Monday, December 8, 2014

Not about Ferguson, but...

So much of our fear and conflict comes from our sense of us-ness. Who is us and who is them? When our class is threatened, when our safety is at stake, we are fearful, and we respond with an us-versus-them conflict. 

But what if we altered our perception so that the threat of them now was instead included as part of our us-ness? Then the conflict wouldn't be us-versus-them, it would become an internal matter, it may no longer be categorized as a conflict at all.

Christ redefines the us-ness-es. But it is not easy to reorient our own ways of dividing up classes along the new lines of his Kingdom.

Last summer ('13) we were in St. Louis for my nephew's baptism. The pastor at Grace and Peace is Kurt Lutjens. At the beginning of the service Pastor Lutjens made some interesting comments about the recent Supreme Court decision about marriage. He lamented the way marriage policy was going, particularly in reference to homosexual marriage. But the way he expressed himself on the subject is what caught my attention. His remarks were not made out of us vs. them fear, but out of love.

He talked about how these decisions and the way in which we, as a culture, talk and act about marriage and sexuality create an ever increasing burden for our brothers and sisters who struggle with same sex attraction. The world's message that all sex is okay, that it is our right, and that resistance and intolerance is morally wrong only increases the temptations of our struggling brothers and sisters and reduces the volume of the scant fews voices of encouragement these fellow Christians have in their lives. He was speaking with our struggling brothers and sisters as belonging to his us-ness.

I was impressed with the genuine and natural way in which Pastor Lutjens spoke about the difficulties of our hurting brothers and sisters.  I could only conclude that the reason love flowed so naturally from this man was that he must know and love people who struggle with this temptation. When all we know of those who struggle with same sex attraction are the extremes of culture and politics then it sort of makes sense that we'd respond out of fear.  It is easy for a middle class heterosexual Christian to see and respond to these kinds of things with fear.  We take a stand against these things because we see it affecting our future, how it impedes on the structures we built up to keep our lives safe and manageable, how it tips the political balances against the side we fight on.  We see public and political rulings as hurting us, but we don't know who us is. But when we get to know the struggles of even just one of the thousands of fellow Christians struggling against same sex attraction then we see the conflict in a new light. A fuller light. It is a conflict presently more tragic because it is now part of our us-ness. It is not safe. But because of Love, it is also more hopeful than any political victory.
"There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God's commandment. Wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of almighty God. Not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

Friday, May 16, 2014

This Aint No Girly Discipleship

The Lutheran Service Book has a hymn called One Thing's Needed about Mary (sitting at the feet of Jesus in the Mary and Martha story). Here are some lines that annoy me - "How were Mary's thoughts devoted, her eternal joy to find." "How kindled her heart, how devout was its feeling." "All earthly concerns she forgot for her Lord."

Would we say these things about Peter as he sat at Jesus's feet? Were the male disciples sitting at Jesus feet and listening to his teaching forgetting their earthly concerns? Were they following Jesus to find the kind of eternal joy we associate with these lines?

This kind of casting of Jesus and the Kingdom as some sort of spiritual nirvana obscures the revolutionary nature of the Kingdom, and it un-mans humanity, it takes us and even Jesus himself out of history. And it also cheapens what Mary was about. Mary was hearing the call to discipleship, she was moving to the front lines of the revolution. It was a brave move by Mary to hear the call to discipleship as the same for women as it was for men - a call to trust and follow him as he changes heaven and earth.

Martha's problem with Mary wasn't that Mary was being lazy or emotional or taking a mystical break.  Martha's problem with Mary was that in her mind Mary had no business being there. It was a social problem, and an anthropological problem, and one that most of the male disciples were probably thinking to themselves in that moment too.

Martha thinks a faithful woman is one who concerns herself with the types of things she is doing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing those things, and faithfulness can and often does require that kind of service. But Martha needs to learn that discipleship is one calling for all, a higher calling. And it is the One calling that clarifies and glorifies all callings, it clarifies the very things she is doing.  A calling that should relieve her anxiety by subordinating her work within "the good portion."

There aren't two types of discipleship, there is one. And we start there as we seek to be faithful in our vocations. Jesus reorganizes their concept of faithful discipleship by lifting up humanity (including women) as co-laborers with the King himself as servant warriors.

Maybe Mary was being like the hymn describes. Spiritual devotion is good, eternal reflection if good, internal joy is good.  But if that is all we describe her as we are missing the revolutionary guts of what was happening. We are going against the very point of the story by creating a different species of discipleship for Mary and Martha than what male disciples are called to. We know this is a problem and, unfortunately, the way we often try to fix this false duality is by promoting and elevating the wrong species as being the true discipleship.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Filling In the Gaps in Our Story: A Review of Joel Alvis' Race & Religion: Southern Presbyterians, 1946-1983

I've been a member of the Presbyterian Church in America since 1990. In 1994, I went off to the denominational seminary and received very good training for my present profession as a pastor; a profession that I've enjoyed for 17 years. One important lacuna in my studies was a thorough understanding of our denominational history. Of course, much of the blame for that rests on my own shoulders. The subject of Church History is important and yet also quite vast. After all, how much attention should one give to PCA history when there's the Early, Medieval, and Reformation Church to consider? Even compared to the topic of American Church history - with wonderful historians like Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, E. Brooks Holifield, and George Marsden; PCA history just seems so inconsequential.

Having only started in 1973 as a split from the PCUS, there were still plenty of men around in the PCA who had lived through those difficult years by the time I was ordained. I still remember my first General Assembly in 1998. There Dr. Kennedy Smart opened up the 25th General Assembly with a rousing message where he highlighted many of the struggles that theological conservatives had to overcome back then. One point, that received something of a rousing "Yea!" from the audience, was the stance that was taken against the "social gospel." Now, the common way of teaching about the "social gospel" in PCA circles was to always set it up as an either/or and not a both/and. The "social gospel" was no gospel at all; only reaching physical needs while ignoring the spiritual. Yet, hearing the audience reaction in 1998 left me with an unsettled feeling. Sitting there, I couldn't help but ask myself, How many conservative Southern Presbyterians in the '60's and early '70's would understand the phrase "against the social gospel" for "no blacks in our church?" I was framing the question rather starkly, but it kept nagging me nonetheless.

Joel L. Alvis, Jr. goes quite a ways into answering this question. Race & Religion is a thorough and fair account of Southern Presbyterianism's struggle with the issue of race. Ministry to blacks in the South following the Civil War was strongly paternalistic. This greatly limited the ecclesiastical autonomy of black Christians and encoded a pattern of segregation into the DNA of southern Presbyterians. Furthermore, the so-called doctrine of the "Spirituality of the Church" was used by white southern ministers to provide a theological justification for avoiding the social realities of segregationism.

The social upheaval of World War II, began to force many in the church to reassess the issue of race in society. It was the beginning of the Civil Rights Era. This reassessment had both advocates for change and defenders of the status quo. This generally split along liberal and conservative lines within the church. These lines had already been formed in the modernist/fundamentalist trenches of the previous 100 years. Alvis demonstrates that race was irreducibly intertwined within this liberal/conservative struggle within Southern Presbyterianism.

My denomination emerged from that struggle. It would be wrong to say that the PCA came into existence because of racism - that would be a gross over-statement. But it would also be wrong to say that racism was effectively distilled from the host of others issues dividing the church at that time. Alvis, doesn't go into how the PCA has dealt with this issue over the years - that would have taken him well beyond the scope of his book. For that subject I would recommend Kenneth Taylor's article that you can download here:

We are all story-tellers and we come to understand our history through stories. Alvis' book provides an important paragraph to the story of the Presbyterian Church in America. It is a book that should be read by anyone wishing to serve as one of its leaders. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Go forth and make Finnish goalies...

One of my all-time favorite radio shows is a morning sports talk show in St. Louis hosted by an oddly matched trio of gentlemen. One of them is the long time sports guy for the local CBS TV station. His name is Doug Vaughn. Every once in a while Doug will go into a trance and start reciting a bunch of weird hockey metaphors. Here are a few examples I strung together. This has nothing to do with my main point. They just have to be shared with the wider world.
It’s high time for some of these saucer-slapping snipers and the rugged rear guards to strap on the spurs and ride out on out to the forest and let the woodchoppers clear a trail right to grandma’s house and start dumping some meatballs in the crock pot. … They blasted an awful lot of buckshot at the turkey but only one of the bb’s found the gobbler’s pie hole. When you’re bearing down on the pipe cleaner you’ve go to go up top shelf where momma hides the peanut butter or down low in the corner where the mice nibble on the baseboard, you try to go five-hole on the pillow stacker every time and it’s just not going to work. The police of the crease will mace your face if you don’t shoot the boot scoot. -Doug Vaughn
But what I am really interested in is a great article about Finnish goalies in this month's Atlantic called, The Oracle of Ice Hockey. Here is a extended quote from the article remarking on one of the foundational differences in the Finnish goalie school.
Jukka Ropponen, who trained a number of Finland’s goaltending coaches and has subsequently worked with coaches in Switzerland, Russia, and other countries, said, “The foundation in Finland [of goalie training] is probably better than in any other country.” He spoke candidly about the difficulties young goaltenders encounter. “One of the big problems today, everywhere in the world, is that young kids are just dropping down in the butterfly [technique], before they can even skate properly. Young kids see their heroes on TV butterflying all the time. Somebody lifts their stick up with the puck and, boom, they’re down on their knees.” But when overemphasized, the butterfly can be limiting to long-term development. The Finnish system, Ropponen said, is “great for young kids because they have to learn to skate. What I always preach in my system is: We’re not training kids to be their best when they’re 13. I’m looking at what you need to do as a 13-year-old so you can reach your full potential.”
It’s easy to dismiss this last point, which has nothing to do with the butterfly, nor with any sort of specific technique, but with patience. “The thing with the goalies—a lot of the goalies—is that they mature later, most of the good goalies. Kiprusoff was the same way,” Ropponen said. In Canada, the goalie who physically develops the fastest, whose parents have the money to send him to summer camps and buy the best equipment, and who makes the select touring squads, will get the best coaching. Canada is inadvertently weeding out the kid who would have ultimately become its Olympic starter 15 years down the road.
There is some significance here for how we think through parenting, discipleship, our own maturation, and our ministry goals in general. It is easy to be distracted by the realities of the moment and miss the long view. We hear stories about exciting youth groups or college ministries or worship services that are attracting hundreds of young people to the church, but if none of those people are still in the church four years later then something is fundamentally wrong.

 Or, in an oddly similar way, we can hold our children (or adults) to standards too high for them in the moment. We can be determined that they can and will be our idea of their best right now. And we are surprised when they rebel when they grow up. Tedd Tripp describes this (in his book Shepherding a Child's Heart) as taping fruit to the tree vs. shepherding the heart so that it will grow to bear fruit.

Finland's population is significantly smaller than most of the other hockey powers. Yet a substantial number of the premier goalies in the world are from Finland. Finnish goalie coaches understand what it means to be one who is and will continue to be a thriving goalie. The coach their goalies in such away that a thriving goalie at age 13, or 15, or 20 may not look to the eye like they are thriving at all. We can learn something about discipleship from these Finnish coaches and the way they train their "pillow stackers," their "pipe cleaners," their "police of the crease." Jukka Ropponen demonstrates the wisdom of Proverbs 22:6 when he says, "We’re not training kids to be their best when they’re 13. I’m looking at what you need to do as a 13-year-old so you can reach your full potential."

Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Proverbs 22:6 (ESV)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Praying that we can rightly receive good

C.S. Lewis's Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, was published posthumously on yesterday's date 50 years ago. Here is an extended selection to mark the day:

"I am beginning to feel that we need a preliminary act of submission [in prayer, particularly in reference to "thy will be done"] not only towards possible future afflictions but towards possible future blessings. I know it sounds fantastic; but think it over. It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good. Do you know what I mean? On every level of our life - in our religious experience, in our gastronomic, erotic, aesthetic and social experience - we are always harking back to some occasion which seemed to us to reach perfection, setting that up as a norm, and depreciating all other occasions by comparison. But these other occasions, I now suspect, are often full of their own new blessing, if only we would lay ourselves open to it. God shows us a new facet of the glory, and we refuse to look at it because we’re still looking for the old one. And of course we don’t get that. You can’t, at the twentieth reading, get again the experience of reading Lycidas for the first time. But what you do get can be in its own way as good.

This applies especially to the devotional life. Many religious people lament that the first fervours of their conversion have died away. They think - sometime rightly, but not, I believe, always - that their sins account for this. THey may even try by pitiful efforts of will to revive what now seem to have been the golden days. But were those fervours - the operative word is those - ever intended to last?

It would be rash to say that there is any prayer which God never grants. But the strongest candidate is the prayer we might express in the single word encore. And how should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once.

And the joke, or tragedy, of it all is that these golden moments in the past, which are so tormenting if we erect them into a norm, are entirely nourishing, wholesome, and enchanting if we are content to accept them for what they are, for memories. Properly bedded down in a past which we do not miserably try to conjure back, they will send up exquisite growths. Leave the bulbs alone, and the new flowers will come up. Grub them up and hope, by fondling and sniffing, to get last year’s blooms, and you will get nothing. “Unless a seed die….”

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Wedding Homily for Peter & Emily Davis

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."
(Rev 21:1-4 ESV)

Peter and Emily,

What we heard today from the Book of Revelation was an amazing description of John’s vision of the consummation of time and history and the joining of Christ with his Church in eternity.  And in the midst of his description of this vision he presents to us a picture of a wedding.

Your wedding today, Peter and Emily, is an act of witness-bearing to the hope and faith that Christ’s people all share. This is the hope and faith that one day our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will return to raise us from our graves and join us in an eternal celebration of joy and happiness.

In the so-called fairy tales of Western children’s literature, we often read at the conclusion of these stories that a handsome young prince has rescued his beautiful princess and together they are finally joined in marriage where we are told they live “happily ever after.”

Occasionally, well-meaning people point to this sort of ending as though it were a flaw in the narrative. They will rightly point out that marriage can often be full of real difficulties, immense challenges, and even genuine heartache.  However well-meaning they might be, they are certainly wrong in their claim that these fairy-tale endings are a flaw. Indeed, by concluding the story with a blissful wedding, such stories bear witness to the larger story in which our own lives and for that matter, the entire world participate.

The Bible begins with the union of a man and a woman and the tragic fall of our first parents. But from this fall comes the promise of redemption through the seed of the woman. Thus the whole story of the Bible embraces this promise and reveals the unfolding fulfillment of this promise. The climax of this story is, of course, the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through this life of faithful obedience which resulted in his death, glorious resurrection, and ascension to his heavenly throne; Jesus Christ has not only restored us in him to the integrity of our first parents, but in him we now participate in glorious new creation of which he is the fountain-head.

So our lives now are lived by faith in and obedience to our Lord and Savior who has left us with the promise of his glorious return. However, in this loving care he has not left us without a helper. Upon us he has showered the Holy Spirit to gift, guide and equip us in our time of waiting.

Now at first blush it may sound like I’ve sort of left the subject of marriage far afield; but I have not. Peter and Emily, by means of the way you live together as husband and wife; submitting yourselves to one another in the Lord, learning the hard lessons of patience, self-renunciation, and forgiveness; through all of this and more, your marriage proclaims the grand story of God’s gracious, self-giving love in the rescue of his bride, the Church.

Peter, as husband you are called to a humble, self-sacrificial love of your bride that she may flourish in beauty and godliness. Emily, as wife you are called to an honoring submission to your groom, that he too may flourish in his calling to be the head and servant of this newly formed household. As both of you serve the Lord in your callings as husband and wife, your lives will show forth a picture of our life in Christ before a lost and needy world.

So Peter and Emily, while we recognize that the so-called fairy-tale wedding of children’s literature is not something we naively anticipate; as if it were to unfold immediately in the short history of your life; we rightly embrace the fairy-tale for it, like your life together in Christ bears witness to the consummation of time and history when our heavenly Bridegroom will join his glorious bride for the marriage supper of the Lamb.

So with this picture of eternal joy before us, Peter and Emily I have one thing to say to you:

May you live happily ever after.

Pastor Wayne Larson
November 16, 2013

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Prince George, A Joy To Us All

People go nuts about the British royal family - Britons, Americans, and probably a bunch of other folks.  What's up with that?

Serendipitously, the daily readings in The Business of Heaven (a collection of selections from C. S. Lewis's writings posthumously arranged by biographer, Walter Hooper) for the eve and day of the public revelation of Prince George's name happen to be selections touching on the subject of monarchy.
July 23rd
We Britons should rejoice that we have contrived to reach much legal democracy (we still need more of the economic) without losing our ceremonial monarchy. For there, right in the midst of our lives, is that which satisfies the craving for inequality, and acts as a permanent reminder that medicine is not food. Hence a man's reaction to monarchy is a kind of test. Monarchy can easily be 'debunked'; but watch the faces, mark well the accents, of the debunkers. These are the men whose taproot in Eden has been cut: whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach - men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour rnillionaires, athletes or film stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.
A desire for monarchy, even ceremonial monarchy across the ocean, is a desire basic to our humanity.  Man was created as subject. Kingship, stewardship, servanthood, these are natural to creation.  We champion democracy, and for many good reasons, but we never succeed in being fully democratic (thankfully).  Lewis points out how we raise up kings wherever we can, denying it all the while.  A ceremonial monarchy is a gift that gives proper shape to our God given need for hierarchy.

In the second selection he uses a critique of Christianity as an introduction to speak more on the significance of monarchy.
July 24th
Corineus compared modern Christianity with the modern English monarchy: the forms of kingship have been retained, but the reality has been abandoned.... 'Why not cut the cord?' asks Corineus. 'Everything would be much easier if you would free your thought from this vestigial mythology.' To be sure: far easier. Life would be far easier for the mother of an invalid child if she put it into an Institution and adopted someone else's healthy baby instead. Life would be far easier to many a man if he abandoned the woman he has actually fallen in love with and married someone else because she is more suitable. The only defect of the healthy baby and the suitable woman is that they leave out the patient's only reason for bothering about a child or wife at all. 'Would not conversation be much more rational than dancing?' said Jane Austen's Miss Bingley. 'Much more rational,' replied Mr Bingley, 'but much less like a ball.' In the same way, it would be much more rational to abolish the English monarchy. But how if, by doing so, you leave out the one element in our State which matters most? How if the monarchy is the channel through which all the vital elements of citizenship - loyalty, the consecration of secular life, the hierarchical principle, splendour, ceremony, continuity - still trickle down to irrigate the dustbowl of modem economic Statecraft?
I think the implication here for Christianity, and especially the cold, dying, high church of England of Lewis's day (and today), is that even in its present state God still preserves the world through the church.  And to toss the stateliness that remains for the sake of internal consistency would be tossing the last vital part.

But for today's purpose I include it as another comment of validation to those out there who are excited about royal weddings and royal babies, and great names like George.  Don't let the de-bunkers get you down.