Thursday, January 29, 2009

Practical Ecclesiology 9 - Matters of the Heart

I was introduced to Bob Bennett in college, in the mid-80's. He has a golden tenor voice, girded up with expressive guitar work, and singing images that I found by turns beautiful, uplifting, heart rending, and challenging. He does very very good work. He is not, however, the sort of singer songwriter that will really ever make the big splash. I don't think he would put up with the sort of poop that is required to make that big splash. 

I have always sensed in his work a rigorous integration of his faith, his life and his art. I appreciate that. 

This song speaks for itself. Listen to it, and those of you who know our church may find that it touches on some of our current dilemnas.

25 Things

There is a thing going around Facebook where you list 25 things about yourself and post it to your profile. Then you "tag" 25 people on your friends list so that they will look at your list and create one of their own. After I got tagged for this by three different people, I decided to just get it over with. 

It's funny to notice the kind of things people choose to put up on their list. The design of the exercise is intentionally random, but it reveals much about the participants state of mind, or state of life at the time when they write their list. As I often say about such lists, they provide a fascinating psychological profile. I have no idea what that profile means, but it is fascinating. 

Realizing that my facebook audience is somewhat circumscribed by my pickiness about my friends, I thought I would post the list here where anybody can read it. I'm not picky about who reads my blog. You can thank me or curse me for that as seems appropriate to you.

1.      Whenever people forward emails asking to send cards to cancerous children (or any other spamtastically perpetrated falsehood), I make it my personal mission to let them know it’s a hoax.

2.      I cut my own hair. Sometimes I miss a spot. My wife lets me know. There isn't that much so it can be hard to tell.

3.      I learned to ski when I was 42 years old.

4.      When my Mom was dying last year, my 7 year old made me a card. She drew a picture of Grammie surrounded by a heart. It said, “You are loved.” It’s my favorite and I scanned it and it’s my computer desktop.

5.      I can sing all of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”. I often do. Out loud. It’s my kids’ favorite.

6.      I was baptized in a lake in NH. I remember watching the leeches trying to attach themselves to the pastor’s foot while he was praying. It was funny to watch him dance in the water and try to maintain his holy demeanor at the same time.

7.      I like snow. Really. I do.

8.      I suspect that year ‘round warm weather breeds all manner of disease and character deficiency.

9.      My family has a pet rat.

10.  I once had a gun pulled on me while selling books door to door.

11.  I can recite “Gunga Din” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” from memory.

12.  I enjoy reminding my kids that people pay thousands of dollars to hear me talk, and they get it for free.

13.  I own 4 cords of firewood that I cut and split myself, and no woodstove.

14.  I look forward to the next time I can run out of the sauna, across the snow, and jump into the lake through a hole cut in the ice, at midnight. That’s good living.

15.  I am learning the joys of single malt scotch whiskey.

16.  I love bacon. Bacon is a gift from God, with the help of the pig.

17.  I never played organized official football in my life. And I still have my knees.

18.  One of my legs could feed a family of four in Guatemala for 3 weeks, possibly four if they are frugal.

19.  I have a dent in my skull, from jumping up and hitting my head on a low ceiling.

20.  I can flare my nostrils. It’s a hereditary thing. I’m waiting to see if my kids can do it.

21.  I once raced someone in a contest to see who could eat a paper napkin the fastest. I lost, but not for lack of trying. I’ve never forgotten that Peter. You up for a rematch?

22.  When swimming, if I attempt to do the dead man’s float, I will end up floating vertically, with the top of my head 2 inches below the surface of the water.

23.  I once walked 27 miles in one day because a friend promised to take me to an all you can eat restaurant. I could have walked farther, but I had to meet him at 7:00 p.m. It kind of irked me that I still had two hours of good walking daylight left, but hey – the Western Sizzler was calling.

24.  God has gifted me with children that are hungry for books.

25.  My wife loves me. This is no small thing. You have no idea. No really. You don’t.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Practical Ecclesiology 8 - All Religion is Local

I lifted this from Michael Spencer over at InternetMonk. It is classic Spencer and just worth quoting at length. I recommend his writing. From his recent post Theology, Depression, and the Unsolvable Problem of the Right Church.

Now, I want to get down to this matter of the One True Church. If you judge that you are a person who believes there is only one true denomination, then I believe you should check out the candidates from the RCC to the EC to the LCMS to the local Church of Christ (if you are in west Kentucky) and reduce your choices to the actual candidates. You simply don’t need to mess around with denominations that don’t believe there’s only one true franchise or that believe we are all part of the broken, fragmented body of Christ. If you are in a typical Baptist church and you really believe that Jesus made the successor of Peter the living authority, then go to the RCC…please. Whatever the issues are that are keeping you from doing that aren’t very important.

Now, if you say “I just don’t know….” you should keep reading.

10. I am a critical and analytical person. Send me to ten churches, and I will find ten things to like and ten things not to like at each one. I do not believe that any congregation is an expression of the one true church so much that there aren’t problems. But this is my nature. It’s EASY for me to see the brokenness and hard for me to see anyone’s claim to being the one, divine “it.”

Now, if I am convinced that one Denomination is right, my problem is going to be this: I still have to belong to a congregation, and a congregation is the place where the “essentials” are worked out in real life, not just in my head. So if I believe that the RCC has it right, I won’t be hanging out with B16 or Scott Hahn. I’ll be at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, a fine congregation that doesn’t have a piano, that has congregational meetings that make me want to be Shinto and a priest who thinks a homily is practice for his missed career in stand-up. Oh yes, the Catechism is in the church library, but THIS is where I am a member, out here where no one knows what I’m even talking about.

If I believe the Southern Baptist Convention is the church Jesus started, then I’m clearly insane, but for the sake of the illustration…’s this wonderful statement of faith, and a great missions network, and Al Mohler and those fine Calvinistic Ascol boys. But at my church….doctrine has been replaced with “How to be a great parent” sermons, the deacons have fired the last three pastors in less than 4 years, the music is a cross between an 80’s metal band made up of fat 45 year old men and the senior adult choir singing from the 1956 hymnal. We haven’t baptized a convert since 1993. Our current pastor looks like Ryan Seacrest and the youth minister looks like the Mindfreak guy.

That’s your church. Oh sure, you can drive elsewhere and you can improve. (I drive two hours each way.) You can work for improvement. You can do all that stuff. But here’s my point: You chose the one true denomination, you still have to deal with your local church. It is the place you do or don’t hear the Bible. It’s the place you do or don’t start churches and do evangelism. It’s the place you are or are not taught the faith you read about on that great web site.

The search for the one true denomination will drive some of you into depression, especially if you can’t admit that no such church exists and that you may never be happy if you find it. That every church is a compromise. That they all require you to live with some tension. You are convinced the LCMS has it right doctrinally? Great. Been to a local LCMS church lately? It’s a dice roll. That’s not an indictment. That’s the grown up world and it’s true across the board.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mr. Obama's Inaugural Address

I must say that I am immensely pleased to see that the art of high oratory still lives. Mr. Obama’s words, spoken before millions in his Inaugural Address, were inspiring, thoughtfully conceived, powerfully delivered and altogether stirring to the heart. I felt both uplifted and challenged by his address, grimly clear on the work that lies ahead, yet brave and ready to do my part to take it on. The best thing is that this was not a merely political speech. It rose to the level of civic oratory – words for the people, to the people, to give us heart when our hearts are wavering.

I can imagine that there are cynics who will pooh-pooh the use of high-falutin’ language and fancy buzzwords. They will sit back, with arms crossed and lips curled, and say, “We’ll see. Just watch. He has yet to prove himself.” I would say that the proving has begun. It is by no means complete, but it has begun. So to remain cold and dispassionate, to look down your nose at words like those he spoke today is to remain a cynic to spite your own nose. 

One might think that he is using them self-servingly, for that is what politicians do. Yet even if that were true, that does not mean that we need to receive them that way. The ideas upon which Mr. Obama drew for his first speech as President were so grounded in our founding documents, so woven into the thought fabric of the American experience, so fundamental to our unique culture, that if you choose to stand apart from them you risk appearing to turn your back on the best our country stands for. It does not matter to which party you belong. As Americans we share The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the legacies of many great men and women who worked and lived and served and lead us over many many years. This address was in the best traditions of all those. So whatever you think of the man, his words, his call to us, was deeper and broader than himself and calls us to look beyond him to the native and bedrock truth of those words themselves. 

Now the real work begins (well, after all the dancing and drinking anyways). I once doubted his capacity to lead. Knowing human nature as I do, I will always reserve a portion of that doubt for no man can live up to even his own highest expectation of himself, never mind an entire nation's hopes. Nevertheless my sincere prayer is that Mr. Obama will continue to prove himself. That he will indeed become the lens through which the American people will focus our energies to light the future, the fulcrum that will help us to raise ourselves out of these dark times together. It is a high calling we have called him to, and he has echoed it back to us. Let us respond with all the strength of heart and hand and brain, together.

God Bless America.

Read the full transcript of Barak Obama's Inaugural Address here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Practical Ecclesiology 7 - What is Church For?

There is an assumption in certain circles of the Evangelical Sub-Culture that a church as only one purpose and mission – to create new Christians. I will allow as they might be right about that. I will also allow as how they might not. The real answer to the question of what is a church for is likely more complex and subtle. I alluded to this in a previous post when I asked a series of questions about “What’s the difference…”

This assumption is also stated a different way. I have often heard it said, especially lately, that if a church is not growing there is something wrong. I understand the principle, and there is likely something of value in that assertion. Yet it still leaves me with a powerful sense that there is more to the life of a church than growth. In fact, I believe I could make a strong case that the mega-church structure is at root a dysfunctional structure in terms of both making disciples and raising them to a state of true spiritual strength and health. Excessively large churches impress me more like kudzu. It’s fine if it would just stay where it’s planted, but when it gets so huge that it starts swallowing houses, something’s clearly out of whack.

At some level, I actually resent the implication that anything less than explosive growth in size makes a church less than useful to God, or that it is a sign that God is not blessing a ministry. This resentment can create challenges of it’s own, as I tend to want to use that as a smokescreen to avoid dealing the problems in front of me.

Of course, the challenge facing our church is of a different genre. We are small. So small that it creates problems of it’s own. We have limited financial resources to engage in ministries that we think are important. We have limited resources in people to actually conduct the daily and weekly business of the church. We have very limited resources in time and energy as a result. Our size means that we are pretty good at looking after one another. And I think that we are generally welcoming to the stranger among us – although in truth we don’t get that many. This is no small thing. One of my favorite parts about our little group is that we are NOT  political. I have observed so many church groups that are torn apart and stunted by political undercurrents as one person or faction pushes an agenda that may or may not be about Jesus at all, but may be some thinly veiled idolatry. I have looked for that in my church, and I just don’t see it. The tenor of our conversations, the give and take is always vigorous, yet still generous and forbearing, mindful of the presence of Jesus that dwells within each of us. We truly enjoy each other, and seek to both challenge and encourage each other whenever we meet. It’s good good stuff.

Yet there is a sense of threat overhanging it all. Without some kind of increase in the size of the group, we remain at the mercy of the winds of change. If someone leaves the church, it can make a major dent in our money, manpower, and energy. We aren’t seeking to become mega, but we are facing the fact that we really need to get serious if we want to move from micro to mini or even middling size.

If we decide to go that route, to really dig in and get to work on creating more disciples, that will take a serious commitment of time and effort on the part of virtually everyone in the church. We know that the Holy Spirit is not limited by our weakness, and it is all fine to pray for a revival, but it seems that in most cases, the Holy Spirit prefers to work through hearts already on fire to light the fires in others nearby. Technique alone (marketing, location, programs, etc) will not cause healthy growth in our church, but it’s not necessarily a bad place to start.

I’m not totally convinced that this is a necessary step. We have the option of simply continuing to do what we do. There is much good in continuing as we are. That’s not in question. The challenge is that it just FEELS as if it’s only a matter of time, before something tips over our finely balanced cart and the whole thing could come tumbling down. This accidental and unplanned crisis is a hard way to go. Now this may or may not be true. Who can predict what the future holds. Yet this sense of uncertainty is there for anyone who really looks at what is going on.

So we weigh the options. More details on how we are doing that at a later time.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Seeds of the 4th Revolution

It’s about time I came out about Robert Farrar Capon.

I am now reading my 6th book written by the skinny priest. It has given me enough of a taste of him to make some reasonably grounded observations about his thought and style. He first came to my attention when my good buddy Ron Jung sent me a copy of Capon’s book “An Offering of Uncles”. At first the odd title set me off, and the first chapter seemed a little wooly, but I stuck with it, mostly out of some strange fascination. Reading that book seemed rather disconcertingly like taking communion and ducking into the tent to see JoJo the dogfaced boy at the same time. That may seem like an odd simile, but Capon’s writing style has a taste of the roller coaster about it. In one paragraph he will both delving into deep spiritual truth, and send linguistic and metaphoric fireworks into the sky over your head. As with a good meal, the crunchy, the smooth, the savory, the sweet, the cold, the hot, the bitter, the dry and the wet are presented in quick succession (or even on the same plate) so that one course may offset and highlight the qualities of the next. Much of his writing is creamy and heavy and full of the most delicious fat. Other sections are remarkably clear and light. The sudden switch-ups, and the rather transparent devices he employs to make his points might put some off, but I have enjoyed them. He definitely keeps the reader hopping and skipping to keep up, but with such a firmly grounded sense of playfulness that it is hard not to join in the play with a gladhearted smile. This, even as he turns your sense of what you thought you understood on it’s ear.

In that sense, the writing style very much reflects his subject matter, which falls along two basic lines. Capon writes to illustrate and illumine the sacramental view of life, and to proclaim and explain the radical and outrageous grace that is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

What does this mean, the sacramental view of life? We might better call it living in a sacramental manner. What is a sacrament? Let’s go with the definition given in the Common Book of Prayer. It is a visible outward sign of an inward and invisible grace. To take it a step further, a sacrament is present where an object or action becomes a physical and material manifestation of the presence and work of God. It might be thought of as a symbol that carries the power of the higher reality it represents. The most common sacraments in the Christian religion are baptism (a sacrament of membership in Christ’s Body) and the Eucharist (a sacrament of Christ’s presence and forgiveness).

As I have read more of Capon’s work, however, I have begun to see that God the Father has built sacrament into the warp and weft of his creation. This hinges on the idea that none of this was necessary – the entire created order did not HAVE to exist, but rather is an expression of the delight and playfulness of YHWH. Properly understood then, we see that our use of creation, is ultimately our offering up of our own creation back to God. We have the power to make everything a sacrament – driving a car, enjoying a meal, walking the dog, or making love. God made it to enjoy it, and so that we might enjoy it. When we do enjoy it, we offer it back to him.

No matter that many (most?…all?) of our offerings are defective, often in the extreme. That’s what Grace is for.

The most startling assertion Capon makes about sacramentalism is when he states that the crucifixion of Jesus, and his resurrection is the sacrament of the forgiveness of God that was built into the universe from before the beginning of time. While Capon starts with what might be called Total Depravity, from there he moves in a very different direction than my typical understanding. In my days as a Calvinist dabbler, I saw God’s salvation in Christ as actually accruing only to a few. Capon holds rather than Grace is not the end game, but is rather the starting point. That while everyone starts out dead in sin, everyone also starts out forgiven. Everyone – yes EVERYONE --  is invited to the party. He does not deny the scripture that clearly indicates that some people will apparently be such party poopers that they refuse to join in. In other words, the Bible makes it clear that there is a Hell and it is not a desirable state. Yet, Hell is not the starting point.

I won’t go into his arguments in detail here. I will just say that they seem to me to be based on scripture, and to have at least as much validity as other viewpoints. If you are looking, however, for a classical prepositional exposition with proof texts, you may be disappointed. Capon tends to do his theology with pictures. Not with crayons scrawled in the margins, but with words images and stories. He is, in this, purposely consonant with the methodology of Jesus himself, who taught mainly through stories and images. Capon references the parables often, and in fact, I hope to read his commentaries on the parables of Jesus next.

Well…this probably raised many more questions that it answered. If you want answers, you will likely have to go to Capon’s writing yourself. I don’t feel qualified, nor do I really desire to defend Capon as such. I would love to discuss him, because I am still exploring the meaning of what he is saying. I just don’t care to have to absorb arrows aimed at him just yet.

Suffice it to say, however, that reading his work as dramatically reshaped my spiritual landscape. Early in my writings on this blog, I complained about how Buddhism seemed to have a corner on the practice of contentment, of learning to deal with the vicissitudes of real life. I have had very little experience of knowledge of how to explain or handle suffering and worry and stress through Christian models of thought and practice, beyond being urged to pray more.

I suspect that God heard my complaint, and sent me a book by Robert Farrar Capon to provide me with some guidance and answers. A new and broader view of Grace, and a deeper and more powerful way of seeing God’s work in me through His creation has begun to unfold a new depth in my heart. I can point to 3 other times in my life where I experienced a spiritual revolution. This seems to be the fourth, and Capon has been the catalyst.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Paperback Swap

I'm back. Had lots to say over the last few weeks, but couldn't really figure out how to put  it on the blog. Perhaps it will start leaking out over the next few weeks.

No matter, on to more important and practical business.

In a new bid to put Border's, Barnes and Noble, and other assorted new book dealers out of business, not to mention the publishers, let me refer you to one of my new favorit sites. Paperback is a place where you can trade in new books for old. The only money you will spend is the money to mail a book to someone else. But they will be mailing books to you also. Here are the details of how it works (from the website).

Do you have any used books lying around? Ones you've already enjoyed, but you're never going to read again? I did, and I finally found a great way to share them with other people!

It seems that a few guys were sitting around one night talking about all the paperback books that they purchased over the years while traveling on business. Each of them had a large stack of books that they had read, so they decided to set up a website at that allows all of us to swap books with each other.

Let me tell you how it works -- because it is so easy! I listed a bunch of books on the site (listing 10 books gets the first member in your household free credits!) and I got 2 free book credits to get started. So you can order 2 books right away - free of charge -- and have them mailed directly to you! No strings attached. No gimmicks. No spam mail. Nothing. You just have to love reading books.

When another member selects one of my books that I have listed, I mail it to them. Yes, I pay for the postage. But then I get another book credit and I can select a book that I want. So another Club Member returns the favor and mails me one of his or her books free of charge. For every book I mail out, I get another book in return - a true shared system!

When someone requests one of your books, all you have to do is print two pieces of regular paper from your printer which includes the mailing address and the recommended postage. Apply the postage, and drop it in the mail. Hey, for a typical paperback, you don't even need to go to the post office.

Right now the annual club membership is free. Eventually the founders will ask everyone to help contribute to pay for the upkeep of the web site, but for now the annual club membership is free. The annual dues will probably be between $10 and $20 based on the number of people in the club. But again, right now you don't even have to pay any dues for at least one year if you become a Member.

You really need to check this out. And if you do sign up, please use the following link:

If you use the link above to join, I'll get a free book when you post your first ten books (and you'll still get free books for posting them!)

For more information about the site, you can visit the Help area, by clicking the link below, and select 'About PBS' to read how it works:

If you like it and sign up, feel free to share the love with your friends too.

BTW - I have nothing against booksellers or publishers. In fact, I love them. But I have been reading news reports lately that attribute a large portion of the recent troubles in the publishing world to the fact that so many people are buying used books via internet channels that it is hurting new book sales. Nobody blames people for doing this, they just worry about the impact. As Bob Dylan says, "The times, they are achangin."