Thursday, March 28, 2013

On homosexual "marriage"

In March 2004, I wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal which editor James Taranto entitled, "Save Marriage? It's Too Late". Here's an embed of the page, scroll down within the frame to get to the end:




My personal opinion is that no matter how the Supreme Court rules, in time states will come to enact legislation that will duplicate for same-sex couples the basic legal rights and privileges that hetero married couples enjoy now.

However, a legal contract is all such arrangements will ever be for homosexual couples. By no means will any sort of law or ceremony actually make same-sex couples "married," because marriage is exclusively the province of heterosexual couples.

I argue this case (without once citing the Bible or any other religious doctrine) in my 2010 essay, "What makes marriage, marriage?" There I show why none of the arguments offered by the pro-homosexual side have anything to do with what strikes to the core of what marriage is and is for. Simply calling a certain kind of legally-recognized arrangement between a man and another man (or two women) "marriage" doesn't make it so.

Nonetheless, "the times, they are a-changing," and homosexual "marriage" is going to be the law of the land sooner or later. When the issue comes before the Tennessee legislature, I will urge the lawmakers to enact legislation that simply gets the state out of the marriage business altogether. I say that the state should do weddings and churches (synagogues, etc.) should do marriages.

Let the state issue certificates of civil union, not "marriage licenses." The certificates would have all the legal force of present licenses. For a full explanation of why I would support this when the time comes, just click on over to the link.

Update: Gayle Kesselman asks, "Is It Time to Legalize Heterosexual Marriage?"
Social conservatives who feel they are defending traditional marriage by opposing homosexual marriage need to ask themselves some serious questions. Namely, can the institution of traditional marriage be salvaged without the wholesale repeal of no-fault divorce laws which swept through our states beginning in 1970? Or, in other words, is it time for social conservative to advocate for legalization of marriage for heterosexuals? And, are they up for that debate?
And the answer is No.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Winners and losers in our do-it-yourself religion era

Winners and losers in our do-it-yourself religion era:

This survey shows that “it’s going to be much more difficult for mainline churches to turn things around simply by focusing on higher levels of commitment,” said political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron. … 
Part of the problem is that fewer Americans remain committed to supporting religious institutions and a high percentage of those who do seem to favor faiths that embrace the very doctrines and traditions the unaffiliated often reject. It also appears that young people who are rejecting traditional faiths — during the past five years in particular — are quitting organized religion altogether, rather than joining progressive institutions. 
“It’s going to be hard for something like a ‘fewer Methodists, but better Methodists’ approach to work because these mainline churches are already so small and there are so many of them,” said Green. “The mainliners will have to find their niche. But who are they? What do they believe? Do they know?”

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

State should do weddings, Church marriages

Let the state conduct weddings so the Church can concentrate on marriages; my solution to the "gay marriage" impasse

I first wrote this essay in 2004 but decided to post it here when I saw a link the Rev. Lee Stevenson posted on his Facebook page a link to a story about Green Street United Methodist Church:
A United Methodist church in Winston-Salem, N.C., has vowed to stop performing weddings until same-sex marriage is made legal. 
Last week, the Green Street United Methodist Church announced its decision to stop performing heterosexual marriages, the Winston-Salem Journal reports. Instead, the church's leadership council is asking pastors to perform blessings.
I have been in the wedding business now for almost 16 years. I haven't counted the number of weddings I have officiated, I'd guess at least 50.

As presently done, church weddings have two components, the legal and the spiritual. Any clergy officiant who performs weddings must do the legal part. The religious part is optional, even for pastors. I have known a few ordained ministers who would perform either a full-up religious ceremony or a bare-bones civil-style ceremony bereft of religiosity. Some civil officials who perform matrimonial services use religious language, others do not. There was a Nashville judge famous for his terse style who beheld a couple come before his bench about 40 years ago. The entire proceedings went like this:
Judge: What do you want?

Groom: We want to get married and we're in a hurry [hands judge license and certificate].
Judge: [Signs license and certificate] Okay, you're married. Next!
As far as the state is concerned, a wedding is a legal meeting in which a contract is made and property rights are allocated according to law or other legal agreement. That is really the state's only interest.

What the filing of a signed wedding certificate and marriage license does (requirements vary from state to state) is abbreviate what would otherwise be a long, drawn-out affair. Think of a home-sale closing and you get an idea of what a wedding would be like if it weren't for the fact that law and custom simply assign to spouses rights that would otherwise require lengthy, lawyerly documentation, and would probably require it for nearly every significant change in the couple's material status and the birth of children.

Yet for the Church, property rights and contracts are of fleeting to no concern except as they affect for good or ill the spiritual health and religious character of the married couple.

So why should I periodically act as an agent of the state in performing weddings? I can't think of any reason.

I would rather see the state and the Church face the truth about what they are both doing in the matrimony business the way it is presently done: each meddling in the other's affairs and, with the debates over "gay marriage," managing to make a mess of it.

If I had my way, I would never perform another wedding as weddings are presently done. There is a much more appropriate role for clergy, IMO, than joining couples in legal contracts called weddings. I am thinking of this topic because when I first wrote this essay, James Joyner, surveying the issue of gay marriage controversies, suggested a radical solution:
... simply do away with marriage as a governmental institution, period. Let churches marry people as they see fit—with only religious value attached to the ceremony. We could then have civil unions that the states could regulate.
I posted a comment taking quite the opposite position. Instead of getting the state out of the wedding business, I would rather see the church get out of the wedding business.

This is heresy, of course, not in the sense of violating theological-doctrinal standards, but in the sense of crossing a deeply-embedded, socio-religious more. There still remains in American society a strong sense that you are "supposed" to get married in a church by a cleric, even among couples who never otherwise darken a church's door. A lot of times an engaged couple with no active religious life seek a church wedding just to make mom and dad happy, and/or because they want a traditional photo album of wedding pictures.

That, however, does not bother me. It used to, but I adopted my own personal wedding policy some years ago: I do not marry couples not under my pastoral care. I am not a wedding mercenary. I am more than willing to talk to total strangers about officiating at their wedding, but they must become part of my flock until the wedding occurs. After that, they can do what they want. In the meantime, I give them Christian witness and pastoral care. I have found that most couples I marry under these conditions have stayed in my church after the wedding, some as members, some as participants. If these terms are not acceptable to the couple, I offer them my prayers, best wishes and farewell.

But I digress.

In Protestantism, marriage is not a sacrament as it is in the Catholic churches (for definition of "sacrament," see the endnote to this post). In the Greek Orthodox Church,
Since Marriage is not viewed as a legal contract, there are no vows in the Sacrament. According to Orthodox teachings, Marriage is not simply a social institution, it is an eternal vocation of the kingdom.
However, in the Roman Catholic Church and the Western wedding tradition generally, vows are exchanged and promises made. These vows are essentially legalistic in nature - in fact, contractual - and date mostly from the time of European feudalism. Feudalism was a pre-capitalist social system based on contractual obligations between classes regarding goods and services; this contractualism pervaded every aspect of society. One of the chief interests in weddings - done only between peer families, of course - was the matter of inheritance and property rights. Hence, weddings vows included, and still include, legal language such as "to have and to hold from this day forward" and declarations of freely entering into the vows.

However, weddings were rarely performed in churches until about 500 years ago. Martin Luther, for example, was not married in a church. While marriages were seen as falling under religious dominion, the wedding ceremony was a civil affair. (Note that the Catholic churches hold marriage, not the wedding, to be sacramental.)

The contractual nature of weddings continues to this day, exemplified by prenuptial agreements and especially in divorce proceedings, in which the division of property is of foremost concern. The wedding litanies used by most denominations today have a lot of God talk but remain basically legalistic, not religious.

As the officiant of a wedding, I act as an agent of the state, signing two legal documents certifying the wedding took place and attesting to my legal authority to conduct it. I have no problem with that, but it tends to bifurcate my role. I have come to think a more appropriate role for me would be to conduct a purely religious blessing ceremony some time after the wedding is done.

So, if I could wave a magic wand to get my way, here is what it would be:

1. Engaged couples would be wed by civil authorities. Legally, they would then be husband and wife. I deny that same-sex "marriage" can ever rightly be called that, about which more in another post to come, but briefly, states that want to legalize such things should abandon issuing marriage licenses of any sort, to anyone, and just issue civil-interpersonal certificates (CICs).

2. Certificates of marriage, having no additional legal effect, would be issued by churches, synagogues or mosques, not by the state. Holders of CICs who also wanted to be married - with all the social and religious implications thereof - would find their desire unencumbered by state burdens, and churches would be freed of the pressure to unite couples in matrimony for reasons often having little to do with religious nurture.

From my perspective as a pastor, separating the civil-legal aspects and the religious aspects would have some salutary effects:

First - It would allow more time for me to work with couples who have a religious interest in their interpersonal relationship without the deadline pressure of a wedding date. Of the gazillion things on the mind of brides, grooms and their families to get the wedding done well and on time, religious reflection and counseling usually rank about last. The couple usually perceives, correctly, that there is time for that after the wedding.

Second - It would permit me and the engaged couple to go forward with less sexual hypocrisy. Far more than half of men and women getting married today are already cohabiting, living as husband and wife in every way except the legal certification. For a large number of such men - and the majority of such women - the spouse they will take is not the first they have cohabited with. The historical teaching of the Church, of course, is that sexual relations should follow, not precede, the wedding.

My personal policy in this is "don't ask, don't tell." I do not ask couples whether they live together, but when they both report the same mailing address it sort of gives the game away. By far the majority of couples I marry these days are already cohabiting. That means that the contractual nature of the wedding is more prominent than ever; they are certainly not looking for the Church's sanction of their relationship. They really seek legal, not religious, recognition of their troth and all the legal benefits it entails. For them, the signature on the license is far more important than the words of the litany. The ceremony changes essentially nothing about their lives, except often to make the in-laws on both sides more accepting of the state of affairs. Reconciliation is certainly a role for clergy, but frankly, I sometimes feel like I'm being used for essentially selfish concerns on their part.

If a couple wants a marriage, not merely a partnership, then I'd rather it be because they have genuine impulses toward spiritual union with one another and God, under God's grace and the care of the Church, not because it simplifies other parts of their lives.

Homosexual partners who want to share the same legal rights as traditional married couples would be able to do so under this arrangement. It would not entail the state defining them as married, nor require anyone else to recognize them as married. There are denominations that would issue them marriage certificates, though, the Metropolitan Community Church being one (they already do, but the state doesn't recognize them as contractual documents). But Catholics, Baptists and Methodists, et. al. would be able to maintain their orthodoxy of what marriage is and devote their attentions away from the legal-political arena to where it belongs: the care and nurture of souls.

Endnote:

One issue that I recognize but don't want to lengthen the post to address is whether parishioners cohabiting with only a CIC would still be held by churches to be "living in sin." I would not, but whether yes or no, this is of no concern of the state.

Another issue is that if some churches refuse ever to recognize non-traditional pairings as marriage partners, would this not drive homosexual partners out of the church once they get a CIC? Probably, but I can tell you that no matter how the state decides to define "marriage," churches will continue to define it as they want and there is nothing the state can do about it.

A third issue is that the present system, for all its shortcomings, does define marriage precisely, even though many people obviously want to change the definition. If states did turn to CICs, then the definitions of marriage might multiply according to the differences between denominational understandings. Or maybe not; I am not sure that within Christian denoms there is very much difference in understanding what marriage is.

Finally, what is a sacrament? In general, a sacrament is a sacred rite instituted or blessed by Christ. Although Jesus never married, and marriage obviously existed before him, he did bless a wedding at Cana (Gospel of John). A sacrament is also an "instituted means of grace," by which if received in faith the believer may reliably receive the grace of God. (Catholic theology of sacrament, however, generally holds that the faith of the receiver does not inhibit the efficacy of the sacrament; hence, an unconscious person may be baptized as efficaciously as any person.) Look, I can't pare it down more than this. Whole books about the nature of sacrament continue to be written and I don't want to write one here.

Update: A point of clarification: I am not suggesting a total separation of the legal/contractual relationship from the spiritual relationship. In fact, I would not certify as married any couple who had not already completed a CIC. The mutuality of property and other rights is necessarily included in marriage. But all the legal mutuality is already accomplished by civil weddings now without regard to a couple's religious identity.

I repeat: all the property and legal rights that are made real by the signature of a marriage license can be obtained in other ways with other legal instruments, though with greater trouble and higher cost.

People who scream about the "sanctity of marriage" - a religiously loaded term - need to explain how sanctified Americans think marriage is when there far are more than a million divorces per year, 40 percent of children are born out of wedlock and a majority of birth for women under 30, and as I already said, the majority of men and women who do marry already are living together as de facto husband and wife.

The fact is that America destroyed the sanctity of marriage long before homosexuals became politically activist, and it was this destruction that led to gay activism - see my 2004 Wall Street Journal op-ed, "Save Marriage? It's too late

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Are you in the church or the congregation?"

Some thought-provoking insights:

How do you know if you’re int he church or the congregation?  Characteristics of being in the congregation:
  1. You are disjointed from the church.
  2. You have no joy when it comes to the things of God. You can only find joy in the things of the world.
  3. You are easily distracted in service, your mind is elsewhere.
  4. It doesn’t matter what time you come to church.
  5. You always sit in the back of the church.
  6. You only come to hear the choir sing, but not to hear the preached Word of God.
  7. You are critical of everything going on in service and point out what you think is wrong.
  8. You are on a time limit in service, counting the minutes until it is over.
- Characteristics of being in the church:
  1. You must have already left the congregation through salvation.
  2. You come to service prepared for worship. You become an asset to the service and not a liability.
  3. You have a hunger and thirst for the things of God. You read your bible throughout the week.
  4. You don’t mind giving God praise.
  5. You don’t wear just anything to church. You wear what will show off Christ and not yourself.
  6. You carry yourself as a holy disciple. In a way that commands respect.
  7. There is a longing to spend time and develop an intimate relationship with God. Prayer is not a burden, but a joy.
  8. You know the importance of confessing your sins.
Source: http://phillipstempletoledo.com/archives/1434

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Why we should apologize for Christian faith


Preached at Westview UMC, March 10, 2013

As most of you probably know, the United Methodist Church is a worldwide denomination. The worldwide membership of the UMC passed twelve  million in 2011, the first time the total membership has been that high. That’s the good news. The bad news is that high point of the United Methodist Church’s membership in the United States came in 1968 when The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren merged. Since then, American membership has been declining and foreign membership has been growing.

In fact, some church leaders believe that foreign Methodists will outnumber American Methodists by 2016, the year of the next general conference, and pretty much everyone agrees that they certainly will by 2020's conference. On the whole, I think that the rising influence of overseas Methodists is very positive for the denomination. So strong is the United Methodist Church in some overseas lands, especially Africa, that some of their leaders have wondered why the American church is still sending them missionaries, implying that perhaps missionaries should be going the other way!

Why is Methodism growing so strongly overseas?
The Rev. John H. Southwick, research director at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, asked an African colleague her take on the rapid growth. She told him the people in Africa are looking for hope. “Most have very challenging life circumstances, and anything they can grab onto has appeal.” (link)
In the relatively few occasions I have had to converse with African Methodists I have been struck with how strongly they are able to do what 1 Peter 3:15 says every Christian should be able to do:
But in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your apology to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.
Our Methodist brothers and sisters overseas know why they follow Christ. Enormous numbers of them were not born into Christian homes. Adult conversions are practically the norm.

I started pondering this angle on our faith anew during the clergy retreat I attended last month. The main presenter, Professor Doug Meeks of Vanderbilt Divinity School, emphasized missions by Methodist congregations in his presentations. At one point he responded to a question about what is his vision for Tennessee Methodists by saying to be active in prison ministry and various other social-justice causes.

Now, this is all well and good and I have spent the last few weeks emphasizing the basic requirement of Christian discipleship to be active in actual ministries in service to Christ and the world. And of course it is no surprise to hear a Vanderbilt faculty member urge action supporting social justice causes. (Doug occupies the endowed chair of the Cal Turner Chancellor Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies and is Director, United Methodist Programs, at Vanderbilt Divinity School, my own M.Div. alma mater. I've known him since he arrived at Vanderbilt in 1998.)

But here is what impressed me most: during the entire retreat was it hardly mentioned that the primary and foremost responsibility of every Methodist to do what First Peter says: apologize for Christian faith and hope.

The word apology brings to mind an expression of regret or sorrow. That usage dates only to about 1400. The word is actually Greek (apologia) and in Saint Peter’s day it meant to speak or write to defend a position, a usage still found today – Civil War historians, for examples, talk about Southern “apologists,” those who try to justify Southern secession in 1861.

In that sense, Peter tells us to be apologists, or defenders, of the faith and hope that we have in Christ. Evangelical Christians even have a whole category of Bible study called apologetics to prepare their ministers and people for this task.

Apologetics has, frankly, disappeared from the skills and discourse of the United Methodist Church. Our pastors are not trained in it, including me, by the way, and if you ever attend one of the relatively rare Methodist seminars on how to give witness of your faith, you will be told, “Share your own story and the difference Jesus has made in your life.”

But if all we do is share our personal stories, we have reduced Christian faith to nothing but personal opinion. And as everyone know, opinions are like . . . belly buttons. Everybody has one and one is just as good as another. Is our hope based on verifiable reality or is it simply a psychological condition?

I have preached recently that Christian faith without accompanying works is not really Christian faith at all. Christian faith is not just believing beliefs or assenting to propositions. As John Wesley said, one may assent to the truth of one, twenty or one hundred Christian creeds and still have no saving faith at all.

And yet, I increasingly conclude that American Methodism is shrinking and overseas Methodism is growing because over the last five or six decades American Methodists on the whole embraced the equally phony idea that Christian faith is pretty much nothing but good works. On the contrary, belief does matter, although “belief” is probably the wrong word. What we are seeking is conviction, not mere belief.

Here is the difference. Consider the reports of Bigfoot or Sasquatch creatures across North America. Maybe such creatures really exist and maybe they don’t. The question is an interesting one and within anthropology maybe a compelling one. But even if Bigfoot’s existence was unquestionably confirmed tomorrow by the most respectable authority, would it make any difference to the way you or I live day to day? We would believe it without a conviction that leads us to reconsider how we live our lives. Whether Bigfoot exists really does not matter to me and I can’t think of any reason it should matter to you.

Not so about Jesus Christ. I do not merely assent to the truth of the Gospels. I have staked my life on their truth. To come to Christian conviction, rather than mere belief, is to understand that now everything really is different. I have completely rearranged my life around the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Not only does it matter to me whether you believe this, I can think of plenty of reasons it should matter to you, too.

What are those reasons? That is what Peter is admonishing us to be able to explain. It is what very few Methodists are able to do well and so Methodists generally do not witness much at all.

So I want to take a look at faith as personally transforming conviction. There are four aspects of this inquiry:

First, is the Christian proclamation true?
Second, what is the evidence that it is true?
Third, why does it matter?
Fourth, how do I explain this to others?

Since at this point I am already more than halfway through this sermon, what follows is an introduction rather than complete exposition. I will revisit these topics later.

So to question one: When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, Jesus told him, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice," to which Pilate responded, “What is truth?”

Pilate’s question is the second-most important one in the entire Bible, just behind Jesus’ own question to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

What is truth was a topic of some confusion for the early church in Corinth. They accepted some apostolic teachings but not others, especially some about the resurrection of the dead. In his first letter to the church, Paul argued this way:
For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised [either]. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. ... If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died (1 Cor 15). 
Without delving into the Corinthians’ misconceptions about resurrection, Paul’s reply includes three crucial words: “But in fact . . .”

So what is truth? Truth is conformity to fact, to that which is real. (So says the dictionary.) Conformity to fact is the basis of faith because faith is the conviction of truth based on evidence.

Why do I define faith this way? Because evidence and reason were of primary concern to the apostles. Consider how Luke opened his Gospel. In the third verse he wrote,
I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. 
Luke says he didn’t just uncritically accept the Christian claims that were handed down to him. He investigated “everything carefully” and was convinced that what he was writing is “the truth.” This is important to grasp because the notion of blind faith, or faith without sound reasons, is not a biblical concept.

To believe in something without sound reasons is not faith at all, at best it is harmless superstition and at worst political ideology of which the last one hundred years have seen too many bad examples. That Christianity’s modern critics, who are legion, accuse Christians of blind faith says more about Christians than it does about the critics because it seems to indicate that we are not generally able to explain the soundness of our faith.

Consider a charge made against us by the so-called New Atheist movement, that  believing in Christ is no different from believing in the tooth fairy. Can an average Methodist rebut this accusation effectively without once resorting to the copout, "I feel in my heart ..." ?

(There is in fact an entire hymn, "He Lives," devoted to nothing but heartfelt feelings, the chorus of which includes, "You ask me how I know He lives: He lives within my heart." Bleh!)

It’s worth noting that the New Testament word for faith, pistis, means a conviction based on trust in God. In its secular uses of the day the word meant trustworthiness or financial credit worthiness. So one way of understanding what the apostles meant by faith is, “You can take it to the bank.”

So on what evidential basis may we have this conviction based on trust in God? I will briefly list them topically and will revisit them after Easter. They are:

1. What the apostles claimed,
2. The reliability of their testimony,
3. The failure of alternative explanations to account for the facts the apostles related.

Faith is not simply knowledge. Faith is not simply belief. But faith starts with knowing and believing, so we shall look anew at how to be effective apologists for the hope that is within us.

Stunning photo tour of the Holy Land

Holy Land: Christian Tour of Israel

More than worth your time.

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Apologizing for Christian Faith

2013-03-10 Apologizing for Christian Faith

As most of you probably know, the United Methodist Church is a worldwide denomination. The worldwide membership of the UMC passed twelve  million in 2011, the first time the total membership has been that high. That’s the good news. The bad news is that high point of the United Methodist Church’s membership in the United States came in 1968 when The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren merged. Since then, American membership has been declining and foreign membership has been growing.
In fact, some church leaders believe that foreign Methodists will outnumber American Methodists by 2016, the year of the next general conference, and pretty much everyone agrees that they certainly will by 2020's conference. On the whole, I think that the rising influence of overseas Methodists is very positive for the denomination. So strong is the United Methodist Church in some overseas lands, especially Africa, that some of their leaders have wondered why the American church is still sending them missionaries, implying that perhaps missionaries should be going the other way!
Why is Methodism growing so strongly overseas?
The Rev. John H. Southwick, research director at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, asked an African colleague her take on the rapid growth. She told him the people in Africa are looking for hope. “Most have very challenging life circumstances, and anything they can grab onto has appeal.”[1]
In the relatively few occasions I have had to converse with African Methodists I have been struck with how strongly they are able to do what 1 Peter 3:15 says every Christian should be able to do:
But in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your apology to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.
Our Methodist brothers and sisters overseas know why they follow Christ. Enormous numbers of them were not born into Christian homes. Adult conversions are practically the norm.
I started pondering this angle on our faith anew during the clergy retreat I attended last month. The main presenter, Professor Doug Meeks of Vanderbilt Divinity School, emphasized missions by Methodist congregations in his presentations. At one point he responded to a question about what is his vision for Tennessee Methodists by saying to be active in prison ministry and various other social-justice causes.
Now, this is all well and good and I have spent the last few weeks emphasizing the basic requirement of Christian discipleship to be active in actual ministries in service to Christ and the world. And of course it is no surprise to hear a Vanderbilt faculty member urge action supporting social justice causes.
But here is what impressed me most: during the entire retreat was it hardly mentioned that the primary and foremost responsibility of every Methodist to do what First Peter says: apologize for Christian faith and hope.
The word apology brings to mind an expression of regret or sorrow. That usage dates only to about 1400. The word is actually Greek (apologia) and in Saint Peter’s day it meant to speak or write to defend a position, a usage still found today – Civil War historians, for examples, talk about Southern “apologists,” those who try to justify Southern secession in 1861.
In that sense, Peter tells us to be apologists, or defenders, of the faith and hope that we have in Christ. Evangelical Christians even have a whole category of Bible study called apologetics to prepare their ministers and people for this task.
Apologetics has, frankly, disappeared from the skills and discourse of the United Methodist Church. Our pastors are not trained in it, including me, by the way, and if you ever attend one of the relatively rare Methodist seminars on how to give witness of your faith, you will be told, “Share your own story and the difference Jesus has made in your life.”
But if all we do is share our personal stories, we have reduced Christian faith to nothing but personal opinion. And as everyone know, opinions are like . . . belly buttons. Everybody has one and one is just as good as another. Is our hope based on verifiable reality or is it simply a psychological condition?
I have preached recently that Christian faith without accompanying works is not really Christian faith at all. Christian faith is not just believing beliefs or assenting to propositions. As John Wesley said, one may assent to the truth of one, twenty or one hundred Christian creeds and still have no saving faith at all. 
And yet, I increasingly conclude that American Methodism is shrinking and overseas Methodism is growing because over the last five or six decades American Methodists on the whole embraced the equally phony idea that Christian faith is pretty much nothing but good works. On the contrary, belief does matter, although “belief” is probably the wrong word. What we are seeking is conviction, not mere belief.
Here is the difference. Consider the reports of Bigfoot or Sasquatch creatures across North America. Maybe such creatures really exist and maybe they don’t. The question is an interesting one and within anthropology maybe a compelling one. But even if Bigfoot’s existence was unquestionably confirmed tomorrow by the most respectable authority, would it make any difference to the way you or I live day to day? We would believe it without a conviction that leads us to reconsider how we live our lives. Whether Bigfoot exists really does not matter to me and I can’t think of any reason it should matter to you.
Not so about Jesus Christ. I do not merely assent to the truth of the Gospels. I have staked my life on their truth. To come to Christian conviction, rather than mere belief, is to understand that now everything really is different. I have completely rearranged my life around the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Not only does it matter to me whether you believe this, I can think of plenty of reasons it should matter to you, too.
What are those reasons? That is what Peter is admonishing us to be able to explain. It is what very few Methodists are able to do well and so Methodists generally do not witness at all.
So I want to take a look at faith as personally transforming conviction. There are four aspects of this inquiry:
First, is the Christian proclamation true?
Second, what is the evidence that it is true?
Third, why does it matter?
Fourth, how do I explain this to others?
Since at this point I am already more than halfway through this sermon, what follows is an introduction rather than complete exposition. I will revisit these topics later. Next  week is anniversary Sunday, the week after is Palm Sunday and then March 31 is Easter.
So to question one: When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, Jesus told him, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice," to which Pilate responded, “What is truth?”
Pilate’s question is the second-most important one in the entire Bible, just behind Jesus’ own question to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
What is truth was a topic of some confusion for the early church in Corinth. They accepted some apostolic teachings but not others, especially some about the resurrection of the dead. In his first letter to the church, Paul argued this way:
 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised [either]. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. ... If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died (1Cor 15).
Without delving into the Corinthians’ misconceptions about resurrection, Paul’s reply includes three crucial words: “But in fact . . .”
So what is truth? Truth is conformity to fact, to that which is real. (So says the dictionary.) Conformity to fact is the basis of faith because faith is the conviction of truth based on evidence.
Why do I define faith this way? Because evidence and reason were of primary concern to the apostles. Consider how Luke opened his Gospel. In the third verse he wrote,
I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
Luke says he didn’t just uncritically accept the Christian claims that were handed down to him. He investigated “everything carefully” and was convinced that what he was writing is “the truth.” This is important to grasp because the notion of blind faith, or faith without sound reasons, is not a biblical concept. To believe in something without sound reasons is not faith at all, at best it is harmless superstition and at worst political ideology of which the last one hundred years have seen too many bad examples. That Christianity’s modern critics, who are legion, accuse Christians of blind faith says more about Christians than it does about the critics because it seems to indicate that we are not generally able to explain the soundness of our faith.
Consider a charge made against us by the so-called New Atheist movement, that  believing in Christ is no different from believing in the tooth fairy. Can average Methodists rebut this accusation effectively without once talking about what they believe in their hearts?
It’s worth noting that the New Testament word for faith, pistis, means a conviction based on trust in God. In its secular uses of the day the word meant trustworthiness or financial credit worthiness. So one way of understanding what the apostles meant by faith is, “You can take it to the bank.”
So on what evidential basis may we have this conviction based on trust in God? I will briefly list them topically and will revisit them after Easter. They are:
1. What the apostles claimed,
2. The reliability of their testimony,
3. The failure of alternative explanations to account for the facts the apostles related.
Faith is not simply knowledge. Faith is not simply belief. But faith starts with knowing and believing, so we shall look anew at how to be effective apologists for the hope that is within us.



[1]http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=2789393&ct=9135453

Friday, March 1, 2013

When I visited North Korea



The boundary line between North Korean and South Korea is the Military Demarcation Line, MDL. It bisects the peninsula east to west, except in the western portion, where it runs mostly north to south. Seoul is only 30 miles south of that portion of the MDL. The terrain on 2.5 kilometers on either side of the MDL constitutes the Demilitarized Zone.

Panmunjom village was located near what became the MDL during the Korean War. It was there that final negotiations between the US and its allies and the Chinese and North Koreans were held. Prisoners were also exchanged there upon the cease-fire agreement. That village had actually been destroyed in the war before the negotiations started. The place now called Panmunjom, above, is a wholly artificial construct designed for ongoing military-to-military contacts between the United Nations Command (meaning US/ROK) and N. Korea, officially known as the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.

Panmunjom actually straddles the MDL; it is free on one side and communist on the other. There are several buildings there, one of which is used for the meetings, which have continued fairly regularly for several decades. The negotiation table inside this building (more like a shed) sits exactly centered on the MDL:


One side of the table is in South Korea, the other side is in the North. When I visited there were no N. Koreans in the building, so we were allowed to walk around the table, thus technically entering North Korea, though obviously only by a few feet. Somewhere I have a photo of me standing on the Northern side of the table.

Panmunjom sits inside a four-kilometer-wide strip of the DMZ called the Joint Security Area. The JSA, including Panmunjom, is staffed on our side by a combined ROK/US detachment. The DPRK side is staffed by North Koreans, obviously. There is a low hill on the DPRK side of Panmunjom. Atop the hill the DPRK built a high and wide building, as you see in the first photo, above. It is meant to overawe us with its foreboding. It’s a joke because the whole building is really a fa├žade that is only two meters (6-1/2 feet) from front to rear.

The 1953 Armistice established a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) as an independent, fact-finding body for maintaining the armistice. Originally it was composed of senior officers from four noncombatant nations. We selected Sweden and Switzerland, the DPRK and China selected Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The Czech component was forced out by the DPRK early in 1993. The Polish component was forced out by the DPRK early in 1995. Note that those are the years those two nations shrugged off the last of their communist chains. The Swedish and Swiss delegations are still encamped in the southern half of the DMZ adjacent to the JSA. The former Polish and Czech camps are now used by the North Koreans for their own purposes.

I did not take these two photos; they are from Business Insider's photo-essay about the DMZ. It seems pretty much nothing has changed in the last 35 years.

Except for my trip to this site and a few trips I made (heavily armed) to the two US posts inside the DMZ, I spent my DMZ duty at what was then the only active firebase in the US Army, Firebase 4P1. I wrote about 
 I wrote about that singular experience here.

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