Feb 23, 2016

The Only Trustworthy Name

by Logan Runnalls

"Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise again and stand firm." (Psalm 20:7-8)

Some days my nine-year old son is incapacitated by the stress in his young life. I wish I could tell him it gets easier, but my adult experience has taught me that we find ourselves in a hard world full of conflict and stress. We are regularly confronted by stresses both personal and national which demand a response. We wrestle with financial debt, with the desire to see justice and peace reign, and with many personal struggles. In these times of stress it is vital to remember where we find our hope. Where is our security in a world of deadly trouble? This was a question Israel needed to answer as well. As Israel prepared for conflict they sang Psalm 20 to one another, encouraging one another to remember where their security was found. In verses seven and eight we see Israel's hope contrasted with one of the most constant hopes of the world. There are three lenses I use to read the Psalm: as inheritance, fulfillment, and devotion. When each lense is in place we are able to see how the security in Psalm 20 may fill the breadth of our lives.

We may read Psalm 20 as our inheritance, as our own story, because we have been grafted into Israel's story. To read this psalm as inheritance will look like taking it up and praying for our rulers. Whether we are in a kingdom or nation-state we must pray for those who are set up to protect the peace. In particular we are to pray that they will not misplace their trust in human strategies. It is far too easy to depend on our own perceived strengths to deliver us from evil. We tell ourselves, "Sometimes, you have to make the hard choice" and mean that we must put aside Jesus Christ, the Way of Life, in order to preserve life. This is especially tempting for those who must develop and implement national strategies. At all times, and especially in times of crisis, we must remember that while some trust in chariots and some in horse, some trust in the military complex, and some in the free market, we must trust in the name of the LORD our God if we are to stand firm.

To trust in the name of the LORD our God means, at least, that we trust in the revealed character of God. We are to trust in the One who gathered the outcast Hebrews and made them into a people without the major weapons of their day. We trust in the One who cares for the alien and the widow, in God who is mighty in mercy and rejoices in long suffering. We trust in the One who has revealed what is good (Micah 6:8) and trust that his way through (not around) evil leads to abundant life (Psalm 25:8-10, 20). We trust that God does not abandon those who pattern their lives after name of the LORD. Our rulers must develop strategies of peace, but if there is to be any hope, any life in those strategies they must fit in the revealed name of the LORD. Surely, all who deal treacherously, no matter how dire the situation, will be put to shame, but those who trust in the LORD will rise again. This is how we may read Psalm 20 as inheritance.

When we envision Psalm 20 as fulfilled in Jesus we see what the security of the Psalm looks like in practice. I can easily imagine this Psalm constantly ringing in our Lord's heart as he set his hand to revealing and establishing the Kingdom of God. Jesus demonstrates radical faith and obedience in the manner that the Psalm demands. Here is the man who shows us the depths of what it looks like to trust in the name of the LORD our God. He did not accept the Devil's assistance, nor did he allow the people to forcefully make him king. Can you hear him reminding himself and the people that no matter how good the desire, how pure the intention is, those who trust in the ways of men will eventually stumble and fall while those who trust in the LORD's name will rise again and stand firm?

Jesus committed himself to trusting in the name of the LORD even unto death. When others taunted him: "He saved others but he can't save himself! Let the Christ, this King of Israel, come down from the cross" (Mark 15:31-32) perhaps he remembered the Devil's temptation to call on the army of angels to save him. If there was ever a time to summon a legion of angels surely this was the moment. But Jesus chooses to trust in the name of the LORD his God. Indeed, he would rather doubt in God's presence than use his own power to save himself. He cries, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" and he hears no answer.

The air is filled with weeping and jeering, with grunts and hard breaths, with so many sounds except what should count--an answer, any answer, from God. This is a hard scene, perhaps a pitiful scene, but do not think that Jesus is hanging resigned upon the cross. Jesus is doing battle; it is a battle against death and sin. He is equipped with faith and he will not take up any other weapon, any other strategy, for he knows that anything apart from God's way will fail in the end. Rather, he holds onto the belief, the hope, that those who trust in the name of the LORD will rise again. And he dies.

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but our dear saviour, Jesus Christ, trusted in the name of the LORD our God, and so God was pleased "to raise Jesus from the dead and seat him at his right hand high above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given" (Ephesians 1:20-21, ff.). Through the lense of inheritance Psalm 20 shows us that our national strategies should be shaped by God's revealed character. As fulfillment, these verses reveal such a rich and awesome faith in Jesus and the reward that awaits us all in his resurrection.

A devotional reading prayerfully asks how the Psalm speaks to my own life. We may read this Psalm devotionally by asking what our place is in a world of conflict. We have all known times of distress. As long as this world continues to resist God's rule it will be a place of hardship. Indeed, our Lord Jesus does not desire to draw us away from this world precisely because he wants us to be agents of peace, to be ministers of reconciliation, in the midst of the hardships of the present age. Jesus has shown us the way that we may "rise again and stand firm." Moreover, he sends us to bear with our spiritual brothers and sisters, and to bear with our neighbours.

Psalm 20 opens with a blessing: "May the LORD answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you. May he send you help from the sanctuary and grant you support from Zion" (vv. 1-2). Let it be so! Now, even as we are to seek and receive aid from God's sanctuary we must stand alert and be ready to offer the peace that we have received, for God has made our hearts and our fellowship his dwelling place! We are the sanctuary from which God desires to extend his mighty mercy. This does not mean that we must make ourselves busy seeking out those in distress. Rather, as we go about our life, in work or leisure, we stay attentive. "With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints," indeed, all of creation (Ephesians 6:18). Pray for your leaders. Pray even for Jesus. Pray "Your kingdom come. May the victory you accomplished on the cross come to full fruition." And remember, those who walk as Jesus did, those who trust in the name of the LORD our God will stand firm, and our God will be pleased to share the good work of reconciliation with them.

"Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise again and stand firm." Let it be, Lord. We wait upon the help from your sanctuary. Do not let us be put to shame, nor let our enemies triumph over us. Seal us in your victory.

Feb 16, 2016

Reflections on Racism and White Privilege

by Dustin Shellenberg

I have something that has been on my heart and mind with the Truth and Reconciliation dialogues happening in Canada that has taken on new relevance in my new context in Winnipeg. I've always thought that racism wasn't that big an issue in Canada. Outside obvious racism towards Native Canadians I thought that all other ethnicities in Canada were mostly treated equally. I have been completely wrong.

I realize that part of my blindness is because personally, though recognizing that we each have particular cultural backgrounds, I tend to see people in two camps: brothers and sisters in Christ, or those yet to know him. So whether you eat fish, beef, vegetables or goat you are family, or not yet family. What I'm coming to realize is that my personal understanding doesn't really matter when the world around me is making these differences into huge dividers. Actually, as a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant male, society affords me the luxury of having a personal understanding of racism outside the social context. Canadian society allows me to view the world through my personal identity even as it forces people unlike me to be bound together by their skin colour, accent or clothing.

If I say: "I'm not racist even if other people who look and sound like me are", society says I'm a good person. But if a Native or African Canadians say "I'm not a criminal" or a person of Middle Eastern origin says "I'm not a terrorist, even though other people who look like me are", society tends to say "prove it". That is racism. It should come as no surprise then when minorities are looking at people like me and saying with vehemence, prove you aren't a racist before I believe it. I should not be offended by their skepticism but recognize it as legitimate and then prove to them that I am different.

If I say I am not a racist, then I have to be prepared to advocate for minorities. I have to apologize on behalf of the society that I represent by my clothing, accent and colour for its failures and injustices. I have to take a humble approach to the culture of others and come as the lesser seeking acceptance into their society rather than trying to force them into mine, even if I perceive Canada as eclectic in its ethnicity. Because the truth is Canadian society is racist.

So to answer my opening question, being white doesn’t automatically makes me racist in the same way that being black doesn’t make one a "thug" or being Native Canadian doesn’t make one a criminal, or of Middle Eastern background, a terrorist. The greater question to ask is how can I, how can we as the church, give living proof to the minorities that we believe AND practice "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." I think the first step for me has been to admit that I, as a white Anglo-Saxon protestant male am mostly easily identified as a racist, and I need to speak out against subtle and not so subtle expressions of racism in the society that I know. And instead of demanding that those outside of “the society that I know” prove they are worth my time, I need to make the effort to prove that I am worth theirs.

Jun 11, 2015

Can We Still Believe the Bible, a book review

by John Vlainic

I was very pleased recently to happen upon a book which takes on the difficult issues we face today from both the secular world on the left and the ultraconservative church world on the right.

Like you, I am around people who are confident that “educated people all know that the Bible is no longer as trustworthy as Christians used to believe,” and people who are calling every Christian who does not unpack things the way they do as “liberal” and unfaithful.  If either kind of person were willing to do some reading, here is the book I would give them.  And even if they aren’t open, this one really helps me!

Craig L. Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible?  An Evangelical Engagement With Contemporary Questions  (Baker, 2014)

So what is the book about?

Let me quote the author (pp. 7-8).  [My “translations” for you of what the six topics involve are in this blue font]:

There are some areas where a curious phenomenon has occurred over the past generation. I am thinking of areas of scholarship where new findings, or at least much more intense study of slightly old discoveries, have actually strengthened the case for the reliability or trustworthiness of the Scriptures, even while the most publicized opinions in each area have claimed that there are now reasons for greater skepticism!

Six in particular have captured my attention enough for me to devote some specialized study to them. They involve textual criticism [methods used to try to determine what the original texts of the Bible writers were – and how changes appeared in different copies over the years], the canon of Scripture [which special books are seen as acceptable to be included in the library we call “the Bible” (and why the ones chosen were)], the proliferation of English (and other) translations of the Bible [which of the many translations today can be trusted, and why], the doctrine of biblical inerrancy [the belief that the Bible can be trusted, especially using the word “inerrant” – see the Free Methodist approach below], the diversity of literary genres among books or sections of books that appear to many as historical narrative, and the manifestations [whether or not all the biblical materials that seem, at first glance, to be telling us exactly “what happened” are “historical” in the way we moderns use that word], and meanings of the miraculous [understanding the bible miracles, including, DID THEY ALL HAPPEN?].
Sadly, there has also been a backlash in each of these six arenas. A handful of very conservative Christian leaders who have not understood the issues adequately have reacted by unnecessarily rejecting the new developments. To the extent that they, too, have often received much more publicity than their small numbers would warrant, they have hindered genuine scholarship among evangelicals and needlessly scared unbelievers away from Christian faith. As my Christian eighth-grade public school history teacher, Dorothy Dunn, used to love to intone with considerable passion, after having lived through our country's battles against both Nazism and Communism: "The far left and the far right—avoid them both, like the plague!”

So you can see why a Free Methodist, who has little use for left wing skeptics and for right wing over-simplifiers, would like Blomberg’s approach.  Blomberg is on the spectrum where the people who teach in our denominationally-related colleges, universities and seminaries are.  That is why I share with you the links to Ben Witherington’s (from Asbury Seminary, one of our foremost Wesleyan biblical scholars) blogs on this book.  Witherington, of course, wants to nuance a few things Blomberg says slightly differently, but is extremely enthusiastic about the book’s value and wisdom.

This book will help you in responding to people, widely reported in the secular media (on the far “left”), who glibly assume the Bible cannot be trusted, and also in responding to people, widely reported in the religious media (formed on the far “right”), who are inclined to misunderstand good scholarship and fight the wrong battles about the Bible.

If I may think back to my days in the parish, I can think of two groups from your church this book can really help.

I remember students going off to University and coming back and telling me their profs teach (or imply) that real “scholarship” does not support what the Bible claims.  This book can help them to see how false this notion is.

As well I was aware that many of my people continually read what an old friend and pastor termed “pablum” – Christian books whose authors treat the Bible as a how-to-manual for complex disciplines like psychology, sociology, economics, politics, or any other major discipline typical of university curricula.  Tons of those books (and now web sites) are in use by our people.  Blomberg will help your people to read and think more discerningly.

I had one area of slight dis-ease with this marvellous book as I read it.  The author still wants to identify himself as believing in the “inerrancy” of the Bible, though he (rightly, I think) wants to qualify this word in several ways.  I understand his need to connect to this audience, but by the time Blomberg has redefined “inerrant” I agree with him, and, as evidenced on the web, many “inerrantists” are livid!

I think he would have been better off to drop the word, and to use language like that of our Free Methodist Article of Religion (which intentionally avoids the word “inerrant” – because it means so many different things to so many different people).  Here is the wording from ¶108 of our Manual:

The Bible is God’s written Word, uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit. It bears unerring witness to Jesus Christ, the living Word. As attested by the early church and subsequent councils, it is the trustworthy record of God’s revelation, completely truthful in all it affirms. It has been faithfully preserved and proves itself true in human experience.
The Scriptures have come to us through human authors who wrote, as God moved them, in the languages and literary forms of their times. God continues, by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, to speak through this Word to each generation and culture.
The Bible has authority over all human life. It teaches the truth about God, His creation, His people, His one and only Son, and the destiny of all humankind. It also teaches the way of salvation and the life of faith. Whatever is not found in the Bible nor can be proved by it is not to be required as an article of belief or as necessary to salvation. 

Blomberg clearly shares this confidence in the scriptures with us, though he chooses not to drop the word “inerrant”.  Yet he helps us with those (on the far “left”) who do not share our confidence in the Scripture and with those (on the far “right”) who say with vigour that they do – but without carefully looking at what the Bible actually says!

In the end, I would agree with Scot McKnight’s blurb on the back cover, where he says that this book is the finest example of how to defend the Bible.

May 28, 2015

Grace, Sovereignty and Free Will

by Beverly Kay

Thinking about God, life and love has always been a part of who I am. Steeped in Scripture in a family that encouraged me to think, ask questions and look at all sides of a situation I grew up a practical theologian. Often I don’t have the academic terms of reference for what I believe, but for me a belief has very little value if it doesn’t truly have an effect on how I live. As I listen to others, or read books, what is said will either ring true in my spirit as lining up with Scripture or there will be an uneasiness that leads me to dig and discover where the fine line of balanced Truth really is. Sometimes that is a short journey. Some things I have wrestled with for a long time. The balance between God’s Gracious Sovereignty and the free will of the human soul is one of those long term struggles. I see the differing sides of the issue, but my heart seeks the balanced Truth, not the easy proof texting that often takes place in this discussion.

Lately, because I work at the reader’s advisory desk at our public library, I have found myself reading a lot of fiction. My goal is to help other readers who want to read something beautiful, real and wholesome. Sometimes that is a challenge, but I have often been pleasantly surprised! Historical fiction is my favourite, especially when the author digs long and hard to present things as honestly and factually as possible even though their main characters are usually invented. I have found that most authors write from their own theological and philosophical frame of reference. Anything less would be a challenge for truly gifted writing flows from the soul and speaks to others.

I just finished a book that began its story in WWII London, England just before the blitz. It was the story of choices, living with the consequences, striving to redeem oneself and the ultimate reality that all along God’s grace was giving opportunities to stop and choose something beyond our own selfish will. My soul resonated with some of the statements made by the main characters, and as I read the conversation with the author segment at the end, I saw why.

The author was asked, “In your mind, does fate or providence determine the outcome?” My heart sang, “YES!” to the core of Meissner’s response. “I believe we’ve been given a free will to choose and that God in His providence sees all and knows all but doesn’t do all.” She gave an example from the book when the oldest sister was reflecting back on a key choice she had made, realizing that at this turning point the she had been given an opportunity by God NOT to make a choice that would prove disastrous, Meissner makes this summation: “God doesn’t make the decision for her; she does. That is the terrifying beauty of free moral choice.” The other reality that was emphasized by this story is that each of our choices affects not only ourselves, but also people around us.

As I pondered this viewpoint, I came to rest on these two thoughts. The first is that God in His gracious sovereignty has opened to us the opportunity to join Him on the Way, to embrace the Truth and receive His Life through Jesus our Saviour. He knew exactly what we needed for salvation and redemption and He provided it all. But scripture makes it very clear that it is ONLY those who believe and receive His Son: walking in the Way, living in the Truth and sharing in the Life that are given the right to be called sons and daughters of God. He has given us the open door, we have to choose whether we will co-operate with His Grace and receive all that is ours in Christ Jesus.

Secondly, as we daily choose to live the Life, speak the Truth and walk in the Way, we are being instruments of God’s grace in the lives of others. As we allow God’s Kingdom to come and His will to be done in and through our lives, then we are truly salt and light. We share in the ministry of God’s reconciliation and grace; we open a door to give another the opportunity to choose God’s Way, Truth and Life over their own blind, selfish desires. God cheers us on, encouraging us to choose “His good pleasing and perfect will” over our own, but the choice is still ours to choose. May we daily choose Life and Truth over death and lies, and encourage others to do so as well. Grace in the Journey my friends!  

Apr 28, 2015

Wesley the Evolutionist?

by Matthew McEwen

John Wesley is best known for his sermons, but in addition to journals, letters, and Biblical commentary, he also wrote material in other fields such as medicine and the natural world.  One publication could even be considered an environmental textbook entitled, “A Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation.”  Given that John Wesley (1703-1791) was a life-long student and read of scientific discoveries, it is an interesting question to consider is whether he would have been an evolutionist had he been a contemporary of Charles Darwin (1809-1882)?  

A recent example of someone describing Wesley as an evolutionist is found in the book God of Nature and Of Grace. Author Michael Lodhal acknowledges that John Wesley claimed the earth was 6 000 years old, yet he raises the question of whether Wesley would still make the same claim today.  Lodhal’s suggests: “He would have no good reason to do so.  Astronomical evidence clearly teaches us that our universe is many billions of years old; geology’s evidence is that our planet is at least several billions years old; biology and genetics offer abundant evidence that living things have evolved in amazingly complex and painstaking routes over many millions of years.”   Since Wesley’s understanding of anatomy included the four basic elements, “It is quite obvious that Wesley did not glean this concept from the Bible; rather, it was part and parcel of his experience of the world, culturally mediated, as the ‘popular science’ of his day.”  This Lodhal uses to say that Wesley’s experience informs theology and reading of Scripture.  As such, were Wesley to have the knowledge of today’s science, he would be led to conclude that the earth is billions of years old. 

Michael Lodhal is not the first, however, to describe John Wesley as an evolutionist.  Laura Bartels Felleman’s article “John Wesley’s Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation: A Methodological Inquiry ” lists the various historical suggestions of Wesley as an evolutionist.  The first such claim began with William H Mill’s “John Wesley an Evolutionist” in 1893.  A similar claim occurred in 1924 by Frank Collier, in a pamphlet entitled “Back to Wesley” A third claim happened a year later with the title John Wesley the Evolutionist and suggested this theory was cordially accepted.  In an article in the 1927 Methodist Review by William C.S. Pelloew there is reasoning to explain why Wesley would have studied the claims for evolution based on his interest in science and the natural world.  But this work does not claim Wesley would have agreed, only that he would give the theory a thorough and serious consideration.   Felleman points out that, “In this letter to the editor of the London Magazine, Wesley is criticized for rejecting the latest theories in astronomy.  Wesley’s response was that he did not find these theories convincing and could not subscribe to them with full confidence.  This correspondence shows that Wesley was not as receptive to every scientific theory proposed during his lifetime….”    

As far as the Bible is concerned, Wesley never questions the Biblical account of creation, the condition of pre-fall humanity, or the flood narrative.  One would be right to suggest Wesley would give a fair and thorough consideration of the scientific discoveries of the later 1800s, or what is known today, but his conclusion on the matter of creation versus evolution must remain mere speculation.  It would be inappropriate for either side of the debate to claim John Wesley as their champion.

Many Christians today are concerned with the ongoing debate about the origin of species, but what also requires special attention today is the extinction of species.  Of course there is not much sense in caring for penguins or polar bears if one’s end-time theology is such that humanity is going to be raptured into heavenly bliss while this old earth is destined to burn to a crisp.  While Wesley the evolutionist might be unresolved, John Wesley’s eschatology is very clear.  Turning to one of his sermons (“The New Creation”) we hear him say that there is hope for this earth because of a glorious expectation that one day, “all the earth shall then be a more beautiful paradise than Adam ever saw.”   It would be hard, if not impossible to make the case for Wesley the evolutionist, but reading his sermons such as “The New Creation” or “The General Deliverance” or reading his “Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation,” those who do want to claim John Wesley as their champion are those who would call him Wesley the environmentalist.         


* Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation is available here: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/a-compendium-of-natural-philosophy