Monday, January 19, 2009

Christian Unity?

January 18th was the first day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It begins on the Feast of the Confession of St Peter, and ends next week on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. This event was begun by the Episcopal Franciscan monks at Graymoor, New York in 1906 and has been a regular part of the wider Christian Calendar ever since, and is sponsored by the World Council of Churches.

It didn’t get much attention this year. There are probably too many other distractions both in Church and State right now. Also, ecumenical efforts, especially those organized in a top down manner from church leadership, don’t seem to generate much interest these days. There seems to be a fair amount of cooperation on a local level among various religious groups, but the days of big conferences on a national and world-wide basis seem to have passed. (I should note however that Phoenix will be hosting such a national gathering this coming April and the Diocese will be helping). Christian denominations, the Episcopal Church being a good example, have a hard enough time getting along with their own fellow members, let along with other churches! There is also the broader phenomenon of Americans disregarding the theological distinctions of their own churches as reported this past week by Barna Institute on religion ( American Christians seem to pick and choose what teachings or practices appeal to them from a wide range of traditions. Denominationalism itself seems to be dead, with Americans selecting their church not because of their loyalty to a childhood denominations, but because a local congregation (they don’t care much which) provides the kind of services they are looking for. The culture wars have also played a role. In recent years we have noticed such diverse groups as Roman Catholics and Mormons supporting “traditional marriage”, while Pentecostals and Episcopalians unite for border reform.

So in one sense we may be evolving towards a greater sense of unity, or is it interchangeability?
Still, we still need plenty of prayers, although I suspect that the challenges of the future will have more to do with interfaith than with interchurch relationships, especially with Islam.

You can find out more about the Week of Prayer at their website:

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The most beautiful plane ever

As an aviation fan, I love to go to airshows. But my job keeps me away from these great events on weekends. But now there is YouTube, the next best thing!

My all time favorite plane is the P-51 Mustang. I once saw one take off from the Phoenix airport when I was about 12 years old, and have never forgotten that experience.

Here is a modest example via YouTube. The sound of this engine will give every aviation enthusiastic chills.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A movie worth seeing

At the risk of looking like I am giving free publicity to Hollywood, I want to pass on a movie “trailer” that was recommended to me by a young “emergent church” leader for the new movie, The Visitor. He commented, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could share our faith like the characters in this movie?”

I have not figured out how to import this video yet, but you can watch it at YouTube,
just go to "The Visitor trailer."

Although I have not seen the whole movie yet, it looks like it contains a lot of very sound theology. The premise is the involvement of a middle aged bored businessman in the lives of some undocumented immigrants who have occupied his apartment while he is away. In getting to know one another they both discover more about the meaning of life, which can only fully lived as we enter into the lives of others. This sounds very incarnational to me. Jesus not only fully enter into our lives, he invites us to gain our lives by loosing them in the service of others. Through a simple act of hospitality—allowing strangers to stay in his apartment--the hero of the story is literally “reborn,” and is able to move from depression and despair to a joyful new life. This movie looks like is worth seeing…and contemplating!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

This week I wrote to the Diocese about Epiphany, one of my favorite seasons...

Even for Western Europeans, Twelfth Night, which used to formally mark the end of the Christmas season, is now mostly forgotten. I try to be a purist and keep my Christmas decorations up until tonight, but I think I am the only one on the block. As for Christmas music on the radio, forget it! That disappeared at noon on Christmas day!

Biblically, the central characters of Epiphany are the Magi or Wise men, mentioned only in the Gospel of Matthew. Although we usually like to make their arrival the spectacular climax of our Christmas pageants, giving them the title of Kings (because of the Old Testament prophecy about “kings shall come to the brightness of thy rising”), or bestowing upon them exotic names like Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior (not done until the 8th Century), or even assuming that there were three of them (because of the three gifts mentioned), Matthew had something else in mind. He mentions them, not because they were so grand and wise, but because in his day they would have been considered odd and rather, well, dumb. The word Magi, comes from the Greek magoi, the root of our English word, “magician.” What we are dealing with is something like ancient near eastern astrologers (hence their interest in the star over Bethlehem). But to Hebrew minds such astrologers would have been considered as sorcerers, a practice prohibited in the Torah. Not only were they theologically suspect, but they were politically dense. Going to King Herod, a raving paranoid despot, to ask where they might find his successor was hardly a bright idea!

Just as Luke has Jesus’ birth welcomed by shepherds, also ritually unclean occupation with a reputation of dishonesty, so Matthew has Jesus welcomed by a committee of “cracked-brain astrologers.” Once again, it seems that God picks the most unlikely, the most politically suspect marginalized, the most socially marginalized people to do God’s work. And that, my friends, is good news for us!

Like the Magi, many of us have come a long way (physically and emotionally) to Christianity. Just as they did, we have scanned the heavens for a sign of hope. We too have wondered if this little baby could somehow be the answer to our prayers. Like them we might not be the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree. But we are wise about one thing-- like those oddballs from the East, we seek Jesus still.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Christian Charity

Here is an interesting piece that I've sent out to the Diocese this week.

Slate offered a provocative essay on whether American Christians give too little to charity. The answer appears to depend on what benchmark is used. Christians are generous compared to nonbelievers, but perhaps stingy compared to what our affluence can afford and what our churches tell us to contribute:
The run-up to Christmas, with its street-corner Salvation Army kettles and church food drives, would seem a lousy time to find out that Christian charity in America is not what it's supposed to be. But in the recently released Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money, sociologists Christian Smith, Michael O. Emerson, and Patricia Snell argue that too many American Christians—"the most affluent single group of Christians in two thousand years of church history"—are guilty of Scrooge-like stinginess. At least one in five American Christians, they write, gives no money at all to charities. In some churches, the miserliness rate is even higher. More than 28 percent of Catholics, for example, don't donate to charity. Bah, humbug, indeed.
But are Christians really so stingy? Looked at comparatively, Christians could be commended for their relative generosity instead of rebuked as misers. Their charitable giving stacks up pretty well against that of nonbelievers, who appear to be even tighter with their charitable dollars. More than half of nonreligious Americans contributed no money or property to charity, according to Passing the Plate, and the percentage of income donated to charity by the average nonbeliever was less than 1 percent, compared with nearly 3 percent for American Christians. And some categories of Christians distinguished themselves as givers. The average evangelical Protestant, for example, gave a sturdy 8.2 percent of annual income, according to surveys cited in the book.
Despite all the exhortations, though, it seems that relatively few Christians—even those who give regularly—have followed church teachings on exactly how much to give. Most American Christians belong to churches that promote tithing—giving 10 percent of income to the church. Tithing's roots extend back to the Old Testament commandment to give one-tenth of agricultural produce as a sacred offering. Though it's often associated with conservative and evangelical Protestant churches, tithing is also taught, for example, in the more liberal Episcopal Church, which teaches members "to practice tithing as a minimum standard of giving." Yet fewer than one in 10 Christians gives as much as a tithe of their income. The 2.9 percent of income given by the average Christian may seem reasonably generous, but it falls significantly short of what many Christian churches desire.
If tithing is so widely taught, why is it so seldom practiced?
(Thanks to Episcopal Café)