Theological Reflection from a Wesleyan Perspective

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Adam Hamilton's "Making Sense of the Bible"

8:02 PM Posted by Casey Taylor , ,
For tackling tough issues that require careful thought and sensitivity to billions of Christians, Pastor Adam Hamilton is to be commended. Hamilton has boldly gone where many United Methodist bishops have feared to tread. Making Sense of the Bible is borne of a great love for the Bible, along with years of study and pastoral ministry. Moreover, Hamilton is always charitable toward those with whom he disagrees. That point should be underlined because some folks (sometimes rather angrily) insist he should take a tougher line with his theological opponents. His final chapter on faithfully and fruitfully engaging the Bible is instructive. For all these reasons, this book deserves a fair hearing.

That said, Hamilton's strength may be his weakness. Hamilton has a thoughtful pastor's ability to simplify the complex. Sometimes that works, but other times it oversimplifies or creates false dichotomies. Pastor Hamilton and I share many of the same conclusions - not all, but many. However, I am concerned that some of his conclusions set forth here will not ultimately bear the weight his other conclusions require them to bear.

For example, Hamilton openly admits he's a traditional Christian fundamentalist on 4.5 of the 5 "Fundamentals (p. 298)," including the virgin birth of Jesus and Christ's atonement for humanity's sin. But Hamilton has consciously shifted toward a classically Liberal Protestant understanding of biblical inspiration and authority, one which tilts toward human authorship rather than divine influence upon the Bible. When Liberal Protestants of the early 20th c. took the same route, they eventually left those Fundamentals behind. This move toward a Liberal Protestant understanding of the Bible is my chief disagreement with Making Sense of the Bible.

Hamilton argues that the Bible is no more divinely inspired than a modern spiritual classic or the average preacher (p. 294). Biblical authors were limited to what they "could know in their time (p. 221)." These authors were simply "men seeking to express what they believed was God's will (p. 262)." These aren't new ideas and their consequences aren't difficult to discover.  A diminished understanding of the Bible's uniqueness and inspiration ultimately undermines core teachings of classical Christianity. 

Making Sense of the Bible is an important effort at clarity and charity at a difficult time in the life of the United Methodist Church. It's ideas are worth grappling with but Hamilton's conclusions should be weighed carefully.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why I Took My Son to Nicaragua

8:28 AM Posted by Casey Taylor , , , ,

In August 2014, I took my nine year old son, Josiah, with me and three other men on a mission trip to Nicaragua.  This was my second trip to the nation and I’m planning the third trip for December 2014.  In large part, I took the trip to network with leaders from the Evangelical Methodist Church of Nicaragua and to build on our existing relationship with Centro de Fe church in Masatepe.  These relationships will lay the groundwork for future ministry partnerships.  We also helped with some home repair of an American missionary raising three girls from at-risk homes.  It was a wonderfully fruitful experience - and I hope the rest of my family will get this experience, too.

But why would I take my nine year old into the second poorest country in Central America?  Let me share five reasons:

To see how the Majority World lives.  We in the United States live in the most privileged nation on the planet.  Our family lives in a town where most folks are financially comfortable.  The latest gaming systems and annual trips to Disney World are part of life here for many people (but certainly not all).

I love my country and our town.  I admit: I'm privileged by where I get to live and serve.  I'm right where God has called me to be.  Precisely because of my call to serve here and because of the Bible’s clear warnings about money, I must draw our attention to the needs in our world.  Material abundance without a firsthand awareness of the poverty that many in the world live in can dramatically skew one's reality.  Almost half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day.  Clean and consistent running water is not the norm for billions of people.  No matter how hard some people around the world work, they will face government corruption and economic hardship the likes of which few of us have ever known firsthand.  

My kids have felt the pressures and pleasures of American materialism ("But he has the latest greatest video game, why can't I?"  "I want name brand shoes, too!").  We enjoy the stuff we're blessed with.  God "richly provides everything for our enjoyment (1 Timothy 6:13)."  But in the same paragraph, the apostle Paul warns about the dangers of wealth.  I want to nip privilege and materialism in the bud early.  I absolutely took my son to Nicaragua to see people living in cinder block homes with a hot tin roof.  I took him into a Third World jail to see and to serve.  I had to find a way to explain why and how their government works very differently from our own.  I pray that his encounter with the Majority World will change how he sees material things and money.

To develop friendships cross-culturally.  While I should have done a better job working on Josiah's Spanish before our trip (and mine!), I was impressed by the bonding he experienced cross-culturally with other kids who he couldn't verbally communicate with well.  He learned a little Spanish and they were learning some English.  Their language differences didn't stop them from playing soccer and catch, zip-lining together, sharing a table, or worshiping together.  I hope to help him maintain contact with his friends with hopes of one day seeing them again.  I took my son to Nicaragua to help him make friends, not just across the street but across the sea.

To gain a bigger vision of God's Kingdom.  It's easy to think your little slice of the world is the whole world - until you see the rest of the world.  Molehills look like mountains until you cross the horizon and see a mountain range you never knew existed.  Hearing the testimonies of others who have answered God's call, whether to serve across seas or in their own native land, broadens our vision of God's Kingdom.  Worshiping with other Christians not so subtly reminds you that your way isn't the only way - or even the best way.  And that worship gives you a foretaste of God's New Creation described in Revelation where every nation and language worships God together.  I celebrate our congregation's ministries but I took my son to Nicaragua to see that God's at work all over the world.

To test taking a child on an international mission trip.  I raised a few eyebrows when I told people I was taking my nine year old son to Nicaragua on a mission trip.   But where others saw insanity I saw opportunity.  I have issues with kids being segregated in churches away from older generations.  Our church's Family Ministry is intentionally trying to shift toward a philosophy of ministry that equips parents to disciple their children instead of dropping their kids off to have the religious professionals do it for them.  
With that philosophy in mind, a parent and child on mission together just makes sense.  Understand, I'm not looking to babysit nine year olds overseas while their parents are at home.  But if a parent wants to take their child and the child has enough maturity for the experience, game on.  I took my son to Nicaragua to open a way for others.

To share a significant experience with his dad.  I keep looking for opportunities to spend one on one time with my kids.  A few years ago I took Josiah with me to St Louis where I was a workshop leader at a conference.  We stayed in a hotel together, ate out and checked out the zoo and art museum when everything was over.  It was a blast!  When he asked back in January (my last trip to Nicaragua) if he could go next time, I said, "Maybe."  He raised all his funds through support letters.  We worked hard, met new friends and had a lot of fun together.  I took my son to Nicaragua to share a special time serving together.  I pray that as he grows into a young man this will be a significant moment with his dad and in journey with Jesus.


UPDATE (11 Sep 2014): I'm encouraged by the several parents who have shared with me their desire to serve with their children after reading my article.  If that's you, your words affirm my decision and commit me to taking my other kids - and my son again - in the future.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

God Restrained His Anger - Thoughts on Psalm 78

1:49 PM Posted by Casey Taylor , ,
As part of my morning prayers, I was praying with Psalm 78 which is one of several wonderful psalms that recites in worship Israel's history with God.  If you've read the Old Testament, you know it's a checkered history.  God set apart the people of Israel (the patriarch Abraham's offspring) as part of God's rescue plan for the world, but the majority of Israel were repeatedly unfaithful to God.  Thus, God eventually sent the true Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth, as the hero to rescue the Story gone wrong (at least that's how Christians see it).

How does God respond to Israel's unfaithfulness?  Yes, God expresses anger when God's dearly beloved is unfaithful.  The psalmist acknowledges that in Psalm 78:49, 

"[God] unleashed against them his hot anger, his wrath, indignation and hostility."  

The psalmist minces no words about Israel's collective rebuke for their collective failure.

But contrary to popular caricatures of God in the Christian Old Testament, God is not capricious, grumpy and on the lookout for the next smiting.  On the contrary, God is quite restrained from exercising the full gamut of righteousness indignation against repeated unfaithfulness, even after the unfaithful spouse stumbles back home and promises never again to leave.  Listen to how the same psalmist describes God's reaction:

[Israel] would flatter him with their mouths,
    lying to [God] with their tongues;
37 their hearts were not loyal to him,
    they were not faithful to his covenant.

38 Yet he was merciful;
    he forgave their iniquities
    and did not destroy them.

Time after time he restrained his anger
    and did not stir up his full wrath.
39 He remembered that they were but flesh,
    a passing breeze that does not return.

The psalmist highlights God's mercy and forgiveness.  He emphasizes that God did not stir up his full wrath.  That's the essence of mercy: not dishing out a justly deserved punishment.  And it's consistent with an oft-repeated description of God in the same Old Testament scriptures, 

"The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 34:6-7).”

This image of God is cited in full or in part at least nine times throughout the Old Testament.  When folks are eager to point out God's exercise of wrath in the Old Testament, we should carefully pay attention to how the Old Testament itself characterizes that divine anger.  It acknowledges divine wrath but it does not dwell on it or think it the last word. 

Friday, May 16, 2014