Pursuing the Word

With spies, lies, and a shipwreck thrown in for good measure, his life was anything but dull. But then when you begin to criticize others for their rank ignorance of scripture, as well as for their decidedly unbiblical lifestyles, you can probably figure it will make some folks mad, as indeed it did.

Still, the young man grew convinced that until the scriptures were plainly laid out in their native language that it would be impossible for the average Christian in England to ever really know the truth.  And so he pledged to one clergyman that if God should spare his life, he would so work that “a boy that drives the plough” should know as much about the Bible as that pastor himself.

It was no easy task, to be sure.  For fearing the spread of radical Lutheran ideas, the Catholic bishops in his homeland had actually banned any Bible published in English, preferring instead the use of the rather inaccurate Latin translation of the day known as the Vulgate, and going so far as to actually prescribe the death sentence for anyone who produced an “unlicensed” English version of the Bible. Even the official courses of theology did not include any systematic study of scripture, in fact, for as he later complained, “they have ordained that no man shall look on scripture until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture.”

And so, with no real encouragement from anyone in the church, William Tyndale left his native England for Europe, never to return.  It was in Wittenberg, the home of Luther, that the thirty-two-year old gifted linguist completed his initial translation in 1525, the first to go directly from the Greek text of the New Testament into English.  When he went to Cologne to print it, however, before the presses could get past Matthew 22, a police raid shut them down, only moments after Tyndall escaped clutching the copies of what had been completed thus far.

The young scholar then fled to Worms, an imperial German city which had already begun to embrace Lutheranism.  And it was there that he managed to finish publishing 6,000 copies of his translation, many of which were soon smuggled back into England and Scotland in barrels of flour, further fueling the opposition to Tyndale’s work.  The religious leaders of those lands attacked him relentlessly, in fact, not only burning those volumes in public, but even sending secret agents to the continent to try and trap him.  What’s more, another problem soon arose in the form of pirated and incorrect versions of his translation that began showing up, including one by his close friend and co-worker George Joye, much to the reformer’s lament.

Tyndale labored on, however, moving to Antwerp where he found the support of a few English merchants who helped to both hide him and advance his work as he turned his attention next to the Old Testament. But early in 1529, having completed his rendering of the Torah, or the first five books of Moses, Tyndale was traveling back to Hamburg when, like the apostle Paul centuries before him, he was shipwrecked off the coast of the Netherlands, and his entire freshly translated Pentateuch perished in the sea, along with all of his reference books, including the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, Hebrew grammars, and the Greek translation known as the Septuagint.

His response was simply to start again, doubling down to do his work all over until he finally finished it once more in 1530. And in the next few years, Tyndale went on to focus on the rest of the Old Testament, translating most of the historical books as well as Jonah.  In May of 1535, however, the authorities finally caught up with Tyndale at Antwerp, arresting him on a charge of heresy and holding him in a dark, dank cell devoid of any sunlight near Brussells for sixteen months where the Englishman waited patiently, “abiding the will of God.”   And sadly, despite the appeals of many, it was there on October 6, 1536, that at the age of just forty-two, William Tyndale was tied to a stake, strangled, and then burned.

His last words were reported to have been, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.” And that prayer was apparently answered, for within four years of his death, four English translations of the Bible were published in that country at the behest of Henry VIII, all of them based on Tyndale’s labors.  It has been said, in fact, that every English New Testament for the four centuries that followed him was simply a revision of Tyndale’s work, with some 90 percent of his words passing into the King James Version of 1611 and even 75 percent into the Revised Standard Version of 1946.

And some 486 years later this very week, it’s a story that those who read the Bible might do well to remember still. For though it may sound odd to us today, in a time in which the Word of God is both ignored by many and contorted to conform to the culture by others, at least to one faithful disciple of Jesus, the scriptures were literally worth dying for, and their careful translation into English was a sacred task deserving of whatever it took.

All, we could say, so that ploughboys and pastors alike might understand the love of God which shines through on every page of that incredible book.


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Authoritatively Speaking

It’s one of my favorite Greek words, in part just because it is kind of fun to say, especially if you put a good Texas drawl on the second syllable making it exousia!  (It practically “oozes” out of your lips, doesn’t it?)  And that’s appropriate because if you break it down, the term actually comes from two other words, the one meaning “out of” (ex), and the other (ousia) signifying the “substance” of something.

In English, we most often translate it as either “authority” or “power.” It’s said in Matthew 7, for instance, that unlike the scribes and Pharisees,  Jesus taught as one having exousia or authority, and two chapters later, Jesus demonstrated that power by not simply healing a paralyzed man but by forgiving his sins as well.

Likewise, the word shows up again in Matthew 21 when the right of Jesus to speak as He did was questioned by the chief priests and elders.  Equally significant, however, is the fact that in Mark 6, as well as in John’s gospel, Jesus gave that same exousia to all those who received Him and believed in His name.

For in the end, exousia is about the genuine moral influence that a person may exert with others, something which comes not out of what degrees, or titles, or positions they may happen to hold, but out of who they actually are, that is to say, what lies at the core of their personal substance or essence.

We Methodists live all around this idea, of course, especially those of us who are clergy. For we are not only those who have been given authority at our ordinations–or more correctly perhaps, been encouraged to exercise the authority we already have in Christ– but we are also those who live under the authority of someone else, namely, that of a bishop who appoints us to serve.

Fortunately, however, here in the Texas Conference we have a new bishop whose authority stems not just from the corner office in which he sits, but from the person whom he is in the Lord, a committed and visionary follower of Jesus who has spent his life encouraging others towards the cause of Christ.

It is in that sense that we are delighted to welcome Bishop Scott Jones to our conference.   For the days ahead will be challenging ones for the good ship Methodism and we are going to need a steady hand at the helm indeed.

I have it on good authority though that we are being blessed by such a leader.

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Let the Games Begin

Michael Phelps will no doubt garner much of the attention at Rio, given his rather amazing record in the last three cycles, though a kayaker capsizing because of a submerged sofa in the water may give him a run for it. Beyond such traditional events as swimming, tennis, basketball and track and field, however, if beach volleyball, ping-pong, and rifle shooting can be official sports of the summer games, it doesn’t seem like a far stretch to suggest a couple of other activities in which some of the rest of us might be able to compete as well.

Jumping to conclusions, for instance, could easily draw a healthy field of tough competitors, each of whom could be judged on how wildly and quickly they can come up with a ridiculous assumption based upon only minimal information, with extra points awarded for each additional person whom they convince to share their unfounded beliefs.

Likewise, shot-putters might be able to double-medal by entering an Olympic competition in casting the first stone, a favorite activity of many whose main intention is to condemn first and love later. For here the judges could actually judge judging, watching carefully for signs of unrighteous indignation and hypocrisy among the competitors, some of whom might also wish to enter another new Olympic activity, throwing your weight around. Then there’s always such perennial favorites as carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, climbing the walls at work, and bending over backwards.

On the other hand, the truth is that though there is seldom any recognition for most of the things we may do in our lives, just doing them faithfully and consistently sometimes requires Olympian-sized efforts indeed. Which is perhaps why one of the most encouraging words in all the scriptures is that which a coach named Paul once told his young protégé: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—but not only to me, but to all who have longed for His appearing.” (2 Timothy 4.6-8).

Keep on going, thus, my friends. For even if your name never crosses the lips of Bob Costas, the One who matters still has His eyes on you. And in Heaven, they tell us, even the streets are paved with gold.

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What Happened Out West

Just in case you don’t speak Methodist, the way we work is pretty simple: every four years both lay and clergy delegates cluster in one of five regional gatherings known as Jurisdictional Conferences for the principal purpose of electing new bishops to replace those who are retiring. As is customary, thus, those meetings took place last week and the result was that fifteen new bishops, including seven women, were chosen to serve as presiding officers of our church across America.

One of those elections, however, has unfortunately created quite a controversy, at least insofar as maintaining our unity as a denomination in these challenging times. For against the plain directives of our Book of Discipline, some eighty-eight delegates to the Western Jurisdiction, the smallest of our five regional bodies, elected to the office of bishop a self-avowed practicing lesbian who is married to another woman.   And irrespective of one’s views on the question of inclusivity, that act of ecclesial disobedience has stirred up a true crisis within our denomination.

To be sure, at virtually the same moment she was elected late Friday evening the South Central Jurisdictional Conference (of which I was a part) passed a resolution asking for a declaratory decision from our Judicial Council, the highest court of the UMC, as to the legality of the election, and that response will be forthcoming in the months ahead. Likewise our Council of Bishops is meeting this week to discuss how to move forward given this very real challenge to our church’s covenantal connection.

Already, though, the specter of formal division has been raised in many quarters, with some saying that the differences between us are now virtually irreconcilable.   And sadly enough, given not only the election in the West, but the actions of several annual conferences to act in “non-compliance” with the provisions in our Discipline, that may be true. But I believe that until our ecclesiastical court has ruled on the issue, and the special commission authorized by the General Conference to recommend a way forward has been formed and allowed to do its work, that the faithful congregations of our twelve million member global church should  continue to join together to carry out the valuable kingdom work that God still has for us to do in this world.

Accordingly, even while recognizing that we are not all of one mind with respect to the issues of human sexuality, my hope is that we may find a way to both respect one another and to respect the mutual covenant which binds the spiritual heirs of John Wesley as one. Indeed, it is said that his final words were simply, “Best of all… God is with us.” And because that is yet the case, perhaps it is true that the best days of our church may yet lay ahead of us, as well, whether we eventually separate into two distinct bodies or remain as one.

We’re just all going to need to be very careful indeed with our words and actions as we navigate our way in the days and months ahead, sisters and brothers. For no matter how fluent or not you may be in speaking Methodist there is simply no substitute for knowing how to speak the truth in love.


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Are We Moving Towards a “Mexit?”

It was pure happenstance that we arrived in the country just one day before it happened. When we woke up the day afterwards, however, it was to a different world indeed. For despite the pleas of many to “Stay Sane and Vote Remain,” the British populace chose instead to make a dash for it, leaving the European Union after more than forty years as a part of that continent-wide community.

What’s more, it wasn’t exactly a pleasant parting of the ways either. For after a rather bitter campaign–with near apocalyptic claims on the part of both sides–the 52-48% vote was split along largely urban/rural and north/south lines, with Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the city of London all wishing to remain in the EU but the rest of the nation opting to go it alone. In turn, though the prime minister suggested that they would take the transition slow and easy, by Friday the other European nations were already telling the Brits to just “pack their bags and go,” sooner rather than later.

The “Brexit”–or British Exit–made me wonder, however, if we are not now seeing the same kind of accelerated sociological/societal split within the United Methodist Church. For not only have the boards of ministry of numerous conferences announced that they will no longer follow church guidelines regarding the ordination of those who perform same gender marriage ceremonies, or who may be engaged in same-sex behavior themselves, but now at least one annual conference has proclaimed that they will act in “non-conformity” to all of the passages within our Book of Discipline regarding that subject.

And in a similar fashion, another conference has voted to support an abortion-rights advocacy group that the General Conference, speaking on behalf of the entire United Methodist Church, just voted to withdraw from, defeating–after twelve years of struggling against parliamentary maneuverings–the minority which embraced our membership in that coalition.

Yet oddly enough, it is the same conservative Methodists who have patiently played by the rules for four decades that have often been labeled by others as “schismatics.”  And no matter what one’s personal views on the particularly painful subjects involved may be, such would seem to be a rather jaded and jangled way of thinking indeed. For the very definition of the word “schism” itself suggests the withdrawal or secession of any group owing to doctrinal or other differences which generally will lead in turn to a formal division of a single church into two distinct bodies.

Thus, if some conferences have already determined to “go their own way” on a subject that the general church has clearly debated and ruled against, has not a schism already occurred, whether we’ve formally acknowledged it yet or not?

In turn, the proposal that entire jurisdictions should adopt a stance of “non-compliance” quite logically may lead some elsewhere to question just why they should continue to subsidize areas that have already determined not to keep the connectional covenant which binds us together. At least from one vantage point, thus, it would seem that the “Mexit” or “Methodist Exit” has indeed begun, led by those on the left.

There is still time perhaps for a solution to emerge, hopefully from the bishop’s commission that will be appointed to study and review “all that is before us” with regard to the sexuality questions. But because of the actions of those unwilling to give that group even a chance to organize before trying to change the conditions on the ground, that time is ticking away rather rapidly.

Indeed, I think of the words of William Bradford, an American who lived in the days following our own national separation from those in England.  Quoting Shakespeare who had penned that “the times seem to be out of joint,” Bradford sighed that “the world wears a strange aspect at the present time…a determined ministry is bringing things to a crisis and seems to foretell some great event.”

We might be well advised thus to heed the latest lessons from the land of the Wesleys. For though some might think it unthinkable that we would actually divide a denomination that has existed in its current configuration for 48 years now, I suspect that many likewise assumed that after 43 years in the EU that Great Britain would never have left it either.

But then they would clearly have been wrong.

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Evil in Orlando

(Comments shared in a Service of Hope and Healing held at Christ Church on 15 September 2016)

Some will say that it was but another terrorist attack, fueled by a fanatical understanding of a faith that divides all the world into just two camps—the umma and the infidel.  And they may be right, but I’m not so sure of that myself, despite what ISIS may have claimed afterwards.  Because clearly, the Muslims whom I know do not read the Koran in that way, nor have they championed such a cause in the world beyond their mosques.

So others will say that no, this was a manifestation of unbridled bigotry, an attack on gays and lesbians, made all the worse because it took place in what should have been a safe place—even a sanctuary if we may borrow that term– for them. But I’m not so certain of that either.  For though the nightclub in question was primarily gay, it is not clear that those inside were specifically targeted just because of their sexual identity by the gunman, any more than the eighteen who died in the tower of Siloam centuries ago were somehow responsible for their deaths either, as Luke 13.4 reminds us.

And so still others have accordingly said that what happened in Orlando early on Sunday morning was primarily due to mental illness, horribly amplified by the easy availability of assault weapons and the lax oversight of law enforcement personnel who should have caught him sooner. But then I must confess that I don’t know what the mental state of the shooter actually was, and I doubt if anyone else could definitely ascertain that either, at least after the fact.

I don’t know thus if this was a hate crime based upon religion, or one based upon sexual identity, or even simply based upon the perpetrator’s own confused self-hatred. But I do know that whatever the motivation, it was evil, for as Jesus once told his disciples, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” and in this case, that thief stole the lives of forty-nine individuals as well as injuring many others.

And in that sense, it’s important to understand that evil is not simply a metaphorical or allegorical or figurative way of speaking about unpleasant things in life—no, it has a reality and a substantiality and even we may say a personality all of its own.

The Hebrews called it ra’ a’, and by that term they referred to things which cause misery or distress, things which hurt or break other things into pieces, forces which are wicked and which are good for nothing and which only exist to vex and injure others. The Greeks used the words poneros and kakos, and by them they meant much the same, referring to depravity or malignity, a naughtiness or wickedness that is not ashamed to break laws or behave maliciously towards others. We use that first Greek word every time we say the Lord’s Prayer– “and deliver us from evil”– or as you may just as correctly translate it, “the evil one.”

So again, what happened on Sunday morning was evil. But for people of faith, we can stand with that shepherd king named David and say with him nonetheless that “I will fear no evil.” Not because evil isn’t real. Not because we can somehow be immune from  its impact. Not because we’re in denial about some of the dark things which happen in this fallen and rebellious world. But because even in the midst of it, we realize that we are not alone, for God is yet with us.

Jesus told His listeners in Matthew 10, in fact, to “not be afraid,” even of those who can kill the body. Quite literally, He said, me oun phoubethete autous– “do not phobiate yourself,” that is, don’t give into your phobias or anxieties or fears about life. Because, you see, whether we may know it or not, God is still in control here, isn’t He? It’s like a priest in war-torn Sarajevo once wrote back in 1993,

“Jesus teaches us that human judgments are not the last judgments, that human justice is not the last justice, and that the power that humans exercise over one another is not the final power.”

And because that is true, we can even walk right through those valleys of shadows and still fear no evil.

Oh, I understand that some will feel the need to do something concrete in response to what happened in Orlando, and indeed, we should. For to remain silent in the face of evil is to deafen our ears to the call of God as well. We should look at the gun laws in our nation more carefully, thus, and if there are ways in which those laws are being flaunted or abused, or if the process is filled with too many loopholes, we should work to make the requisite changes in those laws. A genuine pro-life position would demand no less.

Likewise, we most certainly need to rethink how we are dealing—or failing to deal— with mental illness in our society, for such lies at the root of numerous social ills and all too many tragedies. And yes, even without pronouncing special victim status for one class of people above others, we must ensure that the civil and human rights of all are upheld all across this world. But before we look too closely at the societal causes, we need to look at ourselves and make certain that we have not contributed to the madness that seems to have infected so much of God’s world in these days.

So if we have failed to use our words to proclaim the love of God for all, or more specifically, we have used our words instead to promote attitudes of bigotry or hatred or fear, we need to repent and ask God to change our hearts that we might change our conversation—not to curtail our sincere convictions, but to couch even those convictions in a caring expression for others. For let us be as clear as possible: everyone is a child of God, and there is no one whom He does not love, even those who may choose not to love Him or others in return. So there can be no room within the church of Jesus for prejudice against Muslims or those of other faiths, against gays and lesbians, or those who are conflicted, against immigrants, against the ignorant, against the old or the young, or against anyone who is simply different from ourselves.

To be sure, that doesn’t mean that we must put our stamp of endorsement on every type of behavior or deny what we believe that the Word of God teaches us about how God would intend that our lives be lived. Nor does it imply that everyone is equally qualified for every specific task or status within the church, for plainly, God has called “some to be teachers, some elders, some evangelists,” for example, but not all. But it does mean that along with a passion for God’s truth there must always be in us a compassion for God’s people–all of God’s people.

We have come thus to grieve with those who grieve, to mourn with those who mourn, and to remember that as the Word reminds us, we may cast our cares upon Him, for He cares for us. We have come to repent of whatever part we may have played in corrupting this world so far from the vision which our Creator once had for it. We have come to try and “short-circuit some of the bitterness which has overflowed God’s world,” as Peter Marshall once so eloquently expressed it.

And we have gathered simply to pray and in the ancient Latin words of the church to say “Kyrie Eliason”– “Lord, have mercy upon us.” For even in the midst of sorrow there is hope. Even in the midst of hurt there is healing. And even in the midst of pain there can be peace. So may that peace begin with you and me.

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Postscript to Portland

I’m almost afraid to admit it, but I think I came away from Portland if not quite “surprised by joy,” to quote C.S. Lewis, at least somewhat cautiously optimistic. For even amidst all of the anxiety and acrimony that a General Conference usually produces, there were signs of something else happening this go-around, as well.

You could hear it in the delightful diversity of dialects that filled the Oregon Convention Center for two weeks. For not only were the proceedings simultaneously translated into nine languages, when the Africans among us broke into song at one rather critical juncture, in their singing there was a sense of the Holy Spirit moving among us, too.

All throughout the meeting, in fact, it was impossible to ignore the reality that our church is indeed changing. Not simply because four out of ten United Methodists are now  French-speaking Africans. But because in the global voices of our church one can clearly hear as well the Bath Qol, or voice of God who reminds us now as He did the prophet long ago: “Behold, I am doing a new thing, now it springs forth–do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43.19)

To be certain, we have enormous challenges facing us still as a denomination, for in many ways we are at a place similar to that of a crab who is ready to shed its old shell but who is not yet in the safety of a fully formed and hardened new one. Whether it makes it vulnerable or not, however, the process of molting is not only necessary for a crab to grow, but it also helps to get rid of parasites, barnacles and other critters nesting on the shell, and even the bacteria that degrades the exoskeleton from within.

Don’t get me wrong: I still think that instead of meeting for ten days every four years, we might do better to flip it around and meet for only four days every ten years. For if we really are the salt of the earth as Jesus once said, we’re probably most effective when we sprinkle ourselves out upon the society around us, rather than gather together as an enormous salt dome and then expect the world to be impressed.

Still, my hope is that we at least managed to do some good and, equally important for the heirs of John Wesley, to not do as much harm as we’ve certainly shown ourselves capable of doing in past such gatherings.

Maybe that’s why despite all of our differences, our bishops are trying to find a way to keep us united. While we’re in that tenuous time between shells, however, perhaps it’s a good idea for all of us to stick together indeed.

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