Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas Thoughts

Four of us Kirk pastors went to see The Nativity Story last week. Although there are a couple of cliché jolts (the light from the star at the end; the adjustment of history to have the wise men arrive just after the shepherds) it is a wonderful presentation of what the wondrous event might have been like.

Most of us, perhaps, have wondered how Mary told her family that she was pregnant and what their reaction was. The same goes for Joseph. What was it like to see and hear an angel? What was the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem like?

Apart from such questions artistically answered, the main strength of the film is the sense of real history that it gives. All of the trappings of Christmas sometimes bury the reality of Jesus beneath cultural and personal traditions. This movie is a good way to be reminded of the reality of His birth.

It is vitally important that we emphasize the historic truth of Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection. There alone is the basis for our faith that brings to us through Jesus hope, healing, abundant and eternal life. The Christmas Story is not a myth but the greatest moment of world history.

Richard Dawkins, a popular science writer and critic of all things Christian, especially in his new book The God Delusion, decries all of what we believe as an incredible fairy tale. A BBC editorial takes him to task:
Fairy tales are make-believe, swirled in the mists of obscurity. “Once upon a time, in a far-away land, in an age long ago…” Christianity is rooted in history: in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of King Herod. We know the location down to a mile or so, and the time to within a year or two. As Dorothy Sayers said, Jesus Christ is the only god with a date in history. This is no fantasy, but verifiable fact.
...CS Lewis commented... about fairy tales. “I’ve been reading romances, visionary literature, legends, myths all my life,” he continued. “I know what they are like. Not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage--pretty close up to the facts--or else some unknown writer in the second century suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic realistic narrative,” Lewis concluded. The account of Jesus’ birth is as far from a fairy tale as could be.
The whole point of the Christmas story is that God entered into humanity. This was not just a visitation. It was joining humanity to experience all that we do, yet without sin. It was a plan destined for pain, suffering, death, and resurrection for Jesus, providing hope, healing, salvation, and eternal life for all who believe in Him.

Our culture has settled for a mythical Jesus, brought out once a year, dusted off, displayed, and then relegated back to storage until the next Christmas. We, the church, cannot afford to join this in any way. The reality of Jesus in our lives and in history needs to be repeated aloud frequently so that those still in darkness might find His light. I'm truly thankful for a movie (of all things) that helps so much in this mission.

Keep praying--keep the faith,

Friday, December 15, 2006

George Washington’s Church Leaves Its Denomination

After the American Revolution, the Anglican churches in the USA were without a denomination. Since their theological system required oversight by bishops, this meant that they couldn’t call pastors until they could resolve the rift. Such churches were run for years by the educated laity.

For Falls Church in Virginia there were more than ample resources. George Washington was a vestryman (like an elder), and the great hymnodist, George Mason was in the church. Later, Francis Scott Key often led services.

Eventually this, and other churches, became part of a denomination, now called The Episcopalian Church. But a lot has changed. Like almost all mainline denominations, the Episcopalians have abandoned the clear inheritance of scripture for the bowl of gruel that culture offers instead.

Orthodox congregations in the Episcopalian Church have struggled for years with the leftward lurch in their denomination. The elevation of an openly gay priest to bishop--in direct opposition to the instructions of the global Anglican denomination--was the final straw for many. Such folk have been seeking ways in which they can continue their tradition, remaining faithful to Scripture. For some, this meant leaving the denomination.

Shortly after the Falls Church congregation voted to disaffiliate from the Episcopalian Church, its rector (pastor), the Rev. John Yates, clearly restated what was behind their action:
"Our leaders have so devalued the Holy Scripture that they can no longer affirm essentials of the faith nor reject sinful behavior. They believe we must stay together no matter what."

For more than a year, Yates and other orthodox clergy have met with Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee to develop a "Protocol for Departing Congregations" which would allow them to leave with their property intact if a super majority of 70% voted to exit and if each church agreed to a fee for the property, worth $17 million for Falls Church and $10 million for Truro.

However, Lee sent a chilling letter two weeks ago threatening to sue individual vestry members if they voted to leave. He cited church canons "15 times without referring to Scripture once," Yates informed his church.

Why? Lee told Yates, "We have a new Presiding Bishop who is like a new sheriff in town." Both churches note they have deeds which antedate the diocese but are asking their churches for authority to contest legally if necessary, as well as approval to leave.

As one parishoner told Yates, "I'd rather worship in a cornfield than submit to heresy."
column by Michael J. McManus Column #1320
This sad event reaffirms what the Kirk did last August. The biggest difference is that we disaffiliated early on in reaction to the presbytery’s filing of an affidavit against our property and the revelation of the PCUSAs legal game-plan. These showed that the “process” was not to be trusted.

So it was for the two largest Episcopalian congregations in Virginia—Truro and Falls Church. They entered into a long-term process with their bishop only to have the rug pulled out from under them at the last minute. With this betrayal, the congregations had no choice but to step outside the system and, thereby, their denomination.

Just like us, their title and deeds to the property pre-date the denominations' legal claims to the property. Like us, they will have to enter into a lengthy and expensive legal process to retain what they and their predecessors built. Keep them in your prayers.

Keep praying--keep the faith,

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The EOP Has Written

If you are a Kirk member, you should have received the latest missive from the Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery administrative commission. The letter contains an invitation and a card.

The invitation is confusing, since it implies that there are separate meetings for those in favor of staying in the PCUSA and those who are not, yet the time and place for both are the same.

The card is essentially the vote that EOP wanted us to hold for them instead of our disaffiliation. The card asks whether you want to "continue to worship with Pastors Gray and Hardy," want more information on the PCUSA, desire a pastoral call (apparently not from Gray or Hardy) or have moved your membership.

As I've repeatedly said, you are welcome to do whatever you want. Please do not think, though, that you need to go to the meeting or return the card in order to support me, Wayne, or the Kirk. We have moved on. I honestly believe that attending the meeting or sending the card--regardless of what is said--will be used by the denomination as ammunition against us. For me, this whole process has a Kafka-esque quality of logic. We are no longer part of any denomination but the PCUSA insists that we must be and is calling meetings as if we (and you) are.

It feels a lot like my recent experience with some telemarketers. I filed, as did many of you, the notification that I did not want to have more calls soliciting sales. But some telemarketers have ignored this and others insist that they have the right to continue to call me, even though I've repeatedly asked them to take me off of their list.

I'd like to think that this will be the end of the facade of the PCUSA's connection to us, but I doubt it. I'll keep you posted.

Keep praying--keep the faith,

Monday, December 04, 2006

Episcopalian Fractures Widen

The signs are all there. On the left, the American Episcopalian Church, which alienated itself from the global Anglican fellowship by its election of an openly gay bishop, are voices saying that they may have to go on alone, isolated from the rest of the Anglican world. While there are Europeans who would welcome the addition of gay bishops, the vast majority of Anglicans, now concentrated in the so-called Third World, are appalled by the prospect. That means not many will follow in the footsteps of the American Church, and certainly not the official Anglican church, centered in Canterbury, England.

On the right are American traditionalist Episcopalians just as appalled by the actions of their national church. Some individual churches have already withdrawn, as we at the Kirk did from the PCUSA. There is even an entire diocese (the equivalent of one of the PCUSA’s presbyteries) that is withdrawing.

In such a situation it would be sensible to agree to disagree and moving on separately. We've learned not to expect common sense or common grace from a liberal denomination. Like the PCUSA, the officialdom of the Episcopalian Church is dominated by the “tolerant” left wing. The Episcopalian liberal leadership is similarly bent on keeping property and punishing those who would leave.

The great irony here is found in the language used by the liberals as they criticize those leaving. They argue that they are preserving the faith!

The newly installed Presiding Bishop of the Episcopalian Church, Katherine Schiori, has sent the following to the Bishop of San Joaquin Diocese in Southern California, upon their progress toward separation from their denomination:
I have seen reports of your letter to parishes in the Diocese of San Joaquin, which apparently urges delegates to your upcoming Diocesan Convention to take action to leave the Episcopal Church. I would ask you to confirm the accuracy of those reports. If true, you must be aware that such action would likely be seen as a violation of your ordination vows to “uphold the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them.” I must strongly urge you to consider the consequences of such action, not only for yourself but especially for all of the Episcopalians under your pastoral charge and care.

I certainly understand that you personally disagree with decisions by General Conventions over the past 30 and more years. You have, however, taken vows three times over that period to uphold the “doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.” If you now feel that you can no longer do so, the more honorable course would be to renounce your orders in this Church and seek a home elsewhere. Your public assertion that your duty is to violate those vows puts many, many people at hazard of profound spiritual violence. I urge you, as a pastor, to consider that hazard with the utmost gravity.
This comes from a denomination that has aggressively ordained openly gay priests (and a bishop), has championed same-sex marriage, and has wandered far from its original faith. For its leaders to criticize a conservative Bishop saying that he is no longer upholding the “doctrine, discipline, and worship, of the Episcopal Church” would be laughable, were it not so sad.

The Episcopalian leaders are also just as free as the PCUSA leadership with threatening language. Bishop Lee in Northern Virginia diocese is particularly bellicose:
I believe your successors in the future will regret that decision and its destructive consequences to the whole church,” the bishop wrote of congregations threatening to leave the diocese. Any congregation attempting to leave without a negotiated settlement with the diocese “will have repercussions and possible civil liability for individual vestry members."
My heart resonates with the statement of the vestry (board) of Truro Church.
The Episcopal Church thus has walked beyond any worldly hope of or expectation for returning to its original foundations. In addition, the toil of resisting and enduring its decline has taken a heavy toll on Truro, particularly in the three years between the General Conventions. The feedback that has flowed in from the congregation during our discernment period, in dozens of small groups, in written submissions, in congregational meetings, and in countless private conversations, has confirmed our sense of this toll and indeed shown it to be heavier than we had thought. We therefore have been constrained to conclude that, if Truro Church is to continue as a vital congregation, and if it is to preserve its witness to God’s Word and its fellowship for the Gospel throughout the Anglican Communion, we cannot persist any longer in The Episcopal Church. We must sever our ties, so that we might remain with those who do not hesitate to contend for the faith but rather delight in doing so.
This is where we at the Kirk found ourselves this last summer. We need to keep Truro Church and the San Joaquin Diocese in our prayers. Like the Episcopalians, we face opposition from denominational leaders content in their own unorthodoxy, but horrified at the unorthodox nature of our departure. Like these Episcopalians, we face the loss of the property that we have built, paid for, maintained, and lived in. I hope that doesn’t happen, but if it does, it is actually a small price to pay in order to delight in contending for the faith.

Keep praying--keep the faith,

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Religious War II

Yesterday, I began an answer to a reader who has real problems with how I interpret Scripture and, in particular, how this might relate to Islam.

As I go a little further into the subject of Islam I need to remind everyone that I am NOT an expert on this religion. What I say comes out of simple logic, using statement from a translated Koran. I believe that most Muslims insist that a translated reading of the Koran is insufficient. Since I work from original languages in the Bible I have some understanding of the difficulties of translation. However, good translators of the Bible overcome such difficulties with few exceptions. I think that the same thing must be true of published translations of the Koran.

Let me state up front that I believe in respecting other people in their beliefs. This does not mean that I give up my own beliefs in any way. Nor does it mean that people of other faiths, or my own, should be free of reasonable observations, criticism, and questions.

“As to the matter of the Muslim Qur'an sounding like the Old Testament, it is true that both books portray divine commands to kill or control those outside their respective faiths. You speak of the New Testament as 'mitigating' these commands in the Old Testament, and the Qur'an as having no such mitigating revelation.”

The Old Testament with the New Testament is a very different Bible than the Old Testament alone. It is so different that "progressivists" have moved toward what they once mocked—the ‘red-letter’ editions of the Bible. These are the Bibles that have the words of Jesus in red type. The progressivists who now only believe the red letters do so because they reject anything that smacks of the Old Testament legal system. The one thing that they are right about in this is that Jesus’ words transform contrast greatly from the early covenants. Christians believe this is because Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s Covenant (promise). This means that Jesus is the direction toward which all else—even of Scripture—is pointing.

“The Muslims I have known look at the Qur'an in similar ways. They know God is not bloodthirsty. They know they are called to peace with all people. You do them a great injustice to paint them all with one stroke.”

Islamic faith has no corollary to the words of Jesus. While it contains much that is admirable, there are passages like the following ones that are not countered by authoritative words of peace.

[8.17] So you did not slay them, but it was Allah Who slew them, and you did not smite when you smote (the enemy), but it was Allah Who smote, and that He might confer upon the believers a good gift from Himself; surely Allah is Hearing, Knowing.

[60.1] O you who believe! do not take My enemy and your enemy for friends: would you offer them love while they deny what has come to you of the truth, driving out the Apostle and yourselves because you believe in Allah, your Lord? If you go forth struggling hard in My path and seeking My pleasure, would you manifest love to them? And I know what you conceal and what you manifest; and whoever of you does this, he indeed has gone astray from the straight path.

[2.191] And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers.

Note particularly how [60.1] contrasts with Jesus’ teaching that we are to love our enemy. There is a tremendous difference between our religions. While Christianity has been guilty of using Scripture to justify violence, it has been through a misuse of the Bible. You cannot, for instance, blindly act on an Old Testament command to the Israelites without first seeing if it is compatible with what Jesus teaches.

"How convenient that you sidestep Christ's comment that not one letter of the law (Torah, the Old Testament) would be changed until all had come to completion."

When Jesus spoke of the nothing passing from the law until his completing, he was referring to the completion of his mission on earth, which happened through the Passion and, ultimately, in the resurrection. In Luke 16, Jesus says
“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached…”

“I believe that we must turn to the Holy Spirit to help us understand clear conflicts within scripture. Some of the ways in which the Presbyterian and Reformed traditions have relied upon the inspiration of the Spirit are through historical and textual criticism, aided by archeology and anthropology. We also pray, confer with tradition, and dialogue/debate among ourselves as we study scripture. We use the brains God gave us and seek the Spirit's help to guide us so that we may discern God's truth within the complexities of the Bible.”

The Bible is not as complex as some would say. Most “complexities” can be solved by seeking the counsel of the whole of Scripture. So-called contradictions harmonize easily. If, though, one want to atomize Scripture and demand that each statement be evaluated alone, it seems to be highly contradictory. The same thing would be true of the writing of any person in history.

I believe that the Holy Spirit does guide our understanding in terms of affirming faith and convicting us. What I don’t believe is that the Holy Spirit might give us some novel interpretation. One of the problems with the PCUSA, I believe, is that it has used the weak wording of C67 to justify a demotion of Scripture from the Revelation of God into a book that has to be re-evaluated by every generation that arises.

It all comes down to how we read, interpret, and believe our Holy Books. The real test of this is in the witness of the believer. I feel at times as if the debate in mainline churches and here on this blog is between those who take the Bible at face value and those who don't. I believe that there's a world of difference in what such beliefs produce.

Keep praying--keep the faith,

Friday, December 01, 2006

Religious War

What is wrong with the following headlines?
"Artist Immerses Cross in Urine. Christians Riot Worldwide, Death Toll Mounting."

"Artist “Paints” Virgin Mary Using Feces. Art Museums Ransacked and Burned by Christians."

"Islamic Cleric Insults Jesus. Crowds of Christians Attack not only Mosques, but Worshipers Exiting Mosques."

"Crèche Scene Removed from Civic Center. Conservative Christians Threaten Lives of City Council."
Although the headlines seem familiar, they’re reversed. When Islam is denigrated in any way, violence is actual or threatened. Christianity is attacked with impunity, and no violence results.

Yet we still hear from liberals and progressives that Christianity is a “violent religion.” The specter of the Crusades (900+ years ago) is most often raised. Abortion clinic bombings are cited. Foreign wars are also raised as examples.

Some even try to characterize the current war in Iraq as a “Christianity vs. Islam” conflict. The initial casualties, including thousands of deaths, of the Iraq war were appalling, as is the case in all warfare. Now, though, the fact is that there is much more internecine violence between Muslims of different sects than there is Americans killing Iraqis. This has never been a religious war on our part.

One recent commenter to this site seems to believe that I, and people like me, somehow approve of violence done by Christians. I had mentioned to this writer that I wasn’t aware of any religious warfare today involving Christians. In addition to raising the Crusades, he says the following:
“The German Christians (representing many denominations) who supported Hitler's National Socialist agenda in the 1930s and 40s to exterminate Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others. The majority of the world recognizes this as attempted genocide.”
The subservience of the nationalist German Church to Hitler is a terrible stain in the history of Christianity. But the genocide of WWII was not done in the name of religion or in the name of Christ. Hitler was a pseudo-pagan whose faith was best expressed in Wagnerian Opera, not Christian hymns.

Orthodox Christians held out against Hitler and everything he did. The Barmen Declaration, written in the mid-1930s, demonstrated that traditional Christianity resisted, sometimes even to death. The nationalist Church, coming out of the liberal tradition, wrote hymns to Hitler and included the Nazi salute as a church ritual. When one doesn’t have a clear faith, one can be vulnerable to any alteration.

This writer goes on to mention what he considers to be modern religious war, part of which was perpetrated in Jesus' name.
“Serbian and Bosnian Serb forces (Orthodox Christians) who perpetrated the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks (Muslims) and Bosnian Croats (Roman Catholics) in Bosnia in the early 1990s. International courts are still debating the question of genocide.”
Chrissie and I have traveled frequently throughout Croatia and have been in Bosnia. We have friends there who lived through the vicious warfare of the 90s and we’ve personally witnessed the damage to villages and, particularly, churches. I have in my home a piece of rubble that used to be part of an altar in a destroyed Croatian church.

The warfare there was between Croats and Bosnians, largely seen respectively as Catholics and Muslims. The source of their ancient anger, though, is not their religion. It is surviving nationalist hatred dating back to the middle ages. I am not aware that any Christians or Muslims justified that war by their faith.
“White supremacists who intimidate, abuse, and/or murder people of other races and religions in an effort to keep Christianity and the human race ‘pure.’”
There are white supremacists who, sadly, cover themselves in a mantle of so-called Christianity. These people, though, are more related to the 1934-45 German nationalist Church than Christianity. They do act in the name of Jesus (something the German church didn’t), which is reprehensible.

As bad as their thinking is, I’m not sure that they’ve done much violence. They bear watching, but they are such a tiny minority that they really represent no one but themselves.
“…Muslims cannot be held accountable as a group for the actions of extremists and terrorists who call themselves Muslims.”
I wouldn’t blame a Muslim neighbor for actions done by terrorists, but I would hold her or him accountable if they refused to decry such violence. I do blame Muslim leaders who call themselves moderate, yet do not speak out against Islamic terrorism. I'd also like to ask this writer, "Why do you hold Christians accountable for all the accusations you make, yet feel we cannot do the same with Islam?"

I'll say it for myself. I am opposed to any and all violence done in the name of Jesus. If Christians blow up an abortion clinic, they are wrong. If they kill an abortionist, they must face the full effect of the law. (I have actually written newspapers saying these things.) If they deny someone their legal rights in the name of Jesus, they are wrong. If they persecute someone because he or she is not Christian, they are wrong. If our nation says that it must invade another because Jesus calls for it, I'll join the picket lines in opposition.

But there really is religious warfare going on right now. If you found yourself in a city center, surrounded by thousands of people shouting “Jesus is Lord,” would you fear for your life? What if it were thousands of people shouting “Allah u akbar”? There is religious war today, but it is not being perpetrated by those who follow Jesus.

Tomorrow I’ll write further on this subject.

Keep praying—keep the faith,