Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Chronological Snobbery: Review of The Right Church

Chronological snobbery. Do you have it? While it might sound like a disease you might catch towards the beginning of a New Year, it is simply favoring the ideas of the present as vastly superior to those of the past. Ours is an age and culture fascinated with the new, improved, and updated. It seems my phone, my Apps and my software are always in need of updating. As soon as we get a new tablet or phone, the newer and improved version hits the shelf and the older version becomes obsolete.

While so much has seemingly become disposable, this isn't true for Christianity. The saints who have gone before have much to teach us. Chuck Gutenson's The Right Church: Live Like the First Christians serves as a helpful way to explore the diverse wisdom from early church theologians. I was amazed in my church history classes to learn how much those theologians disagreed but even more by how much they challenged conventional wisdom. Gutenson's book hits a number of relevant topics and explores them through the lens of a wide variety of early church fathers. His aim is to put us in conversation with their ways of thinking in order to challenge some of our current presumptions that too often go unexamined.

For example, while there were lots of agreement about the importance of Scripture in the early church, there was also a variety of interpretations and even schools of interpretations. Gutenson challenged me to see that it wasn't the more historical perspective of the Antioch school, but the more allegorical school from Alexandria that had the lesser tendency to fall into heresy. From a quote fromOrigen, Gutenson reminds us what has been too often forgotten, "the goal of Scripture is to form us into the people of God, into a people who live out with integrity the life of faith." (12) Additionally the early church fathers point out why individualism and schism is a danger to ourselves.

Another concept that too often goes unexamined is our use of the word freedom.  This was evident to me watching the news recently in an interview with a person smoking pot who could do so legal for the first time in the state of Washington. He declared, "I am free to be free." Gutenson's discussion reveals why many staunch conservatives would be surprised to learn how "liberal" their ideas about freedom really are philosophically speaking. Instead, Professor Gutenson shows why slavery to Christ is highest and the only real freedom.

It was illuminating having just finished Gutenson's exploration of the early church fathers on wealth and poverty prior to reading about the factory fires in Bangladesh where workers were killed and burned making low cost clothes in inhumane conditions. This made St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom's words that much more convicting. Perhaps most thought-provoking and convicting was St. Chrysostom's observation about 2 Thessalonians 3:10 ("Anyone who would not work should not eat") wasn't simply for the poor, but the wise ancient preacher points out was instead for the rich who "are often guilty of worse idleness." Having someone quote that passage to me to justify their own inaction recently, I was glad I had read that chapter. Similar is true for the chapters on Stewardship of Creation, Society and Government, and especially fascinating is his observations about the early church's stance on war and military service pre-Constantine.

For those looking for a few short stories or even sermon examples that sum up the early church's critique's to our way of life, the last chapter on the Desert Fathers is for you. Gutenson invitation "to reflect upon these 'strange' early fellow Christians" is certainly true. Their lives present a stark contrast to our society that builds debt amounts hard to comprehend, clamors for more gadgets, eats our way into a heath-care crisis, and requires storage units for all our excess possessions. The long quotations throughout further his intention about engagement with, not necessarily agreement with the early church. For ours is a different time. Yet in reflecting upon their lives and wisdom with openness instead of chronological snobbery, hopefully Gutenson's attempts will spark renewal to a people called to distinct way of love.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Scrolls Show

This past Sunday evening our church had the opportunity to host a Christian non-profit organization that has one of the only full sets of the Tanakh scrolls. The Tanakh is the Jewish way of referring to the Hebrew Bible Bible or what the Christians would call the Old Testament. (There are very few full sets for various reasons.)
Rabbi Marty Cohen joined us to explain what goes into the making of a Hebrew scroll. One of the larger scrolls on display was over 600 years old! One of the lasting aspects that stuck with me is just how tedious and labarious a process that goes into making a Hebrew scroll. All the letters are the same sizes, the space between the letters are the same sizes, the space between words are the same sizes, just to name a few of the intracaces of the process.
More emotionally impactful was the story he related about one of the scrolls the group has purchased that survived the Holocaust. Nazi's would unroll scrolls and drive large trucks (weighed down with Jewish leaders) over them. Or even play catch with their bayonets.
Rabbi Cohen reiterate through recounting the processes of making a scroll and their survival just how precious a book the Bible really is and how too often we take it for granted. While we might not worship the Bible, hopefully such an event can inspire us to get a Bible off the shelf and read it as the God inspired, transforming book that it is. Because as I've repeatedly quoted another's wise words, "For some people, the only Bible they might read is you!"

Thursday, April 26, 2012

General Conference Day 2 Reflections (Naive & Gullible as they may be)

As I leave General Conference, I leave a little more impressed with the global connection that is the United Methodist Church. I am impressed how passionate so many are for Christ, for the world, and secondarily for the United Methodist Church. I also leave a little less gullible and naïve.
I found it interesting yesterday in how speaking to a group of people on the conservative side theologically and reading a blog of those on the liberal side of the theological spectrum interpreted the discussion on rules and amendments very obviously informed by their respected perspectives. Each saw the manipulative hand of the other at work in the discussion about how the rules to govern our legislative process. Either I'm more naïve than I thought (which is possible) or each was relatively blinded by their perspectives.
My prayer as I leave General Conference over the next eight days is that more people will be able to be willing to take off their ideological glasses and risk trusting one another instead of viewing everything through prior commitments. Whether the glasses be those that view bigger is always bad, conservatives are manipulative, liberals are unbiblical, or whatever they may be so that a risking trust would find unity in mission and unity in Christ. Hopefully that is not as gullible and naive a wish as perhaps it seems now.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Random Thoughts from General Conference

Here are some random Thoughts from my first day observing as a visitor at General Conference.
I'm impressed with the openness and transparency that is part of the process. Each of the committee meetings are open meetings to observers. There is great concern for how the process works so that it is fair to all and voices can be heard.
We are intentional about inclusiveness and diversity.
We are around 40% non American with regard to representation in the 988 delegates. That will only grow.
We are a global connection and will hopefully restructure ourself to go where the growth is happening (outside the US) and not necessarily where the money is (US).

Monday, April 2, 2012

Scripture: James 1:27
I saw a bumper sticker the other day that declared, "The bigger the government the smaller the people." Like much bumper sticker ideology it is only skin deep. Having visited Haiti on a mission trip, I can say rather conclusively that the smaller the government in no way results in people that are more responsible and of higher character. There is a need for government and Charles (Chuck) Gutenson's book Christians and the Common Good aids Christians in thinking through how we engage politically for the benefit of all God's people.
I feel the need to begin with full disclosure. I am an independent politically speaking. Despite what Rush Limbaugh asserts about moderates as fence sitters, being moderate can mean getting shot at by both sides and feeling isolated without a predominate home base in either political camp. I am a moderate because I see complexity and gray areas. As well I see the need to preserve the best of the past. I say that to give my perspective in reading Chuck Gutenson's book. I must also disclose that Gutenson was my professor and Sunday School teacher for a short time.
With all that out of the way, I whole heartedly recommend this book for all Christian thinkers wherever you fall on the political spectrum. Whether you are like my liberal cousins to my other rigidly conservative cousins to even my libertarian uncles, all claiming a "Christian" perspective. (Perhaps that explains a lot about me.) Chances are good you know people with similarly diverse opinions. Perhaps you too have heard someone justify their position by citing a Bible passage as a proof text for their position. What is needed today is less politically rhetoric and far more rigorously intellectual and Scripture based discussions about complex issues that involve real people who face real difficulties.
As a pastor I hear people use Christian jargon unquestioningly and cite Bible verses uncritically. Whether it is immigration arguments that bypass direct commands against oppressing aliens or healthcare debates that begin with fiscal issues before, if ever, surveying Jesus own ministry to the lowest, least, and lost, not near enough Christians think through issues such as the role of government or grasp how biblical themes like the call to self sacrifice and social holiness might impact their politic ideology.
Readable and challenging, Gutenson's book is a great place for anyone to begin. While Christians too often seek to legislate morality or at the other extreme see politics as dealing with unspiritual matters, Gutenson challenges those who claim to follow the God of love, by asserting that to "love someone is to desire their long-term well-being and to be willing to engage in acts of self-sacrifice to bring it about." (p. 61) Gutenson also helps his reads work through key issues like hermeneutics, relevant Scriptures passages, all the way to giving biblical and theological reasons for the role of government and tax credits.    
Gutenson aims not so much to sway opinions as much as to help his readers think through their own political positions biblically and theologically. He is certainly to be commended for encouraging us to go beyond bumper sticker theology and exhorting us to, "'think Christianly' about public institutions and their role in developing communities that live out God’s intentions." (p. 170). As a whole, the book made me think of John Wesley's aim for the Methodist movement, "to reform the nation and to spread scriptural holiness across the land."
Link to Christians and the Common Good
What do you see as God's vision for humanity?
How do you believe the government has a role in that? How is it different/same from the church?
How does your theology shape your political ideology?