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Rocking the Boat

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:12 AM
Another meaty little tidbit from Karl Barth:
“As I look back upon my course, I seem to myself as one who, ascending the dark staircase of a church tower and trying to steady himself, reached for the banister, but got hold of the bell rope instead. To his horror he had then to listen to what the great bell had sounded over him and not over him alone.” (Christian History, 19.1: 23)

It's fascinating reading Barth. I read just a taste of his Epistle to the Romans, and to see him so passionately rejecting the liberal encroachment on the church in the context of the above quote is fascinating. Barth wasn't out to utterly change the course of theology, he was trying to come to terms with a church that had become too materialistic to accomplish anything.

Barth's zeal and focus on Christ is refreshing. He was a latter-day John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards, and like those great men before him, he declared a difficult message to a world that didn't want to hear it. Unfortunately, in the course of things, every so often the church needs someone like these ones to come along and shake things up: to get people back to the central message of the New Covenant.

Today, I think we could use another person who accidentally rings the bell. We have plenty of people who enjoy ringing the bell for no good reason. We have plenty of people who would rather form committees for the study of bell ringing and its impact on social change. Plato's ideal leaders are the ones that do not seek power, and that's what we need here; the original Twelve Apostles didn't want to ring the bell, but they did. The Apostle Paul didn't want to ring the bell but he did. Anselm didn't want to ring the bell. Luther didn't want to ring the bell. The big thing is they all took the challenge laid before them, and the Church is stronger for it.

The question for this century is: by whom will the bell toll?

Da Vinci Outreach?

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 4:43 AM

This Washington Post article is a good read:

As a conservative evangelical leader, Josh McDowell is one of the last people you'd expect to urge young Christians to see “The Da Vinci Code,” the upcoming movie based on the phenomenally best-selling novel. After all, the book argues that Jesus sired a line of royalty before he died on the cross — Mary Magdalene being pregnant with his child — and that it was covered up by religious leaders through the centuries.

But McDowell, author of “The Da Vinci Code — A Quest for Truth,” not only urges a trip to the theater, but also advises everybody to read the novel by Dan Brown.

Interesting. Do I agree? We'll, I've recommended the book to folks, so I suppose I do. :)

Minions of the Right

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 4:25 AM
This is a disturbing tidbit:
In the United Church of Christ, local churches are fully autonomous. They own their property, their endowments, their membership contributions, and any other assets they have accrued over the life and history of the congregation. Lyle Schaller has described the United Church of Christ less as a denomination than a “voluntary affiliation of local congregations.” A 2/3 vote by any congregation is all that is needed to leave, and to take with them millions of dollars in assets. For this reason, they have been aggressively targeted by the religious right and their minions.

Dorhauer clearly is exactly the kind of person he loathes: an extremist. The article makes references to a number of churches and pastors who have rejected the direction of the United Church of Christ, including my own, St. Paul's Evangelical Church (and our pastor Mark Friz). The assertion that my church left the UCC under coercion is absurd; I think many, myself included, were hesitant simply because we did not follow the workings of the denomination that closely (being autonomous, the church did not pass on the parts of the denomination that were problematic). Nevertheless, after examining the record of the UCC, I was proud to cast my vote in 1998 to disfellowship with the denomination despite my continued affection for much of what was the Evangelical and Reformed church of the past.

To reject the UCC does not mean one is part of the far right. As one who finds himself generally most comfortable within neo-orthodox circles, it would be hard to accuse me of being among the ranks of Falwell and Robertson. This is not a right versus left issue, it is the continuation of the age old battle between orthodoxy from heterodoxy.

The UCC is not just a liberal leaning mainline denomination. It is generally agreed upon to be the farthest left leaning mainline — going far beyond the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and either major Baptist denomination. Of the other mainlines, I've followed controversies most in the UMC and PC (USA) and I'd note that both continue to, at least hesitantly, fall on the Biblical side of major issues such as the uniqueness of Jesus in the process of salvation. The UCC, on the other hand, has slid far off the map to the fringes of orthodoxy, to the extent that even its own joke about the name standing for “Unitarians Considering Christ.”

They are certainly within their rights to go in that direction. But they should recognize that not every church wishes to follow in their path to a pluralist theology. Choosing a different one does not show some imagined infidelity to the denomination, but rather a rightful usage of the ability to choose our own destiny.

A Meditation on those Deceptive Words

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:01 AM

The present quote, as I said yesterday, is one that has really struck me over the last couple of weeks.

“Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.'” (NRSV)

It seems that what Jeremiah is saying is extremely applicable to our present time (and any time, for that matter). The people of Jerusalem at the time of this warning were feeling invincible against the Babylonians; they never could imagine that the city would be wiped out by those who did not know God, for how could the temple of YHWH fall to the Gentiles? Sure, they worshipped a few other gods on the side, visited the high places and so on — but they were in the city of the temple. “This is the temple of the LORD” so who can possibly destroy us?

Israel had been wiped out in 722 B.C., but that was something that could be understood. They did not have “the Temple of the LORD.” As the Deuteronomist likes to often remind us, the people of Israel did evil by following the example of Jeroboam, worshipping the golden calfs he fashioned as replacements for proper worship of YWHW in Jerusalem. If the fate of the Northern Kingdom was tied in part to the evil of Jeroboam, then so long as God's true temple was in Jerusalem, nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

They got their answer. It didn't matter even if they had not let their hearts stray to other gods, they didn't “get” the message of their God anyway. They thought that what God desired was sacrifices and worship. They had down the rituals — they did not see that rituals are empty.

Rituals are nothing in and of themselves. As Mircea Eliade noted, what a ritual does is symbolize — connect us with — “sacred time.” If we fail to focus on the deeper meaning of it, it is about as useful as a book of cuneiform writings is to someone like me that doesn't understand those symbols. It does not matter if the rituals are complex ones with hundreds of years of history or a contemporary worship service with its own set of informal rituals, rituals are all throughout the church. We naturally represent the Sacred through symbols, but our problem is that we often focus on the symbols and not what they point to.

It makes me think of a store selling large or expensive items. Usually, the displays have little tags you can take that allow you to purchase those items. Those tags symbolize the item you wish to purchase. Imagine if people went into the store and excitedly exited with those tags but never went to a clerk and traded the tag for the actual item it is intended to aid you in purchasing. That's basically the situation we often have with ritual.

The message of the Ethical Monotheism expounded by the great prophets is simple: having the right heart before God, not performing ritual, is at the heart of what God wants. While those in Jerusalem were busy chanting, “This is the Temple of the LORD,” one of Jeremiah's colleagues was busy expounding precisely how far off the mark the people were. In Micah 6:6-8 (ESV) it is written:

“With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
” (Emphasis mine.)

Consider that if the heart of what God desired of those in the Old Covenant was this threefold command to act justly, to be kind and to be a humble follower of God's path for us, how much more this should be something we pay attention to as those in the New Covenant. Consider that the Old Covenant provided restoration from our sinful state through rituals, ours is provided completely by Grace bestowed on us at God's pleasure. If what mattered in a ritualistic setting was not really the rituals but a faithful heart toward God, we cannot overestimate the importance of such in Christianity when faith is at the core.

This seems to me just an ideal reminder on the theme of reform that I've talked about over the past week. We must always seek to cut through the popular religion, the temptation just to get lost in our own rituals, and remember what Matt Redmond referred to as “the heart of worship.”

“And [Jesus] said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.'” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV)

Credit where credit is due: I should acknowledge the deep influence of Dr. Alan Meyers throughout this meditation.

Is the Reformation Over?

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 2:01 AM

Mark asked me about Mark Noll's Is the Reformation Over? in my last post. I respect Noll quite a bit, so I figured I'd probably agree with him, but I am not familiar with that book, so I decided to look around a bit about it. I found a speech from last year in which Noll summarized the book.

I think Noll seems to be right that Evangelicals (in the broad sense that includes those of us who are Reformed) and Catholics have more in common than we have in differences. Primarily, he isolates the views of the Church (do believers come before the church or the church before believers) and tradition. I'd tend to agree. Most other differences (such as views of the nature of Holy Communion/the Eucharist, the authority of the papacy, and the importance of Mary) draw out of the realm of tradition. For instance, as the Orthodox Church did, pre-schism, I think many Protestants will gladly give the Pope a great deal of respect, but we won't elevate him to a position of the final authority of the Church. That is a view supported by Catholic Church dogma, not Scripture — at least in my view as a Protestant — and thus so long as I look with suspicion on tradition in and of itself, I obviously will not support that view of Pope (even though I really respect the pontiff).

These differences are significant, but not a barrier. As Noll says,
The “mere Christians” in all of these traditions believe very similar things about the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, the Trinity, the centrality of the work of Christ for human salvation, and the power of the Holy Spirit as the motive force for holy living in the world. But each tradition expresses these realities with characteristically different emphases:
Orthodoxy, the mystical mysterious of God
Catholicism, the power of God to build his City
Protestantism, the civil society shaped by individual choice
Pentecostalism, the direct empowerment of the Holy Spirit
I personally am attracted to the mystical character of Orthodoxy, the grandeur of the Catholic Church and the emphasis of the priesthood of the individual believer in Protestantism (I won't reject Pentecostalism, but have a harder time picking out anything I am particularly appreciative of in that case). That is to say, I do not look down on the other two great wings of the church for their distinctives; in fact, as a Protestant, I envy them for those things that we lack. I think this is key to the question of if the Reformation is over: I think it is. I think the lessons of the Reformation are still valid and that is we should always reform and be on the lookout for unscriptural dogmas, but that does not necessitate continued isolation between Protestants and Catholics. As Noll says,
We have gathered here today as people who not so very long ago looked upon each other as orcs and elfs, and were as repelled by orc-speech and elf-speech as it was possible to be. Today, it is more like ents and hobbits, not yet speaking the same language, but nonetheless getting quite a charge from hearing the other tongue and actually getting along quite well together. Might God do even more? Look around you. Listen. It is happening right before your eyes and ears.

The 488th Reformation Day

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 1:51 AM

Solus Christus. Sola Fide. Sola Gratia. Sola Scriptura. Soli Deo Gloria.

My professor of religion and advisor is a wise man. Today, when he saw me, he smiled and wished me a “Happy Reformation Day!” He is one of the few I know who make it a habit to wish a happy Reformation Day, but I think that's a good habit. To an extent, Reformation Day is like Good Friday — it is a day that isn't exactly happy, but on the other hand, it is a very happy day indeed. Let me explain.

It is a dreary day for the obvious reason. As with the Great Schism of 1054, Reformation Day marked a day in which the unity of the Church was irreconcilably lessened. But, that is only one aspect of Reformation Day. The good Dr. Martin Luther never intended to split the church, only to fix what was wrong with it (click the link to read the 95 Theses and A Mighty Fortress is Our God, as I posted them two years ago). In the long run, that much was a success: even the parts of the church that did not split off were forced to begin to clean out the corruption of the Renaissance age. Would we have the Vatican II era in the Catholic Church without the Reformation? It is something to consider.

That is what we should take away from Reformation Day today. This is a day of renewal, not destruction. While it has taken almost 500 years, these days the parts of the one universal Church are communicating better than they have since October 31, 1517 (well actually better than they have since the beginnings of the Great Schism in the ninth century or so). In what might have seemed very odd not that long ago, and what is still perhaps ironic, I spent part of today working on a web site for a Catholic ministry. What this day should remind us — regardless of whether you adhere to the Protestant, Orthodox or Catholic creeds — is that we should always seek truth, for as the saying I still cannot find the citation for says, between God and truth there can be no conflict. The church here on earth will always be collecting barnacles that prevent smooth sailing, and it is good to look and clean those off every so often.

A day that leads to self-reflection is a good day. So long as we do not look at Reformation Day as something from the past, but as something very real in the present, it is a good day that helps us continually aim for the goal: Soli Deo Gloria.

Happy Reformation Day to all of you.

Reformation Sunday

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:59 PM

Well, I wrote up a really nice post on Reformation Day and, particularly, reflections on some of the problems it leaves us with today, but I'm afraid I hit the wrong button and it went off into the abyss. It was probably the best post I've written in awhile, but not good enough to warrant rewriting the whole thing, so I guess I'll leave well enough alone for now.

This Makes Me Hungry

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 4:52 AM

Josiah locates an open letter to the Kansas School Board concerning Intelligent Design. I'll admit it is somewhat creative, even though it misses the primary point that I think a lot of ID'ers would like to express. Personally, I don't have a big interest in seeing Intelligent Design taught in schools. What I would like to see is an acknowledgment in education that abiogenesis is not mathematically probable. Students could then decide what to make of that revelation.

As a side note: how many of you support having ID taught in schools? How many of you realize that ID does not attempt to disprove evolution, but is rather a theistic interpretation of macroevolution? Well, my readers are smart, I'm sure you knew that; but I'm always surprised how many people fail to understand the difference between creationism (7 day creation) and intelligent design (which does not disagree with Darwin so much as provides an “experiencing-as” interpretation of Darwinian beliefs).

Requesting the teaching of ID need not be a sectarian action at all: the main point is to go back to Aristotle. It seems illogical to suggest there is no cause to the effect that we see. There must be an unmoved mover and most people find it most reasonable to refer to an unmoved mover as God. My friend Thomas provides some expanded views on this idea. (Yes, I realize that philosophically I am mixing teleological and cosmological arguments, but beyond the academic distinction, they really fit together, in my estimation.)

Spiritual Warfare

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:51 AM

I've never been very big into worrying about “Spiritual Warfare.” It is not that I don't believe in the devil, but I guess I just never thought about it all that much. Over the past year or two, that has started to change.

Lately, I've been thinking more about it, having finished Wild at Heart, which has a section dealing with spiritual warfare. Some of it really hit home — I thought, “yeah, that's exactly how I've been feeling.” I hadn't even thought about relating it to spiritual warfare, but it made sense. I've talked a bit about how I felt God leading me in a certain direction the last few weeks, and I have found this is specifically the place where “the battle” has been taking place. It might sound weird, but thoughts that really don't fit me have been in my head and I end up needing to “argue” against them. For example, I found that I keep thinking of accusations against myself or others that would seem to indicate why I should not follow the leading I've been feeling.

Oddly enough, right before I got to that section of the book was when I posted my last post on Wild at Heart wherein I questioned its usefulness. I felt a very strong urge to take a break from it, but pressed on, and that's when I was truly stunned by this section on the topic of spiritual warfare. Tonight I tried to put my thoughts down on this in a much more detailed manner than I am doing here. I gathered my ideas together, sat down to write them out — to put the puzzle together, so to speak — and all of a sudden felt unusually fatigued. It was a struggle to write down my thoughts and keep my mind straight.

Could this all be a coincidence? Sure, but I'm not so certain. Hopefully, all of you won't think I'm crazy, but I believe there is something to this. I'd be grateful for your prayers.

Wrestling with God

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 4:30 AM

I was reminded of Jacob's nighttime wrestling with God this week (Genesis 32.21-32). On Monday, I felt like I had one of the clearest experiences of God leading me that I've ever felt. I spent the rest of the week puzzling over the details of exactly what that meant. Why was God telling me these particulars? What should I do with them? Jacob struggled with God for a blessing; I was struggling for an understanding of how these details fit together. Being in the mostly uninterrupted quiet of the Ozarks was just where I needed to be for this.

A lot of what I would like to know remains a mystery to me. I started to doubt if I had really heard the Holy Spirit. Could it be I was just reading too much into things? No. I prayed that God would show me a sign if I was really hearing Him and not just myself. Unexpectedly, this morning's sermon was on taking the leadings of the Spirit; the topic had been picked a few weeks ago (although I had not noticed that), but our pastor had scrapped the original sermon and written a different one yesterday that hit even closer. It really seemed like a confirmation to me. As usher captain for the month of May, I was alone in the Narthex during the sermon, which was just as well, for I was overcome by what I was hearing.

Other things have stood out in the last few days. Having finished a few novels (the Da Vinci Code, Silenced, the Remnant and Armageddon) in the last few weeks, I decided to return to a non-fiction piece I had barely started last year and had never made it back to: Philip Yancey's Rumors of Another World. Yancey always has something good to say, but today I was taken aback by what I found on the pages directly following where I had stopped so many months ago. It all fit into the pattern of what I thought God was telling me. A few sentences were eerily almost word-for-word what I had planned to jot down as I organized all of my thoughts while in the Ozarks this week.

I still don't know what to do with this information, but I know I need to keep listening.

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