Thursday, May 21, 2015


We started our class in Ankara, which for political purposes is the 6 million-person capital of modern Turkey, but for our purposes it is in a region of Turkey called Galatia. 1st Century churches here received Paul’s second most tendentious letter, the one that famously begins “YOU FOOLISH GALATIANS” – not the conventional salutation for letters in the Roman world and not the way Paul usually commenced his correspondence.  Galatians was the beginning of Paul’s theme about law and grace. See Live From Anatolia: Part 1.

Stephen Need, author of Paul For Today, gave a good lecture on the sources for what we know about Paul and began our conversation about how we see him. Linda observed that our dozen different views of Paul seemed to reflect a lot of projection. The truth about Paul may lie in the eye of the beholder. Still it makes for a good study.

We then visited the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, where we saw art and artifacts from the Bronze Age when Assyrians roamed these lands, then came the Hittites who also spent some time in Israel and were the Anatolian people for centuries before being driven out by Phrygians from the Balkans where they had been called Bryges. This is actually going to matter soon.

After visiting the magnificent Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, we drove thorugh the afternoon to the Cappadocia region, which is significant not because of Paul but because of the 2nd Ecumenical Council. More on that soon.

In Cappadocia we stared out by going down. We explored the underground city. Cappadocia is a green but rocky land. There is a vast amount of soft volcanic stone, some lying flat along the earth, other stone rising vertically as huge boulders, cones, and cylinders. The stone is relatively easy to dig into. So the Hittites dug a whole city underground to hide in – presumably from the Phrygians, as the Hittites were too tough to need to hide from anybody else. The point here is that we began our experience of Cappadocia underground.

Then we got up at 4 o’clock the next morning for a hot air balloon ride to get a bird’s eye view of Cappadocia. From the sky, we could see that Christian monks, beginning in the 4th Century, had emulated their distant Hittite forbears digging into the volcanic rock, only they dug into the tall vertical structures. They dug out monk-made caves and enhanced existing caves to turn Cappadocia’s stony landscape into a beehive of monasteries. Seeing the place from below and then above gave us a sense of a cavernous spirituality here that infused Christianity but also preceded it. Christianity was tapping into something older and more primal.

After breakfast Stephen Need, author of Truly Divine, Truly Human (a history of the first six ecumenical councils that defined the faith) spoke on the Cappadocian Fathers – Basil the Great, his best friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, and his brother Gregory of Nyssa – and Basil’s brilliant theologian sister, Macrina. After the Council of Nicaea left major questions about who Jesus is unanswered, and failed to say anything particularly helpful about the Holy Spirit, these four closely connected spiritual giants thought, prayed, and wrote our way into the 2nd ecumenical council, Constantinople I, which finalized our present version of the so-called Nicene Creed.

More than anyone else the Cappadocians are responsible for our understanding of the Trinity as a living, organic network of procreative relationality, breathing life into the creation as an act of infinite love, but they were careful to insist on the mystery of God that cannot be reduced to a creedal formula. In one of his poems, Gregory of Nazianzus said,

         “You are above all things.
          How can words sing your praise
          Since no word can grasp you. . . . .
          You alone are unutterable.”

And Gregory of Nyssa, in his Life of Moses, portrayed the spiritual life as a journey into mystery, foreshadowing The Cloud of Unknowing.

So here’s what I’m wondering. How is it that these folks who knew words could not describe God become the key players in crafting a creed that would later be used to say who’s in and who’s out? Answer: I don’t know. But here’s my guess. The Creed they crafted is a spiraling koan of metaphors designed to open the mind to mystery. The heresies they opposed were efforts to reduce reality to something that made sense, something you could get your mind around. Maybe they intended the Creed as a doorstop to keep our minds open, not a dead bolt to keep them shut. I like to think that.

In the afternoon we exhausted ourselves tramping around the cave monasteries with their haunting/ haunted little stone chapels, each with walls of Byzantine frescoes. Truly awe-inspiring.

We heard a lecture on persecution of the Christians in the Early Church. My thought on that: as soon as the pagans stopped persecuting us, we began not only persecuting the pagans but also persecuting each other. Same game, just changing positions.

We closed they day by descending into yet another cave, this one quite well appointed. It was an upscale cave. There we watched the whirling dervishes do their dancing prayer. And it all seemed very much in line with the spirituality of the Cappadocians and the early monks.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


It is a stretch to say this first post is from Turkey. Literally, as I begin, we are over Turkey in a holding pattern waiting for a storm to subside so we can land at the Ankara airport.
But my head has been partly in Turkey for months as I have been reading, praying, and thinking in preparation for this time of sabbatical study. I have been learning a bit about the first century Jewish Turk, Paul the Apostle to the gentiles. I have been reading the views of Schweitzer, Sanders, Wright, and a brilliant young classicist Sara Ruden. I have learned a lot. But there is one key point on which I am not satisfied that any of them have explained Paul well. They are all better scholars than I could ever hope to be (though this is a question of law and I may be a better lawyer). I want this point to be clear because it is crucial to our understanding of Christianity and that clarification would go a long way to resolving some of the heated controversies in today’s Church, particularly issues of LGBTQ inclusion.

We all know Paul had a huge dust up with James, Peter, and eventually even Barnabas over his radical inclusion of gentiles -- radical in that he maintained that gentiles could become Christians without first becoming Jews. The way the scholars describe the issue is, in fairness to them, the way Paul spoke of it: did gentile Christians have to subscribe to “the law of Moses”? Paul said “No” while the others said, in greater or lesser degrees, “Yes.”

But here’s the problem: Paul says gentiles are free from the Law of Moses but then goes on to emphatically forbid a whole laundry list of infractions, some famously concerning sex. Paul is pretty adamant about keeping clear of idolatry and mistreating other people – but he is radically inclusive when it comes to such things as circumcision and kosher eating. How do we make sense of this seeming inconsistency?

“The Law of Moses” is a comprehensive umbrella term for – not 10 but – 613 written commandments scattered through the Hebrew Scriptures, plus centuries of oral traditions interpreting those laws (comparable to judicial decisions interpreting the Constitution and statutes in the Anglo-American legal system). But those laws are not all alike. They fall into 3 categories:

1.   Moral laws – regulate how we treat each other. The book of Deuteronomy and other books from the same group of writers (the D source) are full of moral laws. Do not lie, cheat, steal. Forgive debts. Pay the laborers fairly and promptly. Extend hospitality to aliens. Leave the gleanings of your crop for the poor. Judaism practically invented the whole notion of religion infused with morality. Not that other religions may not have had a moral qualm here and there, but morality was not high on the concern list for ancient deities before YHWH appeared to Moses with a moral concern – the oppression of Israel by Egypt. Until then the primitive gods were more interested in getting their sacrifices. Transgression of a moral law was called “sin.”
2.   Ritual purity regulations – define the cultural standard of yuckiness. You must not eat this, touch that, or associate with people who do. All cultures have such standards. But they vary widely from culture to culture. Sex is a great subject on which we can distinguish between ritual purity and morality because in our culture the word “morality” has gotten wrongly associated with sex. In the Jewish Law, adultery was a moral offense against the family.[i] It can hurt people. Having sex during menstruation, on the other hand, did not hurt anyone. But it was prohibited as a ritual purity violation because their culture thought of it as “unclean.” Transgression of a ritual purity regulation is not a sin. (I am not the one who said that. It’s the Bible.) Ritual purity violations are not sins. They are “abominations.” It’s a bad-sounding word but it does not mean a super bad sin. As the Bible uses “abomination,” it is not a sin at all. It is merely something that essentially smells bad according to a particular culture’s sensibility.
3.   Cultic requirements – prescribe acts of worship, particularly sacrifice, that honor the deity. Ancient religious texts, like the early Vedas, are quite thorough in telling us how we are required to pay ritual homage to our gods or God. The Hebrew Scriptures go into great detail about how to furnish the Temple and how to perform the many required sacrifices.

All these things together make up the Law of Moses. But the Jewish attitude toward the Law had been evolving through the centuries as one might say Judaism matured from a narrow tribal cult into a great World Religion. Remember that, from the get go, Judaism was cutting edge in giving morality a big role in religion. But at first Judaism was still a primitive tribal religion worshiping a primitive tribal god, just one who had an unusual interest in justice, mercy, and integrity.

[At this point, just past midnight, we have landed in Istanbul and are refueling in order to take another run at Ankara.]

Over time, Judaism saw its God as larger and larger, culminating in monotheism. The God they worshiped was not theirs alone but the God of all people, including those who did not share their distinctive cultural taboos. By the time of the prophets, we hear YHWH disavowing or at least downgrading the whole cult sacrifice system.

I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats . . .
Stop bringing your meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths, and convocations –
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies . . ..

Yet on the day of your fasting you do as you please
You exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife.
And in striking each other with wicked fists . . ..
Is not this the fast I have chosen:
To loose the chains of injustice
And untie the cords of the yoke.
To set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
And to provide the poor wanderer with shelter –
When you see the naked to clothe them
And not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
 Isaiah 1

Go to Bethel and sin.
Go to Gilgal and sin yet more.
Bring your sacrifices every morning
And your tithes every three years . . . . .
Boast about them for that is what you love to do,
                  Declares the Lord . . ..

But let justice roll down like the waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
                                             Amos 4, 5

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
Acknowledgement of God, not burn offerings.
                                             Hosea 6

Third Isaiah will quote God as saying; “My Temple shall be a house of prayer for all people.” Isaiah 56. All people? The prophet directly says the eunuch who had always been banned from the Temple for being unclean/ mutilated will be welcome. What about the non-Jews? What about the ritually unclean? A new spirit of inclusion was emerging hundreds of years before Jesus.

The course toward inclusion was not steady and it was not without controversy. After Babylon destroyed the Temple and took the leaders of Judah into exile for 40 years, faithful practice of the Temple Cult became impossible. So some Jewish leaders doubled down extra hard on ritual purity to compensate and keep Jews separate, uncontaminated. When they returned to Judah and began to restore their society, Ezra and Nehemiah ordered the people to be stricter than ever. The non-Jewish wives were to be divorced and deported along with their mixed race children. Top scholars believe the book of Ruth, valorizing the Moabite grandmother of King David, was written in protest against the narrow chauvinism of Ezra and Nehemiah.

So for centuries, there had been a movement in Judaism toward universality and inclusion that transcended the cultural taboos that divided God’s children into rival and often-warring camps.

Then along came Jesus, descended from the Moabite woman Ruth, born out of wedlock  perhaps in Judah, but spending his early childhood in Egypt, then growing to adulthood in  “Galilee of the Gentiles” (where ritual purity could be sketchy). He healed the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman and the son of the Roman Centurion, violated ritual purity several times most dramatically by drinking from the cup of the Samaritan woman at the well while telling her the time would come when all people would worship God neither on the Samaritan holy mountain nor in the Jerusalem Temple but rather “in spirit and in truth.” Jesus, told the story of the Good Samaritan who proved more righteous than the Jewish clergy, After the resurrection, he commanded his disciples to go “unto all nations” baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This Jesus, who was crucified after a ritual assault on the Temple cult (while quoting Isaiah 56 to challenge the Temple's exclusiveness -- Matthew 21)  was decidedly in line with the prophets who exalted Jewish morality above ritual purity and cult sacrifice. His actions and teachings were all about an inclusion that transcended Jewish taboos and cult practices. As the centuries went by, a decidedly universalist Jewish morality came to trump the narrow exclusive tenets that had defined the religion in its beginning.

[Here we landed in Ankara, cleared customs, found our agent not surprisingly absent, got a cab which took us a long long way to the Neva Palas Hotel, where the polite young cabbie banged on the door to get them to open for us, and we had a short but good night’s sleep with our windows open to the sounds of Ankara’s colorful nightlife. And now it is morning of our first day on the ground in Turkey.]

Conservative Bible scholar N. T. Wright is emphatic that Paul was a good Jew and that his message was faithful to that of Jesus. I agree. I just want to emphasize that Jesus and Paul after him were on a particular side of a particular ongoing Jewish argument. It was about inclusion and the elevation of morality (kindness, decency, fairness, compassion) over ritual purity and religious ceremony. Paul would not conscience any narrow insistence on Jewish ritual purity regulations or Temple sacrifice being made a pre-requisite for receiving the grace of God in Jesus. He would not make admission to the Temple a first step to membership in the Church. He had no use for such things as circumcision and dietary restrictions; but the moral law Paul defended with a purple passion.

Now this leads us inexorably in 2015, with our pending church canon and Supreme Court case on gay marriage, to consider what Paul had to say about homoerotic behavior. We start with remembering what the Law of Moses has to say on the subject. It isn’t much.  There is nothing whatsoever in the Torah about lesbian acts. For gay men, only one homoerotic act is labeled a ritual purity violation. Cross-dressing and one male homoerotic act are the only prohibitions at all relating to homosexuality [ii]in the Law of Moses and they are clearly ritual purity violations – not moral sins.

So what did Paul have to say about homosexuality? Short answer regarding lesbians: Paul said the same as Jesus and the Law of Moses before him: nothing.[iii] But what about gay men? If we take away the various texts that are mistranslated – some retranslated only since the 1970s to apply to homosexuality -- we have only the oft-cited passage from Romans 1. Did Paul who otherwise stripped away ritual purity laws left and right to clear the path to salvation for gentiles save this one ritual purity law based on only two verses of Hebrew Scripture?

There are two persuasive answers. Each has had numerous proponents among credible Biblical scholars, but I will focus on one spokesperson for each view. They would be Sara Ruden in Paul Among The People and Paul Helmeniak in What The Bible Really Says About Homosexuality.

Ruden places Paul in the social context of classical civilization. His time knew nothing of mature committed gay relationships. Frankly neither committed straight nor gay relationships as we have them today existed in that era. Homosexuality was a matter of dominance and cruelty; usually practiced against children, particularly slave children. Ruden interprets Paul’s criticism of homosexuality as a moral issue, not because it was same gender sexuality but because it was a sexualized expression of the domination system, the principalities and powers of the present age, which the Kingdom of God would overturn. The last thing the people Paul criticized would have wanted would have been gay marriage. In fact, gay marriage would be precisely the kind of committed loving relationship that Paul extolled in 1 Corinthians 13. It would replace the cruelty and domination of 1st century homosexuality with the moral values of God’s Kingdom.

Helmeniak focuses on Paul’s language and the precise pastoral context of the Roman congregation rather than the broader social context. The congregation in Rome was locked in conflict between the gentiles and the Jews. At one point, Emperor Claudius had exiled them from the city because of their rancorous quarreling. Paul writes Romans in sections, addressing the Jews first, then the Gentiles. He parrots back what they say about each other, generally saying, “yes, yes, that’s how they are” Then with significantly greater theological eloquence he tells them to “get over it.”

In his treatment of gentile homosexuality, he agrees with the Jews that the gentiles have behaved paraphysis – “unnaturally” – but then at Chapter 11 he pulls out the zinger. Now God has behaved paraphysis – “unnaturally” – by grafting the gentile branch into the vine of Israel. If you think two people of the same sex being partnered is unnatural, that ain’t nothing compared to putting Jews and gentiles in the same Church.

I find both Ruden’s and Hemeniak’s arguments persuasive. They both have a valuable moral force. If we are trying to get at what Paul was really on about, either could be right. I give the nod to Hemeniak for this reason: Paul takes on not just homosexuality but a variety of behaviors in this same passage. He explicitly calls other behaviors sins, but he speaks of homosexuality in the conventional Jewish terminology of a ritual purity violation. I believe if Paul were addressing the violence, oppression, and degradation of masters exploiting their slave boys, he would have spoken of sin. Here he is concerned with the “unnatural” ritual purity violation only to eventually say God has taken all such distinctions off the table in order to save us all.

There is a trajectory in our faith. We have moved a long way past a bloodthirsty tribal god who wanted our cattle burned on his altar. We have instead a God who is actually worthy of our worship because our God is a Love that manifests as justice, mercy, and nurturing relationship, a God with the capacity for delight and forgiveness. Paul’s letters about the place of the Law in our faith, properly understood, lead to a faith that connects us instead of divides us. It is a faith that fits the Church’s mission to “unite all people to God and each other in Christ.”

[i] Actually the definition of adultery Paul was working with doesn’t match the definition that got Hester Prynne her scarlet letter, but that’s another subject. Suffice it to say the issue for Paul was moral because it concerns how people treat each other. It’s ethical, not ritual.
[ii] I know cross-dressing is not really about homosexuality; it is a thing unto itself. But I am trying to cover all bases here in fairness to the other side.
[iii] The Romans passage on women behaving “unnaturally” has been recognized from the earliest days of Biblical interpretation to today to be about sex acts other than lesbianism.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


We church folks these days are frequently checking our pulse to see if we are still viable. I do it as often as anyone, so I can’t criticize. But we seem to do a poor job of social science and are more inclined to skew the numbers toward our preferred view of the world. Some churches get downright angry when confronted with the fact that they are not actually doomed and have the life option to take it if they choose. “I set before you life and death. Choose life.” Deuteronomy 30: 19 Certainly there are congregations that choose not to grow. We need to honor their choice. But sometimes we need to name it as a choice and not a fate.

There is a stir this week about a Pew Forum survey showing a general numerical decline of churches, including the Episcopal Church. Mainliners like us declined by a whopping 3.4% in the past 7 years.

I am not sure that 3.4% is all that dramatic a number, at least not worthy of the hoopla it is getting from the vulture pundits. Those numbers do not dissuade me from the case for our vitality in My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians In The 21st Century by Gregg Garrett. But if we are going to talk about numbers, let’s use them in a way that is both accurate and helpful. I commend to you the more precise and edifying statistical analysis in New Facts On Episcopal Church Growth and Decline by Kirk Hadaway.

Region. First, my fellow Nevadans, remember that the Pew numbers showing the 3.4% decline are national statistics. We are in the West. The numbers of growing Episcopal congregations in the West is 27% as compared to 17% in the Northeast and 13% in the Midwest. We are the growing-est region in the nation. Hadaway notes: “The Episcopal Church has fewer churches in the West than in any other region but many of the churches are doing well. And this is part of the odd context of the West, where overall levels of religiosity are lower than other regions, but where the religiously engaged segment of the population is quite active – resulting in more rapidly growing churches than in other parts of the county.”

Theology. Next we need to ditch the notion that we are too progressive to attract people who are religious at all. We simply do not decline because of being “liberal.” Actually, “Conservative Episcopal congregations are the least likely to grow . . .; whereas the most liberal churches are the most likely to grow and the least likely to decline.”

Spirituality & Mission. Our region is right. Our theology is right. The issue is more apt to be our spiritual vitality and sense of mission. 36% of congregations that that strongly agreed with the statement “Our congregation is spiritually vital and alive” are growing. Only 7% of those disagreeing with that statement are growing. A congregation does not just affirm its own spirituality unless there are programmatic supports – meditation groups, discipleship groups, contemplative prayer experiences, labyrinth walks, Christian yoga classes, etc. Those programs don’t just happen either. Someone has to take the initiative to put them in place.

Congregations with a clear mission and purpose beyond surviving and holding the usual worship services are growing – 35% as compared to 8% among those who lack such a mission. Purpose Driven Life may not have been the best book, but the title is the key to congregational vitality. Reflecting and acting on the mission – all 5 Marks of it – is the fuel for growth.

Recruiting.  An intentional effort to invite people to worship and to recruit them into ministries where they feel at home makes the largest difference. Do the greeters collect contact information? Does someone follow up with new people to invite them back? Beyond even visitors. “Many congregations also make sure they collect the names, mailing addresses, or email addresses of person who attend special events or support groups or visit their web site.” 39% of congregations who recruit “quite a bit” are growing. 40% of congregations who recruit “a lot” are growing. Whether to recruit or not is a decision. “I set before you life and death . . .. “

Change & Conflict. Many of our congregations are decidedly averse to change but as Hadaway says “Living things change.” 36% of congregations that embrace change are growing. Only 7% of the change resisters are growing. But change does invite conflict and how we manage conflict is crucial. 62% of congregations with serious conflict are declining. No surprise there. But note, “Decline was not pervasive among the 39% of Episcopal congregations with only minor conflict.” The point is not to avoid conflict but to contain it with essentially healthy relationships and commitment to a shared mission.

Number & Style Of Worship Services. This is a simple no-brainer point that I am surprised does not get implemented. “The more worship services a congregation has, the more likely it is to have grown.” People are available to worship at different times. People have varying spiritual styles. If we set ourselves up to serve only people with one particular style who are available at one particular time, we have narrowed our mission field considerably. More worship services = more growth.  

But there are two more points about worship beyond number:

Churches that supplement their main course of Rite 1 & 2 Eucharists with “non-typical services” (Compline, Evensong, Taize candle light, meditation, children & family liturgies, informal ritual gatherings, family table services, Messy Church, Out of the Box, etc.) are growing. 32% of congregations with 1 weekly non-typical service are growing compared to 15% of those who do not. But wait there’s more: you can double that number. 32% of churches with 2 non-typical services are also growing. Now here’s the kicker for those who can do it. If one of the non-typical services is Non-English or Bi-Lingual, 70% are in growth mode.

The other variable is children. If children often play a worship leadership role (other than acolyte) then 28% of such churches are growing. We are talking about having children read lessons, lead the Creed, say the Intercessions, serve as greeters and ushers, preach, etc.

Coffee Hour. It matters. If there is no coffee hour, only 9% are growing. If it is a typical formal coffee hour, that’s even worse – 7%. But if the coffee hour reaches the level of vibrant, 27% grow; and if it is downright “chaotic,” 30% are growing.

Social Media Platforms. Bottom line. Have a web site or close the doors. But a web site is no longer enough to insure growth. Facebook, Twitter, Pintarest, e blasts, etc. – are growth engines. More cyber platforms = more growth.  36% of congregations with 6 cyber platforms are growing as compared to 7% of those congregations that have only one.

The question you ask: Werner Heisenberg put it less bluntly but it came to this: The question you ask determines the answer you get. I strongly suspect that other questions would have shown stronger factors correlating to growth and decline. One would be the number and kind of education offerings the congregation provides. I suspect a congregation with no education is the least likely to grow. Next least is the Bible Study only. Next least is the Rector’s Forum only. Churches with multiple offerings of diverse interesting subjects would be where I’d put my money to bet on growth.

Another would be how much and in what way is the congregation involved in the life the wider community. I suggested earlier that congregations without a web site should close the doors. I meant figuratively. Literally, the challenge is getting them to open the doors. I am amazed at how many churches keep their doors closed during the time leading up to worship. Not a welcoming message. Of those who do open a door, many will open one and keep another closed to exhibit their ambivalence. I have observed that congregations that open their doors for worship have more people in the pews than those that keep their doors closed. For a long list of practical steps to make a church more hospitable, the Bible is Welcome by Andrew Weeks.

In conclusion, I am not shaken by a 3.4% decline over 7 years. (Would that be less than .5% per year?) I do believe God is calling us to life and that God has considerable influence in these matters. “I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans to give you hope and future.” Jeremiah 29: 11 But I also believe that God will not compel us. He invites us to choose. What it takes to grow a church is not rocket science. It won’t be hard to figure it out. What happens turns primarily on our own decision.