Sunday, March 23, 2014

I'm Moving! (my blog), or Meditations Upon Blogging

Church Coffee has been fun (sometimes), but I’m moving to a different site with a different look and feel. The type of content I post, however, will not likely change very much.

One of the more common questions I get about this blog is why I do it at all. Friends ask, “You don’t really have time for that, do you?” Well, no, not really. Nevertheless, I think the blogosphere is where much of our public conversation takes place. Just look at the constant stream of ideas moving through the Methoblog site or UM-Insight, and these are just a little slices of the blogging world. Discussions that used to take place in publicly debates, in the editorial and “letters to the editor” sections of newspapers, and on talk shows have now found a new and very dynamic home in the world of blogging. Unlike these other venues, moreover, interactions in the blogosphere take place very quickly, almost in real time.

I want to be a part of these discussions because I care very much about the Church, The United Methodist Church in particular, and the type of discourse in which we engage as Christians. Blogging is a way to speak to issues that you care about. It can also be a way of modeling intellectually virtuous dialogue (though this does not always happen). Boiled down to its most basic function, blogging is writing, and writing has for centuries been a way of bringing about change through the exchange of ideas.

I’ve found some real kindred spirits in the blogging world. I’ve also run into some spirits that don’t seem to be all that kindred, and a few who have been holding flamethrowers. That’s the world of blogging. It is a vast, fast-moving, uncensored stream of ideas and information. If you’re thinking about starting a blog, it can be a very rich experience, but you need to have thick skin. It is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. If you offer your ideas for public consumption, they will indeed be consumed.

Many thanks to Joe Graves for helping me get the new site started. He has put some serious work into the new site and helped me think through its layout, design, structure, etc. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed Church Coffee, and I hope you enjoy the new site, too, which you can access at The If you'd like to subscribe to it, you can do so here

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Some Things You Should Know on World Down Syndrome Day

March 21 (3/21) is World Down Syndrome Day. This date was not chosen at random. Rather, it represents the fact that, while most people have 46 pairs of chromosomes, some people have a third copy on the twenty-first chromosome. This third copy causes Down Syndrome, also known as Trisomy 21. 

Some other facts:

It’s not “Down’s Syndrome,” i.e., a syndrome in the possession of someone named Down.

People with Down Syndrome can read, write, hold down jobs, get married, and even go to college.

Pregnancies in which Down Syndrome is identified in the fetus are terminated 80-90% of the time.

Down Syndrome is the most common chromosomal condition diagnosed in the U.S., occurring in about 1 in 700 live births.

There is a condition called Mosaic Down Syndrome in which some, but not all, cells contain the third copy of the twenty-first chromosome.

If you are still using the term “retarded” as a term of derogation, you should stop doing this. People might start to think you are a jerk. And they might be right.

My wife and I will be talking about our experiences of raising a child with Down Syndrome at United’s Light the Fire! Conference, May 8-9 at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio. World Down Syndrome is the last day to register at the discounted rate, so please get your registration in ASAP!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Yes, I Am a Bible-Believing Christian.

That's why I don't believe that dividing the church is a good idea. 

Here are some biblical passages that underscore the importance of unity in the church: 

John 17:20-23
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

1 Cor 1:10
10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 

1 Cor 12:12
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

2 Cor 13:11
Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.

Ephesians 4:1-6
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:25-32

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

So... you who would divide the church, tell me: if biblical obedience is so important, why have you resolved to be disobedient to these passages of scripture? 

The question we have to answer denominationally is not simply who is being obedient to the Bible and who is not. The Bible is a broad and varied body of work that can support a variety of positions, ideologies, and theologies. The question is this: why do we believe it is important to privilege this particular set of scriptural passages over another? 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Adam Hamilton's Response to "Three Buckets, Calmly Considered"

After publishing some thoughts this morning on Adam Hamilton's recent post, "Homosexuality, the Bible, and the United Methodist Church," I received a note from Rev. Hamilton. (Apparently he had tried to leave a comment, but they didn't come through. C'mon, Blogger! Don't make me switch to Wordpress!) He offered this gracious response to my comments. I appreciate the spirit of Christian charity and respectful dialogue that characterizes his remarks. 

Dear David,

Thank you for your thoughtful response to my post on The Bible, Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church.  I actually agree with everything you’ve written here.  Unfortunately it is the nature of a blog - 500 to 800 words - that you have room for a key idea without much  background or supporting arguments.  The three buckets metaphor is a small part, two paragraphs in one chapter of my new book, Making Sense of the Bible.  

The book is meant to foster a conversation among Christians and in the church about the nature of scripture, how God influenced or inspired the biblical authors, its canonization and authority, and how we might read it with greater understanding.  Following 18 chapters devoted to these questions, the last 14 chapters focus on concrete questions I’m regularly asked by lay people confused about what they read in the Bible.

My experience suggests that many Christians have a view of scripture that is not carefully examined in the light of the actual phenomenon of Scripture.  If our view of scripture is overly simplistic, we find ourselves stuck when we face some of the Bible’s complex and challenging questions.  Some of these folks leave the church because we as pastors have not adequately helped them see the Bible’s complexity.  I think we can do better.  My proposals in the book are a conversation starter.  They may not be the right answers, but I’m hoping they help us find the right answers.

You rightly note that what was missing was the theological foundation that leads me to speak of the three buckets, and, I would add, the criteria by which we determine which bucket a scripture goes in.  I devote a fair amount of space to fleshing that out in the book.

I appreciate you and your work, David.  Thanks for your thoughtful critique of my post!

Three Buckets, Calmly Considered

Look, I really admire Adam Hamilton. He has led thousands of people to Christ and provided invaluable leadership in the UMC. His church has launched incredible ministries. He’s an amazing person, and I have no doubt that he is utterly committed to serving Christ.

Rev. Hamilton recently published a blog post called “Homosexuality, the Bible, and the United Methodist Church.” I don’t want to focus on the matter of homosexuality in this post, but only on Rev. Hamilton’s method of categorizing different passages of scripture. He says that he places scriptures into three buckets:

1. Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
2. Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
3. Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.

Actually, I think this is how most UM’s do interpret scripture, whether they are progressive, evangelical or something in between, and whether they admit it or not. Take, for example, the prohibition in 1 Tim 2:9 against women having braided hair and wearing gold or expensive clothes. As far as I can tell, this passage has no normative force in the UMC. Bucket #3. Paul’s discussion of food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8)? Well, in the modern West, we don’t often see people sacrificing food to little statues in alcoves on the street. Bucket #2. There are other passages, such as the story of Jepthah’s daughter in Judges 11. This story simply isn’t going to show up in the lectionary, nor is it likely to be incorporated into a sermon series on how to live a Godly life. It has no normative force in our churches. Bucket #3. But John 3:16? Bucket #1—off-the-backboard 360 slam dunk.

Further, most of the time we make these kinds of moves without thinking much about them. We do this because whether we are aware of it or not, we read scripture theologically. Put differently, we employee a set of theological concepts that largely determines which scriptural passages we consider normative and which we do not. For example, we believe that God is a loving, creative, and powerful deity, and therefore we have no problem assigning normative force to John 3:16. Jephthah, on the other hand? Not so much.

“No!” you may say. “You have it all backward! Scripture determines our theology, and not the other way around!” Many people do believe this to be the case. The relationship between scripture and doctrine, though, is not a one-way street. It is dialectical. In other words, scripture and doctrine inform and shape one another. Ask yourself, “Why do we have a New Testament canon to begin with?” The main reason is that certain Christian writings were thought to teach and inform the faith of the Church, embodied in the Rule of Faith, a kind of proto-creed. They became canonical, and over time helped to shape the further development of our doctrines. These doctrines, then, have informed the ways in which we read scripture. So it goes, back and forth: scripture informs our understanding of doctrine, and doctrine informs our reading of scripture. Thus it always has been, and thus it always will be.

So the really important question here is this: What theological concepts do we employ when we read scripture, and how intentional are we in appropriating these concepts? Even if we all agreed on the three-bucket approach, we would not agree on which scriptural passages go in which bucket. Rev. Hamilton acknowledges this in his post. This way of dealing with scripture, then, doesn’t help us a great deal in sorting out controversial issues.

One final point: I believe God can teach us through any passage of scripture. We don’t have to regard a scriptural passage as prescriptive or normative in order for God to teach us. God might in fact teach us through the passages of scripture that we find most difficult. God might teach us through passages that make us mad, sad, or confused. The Holy Spirit is a teacher who will consistently surprise and stretch us in our walk of faith.

Now, you may say, “Watson, that is all fine and good for you seminary types, but what about the people in the pews of the churches each Sunday? All this high-flying theological talk isn’t going to help them very much.” True enough, so here’s how I would boil this down. Rather than setting out the three buckets and sorting scriptural passages into one of the three, perhaps we should simply ask this question:

Given what I know to be true about God, how can this passage of scripture inform my understanding of God and the Christian life?

Yes, this question presupposes that we know something about God before we begin to read the Bible, but Christians should be catechized before they launch into Bible study.

To sum up, I think that Adam Hamilton has articulated the way in which most people in the UMC (and many other traditions) approach scripture. I don’t think this approach is sufficient, nor do I think it helps us to move forward in terms of our current disagreement over homosexuality. While I have great respect for Rev. Hamilton, I don’t think these remarks on scripture are his most helpful contribution.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Bishop McLee, Human Sexuality, and Basic Christian Doctrine

Let me be clear: I think honest conversation is righteous and healthy—even indispensable—within the Body of Christ. One of our goals at United is to help students have real conversations with people with whom they disagree. Part of our problem in the UMC is that political posturing has replaced intellectual virtue, and when that happens, the road ahead can look pretty grim.

Bishop McLee is calling for further conversation on homosexuality. Setting the issue of the church trial aside for a moment, I want to reaffirm that conversation and dialogue are essential within the body of Christ. I believe Bishop McLee is sincere in his desire to heal the wounds within our denomination. We were seminary classmates at Perkins, and while I didn’t know him well, I did know him well enough to come to regard him as a person of deep faith and integrity. Whether or not we believe what he is doing is right, I believe that he believes that conversation, rather than a church trial, is the best way forward for the UMC.

That having been said, I think we have to ask how productive this conversation can possibly be. Our beliefs on human sexuality are influenced by a host of other beliefs and assumptions. Our practices of and beliefs about reading scripture, our theological anthropologies, understandings of salvation, ecclesiologies, theologies of ordination, and theological understandings of the concept of marriage will all come to bear on how we understand the issues around homosexuality.  

Here’s where the rubber meets the road: the current crisis we are experiencing over homosexuality is the result of decades of neglect of basic doctrine among mainline Protestants. Doctrine is not properly a litmus test to see who thinks the right things and who doesn’t. Rather, doctrine forms our worldview, and our worldview invariably affects our ethical perspectives. Put differently, the way in which we think about God and God’s relationship to humankind will shape our perspectives on how we are supposed to live in the here and now.

Many UM’s have gone for decades suggesting that we are committed to a theological method, not a specific body of beliefs. We have acted as if the doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, and Resurrection are interesting speculative ideas, objects of study rather than divine revelations about the living God. We have drunk deeply from the cup of modernity. We have placed our faith in political agendas and neglected the sanctifying power and work of the Holy Spirit. And here is the result: misunderstanding, anger, factionalism, and possibly schism.

Before we can have a meaningful conversation within our denomination about homosexuality, we need to begin to repent and allow God to heal us doctrinally. There is no quick or easy way forward. Will we do this, and can we stay together long enough and be patient enough to do so? As I said at the beginning of this post, the situation looks pretty grim, but with God, all things are possible.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

In What Lies Our Unity?

I’m not so much making a point with this post as asking a question. I have been in dialogue with a friend who asked: Is the unity of which we speak in the UMC a baseless unity? In other words, what is the common thread that runs through the UMC and holds us together?

Our unity does not lie in doctrine, though I believe that it should. But there are many clergy, including some bishops, who seem to have little regard for the Doctrinal Standards in the Discipline. They would point, rather, to the section called “Our Theological Task,” which articulates the method we have come to call the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”

That leads to the question: Is our unity in this theological method? Clearly, it is not. The method is so broad that it is virtually useless. To say, for example, that we consider scripture as primary is not a very helpful claim when we have so little agreement on the nature and function of scripture.

I’m not even going to suggest that our unity is in ethical issues or commitments to social justice. We’re all over the map here.

Is our unity, then, confined to matters of polity? Are we only held together by the trust clause and our pensions? I really, really don’t want the UMC to split. I would consider that a great tragedy. Yet what are our main reasons for staying together?

I’d appreciate receiving your comments below.

Oh, and be nice.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Do you believe in the demonic?

The Synoptic Gospels are full of stories in which Jesus casts out demons. In Mark’s gospel, healing and exorcism are Jesus’ main activities. In the early church, exorcism was part of the pre-baptismal ritual. Throughout much of the world today, exorcism is a common part of Christian practice. Even in the United Methodist Church, our baptismal liturgy includes the question, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness?”

Yet in much of western Christianity, we tend to avoid any serious discourse on the subject of the demonic. If it does come up, we often talk about it as pre-modern myth made obsolete by modern science and medicine. Does this approach represent an intellectual and spiritual advance, or have we lost something important in the way in which we think and talk about evil?

Despite the fact that we avoid these topics in our churches, popular culture is rife with television shows, websites, and books devoted to the “paranormal.” It seems people are genuinely interested in these types of phenomena, and even open to affirming them as veridical. Why is it that the popular culture seems more open to the reality of spiritual phenomena than many of our churches are?

I’m particularly curious to know what, you, gentle readers, think about this matter. I’d appreciate your commenting below. Please, if you would, leave any comments here rather than on my Facebook page, so that all comments are available to all readers.

And let's keep it civil, friends. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Does God Actually Do Anything?

I recently went to a theological lecture. At least, it was ostensibly theological. The lecturer was discussing a variety of social problems, and, in the end, I suppose the point was that we have to do something about these problems. I optimistically filled in the narrative gaps that I was experiencing, hoping what was meant was that we should do something about these problems because they are inconsistent with God’s will for the world.  After all, I thought we were engaging these matters theologically. God should be in there somewhere, right?

Nevertheless, even if that was what the lecturer meant to convey, that would not be enough. Among Christians, ostensibly religious talk about social problems that takes no account of the agency of God is not enough. The God of Christian faith is an agent. If we are supposed to do good in the world, it is because of the sanctifying action of God who motivates us, pricks our consciences, and changes our will. I would not, moreover, limit the action of God to sanctifying work within individuals. God is working in ways unseen, setting the stage for great triumphs that we cannot yet anticipate.

I spend a lot of time talking with Christians. I have taught and participated in many courses in churches through the years, been in conversation with a great many seminary students, and spent hours upon hours in conversation with pastors and Christian academics. I’ve come to realize through this that, for many Christians, God is essentially a construct. God doesn’t do anything except give credence and authority to the ethical claims that we want to endorse. The Holy Spirit does no heavy lifting in this scenario. This type of religion is disconnected from the God of the Bible and Christian tradition.

Sermons often leave us with a call to action. As a result of the message we’ve just heard, we’re supposed to do X. This can be a very powerful way of getting people to be about God’s purposes in the world. The question I have more and more, though, is, “What does God do in this scenario?” The next time you hear a sermon or a lecture in theological ethics, ask yourself this question: according to what I’ve just heard, what does God do? Whether or not I can or should do anything, what have I learned about the agency of God?

I’ve heard many times, “God has no hands but our hands,” but this isn’t right. This isn’t the God of which we read in the Bible, nor is it the God who is handed on to us in tradition. God may use our hands to do something of value in this world, despite all of the ways in which we’re likely to mess things up. In our walk of discipleship, however, the question we should be asking is not simply, “What would Jesus do?” but “What is God doing?”

Sunday, February 23, 2014

We All Need To Worship

Some recent opinions in the blogosphere notwithstanding, corporate worship is one of the most important ways in which we come to know and love God more fully. From its earliest days, the Christian faith involved both individual and corporate experience. In baptism we become part of something much larger than ourselves, the communion of saints, both living and dead, who love and serve the Holy Trinity. In Christian worship, we learn more about the faith, build up the faith of others, testify to our corporate identity, and join in the heavenly chorus of worshippers, such as we read of in the fourth chapter of Revelation. When folks say that corporate worship simply isn’t that important, with all due respect, I couldn’t disagree more.

It’s particularly concerning, then, that some people among the community of faith find worship prohibitively difficult. For example, people with autism may find being in a crowd or certain kinds of music or singing to be quite stressful. Some children and adults, such as those with Down Syndrome, autism, or other disabilities that come to bear on intellectual development, may not be able to remain quiet during the parts of the service when it is appropriate to do so. My own son, Sean, who is seven years old and has Down Syndrome, will soon become the center of attention during any church service he attends. The people of our church are very loving and understanding with him, but Sean shouldn’t be the center of attention during worship. That isn’t the point of going to church. It makes it very difficult, then, to take him into a worship service. I know that faced with such difficulties, many parents of children with disabilities simply stop trying to go to church. 

Greg interpreting music for Zach
I recently made the acquaintance of a remarkable young man named Zach Holler. Zach attends Christian Life Center (CLC), an Assemblies of God congregation in Dayton, Ohio. He lives with multiple physical disabilities and uses interpreters to communicate with most people. He also feels a call to ministry, and his congregation and its leadership are supporting him in this call.

Zach delivering the sermon
Zach invited my family and me to attend Gentle Worship at CLC this week. Gentle Worship is a service especially tailored for people with disabilities. I see it as especially helpful for people with cognitive disabilities, but it could be helpful for people across a wide spectrum of abilities. There is music, prayer, and a sermon, all in a very informal and relaxed environment where nothing is really considered disruptive. Sean was able to pay attention for a while, and then he began to get antsy. Towards the end, he was really starting to make his presence known, but it was not a problem. That is the point of the service. People of all abilities are welcome. After the service was over, Sean ran up to the microphone and started delivering his own message!

Sean bringing the word! 
One of the highlights of the service was when Zach delivered the sermon. His father, Greg, served as an interpreter, and Zach blessed us with a rich and thoughtful lesson on the law, sin, and salvation. It was very clear to me that Zach is gifted for and called to ministry. Unfortunately, when people with disabilities do feel a call to ministry, they are often met with disbelief and resistance. It is a credit to the congregation of CLC and their lead pastor, Stan Tharp, that they have recognized Zach’s call and gifts, and are facilitating his leadership in the congregation. 

If you want to learn more about the role of the church in being in ministry with people with disabilities, I encourage you to come to United’s Light the Fire! Conference, which will be held at Ginghamsburg Church on May 8-9. It’s going to be a great event, and we have a first-class lineup of speakers and preachers. I hope you can make it!