Category Archives: Theology and Ethics

Guiding Values and Inclusion Statement

In case you aren’t familiar with our Guiding Values and Inclusion Statement, below is a description of the community we strive to be.

At College Avenue United Methodist Church, we strive to live in ways which respect the dignity of others, communicate compassion, convey hospitality to others, promote spiritual growth, strengthen our sense of community, and enhance our discipleship. We affirm God’s grace is available to all, without exception, and we welcome the full inclusion of all God’s people to participate in all aspects of the church’s life and ministry. We stand against the exclusion of any people, and believe that we can love one another even though wemay not think alike. The love of God is shown in the living example of Jesus Christ, and we commit ourselves to advance this Christian message of inclusion and justice.

Faith and Learning

As we begin the school year, I’m reminded of the hymn “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning” by Thomas H. Troeger. The final verse is an apt prayer that we might regard faith and learning as complementary, not oppositional.

As two currents in a river
fight each other’s undertow
till converging they deliver
one coherent steady flow,
blend, O God, our faith and learning
till they care a single course,
till they join as one, returning
praise and thanks you, their Source [1]

I regret that I can’t quote the entire hymn here (due to copyright), but it can be found as number 2004 in The Faith We Sing.


[1] Thomas H. Troeger, “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning,” in The Faith We Sing (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 2004.

The Apostle’s Creed: “Credo”

When we recited the Apostles’ Creed last week, you may have noticed that the words “I believe” were nowhere to be found. The reason for that is that we’re using an updated translation that translated the original Latin word “credo” of the creed as “I commit myself,” “I set my heart upon,” and “I place my trust in.”

The best concise explanation I can find for this change comes from church historian Diana Butler Bass:

“To believe” in Latin (the shaping language for much of Western theological thought) is opinor, opinari, meaning “opinion,” which was not typically a religious word. Instead, Latin used credo, “I set my heart upon” or “I give my loyalty to,” as the word to describe religious “believing,” that is, “faith.” In medieval English, the concept of credo was translated as “believe,” meaning roughly the same thing as its German cousin belieben, “to prize, treasure, or hold dear,” which comes from the root word Liebe, “love.” Thus, in early English, to “believe” was to “belove” something or someone as an act or trust or loyalty. [1]


[1] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013), Kindle, 117.

Weeping For Children

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
— Matthew 2:18 (NRSVue)

There was a horrible slaughter at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas yesterday. There is very little left to be said about the school shootings that plague us, but there is a great deal to be done. Tears are appropriate, thoughts and prayers are good, but action is required. There are many of our representatives from whom action is long overdue.

A Few Thoughts on Baptism

There’s been a story in the news about a clergy person in another denomination who baptized people with the wrong pronoun (“we” instead of “I”). I don’t know enough about that other denomination to weigh in according to their theology, but in the United Methodist Church this would be a non-issue. Here are a few of the reasons.

  1. I may have baptized you, but God did the heavy lifting. And for this I am thankful, it would be really hard for me to screw up a baptism because God’s doing the majority of the work. To think I could do so by using the wrong pronoun would be to take too much credit for what is primarily an act of God.
  2. I do follow the traditional rubric of “Name, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”. But this is not a spell from the fictional world of Harry Potter that won’t work unless it is said in just the right way. This is a sacrament, the grace of God is at work and the Holy Spirit will not be turned aside by a simple mistake on the part of the pastor. Furthermore Jesus said to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19)— but he never gave us an exact wording with the proper pronouns.
  3. What happens if more than one person does the baptism? Jenny and I have done a lot of them together. I don’t remember ever saying we, but it certainly would have been appropriate.

I’ve got more, but I’m going to stop there.

Fleeing From Hell or Running to God?

Today, I had a good, practical question about my sermon on Hell this past Sunday (September 26, 2021). The question boiled down to this: if Hell only means destruction, if the consequence of Hell is not eternal torment, but rather simply that one ceases to exist, what reason is there to turn to God? What follows are short versions of my two best answers.

First, most people want to continue to exist. Sometimes, on hectic days, I think ceasing to exist wouldn’t be so bad—it would really free up my schedule—but most of the time, I fall into the human default position of wanting to continue being. When the early Methodists talked about “fleeing the wrath to come,” they were probably referring to eternal torment. However, for me, annihilation would still fall under the category of “the wrath to come.”

Second, while both fleeing Hell and moving toward God point you in the same general direction, your motivation can make a big difference. For example, would you want to marry someone who only wanted to get out of a bad situation, or would you prefer to marry someone who loved you and wanted to be with you? I think God will take us either way, but I can’t help but think that God would rather we come because God’s love pulls us in than that we come because the fear of Hell is pushing us away. Either way, we will be welcomed home, but our motivation makes a difference in the nature of our journey.

A Hedge of Protection?

Until a few years ago, I had never heard anyone ask God for a “hedge of protection.” I’ve heard it a lot since then, often in reference to Covid-19. The reference would appear to be to the way thorny hedges were used to protect livestock during biblical times. I liked the idea but I have noticed that most of the time it’s invoked, it’s requested by people who have otherwise declined to do their part to look after themselves and those in their care, much less their neighbor at large.

I believe in asking for God’s help, but to ask for God’s help while at the same time refusing to take advantage of other forms of help that God has placed close at hand is something difficult for me to bear. I wanted to write a pastoral blog post advising folks not to do this. The first step was to look up where in the Bible the phrase “hedge of protection” comes from. That first step turned out to be a doozy.

I looked up the phrase in the King James Version. There is no use of the term “hedge of protection,” but the word “hedge” is used nine times. You may disagree, but to me the most likely verse to be a candidate for the origin of the term “hedge of protection” is Job 1:10. There we read “Hast not thou made a hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land” (KJV). 

My first thought was that the people who started using this phrase apparently did so without reading the rest of the book of Job. Under no circumstances do I want my life story to follow Job’s narrative arc. But there’s more, these words are not spoken by God, or the devout Job, or the narrator, but by Satan. To me that’s more than enough reason to avoid using the phrase.

If someone can find another biblical reference where someone like the author of the Psalms invokes a hedge of protection, I’ll be happy to take the phrase back up, it has a nice ring to it. Until then I’m going to suggest that we stop using it. If you’re looking for a replacement, might I suggest that you ask God to extend God’s wings over you (e.g. Psalms 36:7 and 91:4). As near as I can tell, the Devil never invokes this image, but Jesus does (Matthew 23:27 and Luke 13:34).

Finally, as you invoke God’s protection, take up and use every means God has given you to protect yourself and others.

The Bible as a Model for U.S. History

This past Sunday (July 4, 2021), I talked about the fact that we as a country are blessed by the fact that we can (and do) admit our mistakes, repent, and seek to do better. That involves being truthful about our history and not omitting our mistakes as a nation. Here’s an article by Mark George asserting that to do so is to follow the example found in the Bible.

“As a Bible scholar, I am struck by the ways the Bible tells both the good and bad of ancient Israel’s history – even when the narratives conflict. Instead of only celebrating moments of glory or tragedy, the Bible recounts both together. This approach to history – treating narratives as one rather than cherry-picking the bits that fit a certain point of view – offers an example of how we can reframe the debate about how the U.S. tells its own history.” — Mark K. George

You can read the whole article at https://bit.ly/3yxGr6L.

Known But to God

I woke up this morning to a Memorial Day that was cold, grey, rainy, and thus dreary. I’ve always felt that days like this are oddly appropriate for graveside services. It seems appropriate for observing Memorial Day as well. I wanted to share the picture below of a cross-shaped tombstone reading, “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” “Known but to God.” It’s enough for that soldier, and it’s enough for us as well. When we feel small and insignificant, we can find comfort in knowing that we are known to God. In time we will know fully, even as we are now fully known. (See 1 Corinthians 13:12.)

Photo by Nathan Gibbs — Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) — https://www.flickr.com

A Crisis Reveals What Is In Our Hearts

Pope Francis has published a moving editorial about the pandemic in the New York Times. He writes of how moments of crisis like these reveal what is in our hearts. The best line: “If we are to come out of this crisis less selfish than when we went in, we have to let ourselves be touched by others’ pain.”

It’s not brief, it’s not entertaining, but I encourage you to take the time time to read it.

Link: https://nyti.ms/39jfRoy

A More Christian Love Of Country

Note: 2019-2020 has been a difficult year for the United States, but I still love America as an adult child loves a parent. For that reason I’m reposting these thoughts from 2015.

Warning: what follows is a post in the vein of the Old Testament prophets. You may want to skip it and for that I do not blame you, but I feel compelled to write it.

I have heard our love of country compared to our love of our parents. When we are children, we love our parents as only children can. We love them without being aware of their flaws and shortcomings.* As adults, we recognize that our parents are fallen human beings, and yet we love them still. (This is Christ-like in that it is also the nature of God’s love for us.) I believe that the love we have for our country should be like the love of an adult child for his or her parents. This means that we have to acknowledge that our country, however much we love it, is not perfect.

To that end, I want to share two links. The first is a historic address by Frederick Douglas titled The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro. The following passage is considered one of Douglas’ most moving:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

The second is a contemporary blog post by a Native American titled The Dilemma of the Fourth of July. It’s author, Mark Charles, highlights the reference to Native Americans as savages in The Declaration of Independence and then writes:

“This is the dilemma that Native ‘Americans’ face every day. The foundations of the United States of America are blatantly unjust. This land was stolen. Native peoples, Africans and many other minority communities have long been recipients of systemic racism. And the roots of it are right there for the entire world to see, printed in many of our founding documents; like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and United States Supreme Court case rulings.”

My hope is that by confessing the sins of our nation’s past, we might move forward to a better, holier future.** Like the hymn America the Beautiful, I want to extol our nation’s virtues and ask God to “mend [our] every flaw.” Mark Charles feels the same way, writing:

“You can still light your fireworks and eat your BBQ, but please remember God’s incredible mercy upon our violent and unjust nation. And at the end of the day, I humbly ask you to conclude your celebrations with the following prayer.

‘May God have mercy on the United States of America and give us the courage necessary to create a common memory.'”

I understand “common memory” to mean an accurate understanding of our past that is shared by enough people that it helps to shape a more just future. I will pray that prayer.

Links:
The Meaning of the Fourth for the Negroto.pbs.org/1M1bUQv
The Dilemma of the Fourth of Julybit.ly/1C9J93Q

*My apologies to my own parents for the use of this comparison. I should note that my mother has very few shortcomings, and I share all my father’s flaws.
**Credit where credit is due: In 2009 Sam Brownback helped lead a successful effort to get a formal apology to Native Americans approved by Congress and signed by the President. Sadly, he could not get it passed as a stand-alone bill and it had to be slipped into an appropriations measure.