Author's details

Name: journeyman37
Date registered: March 3, 2012

Latest posts

  1. United Methodist Worship: Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 3: Ordination and Sacramental Authority — April 22, 2014
  2. emergingumc: Listening for Abundance, Part II: By the Waters… — April 21, 2014
  3. emergingumc: Making the Internet Work FOR and not AGAINST the Church — April 15, 2014
  4. United Methodist Worship: Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology Part 2: Incarnation and the Outpouring of the Spirit — April 14, 2014
  5. emergingumc: Listening for Abundance, Part I: “We walk sightless among miracles” — April 14, 2014

Most commented posts

  1. emergingumc: A Tale of Two Church Legislatures: Priming… for a Future with Hope — 4 comments
  2. United Methodist Worship: United Methodist Baptismal Ritual at 25 Years, Part 3: Closing the Last Mile — 1 comment

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Apr 22 2014

United Methodist Worship: Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 3: Ordination and Sacramental Authority

Original post at

"Pour upon (Name) the Holy Spirit for the office and work/ministry of a deacon/elder/bishop in Christ's holy church."

While we may have come to a greater level of comfort acknowledging God's decisive "Yes" to our prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon water at baptism and upon bread and wine (and us who pray!) at Holy Communion, many United Methodists I encounter remain quite hesitant to claim the Holy Spirit does anything decisive at ordination.

Part of our United Methodist hesitancy may have to do with the somewhat vague language of the prayer at ordination itself. We may not be quite sure just what we are praying for the Spirit to do. On the one hand we are not quite saying, "Give this person now the gifts they need to fulfill the work of Y office," as if prior to this prayer, this person had no such gifts or were somehow unable to use them. The candidate for ordination or consecration would never have gotten to this place without having shown, over a period of time, and in a multiplicity of ways, that s/he indeed has and can use such gifts. On the other hand, neither do we say, "Make this person become a deacon/elder/bishop," nor "Give this person an indelible mark of deaconship/eldership/episcopacy." Such "branding" or "transmogrification" of the spirit of the candidate reflects the very sort of Greek ontology against which we rightly raise objection.

So if the Spirit isn't giving gifts, and the Spirit isn't marking or changing the character of the candidate for ordination, what is the Spirit doing?

Precisely what we ask: "Pour out your Holy Spirit for the office and work/ministry of a (deacon/elder/bishop) in Christ's holy church." Start that outpouring now on this person now and for a lifetime of work and ministry in this specific set of roles (deacon, elder or bishop). We're going to be trusting these persons to live out the baptismal covenant among us using the ordination vows as their rule of life and service for the rest of their lives, often even beyond the time they may be required to retire by our polity. So Holy Spirit, target these people now and be poured out upon them-- and keep flowing through them-- so they may keep living out the baptismal covenant among us as they have here vowed. 

Ordination thus marks a very real new chapter in the life of those who are ordained. The Spirit here begins an outpouring for a form of living out the baptismal covenant among us for the rest of that person's days. This is thus both a pneumatological and an ontological event. It is pneumatological because the Holy Spirit really is doing something here. And it is ontological in the concrete biblical understanding of being as "living being" in all its motion, flow and contingency. Those ordained or conscrated are here being ushered into the very contingent, living, flowing forms of life and ministry described and seeking to be embodied in the orders or ministry to which they are ordained or consecrated.

Wait: Ordination Vows as a Specific Way of Fulfilling Baptismal Vows?

Yes. Exactly that. Ordination does not place the ordained "above" or "better than" the rest of the body of Christ in any way. Rather, through the vows of ordination, candidates bind themselves to live out the baptismal covenant among us and in connection with each other in the particular ways we as church have discerned we need them to do-- as members of an order of deacons or order of elders or as bishops working together with each other and those among whom they are appointed to serve.

So the ordination vows function much as a Rule does in a monastic order. They specify how these particular people, in their particular order (deacon, elder, or Council and colleges of bishops) are intended work together and with those among whom they are appointed so that all of us, lay or ordained, young or old, or whatever spectrum you may wish to specify, are able to live out the baptismal covenant to the fullest, and thus fulfill our mission as The United Methodist Church.

Specifically, the church from its earliest centuries has discerned the need for some of the baptized to become "centers" or "hubs" or "flow stations" of the Spirit's work so that all of the Spirit's work through all of those baptized into Jesus Christ can be maximized. We have needed some to focus their lives, and the body's, on ministries embodying Christ and bearing witness to God's kingdom in the world. These are the deacons. We have needed others to focus their lives on ministries of calling and leading the community in worship and communal life. These we call elders. Finally, so the body of Christ could be unified and better coordinated across multiple cultures, regions, and nations, and not entirely atomized into local expressions, we have needed still others to give their lives, at least for a time, to ministries of organizing and supervising the life and multiple ministries of Christian communities across regions. These are bishops.

All of these are ministries, which is to say, all of these are grounded in a posture of serving, not being served. And that means the persons who take on these roles are never the "primary ministers" of the church. That role is uniquely the role of the laity, the whole people of the whole body. The role of the ordained or consecrated is to support the laity and each other in these three critical areas as together all of us, laity with clergy, seek to live out the fulness of our common baptismal covenant.

For more on how ordination vows are specifications of baptismal vows, see this chart and this PowerPoint presentation.

From "Sacramental Authority" to "Administering the Sacraments"

Let me put this plainly. The Ordinal of The United Methodist Church, true to our biblical ontology and understanding of the Spirit's work in the world, in baptism, in Holy Communion and in ordination, nowhere posits the ordination of elders somehow transmits to these persons some sort of "substance" (Greek!) that brings with it what is often commonly referred to as "sacramental authority." Nowhere. Not once. Ever.

Notions of "sacramental authority" as some "property" somehow "adhering to" or becoming "constituent in" the elder (as opposed, for example, to the deacon or to laity) might work in theologies built on Greek substantialist notions, or in contexts where, whether sociologically, or theologically, or both, those ordained as presbyters are regarded as "magic people" who by virtue of this transfer of this "power" in ordination are enabled to say "magic words" or perform certain "magical gestures" to make magic, or to turn certain ordinary things (like water, or bread or wine) or people (like those being ordained or consecrated) into "magic things" or "magic people."

But they have no place among the people called Methodists. Nor should they.

No do they, anywhere, in our Ordinal. Nor our sacramental theology. Nor our understanding of the nature of ordination. Nor our understanding of the nature of the church.  Nor our pneumatology. And certainly not in our ontology-- if indeed our ontology is grounded in the Bible, and not in certain strains of Greek philosophy.

The ritual of ordination in The United Methodist Church, as in many other churches, involves two "manual acts" by the bishop-- not as magician, but as presider and leader of the whole assembly's prayer in these moments.

The first of these acts is the laying of hands on the head of the candidate for ordination or consecration. This is ordination proper, where the bishop leads us all in asking for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon these persons for the lifework they are about to pursue for a lifetime.

The second of these acts is the laying of hands on the hands of the candidate. Here the bishop says to the newly ordained person, in whom the Spirit (we all trust and pray!) is now flowing in a new way, "Name, take authority as an elder, to preach the Word of God, to administer the Holy Sacraments, and to order the life of the Church; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." To which the people all say, Amen!

The Spirit acts directly in and through the first manual act. In the second, the church says to the newly ordained, through the bishop whom the church has previously consecrated for such work of ordering and oversight, "We, the body of Christ in the power of the Triune God, now authorize you to live out what you have vowed in our midst. Live this way among us now and for the rest of your years of active service"

Note what the church here authorizes the newly ordained elder to do with regard to sacraments. The bishop does not say, "We hereby give you sacramental authority." No. The bishop says "Take authority as an elder... to administer the Holy Sacraments..." The language for this is exactly parallel to the authority the church through the bishop now also gives to the newly ordained to "preach the Word of God" and "to order the life of the Church." We do not speak of ordination somehow granting "preaching authority" or even "ordering authority." Yet, somehow, many of us (and sometimes even our Discipline) have come to speak of "sacramental authority" as something given to or inherent in the elder by virtue of ordination.

Let me go one step further to say that to change what the ritual actually says "Take authority... to administer the sacraments" into something like "You as an ordained elder now have sacramental authority" is not only not in our Ordinal. It is deeply inconsistent with our biblical ontology and the pneumatology that underlies our theology, ecclesiology and understandings of sacraments and ordination. More than this, it smacks of a form of "presbyter-centric clericalism" that strikes at the heart of our baptismal theology-- and even what it means to be a Methodist Christian.

I suggest this because in the circles in The United Methodist Church where I have been blessed to travel, when I hear us talking about "sacramental authority," it almost always partakes of a rhetoric of rights and privileges unique to elders. Elders have sacramental authority, but deacons (with some case by case exceptions) do not. Local pastors have sacramental authority, but only within the bounds of the congregations or extension ministries to which they are appointed. The elder alone has "full" sacramental authority. Deacons and bishops have "it" (that special, magical "it") contingently, if at all. And the laity have it not at all.

The language of sacramental authority "nouns" or "substantializes" as " thing" elders "have" what the ordinal itself frames as an infinitive verb depicting a key part of the work we need elders to undertake as part of their way of life among us: "to administer the Holy Sacraments." In this "substantialization" or "reification," "sacramental authority" has come thus not to signify the fulfillment of the role of administering the sacraments named in our Ordinal, but rather its radical truncation. Why? Because when we are speaking of "sacramental authority" what we are too often really talking about is the "right" or "special power" of certain "magic people" to say certain "magic words" over ordinary things to make them into magical things. The language of "sacramental authority" and the consequent specifications of who has "it" and who does not, and under what conditions even those who have "it" may exercise "it," moves us and all of our thinking into the stasis of fixed rules rather than the "nephesh hayah" dynamics (and blessed messiness!) of living, Spirit-breathing community. And so we move straight into the cul-de-sac Greek substantialist ontologies rather than remaining in the flow of our ever-living, ever-moving, ever-dynamic biblical ontology.

Perhaps it's past time to quit using the term "sacramental authority" at all-- even as a kind of shorthand.

Perhaps it's time to reclaim the fullness of what the Ordinal provides. "Take authority as an elder... to administer the Holy Sacraments."

As we have seen, the heart of the Ordinal's language resonates with the ever-living, ever-moving Spirit. To "take authority" in this deeply Spirit-embued context does not mean to assert authority as a right, but rather to trust the Spirit's ongoing outpouring on those ordained as elders to fulfill the way of life they have vowed to pursue among us for the sake of the whole church-- including the call to administer the sacraments.

To be sure, presiding and presiding well as the gathered body celebrates the Holy Sacraments are part of administering the sacraments. But the work of presiding is not a right, but a service to the body, a solemn and joyous responsibility the body entrusts principally to the elders the Church has ordained.

And to the degree administering involves presiding, the purpose of the presiding is not to be the presider. It is rather to ensure the purpose of presiding is achieved for the sake of the whole body. And that purpose is itself to ensure that the whole people are enabled to offer themselves in praise and thanksgiving to God as they offer their prayers and themselves to God  as fully as they possibly can.

Put another way, the purpose of the elder in presiding is about being a conduit of the Spirit's moving among the whole people so the Spirit may be poured out in and through the prayers and praises of the people, and, both upon and through the elements over which the people, led by their presider, seek the Spirit's outpouring.

Presiding thus matters much.

But presiding itself does not exhaust the calling of the elder to exercise the authority to administer the Holy Sacraments.

And that is because administering, at its core, is about caring for and being in service to the people so they can not only offer themselves and participate in the ritual as fully as they can, but also live out everything that flows into and from the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion.

The calling and authority to administer the sacraments, then, is a calling to see that everything the people need not only to pray, but to live as they have prayed.

Administering the sacrament of baptism means being a point person, initiator, driver, mover and team player-- not a solo performer by any stretch-- in the whole church's baptismal ministry of calling and discipling people in the way of Jesus both as they prepare for baptism and as they seek to fulfill the vows of the baptismal covenant the rest of their days.

And administering the sacrament of Holy Communion means being a point person, initiator, driver, mover and team player-- not solo player by any stretch-- in the whole church's ongoing Eucharistic ministry of offering themselves in praise and thanksgiving to God in union with Christ's offer for us and living in the world as those re-membered as the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

At ordination, the Holy Spirit initiates a lifelong flow in those being ordained as elder to initiate, preside, care for, tend to, partner with others in, but not necessarily do and certainly not control all that lives and moves and has its being in the living, moving environment in which the church's sacramental ministry always takes place.

So we see, even in this one element of the authority the church entrusts to the elder, the authority "to administer the Holy Sacraments," why we prepare candidate for ordination as elder as we do, and perhaps some glimpses into how we might need to start preparing them better or differently than we now do. For truly, in just this one area, "to administer the Holy Sacraments" we are asking of the elder a profound commitment to a life of service-- which is to say, to be one who tends the whole flock in its sacramental life, who makes possible and plausible the outpouring of the Spirit through these means of Spirit-flowing grace, rebirthing and raising us to walk in newness of life, and nourishing us, day by day, in this Spirit-moving, ever-growing, life in Trinity, with all creation, being made ever new.

All of that.

Far more than "sacramental authority" ever catches-- and far, far less than it offers and promises for the life, witness, and ministry of the body of Christ carried, driven and inspired by the ever-flowing, ever-moving Spirit.

Next: The Ontology of Prayer and The Interflowing Authority of Elders, Deacons, Bishops and People

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Apr 21 2014

emergingumc: Listening for Abundance, Part II: By the Waters…

Original post at

Fall Creek. Public Domain.

by Mike Mather
Pastor, Broadway UMC, Indianapolis, IN

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb from the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  Nothing accursed will be found there.

Revelation 22: 1-3 (NRSV)

Joe King takes the room as soon as he walks in.  Plaid shirt, blue jeans, they wear like a suit.  He is at home in the board room or in the woods.  

He is all energy and explosions - laughter, ideas, movements.  Hes on the move.  Always.  Hes Muhammad Ali as naturalist.

He sees you.

He sold insurance, keeping his neighbors safe and healthy, writing policy and caring for the waters.

He loves a good time, out fishing with friends, they tell each other stories.

As a boy he would step into the waters of Fall Creek, where the men would gather and fish. That was my television, Joe says. Fatherless, they became his fathers, his teachers. It was here he heard stories, his feet cooling in the waters.  The men teaching
him about fish, and about life in the city.

He's talking with teen-age Cameron on his porch.  Cameron says, Im weird.  Joe says, Ive been weird every day of my life, and its a good thing.  Any time you are feeling weirdcome sit on my porch and well talk,” doing now what was done for him.

Hes always close to the waters.  It is a member of his community.

Fall Creek is never very wide. No more than 45-50 yards. During the dry of summer it can slow to a trickle. In the spring and in the fall it flows.  It carries fish and the waste of our civilization, such as it is.

Along Fall Creek the waters roll, not the mighty Wabash, not the roaring Mississippi, just waters that literally, in the past, have fed the people.  The men that Joe joined as a boy were catching dinner. The living water whose cost and benefit are rarely (if ever) counted.

We go down by the waters he and I. Every day he steps in the waters. Even now twice a year he leads a clean up of Fall Creek.


Because, he says, I talk to the creek and the creek talks to me and I tell it I will not forsake it.

His whole life he has loved this place, this water. Its more than H2O to him. The waters cleanse and heal.  They breathe, free, reveal,  teach. Fall Creek was his school, his home, his grocery store, his bank.

As they fished the men caught him. Instead of filleting him, they fed him. His gratitude was for the ways the waters gathered and nourished community.

Joe knows times have changed.  He and his friends (the Dirty Dozen Hunting and Fishing Club) still gather with their neighbors, young and old, women and men, to feed each other by the waters of Fall Creek.

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Apr 15 2014

emergingumc: Making the Internet Work FOR and not AGAINST the Church

Original post at

By Junior Melo (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
High Internet Use May Account for 20% of the Decline in Religious Affiliation in the US since 1990

I use the Internet more hours of the day than I do not. Much of this is for my work, which involves a substantial amount of time not only producing resources (many of which I research by using the Internet) but also interacting directly in GBOD and UMC-related social networks and chat with church leaders across the globe via Facebook and Twitter. I also use the Internet (Google Hangouts) to meet with my Covenant Discipleship Group when I am not in Nashville, and will even be offering a Holy Saturday service online via Twitter this coming Saturday (April 19, 10 AM ET, #holysat). And I use it personally-- for free texting to stay in touch with family and key friends, to stream video to our Roku player (we don't have cable), and to play a few games on my mobile devices (but not during regular work hours!).  And, of course, there's email. And search.

In March 2014, Allen B. Downey, Professor of Computer Science at the Olin College of Engineering, Needham, Massachusetts, published "Religious affiliation, education and Internet use" in the online science, mathematics and statistics journal, arXiv, hosted by the Cornell University Library. arXiv is not a peer reviewed journal, but rather an outlet for established researchers with appropriate institutional relationships to publish their work in these fields.

The overall findings of Downey's statistical research ascribed such high correlations (p-values less than 0.01) between religious disaffiliation and three particular factors (religious upbringing, education and Internet use) that unless some additional explanatory variable or variables could be identified, these correlations may be considered compatible with causation. In particular, reductions in the rate of religious upbringing account for 25% of the observed rates of disaffiliation since the 1980s. Increased amounts of of college and graduate education account for 5% of the change. And Internet use accounts for 20% of the change since the 1990s. Rates of disaffiliation are higher, on average, as Internet use increases beyond 7 hours daily.

That leaves 50% of the causative factors unaccounted for. Within the data, there is an explanation for the other 50%-- a lack of generational replacement-- but as Downey notes, that basically comes down to birth year analysis, and birth year, of itself, cannot function as an independent variable. In other words, when you are born can't, in general,  be said to be causative.

I've already noted I use the Internet more than 7 hours per day. I am also a college graduate and hold two graduate degrees (M.Div. and  M.A. in Peace Studies). So it would appear I have at least 25% of the risk factors for becoming religiously disaffiliated. However, both my parents were raised with deep religious involvement, and so were myself and my sister, and both of us in my generation are also deeply involved in the life of the church, so that 25% is more than counterbalanced by the other 75%-- or at least the other 25% if we admit we can't account for the other 50% statistically.

So What?
Why would Internet use correlate so strongly with increases in disaffiliation? Downey's research does not attempt to answer that question.

But among these factors, and with support from Barna's most recent research (summarized here), we might be able to pinpoint better for whom a church's increasing engagement with the Internet might enhance affiliation rather than have no effect or even increase disaffiliation.

The top 4 reasons Barna identifies evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics attend church is a) to be closer to God (43%), b) to learn more about God (38%), c) a biblical call to be with other believers (34%) and because I've always attended church (28%, primarily Roman Catholics). At the same time most who attend admit they've not felt close to God in the last month (80%) or learned anything new about God as a result of the last time they attended (94%). In other words, the two most prominent driving factors for attending worship are not at all being satisfied by doing so.

So it should not be surprising that Barna also finds 40% of those who do not attend say they can find God elsewhere and 35% say the church is not relevant to their lives in any real way.

And where else might some of these folks be finding God or something that seems more relevant to their lives? Barna did not ask this question, but certainly the Internet, and particularly the social Internet, with its immediate feedback of likes and comments on content we post, is a likely candidate.

This might lead church leaders to conclude there's a mandate to reach these disaffiliated persons by using the Internet.

But putting Downey and Barna together might lead to a different conclusion.

Remember, increased Internet use is highly correlated with increased disaffiliation, so highly correlated it might be said to be causative. So it may well be the case that trying to reach people who are disaffiliated via the Internet may either not work at all, or, worse, actually lead to further disaffiliation.

For some, at least.

Just do the math. Persons not raised in the church, a rate that is continuing to rise, are already 25% more likely not to affiliate at all. If they are college educated, that jumps to 30%. Add Internet involvement, and that goes to 50%. And the later they were born, the more likely they will not affiliate at all.

In other words, the odds of a church being effective at using extensive Internet-based engagement with persons (including younger persons) with zero church background for the purpose of leading them to affiliation are not very favorable. At all. You're simply adding one more risk factor for moving people away from church life into the mix.

Short answer: Targeting the "never-affiliated Nones" with "internet church" isn't likely to accomplish much.

Okay, how about those "Nones" who had been affiliated, but now have dropped out, including that 59% of Millennials Barna notes have dropped out at some point.

They were affiliated at one point. That's significant. But even when they were, the vast majority of them weren't getting out of church what they said they would value most about it. So they've already left. Maybe they're finding that somewhere else. And from Pew we know that 72% of those who have disaffiliated say they aren't interested in reaffiliating or being part of any group larger than their immediate circle of friends, ever. If they're using the Internet, and likely they are,  they've got that additional 20% "drive away" factor in play. So again, the odds are low online strategies will be effective at generating renewed affiliation.

What these two bits of evidence taken together may say, then, is the primary value of church social media and internet sites may be far more for increasing ties with "insiders" than evangelizing or seeking to reactivate those who have become "outsiders."

So that leaves those who have been raised in the church and have not disaffiliated. For these people, and perhaps primarily for these people, the negative effects of Internet use on church affiliation may not outweigh the overall "affiliating" forces already in play. Let me suggest further, to help strengthen these affiliating forces, that online strategies for reaching and supporting these people aim squarely at the two highest factors Barna identifies for attendance-- getting closer to and learning about God. If the congregation focuses its efforts online in providing what the affiliated say they seek the most but clearly aren't getting in worship or educational opportunities (getting closer to and learning about God), it may be positioning its online ministries for maximum effectiveness.

The key in this is the church making its online ministries clearly part of its ministries, its web of communications, its work of community building within its life. Such online ministries needn't be members-only walled gardens, but the value they add needs to relate to the specific ways those already affiliated with the congregation can give witness and support to getting closer to God and learning about God as part of that congregation.

Internet: Use It... Wisely

When the Online Communion Conversation was convened in Nashville last fall, and then when the Council of Bishops acted on the recommendations of that panel of church leaders, practitioners and scholars, probably the biggest message most people heard was the call by the Council of Bishops for a moratorium on all online sacramental practice.

But that was not our first recommendation.

Our first recommendation, and in fact the first one the Council of Bishops approved in November 2013, was that:

"The Council of Bishops, in collaboration with appropriate general agency staff and other partners, actively lead the way to promote and develop excellent practices of online ministries across the United Methodist connection."

In other words, while the most widely spread outcome may have suggested United Methodists were some sort of Luddites regarding online ministries, the reality is quite the reverse. We were calling for and the bishops agreed to dramatically step up the excellence of United Methodist online ministries worldwide.

Excellence in online ministries involves not just excellence in their technical platform and execution-- and we absolutely were seeking that!-- but also and most importantly excellence in their results toward our mission as a church-- to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

What I think the recent studies from Downey, Barna and Pew show, fairly definitively, is that the most likely arena in which United Methodists (or anyone in the US) will be able to develop online ministries that enhance affiliation, and so, we trust, discipleship, will be in those that focus first on amplifying the capacity of all the affiliated in our congregations, of every age and ability, to get closer to God and learn more about God, both individually and collectively.

What do you think?

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Apr 14 2014

United Methodist Worship: Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology Part 2: Incarnation and the Outpouring of the Spirit

Original post at

Incarnation: Scandal and Foolishness, or Power and Wisdom?

"But we proclaim Messiah crucified, a scandal to Jewish people, foolishness to the goyim, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Messiah, the power of God and the wisdom of God"  I Corinthians 1:23-24

I have to admire Paul's gutsy honesty here. He takes standard Jewish and Greek understandings with utter seriousness, and does not misrepresent or twist them to make them fit the gospel he proclaims. 

The Christian doctrine of incarnation, that, as the gospel of John puts it, "The Logos became flesh and pitched tent among us" (John 1:14) simply was sheer foolishness, something completely incoherent in the standard Heraclitian/Platonic ontologies of the day. How? Because the entire ur-narrative of these Greek ontologies depends on Logos/Reason/Word/Wisdom remaining at a remove from the ephemerality, instability, and chaotic nature of material reality. Only at such a remove could the Logos become an informing, constraining principle of such material chaos. Communication was possible between the two, but any actual communion or intermingling was inconceivable. It was simply obvious, in this ur-narrative, that if the Logos were to become material, even worse, to become flesh, the most unstable and ephemeral of all material realities, all hope of order, civilization, even coherence itself would be lost.

Likewise, within the very narrative in Genesis from which we derived the biblical ontology we began to unpack in the previous post, there is a very significant additional agenda in place, one which likewise sees the co-mingling of human and divine realities as a source of chaos and destruction. Creation happens in Genesis 1 precisely because the God keeps dividing one thing from another, creating boundaries which give room for each differentiated thing to have its place. The "Fall" in Genesis 2 happens in large part because humans have grasped after the knowledge of the Deity. The flood narrative beginning in Genesis 6 identifies a major cause of the contagion of violence ruining all creation as the "Sons of God" having offspring with "human daughters" generating the Nephilim, a race of superior warriors (Genesis 6:1-5). Later, God takes decisive action to end the efforts of humans to build a tower to reach heaven. Story after story, this message rings clear: God is God and humans are not and cannot ever expect to be God. Any notion of a human becoming God or God becoming human is therefore not simply foolish (Greek), but blasphemous. Calling Christian notions of incarnation a scandal to mainstream Jewish theology informed by the Torah may, indeed, be an understatement.

Of course, Paul isn't even addressing incarnation, per se, in the quote taken above. He is rather dealing with the heart of his proclamation in Corinth: Messiah crucified. Corinth was the active capitol of Greek culture and economic and political power in Paul's day. Athens was more of a cultural heritage site at that point. Corinth was also home to a significant Jewish diaspora community. Following an executed man, an ephemeral man judged not worthy of continuing life by his peers, was thus, indeed, foolishness to the Greeks. And it was sheer scandal in mainstream Jewish interpretation to claim Messiah, one of their own, had or could have been been crucified, for "cursed is anyone hanged on a tree" (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Paul makes a very different claim. Messiah crucified is "Messiah the power of God (Jewish) and the wisdom of God (Greek)." The gospel is the announcement of the paradoxical reversal of expectations that actually fulfills the true hopes of both cultures, Jewish and Gentile, which is to say, of the whole world, the cosmos.

Christians, with John and Paul, do proclaim Jesus as Word made flesh, God incarnate, and as Messiah crucified, buried, resurrected, ascended, and coming again. Both were and are foolishness and scandal when our earliest Christian ancestors declared them. Both still are. We, with Paul, still need to own this.

But in owning this, we need not retreat from the claims of incarnation or Christ crucified, raised and returning one iota. Because our ur-narrative is not a narrative of an ordering principle that must remain at some remove lest chaos ensure, and whose core work of ordering is the work of differentiation. Our ur-narrative is that narrative's reversal, the undoing of entropy, not by remove or further differentiation but by fully-restored fellowship. Our ur-narrative, starting with the birth of the church at Pentecost, is of the full restoration of all things in all their variety, variability and even ephemerality, reading backwards from the undoing of Babel toward the ultimate undoing of the Fall. That which was set apart into isolation as a check against chaos is brought back into full communion, a communion that reflects the full diversity within the original creation but no more of the hostility set loose at the Fall. Our ur-narrative leads back to the possibility of God looking upon all things in all their ephemerality, fleshliness and variety, and delighting, as they delight, completely, announcing an eternal "Tov meod!"

Now, this vision of restoration, of ultimate Shalom, of Tikkun Olam (the healing of the world) is not and never has been foreign to all forms of Jewish philosophy or religion, then or, perhaps, especially now. Incarnation and our proclamation as Christians of Jesus as crucified Messiah remain scandalous. But the ur-narrative of the restoration of all things by God with us is one in which Christians and at least some Jewish denominations may be increasingly able to collaborate.

The Outpouring of the Spirit and Christian Biblical Ontology

There are three moments in United Methodist ritual where we especially embody our theology of incarnation, grounded in our biblical ontology. These are baptism, Holy Communion, and ordination.

In all three, our collective prayer, led by an authorized presider, says "Pour out your Spirit on X, that X may be Y."

At Holy Communion we pray "Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here and upon these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood."

At ordination or consecration we pray, "Almighty God, pour upon Name the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a deacon/an elder/a bishop in Christ's holy church."

And at baptism, which lie beneath and grounds the life of the whole church, and so grounds both Holy Communion and ordination, we pray, "Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and those who receive it, to wash away their sin and clothe them in righteousness throughout their lives, that, dying and being raised with Christ, they may share in his final victory."

Always at these pivotal moments we call upon the action of the Holy Spirit, the one ever-moving over the face of ever-moving waters, the Spirit whose breath and whose outpouring of gifts never ceases.

And in all of these pivotal moments, what we seek is for the Spirit to start something new or afresh in us, to initiate a flow the Spirit will ever sustain, but we may or may not continue to abide in.

Starting, though not completed, at baptism.

In none of these cases in our theology as United Methodists, including baptism, does the Spirit's action begun absolutely guarantee the outcome desired. Neither baptism nor ordination conveys any sort of "indelible mark" or "permanent alteration of character" in our lives or conduct.

Likewise, with many other Protestants and Anglicans, we deny transubstantiation, not because of any ongoing rebellion against Roman Catholic theology per se, nor any longer out of any proximity to the actions of the Council of Trent that led our Anglican forebears (and Wesley, copying them) to take such a strident stand against it as a doctrine that "overthroweth the nature of a sacrament" (Articles of Religion XVIII). Rather, we deny transubstantiation because our biblical ontology has no need of any "essences" or "substances" as a hedge against the contingencies and ephemeralities of our own material, fleshly state, or that of the bread and wine on which we also seek the Spirit's blessing. Instead, we are assured by Jesus, God in our flesh, that the living God in whom we trust pours out the Spirit freely and abundantly to all who ask (Luke 11:13).

Next: Ordination and "Sacramental Authority"

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Apr 14 2014

emergingumc: Listening for Abundance, Part I: “We walk sightless among miracles”

Original post at

Over the next six posts, Mike Mather, pastor of Broadway UMC in Indianapolis, shares how he has come to focus locally, listening for and learning to see the abundance of God's work already in progress among the people of the congregation and neighborhood where he is appointed to serve.

A Jewish Sabbath Prayer:
Days pass,
Years vanish,
And we walk sightless among miracles.

Hello Reverend.  Miss Rose is often out in the inner city, in her housecoat and tennis shoes sweeping the street, picking up trash.
Her caramel complexion fits in well in this block. It blends with the pink of her worn robe and the salt and pepper gray of the sidewalk.

She has a toughness and gentleness, easily holding that tension. Shes seen it all and then some. Shes no innocent. Shes known blood to run in the gutters. Shes heard the shouts, then shots, so loud as to be unnoticed.

Shes tall and the years have not bent her much.  Perhaps its all that walking, striding into the future.  She has cared for her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren.  she now shares.  In her 80s she continues in the work of building community.

Piece by piece she picks it up and places it deep inside. Its alright. Shes bringing it together in ways, allowing the beauty to shine through. The glorious in the gritty.

She steps into the street. She looks both ways. Empty patchwork fields and an abundance of homes fill the street. Children, families, and papers swirl around her feet. The Spirit blows and the papers dance, sometime out of her reach. She watches, she knows where its headed.

Crushed cans and broken glass are part of her collection. She gathers up the broken and damaged and brings it home.

She watches from her porch.  Sunflowers in the front yard, broken pavement opening to the brick from generations ago.  Some homes have fences, some have none.

On her porch late in 2008 she sat and dreamed about a black President, a smile on her face.

Young people walk by as she picks up trash. They notice, but dont say anything. They walk with the easy (unknowing) confidence of the young.          They see and dont see.  Just like me. Their feet land heavy. Hers seem to glide. They laugh and talk loud. She smiles and says little. Every once in awhile they reach down and pick up a piece of paper.

Here is the slow, steady, steadfast work of community. She builds it on broken pavement. Sure this foundation is strong enough.
She sees the beauty and she wants to make it shine. She sees the strength and she wants it in power.

Kids play curb ball as she cleans the street.  They see her as in a mirror. This is how we care for one another.  We see the beauty, and build on it.

There are people doing such work, every day, all the time.

Can we see?

Miss Rose, sunflowers in the front yard, beans blossoming in the back. She knows how to grow things.

Young people notice her, while others - television reporters, teachers, preachers, even neighbors - tell them how bad their neighborhood is.

She steadily, daily, cleans the street. Does she keep it clean? No. She does her part. An invitation to others to do theirs. A witness.

Miss Rose, smiling, reads to children at the church.

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Apr 11 2014

United Methodist Worship: Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 1

Original post at

by Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources, GBOD
Convener, The Ordinal Task Force, and Editor of the Ordinal for The United Methodist Church

Big, big words.

Especially the second, one, "pneumatology," right? I mean, unless your into systematic theology, when's the last time you ever used that term? And unless you're a philosopher, theologian, organizational theorist or liturgy geek, when's the last time you ever used the word "ontology?" And when you used either one, did anyone else in the room understand what you were talking about? Did you, really?

And to put ordination and pneumatology and ontology into the same phrase-- isn't that what Roman Catholics and Orthodox would do? Why in the world would a Protestant, much less a United Methodist, try to do that?

Well, let me tell you why this United Methodist does that.

It's all about the middle term-- pneumatology-- the study of the work of the Holy Spirit-- and how that informs what I think is a biblical ontology, as opposed to a Greek philosophical ontology, that does begin to enable even United Methodists to make ontological claims, and not just functional claims, about the nature of the Christian life and of the church, and consequently about what is at stake in ordination.

And, by the way, all of this is already present in our current ritual of ordination, and pretty much has been since we inherited its underlying form and function from the Church of England via John  Wesley and the actions of the 1784 Christmas Conference.

We'll get to all of that later in the series.

But right now I want to get actually to the third term-- ontology.

Why "Ontology" Weirds Us Protestants Out

Ontology, the study of being, weirds out Protestants in large part because pretty much all of our roots as Protestants (including our Anglican heritage) has been about separating ourselves from what we perceived to be an over-commitment to Greek philosophy in the theology and practices of the late medieval Roman Catholic Church.

Now let me say this. We were not wrong. Rome really had wedded itself to Plato and Aristotle at that time, and ended up doing that even more explicitly and profoundly in some of the final documents and decisions issued by the Council of Trent (mid-16th century). Transubstantion was one of those. Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and Anabaptists alike cried foul on making this a doctrinal necessity precisely because the very structure of the argument was utterly Aristotelian (with, as we shall see, a Heraclitan and Platonic background), and nowhere to be found in scripture. Anglicans, and Methodists (who adopted much of the Anglican Articles of Religion) went so far as to say, "Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions" ("Of The Lord's Supper," Anglican Article 28, Methodist Article 18). \

The heart of the objection to transubstantiation is ontological. The claim in the Roman Catholic doctrine was that the substance, the very being (hence, ontology!) of the bread and wine was changed in or by the celebration of this ritual. Since our Anglican and Methodist forebears could find no support for this idea in scripture, they threw out that claim wholesale.

The problem is they thereby, though perhaps unintentionally, tended to throw out any and all ontological claims the church could make about itself, if not as a matter of official policy, at least as a matter of "guilt by association." The association was something like this: Rome is bad for insisting on a Greek philosophical grounding of core doctrine. And the kind of Greek philosophical argument used in transubstantiation is an ontological one. Therefore it's all bad-- Rome, Greek philosophy, transubstantiation, and, with it, ontology.

What I'd like to posit is that the Bible actually has very robust and rich ontological traditions that aren't Greek, and that actually could and (I will suggest in this series) should inform our conversations about sacraments, ecclesiology, and especially within the latter, ordination. In other words, rather than taking simply a "we don't talk about ontology and ordination in the same sentence except to deny any connection between them," what I want to take on in this series is how a recovery of biblical images of being/Being may not only enable us to talk ontologically about these things again, but indeed to re-invest them with far richer theological imagination.

But to get there, I recognize it's probably important to start with the foundations of the Greek tradition we're (rightly!) weirded out about.

Heraclitus, Plato, and Anxiety about Ephemerality

I wish to start by making a claim I expect to be challenged on a bit by lovers of the Greek tradition, but I will make it anyway. At the heart of the Greek philosophical tradition lies a persistent and deeply rooted anxiety about ephemerality.

Perhaps the most-quoted line from the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus is "Twice into the same river one cannot step." In asserting this, Heraclitus was not simply talking about rivers and the fact they were constantly changing. He was really talking about the nature of reality itself. He was saying there was in fact no constancy, no stability, not even an illusory stability in anything we can see or experience in the material world. And for him, this was a huge problem, the most dreadful sort of problem. Because without stability, there could be no real order, and without order, we were left to nothing but chaos.

This is certainly an anxiety-producing conclusion, if the the material reality, as we observe it, were all that existed. But, he says, since we also observe some kind of order in this constantly changing material world, that implies there must be some ordering principle, some Reason that gives coherence to all of this. And that Reason he called Logos (in Greek, logos can mean word or reason). Still, since the material world is only and always flux, despite the presence of the Logos, we cannot rely on the material world for true knowledge (i.e., knowledge of that which actually enables life and civilization) unless we know the Logos. If we know the Logos, we have true and worthy knowledge available to us. Even if we do not know the Logos, though, it remains the case that the Logos is what gives us an "indelible character" and establishes our fate as material beings in an ever-changing material existence.

Already in this account of Heraclitus's philosophy, we see the framing of the terms and some of the language that will subsequently inform the ontology of Plato and through him Aristotle and much of the rest of the classic philosophical Western tradition. We see already here the outlines of an ontology grounded in what Plato and Aristotle will call "substance" or "essence" (Being) as the source of the Ideal (Plato) or Real (Aristotle), an ontology in which materiality and changeability are marginalized as shadow (Plato, Parable of the Cave) or "accident" (Aristotle). The only thing that matters is what matters eternally, and the only thing that is eternal is Logos or Being itself.

Nephesh Hayah and the Delight of God

Biblical ontology starts in a very different place. There is no anxiety at all about ephemerality. Rather, there is delight in it! In the creation narrative of Genesis 1, God keeps calling these "living beings" (nephesh hayah) into existence, and saying about them, "This is good!' This word "living" (nephesh) both in Hebrew usage and especially in the context given in the first creation story is precisely focused on what keeps moving around, squirming, teeming, changing. And God keeps saying about all of this, "This is good!"

Finally, at the creation of human beings, among a number of other forms of "nephesh hayah," at the end, when all is created, God's affirmation of all of this, including all of this intrinsically material and changeable stuff, is "This is very good!" (tov meod!) All of it. Everything. Every thing. Every nephesh hayah, including but not limited to humans, and everything else, too. And humans, given the image of God whether male or female, they were included.

So what is the image of God? What can we learn about it in Genesis 1? What does God look like that could be passed on to us? We never see the Creator who speaks, but we do see the Spirit of the Creator from the very beginning. And what is the Spirit doing? Moving-- hovering-- ever-flowing over the face of the ever-moving, ever-stirring, ever-changing waters. So if we are to infer anything about the meaning of imago Dei from the story in which it occurs, what we must infer is that God is known precisely in change and creative interaction. Change, ephemerality, is not a bug-- but perhaps one of the most prominent features of God and creation, and perhaps the feature that gives it so much of its exceeding goodness.

Biblical ontology then, this notion of living being that bears the image of Being (God), is thus as far from anxiety and as close to delight in movement, variety, flux, change and the variations of matter and flesh as it can possibly be. Our very life from God's breath-- Spirit ever-moving over the ever-moving waters-- even our contingency-- all delight!

Next: Incarnation and the Outpouring of the Spirit

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