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Archive for November, 2010

Tuesday’s Round-Up

The GAFCON primates have released “The Oxford Statement,” responding to the Rowan Williams’ call to sign the Anglican Covenant, and to announce their intention to boycott the upcoming Anglican Communion Primates’ meeting in Ireland.

Three orthodox bishops (Martyn Minns, David Bena, and John Guernsey ) have called for a church summit on church growth.

The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) has launched a new Risk Management program to provide resources related to Safe Church sexual abuse prevention, health insurance information, and safety standards.

Meanwhile, Christianity Today analyzes the possible causes for the mass exodus of young people from Western churches.

Finally, be sure to read Adam D. Rick’s blog post on the gospel and mission, the beginning of a nine-part devotional series to help aid our reflections during the season of Advent.

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For the past three months, I have led the leaders of the Alpha ministry at Christ the Redeemer in Danvers in a brief period of devotion and prayer before their weekly Alpha gatherings.  Considering the nature of that ministry, I chose to focus all of the devotionals on the question of mission.  Specifically, each devotion focuses on how the idea of mission to the nations finds expression in the Gospel narratives.  I now intend to post the content of that series here in nine parts.  The series opens at the very beginning, with the Apostle John’s cosmic description of Jesus’ mission which starts off his Gospel.

John 1:10-14

He was in the world, and though  the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.  The Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Israel knew perhaps better than most that her God was actively engaged in mission on her behalf.  Her entire history, her very existence as a distinct nation, was entirely dependent on the mighty acts of her God in history.  So important was this conviction that her entire national life was built around remembering this history.  Passover marked God’s delivery of Israel from Egypt.  Booths marked God’s guiding Israel through the desert.  Yom Kippur marked the cleansing of Israel’s sin by her merciful God.  Pentecost marked the revelation of God’s law to Israel at Sinai.   In all things, Israel knew that her God was on the move through her.  But for what?  At this season in her national life, Israel was lost and desolate, in bondage to foreign oppressors and unable to see her God clearly among the myriad pretenders of the pagan pantheon.  Where was her God now?  Why did he delay in vindicating her before the nations?  Where was the mission of God to be found now?

John tells us that he is very present indeed.  He tells us that God had come to Israel’s comfort time and again.  The irony of Israel’s current suffering is exacerbated here when John tells us that God’s own—Israel—did not recognize or receive him when he showed up.  But God continued to come, furthering his mission of “grace and truth” in the world despite not being welcome.  And the magnitude of that coming would be of such proportions that its glory could not be contained in Israel, even as it was meant for her.

God became flesh.  He came down from his heavenly abode to succor his people in a far more profound way than they could have ever imagined possible.  Far from delivering them as a nation from the hands of the Romans, God came to live Israel’s life with her as one of her very own.  He took on Israel’s flesh, and made his dwelling in their very earthly life.  He experienced their sufferings as one of them.  He experienced their exile.   In so doing, he led her out of her true captivity to sin and death.  From where does this mission come?  Could Israel so delivered contain keep such a glory to herself?

How could it?  God had come not just in Israel’s flesh, but in the flesh of all humanity.  He has wedded himself to a full human nature, and so saved human nature fully.  Indeed, Israel’s very glory is this, that God’s mission would be to use her flesh to save the entire human race.  God in Israel’s flesh reconciled all to himself, and extended Israel’s lineage to all people who would receive him.  And now, through Jesus, we are all here present trace our lineage through him to God.

What does this mean for us?  It means, as it meant for Israel of old, that God is now carrying out his mission through us as his people today.  We are now the agents of his reconciling love in the world.  As we now partake in the lineage of Jesus, so we are the ambassadors of his mission to the modern world.  And that precisely is what we are doing in ministries like Alpha.  We are inviting the world to share in this great mission of God, which started generations ago in a far off land and finds its fulfillment in beholding the grace and truth of God made flesh for us.

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Monday’s Round-up

Queen Elizabeth II exhorted English bishops at the General Synod to “communicate the gospel with joy and conviction in our society.”

Traditional Anglicans, including the bishops from the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), have rejected the Anglican Covenant proposed by archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The covenant intends to unify the disparate Anglican groups across the globe.

Advent season has officially begun, beginning a new liturgical cycle. Crescent news service has offered a brief article explaining the reason for the season.

A new study indicates that the fastest growing churches in North America are those that blend traditional service elements with contemporary approaches.

The Christian Institute reports from a new survey that most people under the age of 35 have never heard of the King James version of the Bible.

Fr. Michael Morse, pastor of All Saints’ Anglican Church in Amesbury, Massachusetts, preaches on repentance and the hope of the coming kingdom in the inaugural service for the season of Advent.

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Friday’s Round-up

An orthodox Anglican think-tank is under fire from progressive Episcopalians in Washington D.C. for allegedly supporting the search and seizure of Episcopal property.

Anglican and Catholic archbishops are preparing for an ecumenical conference in Sudan.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams continues to urge the church to ratify the Anglican Covenant.

Williams also warns that the Anglican Communion is threatened by “piece by piece dissolution.”

Finally, an oldie but goodie from the archives of the Center for Theology: Megan DeFranza reflects on sacred value of the Eucharist through the eyes of her young daughter in “More Jesus bread, please mama?

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The old pilgrim Nathaniel Morton recounts the journey from Leiden, Holland to Plymouth rock–describing the “Christian Love” that characterized the first settlers of North America.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board celebrates the fact that our fair land “yet remains the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators.

Meanwhile, The New York Times memorializes early 20th century Connecticut governor Wilbur Cross for encouraging his fellow Americans in a Thanksgiving address to share the “blessings” given by the almighty Creator.

Harvard professor David D. Hall argues that the original Puritans have gotten a bad rap. Instead of demonizing them as rigid authoritarians, he says we should remember them as the founders of participatory government–and for the elaborate food rituals we celebrate today.

And speaking of food, James Prosek claims the most important food for the original pilgrims was not turkey but….eels!

 

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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Today’s biggest church news concerned the Catholic church’s apparent shift in its long-standing policy regarding birth control, specifically the use of condoms. In a conversation with a journalist discussing his new book “Light of the World,” pope Benedict said that condoms were not “a real or moral solution” for sex workers or those afflicted by the AIDS virus, but that in some cases they could be used as “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”  A day later, the Vatican confirmed Benedict’s statement, saying the use of condoms by people infected with H.I.V. could be “the first step of responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk to the life of the person with whom there are relations.”

The secular press has taken the news and run with it: The New York Times calls the pope’s comments a “remarkable” shift, while the Mirror says the pope has now given his “OK” to condom use in AIDS-afflicted Africa.

Traditional Catholic theologians were less impressed by the announcement: intellectual George Weigel argues that the pope’s statements do not justify condom use–they are merely pointing out the lesser of two evils. Ross Douthat blogs about previous comments the pope made on the subject, showing the pope appreciates nuance in his seemingly hard-line stance against birth control.

First Things has offered selections from the interview in which the pope discusses many other subjects besides condom use. It’s always best to go to the source when debating the meaning of someone’s statements!

From the Center for Theology, Megan DeFranza has addressed some of these issues through an examination of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. There she begins to explore how Anglicanism can have its own “Theology of the Body”.

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Tuesday’s Round-up

Here’s today’s selection of articles related to theology, faith, and the church:

A study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy has found that religious organizations have been donating more during the recession than other charitible groups.

Two Iraqi Christian brothers were shot and killed by Islamic terrorists yesterday, another attack in a long series of attacks on Christians in Iraq.

Boston University professor complains about the commercialization of Christmas–especially long before Thanksgiving even starts.

A summary of the FCA Conference in Africa, which provides a statement on its commitment to orthodox Anglicanism, in Africa is presented on the website of the Anglican Diocese of New England.

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Daily Round-up

We’re going to try a new initiative here at the Writers’ Block. We’ll be providing links to articles around the web related to theology, Anglicanism, news about the church, and maybe an old article from the archives of the Center. Hope you enjoy!

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams discusses pope Benedict XVI’s declaration that Anglicans can join the Catholic communion, claiming that Benedict’s actions were not “aggressive”.

Anglican Archbishop Robert Duncan has released a pastoral letter on stewardship.

The sermon “The Good Shepherd…and the Work of his Flock,” preached by The Very Reverend Bishop Bill Murdoch is available for listening and reflection over at Pulpit Talk.

 


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Chris Sherratt, a Beloved reader of the Center for Theology and catechist of God’s little ones at All Saints Anglican Church in Amesbury, Massachusetts, has graciously shared with us a reflection on what God communicates through children. Chris confirms that age old truth, “Out of the mouth of babes comes the wisdom of God.”  Read on and share your own reflections in the comments board.

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Those familiar with the work of Sofia Cavalletti and the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd know that early in their work, she and collaborator Gianna Gobbi characterized the inherent religious desire of the child as “Help me find God by myself.” She expands on this in her book, The Religious Potential of the Child, and we see this desire in children lived out weekly in the Atrium setting. One of my great regrets as a catechist of ages 3-6 is that the wisdom, joy and love of God expressed by the children is not witnessed by more adults. Perhaps this space can rectify this.
A question shared by a five year old on All Saints’ Sunday is a fine place to begin.We had just read Psalm 30:4 and were pondering who the saints of God could be. Somewhere along the way, I stated that saints were people who believed in God and Jesus, and loved Him, and followed Him. I was moving our prayer time along when a question rang out: “What does it mean to believe?”

We use such small word in our lives for big ideas: believe, faith, glory, praise, Amen, Alleluia. It’s a wonderful exercise to try and explain or define these words for an audience so young. Usually a wise approach is to ask the children if they have any ideas what these words mean. This day, a six year old offered this answer, “It’s when you know something.”

Yes, we believe something when we know it, think about it, and know it to be true. I suggested that sometimes we believe things we cannot see. And, these unseen things can be true. Not all things that are true can be seen. There was much silence and no rushing out the door without including our individual prayer time, as one child reminded us by pointing at our statue of the Good Shepherd. So we prayed more, made silence, and sang. We want to be with the saints when they “go marching in.”

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Yesterday evening, Gordon College hosted a forum on the subject of “Theodicy, God, and Suffering.” The two participants were esteemed New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and conservative apologist Dinesh D’Souza.  I did not know about D’Souza before I attended the debate, but I did know about Ehrman.  In addition to the latter’s prominence as a skeptical New Testament scholar, he also testifies to having left his Christian faith behind while in graduate school precisely because of the problem of suffering.  Even as neither of these men are specialists on the question at issue, Ehrman’s person and life story were enough of a draw for me to set aside my evening to attend.  For all it was built up to be in my own mind, the experience was disappointing to say the least.  After nearly an hour of anxious squirming in my pew (my continued apologies to anyone around me who was distracted by this) I finally got up the nerve to leave early.  A testament to the magnitude of my discomfort can be found in this: sitting in the third row of a very large chapel, my sudden premature departure was definitely for all to see.  I wish I had sat in the back.

Ehrman’s critique of the standard Christian approach to the problem was exceedingly disappointing, especially considering his training as an exegete.  Exegesis is quite decidedly what he did very little of in analyzing his texts of choice.  His first argument was about the Bible, by which he really meant the Old Testament, as he didn’t come to the New Testament at all (a point about which I will have something to say in a bit, as it touches on the heart of my critique of the entire evening).  For Ehrman, the pertinent texts blatantly “contradict” each other on the way they handle suffering.   Unfortunately, he failed to deal with the fundamental distinction of genre, and how that effects the way individual works handle the question.  Indeed, the multivalent nature of the biblical (sorry, “Old Testament’s”) witness on the question directly addresses the nuanced manner in which the whole of the biblical corpus handles this complex issue.  His next appeal was to the futility of the argument from “free-will.”  The argument goes like this: if people are free, the option exists for them to choose evil.   Unfortunately, the Bible’s understanding of the problem is not that humanity is “free,” (a point about which he was quite right in pointing out), but that humanity is in a state of “sin” (a counterpoint he failed to mention).  Sin is a complex phenomenon that at its core is about humanity as a collective whole throwing off the sovereignty of their rightful Lord and attempting to run the show for itself.  This, of course, touches on the questions of human responsibility vis-à-vis God and the nature of humanity’s creation mandate both before and after the Fall, but “free will” and “sin” are not interchangeable ideas.  “Sin” is the biblical definition of the problem, not “free will,” and any theologian worth his or her weight in paper (to say nothing of gold) knows the magnitude of the difference.  Finally, Ehrman appealed to the problem of natural disasters.  Once again, failure to turn to the New Testament is part of his problem; the authority Jesus exercises over the elements as Son of Man illustrates the kind of authority over the created realms that humanity forfeited by cutting itself off from God.  In that sense, even the suffering caused by natural disasters can be seen as a consequence of human rebellion, even as human beings don’t “will” hurricanes or earthquakes.  Ehram’s argument is easily handled by any seminary student.

The shocker of the evening was D’Souza’s response.  Ehrman basically handed the evening to his opponent, who could have easily appealed to any number of the biblical passages that Ehrman either woefully under-interpreted or completely ignored.  Instead, D’Souza avoided revelation altogether, choosing instead to take the tack of following the evidences of “natural revelation” to construct his argument, perhaps out of deference to an opponent who did not share his assumptions about revelation.  Unfortunately, Christians cannot successfully make a “Christian” response to the problem of suffering without appealing to God’s self-revelation of himself in history.   To attempt to do so is to play right into any skeptic’s hands.  On the latter’s terms, the world is clearly very screwed up and human suffering seems quite blatantly to lack any kind of meaning.  The universe simply trudges forward, blind and deaf to the heart cries of millions of suffering human beings on a small backwater planet orbiting a small backwater star in a small backwater galaxy.   While it is important for Christians to meet their unbelieving interlocutors where they are (as Paul did on Mars Hill in Athens), eventually you have to return to revelation (again, as Paul did on Mars Hill in Athens).   D’Souza’s appeals to the audacity of “questioning God” (a point with no biblical support whatsoever, as Job, Moses, the Psalmists, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Jesus, and Paul amply testify), the implications of “human free-will” (if he had listened to Ehrman he would have known that the Bible never addresses the problem this way), and the anthropic principle (which failed fundamentally to deal with the root philosophical problem; could not have God designed a life-sustaining world without the devastating side-effects of some natural phenomena for the very life they purport to make possible?) were, quite frankly, lack luster at best and downright embarrassing for centuries of Christian exegetes and theologians who’ve addressed this problem at worst.

After their initial presentations, the debate continued with questions posed between the two of them.  Ehrman preceded to mop the floor with D’Souza’s prevarications, back-tracking, and continued responses which (quite bafflingly for a man of his education) failed to address the philosophical root of the problem.  Ehrman, for his own part, resorted to emotional appeals about the sheer magnitude of human suffering (the Holocaust of course made multiple appearances at this point), dismissed “intellectualizing” the problem (against which D’Souza scored his only point of the evening with, “that’s why we’re having a debate!”), and touted the importance of just “sitting beside” people who suffer (where he once again grossly misinterpreted the Book of Job).   It was at this point that I walked out.

My problem with this evening is not just in the stuff of my critiques of individual propositions cited above.  Those, to be sure, were quite frustrating, particularly as D’Souza more or less had the debate handed to him an a silver-platter of inaccurately interpreted Scripture.  No, my problem with the night’s proceedings was with the stark contrast between the content of both men’s presentations on the one hand, and the symbolism of what Paul calls the “wisdom of God” hanging over their heads (quite literally) the entire time on the other.  That is to say, in this chapel where a large wooden cross adorned the back wall above and behind both men, neither one of them ever mentioned the Cross of Jesus Christ in their handling of the problem of human suffering.  I must restate this point as its baldness categorizes the whole evening for me: neither man mentioned Jesus OR his Cross ONCE.  Literally once.  This strikes me as a profound failure to address God’s own solution to the problem in the revelation of Jesus Christ.  God demonstrates his awareness of the problem in this: he takes on the messy sufferings of the human race to his own person and, dying as we die, vanquished them utterly.  While we yet live in an age where the full actualization of that victory is not yet clearly manifest, Christians live with a profound hope fundamentally associated with what happened next: God Incarnate did not stay dead, but conquered quite literally the hell out of human death by busting open his dank dark tomb that first Easter morning.  The Cross and Empty Tomb constitute the only viable Christian response to the problem of human suffering because they are, in the last analysis, God’s own response to the problem.  That is quite simply this: God sees our suffering and he is bothered by it; he demonstrates that bother by taking on human nature to conquer our suffering; he conquers it by dying rejected and destitute in our place; and he provides the hope of our deliverance from the same by mocking the crap out of his own tomb.  As much as the world cannot understand the wisdom of this turn of events, so much has God humbled the wise and cast down the mighty from their seats.  But if we stop to reflect on this revelation (for which the vast beauty of nature, for all its pedagogical value, could never prepare us), what could be a more profound tack on the question of suffering than that God suffers humanity’s suffering in humanity’s own flesh, taken upon himself once and for all?  Talk about “sitting beside” someone as they suffer, Dr. Ehrman!

Ehrman misappropriated the Old Testament by failing to see its fulfillment in the Cross of Jesus.  D’Souza mocked the magnitude of human suffering by failing to account for the wisdom of God on the cross which the world dismisses as foolishness.  The former neglected his own pedigree as a New Testament scholar by failing to address God’s new testament in the cursed tree of Jesus Christ.  The latter neglected the reality that the Cross is utter foolishness to the world by sticking only to the world’s kind of arguments.   Both missed the train out of suffering station by a margin so wide that the universe itself would fail to fill it.   Our God answers the problem of human suffering with this: he gets on a Cross and, stricken and forsaken, cries out “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me!”  There can be no other response but to look up to Calvary, especially as we suffer the unjust and dehumanizing trials of this age, and worship.

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