In his prophet's call to repentance in Matthew and Luke, John the Baptist warns those who have been drawn to his revival not to place their hope in their ancestral connection to Abraham, for "God is able from the stones to raise up children to Abraham." (Mt. 3:9)

I thought of that warning as I read an article by Mark Lilla in the New York Times Magazine (September 18, 2005) called "Getting Religion, My long-lost years as a teenage evangelical." This University of Chicago professor tells of his awakening to the Scriptures through one of the small groups that proliferated in the "Jesus Freak" movement of the 1970s, and of his eventual fall out of faith. He grew up Roman Catholic in a monotonous blue collar Detroit suburb, and at age 13 he decided he was an atheist. A year later he attended a Christian rock concert and on the way out was given a colloquial translation of the New Testament, which he sat up all night reading. That New Testament opened his mind to a new world. Immersion in that New Testament also began the transformation of his intellect.

The Three Rs: Revision, Reform, Reconcile

I am thankful for the work of the Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force, for modeling a way of speaking the truth in love to one another and to the church, even if there is no clear "prescription". Patience, forbearance, and faithful engagement are marks of the church that are easily overlooked in a results-oriented society. Affinity groups have also been tackling the presenting issues of the day for decades, especially the issue of ordination standards. However, I have come to realize that the options for renewal we have currently are not enough.

In the post-modern age, we have come to the end of Enlightenment rationalism with new paradigms for thinking emerging. As children of the Reformation, we are still too deeply rooted in Athens. The birth of Protestantism occurred, of course, when the Roman Church, very much under the influence of Thomas Aquinas (who borrowed heavily from Aristotle), was countered by Luther and Calvin, both influenced significantly by Augustine, a neo-Platonist. That the Western church is influenced by Plato/Aristotle is not any more noteworthy than that the Eastern (East Asian) church is influenced by Confucius/Lao Tzu.  But in the church in America, I am convinced that our Platonic dualism has led to a national bipolar disorder.

Minister Shortage?

I heard the story of a particular presbytery meeting hot on the heels of four glorious September days in "graduation exercises" with the second Cohort of the Company of New Pastors. (The Company of New Pastors -- formerly Excellence from the Start -- is the Lilly Endowment program out of Theology and Worship that involves pairs of Pastors mentoring new seminary graduates who are in their first called positions.)

The four days were a "debriefing" on more than three years of semi-annual meetings for worship and study, reading books related to ministry and delivering papers in our small groups.  The assumption is that community is formed and mutual professional support occurs -- not out of therapy or skill development -- but when it is grounded in theological reflection on the practice of ministry. At "graduation" we were privileged also to reflect with Eugene Peterson, author and pastor, on the life and work of a pastor.

Violence finds refuge in falsehood

The Readings: Psalm 5:1-12; Isa. 59:1-15; Rom. 6:3-4

Today I want to lift up a biblical theme that has not received the attention it deserves. It is the powerful theme that violence finds refuge in falsehood. I myself first became aware of it through Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian novelist. In accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, Solzhenitsyn included these words:

Violence, less and less embarrassed by the limits imposed by centuries of lawfulness, is brazenly and victoriously striding across the whole world, unconcerned that its infertility has been demonstrated and proved many times in history. What is more, it is not simply crude power that triumphs abroad, but its exultant justification. The world is being inundated by the brazen conviction that power can do anything, justice nothing. ...

But let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE. At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. It does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.

This connection was undoubtedly one that Solzhenitsyn learned to make from bitter experience. But since he is a Christian, he would also have learned it from Holy Scripture. Today we saw it ourselves in Psalm 5: You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful. ... For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues. (Psalm 5:6, 9).

“Beleaguered but Unvanquished”

Text: II Corinthians 4:8-9; Romans 8:28-39

Editor's Note: the following eyewitness report to Presbyterian constituents in Mississippi helps all of us understand better the challenges and ongoing needs of the Gulf Coast. See elsewhere on this Web site for information on how to contact Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and support New Orleans-Gulf Coast recovery efforts.

Beleaguered but unvanquished--two of William Faulkner's favorite words. They describe the people of God who are called according to His purpose; people like you who have risen to the occasion, to bring light to the darkness, hope in the midst of despair, food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to those who only have the clothes they're wearing, encouragement to those who have lost it all.


Editor's note: The following homily was preached at the funeral of the Reverend George McMaster at Druid Hills Church in Atlanta, Ga., by Dr. Patrick D. Miller, Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. It contains great comfort for the church and is a welcome testimony to the gospel in these troubled, dangerous times.

Not long ago, when Mary Ann and I were visiting with her mother, she asked me what I thought about heaven. I was taken aback at the time because my mind was, as usual, on more mundane things. I don't recall what response I made at the time, except that it was not very helpful. But the question was a serious one from this 90-year-old woman whose husband had died some years before. It has stuck with me ever since and in these few minutes I would like to take it up again with a bit more reflection.

Heaven really has two connotations in Christian faith. One is spatial -- up there -- and one is temporal -- beyond death. In the first instance, heaven is a symbol for God's reality and God's rule. It is a pointer to transcendence, to the fact that what we mean by God is one who is above and beyond all that we are even if among us.

Heaven is a biblical and Christian way of speaking about the abode of God. Some of you are old enough to remember when the Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev scoffed at the notion of God and heaven when he noted that the Russian astronauts had not seen God or heaven when they went into space. His mockery reflects a widespread tendency to literalize the notion of heaven, when in fact it is a symbol and not a literal reality, at least as described in the Bible. As a symbol, however, it points to something real, but something we can only think of in images and pictures because it is beyond us, and we do not have direct experience of it.

A wealth of faith

It was easy to feel sorry for them. The poor, displaced, battered citizens of New Orleans confronted us with the disparity of economic life in America.

But as the days turned to weeks, another subtext began to surface, showing an even greater disparity. A surprising number of the poor were, in fact, rich in spirit. Despite having little, they showed an enormous depth of spiritual understanding and a remarkable display of extravagant faith.

An elderly woman, finally pulled from her house after days of waiting, seemed surprisingly peaceful as television crews filmed her rescue. When a reporter asked if she was glad the rescuers had finally arrived she said, "Yes, I'm glad to see them. But I had the Lord with me whether anyone else showed up or not."

Unlike many of us whose wealth obscures our spiritual sight, this woman gave contemporary meaning to the Bible verse written by the Apostle Paul: "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." (Philippians 4:12)

How Do We Change The Book of Order?

The Book of Order is a compendium of Presbyterian experience based on nearly three hundred years of practice, prayer and study of Scripture. Occasionally church officers get the mistaken opinion that it is a static document, forever fixed by someone in the presbytery or General Assembly.

Abandoned people, principles

Last week in New Orleans ... nobody took control. ... The rich escaped while the poor were abandoned. ... Partisans squabbled while the nation was ashamed. The first rule of the social fabric -- that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable -- was trampled.

I have pondered these words by David Brooks on the Sunday (9/4) New York Times Op-Ed page almost relentlessly. After 23 years as pastor of a downtown church, I know the names of Richmond's vulnerable too well for comfort. Our congregation, together with more than 100 churches and synagogues in the city, has ministered to them, sometimes with opposition from the city and the powerful. We have served them lunches, listened to their woes, celebrated their joys, seen the plight of their circumstances in adult homes, and directed them to medical care or emergency assistance. We have preached their funerals. We have sheltered them and visited them, and with many agencies, have tried to keep them from homelessness. Their faces are the faces of those multitudes abandoned by the authorities in New Orleans. 

The seminary and the church


The seminaries and their constituent congregations enjoy a deep and abiding relationship within the ethos of American Presbyterianism. In fact, in a time when much of our denominational ecosystem is under some degree of stress and decline, it is my observation that the seminaries and the great majority of our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations remain its healthiest components.

With respect to our ten PC(USA) seminaries, I have already had ample opportunity in my three years of serving as a seminary president to get a good look at the complexion of theological education in North America, and I believe they are without peer. They represent the gold standard when it comes to the quality of education, the quality of faculty, the quality of clergy being sent out into the church, the value base still alive in our denomination for the stewardship of the mind, and their sheer institutional strength and stability.

It is also interesting to me, in terms of the relationship our seminaries have to the church, that over the last decade, when Presbyterian seminaries have chosen presidents, they have overwhelmingly chosen pastors and not academicians--persons who, even if they have a Ph.D., are coming straight from the parish where they have spent most of their ministry. That is a profound statement, I believe, that at a deep level the church and the seminary want to be in still closer conversation.

And maybe it's about time, the church and the seminary may be saying to one another. From the church's perspective, there is this sense--not always justifiable, in my humble opinion--that the seminaries are out of touch with the life of the church; that their faculties are not sufficiently engaged in the on-the-ground life of the church; and that the questions we pursue in seminary are not necessarily the questions that most concern the church.