This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, May 24, 2010


In his book, Eaarth, Bill McKibben talks ruefully about the disastrous election of 1980. He reminds us that, in the Carter administration, there were signs that the downside of our addiction to fossil fuels was beginning to be taken seriously. We had an opportunity there to change our energy culture when there might still have been time to avoid the catastrophe we have now visited upon God's planet. Remember how Carter deliberately addressed the nation wearing a sweater, to emphasize conservation? Or how he put solar panels on the White House roof? Polls even showed majorities of Americans willing to move in a different direction.

I did not vote for Carter. Perhaps I should have. But his murderous adventures in Central America precluded my supporting him. I voted for Barry Commoner. Few people remember Barry Commoner. I was one of the only Commoner supporters on the Princeton Seminary Campus. Commoner was one of the leading environmental writer/activists of the 1970s. He had a well-articulated plan for weaning us off fossil fuels and moving towards an economy based on renewable energy. If Commoner's plan had been instituted thirty years ago, we would not be in nearly as bad a mess today.

But no. We elected Ronald Reagan. Instead of putting the brakes on our addiction to fossil fuels, Reagan and his people stepped on the gas. On January 20, 1981, God's planet was effectively doomed. That was our last chance to turn this around. In our "can-do," obstreperous, reality-be-damned, American arrogance, we decided that greed and growth were our gods.

Clinton was not much better, it turns out. His mantra, "It's the economy, stupid," did get him elected. But a better mantra would have been "It's the climate, or it's the health of the planet, stupid." Even with Al Gore involved, Clinton was woefully careless about our fossil fuel addiction. I voted for Gore in 2000, of course. But I would have had more enthusiasm about it had he been able to get more done on this when he was that close to power. Still, Gore did win that election. He was just prevented from taking office by the Supreme Court, in what was, in effect, a bloodless coup.

With Bush, of course, the whole thing got placed in the hands of oil and coal executives. And our doom was sealed.

The prophets of the Old Testament are quite unambiguous about what happens to people who choose to follow gods other than YHWH. In following after lies and falsehood, they foster social injustices, which in turn draw down horrendous catastrophes upon themselves. We -- and I mean we as a people, for we elected these people or allowed them to take office without being elected -- have brought this upon ourselves, and upon the whole world, for we are the global leader and example as fossil fuel junkies.

This ongoing apocalypse in the Gulf is only the most recent sour fruit of these disgraceful, self-serving, delusional decisions we have made as a people. The most depressing aspect of this is how, once these things become everyday occurrences, once they are not the latest news, we stop caring as much. Why aren't we boycotting BP? Why haven't these executives been arrested? How about putting stockholders in oil companies on boats to clean this up? ... Oh, right. Because that's ALL of us....

Friday, May 21, 2010

Reflections on "The Fly In the Ointment," by J. Russell Crabtree

There is a lot of good stuff in this book. There is also a lot that I have serious concerns about.

Crabtree is absolutely right when he talks about the obsolete institutional models and mindsets that are crippling the mainline churches right now. We act like we’re monopolies when people actually have options and alternatives. We act as if the role of the congregations is to support the mission of the presbytery or denomination, when the opposite is the case. Officials are good at double-speak, which gives permission not to change, as in, “we’re in a crisis… but on the bright side….” Crabtree mentions that breathtakingly ridiculous paper by Cliff Kirkpatrick, which pretends to be a “wake-up call” to the church… in 2005! If we hadn’t woken up by 2005 we’re in a coma! (He doesn’t mention Kirkpatrick’s solution, which is to have more babies… as if that were possible given our average age, and as if one of the biggest areas of loss hasn’t been our own offspring….)

He has some very good practical advice about inspiring and managing institutional change, doing leadership training, and resourcing churches. He is not afraid to be controversial, especially when he says presbyteries should charge fees for their consultant services. He clearly delineates the differences between the primary presbytery responsibilities and functions.

Crabtree does seem to understand that the mainline churches are in a death spiral, and drastic action, by which he means a change in culture, is necessary. I agree wholeheartedly.

But I am nervous when it is suggested that churches know what they want and presbytery needs to give that to them. I have discovered that what too many churches want is to be able to return to some version of 1956: pews full of people like us only younger, lots of children in the Sunday School, traditional worship, men in ties and women in dresses, and so on. They want Christendom restored. They want to keep doing the same things they have been doing for 40 years, and somehow get again the results they got on the 50’s, but which haven’t worked since.

On page 58, Crabtree talks about coaching to a vision. But it is hard to find any criteria evaluating the vision. Is it even remotely realistic? Is it based more on nostalgia than actual potential? Is it just a fantasy about the way things should be? Churches want to attract more families with young children. Fine. But (1) is an attractional model still relevant to every church? And (2) what about everyone else (which is to say a huge majority of Americans) who is not part of a family with young children? Single people, retirees, handicapped people, empty-nesters, non-traditional families, Gays, and so forth.

More to the point: what model do we get out of the New Testament? Jesus did not sit at home and wait for people to come to him. He did not institute a marketing campaign. He did not talk about clients and customers, and he most certainly did not let the latter set the agenda for his ministry. Jesus knew himself to be sent into the world. When he gathered his disciples, after training them, he sent them out as well.

I am wondering if the form of the ministry shouldn’t somehow be determined by the content of the message. Much of church growth literature, this book mostly included, is advice that would be germane to any organization that wants to grow. It comes down to basically have a clear vision and be able to articulate it to the people you want to attract. This basic model will work whether it is applied to a bowling league, a Masonic lodge, a retail business, or a branch of the KKK.

Crabtree talks about fostering “healthy, vital” churches. I think we need to speak even more basically about faithful and committed churches. Too often we let the culture determine what constitutes “health” and “vitality,” and this almost always happens quantitatively. But in the church, health and vitality can only be determined by Jesus Christ. We are healthy and vital when we are participating in his mission, when we are faithful and committed to him and the calling he gives to us. Instead of evaluating our ministry based on how many new “families with young children” we have been able to “attract,” we need to lift up those places in Scripture where Jesus outlines his ministry and commissions his disciples.

Like when Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
 He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Let churches tell us how they are doing according to these categories. Nowhere does Jesus say “go out and attract new members.” He does say “make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” So, our first task is to cultivate communities that obey Jesus. Part of this is being sent out to express the good news in the world by our actions of service, healing, and liberation. That is our attraction.

Jesus himself did not seek to attract “families with young children.” That’s because he wasn’t trying to live up to the example of 1956. He was not trying to exhume Christendom. He went to the needy, the sick, the possessed, and the outcast. He didn’t do that because that’s what his “customers,” ie. those wealthy women who supported him financially, wanted. He did it because it was what God wanted. And these women did not just mail in checks; they followed as part of his entourage.

When is someone going to write the book that says presbyteries should help churches (a) find out what Jesus wants them to do, and (b) obey him? That would be better than a “zero-based” mission model, it would be “Christ-based.”

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Bill McKibben's new book is called Eaarth. It could be called Life on Earth 2.0. His main point is that we now live on a very different planet from the one that harbored civilization over the last 10,000 years. The difference is the accelerating warming of the planet's atmosphere, due to the dramatic increase of carbon, due mainly to humans burning fossil fuels.

Global warming is no longer something pertinent to our future. It is not something with which only our grandchildren will have to deal. It is now. The planet we live on today is significantly changed already. And these changes are only going to continue. Global warming is not a theory; it is a done deal. It has produced a different Earth, which McKibben indicates by adding that extra a.

McKibben makes his point in the first hundred pages of the book. His account is not exhaustive. But he brings up enough representative examples of how the planet has changed to be very convincing. Not just by recounting temperature readings, but by going through the litany of serious and destructive weather events that have increased in frequency and severity, all over the world. Draughts, glacier depletion, floods, melting tundra, disappearing icepack, hurricanes, dying forests, increases in insects and disease, decreases in crop yields, and so forth. All happening now, not a century from now. McKibben can even trace at least part of the reason for the current recession to the increase in fossil fuel prices.

Modernity is based on fossil fuels. The use of fossil fuels has corrupted the planetary climate; that and their depletion will mean the end of modernity and even civilization as we know it.

It would be a very depressing book if it ended after the first half.

But McKibben devotes the second half to lessons about how to change the way we are living to adapt to this new, less hospitable planet, without fossil fuels. Once again, this is mostly not theory. Rather, he tells stories of what people and communities are actually doing now, and predicts such strategies and tactics will continue.

Somewhat surprisingly, McKibben is very upbeat. This is not about hoarding foodstuffs and retreating to armed compounds. Though he allows that it could deteriorate to this. But mainly McKibben talks about things getting smaller, more diverse, and more local. He does a lot of quoting of Thomas Jefferson. (There is in fact a whole section on the history of the American Revolution.)

Conservation is important, especially now as we try to wean ourselves off oil. I thought of the eco-mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle, repair.

In the end it is a remarkably hopeful book. It attempts to point a creative and positive way forward through what will certainly be a very difficult time for the whole planet. I hope he is not being overly optimistic.

Tangentially, McKibben's earlier and first book, The End of Nature, now a classic, sounded more like the prophet Jeremiah: warning about a future disaster. Eaarth sounds more like the prophet Ezekiel, in a way, in that he is dealing with a disaster that is now happening, and he is seeking to hold/bring together a remnant faithful community.

The first half of the book also reminded me of the Native American Ghost Dance movement in the 1890's. That was also a response of lament and hope to a catastrophic end of a whole civilization. Much of this part of Eaarth could be read liturgically as a litany of mourning for a planet we destroyed. And the second part is almost a credal statement outlining the way to survival on this new planet.

Read it.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The End of the Church, Part One

This is the current draft of the first section of a project I am working on analyzing the classic Presbyterian "Great Ends of the Church." Feedback is appreciated.

The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”

Christians have always placed proclaiming and hearing near the center of their faith. Presbyterians in particular have lifted up the proclamation of the Word as our preeminent activity. Paul’s words in Romans 10 instructed us: “Faith comes from what is heard” (v. 17a). We have always had the character of a preaching movement. I still meet people who refer to the whole worship service as the “sermon.” What used to pass for “liturgy” in Presbyterian churches was bunch of barely connected prayers and songs leading up to a sermon at the end. Many churches still use this order. The preaching served as the climax and culmination, the veritable point, of Presbyterian worship.

Traditional Presbyterian architecture would allow no distractions from the main purpose of worship, to hear the Word proclaimed. That’s why we don’t generally have pictures or statues. Many churches don’t have stained glass images, and banners once raised the eyebrows and opposition of traditionalists. In taking the Second Commandment (the one against “graven images”) seriously, we organized our worship spaces around speaking, singing, and especially hearing, to the detriment of the visual and tactile sides of experience. In some very old Puritan churches, the people don’t even necessarily face the preacher; they didn’t need to see him, just hear him.

Cogent and intelligible proclamation of the gospel remains the focus of education in Presbyterian seminaries. With the possible exception of the African American church, we have the most accomplished homileticians. We steadfastly require all ministers show proficiency (at least before they graduate) in the ancient biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. This provides a firm foundation for the main event of Presbyterianism, the biblically based sermon, where we fulfill the first Great End of the Church and proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind.

We have ample biblical warrants for these holy habits. People knew Jesus as a preacher and teacher. The apostle Paul also emphasized these skills and practices. The New Testament is peppered with passages indicating the importance of people hearing the proclaimed word.

How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? (Romans 10:14-15a)

But I wonder if, in our Protestant heritage, we haven’t emphasized the proclaiming and hearing so much, that we have often forgotten the doing. In Luke 11:28, Jesus says “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” As important as it is to hear, obeying is the point, as Jesus illustrates in this little parable:

What do you think?

A man had two sons;

he went to the first and said,

‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

He answered, ‘I will not’;

but later he changed his mind and went.

The father went to the second and said the same;

and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matthew 21:28-31a)

It is a rhetorical question. Obviously, the first son, the one who heard and obeyed is the one who did the father’s will. The second son only heard and did not obey. It is the obedience that matters. Jesus makes this point again near the end of the Sermon on the Mount. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). The illustration with which he concludes his sermon hammers this point again. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (Matthew 7:24).

As a young adult, my faith came alive when I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer makes the point that faith and obedience are so inherently bound together that neither is authentic without the other. “Only the one who believes is obedient, only the one who is obedient believes,” he said. He sought to break the lethal dichotomy that had grown up in Protestantism, between faith and works.

The situation had deteriorated so profoundly that many Protestants did not think what they actually did mattered at all, as long as they, in some sense, “believed.” How many times have we heard Christians, especially evangelicals, recite these words of the Apostle Paul?

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. (Romans 10:9-10)

From passages like this we Protestants emphasized the central, nearly exclusive importance of “believing.” But we somehow managed to reduce believing to giving passive intellectual assent to verbal propositions. In this case it had to do with affirming the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Believing became a matter of accepting that a historical event actually happened. This is a purely mental and verbal exercise.

In Bonhoeffer’s time, this perverse theology would result in the disgraceful spectacle of baptized Christians going to church and hearing the Word proclaimed on Sunday, and on Monday they would oversee trains bearing people to Auschwitz. When the gospel is reduced to faith and hearing in such a way that obedience and actual deeds are discounted, faith becomes utterly empty. It can even become an engine of evil. Bonhoeffer reminds us that without works faith isn’t real or true.

We must not lift up Bonhoeffer’s situation as if it does not apply to us. The Nazis were horrific and appalling; but they are not in a separate category, unrelated to our own decisions and policies. When we claim to “believe” in Jesus while still actively participating in systems that oppress, exploit, and do violence to the Earth and its people, we fall into the same hypocrisy as German Christians in Bonhoeffer’s time. His stern and uncompromising message hits us with the same force. If we really believe in Jesus we obey him. If we don’t do what he commands we cannot claim to believe or trust in him at all. If we don’t show his justice, non-violence, healing, and forgiveness in our own lives, our verbal affirmations of faith in him are at best meaningless, and at worst cynical, manipulative lies.

In the New Testament, however, believing meant far more than merely saying something or holding an opinion. It referred to a fundamental trust extending itself in particular actions. Two chapters after Romans 10, Paul tells his listeners to present their “bodies as a living sacrifice” (12:1). Then he tells them in some rigorous detail what kind of life they are to live in their bodies.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21)

Clearly, Paul understands believing to mean something that bears fruit in real relationships and actions. That portion of Romans 12 could have come from the mouth of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount.

In the Twelve-Step healing program, Step 3 has to do with a “decision to turn our will and our lives over to God.” Sometimes participants, especially those influenced by the “grace alone/faith alone” theology of Protestantism, think that making this decision is the end of it. Like the old hymn, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” we tell ourselves that once we make the decision all the rest is an easy downhill ride. Everything else just falls naturally and effortlessly into place.

But it doesn’t work like this. There remain nine more steps. These steps embody, implement, and activate the decision of Step 3. Without them, Step 3 remains empty words. The personal moral inventories and the direct making of amends to people whom we have harmed, along with prayer and spreading the message, serve to fulfill and complete the decision made in Step 3.

In the same way our “decision for Christ” as a response to the proclamation of the gospel does not have any legs, it does not get us anywhere, unless we find ways to embody, enact, and activate it in our behavior. It is not enough just to proclaim the gospel. If it is just talk, just words, just disembodied ideas, our proclamation is insufficient. Clearly the gospel must also be done.

I remember a famous quote from Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Francis understood that proclaiming the gospel was more than a merely verbal exercise. Francis understood “proclamation” primarily as something revealed in the character of the friars’ actions and behavior. They kept the simple but rigorous Rule.

To lift up just the verbal proclamation of the gospel as the end of the church by which humankind is saved seems to say that we believe our way into acting in a new way. As if we believe first, then we act on our beliefs. But it is not this simple. Human nature is such that we often more readily act our way into believing. When we change our practices and our behavior, we can gradually begin to see differently and trust more in what God is doing in and through us.

Jesus himself clearly shows that the gospel has to be more than words. While Presbyterians might like to imagine Jesus as mainly a preacher and teacher, the gospel record doesn’t necessarily bear this out. As Stephen Davies points out in his book, Jesus the Healer, his own contemporaries most likely knew Jesus primarily as a healer and exorcist. What he did was at least as important as what he said. Indeed, what he said would not have gained much of a hearing were it not for what he was doing. Jesus’ actions, frankly culminating in his death and resurrection, far more than his words, demonstrate his identity as Messiah.

Jesus himself proclaims this at the outset of his ministry. In his inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus quotes the book of the prophet Isaiah.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the broken-hearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners; 

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Isaiah 61:1-2a)

Certainly Jesus understands himself called to do some proclaiming. At the same time this proclamation has an active side, indicating things Jesus intends to do. These proclamations are more than empty words. The rest of his ministry shows him carrying out in his actions these things he here knows himself called to proclaim. When he institutes the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, he does not say “proclaim this in remembrance of me;” he says “do this in remembrance of me.”

Presbyterians have finally begun to notice this. Our Brief Statement of Faith includes a detailed account of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:

preaching good news to the poor

and release to the captives,

teaching by word and deed

and blessing the children,

healing the sick

and binding up the brokenhearted,

eating with outcasts,

forgiving sinners,

and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.

Clearly, we affirm that Jesus does more than talk. He understands “proclamation” in active and bodily terms. The colon at the end of the first line indicates that proclamation includes preaching, teaching, blessing, healing, binding, eating, forgiving, and calling. Jesus does not just use his tongue in proclaiming the gospel. He uses his whole body and ministers to people’s whole bodies.

God calls us to do this as well. We have to communicate in this first Great End of the Church that proclaiming has to do with doing. People need to be told of the good news of God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus; but this good news also needs to be enacted, lived, and done. Merely talking to people does not liberate them. People don’t come to healing because of what they have simply heard. The church’s responsibility is not done when it has delivered verbal statements and made pronouncements. People have not encountered Jesus Christ when they listen to and even decide to agree with some words.

It is one thing to say that healing, justice, and peace are important. It is another to actually heal, really work for justice, and live non-violently. The implication in this first Great End of the Church is that we Presbyterians have this salvation and now are called to tell it to everyone else… but not to actually do it. We have effectively detached Jesus’ life and the values he gave to the apostles from our understanding of the gospel. To how many Presbyterians does it occur that this proclamation of the gospel for salvation has anything to do with healing, peace, or justice? To how many does it ever occur that maybe we are called to live as Jesus lived? Who ever considers that we might actually be called, in Sara Miles’ words, to, “you know, be Jesus”?

Living in this way will very often bring people into some kind of conflict with their society. This is probably true with any society, but it is particularly the case with a society such as ours in which we positively encourage and reward greed, violence, gluttony, lust, winning, and selfishness. Indeed, in our economy, politics, and entertainment, these values prevail more often than not. We have raised several generations on the affirmation that the meaning of life is consumption, getting rich, and acquiring material goods, by any means necessary. For some, these values even define the “freedom” at the heart of our national identity. We have turned all the traditional deadly sins into virtues, and lifted up as exemplary the sad description of a corrupted society at the end of the book of Judges: “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

If the church is going to move forward in faithfulness to its Lord, it is going to have to get out of its head the idea that following Jesus is all about opinions and talking. To the extent that this Great End encourages this attitude, we need to lose it. If not, it will be our dismal end, as we whimper into extinction with Jesus’ name on our lips while all around us suffering and broken people go unhealed, the tentacles of injustice reach into every neighborhood, the creation spirals into imbalance, and we actively participate in practices of violence, judgment, retribution, preemption, and coercion.

We need to remember that our words, no matter how profound or lofty, no matter how spiritual or biblical, do not save humankind. God saves. And God saves in Jesus Christ by “emptying himself, taking on the form of a servant, and suffering death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2). In too many places in the gospels Jesus commands us, not just to talk about him, but to “go and do likewise” (Luke).

So: I submit that the first Great Purpose of the Church is to follow Jesus Christ by living together according to his life of healing, peace, and justice, and in our actions to proclaim the good news of God’s love for the whole world, using words only when necessary.