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….”