Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Here's a funny, crazy, scary little story for Halloween from the very talented, but over-the-top Christian fundamentalist Jack Chick.

And a review of the tract's Halloween historical inaccuracies from Joe Carter at the Evangelical Outpost.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Applying 1 Corinthians 8-10

In 1 Corinthians 8-10, the Apostle Paul gives an extended explanation of why Christians should not eat meat sacrificed to idols.

While that's not an issue here in the United States, there's much we can learn and apply from this portion of the Bible. Here are some principles I've extracted:

Chapter 8

Our logic should lead us to obedience in the Lord.
It's easy to rationalize our way into things that are wrong. That was the Corinthians problem. Paul taught them the Jerusalem Council decree--don't eat meat sacrificed to idols. But they argued, "Hey, idols are nothing--they're like counterfeit money, there's nothing to back them up. So no harm in eating such meat." Paul's reply is, "You're right, there are no gods except God, however there is a devil and he uses idols to bring people into bondage. Don't get entangled." If we use our logic to "wiggle out" of the Lord's commands, we'll end up suffering. As my aunt once said, "You don't break God's laws--rather, God's laws break you." Better then to use our reasoning powers to support obeying Him.

Love for others will limit our liberty.
The "wise" Corinthians were eating idol meat and this tripped up the "weaker" believers. For them, eating idol meat was reenacting their old pagan life. Even if the idols were "nothing," the "wiser" Corinthians should have been considerate of their brother and sister in Christ. In the same way today, we should be careful how we exercise our freedoms.

Chapter 9
Reaching people for Christ and growing a healthy church requires money.
Paul uses this chapter to tell the Corinthians, "Follow my example of limiting personal freedom." He explains that he was within his rights to receive money from the Corinthians for preaching, but he didn't, so no one would think he was preaching just for money. Instead, Paul made his living as a tent maker, selling his product in the marketplace. Even though Paul didn't collect money from the Corinthians, the fact remains--it takes money to get out the gospel message.

If you and I are going to reach people for Christ, we must discipline our life.
You don't become a champion athlete by sitting in front of the TV all day. You must have a routine. And not just any routine--one that gets you ready to compete and win. In the same way, we cannot reach for people for Jesus without making it a priority and daily living the life.

Chapter 10
God has put up "boundary lines" to protect and provide for us.
When God's Word says, "Don't do..." it's to protect us from sin's bondage and trouble. Too often we fret about what we can't do, yet we neglect to see and enjoy what we can do! God in Christ has given us freedom to enjoy life and all its blessings. Just like a cow in pasture-- inside the fence, there is plenty to eat. Outside the fence? Yeah, there's plenty of treats, but with it comes danger, because we left the protection of the fence.

There is a devil and he seeks to ruin your life.
When things go wrong, we're prone to blame God. What we forget is that there's a devil--he opposes us and God. Unless we realize this, life won't make sense. God is and will be victorious, but there's problems and struggles along the way.

In temptation, God always provides a way of escape.
Through His Word and by His Spirit, the Lord has given us the resources to escape Satan's snares. And sometimes, God will especially intervene on our behalf. In chapter 10, Paul is telling the Corinthians that by disobeying the command to not eat idol meat, they are testing the Lord-- daring the Lord to do something. Even in these dire circumstances, there is a way out of temptation.

Do everything to glorify God.
If there's only one application to 1 Corinthians 8-10, this is it. Paul says, "Follow me and follow Jesus." These were two living role models who did all for God's glory. Let this mindset be yours moment by moment.

Monday, October 29, 2007

You Never Know

A recent conversation reminded me of this quote and the importance of having a compassionate heart at all times:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

--Philo of Alexandria

Friday, October 26, 2007

Obama Facing Concert Critique from Gay Rights Groups

United Church of Christ member and Presidential candidate Barack Obama is facing criticism from segments of the gay rights community as his South Carolina campaign begins a weekend series of Gospel concerts in order to reach religious voters in the state.

The "EMBRACE THE CHANGE! Gospel Tour" takes place in three cities and features two popular artists who've spoken out against homosexuality-- Mary Mary and Donnie McClurkin-- a former homosexual who now renounces the lifestyle.

Gay rights groups, like Truth Wins Out, are upset the Obama campaign has not removed McClurkin from its list of performers. In response, an openly gay minister was added to the tour to give an invocation. And Obama himself issued the following:
I have clearly stated my belief that gays and lesbians are our brothers and sisters and should be provided the respect, dignity, and rights of all other citizens... I strongly believe that African Americans and the LGBT community must stand together in the fight for equal rights. And so I strongly disagree with Reverend McClurkin's views and will continue to fight for these rights as President of the United States to ensure that America is a country that spreads tolerance instead of division.
Still, that statement hasn't completely satisfied Joe Solmonese, President of Human Rights Watch, who made the following statement on Thursday:
I spoke with Sen. Barack Obama today and expressed to him our community’s disappointment for his decision to continue to remain associated with Rev. McClurkin, an anti-gay preacher who states the need to ‘break the curse of homosexuality.’ There is no gospel in Donnie McClurkin’s message for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their allies. That’s a message that certainly doesn’t belong on any Presidential candidate’s stage.
But as a matter of policy, Obama supports every issue of concern to gay rights groups, short of same-sex marriage-- even while a Winthrop/ETV poll of African Americans in South Carolina shows that 74% view "sex between two adults of the same sex" as "unacceptable," with 62% calling it "strongly unacceptable." Certainly if elected, Obama will be a friend to gay civil rights groups.

So why are these same groups insistent that McClurkin be removed?

If one went so far as to look at this situation through the theological lens of the United Church of Christ, isn't Obama's campaign simply trying to bring people from all sides together, so that "all may be one"?

Donnie McClurkin and Mary Mary are demonstrating "tolerance" by associating their name with a candidate who supports the political agenda of gay rights groups.

The openly gay minister praying the invocation is showing "tolerance" by sharing the same stage with performers who believe homosexuality grieves the heart of God.

Where then is the "tolerance" of groups like Human Rights Watch and Truth Wins Out? If someone personally believes homosexual practices are wrong, yet wants to work with a politician who supports gay rights, why should that person be denied the ability to participate?

It goes to show: Exclusion is not just the exclusive work of political and religious conservatives.

UPDATE: The New York Times reports on McClurkin's concert appearance.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Links on the Intergoogle 10-24

It's a busy time at church, so quickly, here's a few interesting articles I've read recently:

Authentic spiritual life questions to ask your teenagers.

Now that 138 Muslims clerics sent a letter calling for peace to Pope Benedict XVI, they should send a similar letter to fellow Muslims bent on terrorism.

Any Christian who has despaired over sexual sin must read this word of hope from John Piper.

An influential evangelical Christian explains why he's supporting Mitt Romney over Rudi Guiliani.

Good advice from Douglas Wilson about sin and the Lord's Supper.

A friend's perspective on Malibu Presbyterian Church burning down due to recent California fires.

A good message to all "value voters"
from Jim Wallis.

Preeminent Illinois mega church Willow Creek admits need to change its way of spiritual formation.

Monday, October 22, 2007

My Take on 1 Corinthians 8-10

Often times I've hear preachers say, "We need to be a New Testament church." It sure sounds good. But I doubt these ministers are thinking of a New Testament church like Corinth, who had lots of problems--open divisions, immorality, disregard for authority, doubts about the resurrection, and more.

Chapters 8-10 in 1 Corinthians deals with the question of whether it's proper or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. While this is a relevant question in some countries today, it certainly is not in our American society. Partly for that reason, these three chapters have baffled me over the years-- what the heck is Paul saying and why? I basically ignored it. But when you have to stand up before people and preach the text, let's just say that the fear of looking like a fool drives you to study the text a little bit closer.

So here's my brief summary of 1 Corinthians 8-10.

When the Jerusalem Council figured out how Gentiles can participate in the Jewish-Christian faith, it was decided that believers should not eat meat sacrificed to idols. When Paul established the Corinthian church, it's likely that he taught that point.

But now the Corinthians-- who took pride in their knowledge-- have written Paul and in essence said, "Hey, you've overlooked an important fact. Idols are actually nothing. Sure, the statue represents a god, but we know it doesn't actually exist. Idols then are like counterfeit money-- there's nothing to back it up. So why get uptight about eating idol meat?"

Back in the 1st century, eating meat was a tasty luxury. Common folks could rarely afford it. In addition, Corinth didn't have fast food restaurants. The only place to "eat out" was at local the pagan temple and its large dining halls. Consequently, this was the social gathering place for much of the city.

Paul's response begins in chapter 8 with this: Even if the idols are nothing, you shouldn't eat idol meat out of consideration for your fellow believer, who may get tripped up by your behavior. Love limits liberty.

Chapter 9 seems to have no connection with what precedes or follows. But Paul is providing a personal example of someone who limits his liberty for the sake of others. So that the Good News of Jesus may be heard without hindrance, Paul says he chose not to collect money from his listeners. Usually this was the case with philosophy speakers in the Roman-Greco world. "Follow my example of limiting liberty" is Paul's message to the Corinthians. He does this because he's focused on being faithful to God and running a race to win.

Then in chapter 10, Paul forcefully makes his point about avoiding idol meat. First, he appeals to Old Testament history. God blessed the Israelites by leading them out of the promised land, but they disobeyed God and ended up dying in the wilderness. Like them, you Corinthians enjoy the blessing of God. But if you continue to disregard the Lord, you will pay a severe price. Ironically, the Israelites in the wilderness and the Corinthians were complaining about the same thing-- meat. Second, Paul says that just as the Lord's Supper has a real spiritual significance behind it-- namely Jesus, so does the meals in honor of idols. While it's true the idols themselves are nothing, the Corinthians failed to consider the reality of demons at work in the idols. However, Paul does go on to say that in cases where there's no explicit connection made between meat and idols, you are free to buy in the marketplace or in someone's home.

In summary, Paul exhorts the Corinthians: "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (10:31). He says follow my personal example and follow also the example of Christ-- who willing ate with sinners, declared food clean, and personally limited his liberty to such an extent he died on a cross.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Richard Thompson's "Sweet Warrior"

Richard Thompson is a guitarist I've admired for a long, long time. Back in 1985, I saw him and his band at a small club in Columbus, Ohio and was blown away at his skill and artistry.

"Sweet Warrior," Thompson's latest offering, illustrates why Rolling Stone magazine named him one of the 20 best guitarists of all time. Tasteful chops amidst great songs, it's an entertaining blend of celtic-pop rock.

The tunes I most enjoy are... well... all of them.

If you enjoy good singer, songwriter type artists, check out Mr. Thompson.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Know a Homophone?

Yesterday my 3rd grade child asked me to help with homework. The assignment was to identify homophones.

Homo... what?


Golly, I don't remember studying this stuff in 3rd grade. How did get kids so smart?

Homophones are words that sound alike, though frequently are spelled differently, and have different meanings.

For example, there are several homophones in the following sentence:

If you buy a piece of wood at the store, and then eight more, you'll have a lot of money due.

Do you see them? The homophones are:


My 3rd grader had to find homophones in 10 sentences. The paper assigned a goal of at least 40. We could only find 33.

This assignment with words is fun. In fact, here's a homophone dictionary.

Today, how many homophones can you see?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

My View of Justification

Years ago at Dallas Seminary my professor of Romans, Harold Hoehner, made what I thought was a pretty bold statement:
"The Gospel is not, 'Jesus will pay for your sins if you believe,' nor is it, 'Jesus will pay for your sins if you believe hard enough.' Rather, the Gospel is this: 'Jesus has paid for your sins. You are forgiven. Will you believe?'"
Dr. Hoehner made this declaration as we were studying Romans 3:21-26. His point about justification was that the provision of God's righteousness in Jesus Christ's death has satisfied God for both the sins of the past and the present. Anyone then who believes in God's provision in Jesus acquires a right standing before God.

I've never forgotten the statement and since that time I've adopted it as my own.

Little did I know that this view about justification is rooted in my Lutheran heritage. Gene Edward Veith-- author, culture editor at World Magazine, and educator at Concordia Theological Seminary, writes at his blog Cranach that this is actually:
"... a neglected teaching of Lutheran orthodoxy: the doctrine of objective justification. Christ has already justified the world. Each person now needs "subjective justification," the personal appropriation of Christ's work. But we can look at each person we see, including non-Christians, as one of Christ's redeemed children."
Inclusivism, sometimes called pluralism, is a misguided, but growing belief in the mainline church that asserts that everyone is already saved. It's off-base because it neglects the necessity of faith in Jesus, without which it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Even the world's best known Bible verse, John 3:16, makes plain the necessity of faith in Jesus and the consequence of not trusting him.

Through the cross, Jesus has accomplished everything necessary for our forgiveness. God is thoroughly satisfied with the atoning work of His son. The table is set for reconciliation.

Have you believed?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Memory-- Long Lost, Long Remembered

Yesterday I went to our local nursing home to do visitation. Over two hours, I sat and spoke to about eight people.

When you get old, your memory isn't what it used to be. You can't carry on much of a conversation. Sometimes too, you just don't have the energy to say much. Then, it can get compounded when the annoying preacher stops by, so he can tell the church he's doing his job.

Many of the people I visit I've known for years. I knew them when they lived in their own homes, came to church each week, and carried on engaging conversations. These dear people are incredibly interesting and full of fascinating accomplishments.

But now their memories are largely gone. My 100 year old friend doesn't remember my name anymore. My long time member doesn't know what day it is. Another spends most of the day sitting in a chair fidgeting.

So I come by and I start talking-- about the weather outside, about the yard work I just completed, or something funny my children did. In response, my old friends give a smile, a chuckle or two, or a short verbal response. They're listening, but it's me carrying the conversation.

But yesterday I was particularly struck by what my friends still remember. When I read Psalm 23, I saw lips repeating the words. When I said the Lord's prayer, another voice joined in. When I sang "Amazing Grace," a face grinned ear-to-ear. Much has been forgotten, but much is still there.

I went home wondering, "If I make it to their age, what will I remember?"

I'm sure I'll forget a lot.

But I pray I'll remember the One who promises never to forget me.

Monday, October 15, 2007

An Interesting UCC Theologian

Though I often wince at the things said by United Church of Christ pastors and theologians, I've also encountered several who are thoughtful, creative, and orthodox.

One is Donald Bloesch, Professor of Theology Emeritus at Dubuque Seminary in Iowa. His seven volume systematic theology and his earlier work, "Essentials of Evangelical Theology" are excellent resources. I've read both with great profit and edification.

Another interesting person is Dr. Willis E. Elliott. An ordained UCC and American Baptist minister, he's a self-described, "contrarian Christian." Elliott always brings to the table a unique angle to any issue.

For example, check out his answer to this Washington Post's "On Faith" question: "Do you believe in life after death? Have you ever been visited by the spirit of a dead relative or friend? Do such visions or visitations have any theological meaning?"

Elliott' answer is creative, spot on, and best of all, makes you think.

Friday, October 12, 2007

That'll Show You

The other week my preschool son and I were shopping at the huge Stuff Mart. I was filling water bottles and my son was standing on top of the seat of the shopping cart.

Then, a Stuff Mart associate walked by. Seeing my son standing, she stopped and said, "Young man, you can't do that. You need to sit down. Otherwise, you could get hurt."

My son sat down, turned to the lady who was now walking away, and muttered to himself in anger,

"No birthday cake for you!"

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Hearst About to Burst

But that won't stop us from trying, huh?

Actually, the stunt is a promotion for John Ortberg's new book, "When the Game is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Kingdom Right Here On Earth

"I want all of you to pray that I can be an instrument of God... We're going to keep on praising together. I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth."

Which candidate for President made this statement over the weekend?

Was it former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee? Nope.

Could it have been the dedicated Mormon and Republican Mitt Romney? No.

How about social conservative and Catholic Sam Brownback? It's not him either.

Or, John McCain, a former Episcopalian and now Baptist? Wrong again.

It was none other than Barack Obama, Democratic hopeful and United Church of Christ (UCC) member.

Obama made the remark during a 15 minute speech at Pentecostal megachurch Redemption World Outreach Center, in Greenville, South Carolina, on Sunday, October 7.

Create a Kingdom right here on Earth.

Now if George Bush (or any front running Republican) made this statement, the media pundits would be in a foaming frenzy of outrage and condemnation:
Why, he wants to turn the United States into a theocracy!
Instead, the media commentators are giving Obama a pass. Liberal policies will do that.

Still, it's interesting listening to Obama's religious rhetoric on the campaign trail and comparing it to the way faith is typically expressed within his denomination.

For instance, Obama told the multicultural audience at Redemption World Outreach about his work years ago in Chicago as a community organizer of churches:
I thought I was coming to save a ministry but in fact I was being saved, and I accepted Jesus Christ into my life.
When do you hear anything like that at United Church of Christ meetings? Talk of redemption and salvation through Jesus? Frankly, it'd do the UCC a lot of good. But that's the language of conservatives and evangelicals, who'd appreciate this saying from Obama-- that is, if he wasn't a liberal:
These days, when people ask me, ‘What role does religion play in your work?’ – You’re running for president of the United States, the leader of the free world. What role does faith play? It plays every role.
Every role?

Again, does anyone hear this kind of talk within the UCC? If a Republican said this, how many UCC people would be-- let's put it in political terms-- deeply concerned?

On the other hand, Obama paints a vision of unity where people from all sides join together to solve common problems:
As I travel around the country I feel hopeful and optimistic. There's God's spirit in each and everyone of us that's waiting to be released and to be let out... He wants us to join together and break the partisan divisions.
That certainly is UCC language, a hope expressed in the logo, "That They May All Be One" (John 17:21).

With his religious campaign rhetoric, Obama is reestablishing something Democrats have ignored for years-- the relationship between faith and politics. Whether Obama's strategy of reaching a broad spectrum of Christians succeeds or not, op-ed columnist Michael Gerson of the Washington Post has some good advice for any politician who seeks to baptize their agenda in religious rhetoric:
The essential humanism of Christianity requires an active, political concern about human dignity and the rights of the poor and weak. But faith says little about the means to achieve those ideals. The justice of welfare reform or tax cuts or moving toward socialized medicine is measured by the outcome of these changes. And those debates cannot be short-circuited by the claim "Thus sayeth the Lord," spoken by the Christian Coalition or the United Church of Christ.
Create a kingdom right here on earth. How?

That is why we have elections.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


That's the magic number.

To maintain a church building and employ a full-time pastor, a local church needs at least $85,000 a year in its budget.

This statistic was cited by Dr. David Greenhaw, President of Eden Seminary, who spoke to delegates at a workshop during the annual meeting of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, September 28-30, in Wichita.

In 24 out of 38 conferences in the United Church of Christ, more than 50% of their churches have budgets under $85,000. In this case, the Southern and New York Conferences have the greatest number of churches, followed by Missouri-Mid-South and Indiana-Kentucky.

Florida, Connecticut, Southwest, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, California-Nevada Southern, California-Nevada Northern, Penn Southeast, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Penn Northeast, Penn Central are the only conferences where the majority of their churches have budgets over $85,000.

Whatever shape the UCC takes in the future, small churches will be a large contributor.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

What's Right about the Mainline Church

For the last 40 years, the mainline church has suffered significant decline.

So says Dr. David Greenhaw, President of Eden Seminary, during a workshop at the UCC Kansas-Oklahoma conference meeting in Wichita, September 28-30.

But Greenhaw has hope for the mainline's future.

The key, he says, is to lift up three hallmarks that characterize mainline churches:

1) Faith that is bound to thought.
Mainline churches are unafraid to ask the most difficult questions about God and the world. There is freedom to explore such questions and answer them in ways without fear of reprisal. Scholarship and critical thinking are cherished values. Doubt is a pathway to faith and knowledge.

2) Faith that is bound to social responsibility.
Mainline churches have a social conscience. They take seriously Jesus' command to love our neighbor. Historically, it was people in mainline churches who fought against slavery, injustices to workers during the industrial revolution, and advocated equality during the civil rights movement. As Greenhaw related, "We give the needy a cup of cold water and then we go on to ask why there isn't enough water."

3) Faith that is bound to understanding the other.
Mainline churches are ecumenical. They seek out connections with people not like themselves. Dialogue is important-- between other Christians (National Council of Churches) and other faiths (Muslims, Hindus, etc.). "We don't view others as unworthy," says Greenhaw, "but different and without denigration."

These are three definite strengths of the mainline church.

I would suggest that in order for these characteristics to lead the way in turning around the mainline church, it's critical that they be protected by boundaries. As Episcopal leader Caroline Westerhoff explains in her seminal work "Good Fences," boundaries enable us to define who we are and in turn welcome people into something that is truly distinct.

In application, the mainline church must maintain its distinctive strengths by not allowing those strengths to become the very thing that weakens it:

1) Faith and critical thought should not end up creating a Gospel that has no historical continuity.
In a First Things article entitled, "An Unworkable Theology," Episcopal priest Phillip Turner observes that there's a vast difference between the confessed creeds of the mainline church and its actual working theology. In practice, Turner contends the mainline is adopting a Gospel that lacks continuity with the faith once delivered (Jude 3). Does our faith have non-negotiable essentials, or is everything up for grabs? Freedom of thought that leads to a radical redefinition of the Gospel certainly proves that we're free, but is it faithful or responsible?

2) Faith and social responsibility should not end up being solely whatever gets said by the Democratic Party.
Here, evangelicals are equally guilty, for their political beliefs often mirror Republican policies. Evangelicals' major concern is life. Mainliners' passion is the poor and oppressed. Could it be that God cares about both? Somehow, the church needs to avoid looking like shells for our preferred political party.

3) Faith and understanding the other should not lead us to say, "We have no differences."
Sometimes, inter-faith dialogue has led some to say, "Christians and Muslims worship the same God." That's not entirely accurate. While both trace their history to the God of Abraham, Christians and Muslims do not share a common understanding of who God is-- which is very evident in discussing the nature of Jesus. Christian faith is different than other religions. That distinction should be unashamedly retained as we dialogue with others about how we can all live together peaceably. Pop artist Charlie Peacock puts it well: "We're a whole different. A whole lot the same."

The mainline church has endured a challenging past.

But hope springs eternal.

What's Wrong with the Mainline Church?

40 years of unrelenting decline.

40 years of unrelenting decline.

No, I'm not repeating myself. Rather, I'm repeating what Dr. David Greenhaw, President of Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis said twice about the mainline church during a workshop at the annual meeting of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, held in Wichita, September 28-30.

Have you ever heard such honesty about the state of the mainline church?

While some might be able to ignore the situation, Greenhaw and other mainline education leaders cannot. Institutions are competing for a mainline pie that's getting smaller. They're staring directly at shrinking enrollments and budgets. If they don't do something different-- finding new ways to bring in students and balance budgets-- they won't last much longer. The crisis is now.

So what has contributed to the decline of the mainline church?

There are many factors, but Greenhaw believes the biggest is changing demographics.

According to Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College, the debate over Darwinism in the 1920's split the American church into two groups-- mainliners and evangelicals. "After the divorce," said Greenhaw, "the mainliners got the house and the kids." The mainline kept most the church buildings and the educational institutions. The evangelicals moved out. Meanwhile, a dramatic shift started in where people lived. In 1920, 67% of the US population lived in communities of 3,000 or less. 33% lived in places of 8,000 or more. But in 2000, 80% of us live in metropolitan communities, while only 20% live in rural places.

Greenhaw maintains that evangelicals moved to and settled into these rapidly growing population centers, while mainliners remained in the smaller areas-- places that got even smaller over the last 80 years.

Changing demographics is certainly one factor contributing to mainline decline.

But I would contend that there's a bigger factor-- one that that's not discussed enough:


More specifically, how people of faith read their Bible.

For Christians in 1925, wasn't the Scopes Monkey Trial actually a debate over how the Bible is authoritative? As Balmer observes, it ended up creating two distinct camps. Today, if you look at evangelicals and mainline Christians, you'll see more than just differences in style, you'll see real differences in how the Gospel is interpreted and proclaimed.

Differences that are influencing people's decisions on where they go to church.

NEXT TIME: What's Right about the Mainline Church?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

May Israel Defend Itself?

The PLO, Hamas, and Hezbollah have all vowed the destruction of Israel. If Israel has the right to exist and have sustained borders, what legitimate tools of self-defense are they entitled to use?

This was the question I asked Peter Makari during his workshop at the annual meeting of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, which met in Wichita, September 28-30. Makari is the lead Executive for the United Church of Christ's Global Ministries in the Middle East and Europe.

Makari's reply went something like this: The PLO signed a statement saying they recognize Israel's right to exist. Hamas has not, although there's a split within them. Some want peace. The radicals are on both sides. In Israel, there are Jews who don't want Palestinians to have their own country. Their voices are constantly in the press.

At that point I interjected: "But that's not the prevailing policy of Israel. That's certainly not the policy of Ehud Olmert's government. Meanwhile, you got Hamas and Hezbollah constantly launching rockets into Israel. Again, what legitimate tools are they entitled to use to defend themselves?"

Earlier in the conference, Makari described how Israel is heavily armed, possesses a nuclear bomb, and how the wall they built in the West Bank disrupts lives and violates internationally recognized borders.

An observation: Unlike bullets and bombs, the wall by itself doesn't kill anyone. And the wall has significantly curtailed suicide bombers inside Israel. The wall may not be the perfect solution, but it seems to be the least violent way Israel can protect itself.

Markari wouldn't answer my question.

Which kind of answers the question.

But I'm still going to keep asking.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Individual Beliefs Among UCC Groups

From the beginning, the United Church of Christ (UCC) has been a non-creedal denomination. It is guided by testimonies, not tests of faith. Beyond the confession that Jesus Christ is the head of the church, you basically have the freedom to believe whatever you want.

While the UCC offers tremendous personal autonomy for the individual, when you come into a group, the individual has to compromise some of his or her beliefs in order to be together with others. Certainly, individuals contribute to the life of the group, but no one individual sets the group's agenda. Especially in the UCC, ours is not authority in hierarchy. We speak to, not for each other.

While an individual can consider and weigh competing ideas, in the end, a person must live by an overall principal. If not, you're a hypocrite at best, or at worst, a schizophrenic-- split and unable to function. The same thing is true of groups. Groups must live by an overarching principal. Otherwise, you have chaos or anarchy.

I make those psychological and sociological observations to say this: Even in a place like the UCC where individual autonomy is cherished, when UCC people come together in a group, there must be a predominant guiding belief that directs the group's common life.

This is true with any UCC group-- a local church, conference, and General Synod. Individually, UCC people have their beliefs-- and collectively, so do UCC groups. By being part of the group, you're in covenant to be part of the conversation.

Why do I say all this? Because in the UCC's quest to honor individual autonomy, we neglect the fact that UCC groups take on a life of their own, guided by their own beliefs and practices.

At this point, some of you might be thinking, "duh," but it's a significant observation for someone like myself, whose evangelical beliefs are not held by most UCC folks. My individual beliefs will find little representation in a UCC group setting. Yes, they'll be respected (most of the time), but in a group, no one person-- me included-- is entitled to a hearing. Yes, you may have your own beliefs, but the group is also going to have its own beliefs. The minority may voice its opinion, but the majority opinion will always direct the group.

If there's a group value I saw on display at the the annual meeting of the United Church of Christ Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, which met over the weekend in Wichita, it's a commitment to the "inclusive gospel," which Episcopal priest Phillip Turner rightly argues is not a proper understanding of the Gospel contained in Scripture.

Basically, the inclusive gospel declares that God loves everyone and we in turn should love and welcome everyone. This is how I saw that group belief on display at our annual meeting:
  • Nobody is going to hell.
  • Everyone is saved, whether they know it or not.
  • Jesus did not come to give salvation, but enlightenment.
  • The Great Commandment is to love your neighbor.
I appreciate the UCC's tradition that gives me the freedom to believe whatever I want. But when the core of your beliefs are vastly different from those of the group-- as mine have been over my 11+ years-- I honestly wonder how much longer I can continue in this covenant.

UPDATE: This article has been rewritten for a larger audience at