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The Half-Empty Glass

2012-12-18 by Bruce Alderman. 1 comments

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I’ve always been a “glass half empty” kind of guy. When life hands me lemonade, I’m disappointed at not having the lemons. My wife sometimes calls me Squidward.

And for our Advent blog, I’m stuck with joy. That’s just great.

Looking at this week’s Gospel reading, it appears that John the Baptist might also have been a “glass half empty” guy.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Wrath and unquenchable fire…this is the good news? That’s my kind of guy.

For Zephaniah, the glass was more than half empty. His book of prophecy begins with a bleak and hopeless outlook: “’I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,’ says the Lord.” And it only gets more bleak as Zephaniah fills in the details.

The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.

It’s hard to imagine anyone could be joyful on a day like that.

But this week’s reading from Zephaniah 3:14-20 points to another side of the Day of the Lord.

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

Needless to say, those days are not here yet. Disasters and oppression have not disappeared. Although Christians believe Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah promised by God, we are in a sense still waiting for him to set things right.

But we can trust that one day God will set things right. We can have confidence not that we are now living in the best of all possible worlds, but that God will eventually overcome all evil and bring healing and wholeness to a world that has been marred by sin since the days of the first humans.

Neither Zephaniah nor John the Baptist were inclined to sugar-coat the message of God’s judgment. But at the same time, they both recognized that the day of judgment would also be a day of joy.

For Christians, joy does not stem from having a positive outlook on life, from looking at everything through rose-colored glasses. The source of our joy is our trust that God will complete the work he set in motion when a baby was born in a barnyard so long ago.

The glass may be half empty now, but one day it will be overflowing.

Too Cozy with Caesar

2012-11-12 by Bruce Alderman. 4 comments

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There is no greater threat to the vitality of Christianity than a benign government.

In the early days of the church, loyalty to Christ meant opposition from the state religion. Christians could not submit to a Roman Emperor who labeled himself the savior of the world, and as a consequence they were often treated with suspicion, or worse. The Emperor Nero found Christians to be convenient scapegoats, and executed thousands of them in the first of many periodic persecutions of the early church. But despite the official opposition–or more likely because of it–Christianity grew and thrived. Wherever and whenever Christians were attacked by worldly powers, the church emerged stronger than before, and it quickly spread throughout Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia Minor. The second-century apologist Tertullian observed, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

It’s a different story in the United States in the 21st century. Surveys indicate that 75% of the American population call themselves Christians. Nearly every candidate for national or statewide office professes to be a follower of Christ. Christians in this environment are in no danger of persecution.

Nevertheless, every year around this time a small but vocal group of American Christians protest what they label the war on Christmas. This “war” usually revolves around department store managers who encourage their clerks to wish customers a generic “happy holidays,” rather than “merry Christmas,” or government officials who choose to decorate a “holiday tree” rather than a “Christmas tree”.

Although these practices perturb peevish pedants, they do not match the level of hardship faced by the early Christians. The apostle Paul wrote of his experiences:

2 Corinthians 11:24-28: Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

It would be hard to imagine Paul stressing over being told, “Happy holidays.”

But maybe I’m being too harsh toward today’s faux martyrs. They at least seem to be vaguely aware of the discrepancy between Jesus’ promises that his followers would be persecuted or even killed, and the comfortable, complacent lives of many Christians in the United States today.

Some American Christians have gotten so cozy with Caesar that they believe they have a right to legislate their morality. Conservative Christians like Gary Bauer and James Dobson have worked for more than three decades to elect Republicans in the hope of eliminating abortion (among other goals). But the reality is that the U.S. abortion rate has been steadily dropping since 1980, regardless of which political party is in power. The biggest four-year drop was during Bill Clinton’s first term. There was a slight uptick during George W. Bush’s second, but the overall trend is a slow, steady decrease.

On the other hand, the U.S. still has a higher abortion rate than many other countries, including more secular nations with liberal abortion laws. France, Germany, Denmark, Australia, Japan, and Hong Kong are among the nations that have both lower abortion rates and a smaller Christian population than the U.S. If American Christians are having an influence in reducing unwanted pregnancies, it isn’t showing.

Attempts to legislate morality are not limited to conservatives. Liberal Evangelical Jim Wallis has made a catchphrase of “budgets are moral documents,” and has gotten himself arrested more than 20 times protesting government policies toward people living in poverty. Wallis has gotten a lot of pushback from other Christians who believe it is the role of the church, not the government, to give aid to poor people.

But American Christians have wasted so much time arguing about whose responsibility it is, we have failed to get the job done. The childhood poverty rate in the U.S. has reached 23% and is still trending upward. And those same secular democracies with lower abortion rates also have lower child poverty rates than this nation of Christians. Once again, if Christians are having a positive impact on our society, it’s not evident.

Bill McKibben has observed what he calls the Christian paradox: “America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior.” By any number of measures–murder rate, divorce rate, teen pregnancies–this nation of Christians has fallen behind our secular counterparts in living up to Jesus’ teaching.

During the initial debate over the controversial Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy enacted by the Clinton Administration, ethicist Stanley Hauerwas wrote an opinion piece for the Charlotte Observer, entitled “Why Gays (as a Group) Are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group)”. Hauerwas was disturbed by some of the arguments against allowing gay people to serve openly in the military. He was disturbed, that is, because the same arguments were not being used against Christians.

Christians, argued Hauerwas, should give our loyalty first and foremost to the Kingdom of God and not to an earthly power. As a result, political and military leaders ought to question whether we could ever be loyal to the secular state. Hauerwas imagined what people would say if Christians really put Christ first.

Consider the problem of taking showers with Christians. They are, after all, constantly going on about the business of witnessing in the hopes of making converts to their God and church. Would you want to shower with such people? You never know when they might try to baptize you.
Christians are asked to pray for the enemy. Could you really trust people in your unit who think the enemy’s life is as valid as their own or their fellow soldier? Could you trust someone who would think it more important to die than to kill unjustly? Are these people fit for the military?

Christians’ failure to make a difference in the larger culture, in other words, stems from a failure to take Jesus’ teaching to heart in our own lives. It’s time for Christians to stop worrying about the speck in society’s eye, and work on removing the giant redwood from our own.

A Long and Winding Road, part 2

2012-10-22 by Bruce Alderman. 1 comments

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Scene 3: On a Mission

It wasn’t just my bad experiences that soured me on church. The whole premise of Christianity was starting to bother me, especially in the way it was portrayed by its most vocal practitioners.

On one side were fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, preaching an amalgamation of legalistic theology and free-market capitalism. On the other side were groups like the Jesus Seminar, scholars who spent their time debating which of the words of Jesus were actually spoken by Jesus. Then there was Bishop John Shelby Spong, who advocated something he called non-theistic Christianity.

If I could point to one thing that bothered me about all these versions of Christianity, it was that they all seemed to agree that the most important element of the Christian faith was to talk about Christianity. I had a need for a faith that was more than just talk.

I remembered reading in the gospels how Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, lifted up the lowly and humbled the proud, and I wanted to find Christians who lived like that. Due to my previous experiences I doubted I would ever find that type of faith community. But in the spring of 1994, the thought entered my head that I should join a church and go serve in a foreign country. At first I dismissed it as unrealistic, but the more I tried to ignore it the more persistent the thought became.

So I made myself start visiting churches again. This time I limited myself to mainline denominations, in the hope of avoiding the authoritarian traps I had previously fallen into.

In August I visited East Heights United Methodist Church. One of the things I would grow to love about East Heights was that every week before taking the offering, they highlighted one of their ministries that the offering helps fund. The first week I visited the ministry focus was the annual February mission trip to Costa Rica. The pastor added that there was still time to sign up for the trip. I knew instantly that this was the church I was looking for.

The only problem was the cost. United Methodist missionaries are expected to pay their own way, and I would need $800 to cover my expenses. My night job covered my rent and bills, but I didn’t know if I could spare $800. So I told God, with less humility than the situation probably called for, that if he would provide the funds I would go.

That night my boss called me into his office and said that he appreciated my work, and he gave me a 75 cent per hour raise. I mentally calculated 75 cents times 40 hours times the 27 weeks remaining until the trip: $810. Despite the fact that my take-home pay would be less than that after taxes, I managed to save enough for the trip.

When February came I went with the team to Ciudad Quesada, Costa Rica, to help build an additional wing to a rural hospital. The locals, despite their poverty, displayed a strong faith and a trust that God would take care of them through hardships. Back in the U.S., a lot of people I knew worried constantly about whether their paychecks would cover their credit card bills.

In Costa Rica I saw the type of faith community that I wanted Christianity to be. I flirted with the idea of dropping everything and moving to Central America, but in the end I didn’t have the nerve.

I would later make two more short-term mission trips to Latin America. I’d like to believe that I did some good, but the truth is that I got far more out of the experiences than I could ever have given.

Scene 4: Faith in Crisis

On my return home from Costa Rica I was still uncomfortable with most of what I saw in American Christianity, but at East Heights I at least found a refuge from the extremes.

But about that time, my faith took a hit from a completely different direction. The recently repaired Hubble Space Telescope was producing incredibly detailed photos of the far reaches of the galaxy. At the same time, astronomers discovered the first clear evidence of planets outside our solar system. It was an exciting time for astronomy, and my old love of the night sky led me to seek as much information as I could about the origins of the universe. I saw how the Big Bang made more sense than any other explanation.

And that wasn’t all. New fossil discoveries in Africa, combined with the human genome project, gave scientists an ever-increasing understanding of our relation to extinct hominid species, and the more they learned the muddier the picture became. For the first time, I grasped the role of evolution in how we got to where we are.

This new knowledge appealed to the rational side of me, but I couldn’t see a way to reconcile it with the spiritual side of me. The more I learned about scientific discoveries and the scientific process, the more uncomfortable I felt professing a faith rooted in miracles–even though I’d experienced miracles in my own life.

I mentioned these struggles in a BBS forum where I was active, and received a reply from someone by the handle of Shaolin, who opined that this was a weakness of Western religion. He suggested I look into Taoism as an alternative.

I was so confused about my faith that I was willing to give it a try. I bought a copy of the Tao Te Ching and started reading. From the very first words, this book challenged and confronted my rational side.

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the true name.

In Western society it is comforting to have an explanation for everything. Life, however, is messy and doesn’t always lend itself to answers. No matter how well we think we understand this world, some things remain beyond our grasp. This theme of not being able to grasp the ultimate is repeated throughout the Tao Te Ching.

The Taoist concept of wei-wu-wei (literally “action without action”, meaning something along the lines of going with the flow of the way things ought to be rather than trying to bend things to our desires) also struck a chord with me.

When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering.

Christian faith is like this as well. We will never accomplish God’s will by interfering and doing things our own way. Only by yielding to God can we accomplish anything. The more I read of Taoism, the more I realized it had nothing for me that I couldn’t already find in Christianity.

Look, it cannot be seen–it is beyond form. Listen, it cannot be heard–it is beyond sound. Grasp, it cannot be held–it is intangible. These three are indefinable; Therefore they are joined in one.

I never expected to see support for the Trinity in the Tao Te Ching. Granted, this passage is talking about something else. Yet the doctrine of the Trinity does indeed hold that three are joined in one, and that ultimately they are beyond our ability to define. The Tao Te Ching had given me a way of viewing the world without the need to rationalize everything. And with that in place, I was finally ready to accept Christianity on its own terms.

I still struggle with questions most people will never ask, and I still have problems with authoritarians. I’ve still got a long road ahead of me, but I trust that God knows better than I do. And at this stage of the journey, that’s all I need.

A Long and Winding Road, part 1

2012-10-21 by Bruce Alderman. 2 comments

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Scene 1: The Night I Met God

To say I was not one of the popular kids would be a major understatement. I was a typical 1980s-era nerd, a loner who spent much of my free time learning how to get the most out of my TRS-80 microcomputer or exploring the night skies with my telescope. Living in a sports-crazed rural community but lacking athletic ability, the closest I could get to fitting in was competing on the cross country team.

The fall of 1985, my junior year of high school, I could see things starting to turn around. My running had improved enough that I was occasionally getting medals, and people were starting to see me as less of a nerd, and more of an athlete. In October I managed to get a date to the homecoming dance, and afterwards somehow found myself in my first relationship. But by early November, both the relationship and the cross country season had ended; by Thanksgiving weekend I was alone again, and this time I didn’t enjoy it.

On Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend, I was sitting in my room reading The Scarlet Letter for my English class when I started to feel dizzy and short of breath. My best guess is it was an allergic reaction. I’ve had severe allergies most of my life, but this was the strongest reaction I’ve ever had.

I don’t remember the next few minutes. The next thing I recall, I was on the other side of the room, lying in my bed, breathing slowly to catch my breath. In my confused state I remember thinking, my life is worthless, and I whispered a prayer, “God, if you can hear me, just let me die.”

What happened instead is hard to explain. I slowly became aware of a presence in my room. I couldn’t see anyone, but I had a sense of being watched. The intensity of this presence began to grow, until it was so overwhelming that I was aware of nothing else. The bed, the room, even my own self seemed to be swallowed up by the intensity of–whatever it was.

Years later I was struck by a scene from C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Lewis, imagining a bus trip to heaven, says:

At first, of course my attention was caught by my fellow passengers, who were still grouped about in the neighborhood of the omnibus, though beginning, some of them, to walk forward into the landscape with hesitating steps. I gasped when I saw them. Now that they were in the light, they were transparent–fully transparent when they stood between me and it, smudgy and imperfectly opaque when they stood in the shadow of some tree. They were in fact ghosts: man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air. One could attend to them or ignore them at will as you do with the dirt on a window pane. I noticed that the grass did not bend under their feet: even the dew drops were not disturbed. Then some re-adjustment of the mind or some focussing of my eyes took place, and I saw the whole phenomenon the other way round. The men were as they always had been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps. It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.

The presence I experienced in my room that night was like what Lewis described–so intense that all the ordinary things of life paled by comparison. But at the time, the only way I could describe it was that I was in the presence of God.

A few days later an acquaintance stopped me in the hallway at school and said, “I was reading the Bible last night, and God told me to share this message with you: ‘From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.’” I asked him what that was supposed to mean, and he said he didn’t know, just that God wanted him to deliver that message to me.

I’ve spent many years trying to figure out what it means.

Scene 2: Problems with Authority

In college I fell in with the Pentecostal crowd. I started attending the Church of the Foursquare Gospel with some friends. The way they spoke about God, as someone who was palpably present in the world, seemed to match my own experience. But I soon ran into difficulties. First was their insistence that the gift of speaking in tongues was intended for every Christian. My own experience suggested otherwise. Second was a pervasive paranoia, an us-against-the-world attitude that left them distrustful of everyone outside their circle.

In my sophomore year, the associate pastor led a college Bible study centered around Edgar Whisenant’s “88 Reasons Why The Rapture will be in 1988”. When I raised some doubts one week in the Bible study, the pastor spoke to me afterward, asked me if I was harboring some secret sin, and accused me of being arrogant and having a problem with authority. I knew something wasn’t right, but at the time I wasn’t sure if the problem was with me or them.

I prayed about this, but didn’t get an answer from God one way or the other.

After a number of talks with my friends, they concluded the problem was that I had done my baptism all wrong. My parents had had me baptized as an infant; it wasn’t a choice I had made myself. So we talked to the pastor about getting me rebaptized, and I was scheduled to get dunked a few weeks later at a Wednesday night service.

I was one of three people getting baptized that night. My friends sat in the front row to support me. But I still wasn’t fully convinced that this was the answer to the questions that were bothering me. I was beginning to suspect that my “problem with authority” was a warning sign that something wasn’t right with this church.

Finally my time came to go under the water, and when I did I heard God’s voice as clearly as if he was standing between me and the pastor. In the brief moment before I came up again, God told me, “Get away from here. These people are hindering your spiritual growth.”

My friends told me that when I came up out of the water I had a look of peace like no one they had seen before. If they had known the reason for that peace, they might not have been so quick to congratulate me.

I tried a number of other churches during the rest of my college years, but never committed to another one. I didn’t want a repeat of that experience.

After college I enrolled in graduate school at Wichita State University. To pay the bills I took a night job in a warehouse. I kept busy enough between school and work that I convinced myself I didn’t have time for church.

But one day on campus I happened to run into a friend from college who was also now at WSU. She told me about a great church she had found, and she invited me to attend. I was reluctant but I agreed to give it a shot. The next Sunday morning found me in downtown Wichita in the Century II Convention Hall, worshipping with the Church of Christ Jesus. After the service I was introduced to some guy that told me he would become my mentor. Something about this struck me as not right. Nevertheless I ageed to meet with him a few times, but it soon became clear that we had irreconcilable differences. I still had a problem with authority–or more accurately, with authoritarianism. Within less than a month I left that church and never looked back.

Through it all I somehow maintained my trust in God, but I was through with church. Or so I thought.

Putting the Bible in Its Place

2012-08-08 by Bruce Alderman. 1 comments

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Sola Scriptura and the Anglican Via Media

One of the hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation is the doctrine of sola scriptura. The Latin term for “by scripture alone”, sola scriptura means that all the truth needed for salvation and holiness can be found in the Bible. It’s a simple concept in theory. In practice, it is far from simple.

Though the Reformers all agreed on the importance of this doctrine, they did not agree on its meaning. As Martin Luther saw it, anything not forbidden by Scripture was permissible. To John Calvin, anything not clearly taught in Scripture was forbidden.

The Anglican Church—the denomination in which John Wesley was ordained, and where he remained a member in good standing his entire life—took a middle-road approach. To the Anglicans, the doctrine of sola scriptura was simply a statement about what is contained in Scripture, and not about things that cannot be found in it.

The Articles of Religion of the Church of England, written in the 1500s, states it this way:

Article V—Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

To put it in more modern language, Scripture was written to teach us about salvation, and anything that is not taught by Scripture is not necessary for salvation. Teachings not explicitly found in Scripture should not be demanded of all Christians.

Theology and the Quadrilateral

Sola scriptura is one guiding principle, but it does not stand alone. It’s one thing to acknowledge that Scripture can teach us everything we need to know about salvation; it’s quite another to internalize those teachings and apply them to our everyday lives. This process of making it personal is theology.

¶ 104 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline states:

Theology is our effort to reflect upon God’s gracious action in our lives. In response to the love of Christ, we desire to be drawn into a deeper relationship with the “author and perfecter of our faith.” Our theological explorations seek to give expression to the mysterious reality of God’s presence, peace, and power in the world. By so doing, we attempt to articulate more clearly our understanding of the divine-human encounter and are thereby more fully prepared to participate in God’s work in the world.

This theological reflection does not take place in a vacuum. As a faithful Anglican, John Wesley was familiar with the so-called “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, three sources by which we can learn truths about God.


The primary source is Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments. Through Scripture, we encounter a God who created the world and everything in it, created humans in his own image, remained faithful even when those humans turned away, and sent his son to redeem us when we couldn’t do it ourselves.


Tradition builds upon Scripture, providing a way for us to connect with others who have encountered the same God throughout history. Tradition attests to the truths we see in Scripture, affirming that previous generations have learned these same truths. In the words of G.K. Chesterton:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

Among the traditions John Wesley found most helpful were the Patristic writings, about which he said:

Can any who spend several years in those seats of learning, be excused if they do not add to that reading of the Fathers the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given. It will be easily perceived, I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the council of Nicea. But who could not likewise desire to have some acquaintance with those that followed them with St. Chrysostom, Basil, Augustine, and above all, the man of a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus.

Wesley was also influenced by his contemporaries, German Moravians, whom he first met on a voyage across the Atlantic:

At seven I went to the Germans. I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behaviour. Of their humility they had given a continual proof, by performing those servile offices for the other passengers, which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired, and would receive no pay, saying, “it was good for their proud hearts,” and “their loving Saviour had done more for them.”…There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the Spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger, and revenge. In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, “Was you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.”


Reason, properly applied, can help us make sense of what we read in Scripture and what is handed down to us through tradition. It can also help us test those traditions or our understanding of Scripture. Reason enables us to navigate the complex relationship between the book of Scripture and the book of nature, between science and faith.


An experience at a Moravian Bible study led Wesley to acknowledge a fourth source:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Wesley realized that what he had previously understood with his head, he now understood also with his heart. His experience confirmed the truth he had been taught.

In the words of the Book of Discipline, ¶ 104:

On the personal level, experience is to the individual as tradition is to the church: It is the personal appropriation of God’s forgiving and empowering grace. Experience authenticates in our own lives the truths revealed in Scripture and illumined in tradition, enabling us to claim the Christian witness as our own.

As we experience life in Christ, our encounters can bring home the truths we have been taught, and can transform head-knowledge into heart-knowledge.

Together, these four sources have become known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral and together they guide us as we build a relationship with God and seek to follow God’s will for our lives.

Running to Win the Prize

2012-07-09 by Bruce Alderman. 2 comments

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1 Corinthians 9:24
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.

Jacobus Arminius began his career as a theologian and preacher in the Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) tradition in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Over time, Arminius found himself disagreeing with Calvinist theology on several key points of doctrine.

Arminius studied theology at the University of Leiden, in what is now the Netherlands, where most of the professors held an extreme form of Calvinism that included a doctrine known as supralapsarianism. According to this view, God decreed some people to be saved and others to be damned before God decreed to allow the Fall. Most of the professors at Leiden held this view, although one—Johann Kolmann—argued that it made God out to be a tyrant and an executioner.

After earning his degree from Leiden, Arminius went to Geneva to study under Theodore Beza—another supralapsarian—for six years, before returning to Amsterdam to become a pastor. As he studied the Bible for sermon prepration, he developed an understanding of grace and predestination that was increasingly at odds with the teachings of Calvin and Beza.

Running Aimlessly

Arminius never doubted the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity, the idea that human nature is so completely corrupted by sinfulness that we cannot be saved on our own merits, nor even choose to accept the salvation God offers.

Jesus himself explained God’s standard for righteousness.

Matthew 5:48
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

To put it in today’s language, God has a zero-tolerance policy for sin.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, makes note of what percentage of the human population actually live up to this standard:

Romans 3:23
…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

To extend Paul’s race analogy from 1 Corinthians 9, if salvation is like running a race, then the sinful nature is like running aimlessly with no idea that the race course even exists.

In his understanding of humans’ sinful nature, Arminius remained true to his Calvinist upbringing. But during his years in the pulput Arminius discovered a number of areas where he could no longer agree with Calvinist teachings. The more he studied his Bible, the more Arminius encountered passages that he simply could not reconcile with the doctrines he had been taught at Leiden.

To the Starting Line

For example, two doctrines of Calvinism are Limited Atonement—the belief that God’s grace was made available only to a select group—and Unconditional Election—the teaching that before the foundation of the earth God made the final decision about who would be saved.

But a number of New Testament passages indicate that God’s will is for everyone to be saved.

2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
1 Timothy 2:3-4
This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Titus 2:11-13
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

If God wants everyone to be saved, then Limited Atonement and Unconditional Election leave us with a God who subverts his own will.

But as Arminius discovered, the Bible contains a different teaching about election.

Romans 10:9-10
…because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
Acts 16:30-31
Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
John 1:11-12
[Jesus] came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.

If I can extend Paul’s race metaphor even further, God is not going to exclude anyone from competing in this race. However, we are so far off course that it takes an act of God to bring us to the starting line. We can let him lead us there, or we can continue going our own way and getting nowhere.

Running the Race

When we reach the starting line, what does God expect from us? A simple one-time confession, a recitation of the “Sinner’s Prayer”? Or does God want something more?

According to the Calvinist doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints, a person who is saved can never fall away. But once again the Bible appears to teach something different.

Matthew 24:10-13
Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
James 2:17-24
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

So salvation depends on our works as well as our faith. Just as God does not drag us to the starting line without a response from us, God also does not run the race of salvation for us. Rather, this race is something we run in partnership with God. Because, as it turns out, our good works are not really our own.

Philippians 2:12b-13
[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

What God expects of us is nothing less than a complete transformation of our entire being, so that we live for God’s will and not our own.

Romans 12:1-2
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Crossing the Finish Line

This transformation takes time. Paul recognized that even after he had converted from Judaism to Christianity and preached Christ throughout the Roman Empire, he had not reached the finish line of salvation.

Philippians 3:10-14
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. We can’t quit the race in the middle, or leave the course to follow our own interests, if we want to win the prize.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

In Summary

Salvation is like a marathon, and we are like runners who don’t even realize the course exists. But God has set conditions by which we can not only compete in the race, but win. God will even bring us to the starting line if we let him lead us. But the starting line is not the end of the race; it is merely the beginning. To win this race we must follow God’s course and not veer off on our own way. It is only by enduring to the finish that we will receive our eternal reward.

Next week, Peter Turner will bring us the Catholic perspective as he explains why God’s the guy with the gun.

Justice and Dignity in the Workplace

2012-06-18 by Bruce Alderman. 1 comments

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According to everyone who knew him, former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was a good guy. He was a devoted husband and father, a faithful member of First United Methodist Church in Houston, a skilled mediator of conflict, a generous person who donated millions of dollars every year to nonprofit organizations. He spoke words of praise to a member of the cleaning crew at the courthouse where Lay was on trial, and he once paid the bill of the woman in front of him in a checkout line when she realized she had left her money in the car.

Ken Lay was also an astute businessman. Named CEO of Houston Natural Gas in 1984, he guided the company through nearly two decades of growth, during which time the company merged with InterNorth to become Enron Corporation. Lay understood that the key to Enron’s growth was recognizing that its true product was not gas but energy. He believed in Enron’s goals, and in the innovative ways the company strove to reach them. He held most of his $400 million fortune in Enron stock, and when the company collapsed into bankruptcy, Ken Lay lost more money than any other shareholder.

Lay insisted to the end that he was not a criminal. He insisted that he did not participate in the corporate embezzlement and market manipulations of Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow and company President Jeffrey Skilling, and that their financial crimes took place without his knowledge. But the court proceedings only partially validated his claims. Unlike Skilling and Fastow, Ken Lay was not charged with insider trading. However, he was indicted—and convicted—of conspiring to cover up the crimes.

And this was not the first time Lay was confronted with this type of situation. In the late 1980s, when faced with evidence that executives in Enron’s oil-trading division were embezzling, Lay chose to remove them from any financial responsibilities but not to fire them. We can’t know now what his reasoning was for this move, but Enron’s subsequent history shows the message received by some employees was that criminal activity would be treated with leniency, as long as it increased the quarterly profits.

We could speculate all day over how innocent or guilty Ken Lay actually was, but that wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone. What can benefit us is to look at the collapse of Enron in the light of the Christian faith that Lay professed, and see if there are lessons we can apply to our own lives.

As a CEO, Ken Lay was responsible for maintaining the company’s profitability for its shareholders every quarter and providing an environment where Enron employees could contribute to that profitability. Indeed, the “bottom line”—the colloquial term for net profit, due to its location on an income statement—has emerged in our culture as a metaphor for whatever is most important in a given situation.

But for a Christian, the bottom line isn’t the most important thing. The United Methodist Church—Ken Lay’s denomination and mine—speaks about corporate responsibility in the Book of Discipline, ¶163 (i):

Corporations are responsible not only to their stockholders, but also to other stakeholders: their workers, suppliers, vendors, customers, the communities in which they do business, and for the earth, which supports them.

Taken at face value, this suggests that a CEO must find a way to balance commitment to the bottom line with responsibility to the workforce and to the wider community. But is that all there is to being a Christian in corporate leadership?

The Bible itself has few teachings relating solely to work, but when it does speak about workplace relations, the bulk of responsibility falls on the employer. Deuteronomy 24:14, for example, says:

You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.

We can hear echoes of this command in James 5:4.

Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.

The Bible doesn’t say much else about the workplace, though it does include variations on this theme. So on the surface it doesn’t look like Scripture can provide much insight into situations like the one Ken Lay found himself in at Enron.

But if we take a closer look, we see that giving workers their fair pay is just the tip of the iceberg. Isaiah 58:3 speaks of those who, seeking to please God, spend a day fasting but do not take care of the people in their employ.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

Putting work relationships in the context of a fast gives us a new perspective on fasting and work. Continuing in Isaiah 58, we see:

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Normally we think of fasting as abstaining from food for a specified time. According to Isaiah, however, God is more interested in how we treat other people. It’s not about depriving ourselves, but about being more in touch with the needs of the people around us—and then moving beyond simple awareness to making a real difference.

If God does not approve of a fast that causes an employer to oppress his or her workers, God surely does not approve of a focus on the quarterly bottom line that overlooks malfeasance and ultimately leads to bankruptcy, leaving those workers without jobs or pensions. The best way to keep people out of poverty is to provide them the opportunity to earn a living. Christians in positions of corporate leadership have a chance to provide this opportunity; they therefore have a responsibility, not to seek balance between the quarterly goals and the company’s long-term sustainability, but to put the needs of the workers first—even if it causes the shareholders short-term pain.

Putting people ahead of profits solves Ken Lay’s dilemma, by preventing the situation from arising in the first place.

Walking Worthy of the Vocation to Which We Have Been Called

2012-05-28 by Bruce Alderman. 2 comments

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What is the Church? It sounds like a simple question, but the answer is not simple at all. To most people, a church is a building where Christians go to worship. But for many Christians, a better definition is not the building but a body of people united together in the service of God. It was this sense of the word that John Wesley used in his sermon “Of the Church“.

This Church body is more than a single congregation. For example, when Paul writes, “To the saints who are in Ephesus,” he doesn’t necessarily mean they are all worshiping at a single location. When he writes “To the Churches of Galatia,” he has in mind all the congregations of believers in that region. By extension, the Church includes not merely the Christians of one city, one nation—or for that matter, one denomination—but all Christians throughout the earth who are united by a common faith. Wesley found the definition of the Church in Ephesians 4:1-6.

I beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

The universal Church of God is animated by one Spirit. The Holy Spirit distributes gifts to the members of the Church to build up and sustain the entire Church body.

We have one hope, namely, the hope that this life is not all there is. Jesus’ resurrection serves as both a reminder and a confirmation of that hope.

We have one Lord, Jesus Christ, who has set up his kingdom in our hearts. To belong to the Church means to follow the commands of Christ with a joyful and willing heart.

We have one faith, which is the free gift of God. This faith is not merely an intellectual belief that there is a God who is merciful and just, who showers rewards on his followers. This faith permeates every aspect of our being; it transforms our very lives. Members of God’s Church can testify with the Apostle Paul, “The life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

We have one baptism, an outward sign of an inward grace which God has bestowed upon us.

We have one God and Father. To belong to the Church is to be adopted into the family of God.

In summary, Wesley’s answer to the question “What is the Church?” is this:

The catholic or universal Church is, all the persons in the universe whom God hath so called out of the world as to entitle them to the preceding character; as to be “one body,” united by “one spirit;” having “one faith, one hope, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in them all.”

But the Church does not merely exist for the sake of defining its membership. As Christians we are given a calling, and are expected to “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called.”

This is no small thing. Wesley explains that to walk, in the New Testament usage of the term, “includes all our inward and outward motions; all our thoughts, and words, and actions. It takes in, not only everything we do, but everything we either speak or think.”

This walk involves “lowliness,” “meekness,” and “longsuffering,” according to the King James translation—or in modern language, humility, gentleness, and patience.

In humility we can do no better than to follow the example of Christ himself,

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. [Philippians 2:6-8]

Gentleness comes from making wise choices and not following our own passions:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. [James 3:13]

In exercising patience, we follow God’s own example:

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. [2 Peter 3:8-9]

If we walk in humility, gentleness, and patience, we will be able to “forbear one another in love,” and in so doing, live up to the calling God has placed on each of his followers:

Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” [1 Peter 1:14-16]

There are many strands of Christianity today, and we may disagree sharply on the finer points of doctrine. But we must not let doctrinal differences get in the way of living up to God’s calling. Scripture makes it clear that we are all to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” This unity is the fruit, not of intellectual agreement, but of holy living. Wesley concludes:

In the mean time, let all those who are real members of the Church, see that they walk holy and unblamable in all things. “Ye are the light of the world!” Ye are “a city set upon a hill,” and “cannot be hid.” O “let your light shine before men!” Show them your faith by your works. Let them see, by the whole tenor of your conversation, that your hope is all laid up above! Let all your words and actions evidence the spirit whereby you are animated! Above all things, let your love abound. Let it extend to every child of man: Let it overflow to every child of God. By this let all men know whose disciples ye are, because you “love one another.”

The Liturgies of Holy Week

2012-04-02 by Bruce Alderman. 7 comments

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When the Reformers of the 16th century looked at the Christianity of their day, they saw a church that (in their view) had gotten away from its Scriptural roots. With sola scriptura as their watchword, they overturned centuries of Holy Tradition and placed Scripture at the center of not only their theology, but also their worship. Protestant worship services centered not around the Eucharist, but the sermon. Many of the rites that had been designed through the centuries to help connect people with God were dismissed as “Romish rituals” and eliminated from Protestant worship.

But in recent decades many Protestant churches have begun to recognize the value in the rich liturgical heritage they once abandoned, and have found ways to re-integrate ancient traditions back into their worship, sometimes infusing new life into the old customs by celebrating them in creative new ways.

The richness of the liturgy can be seen most clearly in the week preceding Easter Sunday. Just as the four Gospels devote a large percentage of text to the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry (the Gospel of John, for example, spends 9 of its 21 chapters detailing the events of this one week) the worship services of Holy Week give Christians an opportunity to spend extra time focusing on Jesus’ sacrifice and its significance for our lives.

Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, the final Sunday of the Lenten season. Palm Sunday is named for the palm branches waved by Jesus’ followers as Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem. Today many churches try to work palm fronds or branches into Palm Sunday worship, either carrying the branches in a procession or cutting them into strips and tying them into the shape of crosses to be handed out to the worshipers. Any leftover palms are later burned to ashes and saved for the following year’s Ash Wednesday service.

Following Palm Sunday, the first half of Holy Week is relatively quiet. But as the sun sets on Thursday, we begin the three-day period known as the Triduum, in which we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection.

On the evening of Maundy Thursday (the word “maundy” comes from the Latin mandatus meaning commandment, from Jesus’ words in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”) we remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. This may take the form of either Holy Communion or a Seder meal. The Seder meal is a Jewish feast celebrated on the first day of Passover. Although the meal Jesus shared with his disciples was not as formal or elaborate as the modern-day Seder, this meal reminds us of Christianity’s roots in Judaism. Some churches share this meal with a local Jewish congregation, to celebrate our common heritage.

The Seder or Communion may be combined with a footwashing service. Just as Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, the pastor washes the feet of the congregation. In some churches, members take turns washing each others’ feet.

Worship on Good Friday might be a Tenebrae service. Tenebrae is the Latin word for “shadows” or “darkness”. This service begins with a set of lit candles (traditionally 15) arranged on a triangular stand. The Scripture readings for Tenebrae may focus on the events beginning with the Garden of Gethsemene and leading to the crucifixion, or they may focus on Jesus’ words spoken from the cross. As Scriptures are read and hymns are sung, the candles are extinguished one by one until they are all out. The growing darkness represents Jesus’ abandonment by his disciples, the hopelessness of the world without God, and ultimately Jesus’ death on the cross. In some services, the final candle is not extinguished but is either hidden behind the alter or carried out of the sanctuary to represent Jesus’ body being laid in the tomb. With the church in darkness, a slamming door or other loud noise is heard, representing the stone sealing the entrance to the tomb. The congregation then leaves in silence.

Saturday worship may involve the Stations of the Cross. This is an ancient practice started by Christians taking pilgrimages to Jerusalem where they retraced Jesus’ footsteps on his journey to the crucifixion. Returning home, they sought a way to share the experience with members of their congregations. Using wood carvings, sculptures, or paintings, artists reproduced scenes from Jesus’ crucifixion. There are a couple versions of the Stations; one draws its scenes from both Scripture and Tradition, and the other is based solely on Scripture. Protestants usually favor the latter, which begins in Gethsemene and ends with Jesus’ body being laid in the tomb.

Saturday night is the end of the Lenten fast and the beginning of the season of Easter. Since ancient times, this has been a day for new members to join the church. Some congregations have picked up on this ancient practice and scheduled confirmation classes to end this week so the confimands can join the church on Easter.

For other churches, the term Easter Vigil means a prayer vigil, based on Jesus’ desire for his apostles to stay awake and pray with him for an hour in Gethsemene. Members of the congregation take turns coming to the sanctuary to pray for an hour each, beginning Friday evening and continuing until sunrise on Sunday.

Sunrise on Sunday is, according to the gospels, the time Mary and her companions went to the tomb with burial spices but found that Jesus’ body was no longer there. Many churches, therefore, begin this Sunday’s worship at sunrise, when we can proclaim, along with Mary, “Jesus is risen!”

The liturgies of Holy Week can help lift the Gospel stories out of the pages of the Bible and into our lives as we experience something of what Jesus’ first disciples must have faced, both highs and lows, in the first Holy Week.

Next week, Jon Ericson will take a look back at the first Easter as a historical event.

United Methodist Teaching on Family Planning

2012-03-19 by Bruce Alderman. 0 comments

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The United Methodist Church (UMC) has an unusual structure. Although we have a hierarchical or episcopal polity, our doctrinal statements are worked out by a legislative body of delegates known as the General Conference, made up of equal numbers of clergy and laity, which meets every fourth year to examine our doctrines and amend or clarify them if needed. Once the General Conference has met and voted, the doctrines are published in the Book of Discipline.

These doctrines  are not made in a vacuum. All United Methodists are called to prayerfully reflect on the teachings of Scripture as understood through the filters of tradition, experience, and reason. General Conference brings together United Methodists from around the world to share their experiences and work together to reach an agreement.

Although the Book of Discipline discusses many subjects, it does not explicitly mention this month’s blog topic: contraception. However, contraception is related to a host of other subjects that are mentioned in the Book of Discipline, including family finances, global population, abortion, women’s health, children’s rights, and the nature of the marriage covenant.

In ¶ 161.B of the Book of Discipline, the United Methodist church affirms “the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. We believe that God’s blessing rests upon such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union.”

The purpose of marriage is not merely to produce offspring. Couples who are unable to have children or who choose not to, for whatever reason, should not be made to feel like their marriage is inferior to those who do have children.

There are many reasons a couple might decide not to raise children or have more than a predetermined number.

For example, if parents are not financially able to meet the needs of a growing family, they may want to consider postponing having a family until they are able. The Book of Discipline ¶ 162.C affirms that “children have the rights to food, shelter, clothing, health care, and emotional well-being,” and that they “must be protected from economic, physical, emotional, and sexual exploitation and abuse.” Parenthood means more than the mere physical act of producing a child; it is a long-term commitment that should not be taken lightly.

Unplanned pregnancies are the leading reason for abortions. The Book of Discipline, ¶ 161.J states, “We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control,” therefore it is better for a couple to take precautions to avoid unplanned pregnancies than to conceive and then terminate the pregnancy.

Other considerations may lead a couple to decide not to bring another child into today’s world. In ancient times, when many children died before reaching adulthood and the rest went to work in their early teens, it made sense for couples to have several children. In the modern Western world, where childhood diseases have mostly been controlled or eradicated, and children spend approximately two decades receiving an education before they set off on their own, parenting is a much larger commitment. Parents need to devote more of their time and resources to each child, and thus may want to limit the size of their family.

Another consideration unique to today’s world is the reality of meeting a growing population’s needs in a world with finite resources. In the ancient world, where the largest cities measured their populations in the hundreds of thousands, large families were not a threat to the earth’s resources. Today the global population is about seven billion and we are using the earth’s resources in unsustainable ways. In taking seriously our responsibility as stewards of this earth, couples may choose not to add further to the world’s population. The Book of Discipline, ¶ 162.K, affirms this as the right and responsibility of the couple, and opposes it as government policy:

People have the duty to consider the impact on the total world community of their decisions regarding childbearing and should have access to information and appropriate means to limit their fertility, including voluntary sterilization. We affirm that programs to achieve a stabilized population should be placed in a context of total economic and social development, including an equitable use and control of resources; improvement in the status of women in all cultures; a human level of economic security, health care, and literacy for all. We oppose any policy of forced abortion or forced sterilization.

Other couples may choose not to have children due to their own health concerns. A woman with a chronic condition that could cause severe complications in a pregnancy may choose to have a tubal ligation rather than risk a pregnancy that could kill her. A 55-year-old man with high blood pressure and a family history of heart disease may be physically capable of siring a child, but may choose to have a vasectomy to guard against bringing into the world a child that he may not live long enough to raise. One partner may have a sexually transmitted disease and not want to pass it on to the other partner; the couple may choose to use a form of protection to limit the risk.

Even with the most careful of plans, a couple may conceive a child they cannot take care of. The United Methodist Church supports adoption, recognizing that it is never an easy decision to give up a child, and that it is not a lightly-made decision for a couple to raise a child they did not give birth to. The Book of Discipline ¶ 161.K states:

We affirm and support the birth parent(s) whose choice it is to allow the child to be adopted. We recognize the agony, strength, and courage of the birth parent(s) who choose(s) in hope, love, and prayer to offer the child for adoption. In addition, we also recognize the anxiety, strength, and courage of those who choose in hope, love, and prayer to be able to care for a child. We affirm and support the adoptive parent(s)’ desire to rear an adopted child as they would a biological child.

(As a side note, my wife and I have recently been certified to become adoptive parents.)

And sometimes complications arise in a pregnancy that threaten the mother’s life or health. While the United Methodist Church does not support abortion as a method of birth control, the Book of Discipline ¶ 161.J affirms that “we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.” In such situations, decisions relating to the pregnancy should be made by the couple and not a government agency, including the decision whether to terminate the pregnancy.

Finally, in order to make the best decisions, it is important for the couple to have the best information and resources available. Therefore, the Book of Discipline, ¶ 162.V states:

We affirm the right of men and women to have access to comprehensive reproductive health/family planning information and services that will serve as a means to prevent unplanned pregnancies, reduce abortions, and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Access to information and resources should not be limited by government policy, but should be available to couples to assist them in making wise and loving choices in raising a family.

Next week Michael Hollinger (aka Affable Geek) will give us an Episcopalian “Via Media” point of view about contraception.