Tuesday, September 25, 2012

God Doesn't Need Todd Bentley (or me for that matter)

Author's note: I grew up in a fundamentalist charismatic church and have been in many church meetings that at least looked like the ones depicted in this video. Although I left that tradition and culture for the Anglican church, it is not without respect for the genuine spiritual heritage of divine immediacy and biblical groundedness bequeathed to me by my charismatic upbringing. [added 8:03 PM, 9/25]

I watched this documentary of the 2008 Lakeland Revival in full today while adding comments on a friend's Facebook wall (she posted the link I followed to watch it) as I watched it. Here are some of the things I said, with additions:

"I can't get a read on this guy's (the filmmaker's) perspective after watching a half hour of this. Not sure whether that's good or bad."

"He certainly hasn't crafted a screed against it. There are moments where I feel like he's highlighting the socioeconomic and psychological instability of the people drawn into this, but his apparent refusal to editoralize makes it hard to tell what he thinks about that."

"Jesus Camp had a very clear perspective, sometimes to its detriment. The fact that he and his crew participate in 'revival' moments un-ironically locates them in particular way to the events. It's possible that they're attempting to do a positive spin in a dead-pan objective style. I at least appreciate it in that I feel free to sort through my own reactions instead of having it processed for me."

"The man talking about the 'little lambs' in the last 10 minutes or so was heart-breaking. Perhaps the most infuriating thing about the fallout has been Morningstar's 'restoration' doublespeak, which is all biblically absurd.

I was in a Todd Bentley meeting once, about nine years ago, and I didn't see any healings but I did experience God's presence in a powerful way. But 'anointed' or not, God doesn't need Todd Bentley. He might show up through the man's ministry from time to time--he's merciful and he does that. But with or without him, God will be present to his church.

That is part of why Morningstar's approach to this represents such a colossal failure of church discipline. It's as though their inflexible conception of revivalist as indispensable vessel has pressured them into a willfully ignorant application of Jesus and the apostles' teaching on marriage and divorce. It's heart-breaking because I know what it's like to be an emotionally wounded teenager in need of God and the example of virtuous leaders and just how confusing it would be to think that the backbone of God's most important ministries were somehow above the need for ethics.

I couldn't help but think of so much of what is onscreen during this documentary as a reflection of the charismatic world's rejection of reason in favor of gut-level intuition. As much as I don't want to take an entirely negative stance towards what I see going on in these revival services--I don't think it's all mass-psychosis and hysteria, because I've been there and God's been there with me--throughout the doc I was made repeatedly thankful for the Anglican seminary I ended up in, despite (because of?) the charismatic world I was reared in."


As we've been reading Francis MacNutt's Healing in class this past week, I've been thinking on and off about the healing ministry and the spiritual gifts in the church. I want that kind of ministry to be at work in the church and, no doubt from the influence of my charismatic/pentecostal upbringing, I can't help but see resistances to that ministry as both encroaching modernism and collusion with the principalities and powers. We talked in class last week about how abuses and disappointments also fuel reticence regarding healing and how to engage that both as pastors and people struggling with our own disappointments and weak faith. It's neither easy nor fun to try and engage with these dynamics, given the fact that so many go unhealed and unaffected by the gospel, but it's part of responding to God's call to ministry.

Watching this video, I couldn't help but think about some of my recent reflections on the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. What makes the Eucharist special is that Christ set it aside as a promised moment of encounter between God and his people, a symbolic remembrance that comes attached with a promise for the infusion of resurrection life. What's beautiful to me about it is the fact that God shows up to meet with his people in such a simple, no-fuss way--no strings attached. We prepare our hearts through corporate repentance and worship, yes, but Eucharist/communion is primarily a moment of receiving. It's not something the lay participant or the priest has power over, that either's worthiness or holiness makes valid. And by no means is it the only time God meets with his people or fills them with life! But it is a time and place set aside by God for that very thing, meaning that regardless of what has gone on in our week, regardless of how much energy we have left to give, God has promised to meet with us, Christ has promised to meet with us in the receiving of the bread and the wine.

God doesn't need the vessels or ambassadors he has chosen to work with and through, but he does work with and through them. God doesn't need the bread and the wine, but he does work in and through them. It is a small view of God to think that we need one particular minister or Christian leader so badly that we can overlook their personal sins in order to keep them on stage or at the altar. But it's often a big view of God that puts broken people like Todd Bentley in the limelight.

Too often I hear revivalists dismissed as flim-flammers, Machiavellian schemers who set out to dupe and destroy the church, with examples like Bentley offered up as exhibits A-Z. As much as I feel compelled to condemn the way this adulterer has been "restored" without repentance (which I'm not sure how that works in the case of divorce and remarriage, but it does seem like his second marriage would not be valid in God's eyes, given that he is not a widower), I don't see that as carte blanche for writing off spiritually efficacious ministry. It makes me long for it to be done rightly. It makes me long for people to be ministering in the power of the Spirit in ways that are submitted to church discipline, ethical standards and in ways that encourage instead of discourage rational engagement with the living God rather than the spasms and paroxysms of "revival". It's not God's design for us to look like crazy people being undone by unseen and unknowable powers, but to be humanity restored by divine life walking in love with Father-Son-Holy Spirit and our neighbors. I long to see the vital divine energy of revival being channeled in that way, for the power ministry of the apostles and prophets to coincide with the patient and reasonable application of the church's instruction.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Donald Miller's Tongue

What good is a phone call if you're unable to speak?

"At first, even though I could feel God writing something different, I'd play the scene the way I wanted. This never worked. It would always have been better to obey the Writer, the one who knows the better story. I'd talk poorly about somebody and immediately know I'd done it because I was insecure, and I'd know I was a weak character who was jealous and undisciplined.

So I started obeying a little. I'd feel God wanting me to hold my tongue, and I would.

It didn't feel natural at first; it felt fake, like I was being a character somebody else wanted me to be and not who I actually was; but if I held my tongue, the scene would play better, and I always felt better when it was done.

I started feeling like a better character, and when you are a better character, your story gets better too.

At first the feeling was only about holding my tongue. And when I learned to hold my tongue a bit, the Voice guided me from the defensive to the intentional. God wanted me to do things, to help people, to volunteer or write a letter or talk to my neighbor. Sometimes I'd do the thing God wanted, and the story always went well, of course; and sometimes I'd ignore it and watch television. But by this time I really came to believe the Voice was God, and God was trying to write a better story."

from A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller

This reminded me of a verse from the lectionary that got my attention a week or two ago:

"If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless." ~ James 1:26

Seriously, I love this guy.

As a seminarian avowedly jealous of stand-up comedians for all the things they are allowed to say and I am not, this verse has a special relevance to me. I like to talk loud and freely and am usually at my happiest when I take as many filters off as possible. But I find again and again that my friends are not nearly so enamored with my verbal kaleidoscope as I am.

Seeking more intentionality in my words is, frankly, a chore. And I feel fake for doing it. But I think I'm learning that loving my neighbor means feeling fake sometimes. I like to think of myself as a natural wit worthy of reverence and--especially so--attention, but, really, I'm not. And if I want to keep on being the kind of person who speaks their mind, who makes themselves consistently vulnerable through speech, I need to be willing to recognize that not everything that comes out of my mouth and my heart is something that people want to hear about. And I need to be willing to examine the heart and mind producing these words, and to bear all of the above in day to day repentance, reconciliation and renewal with the Father.

Was Jesus Mary-ed?

I guess it's because people get confused and tend to have misplaced trust in people in labcoats (or with PHd's), but the need for the apologetic community to loudly dismiss this text fragment suggesting Jesus might have had a wife feels a little desperate to me. Even if it is a genuinely ancient text, I struggle to see how it has any bearing on the witness of the NT. At the same time, the attempts of its finders and analyzers to make something out of it seems equally desperate, and a worst a cheap ploy for publicity. Why can't we just all be comfortable with saying, "Hey, someone found an old piece of paper with something written on it. Probably doesn't mean much historically, except in that it reflects the fact that someone wrote these words on this piece of paper a long time ago." It's a little absurd to treat every scrap recovered from antiquity as a reliable transmitter of "what really happened".

If you're not sure what I'm talking about, let me google that for you.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney the Candid-ate

Linked above is the playlist of MotherJones videos on YouTube. The first five or so are from Mitt Romney's May 2012 address to wealthy donors in Boca Raton, FL.

I'm not going to editorialize these leaked Romney vids from the Boca Raton fundraiser. My sympathies in this election are clear. However, these newly released videos are still fascinating for at least two non-partisan reasons:

1) This is probably the most candid you will ever hear a presidential candidate speaking. Romney is presumably addressing a roomful of wealthy supporters from whom he is soliciting campaign funds, and he is talking very bluntly about his perceptions of the shape of the race, the differences between him and Obama and what his campaign needs to address in order to win the race. I promise you he won't be bragging in a news interview any time soon about how they've hired professional campaign advisers who work in elections all over the world (and neither will Obama). I'm not surprised by anything Romney says in these videos, and I wouldn't be surprised if most of my conservative friends agree with him. This stuff is probably only really off-putting to the swing-voter--those 5-10% of Americans which Romney clearly outlines as who he has to win over to take the election.

2) Which brings me to my second point, that Romney's comments here about the targeted swing votes highlight a problem endemic to the two-party system. Our politics are unnecessarily polarized and force otherwise reasonable people into defending black-and-white reductions of the incredibly complex issues facing a country as large as the United States of America. Nobody likes it, but Romney is merely pointing out the uncomfortable truth of the contemporary American presidential election: most people have made up their minds before the candidates are even picked--all that matters is those 5-10% who might vote either way.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chrysostom on Pastoral Care

"You cannot treat men with the same authority with which a shepherd treats a sheep... It is necessary to make a man better not by force but by persuasion. We neither have authority granted us by law to restrain sinners, nor, if it were, should we know how to use it, since God gives the crown to those who are kept from evil, not by force, but by choice."

~John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood (56; II.3)

The ecclesial implications are clear, but I think we should also heed the implications for Christian engagement with politics. "God gives the crown to those who are kept from evil, not by force, but by choice" implies that Christians should be careful when they frame their political goals in terms of legislated morality. The difference between wise public policy and Christian morality is not absolute, yet neither is it non-existent. Any given day I believe we are better off persuading the culture by example and in the Spirit rather than rallying ourselves around political causes in order to shape the culture from the top down.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Theology of Preaching

Having been to two separate services today at two different churches that I love very much, I came away better informed through the “word” portions of the services but with the feeling that maybe I hadn’t been preached to. Far and away both presentations were edifying and wise, giving me food for thought and helpful instruction. Teaching and informed sharing are fine, but where is the proclamation? Isn’t a Christian worship service about something more than getting some information? Don’t we believe in the mysterium tremendum of the Godhead, present with us and among us and through us? Isn’t that the main event?

It’s obvious (or at least I think it should be) that the ministry of the sacrament is a holy event of entering God’s presence and coming face to face with him in the body and blood of Christ. When we take communion, we’re enacting a ritual to which Jesus attached a promise. We are joining ourselves to him. Sometimes in sacramental theology the eucharist is called a “means of grace”--God is showing up in a special way as we commemorate the atoning death of Christ. We are invited together into the holy of holies, gathered all in the presence of the Lord.

I think that our theology of preaching should be something analogous to this. Preaching distinguishes itself from teaching by going beyond simple instruction to proclaim the nearness and relevance of God to the listeners. Like the ministry of the sacrament, the preacher invites the hearers to meet with God, to see God in the text and understand the invitation that is being given to engage with him through the Christian worship service. Preaching isn’t primarily about catechesis, but igniting the audience’s existential recognition that God is in the room with them and wants their attention. Like the ministry of the sacrament, preaching instigates the audience to engage their hearts and minds with the living presence of the king.

Preaching also compels the audience to the same sacramental vocation--bringing as many people as possible into communion with the living God.

Jesus & the Arab Spring

At church tonight our speaker, a missionary to North Africa, talked to us about Jesus and the Arab Spring. He began by historically and culturally contextualizing Jesus words on retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount and connecting them to the twentieth century tradition of nonviolent resistance epitomized by Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. These practices have not been what the Arab world has been known for, especially not so in the tumultuous almost-century since the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the European powers divided up North Africa and West Asia as they saw fit. However, the political revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia last year--collectively known as “The Arab Spring”--represented a high profile introduction of this concept to pan-Arab culture.

On December 17th, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of the governor’s office. This tragic event, instigated as it was by economic despair and humiliation at the hands of public officials, electrified the nation of Tunisia leading to the nation-wide protests which eventually ousted the reigning dictator of multiple decades. The revolutions in Libya and Egypt followed--history in the making, as they say.

What filled me with hope while listening to this story tonight was the contrast between these events and those of many American and Christian imaginations this past decade. I recently came across a tape series that somehow ended up on the dirt cheap book rack in the seminary by a prominent and shrill televangelist. Shortsightedly titled “Iraq: The Final War” (it is dated to 2003), its flames and fury iconography succinctly captures the fear-mongering and hate-mongering I am thinking of, positing armed conflicts in Arab nations as harbingers of an apocalyptic end-time scenario in which the barbarous and demonic Muslims do their best to kill every Christian and Jew on the planet. Turns out God had something different in mind.

“He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” ~ Acts 17:26-27

Many conservative Western Christians have imagined the Muslim world as a demonic horde, but as the first decade of the century came to a close we found that political destabilization had revealed our common humanity and even some of the politics of Jesus. Instead of tribalistic warfare or Islamic terrorism, the Arab world’s greatest political change of the last century was wrought (or at least sparked) via nonviolent resistance. This gives us hope, and it should give tired Christian workers hope, because it says that despite our debased fears and despite our conviction of humanity’s potential for brutality, we find that the words and politics of Jesus have a potent traction that can dramatically affect an entire region.

Though the tragic events in Syria this past year are a somewhat of a stinging rebuke to this line of thought, the Arab spring nonetheless testifies of Muslim nations capability for self-initiated and progressive reform. It teaches the church that we cannot get by with reductive demonizations of Arabs and Muslims, and that the wisdom of Christ penetrates and transforms hearts, cultures and countries in surprising and exciting and unpredictable moments and movements. God finds a way.

Part of the story about gospel work in North Africa is that many people needed to experience an existentially shaking event in order to be more open to the message of Jesus. Whatever sociopolitical analysis these events bear out, we should stay mindful and prayerful of their potential for being the basis of a stable and just society where the word of God can spread rapidly and Christ’s church can take root.

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” ~ 1 Timothy 2:1-2

Friday, September 7, 2012

Flying Blind

I hope my sermon went well this morning. My nerves were totally shot. I do all my writing in Google Docs because cloud saving is awesome and my starter edition of MS Word doesn't make footnotes. This morning, however, I woke up to discover that Google had eaten the end of my sermon and that I needed to write a new one. This process pressed me uncomfortably close to when I was supposed to be at chapel but I was done and OK--only to find the printer unwilling to print my manuscript. Freak out time.


Ok. Screaming done.

By the time I try to get it to work made me late and I had nothing concrete to show for it except frayed nerves. Service had already started, I hadn't yet sifted through the vestments to find the ones that fit and I was about to give my first ever sermon from memory. After preaching a good many times I've become more or less comfortable and confident in the pulpit, except I've always had a manuscript. I've learned how not to look at it the whole time and add flourishes and digressions that help make things seem less scripted, but I've always had that carefully crafted, typed copy to keep me concise, on point, clear and well within the time frame (which is 5-7 minutes at Trinity).

So I did it. And it went reasonably well. I was happy to find my brain could access the ideas I laid out in more or less the order I wanted to say them. But I can never tell how much of the internal trembling I feel is external. I kind of doubt it's as obvious to the room as it is to me, but it certainly doesn't feel that way. Feedback afterwards was positive, although the eager-to-please student in me is disappointed that there are no professor evaluations of sermons for the first week of class. Both because I cherish the approval and because I feel able to trust them not just to be nice and reassuring. Thank you to everyone who complimented me afterwards! Please don't take offense at my neuroses in this area.

I think, though, it means I need to do it again next time. I've thought some recently about trying to move away from manuscripts, but I'm not sure when I would have made the decision to do it myself. God found a way to do it for me.

Wax and Clay

This is the text of the sermon I delivered today in chapel. It is based on the gospel reading for today, John 9:18-41.

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1:15-19).

In our gospel reading for this morning, we catch the aftermath of Jesus healing a blind man on the sabbath. The previous chapter details the Pharisees’ burgeoning opposition to Jesus, capped off by the Lord’s radically offensive claim that “before Abraham was, I am.” We might therefore see the action of our chapter, chapter nine, as Christ’s active unpacking of that declaration through another offensive act. He equates himself with the creator God in one chapter and follows it up with a creative miracle in the next. But he will not do it in a way that satisfies his opponents. Even as he is giving solid evidence of his grand theological claim about himself, even as he is drawing this formerly blind man into saving faith, he is pushing away the Pharisees who ultimately reject both his claim and the saving faith that comes with it.

Of course part of what’s so troubling for the Pharisees is that this man was born blind, meaning his sight could not be restored by something that only seemed miraculous. We see them over the course of our reading attempt to systematically dismantle the proposition which has been put to them: the man flouting their religious authority and tradition is exercising power only a man blessed by God could use. In order to defend themselves they must insist against Jesus. How did this happen? they want to know. Surely this man is evil, they insist. As Jesus acts to make himself known, they put up barrier after barrier in order to refuse to acknowledge who he is. And therefore these self-professed men of God are refusing to acknowledge who God the Father is.

The healed man, however, has had his physical sight restored and is gradually being given spiritual eyesight as well. There is a blunt simplicity to how it begins for him: he simply knows that he was blind, now he sees, and he sees because of Jesus. The Pharisees’ interrogation of him has a clawing desperation by comparison. They must strive to maintain the facade while he only has to cling to the truth.

These two responses to Jesus echo Origen’s observation that it is the same sun that melts wax and hardens clay. It remains a mystery to us why it is that some people respond to Jesus in faith and others in indifference or hostility. It seems we are best, along with Article 17 of the 39 Articles, acknowledging our ignorance on this point. It does not convert souls to dispute the difference, it does nothing for our confidence in God’s grace either. In his commentary on this chapter, our professor Rod Whitacre writes that “Unless God opens our eyes we will not see, but he is offering sight to all who will receive it--such is the biblical antinomy of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.” We stand at the intersection of these contrasting biblical truths, and we must trust that our anguish for the injustice and suffering put on humans bound by and condemned for sin pales in comparison to our Father’s.

I am reminded of my own spiritual journey which, although it began in the Charismatic church, has not been a straightforward Wesleyan tale of my personal choices for Jesus. My spirituality and convictions are rooted irrevocably in the strange moments where God has been powerfully present to me. As a result, I’ve ended up with a much higher view of God’s initiative and a much lower view of my own than a lot of speech from my tradition would seem to imply. I will spare you the sordid tale, but I have not been the best Christian! I even abandoned the faith entirely as a teenager, an event which occurred only after the very profound holy encounters that shaped me relatively early in my life.

I have found that God is often ready to show up and that I am not always ready to meet him. I have found that despite my sin and rebellion, he has doggedly pursued me for at least two decades, if not even back further than I can remember. In short, I’m not at seminary because I believe in myself so much as the God who keeps bringing me back to himself; the God who can’t seems so stubbornly unwilling to let me out of his grasp. Jeff Goldblum once said, “Life finds a way.” Well, God finds a way. And he keeps on finding a way with me.

This keeps me, and I think it should keep us, from being too proud of our faith in the Lord. I think about my life and wonder sometimes, “Why me? Why is it me, Lord, and not this other person whom you reached out to in this way, whose heart you turned toward you?” When you praise him, when you love him, when you thank him, when you pray to him--are you in some sense proud of yourself? Is there a part of you that might think about “unbelievers” and “sinners” and thank God that you are not like them? This passage should give us pause, because we must all know that we at least started out no better than the Pharisees. Yes, their words and deeds are abhorrent and Jesus clearly condemns them, but we need to be able to see ourselves in them. We need to be able to understand that, without God’s intervention in our hearts, we could have been them. We could be left to the darkness of the world, to be warped and corrupted by sin into people of hate and selfishness.

It is a mystery and one that we should not take upon ourselves to solve. But as part of the humility which God desires for his people we must recognize that our redemption from sin and wickedness does not belong to us; it is not ours to take credit for. “If you were blind,” Jesus says, “you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains.” Jesus is using the healing of this blind man to expose the hardened hearts of men who have claimed to be the spiritually illumined leaders of God’s people. The blind man’s simple, faithful response in and of itself becomes a rebuke to their calculated hostility and pride. It serves as a lesson to us as well.

We all are blind or began blind! We are all at the mercy of the God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. That’s what lead Jesus to the cross--that’s the gospel. God’s mercy has been extended to us who deserved none. We may wrestle sometimes with the question of “why me and not this person or that person”, and I think those moments are part of God’s invitation to ministry. Recognizing that God pulled us from darkness and into the light should give us hope that the same can happen for anyone else, that God desires this for every person we meet.

Let us remember today, then, the Pharisee in all of us. The hard heart in need of a gracious God to pursue us and draw us to him. It will strengthen our relationship with him to do this, to have a consistent attitude of humility before his grace. And it will remind us that the same God who called us out of darkness and into the light is ready to go on doing that, ready for us to join in his mission of finding once hostile and corrupt hearts and melting them with his grace.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Preaching to Myself

"Take delight in Yahweh, and he will give you the desires of your heart." ~ Psalm 37:4

How is it that this verse consistently shows up in the office and lectionary when my heart is restless? Rhetorical question. It's a verse that gets quoted a lot in some circles, with good reason, although sometimes it seems to be ascribed a kind of magical quality as though having more quiet times or enthusiastic worship experiences was the key to getting the things you want from God. As I've been reading in the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker this week, we've gotta recognize that God is The Thing that we want. The highest good that all other goods point us to, that all desires for good things ultimately have their meaning in.

That's not to say, of course, that God doesn't give us the lesser goods we desire. I think there is an intentional ambiguity in the phrasing: God gives those delighted in him both the objects of their desires as well as redeemed desires in place of broken ones. I've heard some people talk about about the latter reading as the primary one, a little too self-satisfied in their cleverness for reading it differently than most, but read in context the former reading has to take precedence. You can't read Psalm 37 as part of the whole canon without hearing its very clear reliance on the Deuteronomic promise of blessing and cursing (Deuteronomy 11) especially as it pertains to the land.

The psalmist is setting up an active attitude of the heart becoming of God's people, who walk in humility before God rather than worry about all the power and wealth that the wicked have. Psalm 37 recapitulates God's covenant with Israel by saying, "Live in this way and you will be bearer's of Yahweh's blessing and promise", and by downplaying the success of people who do evil, "Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked" (v16). It's not our goal to have all the stuff possessed by those who live without reference to the God of Israel, but to be possessed by him and delight in what we do have, trusting the Lord to meet our needs and bring us joy.

And this heart attitude has been adopted by Jesus as part of the core of the way of life he teaches us: "The meek shall inherit the land" (v11) could not be a clearer antecedent to "The meek shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5), which includes Christ's subtle indication that Yahweh's claim is on the whole earth and not just the tiny Palestinian strip between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. It's so tempting, especially as one discerning a call to the ministry, to look at what is had by "the world" and covet it and disdain the narrow path of God. God, the psalmist and Jesus, however, are reassuring me this morning that the relatively little that I have is better, given that God himself is the ultimate compensation.