If our era deserves a title it is the “age of delusion”. Even after a lifetime of culling reality from the deception of spiritual and theological propaganda, I stand amazed as new seductions permeate the church and culture like waves of a rising tide. At present we are being engulfed by the “religion trick.” It is not new. It is actually 50’s retro. A few week’s ago the Congress of the United States graciously deigned to recognize Christianity as “one of the great religions of the world”. The resolution passed by a vote of 372 to 9 against. It was noted that an identically worded resolution in support of the Islamic Ramadan passed 376 – 0. Most Christian news services reported this as a good thing. In a controversial interview recently, Anglican Archbishop Rowan – beyond his well-reported comments on Christmas – offered his defense of the Christian ‘religion’ as more relevant than Santa or the Tooth Fairy because it produced great art, cathedrals and moral people.

This newest version of the “religion seduction,” was exemplified during the ‘holiday’ season by a “Hanukkah, Christmas & Hajj Festival” in Frederick, Maryland sponsored by a United Church of Christ Congregation, The Unitarian Universalists, St. Katharine Drexel Catholic, the Unity Church, Jewish Congregation Kol Ami and Beth Shalom, and the Islamic Society. It featured a meal with a powerpoint about Hanukkah, the Christmas Story and a comedy skit on “hajj”. UCC pastor Gerry Hanberry thought it might be an idea of what the kingdom of God might look like.

Meanwhile the “religion” of various candidates for president has obsessed the media, who seem to view Obama’s faith in Christ, Huckabee’s Southern Baptist Christianity and Romney’s Mormonism as much the same thing. They each it seems have a ‘religion’, something of a personal quirk, which could compromise their ability to govern sensibly and objectively. When you go to post a personal profile on your all-identifying Facebook you are asked to ‘pick’ your religion.

All this is a manifestation of the ascendant rule of democracy, not as a governmental system but a worldview. The democratic worldview is that there are humanly held beliefs and views but no actual truth beyond consensus. The absurdity of this carries even into the sciences where we are reminded regularly that global warming and evolution must be believed because more scientists believe in it than don’t. The new truths become truth by majority opinion. And so religion, like science, becomes a matter of opinion.

It is time for us, like the Marshwiggle in Narnia, to cast our hand into the fire to wake up from the enchantment. I am not religious! I never have been nor will I ever be, and I certainly hope and pray you aren’t either! Religion is, by its definition, humanly devised stuff, made up by people! In our fallen state of mind and spirit it is therefore inherently horribly unreliable and frequently corrupted. One of our inside jokes is that the life in the historic churches of New England equals one part Christianity and at least two parts folk religion. Folk religion is robes, candlelight services, congregational meetings, organ music, altar colors, strawberry festivals, and the weathervanes on our steeples. As quaint as they all may be, they have nothing to do with Jesus. More exotically, religion is UCC Synods where pagan puppets dance and communion is celebrated to the wind, fire, earth and water. Religion subjects God to human institutionalization, and the result is more often weird than not.

I have served the Church of Jesus Christ by a compelling call of the Holy Spirit for over 35 years, but religion has always offended me. I don’t like religion. I don’t belong to one and all the trappings that come with religion are for me somewhere between amusing, irritating, and contemptible. Even in my role as a local pastor and certainly on the stage of my mainline protestant denomination, I have always remained alienated from the travesty called religion. This has often made others uncomfortable.

Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the Life. He is God’s only contingency plan to save us from our sin and restore us from condemnation to relationship with Himself. Jesus is coming again in space and time. It will be the climactic conclusion of world history. He won’t be Buddha or an incarnated amalgamation of “religious” inventions about incarnated deity. Jesus will not be forced to conform to the ideological fads of a generation, the distortions of a sect, or the cynicism of a skeptical group of ‘scholars’ casting votes on what is historical. Jesus is Lord. He is the beginning and the end.

Believing in Jesus Christ causes you to die to yourself and to be transformed into a new person. The life he gives is a radical life with real power. Living under the truth of God’s word reshapes you beyond recognition. It reshapes your identity, relationships, motives, sexuality, and destiny. Jesus never owned a building, invited his disciples to incorporate, or conducted a stewardship campaign. Jesus would not be caught attending a meeting of a denominational acronym. He isn’t more inclined to be present because we offer Starbucks in the foyer with a theatre seat and surround sound in the sanctuary.

The seduction of delusion happens when you forget this. When you allow the media, the government, denominational leaders, clergy, or your sister in law to con you into the notion that you belong to a religion you have sold your birthright for porridge. Agreeing that you are a member of a religion silences your voice and negates the power of your experience. You have now just admitted that you are another duped proponent of something some folks made up and perpetuate because of tradition and perhaps because it gives some kind of comfort, meaning, or order. How very, very nice that is for you.

Meanwhile in the wild realm of revelation and reality, Jesus Christ threatens every power and authority in the world order because in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and in him all things hold together. Give me Jesus.

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Let me say more on why God is Still Speaking is the key to the future of our churches: It is not that many of our UCC congregations are not in critical condition; error, erosion, division and decline haunt our congregations with their sadness and pain. But God has not abandoned us to His silence and ‘therefore we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Romans 5:2-6

It is this understanding that offers fresh power and motivation to our ministry. The fact that the UCC itself chose the phrase “God is still speaking” to define our life together is very good. Yes, we know it is based on a misinterpretation of John Robinson’s famous quote. Our BWF Pres. Dr. Bill Boylan, an excellent historian who is at this moment delivering a paper at Oxford University on the founding of the republic (GO BILL!) has, as have others, eloquently debunked the false use of Robinson’s quote. But what the UCC leadership means by this phrase isn’t really important – what is important is that God has been invited to speak in the UCC, and He is doing just that!  What he says, of course, is not subject to anyone’s higher criticism nor will it conform to the resolutions of Synod. He is, after all, a wild, untamed God who made all that has been made. The only thing you can be sure of is that what He said in the Bible and what He says now will not be different, namely because He said so.

Therefore when the “Identity Campaign” first hit the airwaves, here at BWF we stood back a bit to watch. Oh, we were called for comment regularly – by both the media and alienated UCC members. And to be sure we are on record with a few (actually very few), fairly cautious statements of criticism. Yes, the bouncer thing was obnoxious – an insult to other churches and a joke if you have been traumatized by an actual visit to some of our warm, fuzzy, welcoming UCC congregations, where children aren’t really all that welcome much less more exotic folks. And yes, the ejector thing was really silly, especially for someone like myself who has been explicitly and sometimes vehemently asked to leave the UCC on dozens of occasions. And of course using a cute quote by a dead comedienne who no one under 60 had ever heard of to go with a comma instead of the cross triumphant, well we at BWF couldn’t have made something like that up if we wanted to. If I were Dorhauerian I might think it was the product of an IRD conspiracy to trick the folks in Cleveland into doing something crazy. But through all the rainbow colored smoke and mirrors – not to mention OZ and Spongebob, something remarkable has happened. The UCC has broken through to the attention of the church alienated public who recently have not been considering Christ. This I know not from the UCC News, but actually having an ear in the urban, college campus, art community ethos. Perhaps by accident, perhaps because a liberal media wanted to stick it to the evangelicals, or because the Holy Spirit decided to act through us despite all, the message penetrated and has created a new opportunity. And what we have said to our culture when we were given the floor was simply “GOD IS STILL SPEAKING”! WOW! What better thing can we say?! As a result, in a short window, the UCC has gone from being a casualty on the fringe of the church to a wide-open vehicle for radical renewal inside and outside the church walls.

Now wait! I can hear you saying, “Have you lost your mind?” What about all the weird stuff? What about the clergy who don’t really believe in Jesus? What about the sexual issues and the marriage thing and the political stuff, and the abuse of evangelicals and the scandals and all the rest? How do you just go on doing whatever God says in churches where things seem so tainted and where there is so much error and opposition?

While I was having an epiphany in London (see previous blog), I watched and listened carefully to what the Holy Spirit was saying through the ALPHA movement at Holy Trinity Brompton. I heard testimony after testimony of lives transformed through Jesus Christ. These were radical transformations. Gay, straight, predator, addict, greedy materialist, or thief; no one was drawing lines. They had complete confidence that God would do the work if they just set the table. God certainly was. Likewise the international church leaders who were leading transformation across the world came in all kinds of disguises – orthodox, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, Odd sects and exotic affiliations, many of which I knew came with enormous baggage. No one cared. They trusted that the Holy Spirit was doing what had to be done if they were faithful.

I was reminded of earlier days in my ministry when God opened my eyes to my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. I was raised in a segregated community where Catholics went to school separately from the Jewish majority and the small protestant minority. I was taught whole Sunday School semesters on the Catholic heresies. Then as a young pastor I was asked to substitute for a sick friend on the spur of the moment to help lead a “TEC” team doing a “Teens Encounter Christ” weekend for a catholic parish in Massachusetts. Two priests and myself had one of the most intense four-day experiences of my life. They were real Christians, and yet terribly different. On Saturday night I had the privilege of leading 16 teens into real transforming personal relationship with Jesus Christ one at a time over two hours. The power of the Holy Spirit was palpable. At the same time my two brothers prayed to Mary, cited saints and periodically wandered into very odd doctrines indeed. They also introduced me to the pleasure of drinking port and freely used language my mother would not have tolerated. We went on to be a team for two years or more to great spiritual effect. Hundreds of teens came to Christ. If the Holy Spirit had simply left the UCC, like Saul the king, then it would be time to leave the building. But God is still speaking and now is the time to get over ourselves and move in the Holy Spirit, with power and discernment.

These are the days after Synod. As usual they are days of catching up – hitting practice with an insistent 5 year old, listening to a play by play of the 17 year olds first driving lesson on the way to her MacDonald’s shift, leading a fast paced final training session for 30 exuberant teenage camp counselors. The wonder of real life in Christ puts Synod very quickly into perspective. So then, just what did happen in Hartford?

There was to be sure much that we have come to expect, heightened by the drama of nationally famous speakers, a well planned party to celebrate the 50th, as well as excellent artistic use of image and sound in worship and plenary. There was a good deal of hubris, some theological casseroles containing poisonous ingredients from the realms of other spirits, some of the usual tensions and of course some things that were simply outright hilarious. John Thomas didn’t disappoint his critics, offering again a brittle, defensive, and strange view of our life together. (Joe Malayang and his family were, in contrast, impressive in his retirement testimony.) The administrative crisis in Cleveland, and the interpersonal tensions within the collegium, were painfully visible even to some of the newcomers. All this stuff will be reported as expected in the upcoming Witness and on our webpage. We won’t let you down. (http://www.biblicalwitness.org)

But, there were also some landmark realities. Whether you agree with his politics or not, Barack Obama gave a very clear testimony of personal conversion and faith in Jesus Christ. He appears to be a brother. The name of Jesus was on the lips of speakers, moderators, delegates and participants with great regularity, and for the most part genuinely and appropriately. There were several periods of authentic worship into which any of us could join with little reservation. The Jesus is Lord buttons were far more common than ever before, and Jesus is Lord was affirmed several times in various settings.
The resolution the FAITHFUL AND WELCOMING congregations brought to Synod passed! While some language was modified to read “all” instead of “ECOT”, it was also strengthened with language urging every Association and Conference to accommodate presentations and displays from “all”. It was also strengthened with the language “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit”. It will have a profound impact on what happens next. Bob Thompson and his crew did a superb job in their first Synod outing – praise God!
The Synod backed away from its anti-semitic position on the Israeli, Palestinian conflict and moved toward a renewed consideration of a more balanced view. This happened regardless of the spin it receives. Praise God.

The Resolution promoting “death with dignity” or assisted suicide was derailed by strong opposition from the disabilities advocates within the UCC and was dramatically modified to a study resolution with little bias against the sanctity of human life. The resolution, which passed, bore faint resemblance to the one proposed. Praise God.

And of course as widely reported, the two resolutions calling for a restoration of the Biblical view of marriage were tabled for no action. While not a victory, it does open the door for this issue to continue to return to the Synod on a regular basis.
The real story of this Synod, however, is that GOD IS STILL SPEAKING. As I prayed through these days, it became clear to me that behind the smoke and noise of the marriage resolution explosion in 2005, that the reaffirmation of Jesus as Lord that summer, was more important. A people who call on the name of the Lord, pray in Jesus name, and read their Bibles will be transformed. The power of the gospel can be trusted.

It also was made clear to me that 2007, is to be marked down in the UCC as the year of the Holy Spirit. Calling upon the Holy Spirit to act, to fall fresh on us, to guide, to anoint, was repeated by a wide variety of voices. I am very convicted that God is on the move, to reclaim His churches. Now is the time to rededicate ourselves to this vital mission field in the power and humility of the Holy Spirit. To succeed we will need a network of intercessory prayer. If you are an intercessor, know some, are connected to a team, we need you. We need you now. Email us.
Now, both the expectations and skepticism some of our supporters voice about these Synods is naïve. To expect that the Synod or the corporate leadership of the UCC, or its Conference Ministers, etc. will suddenly reject the ideology to which they have pledged their lives and careers, is unrealistic. We aren’t looking for an action of Synod to somehow grant us acceptance or to give us hope, or save the churches from themselves. This is a thing God alone will do. But Synod does offer hundreds or thousands of vignettes, actions, sound bites, and images that reveal much about the nature of things in the UCC at that particular moment in time. What was revealed in Hartford is that God is about to do something in our churches for which many of us have yearned for a lifetime. It has begun, and will unfold as none of us could have anticipated. It will defy our right/left categories and once again have us dying to ourselves if we hope to live. Stay tuned.

Let the Light Shine!

June 21, 2007

From the BWF Executive Director:

It has been a season of silence for BWF, in part because there was nothing left to be said. Our witness to the churches, the media, the denominational leadership and the world has been clear and loud. The idolatrous decision in the summer of 2005 to attempt to tell God that marriage was whatever we, in our human delusions, wanted it to be, placed the UCC beyond the boundaries of reality. We called for the president’s resignation, reiterated our witness that Jesus is Lord, the Bible is true, human life and human sexuality are sacred and, well, what more could we say?

It has been an uneasy silence. We have gone to write, proclaim, and publish several times, but we lacked a clear mandate from the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile, we watched significant realities unfold. New voices and movements were raised up by the Holy Spirit. The UCC, despite its energetic public face, spiraled further downward pushing out the Episcopals and Disciples to become the membership loss leader among declining protestant denominations. Churches left. Churches closed. The tears went disregarded. Foolish and false fantasies accusing BWF and anyone else who dared challenge the UCC with participation in some far-fetched scheme of conspiracy exposed an angry insecurity beneath the smiling surface.

But then something happened: On Sunday, May 13th I was given the text of Isaiah 44 to preach in the pulpit at Candia, NH. As I prepared it, the Holy Spirit hindered my use of the key verses 3 – 5, which read:

“For I will pour water on the thirsty land; and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams. One will say, ‘I belong to the Lord’, another will call himself by the name of Jacob; still another will write on his hand ‘The Lord’s”

The Spirit seemed to indicate that these were not for that day. Perplexed, I went on and emphasized other verses in the text. Some weeks later I was in an amazing four day meeting with 900 church leaders from 70 countries worshiping at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London. As we were worshiping in the Spirit, the worship leader read this text:

“For I will pour water on the thirsty land; and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams. One will say, ‘I belong to the Lord’, another will call himself by the name of Jacob; still another will write on his hand ‘The Lord’s”

At that moment the Holy Spirit spoke very clearly to say, “This text is for the congregations of the United Church of Christ.” I was stunned. How? Why? Why now? On what basis? But again and again this word washed over me for the next two days until I could only be moved to tears: “this word is for the congregations of the United Church of Christ – really!”

What this means next will have to be revealed. We will be at this Synod primarily as intercessors, and we need you to join us as intercessors. If you are willing to pray with us, please email us and let us know. We will share requests as the Lord makes them known. We will be listening – and confident that God is still speaking!

It will be a season to move beyond “right” and “left” to a radical gospel rooted in a radical relationship with Jesus. It will mean being a radical church in the context of much folk religion and cultural confusion.

I believe as we listen that God is going to honor the invitation extended to him by the UCC to speak. GOD IS STILL SPEAKING. And I believe that the key is in the Anniversary theme “LET THE LIGHT SHINE.”

Stay tuned.

On a much lighter note: Irony and Whimsy in Hartford:

Many of you have remarked on the obvious irony of calling the anniversary festivities at Synod 26 in Hartford, “SYNOD IN THE CITY”. My adult children didn’t believe me until they checked out the site. Given our UCC reputation, one can only wonder how this came to pass, but if you want to have some fun, check out the picture comparison between the HBO show and the Hartford show to size up who might be who:

HBO
Hartford

And on a humorous note:

After our April Fool’s Day web page prank, some of you have inquired as to whether in fact John Dorhauer of Missouri is indeed on the payroll of BWF or IRD or both as a double agent tasked to intentionally embarrass the UCC. The answer is absolutely not. We are far above such things. Wouldn’t even think of it. And besides we wouldn’t hire anyone who didn’t know what a Steeplejack was. Then again I suppose if a Steeplejack is one who takes great risks to repair church steeples, I can see where you might think there was a hidden double message, perhaps with some sort of secret clue. But you have to admit that is pretty far fetched – Like the “Steeplejacking” book itself? Oh . . . I see your point, but trust me; there is nothing to it.

Welcome to the BWF Blog

April 26, 2007

The Biblical Witness Fellowship (BWF) is a confessing movement within the United Church of Christ. For more information, click the “About BWF” link, or point your browser to http://www.biblicalwitness.org/.

This blog was created for the purpose of providing a place where more editorially focused articles can be posted from the Biblical Witness Fellowship’s periodical The Witness. In addition, the blog will create a forum for our readers, allowing them to discuss and debate the ideas presented in the various articles.

This project is still in its infancy, but the staff of BWF will soon be posting more, so keep checking back. Better yet, subscribe to the blog using the feed:

https://biblicalwitness.wordpress.com/feed/