Archive for November, 2018

“…Study War No More…”

Recently our grandson graduated from Coast Guard Intelligence School. A large delegation of his family (including Dianna and me) attended the event. The trip over Veterans Day weekend took us near historical sites from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War. Our family found ourselves experiencing an extended US history seminar  during the weekend of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending World War I on November 11, 1918.

In this country, Armistice Day evolved into our Veterans Day holiday. We honor all who have served in our country’s armed forces. The church where we worshiped that Sunday recognized veterans who were present. Many religious and secular events throughout the weekend offered veterans well-deserved recognition and appreciation for their service.

As a rule, I don’t believe patriotic observances belong in Sunday worship.   The church is not a patriotic organization. But the 100th anniversary of “the war to end all war” and “make the world safe for democracy” offered a significant “teachable moment” for the church. How do followers of the Prince of Peace manage the tension between being citizens of a nation (USA, Mexico, etc.) and citizens of God’s Kingdom? How does the church exist in a particular place and time and also honor our commitment to Christ that transcends all human and national boundaries? The church where we worshiped on Veterans Day recognized and thanked the veterans present. They remembered and gave thanks for those who had died in combat; they asked God to bless and protect those currently serving. AND THAT WAS ALL. 

The teaching moment came and went–in that congregation and, I’m afraid, in thousands of others. When the church’s patriotic observance merely mirrors secular ceremonies, we’ve failed to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ whom we call “Prince of Peace”. When we fail to share our message of transforming revolutionary hope for all humanity and all creation, we fail to be the Church. The difference between the Church of Jesus Christ and the service at the cemetery or the Legion Hall is, after all–JESUS CHRIST!

I believe an authentically Christian observance would move from grateful remembrance toward Proclamation of Good News: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15). “Repent” means far more than “Sorry.” It means “Turn around. Choose a new direction. ” “Repent/Turn Around” is Good News because it affirms that we can turn. We can change. We can become New Creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). What if Veterans Day worship invited all within reach to turn away from “studying war” toward “the things that lead to peace…” (Luke 19:42 CEB). We learned on our trip that approximately 650,000 people had died in the Civil War–about 2% of the nation’s population! This chart documents war’s death toll over many centuries. Some figures are careful approximations, of course. But these hundreds of millions of senseless deaths tell the shameful story of our continuing inhumanity to one another. More than 13 million people died in World War I, 69 million in World War II–and they’re just the tip of the iceberg. These figures include all God’s precious children who’ve died as a result of war–not only soldiers, but all the noncombatants who are warfare’s “collateral damage”. No, I didn’t add up the grand total. I didn’t want to know that number.  Let us repent of this horrific obscenity–before “studying war” is the death of us all! Let us rather share, pray, and work toward God’s dream for God’s world:

“They will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.
All will sit underneath their own grapevines, under their own fig trees. There will be no one to terrify them;              for the mouth of the LORD of heavenly forces has spoken.”—Micah 4:3-4 (CEB)

A faith-full Veterans Day observance might move from Remembrance to Repentance to Renewal. As we said, the call to “Repent” is hollow without a meaningful possibility to which we can “Turn”.  Visionary Easter faith sees possibility even for folks like us who thought “studying war” was our only option. Easter faith sees light-years beyond “thanks for your service” to the Risen Christ’s promise that “I am making all things new…” (Revelation 21:5) When did we last proclaim that Good News on Veterans Day or Memorial Day? The promise sounds wonderfully, impossibly good. We don’t dare believe it. We dare not turn fully toward the Light of God’s New Day. We dare not “pray without ceasing” for the prophet’s dream of peace to fill the earth. We close our ears to Jesus’ disappointed “O ye of little faith” (Matthew 8:26). We offer no altar call for peacemakers in the spirit of Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” . (Matthew 5:9) Altar calls, after all, are risky business. What if nobody steps up–even me??

This turned out to be about much more than Veterans Day, didn’t it? Like so much of our Christian life, growth means choosing between the status quo we know and love and the “new thing” just coming into view. What if we believe those ancient prophets? What if we make their inspired vision our own? What if we energetically pursue the blessing of becoming peacemakers? Most of all, how do we get from here to there–and invite our neighbors?

Rick Love is a pastor whose ministry invites Christians, Jews, and Muslims to the same table–for coffee and tea, a good meal that observes everyone’s dietary restrictions, and honest discussions about what they have in common, where they differ, and how they can live together peacefully. Rick says Romans 12:18 is the key verse for practical peacemaking in the Spirit of Jesus: “If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.” (CEB) In this video, he talks about what he calls “Peacemaking for Dummies”.

The implications of that verse would take me at least another thousand words–but not now! It will start a journey from business-as-usual to repentance toward renewal and re-creation. I invite you to spend some time with this sentence. Focus on each phrase. Start a conversation with one or a few others about how this might impact your life and relationships. If you dare, include folks whose worldviews differ from yours. Try not to yell! Expect to be surprised by what’s “possible”; by how “best” your “ability” becomes when it’s Spirit-empowered; by the depth of the “peace” you share; by the way your life is enriched as your circle of “all people” grows. `





Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God…” Romans 12:2 NRSV

Galadriel’s opening words in the movie The Lord of the Rings sound like someone (me!) reeling from an overdose of Breaking News: “The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost, for none now live who remember it.”

Civil conversation may be doomed to become part of “much that once was”. Respectful dialog across political, religious, and ideological divisions is fast becoming the exception rather than the rule. We arrogantly insist we’re completely right and “they” are totally wrong. We talk at each other rather than with each other. We yell our case at “them” and close our ears to their equally harsh response. Legislators dare not reach across the aisle, lest their colleagues accuse them of political treason. Ideological fault lines divide neighbors, families, co-workers, school classmates, and churches. Toxic polarization stifles common sense and common courtesy. It suffocates the wisdom and creativity that could give birth to new ideas, new dreams, and a new future.

We who follow the Prince of Peace often get swept up in these waves of social change. Church history includes ugly chapters like the Crusades, in which thousands of Christians and Muslims died, and the Inquisition, a 12th-century anti-heresy pogrom. More recently Christians have fought bitterly and sometimes violently over women’s rights, slavery, racial equality, biblical interpretation, human sexuality, and more. Both liberals and conservatives have weaponized the Bible against “the other side”. “If you’re not reading the Bible through our God-given set of religious and cultural lenses,” we holler across the ideological chasm, “you’re reading it upside down and inside out. Good luck with that!” Our churchy conflicts use and abuse scripture, often with reckless abandon. Our razor-sharp holier-than-thou language punishes our misguided brothers and sisters in Christ. Our conflicts can be as vicious and damaging as any dust-up at the neighborhood bar, the city council or school board, or a family celebration gone south. You know, that time an inadvertent (or not!) remark triggered a nuclear meltdown whose fallout still poisons the atmosphere at every gathering of the clan.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” In other words– People of faith, we’re better than that! Yet our church fights mostly conform to the faultlines fragmenting our society. In the face of revolutionary change we choose “the way we’ve always done it” over “the renewing of our minds” by the power of the Holy Spirit. We beat each other with our Bibles, proclaim that our side alone has the truth, and question the sincerity and even the salvation ofthose who dare to disagree with us—and thus (obviously) with God! Currently the United Methodist Church (UMC) is caught up in such a struggle over its theology of human sexuality. Some of our leaders have set an example of respectful and meaningful conversations despite significant differences. Bishop Robert Hoshibata is leading another helpful series of Holy Huddles in our Desert Southwest Annual Conference. These events offer opportunities for clergy and laity to speak honestly and listen deeply to each other. But will this spirit infuse and transform the grassroots of the UMC’s thousands of local churches? Or will our “conformity” to the world’s winner-take-all ways prove devastating for many churches, communities, and individuals?

Recently I’ve been learning about a transforming way called “Generous Orthodoxy”. What?? Yes, “Generous orthodoxy” sounds like an oxymoron—two words headed so far in opposite directions that they can’t possibly stay together. Our traditional, cramped understanding of “orthodoxy” fuels that conclusion. But some wise folks are exploring ways that “generous orthodoxy” might be an idea whose time has come.

Theologian Hans Frei may have originated the term. He envisioned the possibility of “…a kind of generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism…like the Christian Century [a liberal theological journal] and an element of evangelicalism…like Christianity Today [a similar conservative journal]. I don’t know if there is a voice between these two…if there is, I would like to pursue it.”

Anglican preacher and theologian Fleming Rutledge goes deeper: “…ortho-doxy (Greek for “right doctrine”)…has come to sound constricted and unimaginative at best, oppressive and tyrannical at worst…we cannot do without orthodoxy, for everything else must be tested against it, but that orthodox (traditional, classical) Christian faith should by definition always be generous as our God is generous; lavish in his creation, binding himself in an unconditional covenant, revealing himself in the calling of a people, self-sacrificing in the death of his Son, prodigal in the gifts of the Spirit, justifying the ungodly and indeed, offending the “righteous” by the indiscriminate nature of his favor. True Christian orthodoxy therefore cannot be narrow, pinched, or defensive but always spacious, adventurous and unafraid.” She echoes Frei’s earlier words: “Generosity without orthodoxy is nothing, but orthodoxy without generosity is worse than nothing.”

Can this oxymoron live? Can we share an inviting, welcoming, Christ-centered orthodoxy? Can we listen to and love those with whom we differ? Can we share open and meaningful dialog, rather than maneuvering to get the last word and be the “winners”? Next February the UMC’s General Conference legislative body, will meet to address the church’s policy regarding issues of human sexuality. Then the thousands of UMC congregations will have to discern how General Conference’s action relates to their understandings and ministry. What a gift it would be for them to be able to do that in a climate of Generous Orthodoxy! This wisdom is circulating at some levels of our church. But in my limited experience, I don’t sense that it’s reaching the grassroots quickly or deeply enough. Five years ago Bishop Kenneth Carter shared the concept with the people he serves in Florida. More recently he’s expanded this material into a book called “Embracing the Wideness”. I’m sure Bishop Carter’s wisdom is being well-used in some settings. But it’s apparently new information for a lot of folks out west where I live. If I were actively serving a congregation, we’d be immersing ourselves in this approach. We’d be learning to practice “generous orthodoxy” in all we did together. It’s an oxymoron whose time has come!

Bishop Carter clearly links generous orthodoxy with God’s grace. “A generous orthodoxy begins with God,” he writes, “and more specifically with the grace of God.” Toward the end of his Florida message, he says, “A generous orthodoxy will rediscover the practices of Jesus in the gospels, calling all people into communion with him. Is that call a tacit approval of who we are, in our humanity? No, and this is true for gay and straight people…the ground is indeed level at the foot of the cross, and this is the common ground of grace.”

This is the first of a few posts on this topic. If you’re curious, follow some of these links. Agree and disagree. Future posts will look at the way “generous orthodoxy” played out in a painful, yet ultimately redemptive, episode in one family’s life; the connection between grace and generous orthodoxy; and practical ways to help Paul’s dream come to life so that our lives, our churches, our communities, our world are “…transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God…”