March 2004—A quarterly news letter for United Methodists
For many years, although I have preached to, and taught, my congregations about the Christian faith’s special concern for the protection of human life, I have stood back from public comment on abortion. I am a Canadian and live in this country as a “permanent alien resident.” Since I cannot vote on these issues, I have been reluctant to speak publicly about them. But recently, it has become very clear to me that you, as citizens, often cannot vote on these issues either, since the courts have taken them out of your hands.
Therefore, as a “sojourner” in your midst, I have come to believe that I must set aside my reluctance to speak as an “alien” and take more seriously the “citizenship” that St. Paul speaks of in our text from Philippians.
So let us turn to the encouraging words of our texts from Scripture.
We begin with complaint. The Psalmist has modeled it for us. The Psalms often put into words, with little restraint it seems, the complaints we are too timid, too proud, too religious to speak out loud. But here they are—real complaints—in Scripture, in words of prayer.
In Psalm 11, a person prays with a double mind. The worshiper is struggling between fear and faith. Is the psalm reporting a conversation between two people or an inner struggle? Is it the counsel of a friend or the trembling of the worshiper’s own heart? It does not really matter. It arises here in prayer.
One voice offers seemingly reasonable advice: “[I]f the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (11:3, RSV here and following) The other voice questions mere reasoning: “In the LORD I take refuge, how can you say to me, ‘Flee...?’” (11:1)
Fear’s argument and complaint, in verses 2 and following, are graphic! Look, the bow is already bent, the arrow is on the string, and you are the target! Furthermore, it is not a fair fight. The circumstances are subtle. The arrows are coming at you under the cover of darkness.
The contemporary pro-life community may give voice to fear and complaint sometimes, too. We may complain that our warnings, so many years ago, were dismissed: our warnings that a pro-abortion logic would lead to “euthanasia, eugenics, and a war against the poor unwanted.” (Richard John Neuhaus in First Things, December 2003, p. 68) These warnings are now coming to pass in ways we had never imagined possible. We may fear the foundations are crumbling when academics can argue in the New York Times, without shame or public protest, in favor of infanticide. (Peter Kreeft in his Three Approaches to Abortion [Ignatius, 2002], p. 62f.) We may mourn that the womb is now one of the most dangerous places on earth for a human being to spend time. And we may fear that, at least, Constitutional foundations are in danger when “deeply held convictions” about life are now disqualified in judicial nominee hearings. (Richard John Neuhaus in First Things, October 2003, p. 91)
In the face of such hostile circumstances, Fear’s counsel in Psalm 11 seems logical: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (11:3) If the playing field is simply unfair, if the very foundation for a clear contest is lacking, then... Then the most reasonable thing to do is to retreat, to flee to a place of security. This is the plausible voice of practical wisdom and realistic policy.
But there is a flaw in Fear’s reasoning. Fear has a “mistaken conception of what foundations really are.” (This interpretation of Psalm 11 depends on G. Campbell Morgan’s “Foundations” in A Treasury of G. Campbell Morgan and his Notes on the Psalms.) The one who counsels flight cannot see the whole picture and is therefore nearsighted. Fear reasons that because one’s opponents may be hostile, because the circumstances are unfair, therefore the foundations are destroyed.
But this is false. The twists and turns of policy and strategy, the circumstances of today and yesterday, are but the stage upon which we live out our obedience. These may come and go, they may be up or down, successful or failed, but they are not the foundations. Thus the voice of Fear in this psalm/prayer has a mistaken notion of the foundations.
The other voice in this psalm/prayer gives the answer of Faith to Fear, the reply of confidence in the foundations to the complaint about the foundations. It is the voice of trust answering doubt. The voice that counsels steadfastness has a vision of “[t]he LORD...in his holy temple, the LORD’s throne...in heaven.” (11:4) How can the foundations be fallen if God is still God? The one who sees the divine foundation will not flee without a divine command.
I remember, early in my ministry, when an older colleague first introduced me to this Biblical vision. I was worrying and fretting about many things. My colleague, coaxing me out of fear, gently said to me: “You act like God is pacing heaven, wringing his hands, and saying, ‘My oh my, what will I do about this earth?’” My brother’s point was and is clear: God has abandoned neither the sanctuary of worship nor the throne of heaven.
This vision of the Psalmist is not an otherworldly vision. It sees dangers all around. Do the wicked watch the righteous from the shadows? Yes, but look who is watching them! Are the upright being tested? Yes, but who is the Judge over this trial? Will the unscrupulous shoot their arrows from the dark? Yes, but so will God! According to this vision, God is no mere thronesitter. God is watching, observing, “his eyes behold, his eyelids test, the children of men.” (11:4b) The Hebrew is poetic and graphic. The image is of the divine eyes intensely gazing, investigating, testing, the eyelids fluttering only to look more closely.
Faith says to Fear: Look, all that you see, God also sees; but you have forgotten to keep your eyes on God.
To Fear’s question, Why not flee?, Faith answers: Because God is in his holy temple. Because God is still on the throne. Because God is watching. Because God is trying me, examining me, through these circumstances. I dare not try to escape the pressure by which God is shaping me. God is active in all this so-called crumbling of the foundations; he is not impassive, but making use of all this. God, the Ultimate Foundation, “is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea...” (Psalm 46:1-2)
You see, for those who have this vision of God—enthroned, lifted up, perpetually active, watching our sorrows—flight is impossible, unnecessary, faithless. “[H]ow can you say to me, ‘Flee...?’” (11:1) Are the foundations destroyed? No! Human attitudes and actions are not foundations. Circumstances are not foundations. God is God. Our safety, then, is not in escape, but in abiding where God has called us and placed us.
The Psalmist’s confession of faith in God reaches a new height in our Gospel text. Here we have the classic confession of Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) But we dare not forget that the plain meaning of this whole passage is that Peter does not know his confession on the strength of his own vision. Peter makes his confession, willingly to be sure. But the confession itself arises not out of Peter’s resources, not out of his character, his boldness, his leadership, his sincerity, his spirituality. After all, only a few verses on in this story, when Jesus mentions the cross to come, Peter only too quickly wants to flee, like the voice of Fear in Psalm 11. Jesus quite clearly takes away from Peter and from us the ability to know the divine on our own. Only God knows God. Only God can reveal God. So Jesus says to Peter: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (16:17) To the autonomous and enlightened self of our culture, this seems folly. Peter is robbed of his freedom! But in the Biblical vision, this is the very establishment and guarantee of Peter’s freedom and all human freedom.
Jesus then gives Peter a promise that guarantees what the Psalmist could only hope for in prayer at the Spirit’s urging. Jesus says: “[Y]ou are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (16:18) Suddenly, the divine and eternal foundation condescends to us, and lifts fallen and falling human creatures, and places them in the temple of the divine presence. The living Christ, who says “I will build,” takes our confession of the one, eternal foundation and makes us the “living stones” of the building. When Jesus says “my church,” my has the position of emphasis in the Greek; so this phrase means “my own church.” The church does not belong to Peter or to any of the other confessors. The church belongs only to Jesus. And yet, our witness, our confession, our standing firm—when all are warning, “Flee, for the foundations are crumbling!”—is given a divine promise.
In the latter part of verse 18, where Jesus promises to build his church and to weave us into the plan, he also makes the promise: “[T]he powers of death shall not prevail against it.” This phrase heightens the confidence we have already heard in the words of the Psalmist. It is a phrase of special assurance to those who bear witness to the Gospel of Life, to those who may grow weary in bearing that witness. Yet, it is an often misunderstood phrase. Often the image of “the powers of death” (or “the gates of Hades”) leads people to picture the church, as the witnesses to life, in a defensive posture. Somehow, they see the church as a castle, standing on a rock and withstanding all attacks. But this is not the picture portrayed by Jesus and his promise. Jesus contends that “the powers of death” (or “the gates of Hades”), not the gates of the church, are being stormed. The good news is that the gates of Hades, the citadel of death, the place where all hope is abandoned, where no one can rescue those who have entered, will not always prevail against “the Son of the living God” and his church. He is the one who holds “the keys of Death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:8)
Jesus’ promise is a resurrection promise. Charles Wesley understood this. His Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” announces the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in the line, “Christ hath burst the gates of hell.”
Eugene Peterson catches this vision in his paraphrase of Jesus’ promise: “I will put together my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of Hell will be able to keep it out.” (The Message)
Finally, I want to hold up two words from our Epistle text: “citizenship” and “tears.” St. Paul the pastor worried about his struggling congregations. They were immersed in a highly religious culture alien to the gospel. He was careful to warn them not to allow themselves to become so adapted, so conformed to the world around them, that they became invisible in, or identical to, the world. He tells the Philippians they must not do this because “our commonwealth [or citizenship] is in heaven.” (3:20)
This is no otherworldly spirituality that Paul is preaching. He chose this term quite subversively. (See Richard Hays’ “Where Is Our Citizenship?” in the Christian Century, February 19, 1992, p. 187.) For Philippi was a Roman colony. Even though the Philippians were part of Macedonia, they were accustomed to the privilege of ordering themselves as a colony of Roman law. They lived locally but had great civic pride in their allegiance to the authority of an empire. Paul thus gives the Philippian Christians a vision of living as “citizens” of the New Creation, the coming Kingdom, rather than conformist members of the surrounding culture and politics.
Paul, like the Psalmist, speaks to our fears, encouraging us to “stand firm.” (4:1) The foundations of our true citizenship are not crumbling. We are not left helpless. The apostle writes: “[L]et your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (1:27) “We are citizens of that future city of God, even though we are temporarily displaced persons...” (Richard Hays)
And finally, look at Paul’s “tears. (3:18) His tears are for those who live, he says, “as enemies of the cross of Christ.” These are not unbelievers or pagans. They are fellow Christians who live lives of compromise with the culture and thus deny their citizenship in the Kingdom. Jesus, too, wept over a city, the city which finally murdered him. But even for Jerusalem he held out hope and forgiveness. That city was destroyed in a holocaust of men, women, and children by Roman soldiers. But Jesus' tears, the tears of the Redeemer, have become the hope and healing of all our tears, even for the tears of Rachel weeping also for millions of aborted children. For Jesus, the Son of the living God, entered a tomb, first by entering the womb of a teenage girl. There he took to himself all the risk, all the pain, all the sorrow, all the sin, and all that is incomplete; and he made all this his own. But in resurrection, he burst the gates of Hades. Therefore, we need not fear, we need not flee. “[F]or the LORD,” says the Psalmist finally, “is righteous, he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.” (Psalm 11:7)
In a matter of weeks, the 2004 General Conference of The United Methodist Church will take place. Approximately 1,000 General Conference delegates, from around the world, will descend upon Pittsburgh, PA. They will be joined by hundreds of support staff, general-board representatives, journalists, lobbyists, observers, and denominational groupies. Lifewatch will be represented and will maintain a table throughout General Conference, which will run from April 27th through May 7th.
Every four years General Conference assembles to worship God, to engage in Christian conversation and fellowship, and to legislate policies, priorities, and programs for the next four years. It could be said that the most basic responsibility of General Conference is to edit or amend The Book of Discipline (and The Book of Resolutions) for the next quadrennium.
General Conference 2004 will tackle hundreds of petitions and resolutions. As in recent General Conferences, the 2004 gathering will debate and vote on the matter of homosexuality. That, to be sure, will generate the most conference interest and get the most attention in the press. A minority of delegates will push for the denomination to accept homosexual practice. And as in recent General Conferences, the 2004 General Conference will most likely decide to continue The United Methodist Church’s current teaching on homosexuality, which declares the “sacred worth” of all people, which states that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and which “affirm[s] that God’s grace is available to all” (Paragraph 161G, The Book of Discipline ).
But also abortion will be discussed, debated, and voted on by the 2004 General Conference. Many resolutions on abortion have been sent to the conference, but Lifewatch has particular interest in the two resolutions on abortion that were passed by the 2003 session of the North Carolina Annual Conference. One of the North Carolina Conference resolutions proposes that The United Methodist Church withdraw the General Board of Church and Society and the General Board of Global Ministries/Women’s Division from membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), the pro-abortion lobby. The other North Carolina Conference resolution proposes a rewrite of Paragraph 161J, The Book of Discipline’s statement on abortion; the rewrite would reform United Methodist teaching on abortion to become presumptively protective of unborn children and their mothers.
When we stop to consider these matters, it is amazing that The United Methodist Church in 2004 thinks that we must formulate our own teaching on life and abortion. After all, for nearly 2,000 years, the Church catholic has had decisive teaching on life and abortion that is protective of unborn children and their mothers. Only in the latter part of the 20th century, especially in the United States, did certain liberal Protestant denominations, including The United Methodist Church, break ranks with historic Christianity and open their doors to pro-choice thinking. At that point, United Methodists and other liberal Protestants accommodated to their culture. At that time, United Methodists and other liberal Protestants became indistinguishable from their host cultures on the matter of life and abortion. At that juncture, we lost our Christian witness on life and abortion to the larger culture. This, for United Methodism, was a sad and tragic capitulation to culture. For we set aside the teachings of historic Christianity, and we turned away from historic Christianity’s protection of unborn children and their mothers.
The United Methodist Church should not have to develop its own teaching on life and abortion. For that teaching is given. It is given in the faith of the Church catholic. But our denomination, for over thirty years now, has failed to see the “givenness” of that teaching. Therefore, Lifewatch was called into existence. Therefore, Lifewatch must urge our church to discuss life and abortion. Therefore, we must encourage our church to debate life and abortion. Therefore, we must lead our church to legislate on life and abortion. If we are to serve the Gospel, which is the Gospel of Life, we must do what we can to witness to the Christian truth of human dignity, the Christian truth of the human dignity of unborn children, and the Christian truth of the dignity of the pregnant women.
The promise of the 2004 General Conference is that, by God’s grace and under God’s providence, this General Conference might well lead The United Methodist Church to rejoin historic, ecumenical Christianity on the matter of life and abortion. By withdrawing United Methodism from RCRC, General Conference 2004 would withdraw our church from the pro-abortion ideology and pro-choice culture now found in American society. And by adopting United Methodist teaching that presumes protection of unborn children and their mothers, General Conference 2004 would guide our church to witness and minister in ways that help United Methodists and others to receive children, who are good gifts from the loving, Triune God who creates, sustains, and redeems life.
The promise of the 2004 General Conference is great, even grand. Pray for God’s leading. And for the sake of the Gospel of Life, think, speak, and act in conformity with your faithful prayers. (PTS)
It is time for confession. Your editor is a devoted fan, season after season, of the Kansas State University football team. As a 1972 graduate of Kansas State, and as the son of a family with many K-State connections, I have faithfully followed the misfortunes and fortunes of the KState football team for over forty years. For decades, this team had settled at the bottom rung of college football. But then Mr. Bill Snyder, hired as the head football coach, came to the college town of Manhattan, KS. Coach Snyder’s personal integrity, commitment to leadership and discipline, work ethic, and football intelligence have taken Kansas State University football to the heights of Division I success.
On the night of December 6, 2003, the K-State football team reached its highest point. It defeated—actually, it humiliated—the University of Oklahoma Sooners, a traditional football powerhouse. Before the opening kickoff of that game, the Sooners were undefeated and were routinely called by sports commentators “the best football team in the history of college football.” At the end of the game, the K-State Wildcats, nearing yet another touchdown, stood as 35-7 winners. The victory over OU made K-State the champions of the Big 12 Conference. Because it had been many decades since the Kansas school had won a conference championship in football and because KSU’s victory over OU called the BCS system (which arranges bowl pairings) into serious question, the game received much national attention. The victory also earned K-State a place in the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona, against Ohio State University, on January 2nd. After the December 2nd win, K-State was tagged “the hottest football team in the nation.” Throughout the K-State football nation, a sense of invincibility had set in.
And for good reason. The 2003-4 K-State team, at 11-3, had come together after three losses early in the season. In addition, the team had many distinguished players, including quarterback Ell Roberson III. He was an outstanding dual-threat quarterback. During the season, he rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and passed for over 2,000 yards. And he displayed excellent leadership skills on and off the field.
At the end of December, the KSU football team traveled to Arizona and began to prepare for its bowl appearance. Then, on New Year’s Day, news broke that Ell Roberson had violated the 11:00 p.m. team curfew the night before and might be charged by Maricopa County officials with sexual assault or abuse. From the available evidence, Roberson (and another football player) had engaged in sexual relations with a woman in the team’s hotel, the Scottsdale Plaza Resort. Roberson said the encounter was consensual. However, the involved woman contended otherwise, and she filed a complaint with the local authorities.
Because of Arizona law, all of this information was made available to media. Predictably, a media frenzy followed. A mountain of speculation, on whether or not Roberson would play in the game, emerged in a day. When it was concluded that no crime had been committed in the incident, Coach Snyder decided to start Roberson at quarterback and play him the entire game. By a score of 35-28, K-State lost the contest to Ohio State.
A matter of days after the KSU-OSU game, Coach Snyder wrote an open letter to explain his decision-making process, and his decisions, related to the Roberson incident. His letter noted that, because of his quarterback’s pre-game misdeeds in Arizona, Roberson would lose his scholarship aid for the spring semester (approximately $8,500), not receive a Fiesta Bowl ring, and volunteer public service by working with youth. On January 9th, Ell Roberson released a brief letter of apology.
THINKING IT OVER
The Sexual Revolution, for decades now, has promoted the idea that all consensual sexual activity is acceptable. The revolution sneeringly sets aside the prerequisite of marriage for sexual relations. The more sex, with the more partners, the better, it assumes. “Just do it (that is, ‘safe sex’)” might well be the revolution’s motto. Practically everything sexual is okay, according to this cultural revolution.
Because of the Sexual Revolution, American society has developed some difficulty, some timidity, in calling sexual relations outside marriage what they actually are: sexual immorality or just plain immorality.
For example, in the case cited above, the immorality was often referred to as an alleged criminal incident. The suggestion here was that, if there was no crime, if “consent” was expressed by both parties, there was no serious problem.
Others wanted to focus attention on the team curfew violation. “I clearly think this was a curfew issue we were dealing with,” said Mr. Tim Weiser, the K-State athletic director. He was correct. There was, in fact, a curfew violation. But there was much more than that that transpired during those early morning hours.
By others, the immorality was called an “indiscretion.” An indiscretion is an injudicious, inconsiderate, rash, imprudent, hasty, unwise, mistaken action, according to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (1979). Certainly, that was true. But it was more than that.
Ell Roberson himself apologized for “the decisions that I made while in Scottsdale, AZ.” He was correct, to be sure, in implying that his decisions were bad decisions. But those bad decisions led to bad actions for which there was neither admission nor apology.
In all of these framings of the issue at hand, there appears to be an inability or an unwillingness to call the incident what it clearly was: sexual immorality, sexual wrongdoing. One twentysomething man, who happened to be an outstanding football player, engaged in premarital, casual sex—that is, sexually immoral relations— with a twentysomething woman. From the handwritten reports of both Roberson and the woman, it was a grotesque, sleazy encounter, consensual or not. The man used the woman and, so to speak, threw her away. It is particularly striking that, in the apologies from Coach Snyder and Ell Roberson, there is not the least hint of an apology to the unnamed woman.
Here it must be said that Coach Snyder was deeply concerned about the immorality of it all. In his letter, he wrote: “I want all K-Staters to know that this incident has hit at the core of my value system. I do not condone any form of sexual abuse or, for that matter, sexual activity for young, unmarried males or females. I have three daughters and three granddaughters. Each of whom I pray to be safe and secure and to carry strong moral values that coincide with those of our family.”
Also, the sports journalists for the Kansas’ newspapers knew, in their heart of hearts, that serious moral matters were at the bottom of this story. For a week, they wrote article after article about it. They conveyed the many dimensions of of the university, of the state of Kansas, and of friends—that began with immoral desire and concluded with immoral behavior. The sports journalists knew this was a big story, and it would not let them go. (Let us not forget the Gospel: Christ died for our sins, so that we might be forgiven and freed.)
How tragic it was. A great football team about to play the most important game in its school’s history. A great quarterback, having just won the greatest victory in his school’s football history, about to play the most important game in his life. And what happened? Evidently, hubris set in. Unbounded pride struck the quarterback. He felt and thought he could do anything he wanted to do. Then, in this state of extreme hubris, he indeed made bad decisions. Finally, unfortunately, he acted on his arrogant desires and bad decisions, and he engaged in, yes, immoral behavior.
Did the sexual immorality of one player (with perhaps others) make a difference for the entire football team? Yes, it did. It literally demoralized the team. The quarterback and his team played poorly for much of the first half of the game. He played as if he was disengaged, not altogether there. His second-half play and that of the team, while valiant and courageous, were not quite enough to achieve a victory. A touchdown favorite to win, K-State lost the game by a touchdown. It was as if the tragic moral fall of the quarterback was concluded by a poetic justice of sorts for the whole team.
MORALITY, IMMORALITY, AND CONSEQUENCES
Why discuss this football drama in Lifewatch, a publication devoted to witnessing to the Gospel of Life within The United Methodist Church? Because it reminds us that morality, sexual morality, truly matters. The easy, casual sex found in much of our society and our culture is directly tied in with the easy, casual acceptability and availability of abortion in much of our society and our culture. It is exactly the sexual disorder in American society that leads to the staggering abortion rates of our time and place. The Church, including The United Methodist Church, can and should remind our greater society that morality matters, that sexual morality matters, that sexual morality is divinely created as part of this world, that sexual morality is also revealed as moral truth in the Christian faith, that living a sexually moral life brings the blessings of goodness and order, and that living a sexually immoral life results in the curses of betrayal and chaos.
This editor will continue to follow Kansas State football, wish Coach Snyder and the teams he coaches the best, and hope that Ell Roberson becomes the outstanding professional player he is capable of becoming. But this editor also hopes that lessons—moral lessons, which include the need for self-examination, repentance, forgiveness, and a transformed life—were learned by many in the Kansas State community and beyond. (PTS)
For your information, Mrs. Cindy Evans became Lifewatch's Administrator on February 1st. Mrs. Evans, who continues as our Publicity and Outreach Coordinator, has now assumed administrative responsibilities as well. The Lifewatch community thanks God for the outstanding work of Mrs. Ruth Brown, who faithfully served our ministry for many years. At the same time, we realize that Mrs. Brown's work will be continued very well by Mrs. Evans.
If you would like to know more about serving as a Lifewatch “contact person” in your annual conference, please write or call Mrs. Cindy Evans/1564 Skyview Drive/Holts Summit, MO 65043/Lifewatch@mchsi.com/(573)896-2582. Thank you for your prayerful consideration of this opportunity for service and for your willing response.
On April 25th, a March for Freedom of Choice¡ª formally titled “Save Women's Lives: March for Freedom of Choice”―will take place in Washington, DC. The march's main, sponsoring groups―Feminist Majority, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Organization for Women, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America―are the most radical, pro-choice, even pro-abortion organizations in American society. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) will also play a major part in the march―especially by organizing the “RCRC Interfaith Service,” which will be held at the Lincoln Memorial on the morning of the march. Since two United Methodist institutions (namely, the General Board of Church and Society and the Women's Division of the General Board of Global Ministries) are affiliated with RCRC and since both of these United Methodist institutions are co-sponsoring the march, The United Methodist Church is institutionally involved in the March for Freedom of Choice. Lifewatch will report on the march, and the report will run in the June 2004 issue of the newsletter. After all, it is very important that United Methodists know what our church is joining and supporting in the political arena.
President George W. Bush called the 2004 March for Life in Washington, DC and concluded his talk this way: “Above all, we must continue with civility and respect to remind our fellow citizens that all life is sacred and worthy of protection. I know, as you return to your communities, you will redouble your efforts to change hearts and minds, one person at a time. And this is the way we will build a lasting culture of life, a compassionate society in which every child is born into a loving family and protected by law.”