Monday, October 30, 2006

The Phoenix Affirmations

In light of the political arena where in the past there have been many conservative voices, more and more progressive Christians are beginning to find their own voice. One such group of progressive and moderate Christians have joined together to affirm their beliefs in what they call The Phoenix Affirmations. Here is what they have to say:

As people who are joyfully and unapologetically Christian, we pledge ourselves completely to the way of Love. We work to express our love, as Jesus teaches us, in three ways: by loving God, neighbor, and self.

(Matt 22:34-40 // Mk 12:28-31 // Lk 10:25-28; Cf. Deut 6:5; Lev. 19:18)

Christian love of God includes:

1. Walking fully in the path of Jesus, without denying the legitimacy of other paths God may provide humanity;

2. Listening for God’s Word which comes through daily prayer and meditation, studying the ancient testimonies which we call Scripture, and attending to God’s present activity in the world;

3. Celebrating the God whose Spirit pervades and whose glory is reflected in all of God’s Creation, including the earth and its ecosystems, the sacred and secular, the Christian and non-Christian, the human and non-human;

4. Expressing our love in worship that is as sincere, vibrant, and artful as it is scriptural.

Christian love of neighbor includes:

5. Engaging people authentically, as Jesus did, treating all as creations made in God’s very image, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental ability, nationality, or economic class;

6. Standing, as Jesus does, with the outcast and oppressed, the denigrated and afflicted, seeking peace and justice with or without the support of others;

7. Preserving religious freedom and the Church’s ability to speak prophetically to government by resisting the commingling of Church and State;

8. Walking humbly with God, acknowledging our own shortcomings while honestly seeking to understand and call forth the best in others, including those who consider us their enemies;

Christian love of self includes:

9. Basing our lives on the faith that, in Christ, all things are made new, and that we, and all people, are loved beyond our wildest imagination – for eternity;

10. Claiming the sacredness of both our minds and our hearts, recognizing that faith and science, doubt and belief serve the pursuit of truth;

11. Caring for our bodies, and insisting on taking time to enjoy the benefits of prayer, reflection, worship and recreation in addition to work;

12. Acting on the faith that we are born with a meaning and purpose; a vocation and ministry that serves to strengthen and extend God’s realm of love.

Go here to read more.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The God of Awe

Writing as a commentary to the Job lectionary reading for this week, Annie Dillard explains God’s response to Job’s demand for an answer to his trials,

"God is spirit, spirit expressed infinitely in the universe, who does not give as the world gives. His home is absence, and there he finds us. In the coils of absence we meet him by seeking him. God lifts our souls to their roots in his silence…This God does not direct the universe, he underlies it…The more we wake to holiness, the more of it we give birth to, the more we introduce, expand and multiply it on earth, the more God is ‘on the field’"). There is a "god" who is dead and perhaps that is the one we have assumed at the center of our lives: ‘that tasking and antiquated figure who haunts children and repels strays, who sits on the throne of judgment frowning and figuring, and who with the strength of his arm dishes out human fates, in the form of cancer or cash, to 5.9 billion people – to teach, dazzle, rebuke, or try us, one by one, and to punish or reward us, day by day, for our thoughts, words, and deeds’.

taken from “Holy Sparks: A Prayer for the Silent God” in Best Spiritual Writing 2000.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The New Order of Worship

When Sherry Taylor met with the Pastoral Relations Committee last night, she encouraged me to use this blog as a space to explain why we do the things we do. This can give you, the reader, an opportunity to know that for the most part, there is a method to my madness.

How fortunate I feel to be your pastor! You put up with a host of fun, new, innovative, and sometimes weird things and ideas from me. But I mustn't take all the credit, often whenever a new idea or a new way to do things finally makes it to the congregation in worship, it has been viewed and reviewed by the Board of Deacons. Actually, both Ann and I have worked together on almost all of the new ideas (save the movement of the pews- and that we talked about beforehand, we just didn't actually decide on anything).

As you look at the new Order of Worship, you will find that it now has new categories. Following examples in the UCC's Book of Worship and altered to fit our congregational needs, the bulletin now has these subject headings:

Gathering for the Word
which includes our Welcoming, Call to Worship, Prayer of Invocation, Processional Hymn and the Choral Introit

Imagining the Word
this is the place where we'll put a children's sermon, a liturgy, or skit

Hearing the Word
which includes both the Scripture reading and the Choral Anthem

Responding to the Word
here we have the Call to Offering and the Offertory, the Doxology or Hymn of Praise, the Prayer of Dedication, the Passing of the Peace, and the Song of Celebration

Touching the Word
the sermon goes here followed by the Pastoral Prayer, the prayers of the people, the Lord's Prayer, and the choral Amen.

Sending with the Word
which includes the Recessional Hymn, the Commissioning and/or Blessing, and the Choral Response.

Another change you have noticed is the placement of the Announcements. It used to be at the beginning of worship. It was moved to the Coffee Hour that immediately follows worship because we discovered that the announcements were taking 10-15 minutes. By the time Worship actually started, we were worn out. And, the longer announcements meant that the overall service was running over 10-15 minutes (or longer!).

All in all, the change in the worship is meant to enhance 'the flow' of the service where one part leads into the next in as seamless a manner we can find that builds and ebbs and empowers. This can be tricky and takes some adjusting from time to time. Fortunately Ann and I work great together. We'll try and try again to help make the service as special and spiritual beneficial to all who gather on Sundays.

Pastoral Relations Committee

Last night, Sherry Taylor, the NJ Association Conference Minister met with the newly formed Pastoral Relations Committee and myself. Together we learned exactly what the PRC is and what it is supposed to do.

Sherry laid to rest a few myths about the committee itself. It isn't a committee that church members goes to complain about things. It is a committee that encourages a relationship between church members and their pastor- if a concern is raised, they will help church members approach the pastor together.

The committee also doesn't act on behalf of the pastor to the congregation; it does act with the pastor in offering insight into the life of the congregation as well as give history about the people and their traditions.

The committee doesn't judge the pastor or communicate gripes to him; the committee does work with the pastor to help make the most of the relationship by allowing both sides to communicate freely and confidentially.

Let us all support the Pastoral Relations Committee for their volunteering to create and make this committee a wonderful complement to the relationship between the church body and their pastor (me). ;) The members of the new committee are Bob Hargrove, Jr., Opal Horvat, Dot Pontician, Ed Minkler, and Lauren Farrell.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Great Quote

I am preparing a book study tonight on John Spong's book, Living in Sin? Reading it, I found this great quote that I had to stop reading and put in a post. He said, "prejudice always masquerades itself as rationality until it is exposed."

Can I get an Amen?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Putting It All in Perspective

I received this note today from a friend. You may have seen one form or another of it before, it has circled around the Internet for quite awhile. Still, it bears thinking about. While I am not a statitician and cannot verify the accuracy of the numbers, even if the numbers are close, they tell us something incredible: Most of us are very fortunate, probably more fortunate than we might ever imagine. We truly have much to be grateful for.


If the population of the Earth was reduced to that of a small town with 100 people, it would look something like this:

57 Asians
21 Europeans
14 Americans (northern and southern)
8 Africans

52 women
48 men

70 colored-skins
30 Caucasians

89 heterosexuals
11 homosexuals

6 people would own 59% of the whole world wealth and all of them will be
from the United States of America

80 would have bad living conditions

70 would be uneducated

50 underfed

1 would die

2 would be born

1 would have a computer

1 (only one) will have higher education

When you look at the world from this point of view, you can see there is a real need for solidarity, understanding, patience and education.

Also think about the following This morning, if you woke up healthy, then you are happier than the 1 million people that will not survive next week.

If you never suffered a war, the loneliness of the jail cell, the agony of torture, or hunger, you are happier than 500 million people in the world.

If you can enter into a church (mosque) without fear of jail or death,
you are happier then 3 million people in the world.

If there is a food in your fridge,

you have shoes and clothes,

you have bed and a roof,

you are richer then 75% of the people in the world.

If you have bank account, money in your wallet and some coins in the money-box, you belong to the 8% of the people on the world, who are well-to-do.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What is the Emergent Church?

Church leaders and members alike are trying to find ways to allow the church to adapt and change as our culture is adapting and changing. For the traditionally minded, many are convinced that we shouldn't do anything new- all we are called to do is to recite the familiar messages that have been recited for centuries. To do otherwise is to compromise the Gospel and allow the culture to redefine the expression of our faith.

To the critics of tradition, there are those who say that culture has changed so dramatically in the last 50 years, that to not update our message will result in our churches dying off and become irrelevant to future generations. These critics point to statistics that explain that 80% of churches have plateaued in number and are now losing membership. Other critics show that with over 3,000 churches closing annually, something needs to be done to make the church seem and be more relevant than it is at the present time.

Those critics actually have a name. Within both evangelical and liberal circles, that name is Emergent. The emergent church is a canopy that includes those leaders and churches who are trying to reimagine what church can mean to a world that no longer finds itself identified as Christian as it has been identified in the past. Because the canopy of emergent is so wide and includes so many people and ideologies, here is a video of an interview with Mark Driscoll, an emergent pastor that actually has some reservations about the emergent process. In this video, he explains the different streams within the Emergent Church, what they are doing, and how to recognize them.

The Challenge in Bible Study

Robin Lovin, a professor of ethics at Southern Methodist University, wrote a revealing and honest portrayal of the discernment required when engaging Biblical texts in study or worship. He said,

The strange world of the Bible that Barth and Bonhoeffer wanted us to enter is not located in a particular place or time. But they were right to think that we cannot enter it as long as we suppose it is readily available to us, right where we are now. The hardest part for students is moving beyond the assumption that everybody else is just like us and always has been. Biblical scholarship cannot deliver the word of God by taking us to the biblical world, but it may help us to live a little less in our own comfortable, familiar world. When we ask, "What would Jesus do?" our efforts to follow in his steps will mean moving away from the place where we were when we first asked the question.


What Lovin has in mind reminds us of the challenge to find what Jesus meant by the words he spoke. It is always a temptation, I think, as we put ourselves in the place of the hearers of Jesus' words and to know exactly what Jesus meant. Given the cultural influence of his day and the reality that the disciples were hearing Jesus for the first time (unlike us who've heard his words throughout our lives), knowing what they "heard" is next to impossible. And yet, Jesus knew that when he spoke to them and his words were undoubtedly spoken in a way that his disciples could understand what they heard.

So for us today, going back to try and put ourselves in the place of the disciples is more than a challenge. And yet it is a challenge that we must do regardless of the pursuit-- doing otherwise (e.g., putting Jesus' words into our present-day context) may provide an unexpected result: completely transforming Jesus' words into something else entirely.

Go here to read Lovin's article and read how he explains the necessity that simply asking, "What would Jesus do?" is not enough.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Voices of Faith

I picked up Carter's book, Our Endangered Values at my local bookstore today. Former President Carter has become quite a prolific writer and moderate and discerning voice of faith in a auditorium of voices and noises that seem to reflect an "American faith" rather than the faith of our ancestors.

I am so looking forward to reading his insights and personal stories of faith. He is one heck of an American statesman.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Tithing made Illegal?

According to a NY federal judge, a person who has declared bankruptcy cannot make charitable contributions. More specifically, he said bankruptcy reforms passed by Congress last year bar individuals from making charitable contributions if they are also seeking bankruptcy protection.

Sen. Barak Obama has submitted a bill to allow for an exemption when making contributions to one's church. You can read more about that here.

I am amazed at a judge who would not take into account one's faith when making such a declaration; but then, one would have to wonder if a person who actually filed for bankruptcy was ever capable enough to be a tither too. Surely there are those who do so but in some sense, it makes me wonder if they may be "robbing Peter to pay Paul" in making and meeting their financial obligations.

And then there are those who have had to file for bankruptcy due to circumstances beyond their control. As more and more Americans find themselves living from one paycheck to the next, any unforseeable emergency or medical necessity can easily find themselves in debt. It makes one wonder how far our economic troubles go when the gab between the wealthiest and the poorest is so wide. Perhaps this is one more causality of our capitalism that seems so out of control, one wonders if the gap will only get wider and the troubles and problems of the poor will only continue to escalate.

The Fosdick Convocation

From October 23-26, I will be attending the 5th assembly of the Fosdick Convocation at The Riverside Church, in New York City. Fortunately I live close enough to drive in (or ride the bus).

The theme for the week will be "For the Living of These Days" and it will feature guest speakers that include the retiring James Forbes, Barbara Lunblad (my preaching professor from seminary, name-drop?), Brian McLaren (my fav emergent leader), Tony Campolo (that should be interesting), Garnder Taylor, Barbara Brown Taylor, Cornel West and many others. Bill Moyers will be the facilitator for the meeting.

You can read more about the convocation by going here.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Violent History: A Violent Now

Kathleen Rusnak is a pastor at the ECLA Lutheran church in Cresskill, NJ. Being a neighboring pastor, I was intriqued to discover that she has her own blog. In her last entry, she articulates an interesting similarity with the fundamentalist Muslims who want to force Christians to convert to Islam in relation to the Christian Crusades, where our ancestors of the faith demanded a similar conversion. It makes us think mightily how religion, power, and a self righteous determination can become a violent and dangerous mixture.

How we respond to such threats goes part and parcel with our Christian faith. What would Jesus do? (WWJD) is a popular mantra. A mantra that also fits us is "WWYD", What Would YOU Do? Acting and reacting with our faith and sensibilities, we are sometimes confronted with diameterically opposed solutions. Sure, Jesus would turn the other cheek. If we turn the other cheek, would that mean a forced conversion on our part or would we be begin another era of Christian martyrdom?

But more important to responding to such threats from extremists, how do we respond to peaceful muslims who want to dialogue and become acquainted with us? How do we find common grounds in which to share our faith and better understand our shared faith traditions? Perhaps we can meet at the table and discuss our common lot when it comes to using one's faith as a weapon of destruction instead of as an opportunity of peace. Many Christians have learned through the moral failings of our ancestors. How might we share what we've learned with those now in it?

Rusnak's post is good food for thought as she examines the similarities and asks us to be thoughtful in our response. Here is a brief excerpt of what she wrote:


Both Christian and Muslim estremists teach us something important. They have found the seeds of genocide in each of our faiths, and they have acted on them. One thing is for sure, neither of us can remain scriptural literalists any longer. These deadly passages, the theology that flows from them, cannot be ignored. The long theological and scriptural investigation, which already began in Christianity after the Holocaust, hopefully will begin for Islam now. That is our only hope!

Yes, extremists are ours. Both Christians and Muslims, both past and present, whom we would love to disown, but cannot. They are ours then and they are ours now. Only by this claiming can we repent. Only by this claiming can we change. Only by this claiming can we become whole.

Read the entire post here.

The Great Transformation

Karen Armstrong has a new book out titled, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions. Armstrong, who is noted for both her scholasticism and storytelling abilities, takes the reader on a readable review of the birth of the major religious traditions that still exist today.

Or, at least, that is what the review I just read said. I am going out to buy the book this afternoon.

Almost as impressive as the recommendation for Armstrong's book is the review itself of the book. You can read a portion of that below. At the end of the article, I'll provide a link to the full review.


The Great Transformation provides the reader with a way of isolating each of the major religions of the world and seeing how each tradition found its own way of addressing its individual challenges while still remaining wedded to a moral ideal that each expressed in terms of its own history and symbolic tradition. There is no attempt in the book to elide the complications and the difficulties that the innovators faced in their time. Figures like the Hebrew prophets; the Buddha and Confucius and their heirs; the Greek philosophers and tragedians; all rose in the context of crisis and conflict. The age was one of unrelenting war and bloodshed, of great and deep injustices and struggles. Their words and ideas were articulated in societies that often sought to reject them. As time went by, the innovations and the radicalism of these thinkers was, as Armstrong has already noted for us, co-opted by the mainstream and diluted – sometimes to the point of reversing the moral center of gravity demanded in the texts and pronouncements of these traditions.

In our Modern age we have seen an attempt to sublimate religious ideas and traditions with the concomitant result of finding resurgent and often intolerant forms of religion emerge in ways that have led to ever more violence and dysfunction. In spite of the attempts of humanists and academic scholars to lay out the historical context of Axial Age thought, the innate prejudices of the Modern against the values of the mythical and the spiritual, values that are often trumped in favor of the scientific and the technological, very frequently removes the moral aspects of our religious heritage from the current discourse on values.

Link to full review.

Serious Choices

This past Sunday I preached a sermon about Jesus' words--"If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off." Here is an excerpt:

It was one of the most gripping news stories of 2003. In the beautiful but desolate mountains of southeastern Utah, a twenty-seven year-old mountain climber named Aron Ralston, made a desperate decision. An avid outdoors man, Aron was rock climbing one day when his right arm became trapped under a boulder, a boulder estimated to weigh at least eight hundred pounds. He saw immediately that he was in deep trouble. Unable to budge the rock at all, Aron took out his pocketknife and chipped away at the rock for 10 hours, managing to produce only a small handful of dust. Obviously this was not going to work. Days were passing. No one knew where he was. Even worse, his family and friends were used to his going off for days without contacting anyone, so they were not even looking for him. With his arm still wedged beneath this enormous boulder Aron Ralston recorded a video message to his parents telling them good-bye.

At the end of several days with no food or water, however, Aron made a remarkable choice. Aron Ralston decided to amputate his arm in order to save himself. And that’s exactly what he did, using only a pocket knife. What an amazing display of courage and determination. After he was finished, he applied a tourniquet to his arm and rappelled nearly 70 feet to the floor of the canyon. Then he hiked five miles downstream where he encountered some other hikers and was rescued. Aron Ralston made the obviously excruciating decision to amputate his right arm to save his life.[1]

Who can read this story without thinking of Jesus’ words from our lesson for today, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell”? What a stark declaration. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” Is this on the same level as those societies that cut off the hands of thieves? We view that as barbaric. This is not the Jesus we prefer. We like a soft Jesus, one who talks like a guru from the 1960s about peace and love and how we are all God’s children. This harsher, more strident Jesus offends our live-and-let-live sensibilities. Obviously Jesus did not mean literally that we are to cut off an offending appendage. Still, the words convey an earnestness that we ought to heed. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”

Sometimes in life we have to choose. Isn’t that what Jesus is saying? You really can’t have it all. Sometimes you have to choose. Aron Ralston certainly made a choice--sacrifice his arm in order to save his life. There are choices that must be made in life and those choices determine our destiny.

[1] Dave Burchett, Bring ‘Em Back Alive–A Healing Plan for Those Wounded by the Church (WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO, 2004).