Friday, July 08, 2016

After Dallas, Orlando, Minneapolis, et al.

My priest friend, Mary Green, wrote this reflection in view of the wave of violence sweeping our nation. She speaks for me and Michele. Thank you, Mary.

July 8, 2016,  Reflection informed by recent meditation on Genesis 15:1-6 and Hebrews 11:1-3.

Abram believed in the promises of God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, right relationship with God.   Belief, that place of trust in God, even in the face of not seeing the fulfillment of promises.  

Today, just after the killing of 4 police officers in Dallas during protests over the killing by police of two black men earlier this week, in the wake of Orlando, in the wake of the obscene parade of violent and hate filled behavior and language that seems hell-bent on total destruction of this country, I have no words to pray.  I have no way to believe in the future.  I have no way to confront any of the problems that threaten to overwhelm this country.  No, wrong word.  The threat is long past.  The overwhelming is here now.  The destruction is happening now.  I have no way to trust in the present.  Im uncertain as to how I can even express trust in God, considering the present circumstances.  Like Abram, Im trying to figure out what I can do to help fulfill Gods promises of leaving a legacy of a life that mattered enough to be reckoned as righteousness, because this morning, I dont even know how to pray.

But I feel drawn to my studio and the Trinity icon I painted 2 years ago — the icon I was led to paint in what I knew at the time was a foolish hope of better understanding the doctrine of the Trinity.  So I light a candle and an incense stick, because it feels like thats the best I can do to pray, to offer something symbolic of my hope of a prayer rising as smoke or a prayer being one little light in a very dark place. Its all I can do, which feels pitifully small.  And I sit in silence before my Trinity icon thinking about the uselessness of it all.   I remember my friend Russ, a deacon in the Diocese of Texas, who told me the only way he could pray at the time of the Paris bombings was to sit in front of his copy of the Trinity icon, and then to imagine the people who were suffering being in the center of the three angels.  Thats the best he could do, thats all he could do, he said.   And I think, I hope, it was credited to Russ as righteousness. 

So I sit in front of my Trinity icon, and once again notice the mistakes I made in the painting, and know I have to move past that superficiality in order to arrive at the place where the icon will speak to my soul, where deep calls to deep.  Im not there yet.  Im only thinking of how I have no words.  I, who live on words and speaking, have nothing to say to God.  Theres nothing I can say that will make any difference, theres nothing I can do that can set anything right.  Ismallened,” my word for humbled by the immensity of a God too great to comprehend.  Phrases from a song learned nearly 6 decades ago in high school chorus come to mind: Let all mortal flesh keep silence.  Ponder nothing earthly minded.”  Indeed, let all mortal flesh keep silence before God.  There are too many words anyway.  There is nothing to say in the face of this overwhelming dark place.  There is nothing to say when we know not how to pray as we ought.  I sink further into silence, trusting I am not alone in this place of hopelessness before God.   But I am before God, as best as I can be this morning.  Im doing only what I seem to be able to do.  To light a candle and incense stick and sit in silence before an image of three angels.  And believe I am not the only one doing this.

I am quickly reminded of the realizations of redemptions just this week, and some family relationships being made new, of prayers prayed four decades ago coming to fulfillment.  Of new hopes and possibilities.  The sense of lightness and detachment from ongoing train wrecks continuing in other parts of the family, crises about which I have no power or influence, only the responsibility to pray.  And Im terrible at faithful praying.  Im terrible at having faithful responses in the face of things I cannot do anything about.  Like the pregnancy caused by our 16 year old great grandson.  Like the killings in Dallas and St Paul and Baton Rouge and Orlando and  on and on.       My hopelessness is reinforced by the present so that I forget to trust in the promises for the future.  Ponder nothing earthly minded,”  says the song, versus the compelling to sit in silence and feel the hopelessness of this worlds situation, to feel it in the name of God.  To feel it in the name of the  immensity of the Trinity that I dont understand and cant speak of with words.  To endure the feeling of hopelessness for even a few minutes because I have the luxury of feeling hopeful most of the time because of the circumstances of my life.  I have the luxury of getting up from my place in front of the icon and going about my day, where other people cannot get up and go on about a normal day because they will never have a normal day again.  The least I can do, maybe the only thing I can do, is what Im doing.  It doesnt seem like much in the way of a faithful response.  It doesnt seem like enough.  But it is all I seem to be able to do.  

As in other times of hopelessness in my life, when Ive yelled or cried out to God, or sat in abject poverty of spirit smallened before the mystery that is God, there comes an unexplainable assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  I do not wonder if this counts’ as faith, or worry whether or not this mornings silence will be credited as righteousness.  I have to trust.  That is all I can do.  


Friday, June 24, 2016

Homosexuality in Romans 1

Homosexuality in Romans 1 - Paul was right in one sense, but he was also not fully informed. Biblical authors assumed a geo-centric worldview. Were they wrong? Or, were they not fully informed? Morgan Guyton explains how Paul was right in principle, but was uninformed as to the best application of that principle. This should be no more disturbing for us than the discovery that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe. [Oops! People got excommunicated for believing that!! So, we may have a way to go yet.]

Morgan Guyton:

     “So here’s where my quarrel occurs with a strictly historical Biblical interpretation like N.T. Wright’s. Paul did believe that non-heteronormative sex was “unnatural” and that “unnatural” sex resulted in bad spiritual fruit. In Romans 1, he says that when people “exchange natural intercourse for unnatural” (v. 26), they are “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice” (v. 29). The reason Paul calls non-heteronormative sex bad is because he thinks it fills people with bad spiritual fruit. That’s the plain meaning of a straightforward reading of Romans 1, which is consistent with the fruit-centered ethical framework Paul exudes throughout his epistles.
     For N.T. Wright, there’s only one question to be asked, since we’re supposed to answer twenty-first century questions with first-century eyes: does Paul think non-heteronormative sex is bad? If he does, then we have to agree with him if we’re Christian. Case closed.
     But what if it turns out that Paul’s grasp of human biology was inadequate while his ethical instinct was right? Does his biology have to be perfect and timeless for his words to be canonical? What if “unnatural” sex actually means for a gay person to marry straight and have a turbulent, dishonest relationship in which authentic physical intimacy is painfully impossible? What if the best way for gay people to live with good spiritual fruit if they aren’t uniquely called to celibacy is “to marry rather than to burn” (1 Cor 7:9) in a way that is “natural” to their biology?
     When I look at the pragmatic pastoral theology Paul demonstrates throughout his epistles, I honestly believe if he were walking around today, he would say, “Let them do what is natural to them and least disruptive to their communion with Christ.” That seems to be a reasonable, straightforward application of Paul’s ethical no more disturbing
     In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul reveals where he’s coming from when he’s talking about sexuality. He says to the Corinthians, “I want you to be free from anxiety… I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32, 35). So Paul is not invested in arbitrary restraints. In terms of our sexuality, he wants to promote freedom from anxiety, good order, and unhindered devotion to the Lord. Those three principles are not contingent upon retaining “first-century eyes” when it comes to human biology. They are timeless, and I believe they should be the foundation of our sexual ethics today.”

See the whole discussion at:

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Healing Church Strife in the New Testament and Today

New Title From James Christensen and Thomas F. Johnson
Healing Church Strife in the New Testament and Today
Beyond Matthew 18:15-17
  When churches experience troubling conflicts, they are likely to be offered Matthew 18:15–17 as the only solution. This book opens our eyes to the rich variety of conflict solutions that are described throughout the New Testament. Healing Church Strife explores options for our time, and the reader receives practical suggestions that are biblically based.
James Christensen MSW, PhD, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), specializes in helping churches manage conflict. During the past fifteen years he has worked with congregations in northwest Washington, Alaska, and in Vienna, Austria. In addition, he trains pastors and other church leaders and consults with church judicatories on policies and practices. Currently he serves as Conflict Consultant for the Northwest Coast Presbytery. 
Thomas F. Johnson, MDiv, ThM, PhD, a former Presbyterian minister, college and seminary professor of Bible and theology, seminary dean, and university president, is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Association. He is the author of 1, 2, & 3 John in the Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Baker Books).

Healing Church Strife in the New Testament and Today
Beyond Matthew 18:15-17
by James Christensen and Thomas F. Johnson
Wipf and Stock / Wipf and Stock Publishers
978-1-4982-3394-1 / paperback / $11

What prompted you to write this book?
In Jim’s work with conflicted churches, he consistently encountered a lot of uncertainty about what to do about it. Often church leaders either resort to accepting conflict as a given condition or they deny its existence or important. But those responses were based in an underlying lack of available options. A third response was often a formulaic statement that would supposedly work in every case, and often that formula was a quotation of Matthew 18:15-17.
But the instructions in that text did not match other texts in the New Testament that described conflicts and how they were treated. The New Testament churches often did not do what the Matthew text prescribed. We became curious about what those alternative strategies were. The book began to take shape.

What surprised you as you were writing the book?
We were very surprised by the sheer volume of conflict related material that the New Testament contains. Every book directly or by allusion refers to conflict. The first task was simply to list the relevant texts. After that, it was a matter of recognizing patterns.  We were also surprised by the consistent effort to put conflicts on a trajectory toward reconciliation, although in many cases, those efforts did not succeed.

What did you learn by writing the book?
We learned many things, of course. One of the main things was that the New Testament church and its leaders were creative and flexible in dealing with conflict. They often stumbled and failed. But they never gave up. They never just let conflict run on without confronting it in some way. The picture, for us, is of a community, and a group of leaders, that didn’t know what to do most of the time. They worked by trial and error. Sometimes their responses were brilliant, their wisdom deep. At other times they were short-sighted and even petty. But they kept on trying.

Who do you hope to reach with this book?
We hope to reach pastors and other church and denominational leaders. Beyond that we hope to reach seminaries and others who prepare candidates for ministry or who train leaders.

What differences in church practice do you hope to see as a result of your work?
We hope that church leaders will look at the conflicts they encounter without fear, but instead with the confidence that they have many sound resources available to them. We would like to see the Bible understood and used as a guide and its varied and complex stories of conflict received with gratitude.

What one key message does your book bring to the church in our time?
Conflict will occur. There are many positive ways to deal with it. The stories in the New Testament shed some light on them. Keep on keeping on. 

Although conflicts within the Corinthian congregation are well-documented in Paul’s letters, there are two situations where the lack of conflict rather than the presence of conflict is the problem as Paul sees it. I Corinthians 5 refers to a serious moral offense occurring, yet the Corinthians are arrogant about it. They are boasting (v 6), evidently about their moral “freedom.”  

Paul puts himself at odds with the person who is committing the offense. He has already passed judgment on him. There is the conflict, and it is “settled” unilaterally by Paul’s judgment.  Further, Paul puts himself at odds with the Corinthians as a whole. He tells them what they should feel: sorrow (Should you not rather have mourned . . . .?” vs. 2). 

He tells them what they should do: evict the offender from the congregation and “hand this man over to Satan” (vs. 5). They should not associate with such persons, or with others who violate the norms of sexual morality or who are greedy, idolaters, revilers, drunks or robbers. “Do not even eat with such a one” (vs. 11). Thus he provokes and urges the Corinthians to enter into conflict with such offenders, and to shun them.  

“Doctors James Christensen and Thomas F. Johnson have done the church a much-needed favor in providing practical, biblically-based wisdom by which to deal with the most challenging social and spiritual juggernaut of its existence: conflict. This book does a better job explicating the New Testament’s teaching on healing strife than most books five times its length. . . . Do not let its brevity and accessibility deceive you. It will take just a few hours to read...and a lifetime to apply.”
—Charles J. Conniry, Jr., Vice President and Dean, George Fox Evangelical Seminary College of Christian Studies

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

What I learned from the much maligned Dale Carnegie and from others

Stay positive in relationships with other people and in one’s attitude toward oneself.
Minimize or eliminate all criticism, complaining, and arguments.
When you have to choose between being right and being kind, choose kind (Dyer).
Always admit when you are wrong, biased, and limited in your own view.
When disagreements are important, not over trivial matters, seek for common ground.
Emphasis what you have in common with others and what is praise-worthy.
Take a genuine interest in other people.
Remember and use the other person’s name.
Listen more than you talk.
Encourage people to talk about themselves and their interests.
Treat people with respect and consideration.
Try to see things from the other person’s point of view and empathize with their concerns.
Stay in the interrogative mode: what if . . ., could we . . . how would it work if . . .?
Find a way to win-win, avoiding win-lose (Covey).
Praise every improvement or positive change.
Encourage people as often as you can. Catch people doing well and say so (Blanchard).
Do not ever criticize your spouse or your friends in front of other people.
When there is trouble, ask what is the worst case scenario, and improve on that.
Cooperate with the inevitable; it is what it is.
Stay in the present as much as possible.
Avoid bringing up the past or speculating about the future.
Never seek revenge; leave what you think needs to happen to God.
Be thankful all the time and, as much as possible, for everything.
Have the attitude: how can I help you? See yourself as a servant of others.
Keep an orderly work area, free from distractions.
Prioritize and work on the most important things first. Avoid the tyranny of the urgent.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A 2015 Christmas Thank You from Tom and Michele Johnson

This was the year of the anniversary - our fiftieth - and we celebrated all year. The official date was March 26th, but we didn’t let that narrow window of time stop us from enjoying the whole year with each other, our family, and you. 

So, thanks to the people we love, who have included us in their love for a wonderful 2015, esp. to our children: Jason, Amy, & Sarah, their spouses (Helen, Peter, & Matt), and our three grandkids (Nina, Nathaniel & Sam). I guess you all meant it when you said to us last Jan, 1, “Happy New Year!!” It was indeed.

Thanks to friends at St. Augustine’s and St. Stephen’s Episcopal churches, and at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church with whom we prayed, sang, planned, studied, retreated, ate, and talked.

Thanks to all the people with whom we got older, grieved the loss of friends, read books, and shared coffee, beer, meals, a second annual (may there be a third, Go Seahawks) Super Bowl Party at our house, weekly pinochle, fantasy baseball (the George Fox University [GFU] league) and live baseball (nine Mariners and Tigers games), and just time together, listening to one another’s stories (more often now, medical) and enjoying with gratitude the lives God has given us.

The actual week of our 50th anniversary, we vacationed at Eagle Crest in Redmond, OR, and in June the family came to help us re-pledge our vows in Bend, OR at the Inn at Seventh Mountain. Our grandson, Sam (13), came out from Colorado for a week in July to party with us, fishing and crabbing. Thanks to Melahn and David for sharing their boat and crab-whacking expertise!

Other celebratory travels included a week with grandchildren, Nina (9) and Nathaniel (6.5), in Rockport, MA and a week with Michele’s family in Ludington, Michigan in late July-early August. In Newberg, OR, we celebrated with our friends, Dave and Melva Brandt, at GFU at the dedication of the new residence hall named in their honor, and then came back to GFU in November for a dinner honoring Michele for her role in founding the Accounting major there.

But the big event was our long-planned, three-week, Mediterranean trip cruising to Venice Italy, Dubrovnik Croatia, Athens Greece, Ephesus Turkey, Split Croatia, and the Greek islands of Corfu, Santorini, Mykonos, and Katakolon and the third week in Assisi and central Italy, capstoning our year-long anniversary celebration. We will cross the finish line of this marathon of partying when the whole family comes out to Whidbey Island for Christmas at our house.

Footnotes to the year’s non-stop revelry
Tom taught a Bible study and biblical Greek class on Mondays and a seminar on the Minor Prophets, served on the boards of Whidbey Island Theological Studies and the Pacific Rim Institute for Environmental Stewardship, co-authored a book Healing Church Strife in the New Testament and Today, assisted two authors in the editing of their new books, lectured for the GFU Leadership Forum, and helped to inaugurate the Johnson Leadership Forum at the University of Sioux Falls. 

Michele continues to do taxes (January through March) as a volunteer for the AARP free tax-prep service, serves as treasurer and volunteer for Island County Habitat for Humanity, participated in BeachWatcher environmental programs including detailed (e.g., species-counting) beach-monitoring, does the books and helps distribute food twice a month for the Coupeville food bank, known as Gifts from the Heart, went to Michigan in the fall to spent three weeks with her mother, Jane, in Ludington, and has recently taken up knitting.  

We thank you all for your part in these joys, and we are grateful for all the blessings and challenges that draw us closer together. 

Merry Christmas and a truly Happy New Year in 2016 from our house to yours!
Michele and Tom Johnson

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Why I Support Gay/Lesbian Marriage

My View of Gay/Lesbian Marriage
First, a little context. I was asked to write this essay by good Christian friends, people I love and respect, who do not understand my support for gay marriage. How can a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, as they and I do, hold this viewpoint? Well, here is a personal account, not a logical argument, for how I came to hold my outlook on this issue.

I have come to the views I currently hold on gay and lesbian marriage, on the basis of a long period of reflection on biblical texts (authoritative for Christians), reason (what seems logical or rational to me in the light of evidence), and my experience with friends and relatives who are gay or lesbian. All these factors shape my understanding of homosexuality and gay marriage.

I never believed that homosexuality itself was wrong, immoral, or unethical. But I did believe, at one time, that the practice of it was wrong for Christians. It seemed to me that certain passages in the New Testament forbid sexual acts between persons of the same gender, Romans 1:26-28, in particular. And that opinion was primarily before I knew any gay or lesbian Christians.

Over the years, I have become good friends with many gay and lesbian people, most of them Christians, including family members, church members, and colleagues at work. This experience has deepened my understanding of the issues involved and caused me to think again about my understanding of that Romans text. 

Science also has played an important role. This is part of the role reason or common sense plays in the outcome. There is no doubt that people are born with genetic predisposition to heterosexuality and homosexuality. How you were treated as you grew up in those earliest years also plays a role. But, no one chooses to be gay or straight. This disposition is a given; it is pre-choice.  To me, that translates to: “God made me the way I am.” Personally I am glad to be what I am. But that also means that I want gay and lesbian people to be happy with their sexuality as well. “Do unto others . . . ” applies.

I suppose you could say, as I used to, before I knew the scientific data, that, “OK, you are gay. You just have to act celibately. You do not get to practice your sexuality. I do, but you don’t.” But now, that position seems irrational, unjust, and uncaring. I used to think that way, though, because that’s what I thought the Bible taught. 

Then I read again those biblical texts that appeared to ban homosexual conduct. The more I read them, the more I saw that Paul was writing about sexual abuse. Homosexual abuse of boys was common in the Greco-Roman world, and Paul believed that it was wrong in God’s eyes. He also observed the flaunting of one’s homosexuality in terms of irresponsible, unrestrained sexual expression and its unhealthy consequences. That too he believed was against God’s good purposes for human well-being. But Paul was not writing about (for or against) healthy, committed, natural attraction and affection between persons of the same gender. 

I believe now that the same moral rules should govern both homosexual and heterosexual conduct. Lustful, promiscuous practice is harmful to everyone, gay or straight. Faithful committed love is good for all partners, gay or straight. My experience may be unusual, but none of the dozens of gay and lesbian people I know personally think unrestrained sexual practice, sleeping around, is a good thing. That is not what healthy people desire. In fact, there is far more sexually abusive and irresponsible conduct (rape, incest, spouse abuse, adultery, pornography, etc.) by heterosexuals than by homosexuals. 

Which brings me to gay marriage. You can see where this train of thought and experience is leading, and, rightly so. If one wants gay and lesbian people to act morally, responsibly, and  in a way that is healthy for them and for society, how can we, how can I, be opposed to gay marriage? Marriage is the socially responsible, God-intended means of faithfully exercising one’s given sexuality and building a home. It is inconsistent with all that has been said above to proscribe marriage to gay and lesbian people. This is the view I hold, not just as a reasonable human being, but as a Christian. I believe this viewpoint is more consistent with what Jesus and the New Testament teach, about love and justice, than other responses.

But I didn’t get here over night. So, if you do not hold this view, I am in no position to judge you. Think it through, pray it through, for yourself, and see what seems right to you, in the light of your understanding of the Bible, your experience, and the best use of reason and the evidence.

Tom Johnson

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Our Christmas Letter 2014

At Christmas 2014
This is a rambling account of our year. Please feel free to stop reading at any point. There were pictures in the .pdf version. Ask me and I'll send you that version as well.

On January 4, the day the family left after a wonderful Christmas time together here in Coupeville, we were in the airport ready to leave for San Jose del Cabo, when we noticed a hemorrhage in Michele’s eye. Checking it out, we discovered that it might be serious, and so took the shuttle back to the Island and had an emergency appointment with an ophthalmologist. Canceled the Mexico trip. Eventually, we found the cause, no surgery needed, the bleeding stopped, and eventually the floaters became less visible.

Michele kept busy all year working as a volunteer with the Lighthouse Environmental Project, accountant for Habitat for Humanity, tax preparer for the AARP free tax prep service, and at our local food bank, Gifts from the Heart, where she is the treasurer and distribution helper.

Tom continued all year to teach the Gospel of John to a growing (now 25-30), ecumenical group, and Greek to four fearless senior adults. He also serves at two churches (Episcopal and Lutheran) in a variety of roles (worship leading, committee chairing, teaching) and serves on the Boards of
Whidbey Island Theological Studies (WITS) and Whidbey Island Community Education. He also had a couple of dysplastic nevi removed from his back with more to come.

We hosted a Super Bowl Party in early February, and with a lot of shouting, beer, and snacks, we celebrated the Seattle Seahawks win. Not sure about their fate this year, but there is still hope.

Amy and Tom finished their translation of Sophronius’ Life of Mary of Egypt, which will appear eventually in a book Amy is writing on this saint who lived from about A.D. 344-421. Tom is also co-writing a book on “Strife in the New Testament” with a friend who is a professional conflict mediator and fellow Presbyterian pastor.

We saw about ten Mariners games this year, including the 3-game series with Detroit in May-June. We missed the playoffs by one game, which will be easily made up for by the acquisition of Nelson Cruz, right? I am not talking about the George Fox fantasy baseball league, where I dwell so close to the cellar perennially that there is mold on my bat and glove.

Jason, Helen, Nina (8), and Nathaniel (5.5) visited us for a week in April, and we spent a week with them and the rest of the family in July at their beach house in Rockport, Mass. Hiking, boating,

and relaxing. Helen also ran her first marathon this year! We are all very proud of her. Jason works for Merck as a VP for “scientific informatics.” 

In March we spent a week at Eagle Crest, and we are planning to do the same this year to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. That celebration will be extended in the fall, God willing, during a three-week trip to Venice, Italy, cruising the Mediterranean and to Assisi.

Michele spent a week in Michigan in April with her Mom and sisters, who live north and east of Grand Rapids in Remus. We will both go there this summer as well. Jane is 94 and doing well.

We just got back after Thanksgiving from a short week with Sarah and Matt at their new house in Roseville, MN. It is near Sarah’s teaching at St. Thomas University (psychology dept.). Matt commutes several days to Rochester, MN, where he works for the Mayo Clinic designing new software for patient/staff interface. Basenjis Ruby and Momo were glad to see us too.

Grandson Sam (13) came out here for a few days of fishing and crabbing this summer. He caught his first salmon. We shipped it back on dry ice to Colorado, where he also had a thriving crepe business in Leadville. His crepe cart pulled in up to $200 a day! Peter’s new business, crafting models of the CO mountains (and other spots), is going well. Amy continues to be an associate editor for The Christian Century magazine, but doesn’t have to travel to Chicago monthly anymore. She travels too for speaking at and attending writing and spirituality conferences.

Our friends from college days and beyond, Dennis and Sharon Eicher came for a few days in August, and we have stopped in at their place in MN the past two Thanksgivings. In October we went to Kauai with our friends Dwight and Judy Smith. We really enjoyed exploring this beautiful Hawaiian island.

It has been an eventful year. If anything, we feel that it has been too busy, but for us that is way better than the opposite. We both like to stay active in service and enjoying with thanksgiving the lives we have been given.

Grace and peace at this joyful Christmas season, 
Tom and Michele Johnson