A Methodist & Church Father walk into a pub …

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John Wesley, 1703-1791

Maybe John Wesley wasn’t such a doctrinal innovator after all. It seems esteemed church fathers anticipated his most hot-potato teaching, the one that squirms prim Calvinists.

The 18th-century Anglican priest, British evangelist and accidental founder of Methodism confounds some of John Calvin’s die-hard fans, who often conceive themselves as Protestant orthodoxy’s guardians and weigh all proposals on the Westminster Confession and the Canons of Dort. Puritans hammered-out the Confession in 17th-century Britain while the Canons were issued after a Dutch gathering responding to the followers of Jacob Arminius. The Arminians, aka as the Remonstrants, longed to soften Calvinism’s hard-edged determinism.
Politics muddied the debate in the Netherlands. The nation was splitting from Spain’s empire and the Calvinists viewed the Arminians as Spanish sympathizers. The Arminians didn’t stand a chance. Their proposals were rejected, with the government even executing one Remonstrant and throwing others in jail.
Calvinists, such as the cordial Michael Horton, like to characterize the Synod of Dort as a Protestant “ecumenical council” (see his For Calvinism). After all, British Anglicans and German Lutherans were at the scene. But that’s a stretch. The Synod’s directives were never binding in Germany and Britain and most Anglicans veered Arminian. Wesley planted himself in that tribe and poked fun at the Calvinists.
Which flummoxes Calvinists. They don’t know what to do with Wesley. He was creedally orthodox and preached from the Bible — and the Holy Spirit clearly used him in spurring a revival. Yet he lifted up that loathed theologian, Arminius, whom many falsely accuse of Pelagianism (an ancient heresy denying original sin). Many of Dort’s heirs settle with the myth that Wesley was more similar to Calvin than the dreaded Remonstrants. His theology, they tell themselves, was messy. He’s really part of the team.
To which classical Arminians respond: “Yeah. right.
But then there’s his embarrassing, hot-potato teaching — the one which can’t be true; no one with any creedal or biblical mojo would accept it:  Wesley possessed the gall to suggest that followers of Christ could reach a state of sinless perfection while they lived on the Earth. He laid no claim to the experience himself, but he culled the Bible and found passages suggesting that some might avail themselves of God’s grace and live such a life. Read all about it in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.
The Calvinist reaction: Impossible. Can’t be. Everybody and his kid brother knows Sin clings to us totally depraved beings until we part this mortal coil and join the heavenly chorus. Wesley must’ve had a bad night: There’s no precedent for this.
Think again.
Fact is, Wesley was well versed in the Eastern Church Fathers, and they discussed achieving perfection every morning, over coffee. These fathers knew  all about sin, but they also knew that God’s grace is stronger than sin and may overpower it in some believers.
In other words, Wesley was as orthodox as they come. Twenty-first century American evangelicals might go slack-jawed at his holiness doctrine, but that only proves they’ve been flooded with pessimistic Calvinism and Dispensationalism (a theology that splits history into several distinct phases, or dispensations).
I actually began to toy with the idea of reaching such a state (trust me: I’m far from it now): What it would look like and feel like? For one thing, I wouldn’t brag about it because I’d be happily humble. I think I’d match the description someone gave about CS Lewis. He was totally uninterested in himself and far more interested in others.  That’d be cool. And then I thought: Where’s the harm in shedding every ounce of illegitimate lust, egotism, and selfishness? Would I hurt anyone if I grew into a thoroughly godly man?
No. I wouldn’t. I’d be a blessing to one and all — including myself. Maybe I’d even confound some Calvinists, which is always fun.
Sample Gregory of Nyssa’s thoughts on reaching this state of purity. Wesley read Gregory, one of the venerated fourth-century church fathers:
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. God’s promise is so great that it passes the furthest limits of happiness. Given such a blessing, who could desire more, having already received all things by the fact of seeing God? Remember that in Scriptural usage ‘seeing’ means ‘having.’ May you see the good things of Jerusalem means ‘may you find them.’ Let the ungodly be taken away and not see the glory of the Lord means, in the prophet’s words, ‘not share in the glory of the Lord.’
       So whoever ‘sees God’ receives, in this act of seeing, possession of everything that is good: incorruptible life without end, blessedness that cannot fail, a kingdom without end, happiness without limit, true light, the true voice of the Spirit, glory never before reached, perpetual rejoicing, and all else that is good.
       The promise of this Beatitude gives us the right to hope for these great things. All this sight of God is conditional on having a pure heart – and thinking of this, my mind is once more teetering on a dizzy peak. What if purity of heart is one of those unattainable things that are simply beyond our human nature? If, on the one hand, it is by purity of heart that God can be seen, and if, on the other hand, Moses and Paul did not see God and said that he could never be seen, it follows logically that purity of heart must be impossible, so that in pronouncing this Beatitude, the Word is putting forward something that simply cannot be.
       How can we benefit from knowing the means by which God can be seen, if that means is impossible for us?
       Suppose, for instance, that someone told us it was good to find oneself in heaven because there one would see things that cannot be seen in this world. Now if he also told us how a journey to heaven might be undertaken, there might be some use in telling us about its delights. But as long as the journey is impossible, what use is it to think about the happiness that might lie at the end of it? We would simply suffer and be sad at the thought of the things that await us somewhere where we cannot go.
       Does the Lord really encourage us to do something that is beyond our nature and our powers to accomplish? Surely not. Look at the birds: God has not created them without wings. Look at sea creatures: God has not designed them as land animals. Wherever we look, the law of each creature’s being does not demand that it should do something that it is beyond its own nature to do.
       Let us reflect on this and realise that we should not despair of the purity of heart that the Beatitude speaks of. John, Paul and Moses did not, in the end, lack the sublime blessing of seeing God. Paul said There is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord, the just judge, will render to me; John lay on Jesus’ breast; and Moses heard God say to him, I have known you above all. It is certain that those who said that the contemplation of God was beyond human power were themselves blessed. But blessedness comes from the contemplation of God, and seeing God is something that comes to those who are pure of heart. It follows logically that purity of heart cannot be an unattainable thing.
      So if some, with Paul, truly say that the contemplation of God is beyond human power, yet the Lord himself contradicts them by promising the sight of God to those who are pure of heart.

While the GOP loudly explodes, the Dems quietly dissolve

The earsplitting 2016 GOP presidential calamity is veiling another, slower-moving political meltdown that’s only made the back pages of a few news outlets.  It seems the Democratic Party is shriveling.  A few voices point out that the emperor has no clothes and call the party to shake hands with former constituencies – liberal pro-life voters and roll-up-their-sleeves workers. They have yet to be heard.

donkeyThe facts are somber: While there are still more registered Democrats than Republicans, three quarters of state legislatures and two thirds of all governorships are in GOP hands.  Those are the lowest figures since the Hoover Administration.

Democratic leaders like to think demographics are on their side. They’ll just bide their time and watch the swelling ranks of Latinos and African Americans and Asians grab the electoral helm and bring back the happy days of House and Senate dominance. Their confidence is misplaced. First, minorities often hold more conservative views on marriage and other so-called “family values;” second, they’re often more religious; and, third, they’re often pro-life. And they couldn’t care less about vegan recipes and other trendy items on the white progressive agenda. Who’s to say they’ll stay in the fold – especially if the Republicans recover their moderate-to-liberal wing?

Surely it is time for the Democratic National Committee to take off its blinders and see how it is alienating huge swaths of its former constituency and key parts of the Roosevelt coalition. Kristen Day, executive director for Democrats For Life of America, cited Hillary Clinton’s recent motif and posed a question: “Her theme for the last few days has been to make sure everyone is treated with respect, and no one is dismissed.” For starters, she could hold out an olive branch to one stream in that coalition: “How about the preborn and those in the Democratic Party who support life from womb to tomb?” She tossed in even more sobering statistics to enforce her point: “As the Democratic Party has calcified its position in support of abortion, the party continues to lose races. Democrats have lost 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats, 910 legislative seats, 30 state legislative chambers, and 11 governorships.”

Stephen Schneck points out that the former Roosevelt coalition has dissolved:

The biggest problem for the future of the party is the current issue profile.  That profile has shifted in our time from one about the working class and the economically disadvantaged to one that emphasizes the professional classes and the special interests of identity politics.  Over the last decade, that shift has proven to be a devastating liability for the party everywhere except in the bluest of blue Democratic districts.  As a result, increasingly the party’s electoral prospects are relegated to the Northeast and the West Coast.

Schneck asks: “So what should be done?” He answers: “The way forward lies partly in the party’s past and partly in America’s looming future. The way forward also depends in becoming the party of pragmatic governance.”

Dusting off the welcome mat for liberal prolife voters – Catholics embracing their church’s social teaching, for example – could be the entry onto the path toward the coalition’s renewal. Daniel K. Williams wrote about the prolife movement’s forgotten roots in Defenders of the Unborn: The Prolife Movement Before Roe v. Wade. Liberal Democrats often vigorously opposed abortion because they, after all, defended the defenseless (and who can be more defenseless than the unborn child?).

Organizations such as Democrats For Life of America are not so naïve as to think their party will suddenly leap out of the pro-choice camp; they have, however, repeatedly offered platform language that reaches out to the American majority who are queasy about both abortion and criminalizing it. They’re proposing the same language again.  Here it is:

We respect the conscience of each American and recognize that members of our party have deeply held and sometimes differing positions on issues of personal conscience, such as abortion and the death penalty.  We recognize the diversity of views as a source of strength, and we welcome into our ranks all Americans who may hold differing positions on these and other issues.

However, we can find common ground.  We believe that we can reduce the number of abortions because we are united in our support for policies that assist families who find themselves in crisis or unplanned pregnancies.  We believe that women deserve to have a breadth of options available during pregnancy, including the support and resources needed for a successful pregnancy and subsequent adoption or parenthood; access to education, healthcare, and childcare; and appropriate child support.  We envision a new day without financial or societal barriers to bringing a planned or unplanned pregnancy to term.

Such language does not call for the reversal of Roe v. Wade, which would be a Pyrrhic victory anyway because such a decision would not end legal abortions (abortion was a state issue before the ruling). Rather, it seeks to assist pregnant mothers so they can bring their pregnancies to term. That’s perfectly in line with Democratic thinking – or, at least, it once was.

Adopting such language would show the world the Democrats take their billing seriously: They’re the “Big Tent” party, the litmus-test free party, the party not just of NARAL and Planned Parenthood but of Robert Kennedy, Eunice Shriver, Thomas Eagleton, and Hubert Humphrey – all Democratic icons who were pro-life.

Such a move could be the first step is retrieving the party from single interests and placing it back in the hands of the “forgotten person,” which is what the Roosevelt coalition was all about.


Gladness & Weariness in one moment


News from the vegetable stand

Who would-a thunk it? A potentially fatal illness has spurred me back to life.  I’m more like wax and less like clay.

I pondered that as I arrived home after my third and final 5-day in-hospital chemotherapy stint for mouth cancer on April 3rd, cue-ball bald and talking like Daffy Duck with a Swiss-German accent.

It all began last August.  That’s when Hartford Hospital doctors snipped out about half my tongue and replaced it with skin from my left arm. Alas, the cancer rushed back in January. Thus the chemotherapy and the usual in-treatment gory details: vomiting and puking (both) and mind-numbing fatigue. I’m still a junkie for anti-nausea medication, but the fatigue is ebbing.  I’m actually feeling semi-human with a head resembling an albino avocado — which my nurses liked.  It’s “younger.” My son says they’re on drugs (or words to that effect) and my wife nodded.  She promptly filed a request that I never shave my head.

Wife verses nurses?  Is there any question on who gets the win?

Personally, I think I look like one of the bad guys on Miami Vice, who emulated albino avocados as role models.  I’m one of those nameless, speechless guards on a boat.  I’m about to plunge into the sea because another Uzi-wielding bad guy forgot to turn his safety off.  The photos prove my point.

Bald head.jpg

Bald head 4

Bald head 5

I know.  The eyebrows never fell off.  Blessings reign supreme.

A Profound Moment  

But my physical mutation is merely a side show to the rest of the story, which gelled when I stepped off the scale about three days after my return from chemotherapy and stared at Mr. Avocado Head in the mirror. My lips were cracked and bleeding (a side effect); my mouth was sore (another side effect); and I harnessed enough energy to come in last place in the Snail Olympics (another …).  My weight: 155 pounds.  I thought of myself last April: I weighed 175 and I feared I’d never dip below 170, a coveted goal ever since I weighed 194 in 2004; my lips were smooth and I talked normally, with some still asserting that my voice belonged on the radio.  Indeed, I was beginning to upload sermons on Youtube as trial runs for a series of talks.

And yet, I would not go back.  A year ago, I was trying to fight off a funk into which I plummeted the previous November.  I was mentally and emotionally fatigued burned-out pastor after 28 years of wrestling with difficult churches, some of which seemed determined to kill themselves. Many of my goals now seemed like impossible dreams.  Worst of all, I had actually developed a snide attitude toward God.  I knew I needed spiritual renewal: Let me retreat into a hermitage in which I spend hours and hours with God.

This cancer forced me to do just that, catalyzing my spiritual renewal and molding me into a far happier man. Maximus the Confessor (580 – 662 AD) said this: “The soul is wax if it cleaves to God, but clay if it cleaves to matter.  Which is does depends upon its own will and purpose.  Clay hardens in the sun while wax grows soft.  Similarly, every soul that, despite God’s admonitions, deliberately cleaves to the material world, hardens like clay and drives itself to destruction … But every soul that cleaves to God is softened like wax and, receiving the impress and stamp of divine realities, it becomes ‘in spirit the dwelling place of God.’”

I pray: “Change me into wax, Oh Gd, so that I can receive the ‘impress and stamp of divine realities’ and that I may become more ‘the dwelling place of God.”

Maximus says that humility catalyzes the clay-to-wax transformation.  It fends off the “tyrannical demons” and “turns away every demonic power.”  I sense that God has used my cancer to steer me back to the pleasure of humility, where I view others not as competitors – not as potential adversaries whom I must conquer – but as other instruments in God’s orchestra with whom I can harmonize.  Humility is the process by which I tune my instrument so that I can play with others – and it helps me as I offer counsel as they tune theirs.  They’ll see my spirit of love and partnership, not superiority.

I find that I’m less restless now, more satisfied, more fulfilled.

I won’t say that I’m thankful for the cancer.  I am thankful for how God has used the cancer to change me.  Once again, God has used something that is potentially devastating for good – even though I am now an albino avocado.



Winter’s Exhilaration

2015 storm 27A series of winter storms struck the northeast in January and February. Offices and schools were closed and weather forecasters televised their apologies — because, apparently, it was all their fault.

And I felt pure, honest joy.

A secret fear had been festering over the past few years: I thought I was losing my capacity to enjoy winter. Perhaps the little boy within had finally burned his sled. But not to worry. The temperature plummeted to five degrees on one morning and the snow crunched beneath my feet as I shoveled — and I was loving it. The air was so crisp; the physical work was exhilarating; the sunrise over the snow was breath-taking. it was a “true winter,” the kind I regularly experienced when I lived further north.

I now realize that my recent winters in Connecticut were not too cold; they were not cold enough. I understand why others do not like winter and I mean this as no slight; but, for me, I feel like I’ve been re-introduced to an old friend.

Some pictures:

2015 storm2015 storm 2

Second 2015 storm 21Ocean Park 3

For more, tap here.

When Death Brings Celebration

I won’t deny that gushing “Yes!”  and that sense of awe: Osama Bin Laden is dead and those Navy Seals were great!  But then comes the ambivalence: True, he murdered thousands; true, he spread hatred; true, he fueled the propaganda machine churning the macabre myth that religion is the source of all evil — but I’m rejoicing over a death, an intentional death, a death in which trained professionals fired a bullet through someone’s head.  And, ugly truth be told, I’menjoying my joy over this particular death in defiance of Proverbs 24:17-18: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him.”  Part of me wants to snip those verses from the Bible so I can relish this moment.  Nuts to the ambivalence.

But I see the wisdom in those verses.  Bin Laden, who claimed holiness but represented Satan, gloated when people died.  I don’t want to go there — not even close.  So my joy abates and I’m left wondering: Is there such a thing as “sober celebration”?   The image of two soldiers comes to mind.  They’re viewing smoldering ruins after a victorious battle.  They turn to each other, shake hands, but do not smile. They did a job that had to be done — and they did it well — but they’ve made a silent pledge not to delight in death, especially when they were forced to inflict it.  Their very soberness testifies to their humanity.

For now, I’ll follow their path.  I’ll celebrate the fact that a kind of justice was done — and I’ll celebrate the skill of our Navy Seals and the administration’s stewardship and patience over this operation, which began in August.  But it’s a sober celebration, a celebration without a smile, a celebration in which I’ll pledge that I will not even remotely become like that mass murderer whom our troops killed.

For more developed thoughts along these lines, see Paul Brandeis Raushenbush’s piece in Huffpost Religion here; a statement from the New Evangelical Partnership for Common Goodhere; a statement from the Vatican, here; Jim Wallis’s thoughts are here.

When your world ends at 6 a.m.

By Charles Redfern

It’s my wife’s fault.  She ruined me.  I’m not even sure if existence exists because of what she did.

I had donned my sarcastic armor.  I would snicker about the fawning Kate-and-William fashion show, with allusions to the aristocracy’s seamy night life: they could not possibly believe the prayers they mumbled beneath their hats in the cathedral.  Only one in ten of her majesty’s subjects attend church, pointing up state religion’s Achilles Heel : Spirituality fades where monarchs rule the bishops …

And back to those hats.  Had they ever read 1 Peter 3:3-4? “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes.  Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”

I would be downright snooty – and it would be fun.   And then I would have been nice – in a snooty way: Let’s wish them well.  Kings and queens are now figureheads and at least do no harm.  I even sympathize: They seem like prisoners in their own palaces, the very opposite of Henry VIII.  Have a great Niagara Falls honeymoon, your worships.  Or is it the Catskills?  Or the Poconos?  Did you consider Orlando?

I was prepared, armed, and (this is key) snooty.  The alarm blared at 6 a.m. and I blundered through the kitchen in my search for the kettle and the coffee — but then I heard the television in the living room.  My blood congealed.  My heart raced.  Was it a burglar?  A home invader?  Defend your kith and kin, Redfern.  Be the man of the house …

And there I found my wife, for whom morning is the terrible aftermath of humanity’s fall.  It is proof-positive of original sin.  It is God’s reprimand.  Morning, the great enemy of civilization and the evil stepchild of the Prince of Darkness, infected creation after God evicted Adam and Eve from paradise.   My wife – the quintessential non-morning person and the epitome of non-girlie fanfare – was up.  And she was watching the ceremony.  And enjoying it.

I lost all my creativity at that moment.  My world was thrown into chaos.  Is “up” actually up?  Is “down” down?  Does gravity really exist?  If so, why?  Why even ask, “why?”  I cannot think.  I refuse to think.  Instead, I’ll merely guide everyone to Bob Allen’s article on how it’s good to separate the church from the state.  I think he talks about the wedding as well.  Maybe.  I’m not sure of anything anymore.  Press here and find out for yourself.

Meanwhile, I must ponder: If my wife could be up at 5 a.m. and actually enjoy Kate and William’s ceremony, what else can be true?  Maybe I should get a plane ticket and fly to Taos, New Mexico.  What will I discover there?

Kids these days, Part 2

I put myself in the skin of a cynic while watching this video and saw nothing but flaws: “The Jesus language is gauche; the ‘prophetic words’ are manipulative; the healings could be faked – or maybe the so-called ‘healers’ are conveying their own personal power onto the ‘healed.’”  And so it went.  Cynicism seeks and exploits perceived defects, dismisses the unfolding reality, and claims superior intelligence.

The fact is that Hannah Ford brought a group of teens and young people to Disneyland on June 11, 2009; the fact is that the group prayed for people and – as the video shows – other teens were healed.  Look at the faces of those who experienced healing – especially the one toward the end who runs in place.  Only the blindest cynic would call this “fake.”

Ford and her companions were bold enough to pray for people and watch God work.  They were rowing in one of the three crucial steams leading to the confluence of a holistic walk with God: the intimacy and power of the Holy Spirit.  I look forward to the day when this stream merges with the other two – sound, biblical theology and community action.  The Church will really make a difference then.

Drop the veil of cynicism.  Look.  See.

Kids These days …

Dear Ken, Betty, and all the grandchildren:

I thought those famous Hungarian horses would dance!

I’ve never been good at these technological thingamagigs, but your mother says to me, she says: “Better send them an e-mail card ’cause they only peak in their mail box once a week,” and she means the box outside your house, not Outlook’s.  But I’m all thumbs when it comes to the ‘puter — back in my day, machines had “on” and “off” buttons; I can’t even turn up an oven now.   I says to Mom, “Why don’t youdo it?” but she gives me this look like she’s just seen a skunk in the garden.

So it’s up to me.  Knock on wood, here goes: We made it to Budapest smack-dab on Easter, which means Mom’s dream came true.  You know how she’s been pining to get back to the old country, bless her.  “Everybody wants to be in Budapest on Easter!”  That’s what she always says.  Of course, it goes without saying that we poked around for a church, it being Easter, but we met all these kids.  They were actuallydancing and singing like they meant it!  I mean, these people were happy — rejoicing over the resurrection and everything.  Mom videoed the whole thing before she began jigging herself. I thought she’d throw her hip out.  And then Uncle Ted sent us an e-mail postcard from their Australia trip.  They found a church where the kids pranced like they’d just read Psalm 150:

Praise the LORD;
Praise God in his sanctuary;
Praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
Praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
Praise him with the harp and lyre,
Praise him with timbrel and dancing,
Praise him with the strings and pipe,
Praise him with the clash of cymbals,
Praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD.

So here’s the video from Budapest, followed by Uncle Ted’s – if I can only find that send button!

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