Friday, March 28, 2008

Scholars say resurrection misunderstood by Christian faithful

Scholars say resurrection misunderstood by Christian faithful:
"On Easter Sunday, Christians proclaimed the message at the heart of their faith - 'He is risen' - and affirmed the hope that God will raise all the dead at the end of time.

But this belief is deeply misunderstood, say scholars from varied faith traditions who have been trying to clear up the confusion in several recent books.

'We are troubled by the gap between the views on these things of the general public and the findings of contemporary scholarship,' said Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson, authors of the upcoming book, 'Resurrection, The Power of God for Christians and Jews.'

The book traces the overlooked Jewish roots of the Christian belief in resurrection, and builds on that history to challenge the idea that resurrection simply means life after death. To the authors, being raised up has a physical element, not just a spiritual one. ..."
It seems that, along with the usual "Easter Surprises", there have been a number of well-written, informative and fair treatments of the Resurrection -- one of the core beliefs of Christianity. Rachel Zoll, AP religion writer, has provided readers with an interesting history of resurrection beliefs in Christianity and Judaism, and how they have shaped the spiritual lives af their respective adherents.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Heaven Is Not Our Home | Christianity Today

Heaven Is Not Our Home | Christianity Today :
"There is no agreement in the church today about what happens to people when they die. Yet the New Testament is crystal clear on the matter: In a classic passage, Paul speaks of 'the redemption of our bodies' (Rom. 8:23). There is no room for doubt as to what he means: God's people are promised a new type of bodily existence, the fulfillment and redemption of our present bodily life. The rest of the early Christian writings, where they address the subject, are completely in tune with this.

The traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage, postmortem journey represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope. Bodily resurrection is not just one odd bit of that hope. It is the element that gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story of God's ultimate purposes. If we squeeze it to the margins, as many have done by implication, or indeed, if we leave it out altogether, as some have done quite explicitly, we don't just lose an extra feature, like buying a car that happens not to have electrically operated mirrors. We lose the central engine, which drives it and gives every other component its reason for working. ..."
Interesting article...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Proposed Form of Government

As I was looking over the recommendations for changes in the Form of Government section of our Book of Order, I was struck initially by this paragraph:
3.0202 Governed by Presbyters

This church shall be governed by presbyters, that is, ruling and teaching elders, also called elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament. Ruling elders are so named not because they ‘lord it over’ the congregation (Matt. 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life. Teaching elders, also called ministers of the Word and Sacrament, shall be committed in all their work to equipping the people of God for their ministry and witness.
I was ordained as a Ruling Elder in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and this is a welcome recognition of the equal nature of what the PC(USA) calls "Elders" and "Ministers of Word and Sacrament". It seemed to me at the time that, by dropping the ruling and teaching designations, it created an implicit hierarchy of presbyters in the church where there had been not only parity of numbers in the various councils from Session to General Assembly, but parity in the value of each office. It's good to see the names reflect that.

As I read further, I saw a significant change in how members are defined, and thus how numbers are reported:
G-1.04 Categories of Membership

The membership of a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) includes baptized members, active members, and affiliate members.
The category of inactive member is not on this list. In addition, there seems to be no clear path to remove a member who has become inactive or moved away, and further has not responded to contacts and counseling. This is not a punitive sort of thing, nor is it excommunication (impossible, of course, in a denomination that has open communion).

I should make it clear that people whose health prevents them from active participation are not "inactive" to my way of thinking. In the same way, family members who have moved away from the area, but choose to maintain their membership in their parent's congregation are certainly not "inactive", even if they come only once a year for a visit. When the Congregational Care Committee (or whatever it is called in other congregations) tries to make contact, they can often determine what the situation is. Sometimes it is an easy call. Other times, when multiple attempts to contact the person fail, placing them on the inactive roll serves to "hold their place" pending a clarification of their intentions.

I should note that the new proposal does make it incumbent on the Session to review annually the active roll and counsel with "those who have neglected the responsibilities of membership". It just does not provide a framework for dealing with those who choose not to respond over a period of years.

One practical effect of not having a separate inactive category is to retain members on the active roll who neither participate in the life of the congregation nor provide financial support, yet are counted when it comes time to transmit the per capita assessments up the denominational ladder.

All-in-all, though, simplifying the Book of Order is a worthy goal, and what I have read so far is a good rough draft. I think the section on membership needs a lot more work.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Has the 'notion of sin' been lost? -

Has the 'notion of sin' been lost? -
"Is sin dead? No, not by a long shot. Yet as Easter approaches, some pastors and theologians worry: How can Christians celebrate Jesus' atonement for their sins and the promise of eternal life in his resurrection if they don't recognize themselves as sinners? ..."
Personally, I was a little put off by the flippancy of this article, but truth can be found in many places, if you listen for it.

This first paragraph of the longer article cut quickly to the heart of why theology matters. I have often said that the Resurrection is where I dig in my heels and refuse to yield an inch, but in reality the Resurrection is dependent upon a lot of other things to which, intellectually, I must also give my assent.

Jesus' death on the cross was an atonement. For what? My sins. I am a sinner "prone to evil and slothful in good" and can make no claim that I am worthy in the absence of Christ's atonement. If I accept that Jesus was God in the flesh, then I find myself dealing with the Incarnation. And once I have come to grips with both the beginning and end of Jesus' earthly life, then I need to deal with everything in between.

All this because I believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.... | 03/20/2008 | Resurrection is key to Christian faith | 03/20/2008 | Resurrection is key to Christian faith:
"Americans are a religious people. About 90 percent of us believe in some form of God.

For many who are Christian, Easter is the most important celebration of all. The Apostle Paul summed up why in a letter to the Corinthians: 'If there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised,' he wrote. 'And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.'

Because the Resurrection is the centerpiece of Christianity, it has naturally become a target of naysayers. It's something believers should be accustomed to, but not discouraged by. ..."
I remember fondly the Wichita Eagle (or Beagle, as we nicknamed it) from the years I lived in Kansas. They have published a good piece here summarizing the centrality of the Resurrection to Christian faith.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

How early Christians grappled to accept the idea that Jesus returned from the dead. - By Larry Hurtado - Slate Magazine

How early Christians grappled to accept the idea that Jesus returned from the dead. - By Larry Hurtado - Slate Magazine:
"Easter Sunday represents the foundational claim of Christian faith, the highest day of the Christian year as celebration of Jesus' resurrection. But many Christians are unsure what the claim that Jesus had been raised to new life after being crucified actually means—while non-Christians often find the whole idea of resurrection bemusing and even ridiculous. ..."
Slate, which actually tends to have fair coverage of religious issues, has posted an interesting article about the various ways Christians have viewed the Resurrection.

Larry Hurtado, who is a professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland), provides a short scholarly history of resurrection attitudes over the years. The brief quotation above gives a flavor of the entire article, which is well worth reading.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

PC(USA) Adopts New Tracking Software For GA218

For the 217th General Assembly, the PC(USA) used a web-based business tracker called "Les". It received mixed reviews, especially from commissioners on the floor of General Assembly. I was "watching" the business of GA217 from my home in Columbia Missouri, and I found the Les interface a little clunky, but reliable, and in conjunction with the live streaming video feed I could watch as little or as much of the proceedings as I wanted to..

Why were there so many complaints from the people in attendance? I found out later that the commissioners had access only to the General Assembly intranet and had to wait until they got back to their rooms to get internet access. My guess is that the local intranet was not up to feeding all the commissioners, advisory delegates, and staff members, all of whom wanted to keep track on what was going on. This is going to become more and more critical as the PC(USA) moves closer to a "paperless" General Assembly. It is a fairly easy proposition to install a wireless access point in the committee rooms where numbers are generally limited, but the plenary sessions present another set of problems. The more people attaching to a wireless network, the more contention there is for bandwidth. And I suspect that most of the several hundred people in the plenary room are going to be trying to access the same information at the same time. Hopefully the GA site will have competent networking personnel dealing with the infrastructure.

The new tracking software,, is web-based (as was Les) and the business from GA217 has been ported over and can be searched using the "Explorer" tab. The FAQ section is a work in progress, but there is enough to get you started. Right now the only information you will get on the 218th General Assembly is the overture list (about 80 at this point), task force reports, as well as some news items. This will, no doubt, change quickly as committee assignments are made and schedules are firmed up. If you register, you can make notations on various items, retrieve your recently viewed items, and flag certain items that you want to watch. Registration is free and open to the public. Commissioners have already received their user ids and passwords.

I am glad to see this being made available not only to the GA commissioners, but to Presbyterians in general. The more information the average Presbyterian has, the more informed decisions can be made, all the way down to the congregation level. My initial impression of the new tracking system is that it is more intuitive than Les, and a little more responsive. Of course that could all change when more people get on and start puttering around.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

'My Heart Is in Gaza' | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

'My Heart Is in Gaza' | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction:
"Gaza Baptist Church used to draw hundreds of Palestinian worshipers to its two Sunday services. But on a recent Sunday in January, less than 10 people risked attending the only evangelical church in the 25-mile coastal strip.

Palestinian evangelicals, a group of hundreds living among 1.5 million Muslims, have been fleeing the Gaza Strip for the West Bank in response to increased violence and threats from Islamic extremists. In October, Rami Ayyad, the 29-year-old manager of Gaza's only Christian bookstore, was kidnapped and murdered. Then on February 15, a group of 14 masked gunmen forcibly entered the ymca offices and set off a bomb in the library, burning thousands of books. ..."
This article raises issues that Christians need to come to grips with. First, there is most definitely persecution in today's world, and it seems to be growing in some areas. And second, warfare has significant effects on innocent bystanders.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

PC(USA) - Presbyterian News Service - New initiative digitally expands religion’s reach in the world

PC(USA) - Presbyterian News Service - New initiative digitally expands religion’s reach in the world:
"LOUISVILLE – Religion will more readily be at the world’s fingertips thanks to a new partnership between Princeton Theological Seminary and Microsoft Corporation.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related seminary and the technology giant have entered into an agreement to digitize a large number of public materials from Princeton’s library. That means the library will now contribute content to Microsoft’s Live Search Book service, which is accessed by people across the globe. ..."
Microsoft may have a hard time coming up with a timely service pack for its Vista operating system, but it is making a positive contribution here.

The Live Search Book Service is not to be confused with Microsoft Live Search, which is a Google-like search engine.

Net Neutrality Divides Christian, Conservative Groups | Liveblog | Christianity Today

Net Neutrality Divides Christian, Conservative Groups | Liveblog | Christianity Today:
"For people who frequent YouTube, Facebook, and Google, net neutrality is a hot topic. For Christian and conservative groups, it became a divisive topic today.

While the Christian Coalition supports net neutrality, 12 politically conservative and Christian conservative groups today began lobbying against net neutrality, according to U.S. News & World Report."
Sarah Pulliam summarizes the Christian responses to this important issue. Net Neutrality is a response to the idea that internet service providers could partition the internet into premium and basic service levels, based on amount paid. This unites people from all points in the political and social spectrum in the common goal of ensuring that all information providers (news, bloggers, universities, organizations, etc.) would have equal access to the internet.

The main objection some groups have to this is that pornography would be unfettered along with most other content. Of course, we already have that. The question is whose responsibility it is to control access to objectionable content. Public schools and libraries often filter content on their networks. Parents can install software that does similar filtering.

Blocking content at the ISP level would possible, but not a particularly smart thing to do. Who will decide? Will Democrat's blogs be filtered out while Republican's blogs pass through unfettered? Will evangelical web sites be sent to the slow track while more liberal church web sites run at maximum speed? There is much opportunity for mischief here, and trusting the ISPs (or even the government) to make such decisions is not necessarily prudent.

The average person has unprecedented access to information of all kinds -- sometimes "too much information." The proliferation of Presbyterian blogs, nearly all of which are independent of PC(USA) control, have provided members in the pews access to information that, 10 years ago, might take many weeks to propagate to the congregations, if at all.

Of course, it really isn't about politics, religion or morality -- it is, at its core, about money. We have been using the Web for information, email, buying stuff from Amazon, and so forth for many years.

All during this time companies have been looking for ways to put a meter on the network, and establish a "pay-as-you-go" financial model (above and beyond the basic cost to have broadband in the home). That, in and of itself, should cause people to think hard about what freedoms they are willing to give up.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Just As I Am

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thy love unknown
Hath broken every barrier down;
Now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, of that free love
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

-- Words from The Cyber Hymnal

Charlotte Elliot (1789-1871) wrote Just As I Am, Without One Plea in 1935 following an encounter with a man who asked her if she was a Christian. Initially she took great offense and told him it was none of his business. After some reflection, she asked this man how she might go about finding Christ. His answer was to come as you are. The man is not identified in the Wikipedia article, but The Cyber Hymnal identifies him as Cé­sar Ma­lan, who was not only a minister, but a hymn writer and composer. The hymn tune that comes to mind is Hendon, which is used for Take My Life And Let It Be Consecrated, Lord, To Thee.

Not long after this encounter she wrote this hymn, which has been a staple of hymnals across the Protestant spectrum.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Judge Rejects Attempt to Close Huntingtown Church Pantry, Center -

Judge Rejects Attempt to Close Huntingtown Church Pantry, Center -
"In a test of wills, church vs. state, the church wins the first round.

Chesapeake Church in Huntingtown, a congregation of about 275 members, has been locked in a heated, three-year battle with Calvert County over zoning violations that has progressed to state and federal courts.

Last week, Circuit Court Judge Marjorie L. Clagett ruled that the church's counseling center and food pantry can stay open pending the federal litigation, marking the first blow to the county's case.

Calvert County's request for a preliminary injunction to shutter the Chesapeake Counseling Center and Chesapeake Cares Food Pantry for failing to obtain the proper permits and site plans since the center opened in 2005 was denied by Clagett because closing the ministry would cause more harm to county residents, the decision said. ..."
The story in the Washington Post does not clarify all that is going on here, but it does seem that the county is treating the food pantry like a business, requiring it to have a site plan and operating permit. The sticking point is the driveway that goes to the food pantry, which is located in a house on the church property. Apparently this driveway opens onto a busy street, and represents a danger. The church has a driveway that opens onto the same busy street. If the county has its way, then the clients of the food pantry and counseling center will drive through the church parking lot, and then follow a dirt road to the house in which the two ministries are located.