaction to fundamentalism than to anything on the left.

Where this fits in with your attacks on denominations (and the people who love or even tolerate them) should now be clear. You continue in your broadsides and ‘ironic’ petitions to belittle a system within which other Christians worship and serve, while I, along with hundreds of readers and commentators, have blown a lot of hours this week trying to challenge or present an alternative view to your thinking. I argue that this is a growing drain on Christian resources (oddly enough, time, money and rhetoric) that could be used to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in meaningful and creative ways. I’m not going to let this one go—I can’t let you be the only voice on this to your readers. On this issue you are mirroring the pattern of mid-20th-century American fundamentalism, and my prayer is that the impact won’t be nearly as damaging. We simply don’t have the resources in the bank to waste anymore.

TJ writes: ‘My dispute with denominationalists is surely not theological. No, my quest is more like that of Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, Simons, Wesley, and Wimber. I see a system that has outgrown its usefulness, and I am calling those who run that system to reform it, radically and immediately. And: ‘‘My point, as I wrote yesterday, is to expose the ridiculousness of the systems by which people use denominations to exert their power over other people—like Adam.’

Dude. I have admired your chutzpah for almost 20 years now, but for me this is going a bit too far. I can’t quite place your darts at denominations on the same level as Calvin and the rest! What really gets me, and others like me who are trying hard to sift these things out of your otherwise helpful writings, is your pronouncement that my church ‘has outgrown its usefulness.’ That’s simply false—and more than a little bizarre—on its face, and when joined with the other attacks on Christians who serve in denominations it becomes a body of misinformation for which I think you should apologize. It may be true that blogging is ‘immediate work’ and should be absolved from having to be accurate, but it’s in your published work as well, so I know you’re given it some thought.

Maybe the real irony here is that what I want to say to you is a variation on the Jon Stewart line you quote in The New Christians (p.22): ‘Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting’ those of who serve in denominational churches, and who seek to be your partners—your brothers and sisters on the journey.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

An apology along the way

“As iron sharpens iron, so one friend sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)

Over the weekend I entered into a public dialogue with Tony Jones over his treatment of denominations in his blogging and published work. In my post I think I strayed away from addressing Tony’s ideas, and into attacking him personally.

I want to say here that I’m sorry that I did that.

The church of Jesus Christ is made up of broken people who are being pieced back together by a loving God. Obviously—obviously—I’m one of those cracked pots. And so in the only real currency we trade as Christian people, I’m asking for a little grace as I learn some new skills. The discussion Tony and I are having—along with many of you—is a very important one, and I don’t want my indiscretion to get in the way of that.

If you haven’t seen it already, here’s Part One of Tony’s response to my letter.

I remain a fan of Tony’s thought and work—even when we don't agree, and even more so since he modeled it in his gracious response to my complaint. My hope is to continue this multi-part conversation not just to increase our understanding of the different viewpoints, but more to see how we can work together to accomplish the real task before us:

How do we demonstrate the love of Jesus to a desperate world?

How do we act as the Body of Christ—through teaching, service, proclamation, sacraments, work, play, intellectual life and the arts—how do we work together to be the tangible presence of Christ in a world that rejects him…often because of us? In this discussion of who and how we ordain for ministry, let’s not lose focus on the bigger questions at hand.

In future posts I want to explore how this complex of issues—how churches are organized and managed, how we set aside people for special ministries within the Body, and even how we compensate ministers—how all of that helps/hinders/annoys the community of faith as it lives out its calling.

One last thought: The handling of these topics in a blog format has some inherent dangers to it. In the not-too-distant-past the discussion between myself and Tony would have taken place over a longer period of time, and it also would have benefited from the review and comment of our peers before publishing. Tony rightfully points out that blogging is different, but I wonder if a few self-imposed boundaries might serve all of us better. N.T. Wright thinks so, and Blake Huggins has (of course) blogged about it at the link below.

Monday, May 11, 2009

An Emergent Discussion

I've been involved in a discussion on Facebook and over the weekend that I want to share with you. Tony Jones is a leader in the Emergent church movement and the author of several books, most significantly 'The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier.' If you've visited my site for any amount of time, you'll notice that I've recommended his book for almost a year now.

Full disclosure: Tony and I have known each other for almost 20 years, as you'll see in my letter below. Our ministry and academic paths have gone in different directions during that time: I'm ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA, and my doctoral work was in history. Tony was ordained in a Congregational church but now participates in a house church called Solomon's Porch. His current doctoral studies are, I believe, in the area of practical theology.

Tony has much to offer the Body of Christ. His work within and among Emergent Christians is, on balance, a net positive for the future of Christianity. He loves Jesus and wants to make the gospel known to those who have rejected him in the past.

But Tony has a serious blind spot when it comes to those of us who serve in Christian denominations. He distrusts institutions, as many of us have come to do, and believes that the bureaucracy of denominations can get in the way of the passionate and effective communcation of the gospel to a hungry world. I don't disagree with any of that. But Tony usually includes in his attacks (inappropriately, in my view) some mention of the health plans and pension provisions offered by some denominations, making the argument that ministers are sucked in to ineffectual ministry by the promise of medical benefits and a comfy retirement.

The problem is that Tony takes that data and reduces it into an equation that looks something like this:

Church+health plan+pension = Evil Enemy of Christ

Not surprisingly, I think Tony is wrong about this, and have told him that personally. But he keeps making that argument, as he has every right to do, and in the process he brings a measure of shame and misinformation on those of us who choose to serve in historic churches.

What historians know but Tony doesn't seem to understand is that he is following precisely the path of the American Fundamentalists of the 1900s. In their zeal to create a purer, more faithful church, they ended up attacking fellow believers and crippling what should have been a golden age of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am calling on Tony and others to stop this destructive behavior now, before it's too late.

I offer the exchange below as an example of how this discussion is going. Tony posted his piece (which I have included here) last Friday at, and I posted the response below over the weekend. My hope is not to attack or score rhetorical points, but rather to shift the discussion in a different direction and to focus Tony's enormous potential toward a more positive goal.

Please give these posts a careful read, and let me know what you think.

Let's Ordain Adam
Tony Jones

Friday May 8, 2009

My friend, Adam Walker-Cleaveland, has once again been thwarted in his attempt to be ordained as a "minister of word and sacrament" in the Presbyterian Church (USA). First it was because his presbytery in Idaho objected that he asked his best friend, who happens to be gay, to preach at his ordination service. Now it's because his new presbytery in California says that his M.Div. degree from Princeton Theological Seminary -- a PC(USA) seminary!!! -- isn't good enough.

Few things piss me off as much as the sinful bureaucratic systems of denominational Christianity. When rules and regulations trump common sense, then the shark has officially been jumped.

But what gets to me even more is that bright, competent, and pastorally experienced persons like Adam continue to submit themselves to these sinful systems. They assure me that it's not for the health insurance or the pension. They do it cuz they feel "called." And if I hear another person tell me that they're sticking with their abusive denomination because, "They're my tribe," I'm gonna go postal.

So, it's time for us to do something. It's time for us, the body of Christ, to ordain Adam. To that end, I've started a petition, beseeching Adam to quit the PC(USA) ordination circus and to accept our ordination of him.

May 9th, 2009


I’m writing as a guy who loves you and admires your work, as a fellow seminary student from almost 20 years ago, and also as a PCUSA minister. Incidentally, given the context of your posting, I’m also the guy who preached at your own ordination service back in 1997.

It’s through all that history and affection that I need to tell you publicly that you’re wrong.

Not about the injustice surrounding your friend’s ordination. Allowing that you’ve communicated all the relevant facts, it doesn’t seem fair that he couldn’t invite a friend of faith to participate in his ordination service. You attended my ordination five years before yours, and you saw that I had the freedom to include a broad range of people who were significant in my development as a minister. You did the same in yours.

On the other hand, your friend may have erred in being unwilling to demonstrate that he could take direction and counsel from a governing body—something that I believe has a place in the context of the American religious free market. In the PCUSA, the process of becoming ordained is partly an exercise in learning healthy submission to peer authority (I can see the eyes rolling back in your head). Now setting aside the not-nearly-rare-enough instances where the submission required is unhealthy, it’s not a bad lesson to learn. More importantly, once candidates have completed (survived?) that process, we have enormous freedom to live and serve as our own calling leads us. It’s OK with me that we disagree on this point. That’s not the problem.

What gets me is that you have demonstrated a rash and bitter level of dismissiveness to those of us who choose this path. In your anger at the bureaucracy of large denominations and institutions, you’ve lashed out not only at them but also at the men and women of faith and calling who participate freely in the opportunities for ministry that they offer.

You sneer at it as simply being loyal to the tribe, and you rarely pass up a chance to mention the availability of health insurance or pensions. Shame on you for not being able—or worse, willing—to understand another person’s experience. You grew up in a very wealthy family and your financial security has never been a hindrance or worry to you—not through Dartmouth, Fuller, Princeton or beyond. What if there’s nothing wrong with trying to be a good steward of a family’s health, whether physical or financial? What if, for example, serving Christ in a denomination that provides a health plan isn’t a sin or a ‘sell-out’ at all, but rather a prudent way to be a good steward?

If I might paraphrase the sense of Jesus’ teaching about the splinter and the log, I suggest this: Swear off or return everything you’ve received from your family before saying another word about how the rest of us provide for ours.

But setting aside the pension issue, what keeps me, and possibly your friend Adam, in the PCUSA isn’t blind servitude or tribalism or even the paltry retirement plan it offers. What keeps me loyal—and I use that term as a virtue, not a punch line—has little to do with whether I think my tradition is best (I don’t). It’s simply that it was in a Presbyterian church that I met Jesus in a life-changing way. And when I felt Christ’s call to ministry in his church, it was that same congregation who helped train me, who prayed for me, and who gave me the chance to test my call in service. I love those people, and yes, I do feel loyal to them.

Tony, the biggest problem I see is that your hatred of denominations gets in the way of the truly important, truly inspired work that you do. It seems to me that rather than attack the weaknesses of denominations (which, frankly, is too easy a target for a man of your intellect), you should be proposing new agendas (as you do) and helping the rest of us reform existing structures from within. As a minister in a radically secular city with enormous ethnic and religious diversity, I don’t have time to re-invent many wheels. But I have learned from the things you’ve written and taught, once I get past the discordant attack on my choice of employer, and I’ve applied them in my teaching, preaching and leadership.

The truest thing I’ve said in this piece is in the first line. I love you and I honestly admire the work that you do within and among a new generation of Christian disciples. What I’m asking is this: get off my back and the backs of the rest of us who do it differently than you. The real problem in the world isn’t the church—it’s the sin and brokenness and injustice that clouds our chance to get a glimpse of Jesus. Help us—help me—to communicate that message in fresher, more authentic ways. Leave the ‘fixing’ of the denominations to those of us who care about them.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Remembering V-E Day

May 8th is the 64th anniversary of V-E Day, commemorating the end of World War II in Europe. The war in the Pacific would drag on for another four costly months, but on this date in 1945, citizens and leaders of the Allied nations celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany. Part of me wants to write something about this, but it occurs to me that anything I might say will be from an enormous distance of time and experience. I never had to join the military. I never had to put my life on hold or give it up completely, in violent conflict.

But I benefited in some ways from those who did, and so I can't let this day go by.

So I'd like to give the stage to two of the leaders who faced their enemies and made decisions that I can neither fathom nor judge. On May 8th 1945, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman addressed their nations and the listening world to announce the end of the war in Europe. I haven't edited these speeches...they deserve to be heard in their own time and form. Thousands of people...both military and civilian...from America, Britain and Japan...would die after this celebration ended, and both leaders speak with an eye toward the task still at hand.

And yet each is beautiful...and appropriately its own way. I invite you to give them a read, and also to heed President Truman's call to prayer. Today is a day for sober reflection and moderate celebration.

Blessings to you this V-E Day.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill
May 8, 1945 London

My dear friends, this is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class. It's a victory of the great British nation as a whole. We were the first, in this ancient island, to draw the sword against tyranny. After a while we were left all alone against the most tremendous military power that has been seen. We were all alone for a whole year.

There we stood, alone. Did anyone want to give in? [The crowd shouted "No."] Were we down-hearted? ["No!"] The lights went out and the bombs came down. But every man, woman and child in the country had no thought of quitting the struggle. London can take it. So we came back after long months from the jaws of death, out of the mouth of hell, while all the world wondered. When shall the reputation and faith of this generation of English men and women fail? I say that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we've done and they will say "do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straightforward and die if need be-unconquered." Now we have emerged from one deadly struggle-a terrible foe has been cast on the ground and awaits our judgment and our mercy.

But there is another foe who occupies large portions of the British Empire, a foe stained with cruelty and greed-the Japanese. I rejoice we can all take a night off today and another day tomorrow. Tomorrow our great Russian allies will also be celebrating victory and after that we must begin the task of rebuilding our hearth and homes, doing our utmost to make this country a land in which all have a chance, in which all have a duty, and we must turn ourselves to fulfill our duty to our own countrymen, and to our gallant allies of the United States who were so foully and treacherously attacked by Japan. We will go hand and hand with them. Even if it is a hard struggle we will not be the ones who will fail.

President Harry S. Truman
May 8, 1945 Washington DC

THIS IS a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe.

For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity.

Our rejoicing is sobered and subdued by a supreme consciousness of the terrible price we have paid to rid the world of Hitler and his evil band. Let us not forget, my fellow Americans, the sorrow and the heartache which today abide in the homes of so many of our neighbors-neighbors whose most priceless possession has been rendered as a sacrifice to redeem our liberty.

We can repay the debt which we owe to our God, to our dead and to our children only by work--by ceaseless devotion to the responsibilities which lie ahead of us. If I could give you a single watchword for the coming months, that word is--work, work, and more work.

We must work to finish the war. Our victory is but half-won. The West is free, but the East is still in bondage to the treacherous tyranny of the Japanese. When the last Japanese division has surrendered unconditionally, then only will our fighting job be done.

We must work to bind up the wounds of a suffering world--to build an abiding peace, a peace rooted in justice and in law. We can build such a peace only by hard, toilsome, painstaking work--by understanding and working with our allies in peace as we have in war.

The job ahead is no less important, no less urgent, no less difficult than the task which now happily is done.

I call upon every American to stick to his post until the last battle is won. Until that day, let no man abandon his post or slacken his efforts. And now, I want to read to you my formal proclamation of this occasion:

A Proclamation--The Allied armies, through sacrifice and devotion and with God's help, have wrung from Germany a final and unconditional surrender. The western world has been freed of the evil forces which for five years and longer have imprisoned the bodies and broken the lives of millions upon millions of free-born men. They have violated their churches, destroyed their homes, corrupted their children, and murdered their loved ones. Our Armies of Liberation have restored freedom to these suffering peoples, whose spirit and will the oppressors could never enslave.

Much remains to be done. The victory won in the West must now be won in the East. The whole world must be cleansed of the evil from which half the world has been freed. United, the peace-loving nations have demonstrated in the West that their arms are stronger by far than the might of the dictators or the tyranny of military cliques that once called us soft and weak. The power of our peoples to defend themselves against all enemies will be proved in the Pacific war as it has been proved in Europe.

For the triumph of spirit and of arms which we have won, and for its promise to the peoples everywhere who join us in the love of freedom, it is fitting that we, as a nation, give thanks to Almighty God, who has strengthened us and given us the victory.

Now, therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby appoint Sunday, May 13, 1945, to be a day of prayer.

I call upon the people of the United States, whatever their faith, to unite in offering joyful thanks to God for the victory we have won, and to pray that He will support us to the end of our present struggle and guide us into the ways of peace.

I also call upon my countrymen to dedicate this day of prayer to the memory of those who have given their lives to make possible our victory.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Turkey: The Seven Churches and Istanbul

"Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches." (Rev. 1:19-20)

The ministers and spouses of the Association of International Churches in Europe and the Middle East, standing at the gate of the ancient city of Hierapolis.

Those of you who have been following on Facebook will know that Julie and I spent the last week at a conference of pastors and spouses serving international churches in Europe and the Middle East. (See the report from one of the group's leaders at The conference was in Turkey, where we toured the sites of the seven churches of John's Revelation and parts of Istanbul.

This was an extraordinary journey through the early history of the Christian church, and also to a place where the Christian faith is now represented by .1% of the 70 million people now living in Turkey. Whatever we may have learned about the church's past, we were more inspired and challenged by the prospects for its future.

Here are some pictures from our trip.

This is the modern city of Izmir, on the site of the ancient Smyrna, near the place where Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was martyred in the 2nd century. When given the chance to recant his Christian faith and save his life, Polycarp said: 'Eighty-six years I have served [Christ], and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?' Polycarp was killed immediately.

This is the Temple of Artemis, in what was the city of Sardis.

A floor mosaic in Sardis.

The remains of a building in Sardis.

A pillar where the city of Philadelphia once stood. The site is adjacent to a mosque.

A theatre in the city of Hierapolis.


This is a cliff in Hierapolis formed by deposits of travertine. The area has been quarried since Roman times, and is the source of building materials for much of the surrounding area.

We're standing in a pool where the travertine collects.

Remains of the city of Laodicea.

The main street in Laodicea.

At the American Church we just finished our Lent Bible study on Paul's letter to the Colossians. The city has not been excavated yet, but it was powerful to walk on its site with the words of the letter still in my head. I found a piece of decorative pottery there.

Standing on the site of Colossae...note the In-N-Out t-shirt.

St John's Basilica in Selcuk.

The place where St John, author of the Gospel, the letters and Revelation, is said to have been buried.

With Julie in Ephesus.

The public library in Ephesus.

The main street in Ephesus.

A public toilet in Ephesus.

One of the large remaining theatres in Ephesus. We paused for a reading from Revelation, and one of our group sang 'The Lord's Prayer' from the main stage. It was unbelievably moving.

After Ephesus we flew to Istanbul, a city of almost 16 million people. Situated on the Bosphorus, the strait that connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean, the city has always been strategically important. But it has also been, whether you call it Byzantium, Constantinople, or Istanbul, the boundary between Eastern and Western civilization.

It's difficult to describe just how captivating Istanbul can be. From the crowds of people in open markets, to the minarets that sprout up on every block, to the mix of traditional dress and modern fashion...all of this is crammed together in a city where every few hours a call to Islamic prayer can be heard, well, everywhere.

We loved being in this city. It was a strange and hypnotic blend of the foreign and familiar, and we were drawn to it from the start.

The Hagia Sophia. When it was built in the 6th century it was the largest Christian church in the world (which it remained until St Peter's in Rome was built). In 1453 it was converted to a mosque, and the Christian art was painted or plastered over. Crosses were defaced and all other traces of the building's Christian origins were erased. It is now a museum to both the Christian and Islamic influences on Turkish culture.

Inside the Hagia Sophia.

Below are two of the Christian mosaics that have been restored.

The Blue Mosque, one of the most sacred Islamic worship spaces in Istanbul.

The ceiling of the Blue Mosque.

With Julie in the Blue Mosque. Women had to keep their heads covered, and all of us had to remove our shoes to enter.

A view of Istanbul from across the Golden Horn.

We visited the Spice Market, and found, well, lots of spices.

There were other shops as well.

I'll write more about this trip as I process all that I learned and saw. Istanbul is a place I want to keep in my prayers...for its people, for the Christians I met there, and for the message of the Gospel to be heard and believed there again.