Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Reformation 2006

From the Cyber Hymnal:
A Mighty Fortress is our God

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

The Cyber Hymnal also includes the original German words, for those who are interested:
Ein’ Fest Burg Ist Unser Gott

Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott,
Ein gute Wehr und Waffen;
Er hilft uns frei aus aller Not,
Die uns jetzt hat betroffen.
Der alt’ böse Feind,
Mit Ernst er’s jetzt meint,
Gross’ Macht und viel List
Sein’ grausam’ Ruestung ist,
Auf Erd’ ist nicht seingleichen.

Mit unsrer Macht is nichts getan,
Wir sind gar bald verloren;
Es steit’t für uns der rechte Mann,
Den Gott hat selbst erkoren.
Fragst du, wer der ist?
Er heisst Jesu Christ,
Der Herr Zebaoth,
Und ist kein andrer Gott,
Das Feld muss er behalten.

Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär’
Und wollt’ uns gar verschlingen,
So fürchten wir uns nicht so sehr,
Es soll uns doch gelingen.
Der Fürst dieser Welt,
Wie sau’r er sich stellt,
Tut er uns doch nicht,
Das macht, er ist gericht’t,
Ein Wörtlein kann ihn fällen.

Das Wort sie sollen lassen stahn
Und kein’n Dank dazu haben;
Er ist bei uns wohl auf dem Plan
Mit seinem Geist und Gaben.
Nehmen sie den Leib,
Gut, Ehr’, Kind und Weib:
Lass fahren dahin,
Sie haben’s kein’n Gewinn,
Das Reich muss uns doch bleiben.
Frederick Hedge's English translation is remarkable close to the original.

Christianity Today: Grappling with God

Christianity Today: Grappling with God

Prayer sometimes feels like a hug and a stranglehold at the same time.

"The church I attend reserves a brief time in which people in the pews can voice aloud their prayers. Over the years, I have heard hundreds of these prayers, and with very few exceptions, the word polite applies. One, however, stands out in my memory because of its raw emotion.

In a clear but wavering voice, a young woman began with the words, "God, I hated you after the rape! How could you let this happen to me?" The congregation abruptly fell silent. No more rustling of papers or shifting in seats. "And I hated the people in this church who tried to comfort me. I didn't want comfort. I wanted revenge. I wanted to hurt back. I thank you, God, that you didn't give up on me, and neither did some of these people. You kept after me, and I come back to you now and ask that you heal the scars in my soul."

Of all the prayers I have heard in church, this one most resembles the style of testy prayers I find replete in the Bible, especially those from God's favorites such as Abraham and Moses. ..."

I can relate to Yancey's story here. I have felt the embarrassed silence when similar prayers have been offered in small groups. I, too, have been embarrassed. It's almost like I'm ready to apologize to God for the impertinence of my fellow Christians.

But is it impertinence? Or is it more honest than many prayers offered in public or private settings?

This article is well worth reading.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Faith and Values in Politics

There has been a lot of "buzz" in politics about how the Democrats are trying to appeal to the Christian voters by talking more freely about their faith and about their values.

Daniel Pulliam over at GetReligion posted an article this morning called Religious Democrats on the March, in which he starts off with a response to a recent Newsweek article with the cover teaser "Not Your Daddy's Democrats. " He points out that the Democrats are returning to their historical roots. It may not be his daddy's Democrats, but it seems to look more and more like his granddaddy's Democrats.

In today's Indianapolis Star, Russ Pulliam, Associate Editor, had this to say regarding the Democratic Disconnect on Faith and Values:
The story of William Jennings Bryan, founding father of the modern Democratic Party, offers a clue as to why Democrats are having a hard time connecting with faith and values voters.

It also raises the question of whether Democrats can recover Bryan's Christian faith and find a Bryan-like figure among their presidential prospects. One interesting possibility: Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who is thinking about running.

A century ago Bryan lost three presidential races, but he paved the way for future successful liberal Democratic Party presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, and their bigger federal government initiatives. Losing at the ballot box, Bryan won the battle of ideas, according to a new biography, "A Godly Hero," by Michael Kazin. He did it by appealing to biblical truths.

William Jennings Bryan was a Presbyterian elder and found himself on the losing side not only in politics, but in the controversies of the 1920s over which direction the Presbyterian Church would take. He tended toward progressive beliefs in the political realm, but was quite conservative in his religious beliefs. He lost narrowly when he ran for moderator of General Assembly on a creationist platform. He died in 1925, not long after his involvement in the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.

As I was composing this I noticed that both authors to whom I referred were named "Pulliam". I was leaning toward it being a coincidence, but when I checked Daniel Pulliam's profile on GetReligion, I noticed that he did an internship at the Indianapolis Star. It still may be a coincidence...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Streamlining the Book of Order

In my personal library I have a Presbyterian Hymnal published in 1843 by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (a predecessor denomination of the PC(USA)). In addition to its 236 pages of metrical Psalms and its 679 hymns, there are 82 pages consisting of The Form of Government of the Presbyterian Church, The Directory for Worship, and The Shorter Catechism. The Westminster Confession is not included in this hymnal (which is 3 inches wide, 5 inches tall, and an inch and a half thick).

Without belaboring the obvious, the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church, which today consists of Part One (The Book of Confessions) and Part Two (The Book of Order), has evolved from a succinct constitutional document to a sometimes bewildering smörgåsbord of confessions, ordinances, and rules to cover everything from proper representation on judicatories to which presbytery gets to examine and ordain a candidate for the ministry. Some have said the constitution has become a manual for operations. I tend to look at it as a progression from general principles to specific instances. However one looks at it, it has bloated to the point where its usefulness is diminished as elders and ministers try to determine what part of "shall" is essential or, dare I say it, what the meaning of "is" is.

In this environment the 217th General Assembly commissioned a task force to study how to streamline the Book of Order with the charge to develop a document that:
  • Preserves the foundational polity of our church;
  • Focuses on providing leadership for congregations as missional communities;
  • Provides sufficient authority and flexibility to presbyteries to assist congregations in addressing cultural, economic, and societal challenges facing the church;
  • Provides flexibility at all levels of the church;
  • Is guided by the first four principles from the Report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church, and
  • Preserves the wording of G-8.0200 and G-6.0106b in their current form. (For the precise wording of the task force’s charge, please see Item 05-11.)
To this end, the Task Force has issued a draft chapter that address the Form of Government and a draft chapter on the Foundations of Polity. In addition, there is an outline of the remainder of the Form of Government section, which is pretty skeletal at this time.

I have read over these documents, but have not done any in-depth analysis. I really am not a polity wonk (unlike Moderator Joan Gray, who wrote the book). My initial impressions are that it is definitely simpler that what it proposes to replace, yet there are themes and phrasing that hearken back to the 1843 Form of Government.

Whether this endeavor will succeed in streamlining our polity without sacrificing what it means to be Presbyterian and Reformed remains to be seen, but I look forward seeing how this takes shape in the coming year or so.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Nature.com: Delusions of faith as a science

Delusions of faith as a science

In his book Unweaving The Rainbow, Richard Dawkins boasts (boasts!) that he told a six-year-old that Father Christmas doesn't exist. His logic was purely scientific - there wouldn't be time for Santa to reach the homes of all the good children in the world in one night.

A few years ago I lampooned this idea with a similarly scientific rebuttal: Santa can do everything he claims provided he is a macroscopic quantum object. In this way he can be in as many places as he likes, provided that he remains extremely cold, and nobody is watching. Not only does this trounce Dawkins' objections, it also works better as a scientific hypothesis, because it accounts for more of the evidence: we now know why Santa is traditionally associated with cold places, and why he does his work while everyone is asleep.

Henry Gee, in this column from nature.com, points out the fundamental flaw in trying to demolish faith scientifically. He describes himself as one who believes in God and subscribes to evolution, the former being personal and the latter a matter of science. One is subject to the methods of science; the other is not.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Classical Presbyterian on Property Issues in the PC(USA)

Toby Brown (aka The Classical Presbyterian) has summarized his feelings regarding the property issue that is causing much anxiety in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He makes some excellent points (ten in all) and three of them are quoted below:
1. Churches who wish to depart from the denomination should attempt to do so by engaging in conversation with their presbytery. You've been in this group this long, so why not make the attempt to make your case before your fellow presbyters? And so what if they 'preempt' you and take you to court? Would you rather be the victim or the aggressor? (See the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.)

9. The presbyteries must also admit that summary secular legal actions and threats will revoke their spiritual authority over the congregation. You can't serve two masters. Either make a commitment to be the church and love like Jesus, or just admit that you are a financial entity.

10. Show each other grace and love. This should go without saying, but we all know that all too often it doesn't. Shame on us.
The others are pretty good points, too, but you should go over there and read them, and while you are there, read some of his other postings. Toby Brown is a "classical" Presbyterian, and not all are going to agree with him, but he certainly makes his case clearly and compellingly.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

PC(USA) - News Service - Mission pastors slate annual conference

PC(USA) - News Service - Mission pastors slate annual conference:

by Eric Noland
member, La Canada Presbyterian Church

"LA CANADA, CA — Many professionals approach an industry conference like a trip to the mall: What can I get out of this program? What three new ideas can I take back to my work and implement right away?

But those who gather for the annual conference of the Association of Presbyterian Mission Pastors (APMP) often find that the fellowship they engage in and the relationships they build are the most valuable blessings of all.

“It was a source of encouragement to see what God was doing in churches and to have the interaction with APMP folks,” the Rev. John W. “Bill” Young of the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship in Richfield, MN, wrote of a recent conference. “I know this isn’t the primary purpose of the organization, but it was a great help to me and some of the other staff.”

This year’s conference, scheduled for Nov. 29-Dec. 1 in Louisville, will bring together more than 60 pastors, directors and coordinators of local and global mission outreach for their Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations. ..."
One thing that always impresses me is the fact that much of what the PC(USA) is, and should be, continues regardless of what is going on elsewhere in the denomination.

Links to organizations mentioned in this article:

Presbyterian News Service: Staying in bed outranks sitting in pews, survey says

Presbyterian News Service: Staying in bed outranks sitting in pews, survey says

by Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service

"WASHINGTON — A good night’s sleep ranks far above attending church as a favorite activity, a nationwide poll shows.

The Barna Group asked more than 1,000 adults to say how much they looked forward to any of 17 activities, ranging from sleeping to completing tax forms.

Seven out of 10 — 71 percent — of respondents said they relished the thought of getting enough sleep. That contrasted with 40 percent who said they looked forward “a lot” to attending church services, which was the fourth most appealing activity. ..."
I don't think this is a big surprise, considering people use the weekends to catch up on sleep they should have gotten during the week.

The other two activities in the top four were being with friends and listening to music. Hmmmm. Couldn't these be combined with attending church? Maybe move church up a notch or two on the favorite activity scale? And considering the fact that heads tend to nod off (my own included, from time to time), the first three favorite activities could be subsumed under attending church, thus placing it at the top of the stack.

Maybe it isn't quite as bad as it seems...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Blogger Beta and Firefox 2.0 -- First Impressions

Firefox 2.0 was released today (actually last night for those who knew how to navigate to Mozilla's ftp servers), and I decided to go ahead and jump in. It is a worthwhile upgrade, and its appearance is visually pleasing. The hype is that its pop up blocker is more sophisticated, and this should catch even more of those tricky little gremlins. We'll see. Its ability to handle RSS feeds is enhanced. All in all, I'm not sure it warranted going from 1.5 to 2.0, but that's OK.

Blogger Beta is turning out to be a real gem. I am a computer professional, and I tend to like the bleeding edge for fun and games, but am very conservative when it comes to production software. I watched the progress of the beta and tried it out on a test site.

A couple observations:
  • Make a copy of your old template. You will want to extract code from it for your sidebar.
  • The WYSIWIG editor is a lot cleaner in appearance and automatically flags words that it thinks may be misspelled.
  • Labels are now available for those of you who have gazed wistfully at Typepad blogs.
  • Publishing is MUCH faster.
  • Editing your layout is quite simple and versatile. You can add elements to your sidebar and move them up or down to place them in your preferred order. This is where you want to add such things as your Technorati, LibraryThing, Site Meter, or webring code.
  • You can change background, text, and link colors as you wish. The new generation of templates are set up to handle the new features, and you can upgrade your old template. (you will lose most of your sidebar code, but that is why you made a copy of your old template).
  • Open standards are GREAT. All my javascript code from the previous version works as is in the new version.
  • You may, if you wish, edit the template directly as you could with the old version, but that is no longer necessary unless you really want to get down and dirty with the css code. Been there, done that, now I'm going to save a little time and aggravation with the new layout editor.
  • Your gmail address is now your single login to all Google services.
Blogger is not migrating everyone at once; a certain number of users every day may notice that a new option appears on the Dashboard which will allow one to start the conversion process.

All-in-all it has been a good day for software, and I would estimate that the total time spent in migrating stuff from blogger to blogger beta was a little over an hour. They did a good job on this and the Google and Blogger partnership seems to have been a good move.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Moving to the New Blogger

I am in the process of migrating to the new version of blogger, and things may be a little strange for a while. Hopefully all the posts will remain intact, but sidebar elements may disappear for a while and then reappear.

I think the new changes will be useful. I am especially looking forward to labeling my posts to make it easier to search for related postings.

Khartoum Expels U.N. Envoy Who Has Been Outspoken on Darfur Atrocities - New York Times

Khartoum Expels U.N. Envoy Who Has Been Outspoken on Darfur Atrocities - New York Times:
UNITED NATIONS, Oct. 22 — Sudan’s government on Sunday ordered the chief United Nations envoy to leave, saying he was an enemy of the country and its armed forces.

Jan Pronk, the United Nations envoy to Sudan, has been asked to leave the country by Wednesday. He is returning to New York immediately.

Secretary General Kofi Annan said that he was reviewing the letter from the Khartoum government and had asked the envoy, Jan Pronk, to return to New York for “consultations.”

The Sudanese order said Mr. Pronk had to leave by Wednesday. United Nations officials confirmed he would depart before then and said he would need the permission of the Sudanese government to return.

Mr. Pronk, a blunt-spoken former Dutch cabinet minister, has been outspoken in reporting on the killings, rapes and other atrocities in Darfur, the region in the western part of the country where at least 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been driven from their homes.
This is a chilling turn of events in the Sudan. I wish I could see a clear way to seeing this situation resolve, but I expect it will get a lot worse before it starts getting better.

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

God knows why faith is thriving

God knows why faith is thriving:
A group of leading atheists is puzzled by the continued existence and vitality of religion.

As biologist Richard Dawkins puts it in his new book "The God Delusion," faith is a form of irrationality, what he terms a "virus of the mind." Philosopher Daniel Dennett compares belief in God to belief in the Easter Bunny. Sam Harris, author of "The End of Faith" and now "Letter to a Christian Nation," professes amazement that hundreds of millions of people worldwide profess religious beliefs when there is no rational evidence for any of those beliefs. Biologist E.O. Wilson says there must be some evolutionary explanation for the universality and pervasiveness of religious belief.

Actually, there is. The Rev. Ron Carlson, a popular author and lecturer, sometimes presents his audience with two stories and asks them whether it matters which one is true.
An interesting article...

Dinesh D'Souza suggests that, since religious people have a strong sense of purpose, and secular people are not even sure why they are here, that the question should rather be focussed on a Darwinian explanation for why atheism can exist. D'Souza goes on to say this:
It seems perplexing why nature would breed a group of people who see no purpose to life or the universe, indeed whose only moral drive seems to be sneering at their fellow human beings who do have a sense of purpose.

Not all atheists and agnostics "sneer" at religious people, but those that do, I fear, are disproportionately represented in the press. But it does make intuitive sense to me that it is better to go through life with a sense of purpose, than to muddle along with no sense of purpose or meaning to one's existence.

I'd like to see more discussion on the topic of purpose and its effect on the "quality" of life.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

More on the Essentials

The first three questions that ordained officers in the PC(USA) must answer are as follows:
  • Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  • Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?
  • Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?
n.b. These questions, since the reunion, are asked of "those preparing to be ordained or installed" (G-14.0207 emphasis mine).

As I indicated in a prior posting, since these are constitutionally required to be answered in the affirmative, a reasonable person can assume that they are essential. This assumption relies on the integrity of the examination process and the honesty of the person being ordained or installed. With regard to the third question, for all intents the PC(USA) allows a wink and a nudge to cloud the honesty of the answer, through the various public pronouncements that, since the "essentials" are not enumerated in the Book of Order, then they don't really exist.

I disagree. Common sense and the plain meaning of the English language shows us a number of essentials that ARE enumerated in the Book of Order. Jack B. Rogers, a former moderator of General Assembly, wrote a book shortly following the reunion called Presbyterian Creeds -- A Guide to the Book of Confessions (Westminster John Knox 1985, revised 1991). This book provides much historical information about the various creeds and what it was they were providing to the Church. Rogers also speaks of the essentials of the Reformed Faith, and identifies ten that are identified in the Book of Order (G-2.0000-2.0400):
  1. The mystery of the Trinity
  2. The incarnation of Jesus Christ
  3. Justification by grace through faith
  4. Scripture as the final authority
  5. God's Sovereignty
  6. God's choosing of people for salvation and service (election)
  7. The covenant life of the Church, ordering itself according to the Word of God
  8. A faithful stewardship of God's creation
  9. The sin of idolatry, which makes anything created ultimate, rather than worshipping only the Creator
  10. The necessity of obedience to the Word of God, which directs us to work for justice in the transformation of society
While G-2.0000-2.0400 does not list this with bullets, they are in the text. According to Rogers, "These ten doctrines are the result of prayer, thought, and experience within a living tradition of reflecting on the Word of God."

The first two are shared with the Church Universal. The second two are distinctive to the Reformation, and the remaining six are characteristic of the Reformed Church, but not unique to it.

Rogers does not provide a comprehensive list, nor does he delve very deeply into the "mystery of the trinity" and other theological issues -- but it is a start, and demonstrates far more intellectual integrity than the glib statement that there are no essentials.

Sessions need to provide a meaningful orientation for newly-elected elders as well as elders who are called again to active service. This orientation should consist of a study of the Scriptural basis for elders as well as an introduction to the confessions and the Book of Order. Roger's book could be useful here. Another book that could be quite useful is Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers, by the current General Assembly Moderator Joan Gray.

Speaking as an elder who was ordained in 1974 by the United Presbyterian Church in the USA, I was not well-prepared to take on the office of ruling elder. It really wasn't until a subsequent installation in the early 1990's that I began to think about just what it was I was agreeing to. On my own, I read Scripture, the Book of Confessions, and the Book of Order, prayed, and did a lot of thinking to the point where I felt that I could answer all the questions with an honest "I Do" or "I Will". I feel this has made me more open to God's call in my life, and it also encourages me to continue learning and studying.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Short Review: The Civil War as as Theological Crisis

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis
Mark A. Noll
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press
ISBN: 0-8078-3012-7

The first impression I had of this book was its cover-- at once a compelling image and a perplexing image. The inside back cover identifies it as the Lutheran church on Main Street, Sharpsburg, Maryland. The date is September 1862. On September 17, 1862 the Battle of Antietam was fought there on a single day with 45,000 Confederate troops of the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee and 87,000 Federal soldiers of the Army of the Potomac commanded by George McClellan. When the day was over, there were nearly 23,000 casualties split nearly evenly between North and South -- the bloodiest single day in the history of American wars. This may have been a "draw" in military terms, but Lee and his army were permitted to retreat unchallenged back across the Potomac River. Many historians believe the war could have ended right there had McClellan pressed his advantage and forced the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

But I digress...

My first thought when I saw the cover with its mirrored image of the church was Lincoln's speech on accepting the nomination for US Senator from Illinois in 1858:
"...A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South..."
A second impression was that of two churches having a stare-down. Which side is going to blink?

After reading Noll's book, I lean toward the second interpretation of the book cover symbolism.

I really can't remember spending so much time staring at a book cover and thinking about what it all meant. Noll, knowingly or unknowingly, has the reader engaged before the first page is even read.

Following a short historical overview, Noll presents a series of three chapters outlining what he feels are the theological crises that were spawned by the Civil War.

The first (Chapter 3) is the crisis over the Bible -- one which affected North and South alike. How does one interpret the Bible? Using prooftexts to support slavery is easy; using Scripture to demonstrate that slavery is wrong requires bringing in different passages to demonstrate that not only is slavery against the will of God, but that even it it were the will of God, the way it was practiced in the South was wrong. For Israelite slaves, there was no permanent servitude. For non-Israelite slaves, if they were injured by their masters, then they were to be set free. The way Scripture was used was inconsistent. And some, notably many Northern abolitionists, found the Bible inconvenient and chose to ignore it or to go with "the spirit". Either way this was a blow to orthodoxy, and the sad thing was that it was unecessary. Compelling answers could be found if the need to maintain consistency with the culture weren't as major a force as it was.

A second issue seems to indict the North in greater ways than the South. Chapter 4 "The Negro Question", deals with the humanity of Africans. If one considers the Africans to be the decendants of Ham, and thus under God's curse, then the answer is clear that there is no need to even ask the question. But if one believes that all people of all races are equally made in the image of God, then one is required to treat all races with the same dignity. Why does this indict the North? Because the abolitionists were more than willing to condemn the South for its institution of slavery, but less than willing to treat free Negroes as equals. Horace Greeley had no Blacks on the payroll of his abolitionist newspaper The New York Tribune. The North also needed to acknowledge that their desire for trade with the South placed them as willing partners in the Southern economy.

Noll ends this chapter with a summary of the crises involving the Bible and slavery:
  • a failure to examine biblically the Sourthern charge that individualistic consumer capitalism was an ethically dangerous economic system;
  • a blow to Christian orthodoxy caused by the abolitionist flight to the "spirit" of Scripture;
  • An inability to act on biblical teaching about the full humanity of all people, regardless of race; and
  • a confusion about principles of interpretation between what was in the Bible and what was in the common sense of the culture.
A third area Noll explores is in Chapter 5 "The Crisis Over Providence". To summarize this succinctly (and perhaps incompletely) each side claimed Divine Providence was ordering events.

As a Christian, I have no doubt that this was true, though not necessarily on the way the North and the South believed, or even as I may believe today.

A powerful statement was committed to paper by Abraham Lincoln following many defeats. This was not intended for public consumption and was entitled "Meditation on the Divine Will":
The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party--and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true--that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.
Lincoln wrote this following a second humilating defeat at Bull Run and as the Army of the Potomac was positioning itself near Sharpsburg Maryland. Lincoln was waiting for a victory that would provide political cover when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The battle of Antietam gave him that, but just barely.

It seems that theology was pressed into service to buttress regional arguments, and that neither side properly interpreted what was available in Scripture. The failure of theologians to present a compelling case against slavery was a major one. The Northern abolitionist approach of giving up on exegesis and going with the "spirit" coupled with the Southern selectivity of which biblical passages they used to support slavery created an environment that has hampered biblical interpretation to this day.

But perhaps the most devastating effect of these theological crises was that it took a bloody civil war to allow this country to move forward. In Mark Noll's words:
'...it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant."
I think we'd all rather the moral stance of our country be defined through reasoned debate, rather than at gunpoint.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Well, I'm Back.

You gotta love hospitals. Or at least have a sense of humor.

I didn't know for sure that I was going to be discharged until a little after 9am. I asked if I would be missing lunch, and was told that I could stay if I wanted to. "That's OK", I said. "I can leave whenever you get me the paperwork."

So I got dressed, packed it all up, called Susan, and waited. And waited. Fell asleep in the chair. Waited some more. When the paperwork finally came, the nurse looked it over and said "Uh Oh!" --not what you want to hear medical personnel say. It proved only to be a missing prescription, which she went to track down. It is now about 12:40pm. The lunch tray is brought in, and I said "I'm leaving, so I won't be needing that, but thanks anyway." (I was polite.)

The prescription was located and we left, filled the prescription, went to a local taqueria where I had my favorite, tacos de carne asada (definitely NOT on the hospital menu), visited the orthodedic shoe specialist to get fitted for a special sandal-looking shoe that offloads the weight from the ball of the foot, and then went home.

I will now carefully inspect the inside of my eyelids and see if the doctors and nurses missed anything. I think it will take about 12 hours, if I am thorough.

I'll be back tomorrow.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Update on My Left Foot

Wasn't there a movie with a similar title a few years ago. Or do I really want to go there?

Well, I packed some underwear, a toothbrush, and my laptop with several DVDs and several books, and my wife took me to the hospital. When I arrived in my room the first thing that caught my eye was one of those tear-off calendars. It said "Friday, October 13, 2006." I appreciated Mike's quote from Yogi Berra -- "I'm not superstitious. It's bad luck." I keep telling myself that....

I'll spare you the details, but I am on IV antibiotics morning and night and the orthopedic surgeon looked into the infection, took a culture, and told me that they were going to put me on the schedule for Monday, but were hopeful that that would not be necessary. This morning the dressing on my foot was hanging somewhat loose (it had been wrapped snugly) and the swelling had gone down significantly.

In the meantime, I get to wait, have my vital signs taken every 4 hours, blood drawn, IV bags changed and other fun activities here at Club Med. Fortunately, when I'm not hooked up to anything, I have a certain amount of freedom as long as it is excercised in a wheelchair within the confines of the hospital.

As for entertainment, I am halfway through the extended Lord of the Rings (i.e. I need to switch DVDs on the Two Towers. I watched Gettysburg yesterday, and Luther is waiting in the wings. I am reading The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll, and I am re-reading Presbyterian Creeds and Leading from the Center as I try to gather my thoughts regarding the Essentials of the Reformed Faith.

Thank-you all for your prayers and I hope to be released Monday or Tuesday.

Friday, October 13, 2006


I have been ordered by my physician to keep my infected left foot at or above the level of my heart for most of the time, and to stay off the foot as much as possible.

This translates to about 98% of my time in bed since Tuesday afternoon.

I'm allowed to get up for the bathroom, meals, amd medical appointments.

With a little creative exegisis of the doctor's orders, I have my laptop booted up at my place at the dining room table, so I can do some quick email when I take my meals.

I will probably not do too much posting, but I am making significant progress on that pile of books on my headboard that seems to keep getting higher.

UPDATE: This morning the final MRI results came in, and there is some bone involvement, so I am to be admitted to the hospital this morning for IV antibiotics and surgical debridement. Please Pray.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What is Essential?

Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor do I have any special training in Christian Education or Church Polity. I read Scripture, the Book of Order, and the Book of Confessions on a regular basis, and occasionally I vote in Presbytery. What follows are my own opinions shaped by my reading and people with whom I have spoken.

There has been much discussion of what constitutes the Essential Tenets of the Reformed Faith, with people dividing into two divergent camps: Those who feel that there ARE essential tenets and those who don't.

Those who believe there ARE essential tenets that can be identified will find them in Scripture and the Book of Confessions.

The prevailing "official" attitude seems to be that since there isn't a section in the Book of Order labeled "Essential Tenets", that we are free to come up with our own list; a doctrinal cafeteria, if you will.

As Beau Weston has pointed out in his book Leading From the Center, 1967 was the year the Presbyterian Church went from one doctrinal statement (the Westminster Confession and Catachisms) to a Book of Confessions, not all of which emphasized the same points. As a result, even those who look to the Book of Confessions for guidance as to what Scripture "leads us to believe and do" have an often bewildering set of confessional choices to wade through.

Another, perhaps more basic issue is that Presbyterians are not particularly conversant with what the Book of Confessions actually has to say, and when they read some of the harsh views about Roman Catholics in the Scots Confession, or the condemnation of Anabaptists in the Second Helvetic Confession, they are astonished. These confessions, much more than Scripture, must be understood in light of what they were responding to, and we need to separate the theological understandings from the specific condemnations of things that were happening hundreds of years ago. Our denomination has not done well at teaching and interpreting the historic confessions. In fact, our denomination has not done well at teaching what it means to be Reformed.

Individual congregations have taken on this task, when it is done at all, and there are excellent books available that can help. Two in particular are Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers co-authored by our current General Assembly Moderator Joan Gray and Presbyterian Creeds -- A Guide to the Book of Confessions by a former moderator, Jack Rogers. In the latter volume, originally written around the time of the reunion, Jack Rogers identifies from the Book of Order a list of essential tenets and reformed distinctives. I will post something on those next week.

So -- What essential tenets can we identify, using the plain meaning of the English language and our common sense?

The first and foremost is found in the public profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior that all members must make (G-5.0100). In many congregations this takes the form of a question: "Who is your Lord and Savior", with the prescribed answer in the liturgy being "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior". This question is also asked of parents presenting their infants for baptism, and it is one of the few, if not the only question that calls for a complete sentence as its answer.

There are other questions asked of persons desiring to become active members, and they mostly relate to the duties incumbent on members.

The constitutional questions (G-14.0206) asked of all deacons and elders are 9 in number:
  • Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  • Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?
  • Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?
  • Will you fulfill your office in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?
  • Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?
  • Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?
  • Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?
  • Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?
  • Will you be a faithful elder (deacon), watching over the people, providing for their worship, nurture, and service? Will you share in government and discipline, serving in governing bodies of the church, and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?
The questions for ministers are identical on the theological issues and similar on the polity issues.

Since all these questions must be answered with either "I do" or "I will", I think that a reasonable person can infer that they are essentials.

Granted, not all the ordination questions are theological in nature, but our polity is what makes us Presbyterian, and should be taken seriously.

My list of essentials thus far numbers ten -- and I haven't even cracked open the Book of Confessions or the Bible. At the risk of starting something, what else should be on this list? Am I being fair in counting these ten as "essentials"?

To me the denial of the existence of "Essential Tenets" is taking the path of least intellectual resistance -- and that is unworthy of the strong intellectual faith that Presbyterians have been known for over their 300 year history in America.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Christianity Today: Pure & Simple

Christianity Today: Pure & Simple:
"Our congregation gathered for worship on a beautiful September Sunday morning at the Conley farm in western Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This was the fourth of a series of weekend meetings we call "love feast"—the high point of our church year. An intense spiritual experience, the series culminates on Saturday evening as the plainly dressed, bearded brothers and the sisters in their capes, aprons, and snow white head coverings wash one another's feet. Then, positioned around long wooden tables, they exchange the kiss of peace and pass the bread and cup of Communion in a complete circuit. ..."
This has been a rough few weeks for school violence, but the most recent, involving an Amish school in Pennsylvania seemed particularly senseless to many. The shooter, who seemed to have hidden issues going back 20 years, released all the boys and the adults, and proceeded to tie up and shoot the 11 girls. Five died.

The Old Order Amish community dealt with an onslaught of news media, and buried the five dead girls. A father of one of the slain girls made a public statement of forgiveness and it is said that the widow of the shooter and their three children were invited to stay in the community.

Christianity Today had an article on their website today by an insider to one of the old order anabaptist communities, which gives an indication of why they were so quick to forgive and to reach out to the family of the shooter. The author, Stephen Scott, is a member of the Old Order River Brethren and works at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. His branch of the anabaptists is often confused with the Old Order Amish because both share similar dress and beliefs.

The Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites both adhere to the Dordrecht Confession of Faith, which in Article 8 defines the Visible Church:
"We believe in and confess a visible Church of God, consisting of those who … have truly repented, rightly believed, are rightly baptized, are united with God in heaven, and incorporated with the communion of the saints on earth. And these, we confess, are a 'chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation': who have the testimony that they are the 'bride' of Christ; yea, that they are 'children and heirs of eternal life,' a 'habitation of God though the spirit,' built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, of which 'Christ himself is the chief cornerstone'—"the foundation on which his Church is built" (Article 8, "of the Church of Christ").
I think one can infer that this is not a church in "stealth mode", but rather a church that is visible in the world but is not of the world -- yet they are a visible testimony to God and what He requires.

In looking at the full Dordrecht Confession of Faith, I noticed this as well:

XIV. Of Revenge

As regards revenge, that is, to oppose an enemy with the sword, we believe and confess that the Lord Christ has forbidden and set aside to His disciples and followers all revenge and retaliation, and commanded them to render to no one evil for evil, or cursing for cursing, but to put the sword into the sheath, or, as the prophets have predicted, to beat the swords into ploughshares. Matthew 5:39, 44; Romans 12:14; 1 Peter 3:9; Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3; Zechariah 9:8, 9.

From this we understand that therefore, and according to His example, we must not inflict pain, harm, or sorrow upon any one, but seek the highest welfare and salvation of all men, and even, if necessity require it, flee for the Lord's sake from one city or country into another, and suffer the spoiling of our goods; that we must not harm any one, and, when we are smitten, rather turn the other cheek also, than take revenge or retaliate. Matthew 5:39.

And, moreover, that we must pray for our enemies, feed and refresh them whenever they are hungry or thirsty, and thus convince them by well-doing, and overcome all ignorance. Romans 12:19, 20.

Finally, that we must do good and commend ourselves to every man's conscience; and, according to the law of Christ, do unto no one that which we would not have done to us. 2 Corinthians 4:2; Matthew 7:12.

This seems to be the core of the non-violence that characterizes the Amish, Mennnonite, and Brethren communities, and also provides the strength to meet horrific violence perpetrated on their community with the love of Jesus Christ.

There is no question that there is pain and suffering in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but the response of the Amish community stands as an example to all of us of what Christian love is about.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Quotidian Grace: No More Limbo

Quotidian Grace: No More Limbo

Sometimes you read a post that figuratively kicks you in the stomach.

While many of us were amused by the recent announcement by the Roman Catholic Church that Limbo was not a valid doctrine, Quotidian Grace had an entirely different reaction.

You really need to go on over to her blog and read No More Limbo.

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PNS: Way ahead for ‘hard-to-call’ churches outlined

Way ahead for ‘hard-to-call’ churches outlined:

"LOUISVILLE — The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has launched an effort to help provide pastoral leadership for small churches who may not have any pastoral leader, may have been seeking a pastor for a long time, and may even have lost any expectation of being able to call a pastor.

The effort, called the Hard-to-Call Churches Project, calls upon the energies of presbyteries and synods, Committees on Ministry, Committees on Preparation for Ministry, Presbyterian colleges and seminaries, and the General Assembly Council (GAC) to seek to alleviate the situation. ..."

As a Presbyterian in a largely rural presbytery, I can understand what is at stake here. Upwards of 40% of our smaller congregations do not have a full time called pastor. This is not to say that they are being failed by the presbytery; between supply pastors, and a thriving Commissioned Lay Pastor program in our presbytery, no congregation lacks for pastoral services, and many of these smaller congregations set the example of how a community of faith should function.

The link above to the Hard-to-Call Churches Project actually takes you to the front page of the Committee on Ministry page of the PC(USA), and it leads off with a quote from Carl Dudley:

"Small congregations," writes Carl Dudley, "are not organizational errors to be corrected, but intentional choices of members who put a priority on human relationship." (Effective Small Churches in the Twenty-First Century, Abingdon, 2002, p.11
Just below that quote is a link to a PDF document of the full report of the Hard-to-Call Churches Project, which will give more detail of what is happening in Louisville regarding how the PC(USA) can best minister to the 48% of its congregations that are below 100 members in size.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Bible-Reading Student Gets Lesson in Litigation - washingtonpost.com

Bible-Reading Student Gets Lesson in Litigation - washingtonpost.com:
"Amber Mangum was a frequent reader during lunch breaks at her Prince George's County middle school, silently soaking up the adventures of Harry Potter and other tales in the spare minutes before afternoon classes. The habit was never viewed as a problem -- not, a lawsuit alleges, until the book she was reading was the Bible.

A vice principal at Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School in Laurel last month ordered Amber, then 12, to stop reading the Bible or face punishment, according to a lawsuit filed Friday by Amber's mother. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, alleges that the vice principal's actions violated the girl's civil rights. ..."

This article in the Washington Post raises some serious questions about judgement, especially considering that, according to the Prince Georges County School System policy regarding reigious and patriotic expression, "students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray before tests to the same extent they may engage in comparable, non-disruptive activities."

Whay is unclear from the article is whether the vice principal was reacting to a specific complaint or whether the vice principal simply observed the "offence" and moved to put a stop to it.

Certainly, the existence of the policy seems to imply that reading a Bible or praying before meal or tests are not in and of themselves "disruptive", and they are to be permitted.

It seems that the Prince Georges County school system has a bit of a problem here.

UPDATE -- October 7, 2006: in a correction to the original article, the girl acknowledges that she misidentified the school official who told her to stop reading her Bible. The complaint no longer specifies the vice principal, but states that the official's identity is unknown.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Global scope, homeland churches: PC(USA) faces immigrant issues

Global scope, homeland churches: PC(USA) faces immigrant issues:
(Presbyteran Outlook -- free registration required)
"ATLANTA – What does it mean for an established church, in which tradition is revered, to see the world changing all around it?

What can a mostly-white church do to be truly welcoming to those of other cultures and other colors – to share power and faith with those who speak many languages and have their own ways of doing things?

Those are hard questions for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a denomination that is more than 92 percent white and has been losing both numbers and influence for a long time. But some Presbyterians are exploring exactly those questions – are excited about what could be and at the same time somewhat apprehensive about the challenges.

“There are all kinds of people from all over the world right here in small-town America, and we don’t know how to deal with that,” said Tracie Mayes Stewart, director of Christian education at First Church in Statesville, N.C.

“We are really trying to figure out how we do this and why we do this. How are we faithful in this new reality?”

And some immigrants are just as excited about the possibilities for evangelism in the United States – knowing, in part, how much they have to offer, and wanting to find a church where they are appreciated for exactly who they are. ..."

Having been a member of several PC(USA) congregations in an equal number of places, I know that change is rarely easy. Worship times, new hymnals, new buildings, new orders of worship are often sources of conflict in congregations. Adding immigration to the mix, and we have changes in culture, but with God's help, we can meet these challenges.

It is a delicious irony that the descendents of Christians first reached by Presbyterian missions, in the last century or even before, are coming to this country with a faith that has not beeen eroded by the pressures developed countries.

The PC(USA) has much it can gain by welcoming fellow Christians from around the world.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Where We Are and How We Got Here - Christianity Today Magazine

Where We Are and How We Got Here - Christianity Today Magazine:
(free registration required to read the full article)
"This magazine began in October 1956 amid a time, like today, of significant global transition. The same week the first issue of Christianity Today came off the press, Hungarians took to the streets in an effort to reform—or even throw off—Russian domination. Before CT's third issue was out, Soviet tanks had rolled into Budapest. Thousands of Hungarians died.

Despite heightened alarm about Soviet aggression, however, Western allies decided not to intervene because of their ongoing preoccupation with another crisis. In late July, Egypt, under the charismatic Gamal Abdul Nasser, moved to seize the Suez Canal from Britain. When the crisis finally ended, the shift in world power was complete, with the United States emerging as the most powerful nation on earth. European empires were history, the Israeli-Arab conflict had intensified, and more and more oil money was flowing to strongly Muslim Middle Eastern states.

In September, Elvis Presley appeared for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show, to the consternation of many evangelicals. In October, the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, was in its 11th month. Planning was under way throughout the nation to launch the interstate highway system that President Eisenhower, soon to be re-elected, had signed into law a few months earlier, and with it a new suburban America was born. Also in 1956, Searle, a giant drug company, submitted to the Food and Drug Administration its formula for the first birth-control pills.

Whether American evangelicals were up to the challenges of this rapidly changing world was an open question. The nation seemed to have moved beyond evangelical influence, and evangelical Christianity itself was in a parlous state. ..."

Mark Noll, whose books include The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, The Rise of Evangelicism, and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, authored this article in Christianity Today on the occasion of the 50th year of publication of this respected magazine.

He starts by pointing out that popular culture, radio, and the relatively new medium of television were mostly devoid of Protestant influence, and in some cases demonstrably hostile to Christianity and its values.

But neither was Christianity particularly engaged in the world. Christian influence in colleges and universities was as low as it has ever been, and evangelical Christians, in particular, were not at the table when issues of public policy were discussed. Noll ascribes much of this to the battles over evolution and higher ctiticism of Scripture that fundamentalists lost in the twentieth century, causing them to withdraw from academic pursuits and debates. While "evangelical" is a far wider term than "fundamentalist", it appears that they, too, were passive during the period of time in question.

Noll suggests, in a theme he also explored from Civil War times, that evangelicals lost a great deal of credibility by not involving themselves in such moral issues as slavery, war, or civil rights.

This has changed in the last few decades, but there is still much to be done, and Noll has done a good job of calling his fellow evangelicals to reclaim their intellectual history and to become part of the academic debates and development of sound public policy.

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