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Monthly Archives: September 2009

Today my hometown church, Delta Presbyterian in Delta, CO, will celebrate its 125th anniversary.  This is the church where I was baptized, and where I attended with my parents most Sunday mornings of my childhood.  It’s the church that my entire dad’s side of the family attended, and where my grandmother was one of the more influential longtime members.  It’s a small church, which makes it feel like a family.  So, this week I reflected on some of those family memories. These are some of the best:

  • Church potlucks in Westminster Hall and coffee fellowship in the Annex.
  • I remember being given my first Bible by Delta Presbyterian in third grade: I still have it.
  • I remember “preaching” during a Sunday morning led by the youth when I was in elementary school. I think I spoke on something from the Ten Commandments.
  • Painting the CU logo on the wall in the basement of the Annex with the youth group.
  • Decorating the sanctuary for Christmas with David, the church organist.
  • Making Chrismons for the sanctuary’s Christmas tree with the Bruce and Janet Sexton, the pastor who served the church during my childhood and his wife.
  • Music recitals with Janet Sexton as my piano teacher.
  • Playing the threefold Amen on the piano at the end of worship one Sunday – the first time I contributed music to a worship service!
  • Going to Denver for a Rockies game with the youth group.
  • The hiking trip Bill Forbes took the youth group on in the San Juans when I was in 7th grade.
  • Brian Renfrow leading the youth group through the book In the Grip of Grace.  Also while in 7th grade.
  • Bell choir – Especially the song Daniel Renfrow, the Sunderlands, and I knew best: “Simple Gifts”.
  • The support I know Delta Presbyterian gave to Young Life , which had a life changing impact on me in high school, and in turn shaped much of my ministry today.
  • Bill Forbes’ (the current pastor) sermon contrasting the conversions of Peter and Paul – still one of the most memorable sermons I’ve heard.
  • Mowing the church lawn during high school.
  • My attempts to lead “contemporary” music.  As the teenager who wanted to make room for guitar in church, I led 15 minutes of “praise music” before worship some Sundays.  Those who wanted to take part came early, while the traditionalists waited until it was over and the organ began playing.   
  • Speaking about my trip to Thailand in 2003. (Thanks again to all who supported me that summer!)
  • Speaking about my experience at General Assembly in 2004.
  • Bill Forbes loaning me the book Crisis in the Church by John Leith, which influenced my choice of a seminary.
  • The Christmas Eve service in David’s barn/garage two Christmases ago.
  • My ordination last November (see here and here).

Though I’m in Pittsburgh now, Delta Presbyterian will always have a special place in my heart.  Compiling this list of favorite memories from there made me even more grateful for Delta’s support than ever before. As Paul wrote, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all” (Philippians 1:3-4).

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Last night Mike and I returned from the 2009 Emergent Theological Conversation with Jurgen Moltmann.  To describe it in a few words, it seemed like a conference of sound bites. People asking Moltmann questions often quoted short passages from his books and then asked him to comment on them.  Topics changed somewhat rapidly.  Catchy one-liners from Moltmann were then tweeted and retweeted throughout the Twub.  A screen behind professor Moltmann displayed tweets from people attending the event. Everyone had a laptop open to either Facebook or Twitter where they conversed online with other people attending the event and with those following from far away.  I found it difficult to keep my attention focused on anything. I wondered at times if it was an event designed for people with attention deficit disorder.

Nevertheless, I managed to take six pages of notes, which I will now share here in soundbite form.  Here are the quotes from Moltmann which I found most interesting during the event:

“Talking about theological method is like listening to someone clear their throat.”

“Professional theologians must again and again go down to the people and the people’s questions and their answers.”

On his life story: “It is easy to tell, but it was difficult to live.”

On the Trinity:  “The doctrine of the Trinity is not a mystery; it’s really quite simple. If you come into fellowship with Jesus, you also come into fellowship with the God whom he called Abba, dear Father.  And in the fellowship of Jesus in the prayer to our dear Father, you feel the life-giving energies of the divine Spirit. . . . Before we develop the doctrine of the Trinity, we live already in God. . . We don’t believe in the Trinity only; we live in the Trinity.”

“The Trinitarian persons in their indwelling relationships are not only three persons, they are three rooms.  They give room to each other. . . . When we accept other people . . .  we give them a ‘life-space’ in which they can rest freely.  . . . This room-giving to each other is the best way to live the love of the Triune God.”

“The Reform tradition is my origin and the ecumenical church is my future.”

“God is not in control of everything; God is carrying and bearing everything.” 

“I read the Bible with the presupposition to meet the divine word in human words.  And whenever I meet the divine word which became incarnate in Jesus Christ, his suffering death and resurrection, then I meet the truth.”

In response to the question, “How do we practice hope?”: “Follow the Sermon on the Mount.”

“We have two crosses in Christian history: one is a real cross at Golgotha. The other is a dream cross of Emperor Constantine. “

“If you, on the side of the guilty, want to enter into the truth of your life, listen to the victims because they can tell you who you really are.”

“I am afraid I am not a universalist because, you know, there are perhaps a few people I don’t want to see again.  But God may be, because he created them and he’ll want to see them again.”

“I go on praying for the dead because the dead are not dead, they have died, but are not dead.  They are sleeping.

On the relationship between science and religion: “The fundamental question of natural science is, ‘do you understand what you know?’  Knowledge increases rapidly, but do we understand it?  We need a hermeneutics of nature together with science.”

“A congregation without disabled persons is a disabled church.”  

“The growing world community will be based on human rights or there will be no world community at all.”

“We do not celebrate at the Lord’s Table our theories about his presence, but his presence.  Let’s celebrate his presence first and then afterward talk about it.”

In response to the question, “What should we be reading?: “The Bible.”

Moltmann’s parting words: “Peace be with you and good theology too.”

Continuing in reading A Broad Place this week, I came across the background story behind Moltmann’s view of the Sacraments.  In The Church in the Power of the Spirit he makes cases (1) for an open table at the “messianic feast” of the Lord’s Supper, and (2) for believer’s baptism over and against infant baptism.  This story sheds light on the question of why.

On pages 163 and 164 of A Broad Place, Moltmann recounts that in October 1968 he had “two very different eucharistic experiences”.  The first was at a demonstration against the Vietnam War in London.  Prior to the event, a group of Protestants and Catholics  “met in the offices of the Catholic publisher Sheed & Ward, and with a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, sitting on the floor, we prepared ourselves for the demonstration by agreeing to renounce violence. . . . Bread and wine passed from hand to hand in a small circle, and we felt the bodily presence of Jesus among us” (163).  Moltmann then contrasts this with an experience at St. Giles Cathedral.  There, “After the sermon, those who stayed behind were served the Lord’s Supper on silver trays by servers clad in black.  The participants sat separate from one another, scattered here and there in the great church.  There was no sense of community and I went out of the beautiful church depressed.” This leads him to ask and conclude: 

Where does Jesus’ feast belong?  On the streets of the poor who follow Jesus, or in the church of the baptized, the confirmed and established? I decided for the feast that is open to all, and to which the weary and heavy-laden are invited.  Baptism on the other hand, should be reserved for believers.  That certainly contradicts the practice of our mainline churches, but it is in conformity with Jesus according to the Synoptic Gospels.  Jesus’ Supper is not a church meal for people who belong to one’s own denomination.  It is the feast of the crucified Christ, whose hands are stretched out to everyone. (A Broad Place p. 163)

This reversal of conventional mainline practice – opening the table to all and restricting baptism to believers – is one of the most unique aspects of Moltmann’s approach to the sacraments.  Yet it seems few have followed him in pursuing these radical suggestions.  Later in A Broad Place, Moltmann notes of The Church in the Power of the Spirit that “Hardly a single one of my suggestions was accepted”, and lists his reversal of the inclusivity and exclusivity of the sacraments as an example (Broad Placep. 204).  This is curious, given that other theological revolutions in which Moltmann was involved have made lasting impacts, such as rejecting the impassibility of the Greek notion of deity, emphasizing a social Trinity, and rethinking theology in light of eschatology.

In fact, this reversal can be credited to Moltmann’s eschatological perspective on all theology.  He writes that “baptism and the Lord’s supper are signs of the messianic era” (Church in the Power of the Spirit p. 243). Baptism marks the entryway into the hope of the coming kingdom of God.  It would make sense, then, that only those who have tasted that hope and are committed to living for it receive baptism: “It is a sign of the dawn of hope for this world and of messianic service in it.  it is a missionary sign” (Church in the Power of the Spirit p. 241).  Similarly, the Supper is an eschatological event, a foretaste of the messianic kingdom coming in its fullness.  But because Jesus shares in table-fellowship with all kinds of people, the Supper is open to all.  Because the Supper’s “fellowship comes into being on the basis of Christ’s unconditional and prevenient invitation”, the invitation to communion in worship is “as open as the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross” (Church in the Power of the Spirit pgs 259 and 246).  

What would happen if some churches actually put these ideas into practice? Who would it offend and why?  Is the theology bad, or are these ideas credible?  What else (aside from 2,000 years of tradition) prevents churches from making radical changes like this?

 

“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16b)

Today I have a lot to be praying about: A friend’s mother is having a significant surgery. Upper Room is facing some exciting decision-making in the next week and our leadership needs discernment. We’re praying, and looking forward to seeing how God answers.

Yesterday at our Presbytery meeting, Vera White preached about the importance of prayer in new church development. Her text included Matthew 9:38-39: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” New church development, she reminded the presbytery, is God’s work, and that means our work begins with prayer. Vera cited a recent trip to Brazil where church-plants are thriving as evidence of the importance of prayer.

In American mainline circles, though, I notice a disturbing lack of confidence in prayer. We make comments about how prayer is “really about changing us”, as though the only power in prayer is introspection. True, prayer does change us, but that’s not all it does. I practice contemplative forms of prayer at times, but not to the exclusion of intercessory prayer. Another sign of lack of confidence in prayer is praying without clarity, asking for ambiguous requests rather than making clear petitions to God. Perhaps we do this because we are afraid that if we’re too specific, God won’t answer the way we want. But Jesus’ parables about prayer encourage specific (and persistent) requests.

James 5:17-18 expresses a genuine belief in the power of prayer: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.” The story referenced here is in 1 Kings 17 and 18, and it surrounds the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. And that makes it easy for us to say, “Well, that was Elijah the prophet! Of course his prayers were effective!” But James emphasizes that “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.” What if we took this seriously and believed that effective prayers are not just for prophets, but for all of those filled with the Holy Spirit?

So today is a day for prayer. Please pray with us and for the requests I mentioned above. Read also the series that Mike is writing about prayer over at his blog.

In conversation with a friend last week, I wondered aloud if the desire for secular accreditation has led seminaries to compromise their ability to produce spiritually mature graduates.  Spiritual formation generally takes a back-seat to academic work, with the result that many graduates can say and write a great deal about God without having grown closer to knowing God personally.  Why does this happen? 

For the past two days I’ve been reading A Broad Place, Jurgen Moltmann’s autobiography.  It’s fascinating to read: his experience as a soldier in WWII, his conversion experience while a prison of war, and his accounts of encounters with various theologians and church figures as his career progressed.  In light of the question asked above, though, I’ve appreciated his commentary on the education system in which he both learned and taught.  Writing about his first seminary teaching experience at Wuppertal, he says, “It is a point worth remembering that in Wuppertal there were professors who were at the same time pastors of their parishes and never considered exchanging their congregations for the seminary” (p. 72). Earlier in the book, he makes a similar comment while recounting his days as a theology student. After writing about his professors Joachim Jeremias and Gunter Bornkamm and their involvement at St. Albani church in Gottingen, he notes  “I mention Jeremias and Bornkamm because neither close ties with the church nor a broader education are firm components of academic theology any more” (p. 43).  Moltmann seems to lament this, preferring instead theology in service of and connection to the church. Yet the inclusion of “a broader education” in that quote reveals a desire for teachers of theology to be connected with the world as well as the church.  As a result, Moltmann defends the German educational system which allows for theology programs in both public and private institutions:  “‘Theology at the charge of the church’ is good and valuable, but theology at the charge of the kingdom of God goes further than that and reaches beyond the bounds of the church out into the world, into politics, society, culture – and also into the universities, the home of the humanities and sciences” (p. 94).

Reading this helped me see that the problem of spiritual formation in schools of theological education does not have an institutional answer.  Spiritual formation is a personal endeavor – not in the sense that it is private, but in the sense that it requires relationships with real people, not institutions.  Discipleship is a personal and relational practice, rather than an institutional practice.  Hence Moltmann’s attention to the professors themselves in the first two quotes.  The people under whom we study influence our academic and spiritual formation more directly than the educational institution. Accordingly, students should take care in choosing the teachers to whom they apprentice themselves. And those who teach should not take their position lightly.  Strong role-models for academic service to the Church and missional engagement with the world can be found teaching in both “Christian” colleges or seminaries and “secular” universities. Unfortunately lousy role-models can sometimes be found in both. 

This means that alternative programs like Ancient Christian Faith Initiative and traditional seminaries both have a place in preparing the leadership of the Church.  Both are capable of producing pastors and leaders who both know God and know about God.  But the deciding factor in whether or not that capability will be realized is personal and not programmatic; it depends on the spiritual maturity, faith, and knowledge of the teacher.