Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Call to Action?

I just reread the Call to Action legislation that will go to the General Conference of the UMC. I think the point of this is to create accountability for our various areas of ministry (currently overseen by the general boards and agencies) and to streamline our massive bureaucracy.

O.k.... I think it will do the first, if it passes. There will be a Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry, accountable to a General Council for Strategy and Oversight. The CCMM will basically take the place of the general boards (except for the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits and the Publishing House). It will be governed by a fifteen member board of directors and provide supervision for all of these areas of ministry.

Now, one may ask, how can one council do the work of the General Council on Finance and Administration, the General Board of Global Ministries, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the General Board of Church and Society, the General Board of Discipleship, the Commission on Archives and History, the General Commission on Communications, the General Commission on Religion and Race, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, and the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns?

Simply put, fifteen people cannot do this work, nor will they be expected to. This will be the work of various offices overseen by the Council for Connectional Ministry and Mission. The legislation proposes a few different offices: the Office of Shared Services, the Office of Congregational Vitality, the Office of Leadership Excellence, the Office of Missional Engagement, and the Office of Justice and Reconciliation. Now, one may ask whether these offices can in fact do the work necessary for the governance of the denomination. And one would be wise to ask this. In fact, it must have occurred to the authors of the legislation, since they have also included a very important additional phrase: "and other offices as it may deem necessary to carry out long-term strategies established by the General Council for Strategy and Oversight and the Council of Bishops."

So here's my question: does this legislation, over the long run, really streamline our denominational bureaucracy and help us to save money? I'm not saying it won't, but I am suggesting that it might not.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Happy Birthday, KJV

As you probably know, this year marks the 400 year anniversary of the King James Bible. As a way of marking this illustrious milestone, David Lyle Jeffrey has assembled a very fine group of scholars in the book, The King James Bible and the World It Made. Sometimes edited volumes can be hit and miss, but this one isn't. This is a very informative work, and I learned a great deal from reading it. I highly recommend it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Catholic Spirit

I'm becoming more and more concerned about the divisiveness that I see within the Body of Christ.  In the recent edition of Keeping in Touch, a publication for United alums, I have an article about how we are attempting to address this issue and promote Christian unity at United. If you'd like to see it, you can access this publication here.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sensitivity to People with Disabilities, Tough Questions, and the Absence of Men

I went to a great event today at Hyde Park Community UMC in Cincinnati. The topic was “‘Special Needs’ Training for the Church.” The focus was on people with Autism and Down syndrome. There was so much information it would be impossible to summarize. It did start off with some provocative questions, though: Do churches treat people with disabilities as people? Do they treat children with disabilities as babies? Do they offer real community? Do they regard people with disabilities first as people, or as disabled? How many families leave churches because the churches don’t welcome, or even make attempts to accommodate, children with disabilities?

Now, I couldn’t help but notice that the women outnumbered the men by quite a bit. I counted over twenty women, but only five men! Am I missing something? Come on, guys….

Kudos to the good folks of the West Ohio Ministry Team for Persons with Disabilities and Hyde Park Community UMC for putting on a very fine event.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Nice Piece on Christian Love and Dialogue

My friend Jamie Clark-Soles, who teaches at Perkins School of Theology, has written a very nice piece in the Huffington Post related to our engagement with our neighbors, both on a personal and national level. If you're interested, you can check out the article here.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reading for Renewal

Recently I had the privilege of giving the convocation address at United Theological Seminary. I called the address “Reading for Renewal.” It was about reading the Bible in ways that contribute to the renewal of the church. If you’d like to take a look at it, it’s posted on the United website here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Chicken or the Egg?

I've been reading John Webster's Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch.Very interesting stuff. On p. 43 he makes a claim that was particularly striking and insightful: "All other Christian doctrines are applications or corollaries of the one doctrine, the doctrine of the Trinity, in which the doctrine of the church, no less than the doctrine of revelation, has its proper home." For my own work in thinking about scripture theologically, this statement has far-reaching implications. I think that sometimes we think of the doctrine of the Trinity as derived from a particular theological reading of scripture, rather than of our theological reading of scripture as derived from the doctrine of the Trinity. I'm still thinking through this.... To be continued....

Monday, August 1, 2011

United's Church Renewal Site

United Theological Seminary has just launched a new website dedicated to church renewal. This site is intended to be a resource for all who are interested in the Holy Spirit’s work in renewal within our churches today. Is has contains blogs, info on new books on renewal, dates and info on upcoming renewal conferences, and other information that may be of use to clergy and laity alike. This is an exciting development and I hope you’ll take the time to look through this helpful resource.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Vickers' New Book on Renewal

My friend and colleague at United Jason Vickers has just come out with a new book, Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal, published by Baylor University Press. It's short, sweet, and to the point.  It comes out of five years of teaching our introductory level course, "Foundations for Church Renewal," as well as numerous conversations with many different people who care deeply about the life of the church. The ideas are Vickers', but they have been sharpened by dialogue with pastors, judicatory leaders, laypeople, and other academics.

Since we started talking about church renewal at United about five years ago , we have always said that we don't have a canned answer that we're selling. Rather, our goal has been to open up a vital conversation about church renewal among all who have an interest in this topic. This book will lead to helpful conversations that, we pray, will bear fruit within the church. If you have an interest in church renewal, I'd strongly suggest checking this one out.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Quote from John Wesley

"Would to God that all the party names and unscriptural phrases and forms which have divided the Christian world were forgot, and that we might all agree to sit down together, as humble, loving disciples, at the feet of our common Master, to hear His word, to imbibe His Spirit, and to transcribe His life in our own!"  - Preface to Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, 9.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Unity is an admirable Christian virtue

I returned yesterday from the West Ohio Annual Conference. It was good to see old friends and to make new ones, and to be about the business of holy conferencing. I know many people would say that annual conferences do not always embody the ideal of holy conferencing, but, at least in West Ohio, I think that we do ok. The last two years have involved contentious issues that we have engaged (most of the time) with gentleness and humility.

Of course, there are folks who will not be satisfied with the decisions of the conference, and the old Protestant temptation to divide may become too strong to resist. But I am reminded in thinking about disagreement in ecclesial settings that unity is a Christian virtue that is often undervalued. Yes, the issues about which we debate are indeed important and need to be taken seriously, but so does the unity of our communion. We should remember that the solution to every problem in the Christian life does not immediately present itself, even to those who are most faithful and prayerful. Consider, for example, that the creedal statements around the Trinity and the Incarnation took around 400 years to develop, though controversies about the nature of the Godhead and the nature of Christ go back to the earliest days of the faith.

Paul asks rhetorically in 1 Cor 1:13, "Has Christ been divided?" It was a poignant question in the first century, and is no less so today.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Love Wins

It seems like a lot of people who have been criticizing Rob Bell for Love Wins haven't read the book. This is not intellectually virtuous, to say the least. Regardless, I did read it recently (ok, I listened to the audio book) and I thought it was extremely interesting and helpful. What Bell articulates so well is that Christian orthodoxy is a very wide tradition with considerable room for debate, disagreement, dialogue. Christian orthodoxy does have particular parameters, but within those parameters a lot can happen. Bell is exceptionally skilled at making complex theological ideas accessible. I recommend reading (or listening to) this one if you have the chance.

Friday, May 13, 2011

My Philosophy of Theological Education

I've recently been appointed as Academic Dean at United (effective July 1), so I've been thinking through the ways in which I conceive of the work of theological education. Here's a brief statement of what I've come up with. Of course, it's subject to revision, so if you have comments, I'd like to receive them.

I believe that theological education should involve four main characteristics. First, we should aim to deepen the faith of our students by helping them to explore the riches of the Christian tradition through the centuries. Scripture, creeds, sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other resources are all part of the rich heritage passed down to us by our fathers and mothers in the faith. They are ports of entry into the life of God, ways in which we receive the Holy Spirit and become the people that God wishes us to be.

Second, we should try to instill within our students intellectual virtue and help them avoid intellectual vice. Intellectual virtue is characterized by traits such as listening, coherence, wisdom, empathy, critical judgment, and truthfulness. Intellectual vice, on the other hand, involves the rejection of these. If we cannot genuinely engage the positions of other people, most especially those with whom we disagree, the end result will always be division, and I do not believe that division is God’s will for the church.

Third, we should in all things strive to equip students for the work of ministry. In the classroom we must always have an eye toward the work of parish ministry, so while we take students into detailed discussions of our various disciplines, the goal is always the same: to create faithful and effective pastors. Scholarship is crucially important, but our scholarly work should be in service to the church. I want to maintain a vibrant conversation with church leaders about ways in which we can work together to prepare people for faithful and effective ministry.

Fourth, we should proceed in all humility. The work that God has given us is humbling work. We are constantly confronted with mysteries of the faith that we can never fully understand. We must be good listeners, first to God, but also to our students, to church leaders, and to one another. Insofar as we disagree, we should carry out our conversations in humility and Christian gentleness, keeping in mind that we serve Christ, who humbled himself for our salvation.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ok, I'm finally posting a Rob Bell video

I'm probably one of the only bloggers in the Christian blogosphere who hasn't posted something about the whole "Is Gandhi in hell?" controversy. Personally, I like his take on that issue. This is a video on a different topic, though: resurrection.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Renewing the church without evangelism? Not likely.

There is an article on the FTE website that offers some steps to renew the church. I have to admit, I found myself agreeing with a few of the points the author made, but the article was pretty condescending toward evangelicals. And there was one suggestion that I found quite troubling: "Remind yourself that you don't have to take God to anyone. God is already with everyone. So, rather than taking the approach that you need to take the truth out to people who need it, adopt the approach that you need to go find the truth that others have and you are missing. Go be evangelized."

Surely there is a need for Christian humility (which many Christians have embodied in the long history of our faith). Nevertheless the implicit claim in this statement is that the basic truths of Christianity--that God created and loves the world, that human beings live in ways that are inconsistent with God's will, that Christ died on the cross that we might have life, that God raised Jesus from the dead, that we have a new life in Jesus Christ--either are not true or don't matter. Sorry, but that doesn't seem to be a recipe for renewal to me. This sounds like the same brand of relativism that is killing "mainline" Protestant churches.

You can see the whole article here.

Friday, April 8, 2011

WOC Website on Autism

I'm glad to say that my conference is getting more serious about ministry with people with disabilities. A step in the right direction is a new website that is being developed on Autism. Eventually, this site will include resources related to ministry with people with disabilities more broadly. If you have an interest in this area, check out the site.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

If you happen to be in Cincinnati....

I'm delivering two lectures at Armstrong Chapel UMC on April 7 and 14, beginning at 7:00 p.m. The first will be on the historical signficance of crucifixion, what it meant in Jesus' day and how ancient people might have heard the message about the cross. The second will be on the present theological signficance of the crucifixion, with special attention to Christian understanding of atonement. If you want to learn more about these lectures at Armstrong Chapel, click here.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The earliest picture of Jesus? Not so fast....

Several years ago, I stood in line for quite a long time, and indeed paid good Canadian money to the Royal Ontario Museum, to see the ossuary box that had allegedly held the bones of James, the brother of Jesus. I did not go to Toronto just for this purpose, thank goodness, but was at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Many other scholars stood in line as well. The story was, after all, fascinating, and, if true, of real historical significance. Unfortunately it was not true. The so-called "James ossuary" was a forgery, though apparently a very clever one.

Lately the blogosphere has been abuzz with news of the "lead codices," which are owned by a Bedouin named Hassan Saida. There are several interesting aspects of these codices, but what has obviously garnered the most attention is the fact that one of them is alleged to bear the earliest pictorial representation of Jesus. If this artifact is authentic, it would be a monumental find.

The fact of the matter is, at this stage many aspects of the codices seem fishy. I mean, really fishy. I mean, Moby Dick fishy. (Ok, Moby Dick was a whale, but you get my point). As the instance of the James ossuary shows clearly, without very detailed scrutiny of an artifact, even experts can be fooled. The fact that the codex covers are made from cast, rather than inscribed, lead, is highly suspicious. There is suspicion around a number of the characters involved. There is considerable translation work that needs to be done on the codices. And the talk around the blogosphere is highly skeptical: check out these links:



This seems to be no great discovery for archaeologists, but for bloggers it's pure gold.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Church Renewal Conference, Day 2

We had another great day yesterday. It was good to get insights from Leonard Sweet about what he called our "TGIF" world: Twitter, Google, iPhone, and Facebook. These were some very thought-provoking lectures.

Next year the conference will be on new monasticism, and the speakers will be Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove and Elaine Heath. Should be another good one.

Now to get reader for Walter Brueggemann, who will be here on May 11....

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Church Renewal Conference, Day 1

We had opening worship tonight at the Fort McKinley campus of Ginghamsburg Church, and it was awesome. The music was very fine, and Bishop Violet Fisher preached a great message on the work of the Holy Spirit for the renewal of the church.

The folks at Fort McKinley have done some amazing work in turning the church around. They have really invested themselves in the neighborhood around the church, and part of their doing so has been to convince people to eat at locally owned establishments. That was part of the program tonight, and two students, our admissions officer, and I ate at Maryann's Southern Kitchen on Salem Ave. It was like being transported to food heaven.

Looking forward to tomorrow....

Monday, March 21, 2011

World Down Syndrome Day

Today is World Down Syndrome Day. The date of 3/21 refers to the third copy of the twenty-first chromosome that causes Down Syndrome. People with Down Syndrome are often stereotyped in ways that devalue them as human beings. This is not a properly Christian approach, since from a Christian perspective a disability does not devalue or dehumanize any person. With today's early intervention techniques, moreover, there is no telling what people with Down Syndrome can accomplish. You can learn more about World Down Syndrome Day and how to support people with Down Syndrome by clicking here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Conference on Church Renewal: Light the Fire!

I don't believe that the decline of the church is God's will. I'm glad to say that I work for an institution that is taking seriously the need for church renewal in the U.S., Western Europe, and other places. This year on March 27th and 28th we're launching the first in what we plan to be an annual conference on renewal, the Light the Fire conference. Our keynote speaker will be Leonard Sweet. Bishop Violet Fisher will preach during our opening worship, which will be held at the Fort McKinley campus of Ginghamsburg Church. I hope you can join us for what I anticipate will be an outstanding event.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

New Bible study for people with intellectual disabilities

Friendship Ministries is dedicated to ministry with people with intellectual disabilities. I recently reviewed a curriculum on the Psalms that they developed, and I think it is an excellent resource. It is very thorough and employs a variety of teaching methods to reach people across a spectrum of intellectual abilities and learning styles. To learn more about Friendship Ministries, visit http://www.friendship.org/.

Monday, February 28, 2011

CNN's Puzzling Story on Crossan

Sure, John Dominic Crossan is an interesting figure. He is an engaging and very personable individual. His scholarship has been extremely provocative and influential. While I disagree with many of his conclusions, I've benefited from reading his work. But why is it that CNN has run a story on him for two days on the homepage of their website? I know that every year as Easter approaches the major news outlets like to run stories on the historical Jesus, often highlighting depictions of Jesus that undermine the church's major Christological claims. But Crossan's major work on the topic, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, came out in 1993. When this book came out, Bill Clinton was beginning his first term, the Dallas Cowboys were a good football team, Janet Jackson had a number one hit, and "Jurassic Park" was in theatres. A considerable amount of work on Jesus has come out since 1993. Two days on the homepage, with the caption "John Dominic Crossan's 'blasphemous' portrait of Jesus".... I won't hold my breath waiting for them to highlight a "non-blasphemous" portrait of Jesus.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Christians and Muslims in Cairo

Check out this CNN story that deals in part with Muslims protecting Christians during the protests in Cairo. This is a different angle on Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt, one that we rarely see in the U.S.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Climbing Sinai

Back in the USA

Got back in late last night. I heard a couple of our West Virginia travelers were hung up in New York overnight, but I haven't heard anything else about flight complications.

Overall, this has been a very, very good trip. The program of the Society for Biblical Studies isn't just about tourism. It's about getting to know people--what they struggle with, what they hope for, how the live. The holy sights were incredible, but the best part of the trip was the human aspect. We got to see many different perspectives on life in Egypt and Israel and became more aware of the enormous complexity these cultures, complexity that is not often shown to us in the media. If you go to these places and see the tourist sights, you'll have a great time, but if you don't interact with people beyond the surface level, something important will be lost.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Winding Things Up

Great day in Galilee yesterday: worship on the Sea of Galilee, then over to Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes, the traditional site of Peter's house, and the River Jordan. Late in the day we made our way down to the Dead Sea because a couple of people wanted to float.

Today we're going to Tent of Nations and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. We have a meeting with a Zionist this evening, and after a quick few hours' sleep we'll be leave the hotel at 3:00 a.m.

It's been a great trip, but it's time to get back home.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

North to Galilee

We left Bethlehem this morning and went to Qumran. After seeing the sights there for a little while we had lunch in Jericho. Jericho is the lowest city on earth, and perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. And they make good falafel.

After lunch we made our way up into Galilee and finally into Nazareth. We went to the Church of the Annunciation and were given a special tour of the museum there. This church is perhaps the most beautiful I've ever seen. It is an incredible blend of ancient and modern. Within that church is the site at which the incarnation is said to have taken place. There is an altar table there with the inscription "Verbum caro hic factum est," or "Here the word became flesh."

Tomorrow we go out the Sea of Galilee first thing in the morning. Everyone is feeling a bit tired, but the trip has been a great experience.

Friday, January 14, 2011

An Israeli Settlement and a Palestinian Refugee Camp

Today we went to an Israeli settlement where we met with two rabbis who spoke with us about Zionism and the function of settlements within it. Their presentations were rather different, as one seemed much more militant than the other.

From the settlement we went immediately to a Palestinian refugee camp in Hebron. We spoke with people who have lived their entire lives there and visited a women's center in the camp.

Needless to say, we heard very different perspectives on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the involvement of the United States. The issues here are exceedingly complex. There are not just two sides to the conflict. There are many different voices and ideas among both Israelis and Palestinians. In the United States we often don't see this. Our media tends to oversimplify things, perhaps in the interest of creating a manageable story, perhaps in some other interest. When you come here, though, if you take the time to talk to people, you can begin to realize the vast complexity of the issues, and it can be very difficult to envision any type of feasible solution. It became clear to me that if citizens of the United States want to help to work for peace in this region, we have to start by educating ourselves and moving beyond the popular ideas that come to us via the mainstream media.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Out of Egypt, Into Israel

I couldn't blog for a while because there was not easy internet access at St. Catherine's monastery. (Go figure.) Regardless, St. Catherine's was incredible. Many of us climbed Sinai, attended the Greek Orthodox service, and took a brief tour of the monastery sanctuary.

We made our way into Israel yesterday and spent the night in Bethlehem. Today we went to the old city of Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethesemane, and the Church of the Nativity! Needless to say, we didn't tarry in any one place.

Everyone is pretty tired but in good spirits. We're dealing more with Palestinian/Israeli relations tomorrow. So, more to come....

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Ministry to the Deaf in Cairo

We had a great meeting today with Jesus the Light of the World Church deaf unit in Cairo, a ministry of the Anglican Church (technically, the Anglican Diocese of Egypt with North African and the Horn of Africa).

 About 10% of the population of Cairo is hearling impaired. This church ministers to Christians from all over Egypt, some of whom travel over twelve hours by train, who have serious hearing impairments. This ministry, run by Clair G. Malik and Rev. Faraj Hanna, teaches basic school subjects including reading in Arabic and English, and offers speech therapy to the children. Egyptian sign lanugage is a big part of the curriculum, as is Christian religious education.

There are also sign language courses for parents. Getting the parents educated is almost as important as educating the children. There is considerable discrimination against the deaf in Egypt, and many people consider deafness a punishment from God. The vast majority of deaf children in Egypt have no support network at home.
Apparently (and I don't understand all of the ins and outs of this) it is illegal for Muslim children to enroll in a Christian program. Therefore all of the children in the program are Christians.

They're running this ministry on a shoestring budget but doing incredible work. They ask for your prayers. If you have any interest in finding out more about this ministry or offering financial support, email Rev Hanna at farajhanna at yahoo.co.uk, or Ms. Malik at deafunit at gmail.com.

I took a lot of video footage, but the editing and whatnot will take a lot of time.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bent Pyramid, Red Pyramid

We went to Saqqara today outside of Cairo. We saw the Step Pyramid, which is very impressive, and later we went to Dashur and saw the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid. You can go into the Red Pyramid, which was interesting, though it had its challenges. For lunch I had flatbread and considerable amount of something called halawa, which our guide told me was extremely fattening after the fact. Later in the afternoon we had devotions and debriefing, and Peter gave a talk about the origins of Islam.

Tomorrow we are working on issues directly related to Muslims and their relationship to Christians.

Cairo, Day 2

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Cairo, Day 2

Morning came really, really early today, but it was worth it to see the pyramids and sphinx at Giza. These are massive structures that demonstrate incredible skill in engineering.

After leaving Giza we went to Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and met with Dr. Dina Shehata. Dr. Shehata discussed with us some of the pressing issues today in Egyptian culture and politics, from the recent elections to Muslim-Copt relations to Egypt’s relationships with Israel and the United States. She is extremely knowledgeable and it was a very informative and enlightening discussion.

We had lunch at a restaurant on the Nile. No further comment on this restaurant.

After lunch we went to the Egyptian Museum. The museum holds a massive collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts such as statues and figurines, elaborately decorated coffins and sarcophagi, pharonic masks, tools, and weapons. There were a few portrait paintings that were ca. first century. There were quite a few artistic works on papyri and a few literary papyri written in Greek, Coptic, hieroglyphics, Arabic, and a script that looked like hieratic or demotic (I can’t tell the difference by looking). I suspect that they have many more papyri that were not on display. Many of the pieces had no label or explanation, however, which made them more difficult to appreciate. The museum itself is in a state of significant disrepair. One gets the impression that there is a considerable amount of deferred maintenance.

A note on driving in Cairo: don’t do it. It amazes me how every few feet people seem to walk out in front of our bus with no apparent regard for the oncoming vehicle. Lanes are sometimes painted on the streets but as far as I can tell no one uses them. Cars and mopeds weave here and there missing one another by inches.

Tomorrow’s another big day, so it’s time to get some sleep.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


We arrived safely at our hotel in Cairo today. We're all pretty tired after a long day of travel, and we have to be up in about five hours for breakfast and the next day's activities.

Cairo is an incredible city of about 20 million people (including the surrounding area). It is massive and an incredible place to be, but the air pollution is intense.

More to come. We have a full day planned tomorrow so there should be much to blog about.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Off to Egypt

I'm having a wonderfully exciting time sitting in DFW airport right now. I'll fly to D.C., then to JFK, then to Amman, Jordan, and then to Cairo. The flight to Amman is overnight, so hopefully I'll be able to sleep a bit. At least I can get some good reading time in.

I'm going to try to blog this trip, although internet access maybe limited at times. Regardless, for anyone who's interested I'll post updates on this blog as I'm able.

Please pray for smooth and safe travel.