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Signs of the end? September 27, 2011

Posted by Hampton Morgan in Theological commentary.
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Walter Russell Mead, who teaches at Bard College, is not given to alarmist rhetoric or exaggerated verbage. I’ve seen him interviewed on “The News Hour” a few times. He is almost boring; it would be an effort for him to become animated. But he is an informed observer with sharp perceptions. All of which makes his most recent blog post at at The American Interest somewhat startling.

The one-word title is “Panic?” Here are a few of Mead’s thoughts that really grabbed my attention:

…we need policy discussions more than we need political ones.  This is not just about how big the deficit should be; it is about whether the international financial system will survive the next six months in the form we now know it.  It is about whether the foundations of the postwar order are cracking in Europe.  It is about whether a global financial crash will further destabilize the Middle East and, if so, what we and the Europeans are going to do about it.  It is about whether the incipient signs of a bubble burst in China signal the start of an extended economic and perhaps even political crisis there.  It is about whether the American middle class is about to be knocked off its feet once again and indeed whether the middle class as we’ve known it will survive.  It is about whether sovereign governments can still underwrite economic performance and financial stability in the leading economies of the world.

In all cases, I think the odds still favor outcomes well short of catastrophic and worst case scenarios — but the global economy is now in the catastrophe zone where speculation about such scenarios is no longer science fiction but becomes part of prudent planning….

It appears that while investors panic quickly and head for the exits at the first sign of trouble, many politicians, journalists and social thinkers go to sleep when the fire alarms begin to ring.  The success of the West in establishing a solid set of social, political and economic institutions and policies after World War Two was so durable that we came to believe that the arrangements made then would last forever, and that further change would be slow and evolutionary rather than quick and disruptive.

I still hope the old house can weather one more storm, but it is clear that we can no longer take that for granted.  The ground under the foundations is washing away; the wind threatens to rip off the roof, and cracks are appearing in load bearing walls. Sooner rather than later we are going to have to redesign and rebuild.

Mead is not a wild-eyed, flaming liberal looking for a crisis by which he can recommend some fundamental reordering of the existing financial and political order. Rather, he sees the existing order beginning to come apart and current leaders failing badly at holding it all together.

At times like this many Christians have turned to the scriptures to brush up on what the Bible says about the end times. The books of Daniel and Revelation figure prominently in these efforts to understand the meaning of current events. A couple of days ago in the New York Times, Professor Matthew Avery Sutton of Washington State University wrote about this. His article, “Why the Antichrist matters in Politics,” is a fair reading of evangelical history and an appropriate suggestion that today’s news will surely encourage more of this. He also fears (unnecessarily, I think)  that a smart politician could exploit the “apocalyptic anti-statism of conservative Christians” and win the White House.

I consider myself a fairly balanced Christian — able to read the news with discernment and reasonably gauge the signs of the times. Like Professor Mead, I see the current political and financial order beginning to come apart. I share his concerns that today’s politicians daily demonstrate their ineptitude in making the sound decisions necessary to turn the tide of looming disaster. Unlike some, I do not see a conspiracy to make the current order fail so that an elite cadre can bring in a new world order. World orders, like civilizations and nations, rise and fall without the help of conspirators. They usually fall because of moral decay and bad leaders. Sometimes they fail because the world has changed and they are no longer effective.

Despite my self-perceived balance, I am quickly becoming one of those Christians about whom Professor Sutton wrote. I believe in a God who acts in the midst of human history. Christian faith, while connected to events in the past, is really all about the future — “new heavens and a new earth.” But we cannot get there without passing through the events that will render the current order obsolete; yes, even events that will destroy it.

Christians in previous times and centuries have lived through events just as disturbing as those we experience today. And the end did not come. Somehow, humanity muddled through and brought a new order into reality that was eventually perceived by most everyone to be better than the previous order. Professor Mead’s hopes may be realized and that may still happen.

But I am concerned that it may not.


Healing: one step or twelve steps. Does it really matter? September 23, 2011

Posted by Hampton Morgan in Healing.
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My, how long healing and recovery can take!

After rupturing my patellar tendon in mid-April, it took the surgeon less than 45 minutes to suture it back together, along with the four ligaments that were also torn. The initial recovery lasted seven weeks, after which the surgeon cleared me for physical therapy. During those seven weeks my leg was kept straight by a brace and I was not permitted to bend my knee at all.

Five months after the accident I am still coming to terms with how severely muscles can atrophy when they are not used. The calf and quadriceps muscles of the affected leg were visibly smaller. And when I began to use them again, they were simply not up to the task of stabilizing my knee and allowing me to walk in anything like a normal way. Physical therapy has been arduous, to say the least. And progress seems agonizing slow. Anyone watching can readily see that I do not yet walk normally, though I think that goal grows closer by the week.

All of this causes me to wonder about those stories in the Gospels and in the Acts where lame people are reported to be instantaneously and seemingly completely healed. So much so that in one of the stories Jesus says, “Take up your bed and walk.” And in the other, the healed man goes “walking and leaping and praising God.” Surely the muscles of these lame men were atrophied to the extreme. Yet they walk or run immediately after the unknown causes of their lameness are healed. As healing goes, I would call that a double healing. The instantaneously restored atrophied muscles strikes me as extraordinary as the healing of the organic causes of the lameness.

I have gone through more than 35 physical therapy sessions and am still not back to normal. Some of the clients in the women’s substance abuse facility where I work have been through dozens of AA meetings and one-on-one counseling sessions. And they still are not ready for re-entry. I minister to prison inmates who are surely not ready for a fruitful return to society even after attending nearly every religious class or service the prison offers. This leads me to conclude that healing and recovery just take time.

A few years back I listened to a teaching on healing given by Bill Johnson, a pastor in Redding, California. His message was that all of Jesus’ healings were “one-step” healings. He said that this should be our goal as well. At one point  he said something like, “If it takes 12 steps [an obvious reference to AA’s “Twelve Step” model], that’s ok; but your goal should be to heal, like Jesus, in one step.”

I have thought about this a great deal lately. At one point in my life I think I would have readily agreed with him because that seems to be exactly what the Bible reports Jesus as doing. But my experiences over the past several years in dealing with a variety of dysfunctions and emotional and spiritual wounds — not to mention my own long and difficult recovery from a patellar tendon rupture — cause me to wonder why an instantaneous or one-step healing is any more divine or desirable than a healing over time. Moreover, I have to wonder if some things could be healed in a single step, even by Jesus himself.

Members of the church of which we are part prayed for my healing several times. I consider their prayers to have been answered. Compared to my condition on the morning of April 16 I am very much better. And the healing continues.

One of the clients where I work came to us about two years ago, wrung out from substance abuse. Through ups and downs, fits and starts, the patience of her counselor, and the support of her peers, she is standing at the threshold of re-entry. She has been and is being healed, but not in a single step.

Does it really matter if it’s a single step? She would say no. My leg, almost completely well, would also say no.

A birth and a birthday September 1, 2011

Posted by Hampton Morgan in General.
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Last weekend I was in North Carolina, celebrating my father’s 90th birthday when news came that our first grandchild had arrived. My wife and I had agreed she would stay on in Pennsylvania to help our daughter and son-in-law while I joined my four sisters and assorted grand- and great-grandchildren for my dad’s birthday party. It was neat getting the phone call announcing the birth while visiting with the man who at 90 had just become a great-grandfather for the sixth time.

My father was born before the Great Depression and my granddaughter during what is arguably still the Great Recession. The world into which he was born in 1921 was still getting acquainted with electricity, cars and airplanes. The world into which she has been born is neck-deep in a love affair with digital gadgets that are reshaping communications and the way we do relationships. My father and I talk on cell phones and send emails to each other. How will my granddaughter communicate with her daughter in 60 years?

At the birthday party some of us had prepared gifts based on the number 90. My Lutheran pastor brother-in-law offered a meditation based on Psalm 90. I had prepared 90 fond memories of things I did with my dad. One of the grandsons, a child of divorce, ripped all our hearts out talking about how his grandfather was the most important male in his life. The great-grandson present helped his great-grandfather blow out the candles on the cake. We sang my dad’s favorite hymns and presented him, an ardent reader, with a Nook.

Meanwhile, my determined-to-have-a-natural-childbirth daughter learned why they call it “labor.” But she got through it with lots of encouragement from her husband and no medication, welcoming the seven pound daughter after only six difficult hours of labor. Six hundred miles away, I showed off her photos the next morning at breakfast.

I left North Carolina on Monday morning at six o’clock and was holding my first grandchild at half past two in the afternoon in Pennsylvania. I have to agree with my wife: she is the most beautiful baby in the history of the whole world.

I shall count myself fortunate if my granddaughter gets to know her great-grandfather. He is the most important male in my life too. Although I will someday tell her about life before computers and smartphones, he can tell her about how seven children and two parents coped with life during the worst economic years in our nation’s history. And if she wants to know about life before 1921, she can always ask her other great-grandfather. He turned 96 in July!


“Love Wins”: Thoughts about Rob Bell’s latest book August 10, 2011

Posted by Hampton Morgan in Reviews.
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I had lunch last week with a pastor whose theology struck me as pretty conservative and orthodox. I mentioned that I was reading Rob Bell’s recent book, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. My friend seemed unconcerned that I might be playing with heretical fire. He said he had read a couple of Bell’s books and used some of his video material regularly. I asked what he thought of Rob Bell. “Bell has a lot of good stuff,” he said; and added, “but you have to pick the bones out.”

His assessment squares pretty well with mine about practically everything I read, including at times and much to my dismay, the Bible. Love Wins falls into that category too, though I found far fewer bones than I had expected.

I credit Clark Pinnock with preparing me for Love Wins. Fifteen years ago a good friend gave me Pinnock’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions. Pinnock, who died within the last year, ran into trouble with the evangelical establishment for his support of “open theism,” the view that God has not determined everything and that God is open to the influence of prayers and how the decisions and actions of humans may actually change the future.

In A Wideness in God’s Mercy Pinnock musters an impressive number or scriptures — most overlooked in the traditional evangelical arsenal — affirming God’s desire to bring all people into his saving grace. When many Christians talk about who is in and who is out, they rarely mention the many verses that affirm the wideness of God’s love and saving grace. Rather, many rally around a few New Testament verses that have an exclusivistic ring to them that appear to clearly limit salvation to those who knowingly confess Jesus as Savior and Lord. John 14.6 is at the top of everyone’s list: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” For many evangelicals, this verse settles everything. And it clearly trumps everything else the Bible says about the question of salvation and the love of God for all humanity.

Rob Bell clearly does not believe that John 14.6 settles the matter, and he offers many of the same scriptures as Pinnock did to buttress his argument. He addresses the meanings of the biblical words “heaven” and “hell” and theologizes about the kinds of heaven and hell people create and experience before they die. He argues for the rationality of a loving God’s intention to save humanity and the irrationality of a God who consigns multitudes to eternal damnation simply because they did not know or confess Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Clark Pinnock, in the work cited earlier, argued for Christians to be optimistic about the ultimate fate of those who die without faith in Christ. He did not embrace universalism and did argue strongly for the finality of Jesus Christ. Bell, on the  other hand, walks right up to the line on the question of whether all will be saved. He peers over that line but, in my reading of him, does not actually cross it and embrace universalism. He implies that people who create “hell” during their earthly life may well continue in “hell” in the hereafter. (Likewise, those who create “heaven” by their righteous and faithful deeds may well continue in “heaven” in the hereafter).

I appreciated Love Wins as a well-argued counterpoint to the traditional evangelical understandings of heaven, hell and salvation — positions with which I have had increasing problems in recent years.

Bell’s exegesis of the parable of the prodigal son was one of the best such efforts I have ever seen. He sees it speaking to these critical questions in a powerful way.

It is worthwhile to note that there has never in Christian history been anything approaching a consensus on the questions Rob Bell takes aim at. To be sure, there have always been positions considered orthodox by bodies that lay claim to the authority to determine orthodoxy. There has never been consensus and we are surely not even close to it now.

I would also note that my own ecclesiastic tradition, the Moravian Church, chose in its doctrinal statement, The Ground of the Unity, to avoid any statements about heaven, hell or the fate of humans. It does affirm the finality of Christ but avoids any effort to declare a position on those who do not confess him. I always thought this was wise, now more so than in the past.

The complexities of forgiving: Part 2 August 6, 2011

Posted by Hampton Morgan in Evil, Healing.
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“What would you do?” asks Simon Wiesenthal as he finishes the account of his experience in Karl’s hospital room. Forced to hear the confession of Karl’s atrocities against Jews — and his request to be forgiven — Wiesenthal leaves the room without speaking a single word. (For background, see my previous post — here).

The remainder of The Sunflower contains the responses of over 50 contributors of different religious and philosophical persuasions. Many endorse Wiesenthal’s silent response to Karl; all recognize the enormity of the challenge he faced in Karl’s hospital room and the very important questions raised by Karl’s deeds and his request to be absolved so that he could die in peace.

One of the most compelling reasons not to forgive Karl is the legitimate concern that forgiving such heinous deeds will serve to diminish the horror of the crime and very possibly encourage other people of ill will to perpetrate similar deeds. It has been of urgent importance to many Jews who survived the Holocaust to work tirelessly to keep alive the world’s collective memory of what happened in Nazi Germany. Moreover, many Jews have steadfastly maintained that forgiving those who initiated and participated in such genocidal crimes is unthinkable and would be an unspeakable moral wrong.

I remember Elie Wiesel’s passionate urging in an oval office meeting with President Reagan that he not visit and lay a wreath at the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany because members of the SS were buried there. Reagan did so anyway, an action interpreted as an official declaration of forgiveness by America of Germany’s Nazi past.

The Holocaust was such a searing experience for its Jewish witnesses and survivors that their faith in God was shaken to the core.

Some have answered Wiesenthal’s question by affirming that he was in his right to not forgive because he did not have “standing” to forgive. Karl’s sin that day in Dnepropetrovsk was against the innocent men, women and children who were locked in the house and incinerated. Only they have standing to forgive Karl’s sin. But since they are all dead, no human has the right to forgive Karl.

(One responder suggested that even God did not have standing to forgive Karl, presumably because God could have prevented the Holocaust, but did not).

Other responders suggest that the only possible response to Karl would be to say that he should seek forgiveness from God and God alone. A few would have offered to tell Karl that they would pray to that end.

Back in 1996 I attended a pastor’s Promise Keeper’s event in Atlanta. On the second or third day into the event, a racial reconciliation session was held. As part of it a well-known white Christian leader stood at the podium and confessed, on behalf of his race, many sins committed over several centuries against black Americans. Next, an Hispanic church leader made a similar confession of sins committed by Hispanics against indigenous peoples of Latin America. It is possible, but I do not recall it, that another white Christian leader confessed the sins of white European immigrants against the native American population of the United States. In all cases, the confessors asked for forgiveness of their race.

I do not recall 15 years later that there were any responses made by any representatives of the impressive number of black or native American pastors present. I am almost sure there were not. The confessions were met with silence. Who has the right to speak for his/her race and offer absolution for sins committed by many against many over several centuries? One can also ask if the white and Hispanic leaders who made confession for their races really had standing to do so.

Forgiveness and reconciliation ought not to be easy or done on the cheap. I argued in a previous blog that forgiving is a bloody business. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin,” said the writer of Hebrews. The immediate reference, of course, was to Jewish altar rituals and to the bloody death of Jesus on the cross. It helps me, however, to apply it more broadly to all acts of forgiveness. Human sin wreaks enormous havoc and damage on individuals and communities. Lives are ended; others tragically shattered. Wounds are deep and, for many, lifelong.

Forgiving ought not to be easy. It needs to be a bloody business.

The complexities of forgiving: Part 1 August 2, 2011

Posted by Hampton Morgan in Evil, Healing.
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I have been offering a series of classes on forgiving at the prison where I minister. The idea came from the pre-release material I reviewed while preparing to teach an earlier class on money management. In a checklist of important tasks an inmate should remember as he/she prepared for re-entry, I found this one: “Forgive, forgive, forgive.” I searched the material for even a paragraph or two on what it means to forgive and how one should go about it. Nothing. Hence the idea for the class. I was fortunate to find a teacher who thought it was a great idea and helped me bring it to pass.

In my preparations for teaching I discovered Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. Wiesenthal is known largely for his tireless efforts to find Nazis who directly participated in the Third Reich’s program to exterminate Jews. Through his efforts many have been arrested and brought to trial. Wiesenthal died in 2005 at the age of 96.

In The Sunflower, Wiesenthal recounts a dreadful story of being forced to the bedside of a dying soldier of the infamous SS, the powerful wing of the Nazi Party responsible for carrying out what we now call the Holocaust.  At the time Wiesenthal was a prisoner at Lemberg concentration camp, living daily in fear of being beaten, attacked by dogs or pulled aside and shot. The soldier, Karl, had been severely wounded in battle and was near death. He had asked his nurse to find a Jew to whom he could make a dying man’s confession.

The sin that assaulted Karl’s conscience was his participation in the murder of several hundred Jews in the Russian town of  Dnepropetrovsk. He and his comrades had locked the terrified Jews in a building whose floors had been doused with gasoline. When the building was ablaze and the innocents, children included, attempted to jump through the windows, they were shot and killed before they hit the ground.

Recounting his heinous deeds, Karl gripped Wiesenthal’s hand. He wanted a Jew to hear his confession and forgive him for his sins against the Jews. Wiesenthal withdrew his hand and, without a word, turned and left the room.

Afterwards, Wiesenthal told his experience to fellow prisoners and, after the war, to others. He was in turmoil over Karl’s confession and his decision to walk silently away. When he finished recounting the story in The Sunflower, Wiesenthal asked his readers, “What would you do?”

Dear reader, think about this. I’ll return in a day or two and continue.

Evangelicals appreciated August 2, 2011

Posted by Hampton Morgan in General.
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Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, took the occasion of John Stott’s death to write some nice things about some evangelicals. More than anyone else on the op-ed or any other pages of the Times, Kristof writes positively about the important work being done by Christian missionaries and aid workers in places where human suffering and degradation are most intense.

Stott was a significant figure in global evangelicalism for half a century. His earlier writings especially helped define the movement and influenced a fair number of us on this side of the Atlantic, though Stott was British and wrote with a kind of C.S. Lewis erudition and reserve. American evangelicalism has always had its scholarly side, but the movement unfortunately became defined, at least in the public mind, by its television personalities. Men like Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell did and said things that diminished evangelicalism and, for that matter, Christianity. Nicholas Kristof, to no one’s surprise, makes note of this.

But Kristof gets out more than most secularists who write for the Times. He travels often to places like Darfur, Somalia and the slums of Bangkok — places where people are starving, being persecuted for their ethnicity or sold as sex slaves. Kristof gets to observe first-hand the vital work being done by Christian NGOs — many of them evangelical in theology — to alleviate suffering and make the world a better place. And he writes about it, warmly but fairly.

On his blog Kristof explained why he had written his Sunday column:

…I hadn’t intended to write a column for Sunday. But then I saw that John Stott had died, and I didn’t want to miss the chance to write about him and evangelicals more broadly — hence my Sunday column on the subject. We in the op-ed world don’t write about religion perhaps as much as we should: it’s a huge force shaping society and policy, and yet rarely makes the op-ed pages. And evangelicals in particular, especially serious ones, tend to be neglected since there are so few evangelicals in major news organizations. About one-third of America is evangelical, yet you’d be hard pressed to find many (with the exception of black evangelicals, whose politics are very different from white evangelicals) in leading news organizations.

To read Kristof’s Sunday column about John Stott and evangelicals, click here.

Defending doctrine; ignoring relationships July 21, 2011

Posted by Hampton Morgan in Unity.
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Yesterday a friend mentioned that he just finished reading the new book by Rob Bell, Loves Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. He commented that while he found much to dispute in Bell’s theology, he thought the widespread evangelical trashing of Bell to be a bit over the top.

I know something about the deep need that arises within some of us to defend sound doctrine in the face of the increasing number of Christian leaders and others who seem willing to embrace the latest theological fad or, worse, outright heresy. I spent a fair amount of my ministry in a mainline denomination doing just this. I wrote letters to denominational leaders and I wrote articles for the denominational publication. I spoke to these matters in various pulpits and engaged in debate with my ministerial peers. I also drafted synodical legislation to support the church’s historic doctrines. And I eventually resigned, partially out of disgust for the drift away from sound doctrine.

 More than a half dozen years later I sometimes wonder why these doctrinal matters were so important to me and what exactly I was trying to protect. I especially think about the cost in broken and terminated relationships.

So where do relationships figure in the grand scheme of things? How important are they and what is their relationship to preserving or affirming sound doctrine? Being part of a small house church has unquestionably forced these questions on me. What has emerged is the conviction that relationships are a lot more important to me than they used to be. In a house church setting, numbers alone help focus the mind: Lose just one couple and you’ve lost one-third of your members!

My ministry in a prison setting has also helped focus me in this direction. I have seen some of the inmates break off relationships with other inmates because of petty doctrinal differences. (“Petty,” of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and I readily acknowledge that).

Added to these two experiences, I was also quite profoundly challenged by the 14th and 15th chapters of Romans, where Paul provides strong counsel on how believers ought to handle their differences. I wrote a number of blog posts about this earlier.

Tonight, our team is going into the prison to lead a study and discussion of the “one-anothers” of the New Testament. I’ve listed about 35 such references on three sheets of paper. Looking over them again I could not escape the fact that Jesus and his apostolic church-planters cared a great deal about promoting strong and good relationships within the community of believers. This concern is a clearly identifiable thread in the fabric of New Testament teaching. No, I think it is more than a thread: It is the stitching that holds together the many panels of the New Testament quilt.

It is now astonishing to me how little I have cared for this vital stitching over the years of my ministry. I am deeply grateful for a few dear brothers who have shown me by their own prizing of a relationship with me just how important the one-anothers really are.

One thing is certainly inescapable: the three dozen or so one-anothering verses are presented as imperatively strongly as any other teaching in the New Testament. What causes some of us to overlook them?

Fender-bender hugs…and the church July 11, 2011

Posted by Hampton Morgan in Theological commentary.
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Last week I was walking slowly and methodically out of a local supermarket, headed back to my car. (People recovering from ruptured patellar tendons tend to walk in such a manner because their confidence in ‘normal’ walking is not yet restored). I watched two SUVs, backing out of their respective parking spaces, engage in what we normally call a ‘fender-bender.’ It was clearly not a serious incident; no tail lights were broken and the plastic bumpers seemed to bend with just the right amount of give.

A woman emerged from each vehicle to survey the damage done to her own vehicle and that of the other driver. Talking as they did so, each quickly concluded that no damage was done. Drawing near I watched them hug each other and head back to their respective vehicles.

Unable to contain myself, I asked if they knew each other. They both answered that they’d never met until a moment ago. As each laughed I remarked that I had never seen such a sight — two drivers hugging each other in the immediate aftermath of a fender-bender.

Even on a good day two men involved in such an incident would not likely have even shook hands. They would have grumbled to each other about the need to be more careful, and only the more humble of the two would have even apologized. Give each other a hug? Not on this planet.

Women and men are hard-wired with different circuitry. This is surely of divine origin and intended for the betterment of the human family. And the betterment of the church as well.

In Romans 16 Paul recognized a long list of people who had made a difference in his life and that of the church. The number of women is more than half the number of men. Given first century realities, this is remarkable. Given the realities of the ensuring centuries, when nearly all ecclesiastical leadership was male, it is even more remarkable.

A couple of years ago someone gave me Ekklesia, edited by Steve Atkerson. It carries the subtitle, “To the Roots of Biblical Church Life,” and it espouses house church ideas. Chapter 9 is on “Women’s Silence?” and it carries two views. Steve Atkerson argues for the silence of women during gatherings of the church. Another contributor, Jon Zens, parses the relevant Pauline verses differently, looking at them in the context of the “flow of Paul’s thought,” and comes to another conclusion.

As I look back over more than three years of church meetings in the home and try to imagine what it would have been like if the women had been silenced by invoking the most literal interpretation possible of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, my thoughts are disturbing. The women added immeasurably to our community’s understanding of the heart of God and how God was speaking to us through the scriptures. To silence them would be to silence much of what God wanted to say.

Watching two women hug in the supermarket parking lot reminded me of just how much God blessed the world — and the church — through women.

The unseen and unassuming parts of Christ’s body July 10, 2011

Posted by Hampton Morgan in Theological commentary.
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During my most recent visit to the surgeon who repaired my knee in April, I was given the green light to move toward the full resumption of normal physical activities. The surgeon declared the patellar tendon to be completed healed and ready for the next round of physical therapy. This will involve hard work at strengthening the thigh and calf muscles, strengthening the patellar tendon and flexing the knee to 140 degrees. I am currently at 110 degrees and my thigh and calf muscles are appropriately sore from all the exercising. 

Recently I have been thinking about my patellar tendon. It’s a piece of tissue about 1 inch wide and about 4 inches long that attaches to the patella (knee cap) at the north end and to the tibia (shin bone) at the south end. Along with its counterpart on the north side of the knee, the quadriceps tendon, the patellar tendon is the unseen tissue that allows the knee to lock and thus gives one the ability to walk, kick, climb stairs and do just about anything we consider part of normal mobility.

When my patellar tendon was ruptured in a fall back in mid-April, I quickly discovered that I could not stand up. My left knee immediately buckled and I fell down with excruciating pain. Only with the aid of a brace was I able to put even the slightest pressure on my left leg. After the surgeon sewed the ruptured tendon back together, I waited over nine weeks for him to declare it healed and ready for action.

Until I went through all of this I had never thought even once about my patellar tendon — what it did, how necessary it was to normal life and how its rupture would be a major disability. I often thought about other parts of my body, especially the parts I could see or that needed regular attention or that I consciously used in the normal routines of life and work. But I never thought about my patellar tendon until its rupture changed my life.

I think the body of Christ is a lot like this. There are parts of the body that stand before churches every week doing very visible things and receiving a great deal of attention for them. There are other parts of the body that rarely if ever receive any notice or mention because their work is not on such prominent display. Like the patellar tendon, they work effectively to accomplish vital functions for which they receive no recognition.

In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul said, “…the parts of the  body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”  A couple of verses later he added, “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.”

The parts of Christ’s body that stand in the lights on platforms, holding microphones, receive notice and attention that is way out of  proportion to their numbers within the body and, most likely, to the work they do. This is part of a long cultural trend within the church and it is not likely to change anytime soon. We must constantly remind ourselves, again in Paul’s words, that the body of Christ is more than a single member.

Paul himself reminded us of this in Romans 16, where he extends greetings and commendations to a long list of brothers and sisters whose functioning within the body he considered vital to its well-being. Somewhere in that list was a patellar tendon.